Revolving Culture: Notes from the Scottish Republic

Angus Calder

Read November 2006

Echoing Beatrice Webb—that “people in the labor movement could be divided between `As'—`anarchists'—and `Bs'—`bureaucrats'”—Angus Calder wonders if historians too might not similarly be classified, between “preservers of continuity” and those who “idolise intransigents” (p. 29). In that case, Calder himself should be classified as a `C': a contrarian. Identifying strongly with the community of non-English English writers (such as C.L.R. James) and also with the working-class Lawrence, Calder is an articulate, wise, and trenchant observer of Scotland and its place in the world.

A boring first chapter, offering a potted and unremarkable history of Scotland, made me devalue this book and begin reading it too late in my Edinburgh stay to do it justice. This is a pity both ways: the beginning is sure to lose the author some of the readers who would most benefit from his analyses, while the greater loss is mine, because Calder is a sharp mind who has been in the midst of much recent Scottish literary culture. The rest of the book is a collection of essays from the 1990s that cover Scotland's political and literary faces.

Once we move past that initial history, we find that even on standard historical matters Calder has the capacity to surprise. He doesn't at all seem to mind the fraudulent nature of Macpherson's Ossian works, and he contextualizes the likes of Walter Scott and Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun to endow their much-analyzed actions in a fresh, warmly sympathetic light. He is naturally strong on literature, and his character sketch of Naomi Mitchison is especially memorable. Indeed, the book's very subtitle—Notes from a Scottish Republic—sets an expectation, but Calder is too smart to trap himself in cliche; at the same time, he doesn't hesitate to reach into Scots for a particularly appropriate word, giving the book a curiously bilingual feel.

Overall, this is a collection with depth and texture, and it rewards multiple readings.