At the heart of what makes poetry Scottish lies the question of language. There are at least four varieties. First, there is the Scots of the old court before the Union of the Crowns. Then came the vigorous and assured tongue used by Robert Burns in his best poems, or richly put in the mouths of his native characters by Sir Walter Scott.
THE writer must quarry his own life: he has nowhere else to turn. ThatJohn Updike has done so has always been clear enough, but what hasalways puzzled me has been his underlying attitude as a lyrical butclear-eyed chronicler of domestic and sexual politics.
COMING through the ferry terminal at Larne the other day, surveying the unappetising and bland food on display at the buffet, and sipping the almost tasteless coffee dispensed from the machine, I reflected on how public catering so often still lags behind public taste. The improvement in coffee, in home and cafe, has been part of the revolution that has given us foreign travel, eating out, and wine with meals. In my boyhood coffee essence was common. For years after the war the British palate was satisfied by instant. Now tastes are developing, although they still have some way to go.
THE head waiter's beard bristles as he takes our order in a slightly sinister manner. ''Would it be possible,'' I ask politely, ''to turn the heating up a little?'' One of our party has just arrived from Los Angeles and is feeling the cold.
''No,'' he barks. ''It's at maximum power.'' Not for the first time I wonder how on earth people get into jobs for which they are manifestly not suited. An experienced head waiter would deal with the problem more gracefully. He would beam his co-operation, say ''certainly, sir'', twiddle with the control and allow our imaginations to do the rest.
Such subtlety is beyond our friend. Nor can he let matters rest. By now he has the look of a villainous walrus. His small powerful body is hunched in an attitude of pure hatred. ''Too many people,'' he says with a bluntness that could be described as offensive, ''sit on top of their coal fires.''
FOR EVERY pub discussion I've heard about why Guinness tastes better in Ireland I wish I had the proverbial quid. That it does so is a starting point accepted without argument: it is a creamier pint.
The theories are numerous, nowhere more so than in Ireland itself. They say that at St James's in Dublin the brewers have a mystic secret that has eluded their counterparts in Park Royal, London. It's the Liffey water. The Irish version is not pasteurised. The Irish drink so much of it that constant movement out of the keg keeps the stout in tip-top condition. Publicans must look after their stout better because an informed public would accept nothing else.