New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 40: The discomfort of the past
Stuart came back with their coffee: her skinny latte and his cappuccino. Resuming his seat, he said, “The problem, surely, with poetry – as with any of the arts – is working out how you defend a distinction between good and bad. We were talking about vanilla poetry in the sense of stuff that is, well, bland, I suppose.”
“Yes,” Katie said. “We were. Poems that may be easy on the ear but don’t really say very much. Or, if they do say something, say it in a way that doesn’t linger.”
“And by linger you mean make an impression?”
“Yes, because they’ve stimulated our imagination. Or because they raise an issue of importance. Or they make us weep, or gasp, or think yes, precisely. There are all sorts of ways in which poetry can escape being banal.”
Stuart nodded. “Yes, I suppose there are. And we have to be able to say this is a good poem or this is a bad poem, don’t we?”
Katie agreed that we did. “There’s a big difference between McGonagall, say, or his equivalent today, and a serious work of art.” She smiled. “We have to be able to distinguish – otherwise we put the greeting card verse – the doggerel – on the same level as one of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. We know that there’s a huge difference …”
“Of course there is.”
“But we have to be able to say why there is a difference,” Katie continued. “It isn’t just personal preference – it has to be something more than that.”
“And what is it?” asked Stuart.
“Depth. Profundity. Moral significance. That special quality that real art has of lighting up the world.” She paused. “You know it when you see it – and then you have to have the courage of your convictions and say, outright, that the jingles are shallow and impermanent and of no lasting significance.
“People will hold up their hands and say, Elitist! And you have to be able to say ‘No, you’re wrong.’ You have to be able to say that defending real art is not being elitist or, if it is, then there’s nothing wrong with elitism. As long as your elitism is an open elitism – in other words, as long as it extends an invitation to everybody to come to the intellectual feast. You’re not stopping anybody from enjoying art – you’re saying, Come on in. This is for all of you.”
Stuart was inclined to agree. But he had been married to Irene long enough to be aware of the forces ranged against that approach. “I think you’re right,” he said. “But the problem is that there are plenty of people who judge art not by what it is, but by who made it.”
“There are,” said Katie. “And if an artist’s face doesn’t fit, then bad luck. Or if the artist holds views that don’t accord with what people are expected to believe.”
“Like the old Soviet Union,” said Stuart. “If you didn’t toe the party line, then you were silenced.”
He was not sure, though. Was that not a bit extreme? Was it really like that?
“Of course, it’s more subtle that that,” said Katie. “The language of enforced conformism is different, but I think one would have to be naïve not to see it in operation right under our noses.” She sighed. “In the past, men silenced women. We didn’t hear women’s voices because everything was dominated by men. People fought against that – thank goodness – and women’s voices came to be heard – were given their proper place. But we have to be careful, I think, that we don’t drift into the other position of discounting something because it happens to have been created by a man. That’s just one example. There are others.”
Stuart thought about that. “Are we in danger of doing that? Do you really think that’s happening?”
“You tell me,” said Katie.
“I’m not sure,” said Stuart.
Katie looked at her watch. “Have we got time to go upstairs?” she asked. “There’s an exhibition of portraits by Virginia Crowe. I’d rather like to see it.”
“Of course we have,” said Stuart. “We have all the time in the world. We don’t have to go to Cramond. We can stay in town. We can have lunch here, or walk along to The Chaumer at the other end of the street and get lunch there. ”
“I’d like that,” said Katie. “Cramond can wait.”
A small group of young children walked past, having finished an early lunch at a nearby table under the supervision of an several parents.
Katie asked, “How old is your little boy again? Bertie? How old is he?”
“Seven,” said Stuart. And then he smiled as he remembered something. “He told me that he came here with his class from the Steiner School. The teacher brought them all down to look at the paintings. She’s called Miss Campbell.”
Katie smiled. “Sweet.”
“Bertie said that they were looking at a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, and there was a heated discussion about what happened to her. One of the children said that she had had her head chopped off.”
“There’s a horrible little girl called Olive in Bertie’s class. Apparently, this was the signal for her to go into gory detail about the execution, and about how Mary’s little dog was hiding under her skirts. Awful details.”
Katie shuddered. “Our history’s full of cruelty.”
“But one of the boys came to the rescue and said that her head hadn’t been chopped off – it fell off.”
Katie laughed. “What a wonderful way of protecting children from grim reality. Presumably that child had been told this by a parent who didn’t want him to be frightened.”
“I imagine so,” said Stuart. “A benevolent rewriting of history.”
“Bertie asked me if it was true,” Stuart continued. “He said, ‘Daddy, is it really true that Mary Queen of Scots’ head fell off?’”
“And you answered?”
Stuart looked into his coffee cup. “I so wanted to protect Bertie. I so wanted to protect him from the cruelty of the world. I was so tempted.”
“I can understand why,” said Katie. “The idea of chopping another person’s head off is so abhorrent, so barbaric.”
“Yes, it’s barbaric,” said Stuart. “Yes, that’s just what it is. But what’s the difference between that and executing in any of the other ways on offer? Hanging, injecting them with poison, electrocuting them, gassing them. What’s the difference?’
“None,” said Katie. “They’re all barbaric.”
“So I changed the subject,” said Stuart. “I started to talk about something else. I just couldn’t face telling him.”
“I understand,” said Katie.
He looked at her. He felt a sudden surge of tenderness, and knew that what he felt was love. He was sure of it.
Then Bruce Anderson arrived.
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