Tales from a Cancelled Country: An Anthology of Fiction, ed. Alan McMunnigall, Brian Hamill & Stuart Blackwood (thi wurd books, 2015)
By Gerard Lee McKeever
Back in early April, Darren “Loki” McGarvey wrote a piece for STV in which he explained why he would not be voting SNP in this year’s Holyrood election. Reflecting on his own experiences of social deprivation in Scotland, he articulated a sense of discomfort with SNP policy being expressed by many on the left. The alliances formed under the pro-independence banner for 2014 were always fragile, always contingent. The energy of the Yes campaign was drawn from discourses of social justice and while there were disparate views offered by the Greens, the SSP, within the broad church of the SNP and well beyond the confines of party politics, a temporary will to collaborate prevailed. Yet for McGarvey, Nicola Sturgeon’s government had since revealed its flirtation with radical politics as rhetorical window dressing, shrouding “a tolerance for low taxation coupled with moderate incremental reform.” In an interview with Gutter magazine (issue 14), McGarvey went much further, arguing that the Yes movement itself was
not any more virtuous than what came before. It’s more dangerous sometimes because elements of it can’t see how they’ve been corrupted already. Political pragmatism has infected the public mind.
And so, “the dream was dead.”
This is an important moment for Scottish politics – a number of different futures are currently imaginable in the wake of another SNP victory. The SNP’s progressive credentials remain a live subject of debate, stimulated by announcements such as those on the new Scottish rate of income tax. Particularly in advance of the further devolution stemming from the Scotland Bill, Sturgeon can insist on an impaired political will, lacking sufficient fiscal autonomy and subject to the ideological bearing of a Westminster government. Yet many were hoping for a more uncompromising exercise of any new powers and a bolder vision for the future than what has been offered. The long-term legacy of 2014 in Scotland remains to be written, and the relationship between the cause of independence and the progressive left is subject to review. Yet the reason why Loki’s comments were so inflammatory was not simply that they called into question the current trajectory of Scottish politics, but that they challenged the currency of the referendum trauma itself. Perhaps this precious, tragic benchmark – the “imagined community” of a progressive independent Scotland – had been hollow in the first place.
This landscape provides an interesting vantage from which to read Tales From a Cancelled Country, an anthology of short stories published in 2015 while the embers of the referendum’s generation-defining “cancellation” remained significantly warmer than they are now. Indeed it is strange how much of the angry polemic in Alan McMunnigall’s introduction to the volume already feels historical. “What kind of country chooses to be ruled from another country?” he asks. “A No vote was a vote for the continued destruction of the public sector.” These remain important questions, but the disbelief McMunnigall channels has now largely been processed into something else. The pessimistic view is that it has faded into resignation, dissipated in the run-up to May and what Cat Boyd reported was being described as “the most tedious election in living memory.” Yet recent figures from the Hansard Society on the remarkable and increasing levels of political engagement in Scotland, combined with greater suspicion than elsewhere in Britain towards the Westminster establishment, suggest otherwise. The appetite for change has not disappeared, it is simply lacking the same clarity of direction.
“What kind of people would vote to be ruled by Westminster?” McMunnigall continues. The answer is, or at least was, of course, the Scots. Tales from a Cancelled Country attempts to capture the “everyday conflicts and emotions of human existence” that lie beneath such simple and unforgiving political outcomes. Terry Eagleton defines the term “ideology” on a sliding scale. At one end lies ideology as a discrete political system, generally suffixed with “ism” and often used pejoratively as in the term “ideologue.” At the other end the concept is more or less interchangeable with “philosophy,” simply the expression of a worldview. It is this latter, more invisible ideological register in which the book is submerged. This is not a collection of political writings in any “hard” sense, though its framing necessarily amplifies the political gravity of the personal experiences it represents.
Answering his own questions about the 2014 No vote, McMunnigall points the finger firmly at the mainstream media and particularly the BBC, whose “lies and disinformation […] swayed a significant percentage to vote against their own interests.” In place of this perceived casuistry, he desires this collection of stories to offer complex, indirect and thus actual “truths” about Scotland in the lead-up to September 2014. He waxes lyrical about the truth to be found in great art, where “thousands of lies” give way to deeper verities. The book, then, is to capture a moment of national (and international) imagining, striking at and indeed dissolving the imaginative nexus between art and politics. Both, after all, exist in a kind of fiction.
However, at this point a dangerous possibility rears its head. The anger of the post-referendum moment always contained the potential for a retreat into the realm of culture. John Keats’s maxim – “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’––that is all” – has a bottomlessness to it, but faced with a politics that seems too polyphonic, too irrational, the left must resist the temptation to clutch familiar political certainties in art. What both art and politics really teach us is that there is no such thing as truth, merely shades of perspective. This remains true no matter where we seek an affirming sense of objectivity, including in ideas about the aesthetic. The progressive case for independence was narrowly rejected by the Scottish public, and remaining attuned to the consolation and inspiration that may be found in literature, the left must continue to colour those shades of perspective in the obdurate political sphere.
That caution noted, there is a more workaday issue to mention in the introduction to this volume. The book emerged from the literary magazine thi wurd, drawing significantly on contributors to its first two issues. McMunnigall pitches the efforts of the magazine and the ensuing collection as an antidote “to the commercially-minded mainstream of Scottish publishing”, creating a “genuine artistic outlet” that proudly “chooses to publish art”. This is a risky gambit, especially when much of what follows is unpretentious social realism. A young Louis C. K. was once given a furious reprimand for introducing Jerry Seinfeld as “the best comedian in the world”. The counter-suggestibility of human nature revolts against such assertions, and so Seinfeld could of course only disappoint. To a lesser degree, the imperious claims of McMunnigall’s introduction make life unnecessarily difficult for the stories which follow.
Fortunately though, many of them are really quite good. The collection opens with Kirsten Anderson’s ‘Everyone on my mantelpiece is dead’, which narrates an encounter with the grim realities of life at the bottom of the social pyramid in Scotland. The object of the story remains unnamed, referred to only as “him”, as if his woeful situation resists the endorsement of anything more personal. With “White, sticky gunge pooled in the corners of his mouth”, the character is grotesque yet anonymous, his experience dramatized as archetypal. Much has been made in recent political discourse of the outrageous inequalities present in modern Britain, among the wealthiest societies in the world. This “he” lives in a half-forgotten world populated by memories of the dead and cheap rubbish, like “a giant stuffed tiger” and “microwaveable shepherd’s pies”. The piece builds to a sudden crescendo at its close, as we learn that the narrator has stolen the £20 note that lay unprotected in the flat. It is a juddering climax, scything through the assumed sympathetic tone of the work to ask questions about accountability. How sincere, really, are we in our attitudes to the vulnerable? Here the toxic space of underclass inertia, of a dying man’s pain, is explored only to be exploited.
Like any anthology, there is a strange variety of subject material in the book. Some of the pieces do threaten to feel slightly out of place, yet the overriding emphasis on the political non-political tied to pre-referendum Scotland more or less succeeds in suturing them as a body of work. Such patterns of meaning will feel familiar to an audience accustomed to the thematised issues popularised by Granta. When it works, this lacing of semantic continuity has a valuable effect on individual stories, emphasising sometimes unexpected readings. This is true in the case of Joe Murphy’s ‘A Matter of Pride’, for example, where the political frame adds an unavoidable subtext to the story of a couple anxiously forging a new, open relationship. Or in ‘Two weeks into the new year’ by Catriona Carson, where an impulsive resistance to human contact teases out the knotty rapport between individual and society that structures all political discourse. It would certainly be possible to read strict political metaphors in each piece here, though this might be a disservice to the volume’s stated goal in pulling back the ideological frame towards the level of the personal.
Moving through the volume, the stories of Gillean MacDougall, Stuart Blackwood and Helen Archer follow somewhat in the vein of Anderson’s opening item, expanding on vistas of social dislocation, loneliness and cruelty. There is a bleakness present in this material that threatens to become overwhelming, moving in a bitter landscape where, as Archer writes, “the time for learning has long since passed”. Yet there are enough sparkling moments to sustain the energy of the book. The downward mobility of the protagonist in Blackwood’s ‘Ardrossan’, for example, following up an Arts degree with a stint as a cleaner at a meat-pie factory, is nicely captured in his exchanges with the other workers, who perceive him merely as “another clever cunt”. The central figure in Lynnda Wardle’s “Career Break” feels equally out of place as she applies for jobs, demoralised by a trundling marriage and the double-glazed glass ceiling faced by women who take maternal absences. She seeks private reassurance in the phrase, “there is no price on wiping bums”, yet this becomes itself a sharp indictment of the unequal values ascribed to social roles. Returning to work as an ageing mother becomes a hopeless process of self-recrimination, parenthood itself an alienating experience bound to the demanding voices of children, whose “shouts bounce against the granite hills, echoing back to us down a long corridor of winter air.” Certainly the historical moment expressed in this patchwork of voices gives no easy cause for optimism.
McMunnigall’s own contribution to the collection, titled ‘Danny Says’, skilfully outlines a hierarchy of violence in an urban community. Danny, “the hardest guy in the scheme”, is enlisted by the main character’s parents to solve an extreme instance of bullying. Aggression is trumped by more aggression, in a cyclical pattern that the story makes no attempt to glibly moralise or reduce. Its title suggests that in this community, real communication happens at a physical level: whatever it is that Danny “says”, he says with his fists. Elsewhere the writings of Samina Chaudhry and Michael Norton introduce a welcome international dimension to Tales of a Cancelled Country’s kaleidoscope, stretching out the arteries of (to cite the introduction again) “lies that make up a truth”; insisting that whatever the pre-referendum moment was in Scotland, it was not so in any narrow insolation.
There are also some strong emotional contrasts in the book between work like Lynne Maclagan’s ‘Answers in the dark’ and James Connarty’s ‘Clothes of Sand’. The first explores grief and betrayal expressed succinctly with, “Things could’ve been really different”; the second bathes in a moment of bliss summarised by the phrase, “We’ve plenty of time”. This foregrounding of time is interesting, exploring its importance as a commodity – perhaps our relationship to time, whether relaxed or regretful, confident or panicked, lies at the heart of the political non-political. The centrality of imagination is also a recurring motif, played out in Gillian Shirreffs’s ‘Croy Shore’, where a woman experiencing the onset of Multiple Sclerosis retreats into her own mind to escape from distressing medical procedures: “I pushed hard and the walls slowly began to move, I painted them yellow and kept pushing, moving them further away from me. Scots Wa Hae [sic] came into my head.” The mention of Burns’s song is precise and effective. Much of the Yes campaign rightly sought to downplay the emotional content of nationalism, yet the central drive of both art and politics is always significantly personal, significantly emotional. Faced with the inevitability of MS – with the effects this has on the shape of personal “time” – the imagination becomes a tool of escape here but also of something more, endurance perhaps. It is an interesting symbol for the power of the written word, driving at the delicate balances that must be struck between emotion and reason, between art and reality.
The volume signs off with a treat from Alan Warner, who demonstrates his command of storytelling technique and linguistic resourcefulness. Many of the stories in this volume are written in a sparse prose, in line with that often demanded by the growing industry of formalised creative writing tuition and against which Will Self is a prominent and increasingly isolated voice. This tradition draws on the economy of style championed by George Orwell, including his famous statement, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Clean, sinewy prose is indeed a necessary delight, but as Alan Warner’s piece reminds us, this is compatible with a vivid and expressive use of language. Along with that near-useless aphorism, “show don’t tell”, the current stylistic zeitgeist deserves to be challenged and scrutinised.
Marx’s oft-quoted paraphrase of Hegel in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon that, “all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice”, seems to be looming in the atmosphere in Scotland. If a second independence referendum is an inevitability, the political contours of this event are much less clear. Marx continues, famously, that Hegel had forgotten to describe the narrative arc of this repetition, which proceeds, “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”. Warner’s piece, ‘Who Is Killing The Fringe Comedians of Edinburgh?’, with its fabulously pithy opening line – “I am” – positions itself rather closer to the latter of these possibilities. Indeed, it neatly embodies the shape of black comedy in understanding tragedy as farce. It follows a serial killer named Crelan the Hammer and his sidekick Girl Called Tidy as they prey on stand-ups, he attempting to exorcise some tremendously dark feelings about humour, she exercising a depraved voyeurism. The narrative device of live comedy provides Warner with some wonderful effects, as fragments of story ebb and flow through the piece, with the all-powerful confluence of the punchline located as an instrument of life and death. Freewheeling with assurance, the piece manages to accrue some of the edgy formal freedom of the oral. There is an effective interplay between tangent and whole, as the story explores the meandering joke as a model for short fiction. Equally, it probes the relationship between performance and reality, as a revelation of the truth is received as comedy: ““I liked your gruesome monologue by the way.” “Did you?” “Yeah. Killing the comedians. That was funny.”“
The anarchic sense of spontaneity in its telling places Warner’s piece at the more experimental end of the work in this collection, touching on an interesting current debate about short fiction. Older criticism on the origins of the short story tended to look to the mid-nineteenth century models of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens and others. Among a number of characteristics, these sources legitimised Poe’s concept of “unity of effect” as a defining prerequisite of the form. Yet recent, revisionist scholarship by Tim Killick and others has moved back in time to stress the periodical culture of the early-nineteenth century, including the efforts of Scottish writers like James Hogg and John Galt, part of the milieu surrounding Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. One of the outcomes of this development has been a greater emphasis on the forms of the “tale” and the “sketch”. Both can promote, to differing degrees, effects of fragmentation; while the tale in particular sits closer to an oral tradition which it often attempted to emulate. In the case of Warner’s piece, unity is proffered at the last with the delivery of a punchline or lines. Yet rather than mirroring one another, the finality of death confronts a process of storytelling that refuses such closure. This leaves the murderer Crelan reaching impotently after one of the unfinished threads of narrative, asking, “I wonder what happened in Biloxi?” Stuck at the end of the volume, this sign-off stands as a worthy tribute to the power of tales, the contagion of story found to be more powerful than death itself. It is unclear, then, whether the plots here have truly been cancelled, simply damaged, or postponed.
Warner’s piece bookends a volume that endorses the health of the short story in contemporary Scotland (and indeed Britain). Tales of a Cancelled Country provides a heartfelt contribution to a political-cultural debate that continues at a relative fever-pitch, attempting to flesh out some of the loose terminology that is used to underpin conversations here, notably that slippery mainstay, “national identity”. Some deficiencies in the quality of proofing can be put down to teething pains in this first book venture for thi wurd. As Scotland continues to tread the fine historical line between the tragic and the farcical, many more such contributions across the full ideological spectrum will be necessary. Loki’s feeling that his political “dream was dead” may be as temporary and fragile as the conditions which prompted him to dream in the first place. The wonderful, infuriating thing about imagined communities is that they are both porous and resilient – as porous and resilient as our imaginations.
 See in particular Eagleton’s Ideology: An Introduction (London & New York: Verso, 1991).
 See Tim Killick, British Short Fiction in the Early Nineteenth Century: The Rise of the Tale (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).