by Marian Pallister
For the past few years I have lectured in journalism at Napier University in Edinburgh. Because I have a qualification to teach English to students of other languages, one of my subjects was â€˜Advanced English Usageâ€™, a module for our foreign Masters students.
This involved teaching them about the role of the media in keeping a language or culture alive, and from the Scottish perspective we examined the West Highland Free Press, The Sunday Post, BBC Radio Scotland and the Gaelic programmes on TV and radio. I told them about the Union of the Crowns, the Union of the Parliaments, the Jacobite Uprisings, the proscription of Gaelic, highland dress and the rest.
Having worked as a journalist around the world, often in times of conflict, and now working in a voluntary capacity as I do in Africa, I am only too well aware of underground pamphlets, news sheets, and broadcasts which have bravely encouraged people to speak a banned language, sing banned songs, write poetry and prose expressing the feelings of the oppressed.
Over the period I have taught the module, there have been staunchly European Dutch students who felt that minority languages were divisive, a Ukrainian for whom a world culture was the ideal, Pakistani students who picked and mixed their culture by tuning in to Bollywood movies from across the Indian border because their own TV programmes were so dire, and Africans for whom a range of languages was the norm because they learned the language of their former colonial masters as their â€˜officialâ€™ tongue and their own tribal language alongside those of their neighbours.
Teaching the module has made me think hard about being Scottish, being British or perhaps just settling for being a member of the human race. Every â€˜tribeâ€™ can be the oppressed or the oppressor â€“ I have researched and written enough social history books to be aware that one manâ€™s terrorist is very definitely another manâ€™s freedom fighter and â€˜twas ever thus. We can pick our friends, but sadly, not our compatriots.
Under another hat, Iâ€™ve become involved with a street childrenâ€™s project and a school for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS in Zambia. One of the very exciting developments which has come from this has been the creation of a library of African literature. I believe that knowing your own history, culture and language, and being able to express â€˜selfâ€™ through this potent cocktail, is vital to the health of any nation.
Too many of our own young people are not aware of their history, or of their culture and language. And without that awareness, I believe that they can have neither feelings of pride nor of shame; no feelings of self worth and no concept of responsibility towards others.
Being British is not a collection of sentimental John Majorish trivia: cricket and warm beer; haggis and Hamden; mines and Myfanwy.
If we cannot express ourselves, our feelings, our aspirations, our frustrations, our hopes, or our demands for fairness and equity, we are nothing. We are as dumb as if we had had our tongues cut out if we are not equipped with the richness of a language. We are as alien as the creature from the Blue Lagoon if we canâ€™t root ourselves in our culture.
Scottishness? Weeping at Sorley Macleanâ€™s humanity when heÂ sees the young dead German soldier, no different from his â€˜enemyâ€™. Revelling in John Byrneâ€™s Tutti Frutti because of its dark comedy and gallus lingo. Knowing why youâ€™re laughing at Stanley Baxterâ€™s radio play about Walter Scott trying to persuade a Highland tailor to make a kilt for a Hanoverian king.
But also Britishness â€“ a shared culture of sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing seas, winters of discontent, and boys on burning decks. Of clapping your hands because you believed in fairies long before Disney got his hands on the script.
Refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo were invited to party with some street kids in Kenya. They brought their music and their dances. One told me that without their music, they would have died. They fled their country with nothing except some tunes in their heads and a couple of tinny cassette tapes. A psychiatrist who works with refugees says those who can share music, language and culture succeed far better in making a new life than those cut off completely from their past.
Yet in a free country, we cut our own young people off from their past. Many Scottish university students have no idea of their history. Stone of Destiny? Stone Roses, maybe.
I donâ€™t want to imbue a new generation with old prejudices. But I do want them to know who they are. The man sowing his seeds on stony ground where they just couldnâ€™t grow without nourishment is todayâ€™s cultural parable.
January 4th, 2008