There is a common, if idealistic, perception of Scotland as a liberal and tolerant society, leaning nonchalantly to the left (with exceptions, such as those who like to take a morning stroll in celebration of ancient religious rivalry, and golf clubs); a place where a man’s a man for a’ that, but such a generalisation can lead to complacency and may hide troubling specifics. It is worth reflecting that homosexual acts between consenting male adults were criminal until 1980, when the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act was passed, 13 years after such legislation was passed in Wales and England. Consider how Scotland, and the rest of the world, changed in other ways between 1967 and 1980 and that disparity is as shameful as it is shocking. As Jeff Meek asks in his Afterword to Out There, the recent anthology of Scottish LGBT writing, “Why was Scotland different?”.
It’s a question which Christopher Whyte, whose story ‘Unfamiliar Rooms’ also features in Out There, posed in the introduction to his 1985 book Gendering The Nation: Studies In Modern Scottish Literature. He explores the theory that the growing importance of questions of nationalism in this period overshadowed other issues of equality. For a while it was if Scotland could only deal with one thing at a time. Certainly it has been posited before that Scottish Literature was spending so much energy justifying its existence in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that it was a rare voice which commented that what was being offered as a Scottish canon, and, in turn, the criticism of it, was hardly diverse in terms of analysis, gender or voice. If you believe that a country’s literature is a reflection of its society, culture and people, then the connections are clear.
What makes this history interesting to consider, and what made the publication of Out There so timely in the year of Referendum, is that few now seriously argue that there is no Scottish Literature, and even the briefest glance at a list of the most read and celebrated Scottish writers of the last 20 years shows how times have changed for the better in terms of who is read, and how; and many of the best appear in Out There. No discussion of contemporary Scottish writing would be complete without mention of Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Ronald Frame, Jenni Fagan and Carol Ann Duffy, and those names just give you a taste of the quality of the writing that is Out There.
There is a reason for the above contextualisation, and that is because context features implicitly and explicitly through out the anthology. Berthold Scheone’s Foreword and Meek’s Afterword, as well as editor Zoe Strachan’s Preface, give context and background to the publication, but it is also found on an individual level in many of the Contributor Biographies which often go beyond the standard ‘who I am and what I’ve done’ to talk about what such a collection means, and how they consider their sexuality affects their writing; all of which gives a greater depth and understanding to the writing itself. As is often the case when the uniting theme in a collection is one as personal and essential as individual sexuality, it is difficult not to read too much biography into the stories and poetry featured, but, perhaps this is what makes the writing, almost without exception, unforgettable and often emotional.
A prime example of this is Damian Barr’s ‘The Man In The Mirror’, which I read with a growing sense of dread as the young man in the story is increasingly on edge, “Because Logan’s back”. Logan is his mother’s on-off lover who she left his father for, and there is an overwhelming sense that Logan’s return is bad news for all involved. However, when I heard Barr read his story at the launch of Out There, all the humour that I had overlooked was brought to the fore, and I went and re-read it once more, something I couldn’t do without hearing Barr’s comic timing and delivery, but the anxiety for the central character returned. I understand that reading and listening are two different things, but it was a reminder, if one were needed, that the best short fiction is as multi-layered and involving as anything written in a longer form and it deserves full attention and careful consideration.
The anthology is full of such stories, the best of which stay with you long after you finish. Nicola White’s ‘I Live Here Now’ is a warm and witty tale of someone increasingly weary at having to overcoming prejudices, and midges, in Argyll, while remaining true to herself, (the former hopefully proving ultimately more manageable than the latter). Val McDermid’s ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’ is almost overwhelming in its assault on the senses, full of sights, sounds, tastes and touches, all of which are used not only to evoke memories for the writer, but also the reader as everyone who has lived, loved and lost will have similar memories to call upon; although most of us won’t express them in such a vivid manner. A McDermidian rush? That’s exactly what it prompts.
Paul Brownsey’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ plays with language as beautifully and skilfully as his protagonists play their instruments. Shane Strachan’s ‘Bill Gibb, 1972’ places ’60s supermodel Twiggy in rural Aberdeenshire as she travels with fashion designer and friend William Gibb to where he calls home. Strachan asks what it means to be accepted and to belong, themes which are shared with Jackie Kay’s ‘Grace and Rose’, a story which reminds us not only what a great prose writer Kay is, but also how Scotland has changed as the two women of the title get married in Lerwick on the Shetland Isles and what unfolds is nothing but a celebration of love and a life shared.
The poetry, while not as memorable as the best prose, does have strong moments, particularly ‘Lunnrais/Tempest’ by Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, ‘Cartography’ by Katherine McMahon, Jenni Fagan’s brilliantly titled ‘It Would Have Been the Action of an Insane Woman, But I Know the Thought of it, Would Have Amused You’ and every poem by Carol Ann Duffy. However, perhaps the most artful and poignant piece included is David Kinloch’s short story ‘Felix, June 5, 1994’, which, to return to an earlier theme, gives yet more context to the anthology as a whole, telling a story through the narrator’s responses to art. It’s as if he cannot put into words his own feelings about his life and experiences, so reacts to other’s responses to their own lives. It is a story which is absolutely individual yet shared. That is the strength of Out There as an anthology, it works individually but is even better when taken as a whole.
If you are still pondering the question, “Why was Scotland different?”, then there are answers put forward, particularly in Schoene’s Foreword, which takes us back to the ’90s when he arrived in Glasgow as a postgraduate student from Germany. He goes on to explain how his life and his work helped him to understand the other, and to come to terms with his new home; looking back to look forward. In his Afterword, Meek also attempts to answer his own question, which he does with real insight, but eventually he concludes on a positive note, “Scotland was different but it has travelled far towards a nation that is liberal, enlightened and consistently strong on issues of social justice, inclusivity and equality.” This echoes the perception of Scotland I mentioned in the opening paragraph, so it must be carefully considered in a similar manner, but it aptly summarises the overall tone of Out There which is largely one of celebration and positivity. In the Preface, Zoe Strachan talks of being inspired by Toni Davidson’s 1989 anthology of Scottish gay and lesbian writing, And Thus Will I Freely Sing, after finding it “on a low shelf in Glasgow University Library”. I would hope that Out There receives better treatment than that and that it is read and discussed as widely as possible. Look upon it as an investment as you will return to this anthology again and again. This is a collection with some great writing, and that’s what all readers are looking for.