First aired on Words at Large (23/7/08)
Jan. 25 is Robert Burns Day, when anyone with even the tiniest smidgen of Scottish heritage (or not) dons tartan, toasts the great Scottish poet with whiskey, and chows down on haggis (or not). To celebrate all things Scottish, we've dug up this wonderful conversation from the archives: a panel discussion from the 2008 Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal featuring authors James Meek and Andrew O'Hagan moderated by Ideas host Paul Kennedy. Meek and O'Hagan are both writers who are part of what has been called "a Scottish literary renaissance."
Meek is a journalist who writes for the Guardian and the London Review of Books, as well as a fiction author. His publications range from award-winning news stories to historical epics. Born in London, he grew up in Dundee, Scotland, and much of his fiction is influenced by that country's landscape and character. His 2005 novel The People's Act of Love won both the Scottish Arts Council's Book of the Year Award and the Ondaatje Prize, in 2008 he published We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, which won the Prince Maurice prize.
O'Hagan was born in Edinburgh. His first novel, Our Fathers, was shortlisted in 1999 for the Man Booker Prize for fiction and the Whitbread First Novel Award. O'Hagan layers political and historical issues in his work and often raises the issue of Scotland's national identity within the United Kingdom.
In this frank discussion, they reveal how their homeland has influenced their work and also talk about the surprising ways that Scotland intersects with Canada. "I don't think of a Scottish writer as someone who lives in Scotland, or who was even necessarily born in Scotland," says O'Hagan. "But someone who has touched Scotland, or Scotland touched them in some way, [someone] who has crossed into the country, sometimes even imaginatively." O'Hagan feels his identity as a "Scottish writer" has only grown stronger with living outside of the country. "It's a good thing for me as a writer," he says. "Patriotism is a kind of poison for a writer."
Meek, on the other hand, was born in England and moved to Scotland as a young boy. "I do consider myself a Scottish writer, I can't help it, and yet I came to the country as this mixed up individual," he says. "I arrived in Scotland with that feeling that all small boys like to have that they have a secret life - when I was a small child in England I thought 'well, I'm really Scottish,' and when I was a very small child in Scotland I thought 'well, I'm not really from here.'"
Both writers, however, feel a strong affinity with Canada, and O'Hagan in particulat has been fascinated by the relationship between the UK and North America for decades. "At some level, I've been contemplating the Atlantic Ocean all my life," he says. "I grew up on the west coast of Scotland...there was this sense of Ireland, and then Canada, and then America, and that had a very strong metaphorical pull on my imagination all my childhood, and it still does."
Since this interview took place, Andrew O'Hagan has edited an acclaimed collection of the poems of Robert Burns, A Night Out With Robert Burns.
A Night Out With Robert Burns
edited by Andrew O'Hagan
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From the publisher:
January 25, 2009, marks the 250th anniversary of Burns's birth. It will be a huge event around the world, not least across Canada. And we have the book! Robert Burns (1759-1796) is part of your life. If you've ever given or received a romantic red rose, or talked about a "do or die" situation, or if you've sung "Auld Lang Syne," you're included. Others celebrate this ploughman poet with an eye for "the lasses" more directly. Every year, literally hundreds of thousands of Canadians, from ...
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