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Liz Lochhead: Scottish Book of the Year

The Saltire Society is dedicated to encouraging Scottish culture. This talk is an annual event to honour the winner of their 'Scottish Book of the Year Award'. This year sees Liz Lochhead in the limelight for her version of Medea. Lochhead modestly denies that she deserved the prize. Medea, she says, was too short to win (just 47 pages) and too enjoyable to write to win, and besides the hard work was already done by Euripides (who apparently didn't win the competition he wrote it for 2,500 years ago). The audience laughs but doesn't believe her.

Liz Lochhead is a leading figure in Scottish drama. A popular playwright with a diversity of styles (ranging from modern realism to verse). Now in her mid 50s, she is a charming down to earth woman. Her passion for writing remains strong though. She sees the theatre as having been a crucial part of Scotland's modern revival. Now on the committee for the soon-to-begin Scottish National Theatre, she is in a position to help it go from strength to strength. Originally she was against the project. She worried that a central theatre would be unhealthy, draining energy and resources from other places. In the end the Scottish National Theatre will have neither a stage nor a company, but instead will act as a funding body to support work across Scotland.

She takes today's talk as an opportunity to "indulge" herself and us in a quick tour of modern Scottish writing. Emphasising the importance of sound and voice in her work, she selects readings on the theme of speaking with a Scottish voice. Opening with a poem by Edwin Morgan, who she calls Scotland's greatest living poet, she moves on to poems by Tom Leonard, exerts from James Kelman and Alasdair Gray (incidentally, Lochhead, Leonard, Kelman and Gray are all fellow graduates of Philip Hobsbaum's Glasgow writing group) a poem by Carol Ann Duffy (half Scottish) and finally one of her own.

The need to find a Scottish voice, to place modern Scotland on the cultural map, has given energy to Scottish literature. At times though it can give it a parochial air, and unfortunately there is also an unpleasant anti-English undercurrent. She calls English literature 'posh, grown-up, male, english and dead', a statement she wisely doesn't attempt to justify. Such comments are symptomatic of a problem that runs through modern Scottish nationalism. It is a challenge to build a Scotland which doesn't define itself negatively in opposition to England, a challenge we don't always meet.

But this was only a minor aspect of her talk. Mostly she focuses on the joy of literature, concluding "Art is there first to delight us, and thereby open us up to change".

© Daniel Winterstein, 10th August 2002


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