O wad some powr the gyftie gie us. . . Sheena McDonald on tartan images at home and abroad.
I met a woman in a kilt. Wearinga sporran. In North Carolina (aha. . . l)
' ‘You‘re from Edinburg'." ‘Yes. but I work in Glasgow.‘ ‘Glasgow — is that near (‘racow'." Well. I suppose from that distance it is comparatively near (‘racow But. on a general American scale of significance. less important. I know, I know - there are bases. and computer production lines. and —
well. and more bases — but. culturally.
speaking. if I dare say this at this critical juncture in the Empire's second city’s rejuvenscence (the British Empire. of course! ). Glasgow doesn‘t exactly slice through that ole Kentucky mustard. Yes. yes — she was indeed wearing a kilt - well. it was a Scottish Highland Games. and better than any I‘ve seen in this country when it comes to actually looking the part - Geoff (‘apes aside — but her ancestral bothy was a long way from the industrial (post-industrial'.’) heartland ofthe mither country. If the Alex Haley effect has finally filtered down to the 20 million or so American citizens of Scots descent (‘Best thing that ever happened to us. the Clearances — yes. ma‘aml‘). you can bet your bottom dollar they ain't gonna louse up the romantic heritage with anything as vulgarasa 19th-century powerhouse of human resource. industry. invention and civic pride. If it can‘t be driven by sheep power. or won by dirk and candlelight in battle true and glorious across the keening glen. or glimpsed through peat-smoke and whisky-haze by one auld guidwife once on IIogmanay the night that Magnus foundeer in the wintry Minch ~ forget it. Mildred. let's be Polish already! Put it this way — if all the black-houses claimed by dewy-eyed descendants had stood. you could have walked from Scotch (‘orner to Bettyhill without ever setting foot outside the heather-thatch . . .
And why not? Why shouldn‘t the best-selling magazine amongst Ameri—Scots. The l‘lighlander. refuse to publish articles about contemporary Scotland? Why shouldn't the ('alifornian cousins prefer to believe that they were all born under a kail-leaf in Brigadoon'.’
It‘s what we peddle the poor blighters with. after all. as the seasonal unmarked artics arrive. before cock-crow. lights dimmed.
freewheeling into the Royal Mile and Sauchiehall Street. with their treacherous scottie-encrusted cargoes ofteacloths. tablemats. tartan ties (‘Grotowski‘.’ Maybe not a clan. sir. but definitely a septl‘) and— mugs. ()fthe tens ofthousands of vacational Yanks who collect on soggy Sunday corners in identical travelling-mackintoshes (now there‘s an authentic Scottish garment! ). how many ever meet and talk with a native‘.’ Come on. when did you last speak to a tourist'.’ I don‘t mean — when did you last point confidently east and remember after they‘ve limped off that the Wee-Kirk-Amang-The-Ileather Guesthouse is actually five miles H'(’SI— I mean. when did you last share meaningful intercourse with a hapless alien‘.’ And by ‘meaningful'.
I don‘t mean ‘effective—in-a-tartan- graced-rip-off-situation‘. and by ‘intercourse’. I don‘t mean — oh well. ifyou're not going to take this seriously. . . !
But listen — even if you don't worry about the effect all this MacBozo tartanry is likely to have on our subsequent standing in the eyes of our allies. care a little about the deeper effect it has on the peddlers themselves. Pitch defiles. Ifour best self-image is still a wee man with a lock on his sporran and a tear in his eye. small wonder we expend our energies lamenting past glories. Pick youryear: 1745. 1690. I707. 197‘)— that was when hope died (again) — before that magic date. things were. things might have been. . .ochone. ochone.
Useful? Uplifting? I don‘t think so. I think it is a mark ofa nation‘s pride and status — whatever the room for improvement within that nation. in terms ofgovernment and structure — that it looks beyond its little shores. and uses its gathered and growing strength and influence to speak. speak out. support. condemn. What voice does Scotland have? Who will listen“? You never know until you try. And ifwe are looked on with a fond and benign eye by superpowerful ambassadors of no matter which ilk and persuasion. perhaps it is because we offer no more significant an image than a capering MacCrocodile. Ifyou want to know about disinheritance. oppression and exile. try asking a Kurd. Glasgow is very near Cracow — and Hallabchelah— ifit cares to be. And. for my part. madam. you go on wearing that sporran! There are. I hope. greater causes to be won . . . !
Liam Woon‘s portrait at Ben
Elton and Rik Mayall taken lorThe List in1985
‘Eighteen months ago Peter and I didn‘t even know at each other‘s existence.‘ claims Liam Woon. one ota numberoi brilliantyoung British photographers on whom the increasing numberol high quality. stylish magazines. like Blitz. l0 and The Face. rely tor at least part ottheir visual impact.
Woon who. tresh outol polytechnic. took one otThe List's early. and most memorable lront cover shots (Ben Elton and Rik Mayall. as reproduced above). wastalking tome about playwright Peter Jukes. Jukes‘ memorable wide-canvas allegory oithe developmentolcivilisation. ‘Abel Barebone'. was premiered at the Traverse Theatre Iastyear. and on 17 July. again at the Traverse. he will attempt to lollow up that success when his latest play. ‘Shadowing The Conqueror'. opens.
Thistime. however. he has a collaborator. Liam Woon actually metJukes when a mutualtriend suggested Woon as Jukes' wedding photographer. Since Woon specialises in precise. olten ironic. portraits ol the lamous. he isn‘t perhapsthe most obvious candidate tor wedding portraits. ‘I wasn't going to do ordinary in lront oi the church stutt and that was precisely what Peter wanted to avoid too.’ lnthe end Woon actuallytook most oithe wedding pictures on the beach inthe small seaside town where the couple was married.
These dramatic and out at the ordinary characteristics were presumably exactly what Peter Jukes wanted lor his new play. 'When he rang me and suggestedthe project itwas a pretty immediate yes.’ Woon says.
The play itself is partly about photography despite. centring. apparently anachronistically. on the character otAlexanderthe Great. ln whatWoon describes as a kind of ‘dream sequence' a documentary photographer imagines an encounter with Alexanderin which she
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lollows him in orderto record his campaigns. ‘The relationship is a bit like Boswell lolowing Johnson and it‘s a warts-and-all portraitthat she builds up.‘
Woon's own pictures do not. however. simply , attempt to create the photos thatthis documentary photographermight have taken. ‘There are certain stages in each scene in whichthe photographer talksthrough a photographic sequence. That's when my snaps come up. They go oil at a tangent to what is being described but hopelully not so larott into the distance that people are trying to work outwhat's happening. My pictures are mood creating.’
Woon. who is engagingly modestabout his photography and keento stress that questions that the play raises about photography are all Jukes' ideas. has clearly enjoyed the experience; ‘I've been out oi poly two and a hall years and this is thelirst time I've had a chance to do something like this-and I‘ve lound itvery invigorating.’ Not least because he was working to a dilterenttime scale. ‘I had to read a scene and then go ottinto a cornerandthink about it and that really did take days.‘
Liam Woon only became a photographer alter a year at unemploymentat eighteen lollowing school. During that time he became upset by the pigeonholing attitudes inevitably used to describe his own position.
‘It was an experience that
5 helped to shape me.‘ says
Woon. who then decided to do an arts toundation course where a tutor ‘showed me thata photograph can do more than just be a lamily snap— whetherit‘strying to record a thing that people don‘t see orwhether it is more grandiose and tryingto capture some fundamental
‘The images we get around us help people to come to the kind olopinions lnoticed when lwas unemployed. lwant atleast part at my photographyto work against that‘. says Woon. There will bea chance to see howlhis works in practice not just in the play but in an exhibition otWoon's portrait photography which will accompany the production and be seen in the Traverse loyer. But Liam certainly hasn't reached any conclusions about his art: ‘I haven‘tworked it out completely and something this play has revealed to me — although I think I knew it already— is just howlarl have to go with working things out. Peter is a much brighterguythan I am and he's put ideas andthoughts into this photographer characterwhich I‘m miles trom. Crumbs. it makes me think. I’ve got a total discussion with mysell still to do.‘ (Nigel Bitten) Shadowing the Conqueror. Traverse. Edinburgh lrom 17June. See Theatre Listings.
Described in this issue’s listings asthe opera bargain oithe year. the chances olthatactually being proved true lor Scottish Opera Go Hound‘s production olJanacek's ‘Jenula' at Portobello Town Hall on Saturdaytt are increasing by the minute. A revival at their 1986 tour round Scotland. ‘Jenuia’ has now spread its wings and gone to the London International Opera Festival and the Brighton Festival. where itwon the highly acclaimed Zap award and startlingly stunning reviews lrom the national press. Repeating the role olJenuta isthe young Irish soprano Virginia Kerr who reports at the London audiences ‘shouting. roaring and stamping' and says ‘It really is an absolute success —lar
2The List 10— 23 June 1988