By Nan Spowart, published in The National, 21 November 2016
EMMA Pollock couldn’t be happier she is headlining a fundraiser for the Alasdair Gray scholarship for young musicians.
The former Delgados singer has long been a fan of the Scots polymath, particularly of his art, which adorns a couple of the albums produced by the Chemikal Underground record label she co-founded.
“He is one of the most singularly creative individuals Scotland has produced across many different genres – art, literature and drama,” she says. “He has also been a social commentator of immense value, particularly in recent years, helping us to unravel and understand the situation we find ourselves in politically.
“It makes complete sense that a scholarship in his name is aimed at furthering independent creativity.”
The fundraiser is being held on November 29, in Glasgow’s Oran Mor, beneath Gray’s own ceiling murals. As well as Pollock, it will feature artists on Songs for Scotland 2, a new album which boasts a cover design by Gray.
As well as raising funds for a music scholarship, the other aim of the Songs project – to keep the country’s cultural identity at the heart of the independence debate – is also close to Pollock’s heart.
She says: “I am in favour of anything to keep the independence movement progressing and keep it in our thoughts. The landscape is changing all the time.
“I am still committed to Scotland becoming a fully independent country but the context in which the questions are being asked is very different now to 2014. It is extremely important that we start to consider them and become informed as much as possible, if we are to go through it all again.”
Pollock believes First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is right to present a case for a second referendum, but thinks she should proceed with caution.
“There’s no doubt she has to act with absolute respect to reflect the result of the last referendum. She will have much more justification for another if all other possibilities have been exhausted with regards to the consequences for Scotland if we are forced out of the European Union and single market.We have to be respected in the choice to ask the question a second time and that will only be the case if we can demonstrate all other choices have been explored.
“It is abundantly clear to me, however, that Scotland’s wishes to remain a part of the EU are under grave threat now if we are to remain part of the UK. The unravelling of our economy, of existing trade links with the rest of Europe and the collapse of the pound in recent weeks only go to strengthen the argument that we must be free to make our own decision.
“The UK is a net importer – the idea that we shun trade with the outside I believe can only hurt our position, not better it. Everyone is now feeling it. Fuel has shot up in recent weeks. Domestic fuel bills are doing the same. Our food is more expensive and the technology we now rely on daily has increased by hundreds of pounds. And we haven’t even left the EU yet.
“Scotland has its own economy, with a different make-up to that of the rest of the UK.We have different priorities both economically and socially and never have those differences been more apparent than now.We have an absolute right to bring about a new independence debate in these rapidly changing times.”
It’s not only Brexit that is focusing Pollock’s thoughts. The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency has come as a huge shock.
“It’s one of the most tumultuous periods of political history we have had for decades in the West. It is really terrifying that the right wing is now the driving force. I do believe these things are cyclical, but I just don’t know what the next five or ten years are going to be like.
“Someone once said that you should never assume progress to be consistent and constant and I think recent events have shown that to be true.”
Pollock is hoping to see a “better version” of Trump than was on view during the dirty election campaign.
“His rhetoric up till now has been absolutely appalling. I was actually wondering if he just read the mood of the US people to get what he wants.
“I was hoping he engineered the campaign to get into the White House and in fact genuinely wants to improve America’s prospects, but perhaps not quite with the intolerance displayed before his election. I am actually looking on with a kind of ghoulish interest to see how bad it is going to be, or if he will surprise everybody.
“Developments in recent days, however, particularly with the appointment of Steve Bannon (the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, the far-right website), has left me concerned that my worst fears might still come to pass – that Trump’s ambitions for the US are to be much closer to his intolerant and misogynist rhetoric than I had ever dared imagine.”
FOR Pollock, it has been three “devastating” votes in two years, “not even counting the recent General Election, because at least the SNP gained solid representation at Westminster”.
“I am absolutely ashamed of the Brexit vote – the parallels with the Trump vote are clear – it is a case of a massive fingers-up from people in very desperate circumstances to the government.
“The problem is, I don’t think anyone knows what Brexit is going to be, because it is far too complicated. We are already seeing a real economic slump and I am worried about this tendency towards insularity and protectionism in the West.
“It seems there is an increasingly prevalent paranoia, leading to the belief that it is better to look after yourself and leave everybody else to fend for themselves. It worries me that we are no longer looking outward.”
Pollock herself is determined to hope for a brighter future and is about to begin writing a new album, following the success of In Search of Harperfield, which was released in January, to widespread acclaim.
And of course, there is the gig at Oran Mor on November 29, where she hopes there may be an opportunity to meet Gray himself.
“It really saddened me to hear he has been so ill recently after his accident last year, so the fact he is going to be there and see his murals again is a wonderful thing,” she says.
Tickets (priced £20 and £15 unwaged) for An Evening for Alasdair Gray are available at bit.ly/Songs4Scotland. A copy of Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2 will be included with each ticket.
ON November 29 at 7pm, Songs for Scotland will stage An Evening for Alasdair Gray in the auditorium at Oran Mor in Glasgow.
First and foremost, the event will be a celebration of Gray’s countless accomplishments in art, in literature, in political theory, poetry and in other fields. The evening will also serve to launch the Alasdair Gray Musical Scholarship Trust, a £500 scholarship which will be awarded on the night. It will also be the launch of a downloadable album called Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2. The compilation, dedicated to Gray, is themed around a quote often mistakenly attributed to him: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Gray paraphrased the line from Canadian poet Dennis Lee and has made no secret of that.
Scottish artists from across the board have contributed songs to the album: genres include hip hop, folk/trad, Americana, reggae, afrobeat, spoken word and more. Dick Gaughan, Karen Matheson, Kathleen MacInnes, Dean Owens, Stanley Odd and Emily Smith, are all included on the compilation and others. Artists have contributed songs as a tribute to Alasdair’s accomplishments, and also to the principled life he has lived. When offered a knighthood, he declined it quipping that he didn’t accept “because there was no money attached to the offer”. In this, as in his legendary generosity and his collectivist approach to life, he has set an example to us all. As well as Emma Pollock, artists performing on the night will include Dean Owens, Allan MacDonald, Griogair Labruidh, Brina, Loki, Findlay Napier, the Matt Seattle Band and more. Songs will be performed in the Scots, Gaelic, and English languages; and in the pop, folk/trad, hip hop and other idioms. Well chosen words will also be spoken in oor mither leid by Billy Kay; and writer Alan Bissett will compere.
A percentage of ticket sales will go to fund the Alasdair Gray Musical Scholarship Trust; and all tickets will include a free download of Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2.
Join us on November 29, on the eve of St Andrew’s Day, for a brilliant evening featuring the finest in Scottish culture. We’ll have Gray’s “Sistine Chapel ceiling for Scotland’s working class” beautifully illuminated for the occasion. It is hoped the man himself is able to attend. A signed Gray print will be awarded as a door prize on the night.
The National is a sponsor of the project, as is Hands Up For Trad, the Alfred Hotel and Oran Mor. Thanks also to Douglas Eadie, Ian Green of Greentrax, Morag Neil of Scary Biscuits Promotions and to sound engineer Garry Boyle; and also to all of the wonderful artists who have contributed tracks to Native Musicians: Songs for Scotland 2.