THE 134 short essays in Andrew Hook’s “From Mount Hooly to Princeton: A Scottish-American Medley” (Edinburgh: Kennedy & Boyd, 2020) are wonderfully readable and various, addressing Scottish history, Enlightenment, Romanticism, Walter Scott, F.Scott Fitzgerald, English, Scottish and American universities, politics and culture. Many were published in the online periodical the Scottish Review. The range is wide but the matter always fascinating, sometimes provocative. Occasional pieces prompted by TV, film, museums and exhibitions are often delightfully challenging.

The core of the book is a sense of conviction, arising from what I would call wisdom, in the value of university education, summed up in “Fast Food Degrees” (these sentences might be called “What a university is for”): “A university education is about having time to learn, to read, to think; about having the chance to engage with the world of knowledge and culture. A university education is about meeting new people, about encountering new ideas, new opinions, new ways of seeing the world. In the end it is about growing up.”

Set that against this, from “The Plight of the English Universities” (it might be entitled “What a university is NOT for”): “To regard our universities as commercial enterprises, and our students as consumers, is to transform university education in a radically damaging way.”

This is heartening, courageous and true. Unless such things are said, clearly and succinctly, the values that sustain “the quality of life in a civilised society” slip from our attention. Sensitive apprehension, sympathy, intuitive and knowledge-informed understanding require care.

The National:

Andrew Hook is well-qualified here. His scholarly expertise has taken him to various universities, particularly Glasgow and Princeton, at historical moments where the relativities of cultural value are evident. “Wick, Identity, and the War” is autobiographical. Hook’s father was English, his mother Scottish. When the family moved to England, he became aware of a difference: “My mother [...] from the distant north of Scotland, never able to be familiar with her in-laws, having to cope with the intimidating, elderly Englishwoman […] her fears were passed on to us.”

This is subtle and tender. Early on, Hook experienced a cultural division between Scotland and England, ultimately arising from historic authority which to my mind is deeply and inescapably political. Not to oversimplify, nor bring “blame” to bear, but his experience is entwined with the history of “Britishness”.

At the end of his father’s life, Hook tells us: “In hospital in Edinburgh for the last time, his mind wandering, he began to say things about the Scots and the English which riveted me with their suggestion of long-suppressed pain and persecution.”

This is moving, without crass political point-scoring. Yet the question remains, not only in the personal family circumstances so closely evoked but in the broader vulgar political world we inhabit today. For Hook, “Cultural nationalism […] did make some impact. MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodsir Smith — it was hard not to be broadly on their side. But kilts and the political movement — that was another matter.”

And yet, “In the early, traumatic days of National Service I was taken aback, stunned really, to hear myself called ‘Jock’. … [T]here were plenty of people out there who saw me — whatever I thought — as no more and no less than just another run-of-the-mill Scot. End of their story. Did I like that? Not a lot.”

The good humour is welcome but it’s easy to imagine a less sanguine personality being confronted by more belligerent inquisitors and victimised or refusing to be so more aggressively. The dilemmas have more than one possible scenario and many less fortunate possible outcomes. Hook’s rejection of what he calls “nationalist politics” and his approval of “cultural nationalism” is a question that many of us committed to independence for Scotland need to consider carefully.

The National:

TO me, the rejection of Scottish political self-determination is essentially a surrender to “British” political authority. It needs to be said clearly and patiently because even now many people whose sympathy and understanding are not to be lightly dismissed remain unpersuaded.

The “British” vote to withdraw from the European Union in 2016, and how Westminster has behaved since then, have had some effect. But the whole history of changing people’s minds tells of how long it takes, what depths of self-questioning are required.

For myself, as for many friends and colleagues, the point has never been in doubt. Only the extent of the opposition has been a revelation. Not only opposition to Scottish independence but to open debate of the issues involved, opportunities for patient discussion, exploration of issues, extended questioning.

The National, offering what it does, is the David among Goliaths of “mainstream” newspapers and mass media. “Mainstream” means if you go with the flow you’re moving with the current towards Niagara. Professor Hook knows how such things work. In a brilliant little polemic, “Jettison Top Gear”, he turns his focus to that atrocious television programme, quoting the comment: “Big viewing figures don’t give you impunity – they carry responsibility.”

But, Hook notes, “unfortunately all the evidence is against [this]. Three middle-aged white men can rant and rave, defame and abuse Mexico and Mexicans. And the BBC bosses tell us there’s no problem. Just joking. (Odd that the Mexicans don’t seem to get the joke.)”

So far so good.

Hook concludes, sadly and with justified anger: “[But] viewing figures do provide immunity. Top Gear is popular worldwide. It makes money. Should the BBC have any concern over the version of contemporary British culture the programme communicates? Apparently not. The world can take a joke. (Apart from Mexico that is.) Well I disagree.”

Substitute for “Mexico” and “Mexicans” the words “Scotland” and “Scots” and where does that leave the argument? Caricature and cliché are long-familiar political weapons. When we can see so clearly how they work in this instance, why are so many so blind to their working against Scotland?

We need to read this rich, multi-faceted book carefully. For essentially, this is the cultural argument, and why it matters most.