Lost Edinburgh: Edinburgh's Lost Architectural Heritage
While I was in Scotland in February, I had a chance to meet Ann Begbie, a delightful woman from the Edinburgh branch of the Saltire Society, who presented me with a fascinating book called Lost Edinburgh: Edinburgh's Lost Architectural Heritage by Hamish Coghill. It is sufficiently impressive we decided to review it in this month's issue of the Scotia News.
The book is divided into an introduction and 22 short chapters. It is organized basically in chronological order starting as far back as 8500 BC when there are indications of habitation in the area, although there is no evidence of the kinds of dwellings used at that time. Coghill points out there have been successive waves of destruction of the Edinburgh architecture caused by a number of factors.
"The cases are, in the main: invasion, negligence, fire, pestilence, expansion and that most evocative but dangerous desire - "improvement"
There is certainly no lack of understanding that as cities grow and changes occur that some architecture will in fact have to change. With Edinburgh as with many of the great cities of the world there is no way in which cities can be locked completely into a past time, bit Coghill argues that a lack of civic interest in preserving some artistic and significant aspect of the past was not a common practice until fairly recently and that even when battles were pitched over the preservation of some significant piece of art or history, those on the side of preservation usually lost.
With these ideas fixed in the mind of both writer and reader, Coghill takes the reader on a chronological tour of the changing Edinburgh - changes which were both geographical - the city spreading and taking over surrounding towns; the landscape - lochs being drained to make way for market places and housing; socially - with an ever increasing population crowded into a rather small area making possible the rapid spreading of fire and disease which would on more than one occasion destroy much of the city.
Coghill's book basically starts in the mid 1300s and continues into the 20th century. He locates for the reader specific structures which are no longer with us, or which have been altered into new forms.
Each chapter documents a number of buildings which have been destroyed or dramatically altered, while pointing out that it is impossible to discuss all the changes that have happened - every house which has been demolished.
The book gives a fine description in the changes in Edinburgh socially, in terms of landscape and with the main goal of showing what architecture has been lost both from fires (both set and accidental, by invading armies and Scots alike) and a plethora of other factors. The book is a sort of "Guide to the Edinburgh that was and is no longer.
The book contains a number of drawings of some of the no longer existing buildings. If there is anything negative to say about the book is that it is written with an eye to people who are well acquainted with the Edinburgh of today. Not a single map can be found showing the locations of many of the buildings and natural features, which is a great disadvantage to readers less familiar with the city. This is something which one can hope will be remedied with successive editions.
The book is a fine addition to anyone's library who has an interest not only in Scotland but in the way in which cities grow and develop and impact on their architecture. One is reminded in a minor way of William Severini Kowinski's book The Malling of America which deals with the essentially negative impact of malls on the "down town areas" of American cities
INTERVIEW BY THOMAS DORAN (TD) WITH GERDA STEVENSON (GS) Spring, 2012
Scottish playwright/actress, Gerda Stevenson, who we profiled last issue, has graciously agreed to do an interview with the Scotia News, which we very are happy to now present. She will be in New York this month for the local premiere of her terrific play Federer Vs Murray.
TD: Do you have a "need" to write? Or like some writers, you do it, but would rather do other, more "sensible" things? Is writing both wonderful and terrible at the same time?
GS: Yes, I do have a need to write. I always have something on the back boiler, and often on the front! If I haven’t written something in a while, I get itchy. I usually have a poem or song on the go, which is a good way of keeping my hand in, if I’m not writing something more substantial. I write drama, poetry and prose, and over the last few years I’ve started writing my own songs – words and music, and am part of a trio of musicians – three women, and we call ourselves Madge Wildfire. (Remember her?A songstress of Scottish pedigree!)
TD: Do you write things specifically with yourself in mind as an actor? Or do you find after the writing process is finished that you would be good for a part (or is it inseparable). Do producers or directors feel obligated to use you as a performer because they know you have written the script(s)?
GS: The only drama I’ve written with myself in mind is Federer Versus Murray. I wrote it for me and my colleague Gerry Mulgrew, the Artistic Director of Communicado Theatre Company, (of which I am Associate Director). Gerry and I have worked together for many years, and one play which we produced with Communicado, was Athol Fugard’s brilliant two-hander, A Place With The Pigs. Since then, I always had it in mind to write something for us myself, and decided to do so as part of my Writer’s Bursary. I’ve written a lot of drama for BBC Radio 4, both my own original work, and many dramatisations of great classic Scottish novels, such as Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. As the writer, I will make casting suggestions, and sometimes I play parts in these productions, but I don’t necessarily write with myself in mind. I have good, robust relationships with my professional colleagues, and our approach is always open, honest and flexible – there’s never any sense that I am ‘owed’ a part in play because I’ve written it. I’m a director myself, and it’s paramount that the play, its themes and characters are being served.
TD: Have you written roles for yourself, only to be passed over for someone else?
TD: Did writing come out of your need to perform as an actor? Or is it all part of the same creative process.
GS: It’s all part of the same creative process. My father is a composer-pianist, and also a writer. My sister is a composer-harper, and my brother is a violin maker. We were brought up in a very creative atmosphere. Painting and drawing was my first passion. My mother (who was a piano teacher and a nurse), collected early editions of fairytales illustrated by the peerless Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac, and gave them to me for my birthdays, from infancy. I absolutely adored these books, and still do. I also wrote poetry as a child, and had a puppet theatre with a friend – my parents got a local joiner to make it for us, as a Christmas present one year. We made puppets and wrote plays for them, inspired by my father, who came back from a concert tour in Germany once, with a box of exquisitely beautiful glove puppets for us, and a puppet play he’d written for this cast of lovely little characters. I was also a member of the local amateur drama club from the age of 12. In my teens I wrote a series of children’s stories, and illustrated them some years later. Eventually this book was published – The Candlemaker and Other Stories. So, for me, creativity has always been the norm, and there has never been any separation in my mind between its various modes of expression.
TD: Do you produce your own work? Is it easier to do so? Preferable? or is having some truly distanced eyes and ears pass judgment in the process from page to stage something you like to have?
GS: I researched and co-wrote a large-scale community drama with a local writers’ group, of which I was a member, and I also structured, edited and directed this play. I enjoyed the process - we worked well as a group, and the production was a great success, forging all kinds of positive new relationships within the local community, and gaining interest in the national press. Although I had directed many plays before this, I hadn’t actually directed my own writing until then. I think the experience on this project gave me confidence to direct Federer Versus Murray myself. Originally, I had thought that my Communicado colleague Gerry Mulgrew and I would perform it together, and I would get someone else to direct, or we would possibly co-direct it ourselves. But in the end, I felt it might be better for me to direct and not act – to be on the outside, as it were, and cast someone else in ‘my’ role, so I asked the wonderful Maureen Beattie to perform the play with Gerry. They are both hugely experienced – the kind of actors who will ask crucial questions. Also, I sent the play to my friend the writer Liz Lochhead (our country’s Makar – the Scots word for our laureate) who gave me some very useful comments. And David MacLennan, the producer of A Play, A Pie, A Pint lunchtime theatre season at Oran Mor in Glasgow, where the play was first produced, was very helpful with feedback. I think it’s important to be open to responses from one’s peers – people whose judgement you respect. As a writer/actor/director, I have to admit that occasionally I have found it difficult to hold back when someone is directing other actors in my own writing, but you have to restrain yourself! – drama is a collaborative art form, and it’s vital to trust others in their designated roles as part of the process, with the proviso that they merit such trust!
TD: Did you find that your name as an actor helped get things read by producers?
GS: Maybe it can help, initially, but there’s such a lot of competition, and so many agendas going on out there, I don’t necessarily think it makes all that much difference ultimately. I have a literary agent in London, and I think that is helpful, in terms of introductions.
TD: Is Scotland an easy place for theater? The Irish of course have a well-known modern tradition, and the English go way back, but how is it different in Scotland - if at all.
GS: Scotland’s theatre tradition is an unusual one, which started with a bang, and resumed after a very long silence of centuries. We had the explosion of the astonishingly modern epic play Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, by Sir David Lindsay of the Mount, in the mid 16th Century – a major work of political theatre, challenging the injustices wreaked by the pre-Reformation controlling powers of Scottish society, including the deeply corrupt (Catholic) church. It’s written in superbly rich old Scots language, which contains French resonances, and a Chaucerian earthiness – filthy, many prudes would say today! The play was seen at the time as heresy – copies were burned publically – indeed, it’s fortunate that the text has come down to us. Then we suffered the fierce, cold blast of the Reformation, in some respects a force for democratisation, but nevertheless fundamentalist, with its Presbyterian anti-art (anti-life, I’d say!) agenda. This form of Protestant religion had, in my view, a spiritually crippling impact on Scottish culture, a legacy still apparent today, particularly in the West Highlands and Islands. Presbyterianism is burned into our nation’s collective subconscious.
TD: Do you find that Scottish-based or Scottish written theater (with an obvious "Scottishness" that is) travels well, or is it perhaps considered too parochial?
GS: Awareness of our planet’s multiplicity of languages and cultures has become more heightened with the advent of the internet. Writers everywhere increasingly employ the true voice of their characters. In cinemas we are now very familiar with foreign films and subtitles.
TD: Have you written in Scots? And do you think there is an audience for Scots-language (dialect) theater? I know that some popular pieces of theater have been translated into Scots, and was curious as to the reaction.
GS: Yes, I’ve written in Scots - prose, poetry and drama. Here’s a bit of Socratic playfulness I rather like, which you may have heard: Q: “What’s the definition of a language?” A: “It’s a dialect with an army.”
TD: Do you think theater can affect language in a cultural sense then, in that regard, promoting Scots as opposed to standard English. Simply put, will people come to the theater in numbers to see plays written in Scots.
GS: Plays in Scots are certainly not perceived in Scotland as a threat, nor as some form of opposition, to Standard English. They’re seen as a firmly established and vibrant part of our theatre tradition. The translations I’ve mentioned are all very popular with Scottish theatre-goers, and guaranteed to draw big audiences.
TD: Is the theater world of Scotland too small to sustain home-grown writing and acting?
GS: Well, I’ve succeeded in making a modest living in Scotland over more than three decades through my work as an actor and writer (and director)! Scotland has a long and amazingly rich, internationally recognized literary tradition. We have many active, excellent playwrights, who live and work here, some of whom are known beyond our borders.
TD: Do you think there is any role for government funded arts organizations for writing and theater?
GS: ANY role??? It’s absolutely vital! Theatre in Scotland – all the work I’ve just listed – wouldn’t exist without government investment.
TD: If so, are the rules too strict. (I know there are many complaints of nepotism and clannishness in that regard). Does the vetting process keep certain types of work at bay? How is the content and type of material discriminated against (if it is) when funding comes from a government institution?
GS: Art, like everything else, is prey to fashion and trends. There will always be artists who are ‘flavour of the month,’ or year/s! But on the whole, Creative Scotland (i.e. the expensively rebranded Scottish Arts Council – an absurd title, this new one, because everyone says “What’s Creative Scotland?” and you have to say “The Scottish Arts Council!”) - on the whole I would say that this arm’s-length government organisation of ours does succeed in funding a fairly broad and varied spectrum of theatre, a system that gives Scotland’s community of artists a freedom of expression which absolutely would not be the case if we had to rely on private sponsorship. Private sponsorship is much more likely to act as censorship. Business sponsors have their own needs in relation to targeting a market, and that will always be their agenda, running entirely counter to the artist’s motivation. Unusual or challenging art will rarely, if ever, be supported from that constituency – i.e. the business sector. If we relied on private sponsorship to support theatre, we’d see nothing but West End musicals on our stages. (Don’t get me wrong – I love big musicals!) And these would be confined to the cities. The kind of theatre that’s being created in Scotland, in the cities and touring to remote areas, would simply not happen, and you would have a de-professionalised, dormant theatre workforce that would end up relying on teaching in schools, colleges and universities to make a living, or, at worst, would be unemployed. Nothing wrong in teaching, of course – ‘though why would you study theatre if there were no professional theatre companies to employ graduates? - but my point is that without government investment, you would not have live, professional theatre out there, asking questions, breaking boundaries, the work of skilled practitioners. Scottish theatre organizations are also supported by individual trusts, here and there, and some business partners, so there is a role for non-state funding, but the bulk of our nation’s theatre companies (almost all of which are not-for-profit registered charities limited by guarantee), get their financial support from public funds. It all depends on whether you believe in the spiritually civilizing force of art as being fundamental to a nation’s well-being. If you do, then your government surely has to make provision for it. I think modern Scotland, in spite of its historical anti-art Presbyterianism (which thankfully is eroding), does believe in the importance of art - including theatre - to all of its citizens.
TD: Is there room in the theater for serious political discussions - or does it need to be put into an acceptable context (i.e. satire, comedy, music) - "A spoonful of sugar...". Purely political theater seems almost to be a "Soviet" concept in some ways - and dreadful to sit through (no one likes being lectured).
GS: There has always been room in theatre for serious political discussion, in all kinds of forms and contexts. And there always will be, because the status quo will always be challenged. I think it’s true that political theatre does tend to incorporate satire and absurdism, but that doesn’t mean it can’t embrace dialectic. Employing techniques and forms doesn’t equate to sugaring the pill – in fact, this kind of theatre can be all the more potent. Great political theatre emerged during Stalinism – because of Stalinism – Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide, for example – desperately funny, and very black. Think of the wonderful plays of Vaclav Havel, e.g. The Memorandum. The East Europeans, under Soviet dominance, had to find a way of speaking out subversively, through a disguise, a mask, using metaphor, which created a powerful form of absurdist political theatre; then there’s John McGrath’s popular 7:84 agitprop company, the latter based in many ways on the old music hall form. Think of Lindsay’s brilliant Ane Pleasant Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, which is an epic ragbag, full of everything. And the plays of the great South African playwright, Athol Fugard – Sizwe Banzi is Dead is one of the finest political plays I have ever seen, an indictment of Apartheid – deeply moving, very funny, and also, at times, surreal. Then you have the naturalistic, and profoundly political plays of Arthur Miller, and Brian Friel’s brilliant historical play Translations, which tackles the politics of language and colonialism. In Scotland, from the younger generation, we’ve had Snuff, written and directed in 2005 by Davey Anderson, son of Dave (around the same time as Black Watch), a powerfully disturbing play about political and personal paranoia, xenophobia and racism, with references to Iraq. And we have another important emerging playwright, called David Ireland – he’s an actor, actually from Northern Ireland, but based in Glasgow, who writes the most bold, thrillingly knife-edged political plays (e.g. Everything Between Us), huge debates, that spiral and twist, almost baroque, a style all of his own, hilarious and shocking. Political theatre is many things. Lecturing an audience is just bad writing.
TD: How political is the average Scot?
GS: I don’t know if I can answer that categorically. What is certainly true (borne out by the way Scots have voted historically, and by the results of opinion polls) is that most Scots want universal public services. Which is why our country has never been a stronghold of the British Conservative party. We prize our National Health Service, and our education system, and are trying to cling on to them. We have free personal care for the elderly. Unlike our English neighbours, our students do not pay tuition fees at university. If you asked Scots if they wanted to re-nationalise the railways (which Margaret Thatcher privatised), I’d bet on it that the response would be an overwhelming “Yes.” I think there’s evidence that Scots are predisposed to communality. There are many theories about this – that it’s the legacy of our ancient clan system, that our monarchs were always Kings and Queens of Scots, not of Scotland. What matters to Scots is the community of people. In this context, it’s interesting to contemplate the fascinating fact that in the Gaelic language there is no verb for “to own.”
TD: As an actor do you find comedy hard - you know the old saying "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."
GS: I love comedy – it’s like target practice, analysing the precise timing, what exactly elicits the audience’s laughter, and how you execute the moment, technically. And, yes, it is hard!
TD: Is coming to the NY stage something important, not only for you, but for Scottish theater in general. Black Watch did very well here for instance, and I'm not sure of the effect it may have had on the ability to get things done in Scotland (success in NY or London of course seems to be something to be desired, mainly because of the scope of the audience and the financial ability to help not only sustain but promote and encourage future works).
GS: Interesting question!! Not all Scottish plays transfer easily to London – there is definitely a cultural gap. I can think of several that have been real hits in Scotland but have not done well in London. Creative Scotland (the Scottish Arts Council – remember?!!) has made international exchanges, connections and touring, a real priority. And yet, it’s intriguing to note that the Scottish media hasn’t always demonstrated a lot of interest in the event of Scottish productions touring abroad. I don’t know why this should be. For example, the very fine Scottish actress, Joanna Tope was nominated for a Drama Desk Award in New York last year, for her part in the Scottish company Random Accomplice’s production of The Promise, by Douglas Maxwell. But our press hardly covered the achievement. I was keen to bring Federer Versus Murray to the U.S., because a number of Americans responded so enthusiastically to it on the Edinburgh Fringe last year, leading me to think there would be an audience for the play out there. And now it has been published in America by Salamgundi literary magazine. This is definitely the kind of development that Creative Scotland is encouraging, but whether it has any impact on the Scottish consciousness I couldn’t say! Nor can one say that international touring has financial benefits (other than strengthening future funding applications to Creative Scotland). It’s incredibly expensive to tour to the USA – the stringent Visa application process is very costly, necessitating the hiring of an American lawyer to navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy. It’s the most time-consuming, stress-inducing administrative obstacle course that I have ever encountered in my life, and it goes on for months and months. We began the process last year, and only received confirmation of Visa approval the day before travel. And every company we have spoken to, including individual artists who have gone through this system, describe the same experience. Not to mention meeting American Equity’s demands, hire of the venue, travel and accommodation costs. Then there’s the pressure of selling tickets to simply break even. Again, we absolutely could not do this without investment from government funds.
TD: New York these days (or at least Broadway) is all about the BIG show - and frankly, it caters to tourists in a very substantial way. Hollywood actors, regardless of quality are sought after with great determination. Mostly it's a matter of costs being so high, and people wanting a guarantee (as best as they can hope for) - good theater in NY seems to be Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway (very respectable places to be of course). So, here's the question (finally, right): do you feel the need (personal or professional) to come up with the BIG idea - or does personal theater still have a viable place (financially that is).
GS: I don’t believe that artists ever start from THE BIG IDEA - the financial incentive, what will sell. That is to say, I know a lot of artists, and none of them would take this as their starting point. I’m certain that none of the great art which has come down to us through history began from such a basis. I mean, I doubt that Chekov ever sat down and thought: “What’s THE BIG IDEA that I can sell?” Or Van Gogh? I don’t think he ever sold a painting, though his Sunflowers and Starry Night are all over tourist posters, T-shirts and crockery now. There’s no doubt that events – what’s going on in the world – do inform your creativity, as an artist, and I certainly believe that they should do. But the prevailing celebrity and merchandise culture is a disease, a killer of art, death to the imagination. It’s about nothing that is important or of any value, although it makes fortunes.
TD: Are young people encouraged to take up theater as a way of life (for those inclined), or is it considered not a very smart move (being able to make a living at it).
GS: Although celebrities are hugely valued, I think the arts are generally seen in Scotland as not ‘real’ work, and a high risk. But that may be changing now, because unemployment is soaring, due to the global financial crisis. It’s an achievement for a young person of any background to secure work of any kind nowadays.
TD: Are there drama clubs for instance in elementary schools or are the arts, like in America these days (which are being almost systematically de-funded from Elementary, Middle Schools and High schools) something mostly ignored in the school system.
GS: We do have drama clubs in some elementary schools, and in our high schools, but these kind of groups and clubs are shrinking. The United Kingdom is going down the American road, and has been doing so for years – New Labour, under Tony Blair’s leadership, was in many ways a continuance of Thatcherism. Schools now have Business Studies as a core part of the curriculum.
TD: Where do you think theater in Scotland is headed (if anywhere).
GS: To attempt to answer that, we have to start from the context of where Scotland itself might be heading. We have a great opportunity before us - a referendum on the issue of Scottish Independence scheduled for 2014. An opportunity to ask ourselves: “What kind of a nation or society do we wish to be?” A chance to put our heads together creatively, and dare to come up with a vision from the horrible mire that we are all wading through at present – the swamp of sinking aspirations, social deprivation and hardship, an unpardonable mess created by the globally rampant, rapacious and morally corrupt, tax-avoiding, bonus-grabbing, controlling financial sector. Do we want to be responsible, creative, democratic, caring citizens, respecting our environment, represented by a government that will ensure we can be just that? Not if we continue to be led by the kind of government operating currently in London. In my view, the values of the Conservative party, led by David Cameron, are pernicious. We will have no public services left if we go down that route. Although Scotland has a measure of devolution, it is still effectively a region of the United Kingdom, and, as such, we are limited in our ability to take bold initiatives. Many Scots still think of London as the mecca. I love London – it’s a wonderful place – I had a tremendously valuable time training there, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. But sometimes I recall Shakespeare’s line in Macbeth, when Ross, referring to Scotland says: ‘Alas, poor country, almost afraid to know itself.’ I think there’s a profound, collective psychological truth in that line. Most Scottish children grow up knowing little of their country’s great cultural riches. It would be beneficial if we were able to invest in our own history, and look outward from that place with new understanding and confidence. There’s an energy in Scottish theatre that is exploring such territory: David Greig’s Dunsinane responds in some ways to Ross’s statement, which I just quoted. The plays we see at Oran Mor in Glasgow are full of vibrant debate and imagination – hugely varied in style, and packed with ideas. With Gerry Mulgrew’s Communicado theatre company, we are constantly examining the contemporary world from our own Scottish perspective. And there are audiences for all this work.
I'd like to thank Gerda Stevenson for her fascinating and extremely thoughtful and detailed responses to this interview. She showed a great generosity given her very busy schedule. We at Scotia News are very grateful indeed, and wishing her the best of all possible successes when her play premieres in New York City this month.