I spent part of last summer writing a long review of Timothy Neat’s two volume biography of Hamish Henderson, the poet and campaigner who made such a profound contribution to the Scottish folk revival in the 1950s and 1960s. The review appears in the London Review of Books, issue dated 3 November 2011.
My text was too long, even for the LRB, so I here append some otherwise lost paragraphs describing Neat and his films:
‘As he pursues his hero from one overflowing volume to the next, Neat amplifies the legend of Hamish Henderson and weaves great tracts of twentieth century history into his garland. He is happy to provoke those who doubt that any ordinary man could really have been quite so magnificent and he writes with utter contempt for the thought that intellectual life has been safely confined to the university corridors from which Stefan Collini’s “public intellectuals” are occasionally invited to speak out on the “Today” programme.
The author of this new Scottish creation myth is himself an exceptional fellow. A Cornish outrider who moved north in the late 1960s, Neat now lives among rocks and trees in Fife. His acknowledgements dutifully mention the Scottish Arts Council and the Edinburgh publishers who gave him his very modest advance (exact sum specified), but they are more enthusiastically extended to Antonio Carluccio, the restaurateur for whom he has collected wild mushrooms, and to a nameless young boy in Little Glenshee who one day stopped with his mother to call out at Neat’s passing figure, “thank you for looking after the bees”.
I once met Neat in Belfast in 2002. He seemed reserved – perhaps doubting, as I myself certainly did, the presence of another English speaker at a conference dedicated to the development of Irish-Scottish studies. He was there to show his film “Play Me Something”, made – miraculously as it may now seem – with funding from Grampian Television (ITV) and released at the beginning of 1989. A small audience gathered to watch John Berger play a storyteller in a cast that also featured Hamish Henderson and Tilda Swinton. Neat plugged in his weathered video cassette only to reveal that something dire had happened to the tape. The soundtrack was OK but the picture had mouldered away, leaving only a flickering dance of grey shapes, which mushroomed and dwindled erratically, sometimes obliterating all trace of Jean Mohr’s photography. We saw enough to understand that Neat had extended Berger’s story along a Scottish nationalist perspective: having started in the Outer-Hebridean remoteness of Barra, the narrative then made its way south into a decentralizing “Europe of the regions” (represented by Italy), and it did so without setting so much as a toe in England.
It is surely not just due to the peculiar ailments of videotape that Neat’s films resemble lost worlds. I got another chance to consider this in 2008, when his earlier Hallaig, photographed on the Inner Hebridean island of Raasay and broadcast by RTE in 1984, was given a rare English screening at the Aldeburgh Festival. Hallaig is a simply structured documentary, which builds its atmosphere by deferring to the poetry and cleared highland landscape of Sorley Maclean. Nobody, or so I remember thinking, would get away with such a film in the present media climate. There would have to be a presenter, blocking the view as he or she tarted about and told the audience what to think about this curious old Gaelic-speaking bard and school teacher. The editing would have to be far busier and more conspicuous since audiences nowadays aren’t trusted to stay with a channel when the pace slackens. Neat’s elegiac tracts of silence would be filled with snippets of period pop music – perhaps by “The Clash” since Joe Strummer’s grandmother lived on Raasay – and there would be no tolerance at all for his melancholy sense of the otherness of the past. The telehistorians of our time feel obliged to assure us that the people of previous ages were just the same as we are: “us then”, as one well-adjusted member of the species summarized the present orthodoxy in a recent BBC trailer – although surely not in the manner of the ancient Hebridean women Neat recovers from the film archive and shows chanting rhythmically as they knead, or “waulk”, raw wool, which may or may not have been softened with urine “to strengthen the fabric and raise the nap” as Neat now explains.’
Find my review of Hamish Henderson; a Biography here»