From the Miniature to the Virtual: Informationist Dundee

Like several  Scottish and Northern cities which have struggled with their changing identity – are they, as formerly, principally provincial conglomerations, or can they become something more, something capable of rebalancing the stacked centre/region dichotomy? – Dundee has performed and continues to perform a series of displacements and rewritings of its history and its culture.

Although I’ve been thinking and writing about this for some time, it wasn’t until I was showing the Mexican poet Pedro Serrano around some key (for me) sites in the city (the Trades Kirk, the Tay Whale skeleton, Groucho’s, the Kahlo portrait in the Taybridge Bar, Mennie’s, the bandstand on the Magdalen Green) that I began to categorise these actions.

One such displacement is or seems permanent: demolition – of Dundee’s monuments and buildings of note, as happened to the Pillars, the Royal Arch, the Overgate (including General Monck’s House), and so on. A lesser version of this is the locking up of sites, or at least rendering them accessible only in limited, controlled circumstances, as continues to be the case with the medieval Auld Steeple in the heart of the city.

Another displacement is the squatting, evident everywhere in post-imperial/tail end of Welfare State Britain, of the short-term profitable – bars and restaurants, mostly – in the formerly civic and state-sponsored – often post offices and libraries. Linked to this last behaviour is atomisation – the breaking up of local department stores, Draffens, D.M. Brown’s, into separate premises, as if the coherence of a community cannot hold, and only national and international enterprises may thrive in their ‘ruins’, which, as with the Anglo-Saxon poet’s meditation on Bath, come to seem the inexplicable ‘work of giants’.

These largely commercial and philistine repressions lead to reactive gestures of nostalgia and memorisation – keeping memories alive through oral history and publications focussed on locality and reminiscence – and the peculiar phenomenon of miniaturisation: tiny models of the Pillars appear on two buildings around the City Square, marking it as an absence, rather than as an open space, a plaza, while the Overgate is reproduced as a model in the McManus Gallery.

Where the Overgate itself (now in its second distinct manifestation as a mall, post-demolition of the historic version) emerges onto that same space at the centre of town, there are a series of small models of landmarks, including Cox’s Stack – as yet undemolished, but clearly occupying a similar place in the Dundonian imagination. Up the Perth Road, too, there is a model of the still-standing Magdalen Green bandstand.

Reality, Dundee people have recognised, is profoundly unreliable, and what it is to be Dundonian must instead be conceptualised as a model, in order to be internalised as an ideal, an icon. (Another aspect of this is represented by the occasional doubling of names, so that there is indeed a bar on the Perth Road called ‘The Speedwell Tavern’, but, as with the White Knight’s song in Through the Looking Glass, everyone knows its name is Mennie’s.)

Could it be the case that: as with Dundee’s buildings, so with its culture? One would think not, with a thriving scene manifested by exhibition, degree course, festival and prize. Indeed, in the run-up to the bid for the City of Culture in 2013, it was thought a good idea to have a Dundee Makar, or city laureate. After all, Edinburgh had one – indeed, Scotland had one, in the estimable form of Liz Lochhead – why not Dundee? I was honoured to be selected as the first Makar, only for the City of Culture bid, almost immediately, to be won by Hull. How very Dundonian. Then my father died. How very, what’s the word? unfair.

Since then I’ve been trying to puzzle out exactly what my role could be. A few poems on public occasions, of course – but what are those, and how shall they be disseminated? Football matches (on napkins), a graduation ceremony (on a leaflet), the Referendum and the General Election (online). A bit of editing and contributing to anthologies and panels and readings – Whaleback City, Seagate 3, the Literary Festival. A few talks and schools visits here and there (the McManus, the Grove – I’m also one of Dundee’s Scots Language Ambassadors). Is that sufficient? Is that what every Dundonian wants? And if I’m not answerable to every Dundonian, who am I answerable to?

It struck me a while back that the very idea of the Makar was one which required, as the word ‘makar’ usually does, further interrogation – now Glasgow has one, Stirling is looking to have one, Jackie Kay has taken over at the national level (and we should note in passing that Liz Lochhead came in for some stick for politicising that role).

So what are we? Something between an old style Writer-in-Residence and those writers being absorbed by the universities to teach in the lucrative field of Creative Writing? (Note how that echoes the shift from civic to profit-led policies noted above.) Or something new, outside that frame altogether? How are we to be supported, funded, publicised – should we be, and how much should we be doing?

Back in 1993 I arranged a conference in Elgin at the end of a residency there to discuss how the role of the Writer-in-Residence was evolving from something practice-led (you were given money, you wrote) to something pedagogic (you were given money, you taught). Writers, academics and arts (and other) administrators came and discussed the matter; I wrote some of it up in the magazine I was editing at the time, Gairfish; and then I went to become Northern Arts Literary Fellow at Newcastle and Durham universities and across the Northern Arts region as was. I didn’t come back to live in Scotland again till becoming Makar twenty years later, and even then it was voluntary and partial – I weekend in a rented flat in Broughty Ferry.

In the meantime I’ve been several ‘fellows’ (including first Fellow at the Wordsworth Trust, Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle, and, most recently, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature). I’ve engaged in a large public art scheme in Darlington as ‘chief writer’, recently embarked on a huge new phase. And, since 2013, I’ve represented Dundee at literary festivals in the Czech Republic, Kolkata, Shanghai and Mexico City.

I’ve had a go at a lot of roles, and I’ve seen how several types of administration have evolved over the same period – academic, governmental, organisations with charitable status. All the goalposts have moved to such an extent since the 90s that the game may be quite different, but we all seem to still be playing (at) something.

So it would appear to be time to have that debate again, to gather together all the Makars and the organisations which support them, and find out where we stand and what we stand for. How is funding split between arts organisations, universities, and local councils? What does that say about our responsibilities to whom?

In the meantime, I find myself working in the familiar (to writers) interstices between roles. Between the academic demands of teaching, admin and research, and the more general ways one can be useful as tutor/teacher/mentor, or judge/reviewer/speaker, you write stuff. And between the poems and the essays and the fiction, there’s another kind of writing I’ve found myself doing which relates both to the indefiniteness of what a Makar is, and to the gestures of miniaturisation and memorisation mentioned above.

Years ago, while I was still editing Gairfish with Richard Price, I began a series called ‘Virtual Scotland’, in which I took Scottish history, social or literary, archeological and folkloric, and the tone of the academic or the journalist or the copywriter, and made things up. The results weren’t exactly fiction – they rarely did more than nod to narrative; they weren’t exactly prose poems either – the symbols were usually deployed absurdly or satirically. They were as influenced by the pulp end of genre fiction as by the détournement of the Situationists, and by the absurdities of the Noctes Ambrosianae and Flann O’Brien as much as The Goons or Python. In short, they were Informationist in one of the senses of that term that Richard and I and other Scottish writers of the early 90s were devising.

Informationism was an assertion of a particularly Scottish response to late- and post-Modernism in the face of, well, not being noticed. We were at one level biting the hand that waved us away, and the tactics of parody and ironised scholarship and genuine apprenticeship to writers we saw as equally overlooked – Graham and Morgan and MacDiarmid and Davidson leap to mind – seem to me now to prefigure the sort of resistance Dundonians deploy to the corrosive fragmentation of their town, and the kind of self-identification which is now required of the new position of city and national Makar.

Unsurprisingly, then, when I look at the interstitial writing I’ve been doing, mostly in blogs and on Tumblr, it echoes the device of fictive nostalgia and – not miniaturisation, exactly, but – virtualisation: the creation of a Virtual, or Informationist, Dundee. Perhaps it is inevitable, if a city has not yet defined the role of its Makar, for the writer holding that post to make a city up, one in which the Makar’s role is to be – officially, and on behalf of all that city’s makars – unnecessary, because the poetry the Makar should compose is already completely interfused with the essence of this virtual Dundee.

That’s all very well, you might say, but what do I see my job as, really? Be practical: what am I working on? At one level it’s what I’d always set myself as the main task of this period: the completion of a novel about the great, awful, misunderstood, unignorable, ignored bard of nineteenth century Dundee, McGonagall.

It is, further, to complete the next book of poems in which I note I seem to have embarked on a new series of Doldrums – the first poems I wrote in Dundonian Scots: a depiction of what seemed an unending hiatus in Dundee’s history, when a generation just went blank about its purpose and its identity. Now it’s about that resistance we attempt to the bigger, more terrifying changes like death: the doomed attempt at stasis.

Aligned to these are a series of short essays about returning and mourning – the nostos and algos of nostalgia, as I come to terms with the loss of my father and the regaining of my city.

But at another level which I’m beginning to understand may be of more significance than I’d realised, the work is: to construct a virtual city or country or at least creative state in which one knows one cannot ‘really’ dwell, but which the imagination can attempt to visit.

To describe this is to move into the excitable register of manifesto, since it is inevitably various and experimental, another type of return – to the energies of new form, of strategies and gestures which lie between the editorial and the performative, and between the literary and more conceptual ways of working. Like Informationism, it’s a leap into the fuzzy space between categories and certainties, labels and shelf-marks. Oops.

So. I’d like to attempt this through: clashing tones, fragments, ersatzerie, dehydrated portions of something which may never have been hydrate, disparate wholes such as might fill the Caird or (Wife of) Usher Hall, but are unlikely to trouble the Albert. These being: prose poems/short short fictions/short stories/nonfictions/non-nonfictions/blogs-cum-essais (to distinguish these from, at all times, ‘proper’ instances of the form)/novels where the literary is infected by genre and vice versa (not as a flavour or vampiric transfusion, but as a potentially destabilising ‘What am I reading?’ simultaneity)/poems/long poems and books of poetry which themselves collapse or burst the seams not of form per se, but of the dogmas which impersonate and assume authority over forms, incorporating translations/kyōgen (Japanese for ‘mad words’ or short absurdist interludes)/’songs and sketches/and jokes old and new’/comics/détournement/’art’/public art/verse dramas and libretti of all sorts.

That sort of thing.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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1 Response to From the Miniature to the Virtual: Informationist Dundee

  1. katelaity says:

    As I can only live in actual Dundee part of the time, I am all in favour of a virtual Dundee which might perhaps overlap with my virtual Dundee and the actual Dundee I experience as a fictional resident as I have no legitimate claim to citizenship apart from spending as much of my time there as possible.

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