November 26, 2010 10:04 pm

The Diary: Gregory Burke

“Men run with great avidity to give their evidence in favour of what flatters their passions and their national prejudices.” The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that in a letter to the historian Edward Gibbon in 1776. The correspondence related to the controversy surrounding the publication between 1760 and 1765 of the “works” of the Gaelic poet “Ossian”.

James Macpherson, a young, Gaelic-speaking poet, claimed to have gathered these “works” during a journey round the Highlands and islands of Scotland listening to, and then translating, the ancient tales of the Highland bards. Hume, his scepticism famed as being the most rigorous since antiquity, refused to believe that “above 20,000 verses ... could have been preserved by oral tradition during 50 generations, by the rudest, perhaps, of all European nations”. However, his doubts were swamped in his native land as almost every other major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment seized upon Macpherson’s work as proof of an enduring and ancient Caledonian literary culture. It was all a con. Macpherson wrote it all himself.

I have been writing a new play about Hume. It’s not really about him. It’s about the problem of inductive reasoning. Causation. It’s a comedy, obviously. A huge, rollercoaster romp through the Scottish Enlightenment, crammed full of sizzling gypsies and jokes about the unreliability of the Principle of the Uniformity of Nature. About time someone did that, I hear you gasp.

Next year is the 300th anniversary of David Hume’s birth, so expect to be deluged by a slew of “tie-ins” from the intellectual hordes north of the border. There’s no escaping the Scottish Enlightenment up here at the best of times. Dozens of weighty tomes have appeared in the past few years giving various accounts of both the Enlightenment as a whole and the individuals who were involved. They give varying accounts of the period, but all err on the side of flattery. Scotland invented the modern world; Edinburgh is the world capital of ideas ... Scotland is magic, basically.

Indeed, much of Scotland’s current search for an identity is wrapped in the achievements of the Enlightenment. Yet no one has seen the opportunity for dashing off a pile of Gaelic poetry. You could get away with it much easier these days. Nobody speaks Gaelic any more. Nobody. Maybe I should do it? As soon as Black Watch, my play about British soldiers serving in Iraq, stops touring. Black Watch. Still touring, still in demand. I am asked at regular intervals to try and explain its appeal. It’s simple. Men still run with great avidity ...

. . .

“Can you come and do a writing workshop with our students?” Not a quote from David Hume, but something that has been requested of me at regular points throughout my writing career. I have always said: “No, I can’t.” There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, in which other industry are you actively encouraged to train your future competitors? For free? (It’s always for free in Great Britain.) What if I go along and train some young Scottish kid, for free, and a couple of years from now it turns out that he can write better plays about Scottish people shouting at each other than I can? Where does that leave me? On the dole, that’s where. That’s where the Big Society gets you. You go and do something out of the goodness of your heart, David Cameron, for free, and you end up jobless.

The other reason I don’t do writing workshops is because I don’t really understand how you teach writing. I know that a massive industry exists claiming to be able to pass on the secrets of the storytelling craft, but such is its ubiquity that surely by now everyone must know? Writing, on the other hand, unless I’ve picked up the meaning of the word wrong, is transcribing words on to paper? Isn’t it? There are loads of ways of doing it. A computer, a printer and some paper. A printing press and some paper. A stamp and some paper. A pencil and some paper ... you get the drift. But, you go into a writing workshop and you say to the eager collection of faces: “Do you have a pen? Do you have a bit of paper? Good. Now, use the pen to write on the paper. About 100 pages should do it,” and the workshopees (as I believe they are called) get all annoyed with you. They get all stroppy. That’s why I never do them. Until now.

I blame the fact that I was reading too much Hume at the time. Hume argued that it cannot be shown, using demonstrative or probable reasoning, that nature will continue to be uniform. He’s right. I was recently asked to do a “masterclass” on playwrighting at the University of Texas in Austin. Immediately I felt my resistance to this kind of gig buckle slightly at the thought of being considered important enough to do a masterclass. There was even more buckling at the prospect of an all-expenses paid trip to the Lone Star state. Further down the letter, there was even the offer of an honorarium! That was the clincher. I’ve never had one of those before. Well, certainly not of that size.

“A lesson given to talented students by a renowned expert.” That’s how the Collins dictionary defines a masterclass. There are always certain signs that a society is nearing its end; that an epoch has run its course. An indication that a culture has decided to throw in the fluffy towel of hegemony and take a rest from the hurly-burly of world dominance. For me, this “masterclass” is the surest sign yet that we are witnessing the end of the “American century”.

. . .

So, I’ve been writing a lot. The Hume play, another play and a couple of screenplays. Writing a lot means you don’t get out much. On one of the rare jaunts over the doorstep, however, I did get to meet Michael Mann. Well, I had a meeting with the film director, Michael Mann. It was a great meeting. Well, it had a good start and a good end. The bit in the middle wasn’t so good. The bit in the middle was a bit dull and confusing. In fact, if we could have cut half an hour out of the middle, it would have been the perfect meeting ...

I also went to Belfast, where, with one eye on my date with destiny in Austin, I did a bit of a workshop for some students of Queen’s University. After all, you’ve got to put in a bit of practice if you’re going to be the new Robert McKee. It wasn’t a writing workshop, it was more of a lecture about how I went about writing Black Watch – “I started off by buying some paper. About 100 pages usually does it ...”

Black Watch was on at the Belfast Festival. There was a little bit of controversy beforehand, not exactly controversy, but a little bit of nervousness as to how a play about a British regiment which had a reputation for “overenthusiasm” in its policing of Republican districts might go down. We needn’t have worried, it was the usual reaction to the play – standing ovations all round. Someone in the know about the audience in Belfast even claimed that the Sinn Féin people were actually beating the loyalists to their feet.

The lecture wasn’t too painful, either. Not for me at least. I can’t speak for the students. I bored them senseless with all my talk about story arcs, character development and historical perspective. About the general level of boredom, slog and fastidious attention to detail that it takes to construct a script that, in its finished state, you’ll still be dissatisfied with. It was enough to put off a keen-as-mustard student ever trying it for themselves. Eureka! No competition. Ever!

‘Black Watch’ is on at the Barbican, London, from Saturday night until January 22

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