A few years ago, Carl MacDougall introduced a TV series called Writing Scotland. The first episode, I remember, was preceded by a short programme about the Romney marshes in Kent. This programme was mainly taken up by a solitary man walking across the marshes and noticing a few things here and there.
I rather liked this programme. It took its time. It slowed you down. You got a feel for the place, its atmosphere and its character. Then we got Carl’s programme, a half-hour whistle-stop tour of what seemed like dozens of Scottish writers whose essences had to be conveyed in soundbites and whose favoured places – landscapes of stunning beauty, cityscapes of intricately detailed squalor, historical locations of intrinsic fascination – were all delivered at such high speed you felt as if you were fast-forwarding through a catalogue of tantalising snippets from the National Geographic Society.
Now, Carl is a friend of mine and his series had many things to commend it in itself. But in the context of what television in Scotland is offering us, it is a lesson. And the lesson is simple. Not enough. And when it is delivered, it’s delivered at such a rate and implicitly with such an air of self-congratulation from the managerial heights – “Well, we’ve done Scottish literature now, so we don’t have to do any more on that subject.” – that you despair.
Any one of the great writers Carl presented – and almost any one of their hundreds of works – could have easily been the subject of a full programme in itself.
So, why is Scottish literature such a disadvantaged subject on television, when it clearly could make great viewing?
I remember the sheer fascination of watching vintage film of great poets, composers and artists at work and at leisure during the old days of the Open University. Just to see film of people like Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, Jackson Pollok, was to begin to consider the lives of artists and writers as they were in their own time and place – outside of the relation you have with their words, musical sounds or canvases. Poets and artists and composers are people who show us all what makes life worth living. Why should they be so absent from our screens? Because, they are very absent.