Scotland Street Volume 16, Chapter 11: A Modernist Poet

44 rue d’Ecosse

Angus frowned. “I don’t know if I can.”

“Frustrating,” said Matthew. “The real literary world was elsewhere – thousands of miles away. While Eliot, Auden, MacNeice were pushing the boundaries, quite a few Australian poets were still talking about eucalyptus. You know the kind of thing.”

Angus smiles. “And paint them too, I imagine.” He stopped himself. Not all Australian paintings of the time depicted gum trees. “Sidney Nolan had started to change all that.”

Matthew nodded. “Yes, he was a much needed breath of fresh air. Although he left the country.

“Yes,” Angus said. “He was absent from the forces during the war. He was reportedly sent to Papua New Guinea.

Matthew was silent. Would he have gone elsewhere if he had been confronted with being sent to Papua New Guinea? Who among us could be sure? You shouldn’t be too harsh in judging others, he believes.

“Do you know he made thousands of paintings?” Angus continued. “Some big trash. A few masterpieces. I saw his Ned Kelly series in Canberra when I went there a few years ago. Very atmospheric. Captivating, even. He stopped himself. “But in poetry? Fiction? It wasn’t the most exciting time.

Matthew shrugged. “Maybe not. Still, there were people making waves. In particular, a young man called Max Harris – a great champion of modernist poetry. He started a literary journal with a sponsor in Melbourne. have called angry penguins – a laughable title now, but quite the thing in those days. Angry young men, I guess, was the idea. The anger at the country’s conformity, the pub culture, the cultural grimace – everything, really. Very different from today’s Australia – which is a terribly creative place. The arts flourish there. And it’s the most beautiful country there is – after Scotland, of course.

Angus burst out laughing. “What looks like us? as they say.”

“Scottish exceptionalism,” observed Matthew. “Alive and well and all around us.”

Angus asked him what he meant. “I never really grasped the notion of exception,” he confessed. “When people talk about it, I nod. Maybe it’s time to find out what it is. He paused. “Unless you’re also in the dark, of course. part of those people who use words they don’t understand – or that we have misunderstood.

“Oh, I’m aware,” Matthew said. “The other day I heard someone say that someone was eye candy. I thought they weren’t complimentary, but the opposite turned out to be true. I always had thought that when you were a feast for the eyes, you were disheveled, or something like that. But I think it can actually mean that you are an attractive sight – an image of perfection.

“It could be said ironically,” Angus suggested. “In other words – you are a feast for the eyes – not! The no is implicit in every ironic observation.

“No,” Matthew said. “When people use the word Ironically these days they mean oddly enough. They don’t want to use it that way.

“Bad,” Angus said, and he laughed.

“I mean, this is another example of a shift in meaning. Wrong came to mean good. Fake has come to mean everything you don’t like.

My truth,” Matthew said. “It’s a really grim development. The fake can be real if it’s yours. Magical thinking.

“It’s the post-factual world,” Angus observed. “The Triumph of Subjectivity. Was Allan Ramsay a great artist? Was it Michelangelo? It all depends on what you think of them.

“The concept of truth is at the very heart of civilization,” Angus continued. “Take it away, and what do we have left. Anarchy. A fight for survival. The disappearance of all morality. Human life becomes a nightmare.

“So when someone in authority lies, then . . .

“This is the end,” Angus said. “If he gets away with it. It really takes away the basics of everything, you know. Civilization, for lack of a better term. He looked at Matthew. They believed the same things, he thought. He was older than Matthew, but Matthew understood. “We were talking about Scottish exceptionalism. Enlighten me, Matthew.

“Exceptionalism is the belief that you are different. You think the normal rules don’t apply to you. Or you think your interests take precedence over those of others. It’s a kind of belief in divine right – but a little different, I suppose.

“I read about American exceptionalism,” Angus said.

“Yes, Americans have suffered. They thought America was quite different from anywhere else and could do whatever it wanted. And the British too – for a long time. Do you remember the British Empire? It took a healthy dose of exceptionalist belief to create something like this.

“Yes, I suppose. The god is english world Vision ?

Matthew smiles. “Yes. And did we think he was Scottish? Did the French think he was French?

Angus thinks about it. A French God would be a comfortable sort of character – not overly demanding in his outlawing of adultery, for example, and very accommodating when it came to abusing the pleasures of the table. A Scottish God, however, would probably be Calvinistic and rather strict. He would be a God of Well you know noo variety, not at all tender with sin. Closed on Sundays, more or less permanently.

“I think we create God in our image,” Angus said, “even though we claim he created us in his image.”

Matthew watched Angus intently. He was thinking about the fact that there were some questions we rarely ask our friends, and one of them was Do you believe in God? People found this question embarrassing – too personal, perhaps, like asking someone about a medical complaint. He had no idea if Angus had any religious beliefs, yet it was surely important to know that about a friend – it was such an important part of a life, after all. So he asked her.

Angus took a sip of wine. “Yes and no,” he said. “I happen to believe there is a greater purpose, if you will, in life. I don’t always know what it is, but I feel that, you know. And since I happen to be born where I was born, when I was born, then a particular medium of spiritual expression is available to me – part of my story, so to speak. And so I gladly participate. I respect what it stands for and I respect those who profess it.

“But inside?” Matthew insisted.

“The interior should, as far as possible, be the same as the exterior,” Angus replied.

© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is now in bookstores. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99

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