Scotland and the Commonwealth: ‘Scotland and New Zealand: poetry, fiction and the fact of the nation state’

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On 1 April 2014, the Centre welcomed one of our own, Professor Alan Riach, to discuss ‘Scotland and New Zealand: poetry, fiction and the fact of the nation state’. This continued the ‘Scotland and the Commonwealth’ mini-series and followed Dr Karly Kehoe’s lecture in January. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

This lecture was framed by the concept, first coined by J.G.A. Pocock, of the ‘Atlantic archipelago’: the integration of national narratives in the British Isles into a wider, more inclusive, remit. Pocock quipped:

‘We should start with what I have called the Atlantic archipelago—since the term “British Isles” is one which Irishmen reject and Englishmen decline to take quite seriously.’

In Scotland, this would encompass a multi-linguistic and multi-cultural identity, as embodied by Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘The Islands of Scotland’ and the ‘Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry’. MacDiarmid’s ‘Separatism’ embodies a multi-faceted urge for Scottish independence, despite seeming initially isolationist in its worldview:

‘If there’s a sword-like sang
That can cut Scotland clear
O’ a’ the warld beside
Rax me the hilt o’t here,

For there’s nae jewel till
Frae the rest o’ earth it’s free
Wi’ the starry separateness
I’d fain to Scotland gie.’

Perhaps in contrast, his ‘In Memoriam James Joyce’ advocates more direct engagement with the vast and varied outside world.

There may be a conflict between this identity and the nation-state, as the latter typically attempts to affirm a cohesive sense of identity and collective action. Some argue that artists ‘created’ Scotland and politicians are playing catch-up but Professor Riach argued this was a simplistic notion. More troubling perhaps, is the idea that the nation-state confers authority upon artists.

In New Zealand, nationalism is much stronger than in Scotland, yet the poetry and fiction produced by the country is no less complex and multi-faceted. Professor Riach highlighted the poem by John Liddell Kelly, composed in 1902, which envisions a union of mutual affirmation between New Zealand and Scotland (perhaps a more positive relationship than the current United Kingdom):

‘Though dear to my heart is Zealandia,
For the home of my boyhood I yearn;
I dream, amid sunshine and grandeur,
Of a land that is misty and stern;
From the land of Moa and Maori
My thoughts to old Scotia will turn;
Thus the Heather is blent with the Kauri
And the Thistle entwined with the Fern.’

A dissenting voice is Frank Sargeson. Considered a frustrating writer by some, his ‘The Making of a New Zealander’ is a typically depressing and nihilistic short story. Featuring no quotation marks (and little other punctuation), it maintains the same vernacular idiom as the narrator, bringing the reader closer into his mindset. The story evokes a spooky vibe at times, and some of the undertones (like the references to Communism) are strange and unsettling. To be a New Zealander, for Sargeson, necessitates a deconstruction of identity:

‘Nick and I were sitting on the hillside and Nick was saying he was a New Zealander, but he wasn’t a New Zealander. And he knew he wasn’t a Dalmatian any more.
He knew he wasn’t anything any more.’

Bill Manhire’s poetry has been accused of benign whimsy, yet his work ‘Wellington’ has clear criticism of the potentially insidious nature of centralised government:

‘…the boys from Muldoon Real Estate
are breaking someone’s arm.
They don’t mean harm, really, it’s
nobody’s business, mainly free
instructive entertainment.’

Professor Riach suggested another of Manhire’s poems, ‘Kevin’, alludes to the pre-colonial past of New Zealand in its mention of the ‘heavy radio’, which may have been taken aboard the ships to New Zealand in the early 20th century. However, ‘Kevin’ is also a curiously unverisal poem and could almost be set anywhere in the world. This is echoed by K.O. Arvidson’s ‘The Tall Wind’:

‘One of them laughed, and one said, Thar she blows:
we’ll find out now what this young charlie knows.
There’s a tall wind out there, leaning on our door.’

The final batch of poetry discussed focused on the sabotage of the Greenpeace ship, the Rainbow Warrior, in 1985 by the French intelligence services, an action that killed one of the activists. The Rainbow Warrior had been protesting the nuclear testing conducted by the French government at the Moruroa Atoll. During his time in New Zealand, Professor Riach contributed towards a book that protested the incident. Another contributor, Elizabeth Smither, composed a poem called ‘Peace Flotilla’:

How beautifully one word
can explain another, can lead off
as flotilla ‘a fleet of little boats’
leads off from the huge word ‘peace’.

Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour after bombing by French secret service agents.
Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour after bombing by French secret service agents.

Professor Riach’s poem, ‘The Coral Island’, opposes the authority wielded by the nation state, an authority manifested in this instance in the right of the French government to conduct nuclear testing:

‘The border was there. We had been protected.
Today the shield is broken. Nothing but waves, and rocks,
and Empire’s bleak intentions to englut: an ocean
breaking past us, on our sense of what should be.
is for everyone, and anyone to see; but judgement now is
singular, and
all last things are lonely.’

Our seminar series continues next week, Tuesday 8 April, with Prof Bill Sweeney’s, ‘How British is Scotland? Harmonic Fantasy or Unresolved Dissonance?’. This will continue the ‘How British is Scotland’ series. This will be held in the Western Infirmary Lecture Theatre at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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