On Monday, August 5, at 5.30pm for 6pm, there is the opening of Vivid Rebellion: An Exhibition of the Work of Edward McLaughlin.
AFTER Edward McLaughlin received a diagnosis of dementia in 2002, he retreated for a long time into inactivity and depression. When he eventually took up painting again he discovered to his amazement that he now saw the world and in particular colours quite differently. He commented: “Dementia: you could see it as a gift or a curse. To me it’s a gift. It’s opened up a wonderful world to me.”

He created a series of vibrant paintings, giving expression to his new visual sensibility. These were in marked contrast with the meticulous pencil drawings typical of his work before diagnosis. Since then he has used this enriched sense of colour to create a body of work which illuminates his own extraordinary personal voyage of discovery.

His art has been lauded as a vivid insight into the inner life of someone with dementia, but it is even more than that. With its exploration of the complexity and shifting nature of individual identity it is suffused with universal messages and questions. Essentially it asks us what it means to be human.

Dementia is a disease which many of us have encountered in friends, family, loved ones, and – I know from experience – it can be the most disheartening and painful of things to witness, and to try to help with. Nothing erases the sense of anger and frustration many of us have felt, or will feel, confronting it. Nor can we be absolved from it simply by wishful thinking. Yet art like that of Edward McLaughlin can show us a way of resisting futility and depression, and creating something worthwhile beyond the limitations of human frailty.

Beyond what mortality sometimes simply inflicts upon us, when material life takes its toll in such a way, mortality also insists on creative expression through art, and here’s a life and art-affirming exhibition that demonstrates that: celebration in defiance.

On Wednesday, August 7, from 7-9pm, there’s a concert by The Heretics, Old and New.
The Heretics was a group of poets, musicians, singers, writers and artists who started up in 1970, initiated by Stuart MacGregor and William Neill, and quickly joined by singer, actor, writer and Gaelic activist Dolina Maclennan, novelist, author and playwright John Herdman, and playwright and poet Donald Campbell. Their guests at the beginning included Billy Connolly, Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean, Hugh MacDiarmid, Derick Thomson, Aly Bain and Liz Lochhead. They disbanded after a farewell performance in 1980. In 2015, survivors reunited and staged three sell-out performances during the Edinburgh Festival, with Adam McNaughton, Dolina Maclennan, Donald Campbell, John Herdman, and Roderick Watson from the original company and a new generation carrying on the tradition.

The National:

Reviving the group was prompted by Peter Burnett and Craig Gibson and moved into action by Dolina Maclennan and John Herdman, from the original company. Now they’re back with an event including members of the original group from the 70s, as well as brand new Heretics. Joy Hendry, editor of one of Scotland’s finest literary periodicals Chapman, with new poems, Dolina Maclennan, John Herdman, Richard Munro, Marcus Mac an Tuairneir, Lorna J Waite and many more, presenting an evening of music, songs and poetry in Scots, Gaelic and English.

Liz Lochhead once said that if it hadn’t been for The Heretics, she would never have got started. Gordon Wright first published Liz and Donald Campbell as well as the anthology, Four Points of a Saltire, which gathered some of the major Scottish poets of the era: Stuart MacGregor, William Neill, Sorley Maclean and George Campbell Hay. So the effect The Heretics had on the literary culture of that time was considerable, to say the least, and has its legacy. But the poetry and literary quality of their work is leavened and lifted by music, stories and song. At the last Heretics concert I attended, I laughed till it hurt, the humour was so strong, sharp and wily.

Readers of The National might recollect my essay “What can learn from Edward Dorn?” from April 1, 2016. Let me remind you. In his book, High West Rendezvous (1996), Dorn, himself one of the great American heretics (maybe the greatest American dissenter since Mark Twain), quotes another one, B Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre:

Only Heretics understand heretics
only heretics can spread heresy
and only heretics dare
to help other heretics.

Dorn elaborated: “It’s a lot easier to be a heretic than it used to be. There are more religions willing to kill you, there are more states willing to co-operate with sectarian harassment, there are more laws cranking out more crimes.”

In other words, there’s more need than ever these days for the Heretics, and their celebration of Scottish culture. Join us.

On Saturday, August 10, from 2-4pm, we have Hugh MacDiarmid: A Celebration.
Poet Hugh MacDiarmid has been called “the single most powerful cultural force in 20th-century Scotland”. Andrew Marr once wrote: “MacDiarmid’s poetry remains a vast and little colonised continent of wonders, glittering views and strange formations, which everyone with the requisite supply of synapses and a little common courage should visit.”

“Hugh MacDiarmid: A Celebration” features performed readings by Dolina Maclennan and me. The year following MacDiarmid’s death in 1978, the historian Owen Dudley Edwards brought together a selection of his writings and wrote a connecting narrative in the form of a dialogue for two voices, “Him” and “Her”, first delivered at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1979. We revived this to great acclaim in 2018 and we’re bringing it back for one more performance this year. Seats are limited so please book on the Saltire Society website.

The National:

Why the revival? Well, in these days of unreliable witnesses (sometimes even witnesses of their own words) we felt it was important to keep MacDiarmid in mind and show something of his wayward range. He said some terrible things but he was a great poet and there are works of terrific beauty, humour, charm and challenge.

What MacDiarmid said in the course of his long career has to be read back into its own history before we can carry it forward into ours. And this is a performance, not a lecture or explanation, far less an apology. So what did he say that’s worth hearing today?

His evaluation of Edinburgh is a good place to start. He dismisses the fantasy of Edinburgh as described either in terms of Walter Scott, “Mine own romantic town” or Tennyson, “the grey metropolis of the North” and instead asks us to consider its reality, “its outline resembling the saw-backed graph on a fever-chart”. What would it be like to someone who had never seen the city before? Forget “all the guide-book chatter, all the intellectual rabbits’ food of historical tittle-tattle ...”

Anyone looking at the capital of Scotland – or as Norman MacCaig put it, the “capital-in-waiting” of a country yet to be reborn – afresh, might rather dismiss “the whole thing with a shrug, and comical expressions of despair at the impossibility of meeting anyone in it who was really alive”.

MacDiarmid had no use for the famous sights and hackneyed tributes and concluded that Edinburgh “does not include a single person … who is in even the smallest measure, vital, a creative worker, a ‘free-spirit’ in Goethe’s phrase, to his or her science or art – any more than one could find in the whole of Scotland, if one was inclined to revolutionary methods (which God forbid!) – a single person worth killing in the sense of being a person in a key position and really responsible for the ill governance of our country. This absence of a real and responsible personality gives a feeling as of trying to fight malaria with a bayonet … In any case even thinking on these matters is like trying to get to grips with Ibsen’s great Boyg; a similar vague diffused spirit of evil, emasculating the whole life of the nation and rendering any creative effort, any real spiritual activity, impossible. It has the whole of Scotland in its toils, and Edinburgh is its headquarters.”

These quotations come from Scottish Scene (1934) and we might want to say that if it was true then, it isn’t true anymore. But the great Boyg is still the great Boyg, and ill governance is still ill governance, and needs to be opposed.

Come and see – and hear – for yourself, at 2pm on August 10 at Saltire Society HQ.

Saltire Society, 9 Fountain Close, 22 High Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1TF; phone 0131 556 1836; www.saltiresociety.org.uk