1. Yes, it is absolutely ghastly and gruesome. Yes, Putin is responsible for war crimes because war itself is a crime, a failure. I started marching during the Vietnam War and have opposed every war since then. Those demonising Putin are the same people who supported the war in Afghanistan, Iraq, the very same people who bombed Libya. Their outrage has their arms manufacturers rubbing their hands with all the new orders coming their way. NATO says come on in to Finland and Sweden. More bases, more orders for more arms – and far less for welfare – though silence from the armaments industry.
2. Hegel once spoke of the slaughter bench of history and that bench just gets longer and longer each year that passes. Yesterday it was Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, today it is Ukraine and who will it be tomorrow? It looks a bit like Russia since sanctions are a form of warfare just like benefit cuts are a war on the poor. The same outraged faces and sanctimonious voices want Russia on her knees. Ukraine is collateral damage with Tigray and Yemen relegated from our screens. Putin joins the elite club of Truman, Bush and Blair, Nixon and Kissinger. Now it is Ukraine and who will it be tomorrow? Where can the tensions get stoked up next? What name next for Hegel’s bench?
3. And as we rightly condemn Putin’s barbarism, we note BAE System’s share price risen by 24%. The world has always been at war since war not only pays but it distracts as well, and Putin can be blamed for all the ravages back home. Luther King said, ‘We have guided missiles and misguided men.’ The misguided men still guide their people away from their social conditions, away from their inequalities. And now Ukraine’s name can be added to Hegel’s slaughter bench and I will march again for an end to war and for peace. And for the humanity that binds us all, regardless of our nation, our race or colour, our gender or faith, for all people over all the earth to wage peace instead.
This poem is taken from a forthcoming book of poetry by Jim Aitken, 'Declarations of Love', illustrated by Martin Gollan, to be published this summer by Culture Matters.
Jim Aitken reviews Hex, by Jenni Fagan, published by Birlinn
There can be little doubt that part of the success of Jenni Fagan’s previous novel, Luckenbooth (2021), can be attributed to the way she managed to evoke Edinburgh’s Old Town with its grey tenements, cobbles and closes. In her recent novel, Hex (2022), she has returned to the Old Town of the sixteenth century as well as taking us out to East Lothian and to the North Berwick witch trials of 1590-92.
The novel was written for Geillis Duncan and she is in fact the novel’s main character. Geillis was hanged as a witch when she was only 15 years old. Other characters mentioned in the novel were also real historical characters like Geillis – Doctor John Fian, Agnes Sampson, Barbara Napier and Euphame MacCalzean.
While the outing of witches had been going on for some considerable time, under both Catholicism and Protestantism throughout Europe, the rule of James V1 of Scotland, 1st of England, certainly contributed to the frenzied atmosphere. A storm had blown James’ wife to be, Anne of Denmark, off course and the ship was forced on to the Norwegian coast. James set sail from Leith to fetch Anne personally – although he had a retinue of some 300 men with him.
Witchcraft and torture
James and Anne were formally married in Oslo and as they travelled to Denmark it became apparent that here was a country familiar with witchcraft and this sparked James’ interest. Witches were blamed for creating the sea storm and James personally supervised the torture of women accused of witchcraft back home in Scotland. Fagan refers to James in her novel and castigates him accordingly and she gives us a portrait of him at the end of his life as ‘an incoherent slobberer, his tongue grown too big for his mouth.’
A pamphlet that was produced at the time of the North Berwick witch trials was titled Newes from Scotland and James used this pamphlet to conclude his work Daemonologie (1597) which was published again when he ascended the English throne in 1603. Jacobean England was home to Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon, John Donne and William Shakespeare and the concluding part of James’ work was used by Shakespeare to write Macbeth (1606).
Geillis Duncan, like all other women accused of witchcraft, was wholly innocent. Under torture she implicated other people who were also hanged. Fagan is totally sympathetic to Geillis – and to all women more generally who have had to endure centuries of misogyny and who have been scapegoated for the failings of men, particularly those men who have been in power.
While Hex enables a real historical character to have her voice back, Fagan also creates a fictionalised character to be with her in her cell as she awaits execution. This character is called Iris and she comes from our period. Iris was the Greek Goddess of the rainbow, something that symbolises hope and the flower Iris is also said to cleanse areas. Iris has come out of the ether, or Null as Fagan calls it. She brings comfort, support and understanding.
Iris is related to Geillis by being a woman herself who has also known misogyny and they share their stories. Iris tells Geillis about some of the awful things done to women today and she refers to the two Met officers who took photographs of two murdered sisters. These officers were meant to guard the murder scene but instead they took photos of the two ‘dead birds’ they circulated to friends on WhatsApp. This happened in 2021and such actions by such men have been going on during the time of Geillis Duncan – and before – and in our own time.
Iris later turns into a crow and this gives the novel an air of the supernatural that fits perfectly with the subject matter she is writing about. It works well and Iris is also said to be Geillis’ ‘familiar’, a clever device she may well have used from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy from 1995-2000.
Fagan does try to offer some answers as to why men behave in this way. She seems to suggest that it is not just male-dominated power structures that are at fault but there seems a deeper existential element as to why many men behave the way they do. Fagan has Iris say that, ‘Men want to know how they got trapped on earth.’ The reason for being here is certainly something that many men have thought about – most of our greatest philosophers have been men who attempted to answer this question. However, as the questioning continues and men look around seeking answers Iris tells Geillis, ‘There is no man on earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs.’
Geillis is housekeeper to David Seaton and she is a hard-working girl who knows her place. She causes no offence ever, averts her smile and her eyes and her lightness of being. She maintains that Seaton cannot deal with her ‘Light.’ Women from nothing can give birth to life and are so much more related to nature than men because of this. This light in their lives, in Geillis’ case, enables her to marvel at the moon and the stars, to listen to the sea and find joy in looking at a seashell and taking it home with her.
Seaton, according to Geillis, ‘started the North Berwick witch trials to get Euphame’s money.’ Disputes over inheritance, envies and jealousies, particularly of women of independent wealth and means, was responsible for many women being accused of witchcraft. Geillis liked to go out at night and look at the stars or go down to the beach on her own and this condemned her. Seaton also discovered her seashell and this somehow implied her pact with the Devil.
Geillis was brutally tortured and made to confess and as she says herself, under torture, ‘You will do anything.’ We know this from our own time with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, Northern Ireland and all the unknown sites of extraordinary rendition. Seaton had enabled Geillis to be tortured in a room she had previously cleaned for him and she says of her torturers, ‘So much fun laying into a girl, right? Exciting for them. It made them hard.’
Geillis also had the misfortune to be able to assist women in child-birth and she was ‘cursed with the ability to cure the ill’ by knowing which herbs and plants could be used to alleviate certain ailments. At the top of the Royal Mile, on Castlehill, there is a so called Witches’ Well which stands just opposite the site where women were once hanged for witchcraft. The well was commissioned by Patrick Geddes (1854- 1932) in 1894 and the artist John Duncan (1866-1945) was urged to produce a cast iron fountain to honour the people who were burned or hanged between the 15th and 18th centuries. During the 16th century more women were murdered at this site than anywhere else in Scotland.
Creating a fearful panic in society can aid the entrenchment of power and the witchcraft frenzy could also be used to settle old scores, enrich individuals at the expense of others and keep women subordinate to men. While men were also outed as sorcerers or magicians and burned and hanged, over 80% of those said to be in league with the Devil were women – more generally peasant women – and that was true throughout Europe of this period.
Iris speaks for Geillis and her outrage at the treatment being meted out to her sister, and she speaks to us with a contemporary voice. She is appalled at how people accepted this. She tries to analyse it by saying that although many must have known that Geillis was innocent ‘they want to believe the people in charge know what they are doing.’ This, for them, is a greater need. It brings to mind £350 million a week for the NHS painted on the side of a bus.
What price solidarity?
Iris also says that, ‘Silence is complicity. Non-action is a form of approval.’ Brecht would certainly agree with her but so too would Edmund Burke (1729-1797) when he said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ The past that Fagan has so wonderfully evoked for us begs much the same questions of us all today. Will white people, realising that we are all one, stand shoulder to shoulder with Black Lives Matter activists? Will men stand shoulder to shoulder with women in supporting their demands for the murdering of their sisters to stop? Will Christians and non-Christians support Moslems from being scapegoated? Will we indigenous people stand firm against the scapegoating of immigrants? And will those of us who live comfortably come to the support of those being thrown deeper and deeper into poverty?
All questions like these ones – and more – are implied by Iris’ statement. Fagan raises many issues in Hex. She makes us think about all the injustices that are allowed to thrive and, more importantly, who benefits from those injustices. The witchcraft frenzy kept the churches full and their power was assured by the state-engendered climate that was created. In our world division of people simply ingrains the rich in their plunder for more riches.
Fagan tells us the witchcraft panic was ‘a plague… a thought plague.’ This certainly rings true and, of course, we must be on guard against all such ‘thought plagues’ that exist today. Fagan also speaks of ‘the delusions of others.’ These two comments could not exist without the organisational ability of the state to spread such disinformation and infect the minds of the populace. Every day the leading Tory papers – the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express all have their campaigns against ‘wokery’ (the new witchery?) which has the effect of enabling readers of these papers to ridicule campaigns against racial injustice, climate change, our imperial past and the statuary associated with it, women campaigning against male violence and so much more besides. In other words, all thought and opinion that is not Tory is demonised. This too is a form of ‘thought plague.’
In one of the few studies of the witchcraft mania that spread in Europe, Norman Cohn in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975), argued that the entire period seemed to convulse in a particularly provocative set of delusions. His work examined the fake documents of the time and he showed how a dangerous irrationalism took hold of nations. There were no witches according to him. And we must not forget a similar psychological underpinning for the rise of fascism last century. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946) argued that it was not solely economic and political factors that contributed to the rise of fascism. He also pointed to what he called ‘the collective expression of average human beings, whose primary biological needs have been ruthlessly crushed by an authoritarian and sexually inhibited society.’ Fascism seemed a way out because of its simple appeals but, of course, it led to even greater authoritarianism. The danger for us today is that similarly simple appeals are being made all over again.
In the US the conspiracy theorists of QAnon circulate the view that Washington is the seat of Satan-worshipping paedophiles and millions of Americans believe this. Some 21% of Americans also believe – according to a poll conducted in recent years – that witches are still around and brewing up their fiendish brews. During the 2016 Presidential election Hilary Clinton was demonised, particularly on social media, with images of her in a black hat riding a broom. She was also dubbed The Wicked Witch of the Left ( if only!) and in Australia the first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had protests against her with placards proclaiming, Ditch the Witch.
A revolutionary push towards communalism
Any woman in power seems fair game. Fagan says as much in Hex. Powerful women have simply got above their station and they have to be taught a lesson. This happened to Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn who was said to have three nipples implicating her allegiance with the Devil. Joan of Arc simply had to be a witch by being able to win battles against the English and she was burned at the stake. And if we think of the way our children can also be conditioned to think in this way then consider the tale of Hansel and Gretel or the Slavic tale of Baba Yaga.
Silvia Federici, in books like Caliban and the Witch (2018) and in other works by her, says that the attacks on women as witches came about as feudalism gave way to capitalism. The peasantry of feudal times had to be made to adapt to this new system. Interestingly, Federici argues that the witch hunts occurred around the same time as colonialism and the extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, the beginning of the slave trade and the laws against vagabonds and beggars. Witch- hunting, she says, peaked from 1580-1630 ‘when feudal relations were giving way to economic and political institutions typical of mercantile capitalism.’ Effectively, for Federici, the witch hunts represented ‘class war by other means.’
She also maintained that there was also what she calls ‘an intervening revolutionary push toward communalism.’ Men and women at this time grew their crops together and their homes and their work were much the same. They worked in both. However, under capitalism waged labourers had to work outside the home all the time. This left women to do what work was required in the home themselves. Witch-hunts pushed them into the home and brought into play a form of subjugation. There would be no move to any form of communalism.
And pregnancy and child-birth, once simply considered a natural function, became a job that women did for ‘their husband-bosses’. For Federici, this was essentially now a form of ‘alienated labour’. The realm of women who once were the midwives, abortionists and herbalists who provided contraception were demonised as witches to ‘cement patriarchal power.’ Intelligent women threaten men, powerful women threaten them even more and the female ‘body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged labour… the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance.’
The use of the word ‘resistance’ is crucial here. If women are not free then neither are men, according to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. And since men and women are clearly in relation to one another and women make up half the human race, it should be abundantly obvious that any struggle by women should also be a struggle by men.
Geillis Duncan goes to her death with dignity proclaiming her innocence. Iris says she will ‘place a hex on every man, woman and child who takes pleasure in Geillis’ death.’ The locals of the Old Town, along with civic dignitaries and douce church-going folk all assemble to see Geillis hang. However, Iris has seemed to call forth – a bit like Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) – birds ‘from all over the country to rest on rooftops and lintels and chimneys and windows.’
Edinburgh’s Old Town remains atmospheric to this day but this image of Geillis being hanged at Castlehill with all these birds watching is an incredibly compelling and eerie one. It has been achieved, like in other parts of the book, with a poetic style of writing. In fact Fagan has written a poem for her heroine at the end of the book called A Grey Rose fir Geillis Duncan.
The light of Geillis Duncan shines brightly in this book that is dedicated to her. Geillis is an Everywoman for Everytime. The injustice she suffered is the injustice all women have suffered and still continue to suffer. Their collective problem seems to be what Fagan calls, ‘The purest light’ attracting ‘the most impenetrable darkness.’ And that darkness is not simply down to toxic masculinity, it is also down to a toxic economic and political system that wants more and more from women as mothers, wives, lovers, workers, sex objects and figures to venerate. Men are coaxed into seeking pure Madonnas on the one hand and erotic La Belle Dame sans Merci figures on the other – a difficult business for any woman to achieve and a ludicrous dualism for any man to wish.
Fagan does recognise the ‘good men too’ and they simply have to grow in number so that all people of all nations, all races, all faiths, all men and all women can come to inherit the better world that is ‘Somewhere out there’ in ‘a different time.’ In the struggle ahead to get there the story of Geillis Duncan in Hex can surely be a guide.
A short story collection can, in certain respects, be seen as similar to a poetry collection. If the individual stories, like the individual poems, are well conceived and well written then they can stand alone. However, when they are considered in their entirety it only then becomes apparent what the collection is ultimately saying as a whole.
Gerda Stevenson’s poetry collection Quines (2018, Second Edition 2020) contained poems in tribute to Scottish women and each poem can stand alone. The effect of the collection as a whole, though, revealed the enormous impact Scottish women had made both nationally and internationally. Similarly, her recent short story collection Letting Go (2021) features women from different backgrounds and from different periods. The subtitle of the book is A Timeline of Tales and they begin in the 19th century with Graves, take us on to the Second World War with Bella Day, through recent times and on to the future with Skeleton Wumman. What these tales have in common is the struggle of women through history to affirm themselves.
The title story Letting Go features mum, Lily, and daughter, Jean, having a day out together. They have gone to view Neidpath Castle, once attacked by Cromwell’s troops in the 17th century. Stevenson gives us an intimate portrait of their close relationship. Lily reminisces about her past, growing up in Lancashire. As a young girl her expectations seemed limited to her helping run the family newsagents. Her father worked in the mill and his manner seemed a good bit softer than that of her mother. When Lily started going out with Harry Carter, a conscientious objector, her mum would have nothing to do with her any more. Lily and Harry were married and moved to the Scottish borders.
Lily wonders about her younger sister, Clara, and misses never having been able to talk to her all these years. Lily had adapted well to life in Scotland and loved the sound of Scots words and seemed to immerse herself in the culture of the place. Scotland was home and where her heart was, with Lancashire no more than a sad memory now. Jean, listening to her mum talk of her regrets over her estrangement with Clara, hands her Clara’s death notice. It said that she had worked all her days in the family shop and never married.
Lily drops the letter and Jean wishes to retrieve it but Lily says,’ Let it go… let the river take it.’ What Lily’s action says is leave the past now, let it go. But her resignation also suggests her feeling of regret about the wasted potential of Clara. Family pressure, convention and sense of duty have often held women back. Lily challenged this through an act of rebellion and went on to have a fulfilled life, whereas Clara must have succumbed to family pressure and accepted her lot running the family business.
The theme of letting go is also examined in a few other stories in the collection. In the opening story, Graves, we are taken back to the 19th century. A traveller approaches Sarah as she is working on a wood carving in her local church. The man says he is looking ‘for the man that killed ma mither.’ Sarah has no idea what that may have to do with her and changes the subject. He makes baskets and she says she will have a look at them. She chooses one and pays him with the few coppers she has in her skirt pocket. The man is engaged in seasonal work building a new reservoir and he is camped in the nearby hills. The work he later describes as ‘slave labour’ and the workforce is ‘Irish, maistly, an a hantle o us traivellers.’
The industrial revolution is underway at this time and a massive immigrant workforce from Ireland helped aid this development as a cheap source of labour. Sarah is intrigued by the man and he has aroused feelings in her. She later decides to pay him a visit at his encampment and discovers he is called Duncan. He had been hoping to confront her father, who is the Queen’s surgeon and based in London.
Sarah’s father, the traveller later tells her, had worked for Dr. Knox, the anatomist. As a respectable bourgeois daughter of the gentry, Sarah has been told to say her father is a baronet. She is an innocent party and has no real idea of what working with Dr. Knox would have entailed.
This dread name evokes a ghastly trade in dead bodies – and in murder to obtain them. The names recall the infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare. They would steal bodies from their graves to sell to Dr. Knox who would buy them from between £7 to £10 a corpse, an enormous sum in those days. When the graves had metal bars installed over them, Burke and Hare would murder vulnerable individuals around Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the short story The Body Snatcher (1884) as a result of these events and Dylan Thomas wrote the play The Doctor and the Devils (1953) which presented many of the local people who fell victim to this unscrupulous and barbaric trade. Dr. Knox knew that his corpses were stolen or murdered and justified his anatomical research on the grounds that his scientific work would eventually save millions of lives. Today, there is a military expression that says much the same thing – it is collateral damage.
The great scientific, philosophical, literary and cultural developments that took place in Scotland from the latter half of the 18th century and into the 19th century are known as The Scottish Enlightenment. While this was a period in a ferment of ideas, it was also a period of essentially slave labour at home and quite literally slave labour abroad, and Dr. Knox built up his knowledge through this exploitative and reprehensible trade in murdered bodies. The comment once made by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) that ‘every document of civilisation is also a record of barbarism’ certainly rings true here.
Duncan’s mother had fallen victim to the body snatchers and he had sought revenge but now lets it go. Sarah, a product of apparent bourgeois respectability, realises it is nothing more than bourgeois hypocrisy and she lets that go, and in an act of rebellion and self-definition she goes off with Duncan instead.
Two of the stories – The Grail and A Day Off – share a similar thematic terrain. They both feature characters who have come to live and work in Scotland. In The Grail, the name of a former bookshop and coffee house, Rhona has returned to the place many years later to find that it has gone. It was there she first met Vitale, who once served her coffee. She and Vitale had become an item and she reminisces about their time together.
Rhona had to settle for a Starbucks instead this time round and felt she needed something to eat and spotted a trattoria across the road. Amazingly, all these years later she meets Vitale in there who is now ‘a chubby, middle-aged waiter.’ They talk about their respective pasts and Vitale, who once studied photography and had hoped to go on and be successful in this field, says he became ‘a cliché- an Italian waiter.’ It is clear that Vitale lacks a certain vitality in his life now with his marriage over and he seems deeply unsettled.
He had loved the landscape of Scotland but now, he says, ‘everything’s changing.’ This is now Brexit Britain and he says, ’I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay much longer – I’m not British.’ The great irony is that Vitale has lived two thirds of his life here whereas, Rhona, who was born here has lived a good part of her life abroad studying and working as an illustrator of children’s books.
When Rhona comes back to the trattoria some weeks later she discovers, like The Grail bookshop before, that it has now become The Albion, yet another corporate styled franchise. Vitale has gone, maybe to join his son in Germany.
Stevenson does not use the word ‘Brexit’ here but she shows nonetheless what some of its side-effects have been. Scotland has lost a valuable labour source in the hospitality sector and people who were once valued have been devalued and made to feel unwelcome. In a twist at the end of the story a man is standing up a ladder removing spray-painted letters above The Albion. What is being removed is the word Perfidious. The expression Perfidious Albion has an extremely long history and it has been directed at England and then Great Britain for centuries. Brexit and perfidy are clearly related here.
A Day Off
In A Day Off we are introduced to Anna, a worker from Poland. She is working in a chicken farm and Donald, a student at university, takes a fancy to her. They become friends but Anna has to endure the hostility of the temporary boss, Sheila, who is charge while Hendry, the actual boss, is on holiday. Sheila is merciless in her treatment of Anna yet Anna takes it with her customary politeness. This simply enrages Sheila even more.
The story is set in the run-up to Brexit. Sheila resents Anna and Donald because they have horizons, opportunities beyond the chicken farm where she has to remain. She is the main provider in her household where her son is unemployed, and her husband is in a wheelchair with his ‘benefits cut tae the bone.’ Sadly, Sheila fails to realise that such benefits were not cut by Brussels, but by London and people like Sheila who fell for the xenophobic Brexit message will now find their benefits cut even more and will have to make use of the ever- growing number of foodbanks that have arisen since Brexit.
Anna has had enough and decides to leave but in a wonderful act of rebellion she releases all the chickens before she goes. Like Vitale before her, Anna was to realise ‘We are needed, but not wanted.’ And letting go people like Vitale and Anna was not merely an act of folly, it was an act of perfidy.
Another Italian character appears in the story Bella Day. This story is set during the Second World War at a prisoner of war camp in Robinsisland, West Linton, in the Scottish Borders. Local girl Mary Whyte falls in love with Raffaelo, who is imprisoned there. He has an exotic kind of appeal for Mary and he carves her ‘a bonny wee cross wi rosehips on it.’ He later carves her a boat and his craftsmanship brings to mind the Italian prisoners who left Orkney with a wonderful Chapel they created from scrap they found around them on the seashore.
Mary’s parents do not like having the enemy close at hand and describe the Italian POWs as ‘filthy Catholic foreigners’, confirming both their narrow insularity and their religious bigotry. When Mary tells Raffi that she is pregnant he cries and this is the first time Mary has ever seen a man cry. The reaction of her parents was predictable – ‘It’s no enough ye’re gonnae hae a Fascist bairn – ye’re turnin Catholic on us noo.’
This story has a certain echo of an earlier novel written by Jessie Kesson (1916- 1994). In her novel Another Time, Another Place (1983), a young woman similar to Mary has three Italian POWs billeted in the cottage next to where she stays with her husband, who is a farm worker fifteen years older than her.
Where Mary has a name in Bella Day, the anonymous young woman in Kesson’s novel is often called simply wifie. What Kesson and Stevenson share is the desire for their women to escape the trammels of narrow insularity that holds back both their passions and their need to seek liberation. Both tales end disastrously, however. Raffi left after the war ended. He had wanted to hold on at Robinsisland for as long as he could to wait for Mary to return with their baby. She was sent to a boarding house ‘near Lanark’ to have her child, and by the time she got back, Raffaelo had gone. It turned out that on route home to Italy he stopped to stretch his legs and stood on a land mine somewhere in France. In Kesson’s story the young woman who had an affair with Luigi was blackmailed by him and she then had to face the wrath of her narrow, unforgiving community.
Stevenson’s women crave a passionate intensity of feeling that is both sexual and spiritual. Narrow insularities of church and community make this difficult to achieve. Her women also have to work and do much of the caring in their families and this too holds back their dreams. The expectations placed on women can be too great for them to achieve fulfilment.
The story The Fiver offers the portrait of a harassed mother, wife and daughter in one hectic day seeing to the needs of her daughter, her husband and her mother. Flora has to take her mother to hospital while at the same time she worries about her daughter ‘who, due to an extra chromosome, found it difficult to count.’ She has to get back in time to give her daughter a five pound note before she leaves for college. Her husband, who is losing his memory, seems pretty incapable of helping out and Flora has essentially become his carer.
What is also significant about the area Flora lives in is that the village no longer has a bank, has a dismal bus service and there is no longer any post office either. These are the sorts of cuts we see happening all over the country and, although they can impact on men, they can often have a more adverse effect on women.
While all turns out well in this story, Stevenson tells us in Chromosomes and Chocolate, another story in the collection that looks at the difficulties of a mother bringing up a child with one extra chromosome, that how she copes with all the demands placed upon her is to try and ‘shape the weeks ahead into some form, a structure to hang my anxieties on – a long rail of days like coat hangers.’ Women all over the world will surely recognise and appreciate the truth contained in such an image.
Stevenson’s stories deal with disability but do so without ever mentioning the word. The girl with the extra chromosome could well be a Down’s Syndrome girl, Lily from Letting Go is in a wheelchair, Flora’s husband may have some form of Alzheimer’s, the child born to Mary and Raffaelo was ‘no richt… no enough oxygen wi the cord roond her neck.’ For Mary, though, this seems unimportant as she says, ‘But, ye’re mine.’
For Stevenson all people are as they are and all are special because they are people. This is why she refuses to use medical terms for conditions because she clearly believes that all people are gifts to life. So-called disability is as arbitrary a condition as skin pigmentation – something she explores in the story Colour – and nowhere is this more heroically depicted as in the final story Skeleton Wumman. This story is set in a future where the world of climate change has well and truly come to pass. The skeleton woman was born with her ‘legs frozen at birth’ and she can’t speak either, so narrates the story internally to us. Even although she is dead and swirls along the sea bed, her voice is compelling, loving and tender. Her parents realised that she was of sound mind but found it difficult tending to her needs.
The coastal town she lives in finds itself in a precarious situation with rising sea levels. One of the great ironies – just like today – is that the TV is always showing programmes about nature and telling viewers there was little of it left. Another irony is that when the great waves come and sweep everything away all the cash comes ‘pourin oot the banks wi the flood, waves o gowd and siller.’ What use is money anymore, what use gold and silver in a world that we have allowed to let go? This is the ultimate sense of letting go in this collection. Ecocidal capitalism has always placed profit before people but the irrationality of such a system that it is clearly prepared to sacrifice the planet and all her peoples for more and more profit, shows us the need to hold our leaders to account and demand a world for our children and grandchildren to inherit.
It was fitting that the voice of this last story was a woman’s voice. Women wanted more from the world than its material benefits. They wanted a love that was not only passionate but one that was also nurturing and caring. And women have been prepared to do all they can in additional labour to help this come about. Stevenson’s stories are a Timeline of Women and they possess not only a literary artistry but a campaigning spirit that challenges how the entire world is. She is opposed not only to sexism but to racism, the labelling of people by their disabilities, narrow religious insularity and ecocidal capitalism.
And she manages to convey all this with a relative ease with the language she uses. She flits effortlessly from English into Scots and this is a true gift. Not only that but she also quotes from Gaelic, Italian, Polish and Afrikaans. She loves the shape, the sound and feel of languages and this gives the collection a strong international dimension. All our languages should bring us together, not separate us from one another. Language, after all, is the medium of all our stories.
One final word and it will be on the relationship between men and women. In the story A Botanical Curiosity for Eve, we are told ‘Adam was the gardener and Eve carried the trowel.’ In such a statement lies the unequal relationship between men and women – and this relationship has to change because men will actually be the beneficiaries of such a change as much as women will.
Letting Go is a fine collection of stories that deserve to be widely read. Stevenson has previously shown how good a poet she is and this collection shows how equally good she is at writing prose.
Letting Go is published by Luath Press at £8.99. It is available here.
Jim Aitken analyses the links between philosophical and cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and far right politics, in a wide-ranging, discursive essay. The image above is of the Night of the Long Batons (29 July 1966), when the federal police physically purged politically incorrect academics who opposed the right-wing military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–1970) in Argentina from five faculties of the University of Buenos Aires
The postmodernists would detest a title such as this one. They claim to be opposed to elites – who are seen as somehow remotely intellectual – while at the same time claiming a relativism in all artistic production which could rank the novels, say, of Nadine Dorries alongside the work of Dostoevsky. In all things, it seems, there is this relativism that seeks to bridge gaps between so called high and popular art forms and between thought and opinion; between all forms of discourse, even when there is very little of it about.
The deconstructiveness of their thought is also highly sceptical. While a healthy scepticism is certainly agreeable before making judgements and decisions, to continually vacillate is to create a vacuum which can be so easily filled by unwelcome forces. Today, these forces are the forces of the far right, both within the Tory Party and outside of it. And these forces are in power, or fighting for power, across Europe and the rest of the world.
Amazingly, these trenchant forces all claim they are challenging the elites that are holding back their bizarre vision of progress. These elites, they maintain, reside in universities, in the civil service (called ‘The Blob’ in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail), on the left (as always), in the scientific community, in literary, artistic and media circles, among academics and so-called experts, and in the actual vacuum that is social media. In America they are called liberal elites while here in the UK all opposition is derided as mere ‘wokery.’
The grand narrative of capitalism
And this state of affairs can be attributed, in part, to the woolly relativist thinking that says there is no such thing as class when there are billionaires and those living in dire poverty, and where the grand narratives of socialism and communism have been discarded while the other grand narrative of capitalism continues plundering the planet and its peoples.
In a sense the outrage at liberal elites and wokery; at Black Lives Matter and climate protests, and against anything remotely left, whether politically or culturally, shows the deep unease within the actual real elites who continue to run the affairs of state. These elites are the same ruling classes that have always been in power and their shift further to the right actually shows their unease. This is because these ruling classes realise there is a strong reaction against their divisiveness of people on the basis of class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they also realise the enormity of the forces gaining momentum against climate chaos, as well as those appalled at the corruption within the state. Before it was Jews and witchcraft as scapegoats, now it is migrants, Muslims and general wokery.
We have been here before. This classic anti-intellectualism is designed to divide people and blame others rather than the elite caretakers of the chaos that is capitalism. To divert attention, divide and rule. But throughout history there have been those who have consistently challenged how things were and sought radical change.
In the ancient world both Confucius (551-479 BC) and Socrates (469-399 BC) tried to achieve a higher level of good governance for their respective states by simply asking questions. Neither had a dogmatic manner but their aims were both the same – to educate by posing questions that can be enlarged upon and debated. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth of his day and sentenced to death. Confucius never attained any high office of state though some of his former students did and made appeals on his behalf.
Around the time of Socrates there was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. While they did foster critical thinking, some like Protagoras and Hippias used logic simply as a suave exercise in cynical virtuosity to prove things like sin and virtue can be synonymous or that evil can be as desirable as good. Their logic simply led to an earlier form of relativism, negativism and a thorough lack of human values that Socrates believed would ultimately undermine Greek society.
Similarly, today’s anti-woke brigade of continually outraged Conservatives thrive in the absence of any socialist alternative offered. They are the adherents of political postmodernism which claims that class is dead despite Victorian levels of inequality. They applaud what they call good old fashioned common sense and rail – as Gove did during the Brexit campaign – against experts. This attitude took on deeply disturbing scenes at a Trump rally when he encouraged his audience in shouting ‘Fire Fauci’, the Chief Medical Officer in America, who was calling for measures to be taken against the rising cases of Covid.
History is littered with anti-intellectualism and it is clear that rich and powerful individuals do not wish scrutiny; do not wish to be intellectually or culturally challenged because their rule would be in jeopardy. However, the much-used phrase telling truth to power remains suspect for Chomsky. He maintains that the ruling classes are only too well aware of the truth and that they seek simply to conceal it and the people who should be told the truth are the masses oppressed by the rich and powerful.
Ancient Chinese and Roman emperors were constantly ill at ease with scholars and writers. It was said during the Dynasty of Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) that political power was consolidated by suppressing freedom of speech. Books like the Shi Jing (a poetry classic) and the Shujing (a history book from c.6th century BC) were ordered to be burned. Anyone refusing to give up their copies would be executed. The imperial library though still kept copies of such texts which confirms Chomsky’s view.
In imperial Rome too the Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) had his henchmen search houses for books he did not wish to be circulated. The poet Juvenal once said it is better to criticise emperors once they have died.
Rich, powerful, ignorant and stupid
The richest and most powerful capitalist economy on Earth has nurtured a culture of ignorance and stupidity. For decades now the United States has been well down the league table internationally for educational attainment. While Hollywood can show the luxurious living of the wealthy, along with the US media more generally, it seems there is little appetite to focus on the millions in jail, millions more homeless, and tens of millions living in poverty. In this mix could be added the extent of the drug problem, both legally prescribed by Big Pharma and drugs circulated by criminal cartels. There is also the incredible death toll annually caused through the domestic sale of weapons, running at 30,000 per year with some 11,000 deaths from this figure caused through suicide.
There is nothing to feel patriotic about with such figures, and those who would argue such a case would simply be labelled communists or socialists as if the use of those words brings to an end any more discussion. This is effectively saying that social conscience is both ludicrous and dangerous.
The show trials that took place in Soviet Moscow and the McCarthy trials that took place in Washington both revealed a sense of paranoia with alternative ideas. The left-wing ideas that were disseminating in the US would have improved the social conditions of the American masses and the ideas of many of those charged with being enemies of the State in the Soviet Union were highly intelligent and original thinkers. People like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were leading Party figures and their loss robbed the revolution. As for Trotsky’s expulsion and eventual assassination, the international socialist and revolutionary movement would have a permanent split that could only aid the capitalist powers. Murdering opponents is stupid because it holds back progress by instilling fear, which works as a barrier to a better system being developed. Ideas should always have free rein, especially ones that are suspect so that they can be shown to be suspect. Discourse must always be seen as desirable because it can invariably lead to desirable conclusions.
While the bureaucracy of the USSR simply ossified the entire system without the vital intellectual input required in such a historical development, the actively encouraged ignorance in the West has given us Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and others.
A Trump supporter being interviewed by Jordan Klepper replied to his questioning – ‘Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up.’ This kind of response is a fairly commonplace one precisely because it has been cultivated that way. Fox News and GB News both cultivate ignorance through demanding their views are the stuff of common-sense. The shock-Jockery of the hosts fill the airwaves with bile and legitimise draconian legislation like the Borders and Nationality Bill going through Parliament, as well as denying they hold any racist or sexist views.
In fact, most news media have become smiley and friendly forums for entertainment as much as informing viewers about our world. Since Brexit there is even less of a focus on the wider world with the result that even greater insularity prevails. That simply mirrors the media in the USA and fosters a culture of unquestioning acquiescence.
It was Oscar Wilde in his wonderfully satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) who captured exactly the point of not educating the populace. Lady Bracknell tells Earnest:
I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.
Wilde is ridiculing the upper classes that Lady Bracknell is talking about. Exactly the same sense of satire took place in Parisian clubs like the Le Chat Noir around the same time when Aristide Bruant, made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his poster of him with his black cape and red scarf, would poke fun and insult his upper-class clientele. They would similarly be rolling in laughter like Wilde’s audiences. They control everything, after all, so why would they not feel safe?
It was Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) in his The English Constitution (1867) – clearly not the British one since that would include Celts - who seemed to grasp the essence of Conservatism:
The Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential connection.
Psychologists would call such characteristics arrested development. To this day when Conservatives are ever challenged they claim their opponents are being political as if to imply that they are somehow not. It is politically infantile but when they find themselves in serious trouble in their Parliaments there is always the reserve teams on hand to help them out. They are the patriotic demagogues like Trump, clowns like Berlusconi and Johnson, the military and emerging Fascist parties.
It was the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the father figure of Fascism, who was responsible for a solution to guarantee capital’s security. Like Marx, he was much influenced by Hegel but arrived at totally different conclusions. He was proud to be called by Mussolini ‘the philosopher of Fascism’ and went on to co-write with Il Duce The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) as well as serving as Minister for Education in his Government and becoming a member of the powerful Fascist Grand Council.
For Gentile the idealism of Hegel had to have action and Gentile went on to develop his own brand of thought which he called actual idealism. One of his key texts gives a clear indication by its title what he was on about –Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1912). In order to move away from class conflict, from both liberalism and Marxism, Gentile offered up corporatism as his solution whereby there would be the collective management of the economy by employers, workers and state officials. Corporate groups would organise society through its various areas such as agriculture, military, business, science and so on. The already rich would be perfectly secure and the workers would be firmly in their place. Today’s giant corporation Amazon comes immediately to mind in this regard and its model would be applauded by Gentile.
Fascist dictatorships are the most stupid ones of all. The horror and the evil of Auschwitz was also absolutely insane. During the Spanish Civil War the Franquist General Astray confronted the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at the University of Salamanca with cries of Muera la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte! (Death to the intelligentsia! Long live death!) And during a burning of left-wing books in General Pinochet’s Chile, soldiers burned a book on Cubism believing it had something to do with Castro’s Cuba.
It was the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who wrote Fahrenheit 451(1953) and this novel came out of the McCarthy witch-hunt trials that also threatened to – and did – burn books. As an emerging writer this alarmed him. It has an Orwellian feel to it in that firemen exist not to put fires out but to start them. If books are found to be in anyone’s home then the fire brigade is on its way to burn them. The central character Montag becomes disillusioned with his job and goes over to the other side where a small group of book lovers seek to protect all literature for future generations. Though Bradbury was conservative himself, he was appalled by the anti-intellectualism of his nation and went on to say how he believed the emergence of the mass media was hampering reading and an interest in books.
As well as making sure education has little impact, the ruling classes also manage to trivialise what is genuinely important – like our social conditions, wages, prices, housing, alternative progressive politics - and make popular the vacuous cult of celebrity. Again, Wilde stated in an interview for the St. James Gazette concerning his play, that:
(The Importance of Being Earnest) is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.
This comment sums up much of the TV we watch and it is clearly designed that way. And it has been going on for an exceedingly long time. TV and radio hosts are adept at talking trivia and it was pointed out by Epictetus (c 56- c 135 AD):
When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.
Bombarded by trivia and with a clear control over any opposing ideas, so-called democracy seems a safe haven for capital to flourish. For another science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) this was the anti-intellectual basis of democracy:
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.
Such a statement is all too near today’s political and cultural malaise. Of course, the concept of truth itself is suspect for the postmodernists which merely enables more and more exploitation of various kinds – through the mass media, through attacks on trade unions, climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women campaigning against domestic violence – to take place.
Ruling classes have a fear and loathing of history. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary and Brexit Minister, recently lauded our wonderful nation as the greatest on earth and told her audience that all nations have warts in their pasts and that dwelling on the past is not what matters but creating a brighter future is what truly matters.
Harold Wilson, twice a Labour Prime Minister, was considered by his politics tutor at Oxford to be the finest student he had ever had. He received a triple first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and became the youngest Oxford don of the century at age 21. Before becoming MP for Ormskirk he had previously been a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College. With such a brilliant academic pedigree it seems incredible that he would boast that he had never read Marx’s Das Kapital.
Francis Wheen tells us in Marx’s Das Kapital (2006) that Wilson claimed to have got as far as page two ‘and that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt two sentences of main text and a page of footnotes were too much.’ Any cursory look at the opening pages of this text would show that there are indeed footnotes in the opening pages, but none more than a few sentences. Such a comment is a clear case of anti-intellectualism.
Before the English socialist Henry Hyndman actually acknowledged his debt to Marx and his text, he had initially told Marx that he did not wish to mention him by name in his England for All (1881) – presumably, like Bagehot before him, using England to mean Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well – he told Marx he could not do so because the English ‘had a horror of socialism’ and ‘a dread of being taught by a foreigner.’ Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Build Back Better are founded upon such xenophobic nonsense.
Marx’s book was never published in England during his lifetime. Activists, writers and academics had to rely on French and German editions until it was eventually published. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw found the book a marvellous read, having read the French edition in the British Library where much of Marx’s research had been done. For Shaw the book ‘revealed capitalism in all its atrocity’ and his passion for the text never dimmed. Not so Shaw’s fellow Fabian, HG Wells, who dismissed Marx as ‘a stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist.’
Yet, what took place was an enormous flowering of thought that came from Marx’s ideas. Of particular significance is also Marx’sEconomic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which only appeared in English in 1959, having first been published in German in Moscow, 1932. These papers are also known as the Paris Manuscripts because the text was written there when the youthful Marx was a Left-Hegelian.
Refining Hegel’s concept of estrangement or alienation, Marx showed how such a concept has its origin in the exploitative economic system of capitalism. He also made clear the fateful consequences in the social formation of human individuals, and therefore in society as a whole.
Philosophers and writers found this a fertile analysis ripe for development. The notion of being alienated within society came to be explored in literature, literary theory, cultural theory, art, psychoanalysis, social sciences and in philosophy.
The existentialist philosophers, particularly in France, fused Marx’s ideas into their texts. Chief among them was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He was much more than just a philosopher, he was also a dramatist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and a political activist. Sartre had read Heidegger and Husserl and their influence is clear in his work. In the 1960s he had said that Marxism was the spirit of the age.
It is sad to see that this flowering of intellectual ideas that took place in France is now a country where the dominant narrative is Islamophobia, with writers and journalist like Michel Houellebecq and Alain Finlielkraut among the most Islamophobic. The demise of France intellectually is traced in The End of the French Intellectual (2016) by Shlomo Sand. The rampant racism there – as here – can be attributed to the imperial past, but also to the thinkers who came after Sartre like the postmodernists.
According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Marx is now no more than a spectre. All we have left of him is Spectres de Marx (1991) which claims to be a work of mourning. A debt to him had been paid but with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, would anything of Marx remain? The capitalist triumphalism that greeted this collapse found its best expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which came out in 1992. We are all liberal democrats now, he seemed to say, with liberal democracy the settled will of all people.
Only contemporary capitalism is becoming less liberal with attacks on wages, living standards, Muslims and migrants along with vapid anger directed at liberal elites – a group that had no mention whatsoever in Fukuyama’s book. And furthermore, just as Marx and his followers had claimed that capitalism, in its ravenous desire to seek more and more profit, would tumble under the weight of its own contradictions, this very system is seemingly prepared to ignore the warnings of climate catastrophe that awaits humanity unless we change tack. This is the logic, sadly, of where we are.
There is a wonderful capricho (‘whim’ in English) etching by Goya (1746-1828) of a man who has fallen asleep at his writing desk. Unknown to the man, various owls and bats fly above him as he sleeps. Goya called his piece El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). In this etching Goya is reminding us that reason must be ever vigilant so that monsters do not reappear. The collapse of communism never created any peace dividend and never ushered in so-called liberal democracy, and is showing an extremely illiberal tendency with people like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro the clowns now taking over the asylum.
If the system of Capital is all about accumulating more Capital at whatever expense then the monsters are already on the loose. The victory over communism has been simply the opportunity for Capital’s monsters to fly wherever they want and create as much destruction as they can so long as profits are made. They even call it collateral damage.
Yes, we have been asleep. Our reason, our thinking has been defective, if not completely absent. Everything seems to point to our demise except for the groups mentioned earlier – climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women’s groups along with all the community groups up and down the nation trying to keep the poor from sinking further. The challenge is to link all these groups and more to demand a world free from the greed that destroys us so that there can still be a world.
Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1856), in his play The Life of Galileo (1937), explores how truth can be problematic to those in power. They don’t want to face it because it changes their sense of themselves in the world, and therefore changes their relationship to everyone else. They would rather ignore truth completely. When Galileo asks them to look through the telescope and see for themselves the truth of how the cosmos is, they all refuse.
Galileo also says in the play:
Someone who doesn’t know the truth is merely a fool. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a criminal.
But lies and stupidity are still force-fed to us. George Orwell (1903-1950), in his novel 1984, published in 1949, tells us that one of the three mottos supplied to the masses is IGNORANCE IS TRUTH. Ironically, a dumbed down reality TV show called Big Brother takes its title from the anonymous leader of Oceania featured in the novel. The warning Orwell was giving us in this novel simply has to make us question three-word slogans like Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done.
The pernicious anti-intellectualism that permeates contemporary capitalist countries also leads to a frightening level of political illiteracy. Brecht captured this sense particularly well in his era:
The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He then prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational companies.
This pretty much sums up the state of the western, liberal democracies today. Ignorance is desirable for the ruling elites. Marx, studying the capitalism of his day, predicted the growth of such multinational companies. He followed the logic of capitalist competitiveness, accumulation and insatiable greed. It has brought us to where we are today.
Sophistry and postmodernism seem weak tools to deal with this impasse. Terry Eagleton, in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism, published in 1995, castigates it by saying that it ‘does not envision a future for us much different from the present.’ This statement remains a powerful indictment against it. Marx’s famous statement in his Theses on Feuerbach of 1845 said that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world, and if this can be updated for today we may be able to say something like this – that the postmodernists have only deconstructed the world. The point remains to change it.
Scotland’s radical credentials, past and present, are evident throughout the pages of this new anthology, the companion volume to the anthology of radical poetry, A Kist of Thistles, published in 2020. The first part of the anthology contains Memoirs, and the second part contains Flash Fiction with Short Stories.
In the Memoirs section we are introduced to some remarkable women – Màiri Mhòr, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour and Mary Brooksbank – presented by Liz Macrae Shaw, Lesley Orr, Catriona Burness and Kate Armstrong respectively. The radicalism of these women is supplemented by essays on The John Maclean Society by Gerard Cairns, UCS at 50 by David Betteridge, and The Miners’ Strike in Scotland of 1984-85 by William Hershaw.
The Fiction section covers a varied field of themes – from the deaths of asylum seekers by both Andrew O’Hagan and Jean Rafferty, to alcoholism by Carol McKay, sectarianism by Brian Hamill and Peter Bennett, British imperial rule in India by Leela Soma, and women’s liberation in Gerda Stevenson’s memorable Cat Wumman.
A diverse and talented group of writers, academics and activists have contributed to this unique anthology of radical prose. It exudes a sense of concern for all, especially those who have struggled to make our world a better place, and it gives voice to a lively, engaged radicalism that suggests Scotland is indeed ‘a fascinating country to be living in at this moment’. Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift expresses and celebrates this mood.
There will be a launch and readings from the book on Saturday 16th October at 7pm, here is the link.....
Jim Aitken describes how so much of popular culture reflects and legitimises the values of the Tories and the ruling class. Image above: Downton Abbey
There was a palpable sense of euphoria on the BBC during the morning after the night before of the General Election of December 12, 2019. It had a feeling of glee about it; a childish excitement that the un-English dragon of socialism – as represented by Jeremy Corbyn – had well and truly been defeated by the forces of St. George of England. These forces, amazingly, had included many of those who had been reduced to the level of serfdom by the political party they were now supporting. Dragon Jeremy had promised these serfs their rightful inheritance and instead they chose Boris, the court jester. England’s green and pleasant lands could remain forever precariously green – a bit like the serfs themselves.
In a sense the BBC was entitled to this gleefulness because it had helped to orchestrate a campaign that told the serfs of England’s former industrial areas that the court jester needed their seats to Get Brexit Done. Many duly obliged because they too wanted to Get Brexit Done. No-one asked them why they wanted it done and why Europe was so noxious to them. No-one asked them if they thought it was the EU that was responsible for the de-industrialisation of their areas; if the EU was responsible for the austerity they lived under; for the food banks they go to for food or for the zero hours and chronic low pay they receive. No-one asked them if all these adversities were made in the UK or in the EU. For the court jester, however, Europe was foreign and too left-wing with too many regulations for a free-marketeer like him. England did not need to be a vassal state any longer. She could be free from all the regulations that guaranteed the serfs minimal rights, and be great again.
The political media pundits though never spoke much about England at all. They spoke about Britain and the British election and about how the incoming British government would Get Brexit Done. England and Britain are clearly interchangeable words, for them. The reality, however, in this election was that of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, an enormous 345 were secured in England. Scotland gave them 6 out of 59 and Wales gave them 14 out of 40. Northern Ireland gave them a Remain vote and a nationalist majority. The overwhelming mandate for Brexit came overwhelmingly from England as a result of the English nationalist genie that had been released from the Brexit bottle. What has to be examined is how this huge English mandate has come about.
Yes, of course, the TV channels and newspapers will support any form of Conservatism including the cabal currently associated with Johnson’s extreme right-wing coup leading his Party. It doesn’t matter how far right this Party goes because – so we are repeatedly informed – the Conservative Party is the natural party of government. Any cursory look at the record of who has been in power down the last 120 years will confirm this. What has to be considered is why this is the case and how has it been achieved.
The latest sensation on Netfix is called The Crown and it traces the reign of the current monarch, Elizabeth. This series may soon have to compete with Andrew Marr’s new series Elizabethans telling the people of the UK how lucky they have been to be subjects of such an outstanding monarch. His book of the same name follows fairly fast from his The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth 2nd and her People which came out in 2012. TV schedules and daily news items abound about the monarchy. It is a bit like the logic of advertising whereby consumers will invariably buy what is most known to them. The more you are harangued the weaker your defence can become. Monarchy is certainly a product that is force-fed to the British people.
There are countless films and TV programmes dedicated to monarchs past and present. Some recent ones dealing with Queen Victoria, once Empress of India, include Young Victoria, Her Majesty Mrs Brown, Victoria and Abdul and Victoria. There has also been films further back on The Madness of George111, The King’s Speech (George V1), The Favourite (Queen Anne), Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age ( Elizabeth1), Henry V as well as The Queen about the current monarch. This is by no means an exhaustive list but these films do come immediately to mind. There has also been a rather morbid fascination in film with Henry VIII, the monster who gave England her first Brexit by breaking with Rome. Keith Michel played the tyrant in The Six Wives of Henry V111 as far back as 1970 but there has also been A Man for all Seasons (1966 &1988), Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl and several historical novels by Hilary Mantel which focus largely on the character Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Machiavellian fixer, in Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (202
Just below the level of monarchy we have Winston Churchill portrayed in films like Young Winston (1972), The Gathering Storm (2002), Into the Storm (2008), Churchill (2017) and Darkest Hour (2018) to name only a few. There have been countless biographies also written about him including one by Johnson in 2014. And like the monarch he turns up all the time in other TV programmes. The greatest offenders are programmes like Antiques Roadshow and Flog It. These programmes, while certainly interesting in terms of objects that have been superbly well made by magnificent craftsmen, often throw up pieces of Churchilliana along with the usual items associated with the reign of some monarch.
We are back to the effect of constant advertising again. While it has to be agreed that Churchill played a significant role during the Second World War, it should always be remembered that he was first and foremost a Tory and an imperialist with everything that usually goes along with that. Dundonians to this day continue to tell us that he was run out of Dundee after his comments on their drunkenness became widely known and another seat had to be found for him.
The use of monarchs past and present along with the figure of Churchill continues to be pervasive, permeating the public mind and perpetuating the values of Conservatism. This is how the masses are psychologically programmed to accept ruling class values – through these values being pervasive, through their permeation and perpetuation. In every city in the UK there are streets named after monarchs and aristocrats, hospitals, bridges, theatres, public buildings, coinage and stamps and countless mugs, tea-towels and all the rest
Even the anti-working class soap Eastenders where the characters are aggressive, violent, duplicitous and generally venal – and that’s just the female characters – all meet up in the pub called The Queen Victoria. The action also takes place in Albert Square. Monarchy can seem to be as natural as breathing if it is so pervasively used and being so pervasively used as it is in the UK means that the UK also has one of the most secure ruling classes in the world.
The aristocracy and landed gentry have also been rehabilitated and legitimised by TV. The Antiques Roadshow and Flog It again often either have their programmes set in stately homes or in the spacious grounds of such Palladian pads. The genial presenter Paul Martin will often have a chat with the owner about the wonderful, marvellous history of his house and marvel at how he has managed to keep it looking so spruce for another 500 years. Questions about how his ancestors acquired the wealth to build such palatial residences are seldom asked. Programmes such as these ones enable the success of long running series like Downton Abbey.
And then there’s our armed forces. Sometimes these antique programmes can take place in buildings associated with the navy or in some armed forces museum and the memory of Abu Ghraib and what our soldiers did there can be conveniently forgotten. Dad’s Army has been running continuously since it first came out in 1968. When it did first come out it was funny with the memory of the war not too far distant. By running continuously there is the permeating agenda about how we won the war – which was all down, of course, to Churchill.
It seems that the further right the UK has gone politically, the larger and larger poppies have become. No other European country that took part in either of the two world wars commemorate these conflicts quite like the UK. It is now mandatory to have poppies emblazoned on football shirts from October to November. Football fans will stand quietly to remember the war dead so that the same ruling class can remain in power despite the fact that it was the same ruling classes that got us into such wars in the first place. Those who have died in war should be remembered but remembered in such a way that will prevent wars from happening ever again. With the arms industry the biggest one in Britain with exports around the world, conflicts have become inevitable. None of Her Majesty’s leading subjects standing proudly at the cenotaph wearing their poppies will ever mention this fact.
The poppy is also the ultimate item associated with charity, something the ruling classes worship because they lack any sense of generosity. Sales of the poppy are encouraged on TV and radio so that they can help the charities that help our retired and wounded ex-servicemen and women. Charity does not seem to have filtered down to many of the ex-soldiers currently begging on our streets who all went off to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as heroes and are now forgotten.
With Vera Lynn dead, the way the craven media has embraced Captain Tom Moore is quite incredible. Here we had a 99 year old ex-serviceman walking in his garden to raise a charitable donation to give to the NHS. While that is laudable given that the NHS has been underfunded by the Tories for the last ten years and the Covid crisis places huge demands on its services and staff, old Tom Moore did his walking dressed with all his military medals on his blazer. That was a moment the media loved because it played beautifully into the paradigm of our wonderful armed forces and charity at the same time.
The brutal British Empire
Captain Tom, just like Vera Lynn before him, was knighted for his services to charity. He became Sir as she became Dame. While citizens who have achieved great things and contributed to the welfare of others should be recognised by the state, the honours system in Britain does something else entirely. By calling people Sir or Dame or Lord or Baroness the British state separates people from others. To be in possession of an OBE, MBE or CBE is to be a recipient of the Order, Member and Commander of the British Empire. Such titles which Robert Burns derided as mere tinsel show, are seen as being the very epitome of respectability despite the fact that the words ‘British Empire’ refer to something that no longer exists and was brutal in the extreme when it was around.
Charity has become pervasive and its operation permeates minds just as monarchy does. The word comes from the Latin caritas meaning love and compassion. The word is also one of the seven Christian virtues but much of its practice is associated with the already rich becoming recognised and deemed respectable by receiving honours for charitable work. The same people have been silent on inequalities, food banks and zero-hour contracts.
Children in schools are conditioned to believe that social inequalities can effectively be ended by recourse to charity. There are countless charity days in schools to raise funds for various causes throughout the school year and you get to dress up in silly clothes or outfits from Harry Potter for the occasion. Teachers as well get down with the kids by dressing up. There are also the charity evenings on TV for Children in Need and Comic Relief. Here we can all see the latest celebrities doing their bit for charity and viewers are led into the belief that such celebrities are genuinely caring people. Some may well be. However, the fact that many of these celebrities bank their cash in offshore accounts is never raised. And the fact that such offshore accounts are facilitated by those in power who value charity so much is also never questioned. The question why one of the richest countries in the world has to have such recourse to charity is also a silent subject.
TV also seems to encourage tears. Chat show hosts, newsreaders and reporters seem to welcome tears from people who invariably say sorry as they dry their eyes and the interviewer says no, it’s fine. Sometimes this is done by people outside courts or people who have witnessed terrible events or, more generally, people who have come through adversities. Shows of emotion seem to be welcome. This has become particularly true on The Repair Shop, a programme that is a wonderful tribute to the highly skilled craftsmen and women who brilliantly repair objects brought in by members of the public. The programme is also a wonderful antidote to our throwaway society by getting skilled workers to repair a whole assortment of items.
Often when people come to see their items newly restored there will be tears of joy but often this can end up degenerating into sentimentality. And sentimentality is now part of a media dialectic which enjoys shows of sentiment and emotion while failing to adequately expose the actual brutality of the nation’s underlying economic base.
Marx once posited the base and superstructure theory. In this he noted the unequal economic base and how its relations are made manifest in a cultural superstructure which establishes its right to rule. In modern times, this happens through the people being told to believe in all the wrong things such as to love monarchy, Churchill, honours, widespread charity and shows of sentimentality. And the actual news programmes now treat viewers as idiots with graphics on screen to help them understand the simplest things. The Covid tier system recently announced by Johnson became a three-tiered wedding cake to help us understand what tier actually meant.
The last thing any capitalist state wishes is for is for its inhabitants to be well-educated. The £9,000 per year fees in England and Wales confirms this. Also the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations is a case in point. When statues of former slave owners were toppled or reactionary figures on plinths daubed with paint, the ruling class was temporarily shaken. But the idea that the Proms should abandon singing the imperialist ditties Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory and God save the Queen because they hark back to the days of slavery and empire was just too much for Johnson who insisted these traditional songs be sung out loud. Sadly, many ordinary people would have agreed with him.
For someone like Gramsci it is what the state and its media arms present to you all the time that gives the ruling class their ability to rule. The word hegemony meant for Gramsci an effective means of domination founded on acceptance. The dominated accept the rules of the social and political game, being convinced that such rules serve them well and form part of some kind of immutable order to which they are a part. The programme The Apprentice: You’re fired! is an example of this.
This gigantic con-trick was in fact leaked by that grand old Victorian reactionary, the writer and journalist Walter Bagehot as far back as 1867 in his English Constitution. There is, of course, no English or British constitution written down anywhere. When Burke extolled its virtues to the republican Tom Paine it was Paine who asked Burke if he could furnish him with a copy so that he might read it for himself. The whole business of government is made up on the hoof. When the masses rebel sometimes they may win, but generally legislation will be brought in to keep them in their place like Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation. At other times when there is serious pressure from below there can be legislation on race relations and sex discrimination. For Bagehot royalty functioned as a disguise. He elaborated further:
It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.
In his customary invective against what the Queen Mother apparently called ‘the lower orders’, Bagehot went on to say that royalty ‘has a comprehensible element for the vacant many’ and in comments like these we can see how the ruling classes hide behind the monarchy, how it is used to keep us as subjects rather than as citizens. Bagehot again puts it so much better when he said ‘it is at the bottom of our people that we have done as well as we have.’
Johnson, Gove and all the clan from the 1922 Committee and the ERG could not have put it better themselves. Yet these people all claim that they are one nation Conservatives. This baloney is supposed to imply that they rule equally for everyone regardless of nation, region or class when their rule actually is designed to cater for the one class across the country who have all the wealth.
They have been using this term ever since it was coined by Disraeli in the 1870s. He used it to counter any expectations from the working classes after their agitation to further extend the franchise. His novel Sybil or the Two Nations came out in 1845 and the two nations of which he speaks are the rich and poor. His one nation term was coined to appeal to the masses that his brand of Conservative paternalism will look after them while not changing the structures and levers of the system that made them poor in the first place. Ironically, in the same year that Sybil was published Engels brought out his devastating critique on the two nations in his The Condition of the Working Class in England which avoided paternalistic solutions completely.
Bagehot described Wales as ‘a corner of England’ while deriding the Scots for their ‘intolerant common sense.’ As for the Irish he said predictably that ‘it is not so much the thing agitated for that they want, as the agitation itself.’ These attitudes are alive in today’s Conservative Party and this is best exemplified in the Internal Markets Bill that is strongly opposed by First Ministers Drakeford in Wales and Sturgeon in Scotland. The Tories were clear that they were taking back control and this Bill will certainly do that by centralising power away from devolved administrations.
Brexit, we were told, was about taking back control but the question of who will be in control after Brexit was never asked. As far as I am aware there will still be a monarchy, an unelected second chamber in the House of Lords and the House of Commons will continue to function as an extension to the debating chamber of Eton, the place that has given us 20 Prime Ministers to date. The Church of England will continue to be established by the state and guarantee that no liberation theology will ever break out. And the Mother of Parliaments will continue to function without any written constitution and continue to make it all up as it goes along. Watch out on TV for repeat viewings of The Dam Busters, Colditz, The Great Escape and more programmes on royalty along with as much dumbed-down reality TV as you can take.
Labour has been in existence for 120 years and her founder Keir Hardie loathed the privilege and hypocrisy associated with royalty. He described himself as an agitator who sought to ‘stir up a divine discontent with wrong.’ These are Labour’s roots and they have been steadfastly ignored even during the time of Corbyn. With Ireland gone, Northern Ireland with a changing demographic that could result in Irish unity, with Wales beginning to assert herself and Scotland with one independence referendum behind her and another looming, it is Labour too that will have to be taken to task for never having challenged the nature of a state that is designed to benefit the Tories. They created it, after all, to suit their needs. Maybe this has been inevitable considering for most of the last 120 years Labour has been happy with the nomenclature of being Her Majesty’s Opposition rather than being a socialist alternative.
Jim Aitken unearths the radical and progressive meanings in Borges' writings
It was his fellow Argentinian writer and, like his mentor, a former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel, who told us in Packing My Library (2018) that Borges, while trapped in Geneva during the Second World War, came across the story of the Golem. Borges was sixteen years old and reading Gustav Mehring’s book The Golem (1915), which totally captivated his mind and helped to form the writer he became.
The story of The Golem has quite a lineage. The word is first mentioned in Psalm 139: ‘Thine eyes did see my golem.’ In the 1st century C.E. it was Rabbi Eliezer who wrote that the golem was ‘an inarticulate lump.’ And in the fourth century C.E. the Babylonian teacher Rava created a creature out of clay and sent it to Rabbi Zera. The Rabbi attempted to speak with it and in anger at its refusal to reply, the Rabbi said ‘return to dust’ whereupon the creature crumbled into a shapeless heap.
Then in 16th century Prague another Rabbi, Rabbi Loew, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the Prague ghetto, divines from his astrological tables that a disaster is imminent. He decides to summon the dead spirit of Astaroth and build a clay figure of a Golem. This is built to serve him in this time of need. However, the creature escapes his master’s control and caused chaos in the ghetto. The Rabbi had then to turn it to dust by removing from its brow the first letter of emet – meaning truth – so that the word now read met meaning death.
The German film-makers Carl Boese and Paul Wegener brought out in 1920 one of the first horror films called Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, how he came into the world) and this film is still popular with the more discerning film buffs around Halloween. In 1957 Borges, along with Margarita Guerroro, published the Book of Imaginary Beings which mentions the Golem and in 1969 Borges travelled to Israel to meet with the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem. The scholar’s surname was used to rhyme with golem in Borges’s poem The Golem, chosen by Borges for inclusion in his Personal Anthology, published by Picador in 1972.
Scholem and Borges discussed issues on art. Borges wondered how a writer could ever achieve his purpose when all he has at his disposal is the imperfect tool of language. He asked the scholar what is created when an artist sets out to create and is the work of art a lasting reality or an imperfect lie. Effectively, he asked Scholem, is the work of art a living Golem or a handful of dust?
The politically liberating power of culture
All of this reads remarkably like one of Borges’ own stories. It is a description of links in a chain that go back through history and tradition and make us – as readers – marvel. And that is what great art should always do. It should create wonder but also apply it with warning. The Golem shows us how periodically the embodied hopes of individuals or the masses themselves can give birth to monsters that create disastrous consequences for us all. Or to put it more plainly we should sometimes be careful what we wish for. Borges had died long before Golem Trump came on the scene but Trump’s arrival, sanctioned by the vested interests of the few and supported by the basest of bases, has most certainly wrought havoc.
While Borges could clearly not make such an analogy, his work allows us as readers to do this because of its relevance regardless of era. His stories take his readers on labyrinthine journeys with no discernible exits that could ordinarily be expected from more conventional fiction. It is in this way that Borges gives his readers a radical extension of reality. While a good story can transport the reader, under Borges’ direction you are transported further still.
It is by radically extending reality through the power of his creative vision that his art has to be seen ultimately in a progressive light. Culture more broadly, and great art forms more particularly, can be seen as a kind of imaginative liberation. And, of course, once the artist has created this leap there is the suggestion at play of a deeper, more material liberation that can be implied. While Borges may have called himself a Conservative in his politics, his art can nonetheless inspire the greatest of all possible worlds.
The Argentine critic Ana María Barrenechea called his method ‘irreality,’making such a pronouncement largely on account of the influence of Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s existentialism, which she detected in his writing. However, though the term ‘irreality’ may certainly have some mileage, Borges worked under many more influences.
In an interview given to Rita Guibert in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1968 Borges was asked the following question:
If an intellectual shuts himself up in an ivory tower, and sometimes even ignores reality, can he contribute to solving the problems of society?
The reply by Borges was both perceptive and illuminating with regard to his own work:
Possibly shutting oneself up in an ivory tower and thinking about other things may be one way of modifying reality. I live in an ivory tower – as you call it – creating a poem or a book, and that can be just as real as anything else. People are generally wrong when they take reality as meaning daily life, and think of the rest as unreal. In the long run, emotions, ideas, and speculations are just as real as everyday events. I believe that all the dreamers and philosophers in the world are having an influence on our present-day life.
The notion of the ivory tower, of course, takes us back to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who lived in a tower in Guyenne in Renaissance France. It was there that he wrote his famous collection of Essais (1580) giving us the first essays that would go on to influence countless writers from Francis Bacon and Shakespeare to Pascal, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, Sartre, Camus and Foucault along with many others.
We want bread and roses, too
What Borges has in common with Montaigne is a scepticism about things. Montaigne had made a medal with the words Que sςay-je? meaning ‘what do I know?’ in Middle French, rendered as Que sais-je? in modern French. However, Montaigne’s scepticism seeks to deal with the human condition in all its multiplicity and complexity whereas Borges’ scepticism was grounded in his conservatism. While his imaginative stories can offer a radical extension to reality, he is not seeking to change actual lived reality in any way except by offering us intellectually illuminating diversions from reality. As the song goes, ‘yes we want bread, and roses too.’ Borges certainly provides roses, but his conservatism means that the bread will always be in short supply if actual reality does not change, with only the conservatives getting the bread since they own all the bakeries.
Not for Borges the Sartrean ‘literature engagée’ that sought to make the artist politically responsible and engaged within society. Not for him the notion of the committed artist except his commitment to his craft. And not for him any Gramscian sense of being an ‘organic intellectual’ on behalf of those desperate for bread. Conservatism has and always will be about seeing that you are well catered for and keeping it that way in order to maintain such privileged status. A case of ‘I’m alright, Jorge.’
Borges did speak out against both Nazism and communism as well as anti-Semitism but seemed to revile Peronism even more. This made him somewhat ambivalent about democracy. The Peronist government punished him for not supporting it by ‘promoting’ him from his position at the Miguel Cané Library to inspector of poultry and rabbits at a market in a suburb of Buenos Aires. He resigned immediately from the position.
The figure of Juan Perón dominated Argentinian politics and Borges detested him. He was a populist politician who was much enamoured by Italian fascism and after the Second World War he enabled former Nazis like Eichmann and Mengele to escape to Argentina along with the Croatian fascist leader of the Ustaše, Ante Pavelić. Argentina also had a sizeable Jewish population - the largest in Latin America - which Perón supported being there. He appointed several Jews to advise him and he was also an early supporter of Israel – the first Latin American nation to recognise Israel. He actually sent his wife Evita to meet with Golda Meir.
While he was outspoken against military dictatorships saying that they fostered oppression, servitude and cruelty, he also said that ‘more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.’ This comment was addressed to the Argentine Society of Letters in 1946 but he seemed somewhat quiet on the General Videla and General Galtieri dictatorships of the 1970s and early 80s. By this time Borges had become internationally renowned and words from him could have embarrassed the junta. He did, however, quite brilliantly quip to Time Magazine in 1983 that he thought the Falklands war was akin to ‘a fight between two bald men over a comb.’ And he did sign petitions and letters condemning the military once it had fallen – but he had also accepted honours from the regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
This shows that conservatives will fall in line with military juntas if their wealth and position seems in any way threatened. This is precisely what military regimes feel empowered to do. For them the problem is always with the left and any plans they may have to redistribute wealth. In our own era the key supporters of Trump and Johnson remain traditional conservatives even if these more populist leaders go along the road of becoming the uglier brands of American and British nationalism respectively.
It draws us from our hovels
Yet the influence of Borges on Latin American literature has been immense. He was one of the first to receive international acclaim for his unique art. As Carlos Fuentes put it in 1973:
The work of Borges is the first to put us in connection, to draw us from our hovels and throw us out into the world, to which it relates us without diminishing us. It gives us reality. For the final meaning of Borges’ prose – without which there would be no modern Spanish-American novel is that it bears witness that Latin America has no language and must create one.
This is telling praise and justified. Borges did put Latin American literature on the map and this was in part achieved by his incorporation of the world into his stories. His work is peppered with references from Chinese philosophy, Jewish and Islamic mysticism and philosophies and literatures from across the world. His realm is incredibly vast. The other part concerns his craft. He manages to make the incredible seem credible, and he achieves this through a style that is relaxed and at ease with his reader. For Borges a story has to be made as plausible as it can be, because if not, the reader’s imagination would surely reject it.
Borges is often credited as being the founder of the so-called school of ‘magical realism.’ While his influence is certainly clear there are other writers who can also be mentioned in this regard. The Mexican writer Juan Rulfo (1917-1986), more generally a short story writer, found acclaim with the novel Pedro Peramo which came out in 1955. The novel describes a man’s search for his unknown father, and it is written in a haunting way as if a recurrent nightmare. Time seems to shift in one state of consciousness after another, in an almost hypnotic flow of dreams, desires and memories, in a world populated by ghosts and dominated by the figure of Pedro Peramo himself. Susan Sontag described the book as ‘one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century world literature’ and one that could not ‘overestimate its impact on literature in Spanish.’ Both Miguel Asturias (1899-1974) and Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) said it was the novel they would have loved to have written themselves.
Asturias and Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) have both had a major impact on the development of the Latin American novel and their association with magical realism. Miguel Angel Asturias was the Guatemalan Nobel laureate who, although he served his nation as foreign ambassador, wrote the trilogy El Senor Presidente (Mr President) which came out in 1946 and is a searing indictment of economic, social and political power and its privileges.
Alejo Carpentier was the living embodiment of internationalism. His father was French and his mother Russian and he was born in Switzerland. They moved to pre-revolutionary Cuba and Carpentier became involved in the Cuban Minority Group which was a forum for discussion on artistic and political matters. The group produced a manifesto which anticipated the revolution and Carpentier was briefly jailed for signing it. After moving to Europe and settling in Venezuela he returned to revolutionary Cuba and was appointed Vice-President of the National Council of Culture and Professor of the History of Culture at the University of Havana. He was also active in the National Campaign against Illiteracy and considered himself proudly Cuban.
The unexpected richness of reality
It was Carpentier who wrote the first major essay on what came to be known as magical realism. Carpentier’s term was lo real maravillosa (marvellous realism) and he wrote ‘On the Marvellous Real in Spanish America’ in 1949. In it he talks of:
an unexpected alteration of reality…an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favoured by the unexpected richness of reality.
Many of these great Latin American novelists had travelled in Europe. After Borges, Asturias and Carpentier came the likes of Fuentes, Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. They were all influenced by European, in particular Spanish literature and thought.. Carpentier was particularly attracted to surrealism and its influence can be seen in his own novels. It has been said that when Márquez was writing his landmark Cien anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967) he ripped up his first draft after reading Carpentier.
Like Asturias’ great trilogy on the abuses of power, Carpentier also explores such themes in Caribbean-set novels like El Reino de Este Mundo (The Kingdom of this World) which came out in 1949 and in El Siglo de las Luces (Explosion in a Cathedral) which was first published in 1962. His novels show much the same literary inventiveness associated with all these writers along with startling imagery and vividly described scenes.
The other aspect that never seems to get too much of a mention when scholars discuss magical realism is the nature of Latin American landscapes. What is real and unreal or surreal can be occasioned by the sun, the shimmering heat, the abundance of colour that abounds in parts of this great continent. Carpentier, in his novel Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) which came out in 1953 introduces us to a composer from New York who goes off to the jungles of Venezuela in search of primitive musical instruments. As his journey takes him to the upper reaches of the Orinoco he becomes overwhelmed by the primordial wonder of the place. His changing levels of consciousness and understanding brought on by the magnificence of the landscape make him question his whole sense of what it is that constitutes civilisation. His American sense of this is certainly challenged and ultimately denounced. One thinks of Gauguin seeking to leave his so-called civilised France behind him as he goes in search of a newer, less contaminated and more natural world in Tahiti.
All of this is important in order to place Borges not as the father of Latin American literature – as some do – but as one parent among others. His importance is clear but it is worth stressing that artists like Asturias and Carpentier were engaged writers with genuine political commitment; they were ‘organic intellectuals’ who used their craft in support of those who could not support themselves.
It is worth looking at a couple of stories by Borges to test some of the claims already made about his work. In The Zahir we are initially told by Borges that ‘in Buenos Aires the Zahir is an ordinary coin worth twenty centavos.’ Long before this, however, towards the end of the 18th century:
the Zahir in Guzerat was a tiger…in Java it was a blind man from the Mosque of Sukarta…in Persia it was an astrolabe which Nadir Shah caused to be sunk to the bottom of the sea …in the Mosque of Córdoba, according to Zotenburg, it was a vein in the marble of one of the twelve hundred pillars.
Such a flight of the imagination is created by the word Zahir. Borges marvels at words. They are scrutinised like a scientist, their etymologies dissected. What happens now is a series of walks around Buenos Aires and by way of various encounters he pays for things with the Zahir and receives change in the Zahir. Now he digresses and expounds philosophically on the nature of money, claims to be obsessed by the Zahir and seeks psychiatric help for his obsession. He then discovers a copy of Julius Barlach’s Urkurden zur Geschichte der Zahirsage (Breslau, 1899) which diagnoses his disease. This rare book now opens up a whole series of ‘fictions’ concerning the disease and leads him to even more obscure sources such as the Asar Nama (Book of Things Unknown) where there is the verse ‘the Zahir is the shadow of the rose, and the rending of the Veil.’
The radical extension of reality
The mention of ‘the rose’ brings to mind that wonderful novel by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980) which was also made into a film starring Sean Connery and released in 1986. In this novel the Franciscan friar William Baskerville is sent to a medieval abbey to solve a deadly mystery. There seems a play on the friar’s surname with a clear nod to the Sherlock Holmes stories.
What is so incredible about this novel is its Borgesian atmosphere. The library is a labyrinth full of learned texts and esoteric manuscripts and the librarian, like Borges, is blind and celibate. The Franciscan librarian is actually called Jorge de Burgos which sounds not too unlike Borges’ own name. Though Eco’s work shows a whole host of influences there are clear affinities in The Name of the Rose with the following three stories by Borges – The Library of Babel, The Secret Miracle and Death and the Compass. The Borgesian atmosphere of Eco’s text can clearly be attributed to them.
Such a digression as this one is in the very nature of Borges’ own method of writing. All of Borges’ stories refer constantly to other books and texts and the reader has no way of knowing if these texts are real or not. That is precisely the point, of course, for Borges. If they seem real or are presented as real then why should they not be taken for real? This is one way he radically extends reality.
At the end of The Zahir Borges suggests in an epiphanous moment that he will:
wear away the Zahir through thinking of it again and again. Perhaps behind the coin I shall find God.
In this ‘fiction’ Borges has managed to transform an everyday, a commonplace object – a coin – into something magically, marvellously real. He has radically extended the reality of an apparently inconsequential thing into something that points to God. It is the word Zahir that has enabled him to do this; it is his love of words that allows this to happen.
In a short piece called Borges and I the writer duels with his public and private personas. The private persona he describes as liking:
Hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee.
This admission concerning ‘etymologies’ lies at the heart of The Zahir and many of his other stories. This ability that Borges has in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary can remind us of Blake’s lines at the start of Auguries of Innocence:
To see a world in a Grain of Sand And Heaven in a wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
While Borges can radically extend reality by magnifying the mundane, it should be recalled that it is the mundane that finds us where we invariably are. A coin can take us in an elevated direction under Borges’ art but a pot can remind us where we really are, as in Beckett’s character Watt (1953):
It remained a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which you could say Pot, pot and be comforted.
Beckett’s art, in many ways as contracted as Borges’s, shows us the existential predicament we find ourselves in whereas Borges, who also knows this, seeks to redirect his reader into fictional flights of the imagination. The key point as far as art is concerned is that both have authenticity and both can offer great insight. For Beckett writing was a compulsion to describe the mess we find ourselves in whereas for Borges, as he says in the Preface to Dr Brodie’s Report:‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream.’
The Zahir has a certain resonance with The Aleph. The former was an actual object whereas the latter is a radiance perceived in a cellar, beneath a staircase:
On the underpart of the stairs I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it spun round; then I realised this was an illusion produced by the dizzying visions contained in it. The Aleph’s diameter might be two or three centimetres, but all cosmic space was within it, actual and undiminished. Everything (a mirror glass for example) was an infinity of things, for I clearly saw everything from every angle of the Universe. I saw the teeming sea, I saw dawn at night, I saw the hordes of America, I saw a silver cobweb in the centre of a black pyramid, I saw a broken labyrinth (in London). I saw endless eyes near to, watching themselves in me as in a mirror, I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me…I felt infinite veneration, infinite compassion.
The Borges who saw this vision was the same Borges who, in The Zahir, took a small coin in his change and simply extended it into another realm of being. Then he had walked the streets of Buenos Aires mourning the death of Teodelina Vilar and now in The Aleph he mourns after Beatriz. Her name reminds us of the lost love Beatrice in Dante’s La Vita Nuova (1294) where the writer sought to incarnate his intellectual vision of the universe.
The Aleph now introduces us to a secondary character, one Carlos Argentino Daneri with a name clearly at play with the name of Dante Alighieri. This character seems to be psychologically related to Borges in that he is the first cousin of the lost Beatriz and is also a librarian and a poet. It is Daneri who discovers The Aleph and it is he who shows it to our narrator, Borges. Like The Zahir earlier, The Aleph becomes something obsessive but in this story it is easily got rid of as a team of demolition men come to knock down the house and the stone in which The Aleph is set will be destroyed. Rather than wishing to fight for the survival of this wondrous radiance set in a stone Borges instead muses that it may in fact have been ‘a false Aleph.’
Our narrator then simply conjures up another Aleph. He manages to do this through his usual device of etymological indulgence with the word Aleph itself. Off the reader goes on another journey as Borges references a wide and varied selection of books which seek to locate the true Aleph. Borges seems at one with the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu who declared, ‘The Name that can be named is not the constant name.’
Just as in the tortuous prose of Beckett, Borges keeps on writing and keeps on inventing. Both writers have searched continuously in their writing after the Golden Fleece of illumination and exit from it, and because the Fleece of ultimate reality and meaning is never found they both have no choice but to keep on writing.
Borges became totally blind by the age of 55. This was a condition he inherited from his father and it is true to say that blindness was responsible for the imagined worlds he created. In Poem of the Gifts he tells us, ‘I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.’ Libraries enable dreams to take place and it is libraries along with dreams, mirrors, labyrinths, fictional writers, philosophers and myths that Borges has constructed his canon. Reading – when he was able to – and later being read to, allowed him to use his marvellous imagination to write his unique stories.
The self-portrait Borges drew after going blind
Even his blindness was something to be incorporated into his realm of possibilities. He said of his blindness in Seven Nights, a series of lectures he gave and published in the year he died, that his blindness 'was not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many – all of them so strange that fate or chance provide.'
Many of Beckett’s characters have illnesses and infirmities and keep on going and there is a similar kind of heroism in the way that Borges kept going. To keep going is to continue the struggle and for him to have often said that he was ‘a Spencerian anarchist’ as well as being a conservative seems somewhat disappointing in such a brave and visionary individual. His Spencerian anarchism sounds a lot like many of today’s Conservatives, who claim that they believe in the individual and not the state. The Janus-headed conservatism of today with its authoritarianism on the one hand and its libertarianism on the other works only to enable those with wealth to enjoy freedom to the full. It is an exclusive ideology and Borges, who read and re-read Cervantes, should have noted the comments of Don Quixote when he said, ‘To change the world is neither a utopia nor an act of madness, it’s simply justice.’
Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius
And that is something that political conservatives simply fail to see. In the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius Borges is at his most indulgent. The story is essentially a piece of science fiction, in that it takes us to a completely different planet called Tlön. Borges has gone on this encyclopaedic journey with his collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares and they discover that the inhabitants of this place believe in a form of subjective idealism that denies the existence of objects and they speak in a language without nouns. The people here also understand a totally different concept of time. Philosophical ideas are turned on their heads in this place and we find that Tlön, through a kind of wish-fulfilment of its inhabitants, has managed to supplant the earlier world of Uqbar and now Tlön is inflicting its alien ideas on planet Earth because our world is becoming idealistic and receptive to such alien ideas.
The backdrop to the story was obviously the Nazism and Stalinism of the 20th century but Borges, like so many conservatives before and after him, seems to possess the same affliction as the Tlönites themselves. He singularly failed to see that it is the idealism of market forces that gives rise to the chaos of our world. Conservatives like to imagine that it is forces on the left who are ideological and that they are not. Conservatives often claim that they are not even political and that to be political you must be on the left. We have all met people and engaged in discussion with them and when a political issue arises out of that discussion they invariably say something like, ’Well, I am not really political myself’ or ‘ I don’t really know very much about politics myself’ thus tacitly admitting to their unquestioning adherence to conservative thought. Borges certainly fell short in this area.
A final word on labyrinths. Queen Pasiphae, in the ancient Greek myth, slept with a bull sent by Zeus and she gave birth to Minotaur, a creature that was half-man and half-bull. King Minos, though deeply embarrassed, did not wish to kill the Minotaur so he hid it in a labyrinth that was constructed by Daedalus at the Minoan Palace of Knossos. It was Theseus who volunteered to kill the Minotaur and the woman he loved, Princess Ariadne, gave him a long thread to take with him so that he could exit the labyrinth if he did manage to kill the Minotaur. He was successful in both killing the monster and in finding love.
The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths, by Nima Abadeh
We are all walking through a labyrinth called life and it constantly poses problems for us. We have often lost our way, but we keep going because we have to. Which direction should we take? Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken is a similar form of this metaphor. We could equally say that politically we need to find a way out of our troubles. Though this was not envisaged by Borges because, as a bourgeois conservative, his troubles were few economically speaking. However, it is an ingenious metaphor to use for his fictions because they take us on mysterious journeys that radically extend reality – and such stories are the welcome roses we all need.
His English collection of his stories was called Labyrinths and came out in 1962. The title was apt when we consider how often labyrinths are used in his work. In the story Ibn-Hakim Al- Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth we are told:
There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.
In Marquez’s novel El General en Su Laberinto (The General in his Labyrinth) the Great Liberator of the South American continent, Simón Bolívar, is facing death. He cuts a lonely, tragic figure as all his amazing triumphs lie in his past. He looks back while hearing news of the opportunist generals and emerging bourgeoisie who seek to carve out for themselves chunks of a continent he had hoped to unite into one great nation. Bolívar, knowing he is dying, dictates his last will and testament and then his doctor insists that he confess and receive the sacraments. Bolívar reportedly said ‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?’
Capitalism is never happy with the past
Right at the independent birth of this continent, its greatest leader Simón Bolívar uses the word labyrinth. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz (1914-1998) also uses the word in his deeply penetrating study of his nation’s psyche in the work called El Labertino de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude 1950, revised 1959). This radically humane and intellectually rich study of his nation concludes along the following lines:
Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the mazes of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.
In this essay Paz is attempting to unravel the internal solitude that seems to inhabit the everyday temperament of his fellow citizens, despite the lively siesta celebrations that may occur. His analysis could apply not just to Mexico but to the entire continent of South America and, indeed, to the rest of the world:
The past has left us as orphans, as it has the rest of the planet, and we must join together in inventing our common future. World history has become everyone’s task, and our own labyrinth is the labyrinth of all mankind.
Capitalism is never happy with the past and seeks to eradicate the historic memory of all peoples so that they can simply enjoy as many commodities as they can buy, such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi along with a bigger and bigger Big Mac. This is the freedom that Capital speaks of and if you cannot buy such commodities you are not a victim, but a loser.
Borges, who admired America, never dealt with the historic pain of his continent nor with the psyche that emerged from conquest, colonialism, national liberation and the neo-colonialism of giant conglomerates who continued the plunder and pillage. That was left to some of the writers already mentioned and also to two seminal works by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) in Canto General (1950) and by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) in Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America 1971).
What Neruda does in poetry Galeano writes in prose. Both works look at this magnificent continent before Columbus and before conquest, then during and after conquest and consider the ongoing exploitation of the lands that make up South America. Borges, while disagreeing with Neruda’s communism, was nonetheless generous enough to admit that Neruda was a better poet than himself and called him a great poet. Márquez went further and in The Fragrance of Guava, 1983 called him ‘the greatest poet of the twentieth century, in any language.’
The veins that Galeano refers to in his title are the veins of gold, silver, cocoa, cotton, rubber, coffee, fruit, sugar, oil, iron, tin, copper and nitrates that guaranteed the riches of the continent went elsewhere. The subtitle to Galeano’s book is Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent and it is that historic memory that writers have to address in order for any radical movement to emerge in the future.
Interestingly, Asturias, Fuentes, Paz and Neruda were all ambassadors in Paris at certain times. Paz had also been ambassador to India and Neruda had spent time as the Chilean ambassador in Burma and Indonesia. They were all international figures of world renown, yet it seems that the customary Eurocentrism seeks to see them simply as Latin American writers, when their influence has been global. The work of Borges has obviously been enormously significant in drawing attention to Latin American literature and along with the ‘magical realist’ writers already mentioned we would have to add Isabel Allende of Chile, Jorge Amado of Brazil, Hanuki Murakami of Japan, Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino of Italy, Toni Morrison of America, and Salman Rushdie of England together with a number of Bengali writers who all show an enormous debt to the magical realist style of writing.
We can also find magical realism in the paintings of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). This is a major achievement for a subjugated continent, and it shows that all life wherever it is lived can be magical and strange, nightmarish and wonderful. In this regard it remains somehow magically real that the greatest export from Cuba is not tobacco but her doctors.
Borges died in Geneva in 1986. His funeral service was an ecumenical one presided over by a Catholic priest in memory of his mother, and a Protestant pastor in memory of his English grandmother. Father Jacquet spoke of a man ‘full of love, who received from the Church the forgiveness of his sins.’ Pastor de Montmollin took as his text St John’s Gospel. He said that no-one can reach that word through his own efforts and in trying becomes lost in a labyrinth. He concluded by saying ‘It is not man who discovers the word, it is the Word that comes to him.’
Jim Aitken reviews a book of radical women’s voices: Quines, by Gerda Stevenson. Accompanying illustrations of textiles are by artists from EDGE: Textile Artists Scotland.
The second edition of Gerda Stevenson’s ‘Quines’ came out with some fanfare as it was launched to coincide with International Women’s Day. The launch at the Central Library in Edinburgh was also accompanied by a unique exhibition in honour of some of the poems in the book by EDGE: Textile Artists Scotland.
The new front cover of this second edition arose out of the Scottish artist Helen Flockhart hearing Gerda read the poem ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’ – a poem in the book – on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour.’ Helen’s painting was part of her own exhibition ‘Linger Awhile’ based on the life of Scotland’s tragic queen in 2018-19. Gerda commended ‘the creative sisterhood’ that came with the launch of the second edition of her poetry collection.
A quine, it should be said, is the Scots word for a girl and it is being used to name all the women featured in the book. The first edition came out in 2018 and was reprinted in 2019. The new second edition of 2020 has four new poems along with a new introduction and is currently being translated into Italian by Laura Maniero with a grant from Publishing Scotland. ‘Quines’ is clearly a major work. It took Stevenson four years of research along with a few chance encounters that had entered her poetic imagination for this book to take shape.
Textile by Moira E. Dickson
The name Frances (Fanny) Wright is certainly one I was not familiar with. She was born in Dundee in 1795 and was very much a product of the Scottish Enlightenment despite that period not being particularly enlightened with regard to women. She was a writer, orator, feminist, abolitionist, champion of the rights of workers, a critic of the banks of her day and a critic of religious institutions. She spoke openly of the pleasures of sexual passion while also seeing marriage as a form of bondage, and campaigned for divorce, for birth control and for property rights for married women. She was also the first woman to edit a newspaper, ‘The Free Enquirer’.
She had gone to America and became hugely respected by Walt Whitman who said ‘she was a brilliant woman…who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good – public good, private good.’ She had also been admired by Mary Shelley and they were close friends. Mary Shelley had died before Fanny Wright and this enabled Stevenson to call her poem ‘Fanny Wright Meditates on Mary Shelley’s Death.’
As she laments her death she recalls her own life and mentions some of the terms that had been labelled against her – she was ‘The Red Harlot of Liberty’ and ‘The High Priestess of Infidelity.’ In her sadness for Mary she reflects on their achievements:
Those I’ve loved are gone, and now you too, who held your mother’s torch, the flame that grew with every step we took to forge a world pledged to the common good…
These touching lines show the debt that women of this era had to the ‘torch’ that was Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley. Her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ appeared in 1792, where Wollstonecraft sought to apply the egalitarian principles of the American and French revolutions to women.
Though the backwoodsman Walpole called her ‘a hyena in petticoats’ many modern feminists have returned to her hugely significant work for inspiration.
Stevenson had first come across Wright in Barbara Taylor’s ‘Eve and the New Jerusalem’ (1983) and in Celia Eckhardt Morris’s biography ‘Fanny Wright: Rebel in America’ (1984). While performing in New York in 2012 Stevenson visited the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site at Long Island. On entering the building the first thing she noticed was a portrait of Fanny Wright placed between portraits of Whitman’s parents.
A year later, while working in Shetland, she had gone to Lerwick’s Shetland Museum and saw the reconstructed head of a young woman. There were, she says, ‘five thousand years between us’ in her Prologue poem ‘Reconstructed Head of a Young Woman.’ She begins to imagine what this young woman’s life had been like, as she observed the hair that ‘falls like mine,’ the ‘salt-washed cheeks’ and her ‘fearless gaze of hope.’ By the time Gerda had landed back on the Scottish mainland she had written the poem of her encounter with the young Shetlandic woman.
Scotland's Forgotten Women
We are often what we were before. The young woman in Lerwick Museum and all young women today hold much in common. They have shared hopes and dreams and know acutely what it means to be a woman. Like Fanny Wright the young woman with the reconstructed head had been forgotten about, relegated from history, their existences marginalised.
The encounter through a pane of glass in a museum has much in common with Seamus Heaney’s discovery of P.V. Glob’s ‘The Bog People,’ first published in English in 1969. In this book Heaney discovered that the bodies that had been preserved in the bogs of Jutland and elsewhere in northern Europe gave him a much-needed metaphor to compare what was happening in Northern Ireland during the so-called Troubles.
Ritualised murders and scapegoating had taken place thousands of years ago and this enabled Heaney to relate this to the sectarian and community conflicts being waged in Northern Ireland, as the peaceful civil rights demonstrations began to be attacked and then descended into violence. Also, by referring to those ancient murders Heaney could allow his poetry – particularly his collection ‘North’ (1975) – to rise above any partiality on his part and to universalize the horrors that were playing out in his own North at the time. Similarly, Stevenson could see the affinity she had with the young woman of Shetland in that, like her, she was female and part of what Simone de Beauvoir labelled ‘The Second Sex’ (1949) in her ground-breaking study of women.
Visits to museums can crystallise ideas but what had to be done first was to do the background work, the reading and research into many of Scotland’s forgotten women. That research took four years and it was ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women’ (2006), reprinted in 2018, which Stevenson has said was ‘an invaluable resource.’
‘Quines’ brings together a diverse array of Scottish women – politicians, queens, a salt seller, a half-hanged woman, scientists, writers and artists, singers, a dancer, a fish-gutter and others. They are all remarkably well studied, vital individuals who, like the young woman of Shetland, had fearless gazes of hope for all women and indeed for all. They also had fearless voices and an innate determination to be heard and seen. While not all men have been able to do this in class-ridden societies throughout history, it has been doubly difficult for women. As James Connolly succinctly put it when he first saw the poor women of Dublin, calling them ‘the slaves of slaves.’
Further back, nearly three thousand years ago, Homer told us in ‘The Odyssey’ that various groups of men had arrived at the home of Odysseus to hear if there was any news of his homecoming. His wife Penelope had been waiting for news herself and she is about to talk to the guests when her son Telemachus tells her –
Go back into your quarters and take up your work, on the loom…speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power of this household.
At the outbreak of the First World War the British Government’s War Office had told Elsie Inglis and her Scottish Women’s Hospitals – ‘Good lady, go home and sit down.’ Clearly, there had been no change in attitude to women since the days of Telemachus. Stevenson gives Elsie her voice back in ‘Elsie Inglis Prepares for her Last Journey’ in a sensitively written poem where Inglis, dying from cancer, considers the impact that she and her comrades of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals have made:
my women, saving lives, proved what’s plain as day: that we are equal daughters, sons, husbands, wives.
A Fearless Gaze of Hope
Mary Beard tells us in ‘Woman and Power’ (2017) that in classical times women were not allowed to talk in public unless they dealt with their own sectional interests or their victimhood. Yet today when women do talk in public they are viciously abused, with women MPs receiving more vitriolic and obscene abuse than their male counterparts. And as for social media the most common comment directed at women is ‘Shut up, you bitch.’ Stevenson knows all this but both she and her book have simply sailed through these rough seas without even getting wet. Her book of Quines rises above such negativity with ‘a fearless gaze of hope’ and optimism.
This poetry collection also features women who were not born in Scotland but came from other countries to live here. Some of her quines, though Scottish by birth, had emigrated from Scotland. What is significant about this is that her only criteria for women being included in ‘Quines’ is that those who were in Scotland and played their part here can be seen as Scottish, as Scottish as they ever wanted to be.
This chimes particularly well with the recent Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. Eligibility to vote in that referendum was based simply on being in Scotland, living there and working there. This, of course, was in sharp contrast to the Brexit Referendum of 2016 that excluded EU citizens living and working in the UK. Gerda’s generosity with all those included in ‘Quines’ seems to mirror the current mood of openness that is being shown to migrant workers in Scotland, as there is the recognition that the economic contribution they make to Scottish society is extremely valuable.
The three languages of Scotland are all represented, with Stevenson showing that she is as skilled in Scots as she is in English. She also uses Gaelic words and phrases in poems where her women have come from that culture or have been referred to by that culture. She takes a chronological approach to all her women placing them in their own times and in so doing she brings the rich tapestry of Scottish history to life with its incursions from Ireland, from Viking lands like Norway and from elsewhere.
Nessie, the Original Sexy Beast
The collection begins with Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, who is indisputably female. Stevenson does not even mention that according to Adomnan, in his life of St Columba, believed to be written between 697 -700, that it was the saint who was supposed to have tamed the monster. Nessie was clearly not for taming as her ‘fearless gaze’ seems to ‘strike terror in your hearts.’ Yet this monster is much more than a figure of fear. Her ‘paps slope with the grace of Jura.’ Gerda uses the Old Norse word ‘paps’ meaning ‘breasts’ and the Paps of Jura were named by Norse settlers to describe the look of the three mountains on that island. This word, it has to be said, has also been used by many a Scottish schoolboy directed at his female class-mates. Gerda, however, reclaims the word for Nessie and then describes her ‘nipples bright as fresh water pearls, sleek hips fit for tender cargo.’ In this description she cleverly creates for us the original sexy beast.
However, her Nessie, though clearly happy in her own skin, also has a mind ‘broad as your kyles.’ She has been around ‘long before the Romans named the Picts.’ She has seen our entire history and will continue to ‘elude your sonar probes and camera clicks.’ Nessie possesses depth and will only reveal herself when we ‘can see beyond the surface.’ This is a playful poem on one level but deeply serious on another.
Textile by Sue Fraser
In ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’ Stevenson informs us in the biographical note between the title and poem – a clever technique she uses throughout the collection – that Mary miscarried twins while imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in 1567. Mary talks in Scots to her last lady-in-waiting, Mary Seton, who is tearful at her Queen losing her crown:
…..och, Mary, Mary Seton, last o ma fower leal ladies, dinna waste yer tears on gien up a bitte gowd an glister, haud ma airm if it helps, but dinna, dinna greet fur this.
These lines are among the most emotionally charged ones in the collection. Mary is saying that a bit of gold and glitter (‘bitte gowd an glister’) is nothing compared to the lives of the twins she lost. Mary offers Seton her arm – ‘haud ma airm’ – rather than Seton offering Mary comfort. The repetition of ‘dinna’ is written as an exhortation that masks the utter desolation she actually feels. These feelings of sadness and loss, however, are not for the loss of her crown but for the ‘twa bairns….twa scraps o heivin.’
Sugar, slavery and exploitation
The poem ‘Demerara’ introduces us to Eliza Junor who was born in Demerara, now modern day Guyana, to Hugh Junor, a slave owner from the Black Isle, and an unknown mother who would have been a slave. Stevenson tries to imagine Eliza in her new land detecting the strange contradiction of where she now finds herself in ’the Black Isle of white people, where I’m glad no cane grows.’
Eliza had won a prize at Fortrose Academy for penmanship and Gerda cleverly uses the words of the ‘dominie’s wife’ (teacher’s wife) telling Eliza about all the other ‘tawny’ types like her who are appearing in Cromarty, Tain and Inverness. The teacher’s wife was pouring tea and when Eliza declines any sugar the wife exclaims: ‘But it’s Demerara…It’ll make you feel at home.’ Declining sugar is perfectly understandable for Eliza since it conjures up the horrors of the slavery that went into its production. Eliza watches ‘the gold beads…melt in the peat-brown pool’ of the cup.
This poem is incredibly important, because it deals with Scotland’s role in the slave trade. It is only in the last fifteen years that any serious academic research has gone into the role played by Scots in that ghastly trade. In one of Walter Scott’s novels, ‘Rob Roy’ (1817), there is a passage that shows how there was a refusal to adequately admit to that role:
When the cloth was removed, Mr Jarvie compounded with his own hands a very small bowl of brandy-punch, the first which I had ever the fortune to see. ‘The limes,’ he assured us, ‘were from his own little farm yonder-awa’ (indicating the West Indies with a knowing shrug of his shoulders).
What happened ‘yonder awa’ was brutal exploitation, and it should be remembered that Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns had at one time seriously considered becoming ‘a negro driver’ in Jamaica. Stevenson’s poem also mentions several Highland place names – Cromarty, Tain and Inverness – and these places seem at odds with the narrative that Scots have often nurtured about the brutality they suffered during the Highland Clearances when houses were burned and people forced to emigrate in large numbers to make way for the more profitable sheep that came with Union. While that episode can never be ignored, these place names in the poem show that many Scots, as well as being oppressed, were in fact oppressors themselves.
In ‘Reconsidering Scotland’s Slavery Past’ (2015) Tom Devine brought together various academics to seriously look at Scotland’s role in the slave trade associated with the Caribbean. Scots had been numerous in Demerara. The slaves, it was said, called prawns ‘Scotsmen’ not because their skin turned pink in the sun but because they all stuck together. Herring caught in the North Sea had been mixed with oats to provide meals for the slaves, and the canvas clothes they wore had also been manufactured in Scotland and sent out to Demerara. Slavery had a massive economic impact beyond institutionalising free labour.
This is uncomfortable history but it is a history that has to be told. David Hayman brought out the TV programmes ‘Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame’ for BBC Scotland in 2018 and these programmes explored those uncomfortable truths particularly well. However, that was what Union was all about. Union with England was an imperial construct whereby Scotland gained access to England’s ‘overseas markets.’ – its colonies. Along with imperialism abroad there was the spin-off from industry at home as goods from those markets came back here to be manufactured.
The arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes summed it up quite aptly when he said: ‘To avoid civil war at home, we must become imperialists abroad.’ He recognised the class divide and saw in Empire, with its crumbs thrown at the working classes, the solution to the maintenance of that divide. Today, however, with empire gone and large-scale industry also gone, the Union is decidedly shaky. All that seems to remain of that imperialist legacy are the awful ditties like ‘Rule Britannia’ (1740) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (1901). The national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ is also part of this imperialist legacy. These songs seek merely to perpetuate the national notions of former greatness.
So it was ludicrous to listen to Rees-Mogg and Widdicombe saying that they wanted Britain to break free from ‘the imperial yoke of the EU’ as if Britain had become enslaved, when it was Britain that had developed and sustained slavery on an industrial scale.
‘Demerara’ has much in common with Hamish Henderson’s famous song ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ (1960). Henderson’s song not only mentions the republican-socialist John MacLean but is in essence an internationalist song that urges Scotland to have nothing more to do with the British imperial construct that plunders abroad. Stevenson’s sympathies are similarly with Eliza Junor who is equally opposed to the imperial plunder abroad that makes her refuse the sugar in her tea. Her quine Eliza, therefore, has much in common with Henderson’s ‘black boy frae yont Nyanga’ in his stirring song.
Helen Crawfurd and liberation theology
John MacLean – who formed Scotland’s first pro-independence party, the Scottish Workers Republican Party in 1923 – and the Edinburgh-born James Connolly are both mentioned in the ‘Quines’ poem ‘Helen Crawfurd’s Memoirs in Seven Chapters.’ Crawfurd was a suffragette, a Red Clydesider, one of the founders of the Women’s Peace Crusade during World War 1 and a founding member of the CPGB. She had been involved in the window-smashing in one of the suffragette direct actions in London, and also planted a bomb in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. She had also sneaked into Moscow to meet Lenin and Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, after the Russian Revolution. She had become the Secretary of the Workers Relief Organisation, working in the Highlands and in Donegal with Constance Markiewicz as well as supplying relief and support to miners during the General Strike of 1926.
Crawfurd married ‘a man of the cloth, threefold my age’ and as a minister’s wife she would have visited the houses of the impoverished parishioners in the Anderston district of Glasgow, and seen the ‘bow-legged bairns’ in those houses suffering from malnourishment. This experience had radicalised her.
Like a number of Stevenson’s ‘Quines’ Crawfurd had been religious, but like them – particularly Mary Slessor in ‘Mary Slessor Takes St Paul to Task’ – she questioned the prevailing theologies and religious orthodoxies of her time. Crawfurd’s reverend husband had preached ‘care’ while Crawfurd said she took:
…St. John to heart: may his truth be known that we must love the brother we have seen as much as God we have not seen, or else we lie.
Crawfurd’s Christ ‘could be militant…he whipped the moneylenders from the temple.’ Like Slessor before her Crawfurd was a liberation theologian before the advent of liberation theology proper in the second half of the 20th century.
Textile by Yvonne Tweedie
Along with Mary Barbour and her army of women who fought the rogue landlords who increased rents while their men were fighting in the hell of the trenches, Crawfurd had joined the working-class women fighting the bailiffs. They would be pelted with bags of flour and with less savoury substances too. These women also joined ‘forces with MacLean’ in opposing the war. The war broke Keir Hardie’s heart, and Crawfurd castigated Christabel Pankhurst for supporting it: ‘Shame on you, I cry.’
Once dubbed ‘Queen of the Mob’, Miss Pankhurst has ‘changed her tune’ as she is:
...enlisting men, pinning their guilt with white feathers stolen from our dove, impressing women to munitions, Britannia’s clarion call stoking Europe’s fire and denying equal pay…
All the indignation of the working-class women in Glasgow and beyond is found in these lines. Women made placards and placed them on their window sills at home looking out to the streets, reading ‘RENT STRIKE WE ARE NOT REMOVING.’ Like most oppressed people who come together in solidarity to fight injustice, these women won their heroic struggle as the Rent Restriction Act of 1915 made it illegal for landlords to increase rents while this war was being fought.
Lift the Have-Nots From Obscurity
Helen Crawfurd and Mary Barbour had on occasion visited the Fife home of young Jennie Lee to meet with her parents. Lee went on to become a Labour MP and created the Open University which, along with the NHS – valiantly dealing with the coronavirus at present – and the welfare state, were among the best and most progressive achievements of the Labour Party.
In ‘I am Jennie Lee’s Open University’ Stevenson imagines that entity itself speaking in praise of its conception. Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ (1895) was one of Lee’s formative books when she was a student because Jude was denied the opportunity to go to university because of his social class. What Lee sought to do with the ‘wee bastard’ that was the White Paper she brought to the Commons was to:
…..lift the have-nots from obscurity by releasing knowledge like caged birds into the open air.
Knowledge has always been power, and without it the powerless remain powerless.
Stevenson uses so many ingenious voices for her poems. If the actual character herself is not doing the speaking it is someone else – a couple of times Stevenson herself – or something associated with that character. It is a challenging task to do all the necessary research for ‘Quines’, and another challenge altogether then to write the actual poems. Stevenson’s method, she has said, is in ‘finding a hook’ with which to write the poem. This is where all the invention with voice, with who speaks, comes in. These are the actual hooks for her poems.
So for example, in ‘At Miss Eardley’s’ it is the street children of Glasgow’s Townhead district who give the poem its collective voice. The children would go into ‘the big room at Miss Eardley’s’ where the artist Joan Eardley would paint. She would paint these children or sometimes she would be ‘drawin us wi sticks o chalk on sandpaper.’
Street Kids, by Joan Eardley, 1949
Eardley is recognised as one of Scotland’s premier artists and the fact that she was born in West Sussex seems totally irrelevant. She lived and worked in Scotland and Scotland has claimed her as her own. Interestingly, in ‘Catterline in Winter’ Stevenson wrote of Eardley’s painting of that name in her first poetry collection ‘If This Were Real’ (2013). In this poem she writes in English of the area Eardley also lived and worked in on the north-east coast of Scotland. Stevenson observes in Eardley’s painting how:
The homes are sledging down the hill in the blind gaze of a pandrop moon.
This is an image in words every bit as good as the actual painting. The artist and the poet are viewing the same scene and seeing it in complementary ways.
One final poem – there are over 60 in the collection – that again shows Stevenson’s creative resourcefulness with voice is ‘The Living Mountain’ as it ‘Addresses a £5 Banknote.’ Less than half an hour’s journey from Catterline, the writer Nan Shepherd was born in Peterculter in 1893. ‘The Living Mountain’ is in fact the Cairngorms where Shepherd would often walk. She wrote of her walks there in ‘The Living Mountain’ in 1941 although the book was not published until 1977. Shepherd had been environmentally aware long before the rest of us were panicked into concern.
The Cairngorms speak to Shepherd as her image now adorns a Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note brought out in her honour. Like Shepherd the mountain loathes litter:
I dislike litter, especially your kind-polymer particles that issue in blizzards from careless markets, slip from pockets, won’t perish in rain or melt with snow.
‘The Living Mountain’ does, however, make an exception in the case of Shepherd because she was:
…the woman who never rushed to my summits, but walked into me, took time to learn my every line – schist, gneiss, granite – and heard my braided voice.
‘Quines’ is a book of voices, a book of radical women’s voices. It is a celebration as much as a tribute to women, achieved by incredible skill and a great deal of hard work.
Gerda Stevenson has brought all her other artistic selves – as singer, songwriter, actor, dramatist, director – to aid her in this collection. The poems all possess an air of theatricality about them, as woman after woman takes to the stage to tell her tale and celebrate her life. ‘Quines’ is a triumph of voice as much as Beckett’s characters keep talking freely because women, denied the chance to speak in public for so long, say whatever they want here. And, of course, they are all well worth listening to and learning from.
Gerda’s language is rich, bold and, at times, playful. Her forms for her poems are inventive – there are haikus and villanelles here – and each poem is thoroughly thought through before it is presented on the page. Her voice demands to be heard, like the voices of the women who have now become part of her. She has much in common with two of these women in particular – Kantha Sari Heirloom and Tessa Ransford – because like them she is also a cultural activist. ‘Quines’ is as much a product of cultural activism as it is the product of an artistic intelligence.
All the women in ‘Quines’ look at us today with their ‘fearless gazes of hope’; their voices demanding better from a world that stupidly thought it could oppress, relegate or distance them from life and from the heady matters of the world. Maya Angelou would have called these ‘Quines’ ‘phenomenal women’ and would have hailed Gerda Stevenson’s achievement too as phenomenal. ‘Quines’ is a radical collection written by the radical poetic intellect that is the bonnie fechter (intrepid fighter) herself, Gerda Stevenson.
Jim Aitken reviews The Sair Road, by Willie Hershaw. The header image and all others in this review are by Les McConnell, the illustrator
Far from creating any ‘gude and godlie’ kingdom in Scotland as a result of the Reformation there in 1560, by the time of Robert Burns (1759-96) Presbyterianism was being openly satirised. Religious hypocrisy was one of Burns’ most constant themes in his poetry. This is no more evident than in ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ where Willie believes that he has become one of the elect by the simple fact of seeing himself chosen by God to be one of the elect. And while he chastises others like Gavin Hamilton because ‘he drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes (cards)’, Willie exonerates himself for lifting ‘a lawless leg’ upon Meg and for having had sex with ‘Leezie’s lass…three times.’ He should be excused for the latter offence on the grounds that he was ‘fou ‘(drunk). Such transgressions Willie sees as utterly without any theological or moral implication for himself but the same man would condemn others fervently for similar transgressions.
The Christian virtue of ‘judge not lest you be judged’ has no reference point in Willie’s religious view. The obsession with the sins of others created the dialectic of the self-righteous and the damned. With so much to be frowned upon it is fair to say that Scottish culture suffered from such a censorious atmosphere. Righteousness, after all, meant always being right.
It is therefore understandable that in James Hogg’s ‘The Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)’ that it would be the Devil that made an appearance. In this incredible novel a fanatically self-righteous Robert Wringhim is encouraged to kill his more rounded and sporty brother, George. The figure of Gil-Martin as Devil incarnate utilises the religious fanaticism of Robert to commit fratricide.
The novel is set in the turbulent times of the 17th century when Scotland was waging religious war both at home and abroad during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Hogg has two narratives in this book, one by an Editor and the other by Robert himself. The Editor is a smug man of the Enlightenment who believes that civilisation and progress are both constant and linear. He looks back on the fanaticism of a previous era with horror, viewing the excesses of such times as primitive and barbaric. What makes this novel so modern is our clear understanding today that such excesses are always with us – when we think of the two World Wars of the 20th century, of the Iraq war, the rise of Daesh, the rise of the far right, national populism and the threat of environmental catastrophe in our short century so far.
Hogg’s masterpiece raises such important notions of duality and without it we would not have had Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ or ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’ by James Robertson.
It was not until 1860 that Christ made his most significant appearance in Scottish culture. It was in a painting by William Dyce (1806-64) of Aberdeen called ‘The Man of Sorrows.’ Dyce was associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and played a part in their early popularity. It was in fact Dyce who introduced Rossetti, Holman Hunt and Millais to John Ruskin and the spirituality in some of Dyce’s painting owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites.
Victorian Britain was a brutal place, with imperialism abroad and servitude at home, and the Pre-Raphaelites sought to go back in time to a more romanticised world, often inspired by the poetry of Shakespeare, Keats and Tennyson. While they did create an artistic renewal and expressed a mission of moral reform revealing piety, they also showed the struggle of purity against corruption. Ruskin particularly approved of their detailed treatment of nature. However, their canvases largely featured much earlier historical eras, while the social reality around them was ghastly. In this they were not entirely different to Prince Charles, with his horror of so much of modern architecture, or to John Major and his reverie for an England where you came out from Evensong and headed for a warm beer on the village green, watching cricket.
What made Dyce’s painting so memorable – at least for Scots – was that the figure of Christ was sitting on a Scottish Highland hillside. Dyce, of course, would have been intimate with such locations himself and that is probably why he chose such a setting. However, the implication of such a setting was considerable. There is plenty of space for Christ to contemplate in such a wilderness because a few decades earlier the Highlanders had been cleared from the land to make way for sheep. ‘The Man of Sorrows’ can be seen to be at one with the men and women who were so brutally evicted from their lands. Such an interpretation –possibly unintended by Dyce – would nonetheless be made by many Scots. The sorrows felt by Christ were also the sorrows of those who once lived in this wilderness. Furthermore, the sorrowful Christ of the Highland hillside would clearly have known that the church in Scotland did little to prevent such suffering, by siding instead with the landowners and the gentry.
Though we live in a largely secular era today (though not so secular in the land of Mammon, the USA), the figure of Christ, as expressed in the Gospels, can still inspire. What churches have done – or not done – in his name cannot be attributable to him. He was and remains a radical and a revolutionary figure who sought nothing more than peace, love and sharing based on communal values.
Christ is a communist and God is a miner
Call that rebirth and resurrection if you like. He was on the side of the poor, the victimised, the marginalised and the oppressed. His ministry was itself ‘good news for the poor.’ It is inconceivable in a world where the poor and oppressed are still with us that he cannot be seen as relevant. George Bernard Shaw, in his Preface – a work far more interesting than the play it introduces – to ‘Androcles and the Lion (1916)’ called Christ ‘a communist.’
His story inspired an array of different people and groups as diverse as the Levellers of the 17th century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Keir Hardie, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, along with untold billions over the last two millennia.
Love richt and heeze the ferlous gift o grace!
So for Jesus to turn up in the Fife coalfield of the 20th century seems perfectly in keeping with his historical influence at other times. The versatile William Hershaw, who is not just a poet but also a dramatist, folk musician and Scots language activist, tells us in his introduction to ‘The Sair Road (2018)’ that ‘the Thatcher years ‘were ‘the most significant period’ in his life. At the time of the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 he ‘was a young teacher in Fife’ working not so much at the chalk face but at the coal face, where many of the students he taught would have been the sons and daughters of miners.
The idea behind ‘The Sair Road’ must have formed in an earlier poem he wrote called ‘God the Miner’. The words of this poem are inscribed on a sculpture by David Annand called ‘The Prop’ and installed in 2007 in Lochgelly. It was in fact part of the Lochgelly Regeneration Project brought about after the death of a once proud industry. The words from the poem seem entirely apt because, as God creates, so too does the miner. They are indistinguishable:
God is a miner, For aye is his shift, Heezan his graith he howks in the lift.
Always working (aye is his shift) God lifts (heezan) his tools (graith) and digs (howks) in the sky (lift). In the second verse we read:
God is a miner, Thrang at his work, Stars are the aizles he caws in the mirk.
Here we are told that God is constantly busy (thrang) and that the stars are the sparks (aizles) he strikes (caws) in the dark (mirk). These lines not only offer a poetic response to the work of creation but to work generally because labour can – and should – be afforded dignity because it is labour itself that is the source of all that is created.
The Fife coalfield was ravaged during the Thatcher years and neglected during the years of Blair and Brown. With the death of an industry came the death also of the NUM and, saddest of all, the death of that precious experience of community. From ‘God the Miner’ in 2007 Hershaw must have been howking away inside his poetic imagination to have come up with ‘The Sair Road.’
A Christian is a Socialist or nocht
This collection is also written in Scots, which is fitting because the Fife tongue still uses a great many Scots words and miners would certainly have used many of these words. The miners were a special workforce, and no more so than in the Fife coalfield. While the term ‘Red Clydeside’ is well known, ‘Red Fife’ could easily have challenged Clydeside for radical politics. In 1935 it was the Red Clydesider William Gallacher who became Communist MP for West Fife until 1950. And though our media loves to peddle the idea that to be a Communist you had to have attended Cambridge University and become a spy, the reality was that Cowdenbeath had the largest Communist Party Branch of anywhere in the UK, and members there were almost entirely miners. The socialist credentials of Fife are second to none.
‘The Sair Road’ is structured to parallel the Stations of the Cross. Hershaw, however, has adapted them to form what he calls ‘The Lochgelly Stations.’ There is also an introductory poem before the Stations called ‘Apocrypha 1: Airly Doors’ and after the Station sequence there is ‘Apocrypha 2: Efter Hours’ along with three further poems that seek to sum up not only what has gone before but what could come after.
There is, Hershaw tells us again in his Introduction, ‘no theological consistency or orthodoxy in ‘The Sair Road’ and Jesus the Miner ‘has little time for organised religion.’ In the poem ‘The Lord Lous (loves) a Sinner’ the following lines confirm this sense of an independent mind:
The Kirk needs the pious Tae fill up her pews But the Lord recruits sinners For guid men are few.
The action flits through the 1920s, when there was a lockout of miners in 1921, and moves on to the General Strike of 1926, when there was another lockout after that strike. The miners’ strike of 1984-85 is implied in all the action and invoked cleverly after Jesus the Miner is ‘liftit’ for preaching his gospel of love:
The neist day he was bound tae staund in coort Condemned by the Sanhedrin, Daily Mail, Thatcher and McGregor, the BBC, Chairged wi riot, unlawful assembly, The braggarts feart he micht owercoup their world And like mad dugs settled tae bring him doun.
As he sat in the Gethsemane Plots thinking on his struggle ahead he was told – ‘You’re liftit Trotsky…Judas turned a scab.’ The archetypal name for a rebel – Trotsky – is applied to suggest how dangerous Jesus’ words have been to the status quo. And Judas – just as before – is the archetypal name for a traitor.
The names of the Apostles have a Scots twist to them. Jesus calls them his ‘feirs’ (friends) and they are named as Jamie, Mattie, Si, Wee Jock, Andrae, Tam and Big Pete. They are also his boozing buddies as they often hang out in the local Goth Bar. In no way could Jesus the Miner be set apart from others in this community. His spirituality and conviction may make him seem ‘other’ but he is very much a part of the mining community in all other respects.
Support the striking miners? Never, naa,/I winnae lift a haund, I'll see it faa.
The Lochgelly Stations mirror well the original story, and are also well applied to the mining community Jesus the Miner finds himself in. One good example of this is replacing Pilate with Ramsay MacDonald. He washes his hands of the whole sorrowful business at the end of the General Strike, just as Pilate did in the New Testament. Hershaw uses a particularly descriptive Scots word to suggest how the Labour leader feels about it all – ‘MacDonald girnt.’ Girning in Scots means not just moaning but doing so with lathers of self-pity. In his speech MacDonald ‘girns’ about his lot. He tells Jesus the Miner, ‘Socialism, Labour are juist bit words.’ Though progress is slow, he says, it will come ‘through the ballot box, no blackmail.’
These words could so easily have been spoken by Neil Kinnock when he was leader of the Labour Party during the strike of 1984-5. The South Wales miners dubbed him Ramsay McKinnock for not supporting them. Kinnock, of course, went on to become an unelected EU Commissioner, and he now sits in the unelected House of Lords. The same man complained – as the Tory press of his day told him to – that the miners should have had a ballot, which seems rather ridiculous today as the former son of a miner now sits with what Burns called ‘cuifs’ (fools) clad in ermine, in the House of Lords.
There is one key idea in ‘The Sair Road’ and that comes at Jesus’ trial. He is charged with the ‘wittin (knowledge) that he brocht: A Christian is a Socialist or nocht.’
How can it be that the rich and exploiter class are often the ones who attend church on a regular basis and claim to be Christian? How is it that the hapless Mrs May went to church, when as Home Secretary she made vans run around London with the words ‘Go Home’ printed on their side? These vans were directed at people of colour who had lived here for 50 years. How can she profess her Christianity while apparently holding others in such disfavour? How could she have led a political party of the rich for the rich, while overseeing Victorian levels of inequality and maintain she is a Christian?
The answer, of course, is the same as it has always been – easily. Her Prime Ministerial resignation speech showed how delusional she had been politically – so why should delusion not be part of religious faith either?
The Letter of St. James tells us ‘faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.’ And ‘works’ meant good works like helping the poor and not adding to their number. To be Christian, at least according to its founder, you have to ‘do unto others as you would wish them to do unto you.’ Without active concern for the poor, the victimised and marginalised, your professed faith is rather empty. Burns railed against religious hypocrisy in his day and Hershaw is simply saying the same today. What is different though is that Hershaw’s Jesus himself rails against such rank religious hypocrisy.
When Mrs Thatcher came and addressed the Church of Scotland General Assembly in 1988 she told them, ‘Christianity is about spiritual redemption, not social reform.’ Jesus the Miner would no doubt reply to this ‘you cannot have one without the other.’ Jesus of the New Testament would similarly agree, especially when we recall his words in Matthew 19:24, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.’ It is the multi-millionaires and billionaires who should be afraid because of what they have done and what they continue to do.
This is where Jesus the Miner and Jesus of the New Testament have such a powerful message. Both preach love for all, including your enemies. All will be forgiven and all it takes to be forgiven is a change of heart. This is the essence of the Christian message. This is the great magnanimity of that message; this is the theological simplicity of it all. As with most theories, however, there is often the problem with praxis. Because the rich are so powerful they want to maintain their position of supremacy over others by keeping their riches – and continually adding to them – by keeping others down.
When Jesus the Miner is ‘flung in their jyle’ (jail) he is also scourged by ‘the Polis’. He is ‘punched and kicked’ as ‘Centurions waved tenners in his face.’ They called him ‘commie scum’ and said, ‘This kicking’s juist the stert o mair tae come.’
That kicking of anyone who stands up to the rich has been taking place for a long time now. The early Christians were persecuted for their belief, yet it was their persistence with that belief that ended slavery in the ancient world. The Hebrew word ‘anawim’ describes the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth and it was these people who became the first followers of this new faith. Once an idea takes hold, Lenin said, it can become a material force. That was certainly true of Christianity, and like socialism it has never been properly practised internationally because the rich and powerful have never allowed either to be properly practised.
It has been suggested that when the Emperor Constantine de-criminalised Christianity in 313 and converted to it on his deathbed, and later in 380 when the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, that the faith became compromised. The rich and powerful could use it for their own purposes. After this, of course, the Church split in two between a Catholic west and an Orthodox east, and then during the Reformation there came into being countless new Protestant churches. Jesus the Miner speaks for no church and only speaks for himself and what he says is remarkably like the original Jesus.
Although the original Christian message may have been compromised there have been many followers in all traditions who have stayed true to that message. It was the former Archbishop of Olinda and Recife in north-eastern Brazil, Dom Helder Camara, who famously said, ‘When I give food to the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food they call me a communist.’
There were many priests and theologians in Latin America who developed what was known as liberation theology. Two of the most famous texts were ‘A Theology of Liberation’ (1971) by Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez and ‘Jesus Christ Liberator’ (1972) by Leonardo Boff OFM. Liberation theology was all about bringing ‘good news to the poor’ again, as Jesus had originally intended. Jesus the Miner would surely approve of them.
With the arrival of Pope John Paul II, such theologies and practices were frowned upon. Under the tutelage of Cardinal Ratzinger from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an Instruction went out against the practise of liberation theology called ‘Libertatis Nuntius’ in 1984. This was followed up by a Papal visit to parts of Latin America and a finger-waving Pontiff was shown on the BBC news telling off Boff in Brazil, and the poet-priest Ernesto Cardenal who had joined the first Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The reason this was shown was because this was a Pope fiercely opposed to socialism and maybe this was why the media seemed to warm to him.
After the death of John Paul II the new Pope was Benedict XVI – the former Cardinal Ratzinger. He has since resigned, and it was widely believed that he did so because he could not deal with the corruption inside the Curia, along with all the extensive cover-ups of clerical abuse now being exposed internationally. It has been left to Francis I to deal with this.
Capitalism is the dung of the Devil
Pope Francis would have personally known of liberation priests who were murdered in Argentina by the junta there, for serving the poor. He may well have met Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by El Salvadorean death squads in their fight against leftists in 1980. While Romero was not a liberation theologian, he was on the side of the poor, and he spoke out against their poverty and social injustice. Pope Francis has called capitalism ‘the dung of the Devil.’ He wants bridges rather than walls built between peoples, and wishes migrants fleeing poverty and war to be treated with love and compassion. Jesus the Miner would like the sound of that.
What he may not like the sound of is the new theology that has spread into Latin America from the United States. The gap opened up by Libertatis Nuntius has enabled Protestant Evangelicals proclaiming what is known as ‘prosperity theology’ to make inroads in a continent that was once largely Catholic. Their Christian fundamentalist influence has helped secure the Presidency of Bolsonaro in Brazil.
According to Mary Fitzgerald’s recent article in ‘openDemocracy’ (24 May 2019) over $50 million in ‘dark money’ has come into Europe from American religious conservative groups associated with Trump in the last decade. This money has funded campaigns that are dear to the far right, such as ending LGBTI rights, and ending the reproductive rights of women, as well as securing Europe from ‘Muslim invaders.’
This rhetoric has also railed against EU elites and has led to a fair crop of far-right representation at the recent EU elections. Steve Bannon, in his base at the Certosa di Trissulti monastery – a two hour drive south-east of Rome – has declared that Pope Francis is the enemy because of his mission for the poor and for his support of migrants. Religion has always been disfigured by the rich, powerful and unaccountable, with agendas that use religion for their own self-aggrandising political and economic ends. And any national populist turn in Britain or in Europe as a whole will simply continue that age-old exploitation.
He pushed brillo pads doun Grandi's lungs
In Station 5 of Hershaw’s poem, we hear about the terrible things done to miners and their families by King Coal. We are told he was a ‘spine-snapper, baa (testicle) – squeezer…..bairn-beater…..compensation-refuser..…match-fixer..…inquest-wrangler…..sulfur-choker…..telegram-bringer.’ In a grim reminder of what the miner’s life was like, we are told King Coal ‘pushed brillo pads doun Grandi’s lungs.’ All the horrible respiratory diseases are contained in this image. King Coal ‘mashed up our ambitions intae potted hough…he’d hypnotised us no tae believe in futures.’
These are real sentiments that must have been held by many a miner down the years but what did hold them together was their solidarity with one another. To survive down in the bowels of the earth you needed that solidarity with your fellow workers. It got you through your shift, and when you came up to the surface that solidarity was still there. This solidarity was also supported and strengthened by the National Union of Miners.
In 1973 the NUM paid for a bus of Chilean refugees fleeing from the scourges of Pinochet’s regime, a regime supported by the US to try out the new shock therapy of monetarist economics. The bus travelled from London to Cowdenbeath where the refugees would be housed. Thousands of miles from their homeland, the Chileans saw and heard the pipers playing and marching them to their new homes. Their homes had toys for the children, blankets on their beds and warm coal fires burning as they entered their new houses.
Here was room at the inn, true Christian charity of the most generous: here was international working-class solidarity at its finest. And this charity, this solidarity was delivered by a group of workers who, like the ‘anawim’ of the ancient world, were looked down upon and reviled by the rich for challenging their rule.
Today, this inspiring recollection is all the more sad, because last year in Cowdenbeath where King Coal is now absent, a Boyne ‘celebration’ was held by the Orange Order, addressed by Arlene Foster of the DUP. This event was the antithesis of what this area once represented. The CP within the NUM had successfully challenged the blight of sectarianism that seeks to divide workers. While our environmental consciousness today would not condone coal mining, the great loss of working-class solidarity is still something to be lamented.
The solidarity of all who are oppressed
Unlawfully jailed, victimised and blacklisted it is ‘The Wummen o the Soup Kitchen’ (Station 8) who ‘kept saul and body thegither’ for Jesus the Miner. By mentioning these women Hershaw does not merely conjure up the followers in the Gospel accounts who were women – his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, a former prostitute, being among his most faithful followers – he also helps us to recall the incredible contribution miners’ wives made during the 84-85 strike. Their activism and sacrifice was phenomenal. And just as those with power and wealth seek to divide worker from worker so they also try to do the same between men and women. It is the solidarity of all those who are oppressed that they fear most and that is why they must be divided.
The wummen o the soup kitchen kept saul/And body thegither syne
‘The Wummen o the Soup Kitchen’ were the heroines who had ‘smiles and faith/ And breid (bread) and soup they biggit (built-up) better men.’ Jesus the Miner had sought their help after he was ‘blacklistit fae ilka (every) pit in Fife.’ This was because, after the Great War, he had said in 1921,’This is nae land for heroes comin hame.’ He had told the ‘dochters (daughters) o the coalfield ‘greet nae for me’ (don’t cry for me) but ‘mourn for yersels, and for yer stervan bairns’ (starving children). Here he aligns himself with the poor and this was natural for him because he too is poor and made poor by those in power.
The painful route Christ took walking the Via Doloroso is cleverly paralleled as Jesus the Miner seeks to come to the aid of his fellow miners trapped down in a mine shaft. While he manages to ‘bring thaim tae the surface’ he found there was ‘nae hamewird passage up’ for himself. He writes a last message with a piece of chalk onto a wall of coal, and it is written for ‘wee Jockie.’ He asks him ‘tae tak care o ma Mither’ and ‘to luik out for our dear comrades’ and to ‘screive (write) doun our gospel tale.’
The use of the word ‘comrades’ here is interesting. The word is usually used on the left to suggest not just friendship but a brotherly or sisterly recognition that both parties are engaged in the greatest challenge of all and that is the liberation of mankind. The spiritual struggle and the political one are inexorably linked here as Jesus the Miner writes this word on the wall.
You are fogien. This Setturday nicht, I trow/You'll dance wi your Jean upby in the Goth
By way of re-assuring ‘The Guid Thief o the Lindsay Pit’ (Station 11) that, despite his foolishness in lighting up a ‘sleekit (sly) Woodbine’ that ‘blew aa Kelty up’ and killed and maimed many miners, Jesus tells him, ‘You’ll dance wi your Jean upby in the Goth …this Satturday nicht.’ However, this hope seems dashed as the pit props were made of cheap timber and ‘the ruif (roof) came doun on tap o Jesus back.’
And remarkably, echoing the historical crucifixion of Christ, Jesus the Miner trapped underneath timber, pit props and stones ‘lay there greetan (crying) in the daurk/Whiles bluid and watter skailt (spilled) fae out his side.’ And he said seven words – ‘Oh faither, why has thou forsaken me?’
Many miners have died this way, but Jesus the Miner is clearly no ordinary miner. He represents all miners, he represents the NUM and he represents the broader working class itself. The destruction of this industry, prepared well in advance by Ridley and Thatcher, was designed to smash not just an industry and an irritant union, but to put the working class back in their place. This brutal event has given the ruling class the rotten fruits of foodbanks, zero-hours contracts, non-unionised workplaces, Universal Credit, rising homelessness and a hundred other rotten fruits besides. It could be said that the Crucifixion of Jesus the Miner is in fact the Crucifixion of the working class.
The Inquiry found 'mistakes had been made'......The Pit was closed in 1910.
As Jesus languishes at the bottom of a shaft this becomes his tomb. Station 13 ‘Laid in a Tomb’ is the only poem throughout the sequence that is written in English. The expressive and effusive use of Scots is banished in favour of the colder and more callous use of English that can hide its deeds behind the words it uses. All the governmental buzzwords are here in this short poem – ‘mistakes had been made’……‘further recommendations’……‘future improvements’……‘no individual was deemed to blame for the accident’……‘due to the financial outlay’……‘geological difficulties’……‘too dangerous to reclaim the body.’
Thousands of miners’ wives have read such letters after fatal accidents concerning their husbands. The language used here from the inquiry is the language of power. It is a language that anaesthetises thought for a while, as the bureaucratic register deliberately obfuscates where culpability really lies. It brings to mind Hillsborough, the Bogside and Grenfell.
Blessit are thaim wi a drouth for richt
In ‘The Ballant o the Miner Christ’ (Station 14) Jesus has now become Christ because he has ‘maistered Daith.’ Hershaw tells us here, ‘This tale’s a baur (joke), a comedy.’ There is no need for tears. Instead, because Jesus mastered death ‘Let fowk (folk) get fou (drunk), let aa rejoice.’
In ‘Apocrypha 2: Efter Hours’ it is fitting that Jesus should turn up in the Goth and meet with Tam. Jesus tells him it is ‘Nae miracle – ye hinnae seen a ghaist.’ Cleverly too Hershaw has Jesus tell Tam that he is not in any hereafter but in ‘the here and nou (now).’ And what needs to be done ‘here and nou’ is what should always have been done before – ‘Let our leid (language) aye be love.’ Again, Hershaw has taken us to the essence of the Christian message in all its utter simplicity.
In ‘Spare me nae Beatitudes’ there are two lines that seem to represent what is at the heart of ‘The Sair Road’ – ‘Blessit are thaim wi a drouth (thirst) for richt: They will get unco fou.’ The demand for ‘richt’ is not really a demand for right and certainly not a demand for righteousness but a demand for justice, for social justice.
As a result of the demise of the mining industry and the subsequent attacks on the working class as a whole, former mining areas – like many other de-industrialised areas – are now full of ‘smack-heids’, ‘junkies,’ ‘drunkarts,’ ‘jaikies,’ ‘hameless,’ and ‘gangrels’ (beggars). They have all fallen through the pit shafts of social and personal disintegration.
But this ‘sair road’ that all the casualties have to follow – and because of our existential condition as social beings, we are all casualties – will find justice and redemption one day. Effectively, the resurrection of Jesus the Miner is the hoped-for resurrection of the working classes. They have been, and still are, walking ‘the sair road’ but there is no reason to say that they will keep walking this road. They may see the light and climb the mountain to their eventual redemption. It should be ‘here and nou’ but it will come nonetheless. Many genuine socialists and true Christians believe this.
Or to put it another way it is similar to Antonio Gramsci’s formulation of ‘The pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.’ Beckett’s work illustrates how we all walk the same ‘sair road,’ the same existential road, aimlessly groping our way in the dark. Unlike George Osborne’s ‘we are all in this together’ when he can protect himself with his wealth from life’s adversities, ‘the sair road’ offers no protection for those with money. Along ‘the sair road’ we truly are in this all together. Or as the old adage has it – you can’t take it with you.
In the final poem ‘Isaiah 2:2-6’ there is the hope and the promise of ‘paice for ivirmair’ (peace for evermore) when our guns will be ‘wrocht (turned) intil ploushares.’ This is a fitting conclusion to ‘The Sair Road.’
Love, death, religion and revolution
The collection raises many issues and implications. It was a brave decision by Hershaw to write it and to write it in Scots. The use of Scots actually makes the poem all the more credible because to write on a subject like this in English would be to draw forth issues concerning the words Jesus the Miner uses. Would he have to talk as he does in the Gospels? How would he sound among Fife miners if he spoke English? What kind of accent would he have? The use of Scots makes Jesus the Miner exactly like everyone else. There is no difference in accent and therefore no class division either. Hershaw chose Scots well in ‘The Sair Road.’
If Hershaw’s choice of Scots was a good one then his decision to show that Jesus the Miner ‘has little time for organised religion’ was an even better one. The most obvious point here is that organised religion – especially in the West (though not the USA) is in decline. There is also a widespread revulsion against the growing number of cases coming to light of clerical sexual abuse. This is particularly true of the Catholic Church. By keeping Jesus the Miner away from any notional sense of church involvement, Hershaw avoids any taint of denominational preference or having to defend such a preference.
‘The Sair Road’, however, raises many issues that have had a past debate and continue to be discussed today. It was Dostoyevsky in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (1879-80) who has Ivan Karamazov tell the tale of ‘The Grand Inquisitor’. Christ returned to earth, he says, during the time of the Spanish Inquisition in Seville. The local people recognised him and gather round Seville Cathedral to welcome him. Inquisitors eventually arrest him and Christ is told by the Grand Inquisitor that the church has no need of him today. Christ is to be burned at the stake but during the night before this is to take place, the Grand Inquisitor visits him in his cell. Christ listens to him without speaking himself. The Grand Inquisitor then decides to allow Christ to leave ‘into the dark alleys of the city.’
Christ had been condemned by the Inquisition for giving us all the freedom to walk ‘the sair road’ with all that implies for us. The Church, maintained the Grand Inquisitor, kept everyone happy by taking away their freedom. Jesus the Miner, like all miners and all workers, chooses ‘the sair road’ which ultimately brings resurrection and redemption. And just as the ordinary people in Seville recognised and loved Christ, so too the ordinary miners and their families have taken Jesus the Miner to their hearts.
There is also a well-known sketch by the Irish comedian, Dave Allen, that similarly deals with this conflict between Christ and the Church that claims to carry his message. As reverential music is being played while the Three Wise Men look down upon the baby Jesus in his crib, a rush of fervent Irish nuns appear and take hold of the child saying, ‘Well now, we will just be making sure that he is brought up the right way.’
In one of Terry Eagleton’s recent books ‘Radical Sacrifice’ (2018) we can find something akin to the idea inherent in ‘The Sair Road’. Eagleton’s work over many decades has been inspired by Marxism in his work on literary criticism and cultural theory, yet his Marxism also shows a debt to his earlier Catholicism. Thomas Docherty in his ‘Literature and Capital’ (2018) talks of Eagleton’s ‘quasi- religious turn’ and it could be that such a ‘turn’ maybe only became apparent after the publication of ‘After Theory’ (2003). This study sought to re-invigorate the left by saying that the age of theory is surely over now. In attacking the postmodernists who claimed that the era of what they called ‘meta-narratives’ was over – ie religious systems, philosophical systems and political ones like communism – Eagleton claimed that they made little mention of the most dangerous ‘meta-narrative’ of all that is capitalism.
He argued that it was time to cast aside the empty relativism of the postmodernists and to re-engage with the big issues all over again. He could well have been saying that ‘man does not live by bread alone.’ For him the big issues meant love, evil, death, morality, metaphysics, religion and revolution. Marx, it should be remembered, said something similar – ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.’ Eagleton would support this comment, but would add a caustic comment of his own saying that the postmodernists have not really interpreted very much.
‘Radical Sacrifice’ looks at the role of the ‘scapegoat’ in both primitive and modern societies. Jesus was a scapegoat in his time as were his followers. Creating scapegoats enables the status quo to remain the status quo. The miners in 84-85 were the scapegoats and today it is Muslims and migrants. Both ‘Radical Sacrifice’ and ‘The Sair Road’ seek to re-engage with issues of love, death, religion and revolution.
Similarly, some of the recent work by Marxists who profess their atheism nonetheless offer penetrating insights into the revolutionary potential of early religion. Alain Badiou in 1997 brought out ‘Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism’. Badiou considers St Paul to have been a profoundly original thinker who still has the revolutionary potential to inspire in the 21st century. It should be remembered that Paul was the one who took the message of Christ across the ancient world and helped set up the first Christian communities. He lived an impoverished life himself. He was Christianity’s first theologian if you like.
One of his deepest insights was to say in Galatians 3:28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ Here is the principle of Christian egalitarianism which ended slavery in the ancient world. It did so through love, through the unconditional love of others. Such a principle is not a million miles away from ‘The workers have nothing to lose but their chains. Workers of the world unite.’ That unity is required more now than ever before.
Slavoj Žižek has engaged in recent years in dialogues on faith in ‘The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?’ (2009) with John Milbank and in ‘God in Pain’ (2012) with Boris Gunjevic. Both texts discuss faith in the 21st century and dissect its revolutionary potential. This places ‘The Sair Road’ in extremely good company. The ongoing catastrophe that is capitalism should make us think deeper than ever before. To go forward you must always check the past by digging deeper into it than ever before also.
The sodgers played at pitch and toss, Hey caw through, though doul the daw, Wi Jesus nailed attour the Cross. His love rules aa!
The final word on this remarkable book should go not to Hershaw but to his wonderful illustrator Les McConnell. His drawings do more than illustrate the meanings of the poem, they extend and enhance them, providing a fine accompaniment to the fine ‘The Sair Road.’ His drawings that accompany the text are sensitively rendered and enhance the poem tremendously well. They bring out both the detailed particularity of the scenes depicted, and the more abstract connections being imagined in the poem between Jesus’ revolutionary message and the struggle of the miners and the working class as a whole for economic, political and spiritual liberation – the communist dream of a society where 'love rules aa!'
The Sair Road by William Hershaw, illustrated by Les McConnell, is published by Grace Note Publications, price £20.
Jim Aitken presents an appreciation of the language, politics and class anger of Tom Leonard, and Peter Clive has contributed a poem about him, placed at the end of Jim's essay.
Today we think of literature as providing inexhaustible forms and of language as being incredibly versatile and varied – as multi-layered and as multi-faceted as any other art form. To try and impose any literary prescription today to the novel, to poetry or to drama would not be to incur wrath but nothing more than a passing sense of incredulity and then dismissal. That is how far we have travelled. Yet this was not always the case. Literary prescription had been real and had to be faced down. The revolt came from below, from voices previously considered unworthy at best and as uncouth at their worst.
These new voices though were not actually new – they just hadn’t been widely heard before. They were voices that had always existed but had been marginalised and considered amusing, like in Stanley Baxter’s ‘Parliamo Glasgow.’
It was the inventiveness with form that blew off the dust that had settled on what Tom Leonard called ‘the canon’ of English and Scottish literature. This was the literature deemed worthy by a ruling class that liked to read stories and poems and watch plays that seemed to elevate the status they felt they had. This attitude has not gone away if we consider how works like ‘Downton Abbey’ by Julian Fellowes have managed to resurrect that sense of the classes who knew their place and knew why those with wealth were better than they were. It was not just wealth that divided people though, it was also about the possession of the dominant register, the correct pronunciation, the better diction and therefore the much better accent of mind.
What Tom Leonard sought to do was to extend the range of literature that was available by adding ignored voices and new forms for those voices to be heard. His voice and his accent of mind was rooted in the Glasgow where he was born in 1944. He was also born into the immigrant Irish community that had settled in Glasgow and throughout the Central Belt of Scotland in large numbers after the Famine of the 1840s.
Usually this aspect of Tom’s life is passed over. It is noted but not addressed in any depth, despite the fact that a fifth of Scotland’s population is descended from Irish immigrants. It is in fact Scotland’s largest minority group and the one that has produced the comedians Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle, the writers Arthur Conan Doyle, William McIlvanney and Andrew O’Hagan, the actor Sean Connery, musicians and singers like Gerry Rafferty, Claire Grogan, Maggie Reilly and Eddi Reader, the artist John Byrne and so many more besides.
This immigrant community has also provided countless doctors, lawyers and teachers as well as MSPs and MPs and the country’s leading historian, Tom Devine, who also doubles up as the nation’s foremost public intellectual. However, although there are these undoubted successes there remain a disproportionate number of people from this community who are in jail and who are homeless or living in poverty. This is rarely said.
Tom’s father had come from Dublin to Glasgow in 1916, the year in which James Connolly (from Edinburgh) played the leading role in the Easter Rising in Dublin’s GPO. Being from an Irish Catholic background in a Scotland that had rejected Catholicism nearly 400 years earlier was not an easy place in which to practise that faith. Scotland had adopted a muscular form of Presbyterianism that was fiercely anti-Catholic. It was also under the impression that the Irish Catholics landing in Scotland were somehow racially inferior to themselves, the native Scottish Protestants. Ridiculous as this may seem, given that the Scots came from Ireland in the 6th century and Scotland was a mongrel nation descended from Romans, Vikings and Normans along with Celts like the Picts, Scots and Brythonic Welsh, this view was supported by the Church of Scotland at the time. In a report to their General Assembly in 1923 – for which they have since apologised – they claimed that the Irish were both ‘alien’ and a ‘menace.’
The 1920s and 30s – the era immediately preceding Tom Leonard’s birth – was a time in Glasgow of razor gangs like the Billy Boys of Bridgeton, led by their racist and fascist General Strike strike-breaker Billy Fullerton, the most notorious. The novel ‘No Mean City’ (1935) by MacArthur and Long recalls the brutality of these times. Sadly, to this day fans of Rangers still sing about the Billy Boys ‘up to our knees in Fenian blood’ showing that, although Scotland is largely a secular society today, there remain undercurrents of deep-seated bigotry.
In 1920, co-incidentally the same year in which the CPGB had formed with a large number of recruits from both side of the religious divide, with Arthur McManus being the first Chairman of the party, a Greenock man and former seminarian, the Scottish Protestant League was formed in Glasgow. In Edinburgh, 40 miles along the M8, the Protestant Action Society was formed in 1933. Both these groups stood at council elections and had members elected. The members of these groups along with the Orange Order were the real ‘menace’ to the impecunious Irish immigrants.
The interwar years show a deeply intolerant Scottish society that also had a strong trade union and Labour movement. It was a nation at pains to redefine itself after the First World War and the mass emigration of so many of its people. From 1920-9 some 363,000 Scots left for Canada and the US. In 1923 John MacLean formed the Scottish Workers Republican Party, Scotland’s first pro-independence and pro-republican party. The National Party of Scotland was formed in 1928, and later merged with the Scottish Party (1932), a group of disaffected Tories and Unionists who sought for Scotland to seek dominion status in the empire, in 1934.
This was the political culture Tom’s parents lived through before his birth. Their community had found themselves in what the writer Patrick McGill called ‘the black country with the cold heart.’ It was this immigrant community who would provide the muscle of the industrial revolution. Tom Leonard’s father was a train driver and his mother had worked at the Nobel dynamite factory in Ardeer. He was born into a country still at war overseas, and still at war with itself at home.
Long before Bill Clinton and Tony Blair believed that they had thought up the concept of ’triangulation,’ the Scottish Catholic Church had been practising this ever since the Scottish Education Act of 1918 had granted the Catholic Church control of its own state-funded schools. This form of triangulation was based on the home, the church and the school. This was seen as the solution to the hostile environment they found themselves in.
The Catholic Church was now largely made up of Irish immigrants and their descendants, though there was a Scottish-Italian community and a Polish and Lithuanian community. There were also pockets of Scottish Catholics from areas of the Highlands and Islands the Reformation had failed to reach. Many of these people came south to find work in Glasgow and to this day Glasgow remains the highest Gaelic-speaking area outside of Ireland.
Tom would recall his father saying his prayers in the kitchen before he set off to start his shift. This devotional piety his father had inherited from the influence left by Ireland’s first Cardinal, Cardinal Cullen, who had died in 1878, the same year that saw the Scottish Catholic hierarchy restored. Cullen viewed the Scottish Church as an Irish outpost and sent over Irish priests to administer there. And it was not until the Second Vatican Council of 1965 that the Mass changed from Latin into vernacular tongues, and the priest face his congregation. All this is important to stress because it sets the scene of what it was like to be born into an Irish-Catholic family in 1944. This was their dominant culture and it co-existed alongside a Scottish Protestantism that saw itself as superior to the backward beliefs of the Irish immigrants.
The key literary figure of the years before – and for several decades after – Leonard’s birth, was Hugh MacDiarmid. He was the champion of the Scottish literary renaissance and he hoped to do for Scotland what Yeats had done for Ireland. Yeats, an Anglo-Irishman, helped to ignite a national consciousness in Ireland by writing about long-neglected Irish themes from its mythological canon of the past. He also founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1899 and this would enable a whole new generation of writers to stage plays on Irish themes and issues. This literary revival fed into a political consciousness that led directly to the Easter Rising, and eventual Irish independence. MacDiarmid hoped that his literary revival would sever the terms of the Union of 1707.
MacDiarmid had renounced any religious belief and embraced instead both nationalism and communism. In this he was following in the traditions of James Connolly and John MacLean who had found their nationalism complemented by their socialism. MacDiarmid believed that Scotland had become a laughing-stock nation with cultural icons like Harry Lauder and the Sunday Post, along with the Kailyard School of writing and a general cringe within the people as a whole. While England may have been happy with this, MacDiarmid believed that it was the influence of union with England that had created this.
In contrast to George Malcolm Fraser, one of Scotland’s leading journalists and writers at the time, saying that the Irish presence would destroy Scotland from within and lead her back to Rome, MacDiarmid welcomed Irish immigration into Scotland. For him the Irish presence in Scotland was welcome precisely because it was Catholic. Culture had flourished in pre-Reformation Scotland and would do so again.
In the poem ‘A Vision of Scotland’ in his 1967 collection ‘A Lap of Honour’ MacDiarmid is perfectly at ease with what has emerged in Scotland and what will further emerge:
Even in the streets of Glasgow or Dundee, She throws her head-square off and a mass Of authentic flaxen hair is revealed, Fine-spun as newly-retted fibres On a sunlit Irish bleaching field.
These conflicting narratives are the ones young Tom encountered. Added to this, Scotland was also part of a Britannia that was still ruling the waves. He would have realised rather quickly what being Catholic with an Irish background was like. It was a hostile environment for his kind. However, he would have found a celebration of his cultural background attending Parkhead to watch Celtic, who were formed in 1888 after playing a charity match with Hibernian, Scotland’s first Irish club, to raise funds for the poor of the East End.
At about the age of 12 or 13, Tom was sexually attacked by a 30 year old man on his way to Calderpark zoo. This event is pivotal because it not only traumatised the young boy, it estranged him from the church into which he had been born. This has all been written about by Leonard himself in ‘A Taboo Too Far’, written for the magazine ‘Conscience’ in 2005 and published again in his ‘Definite Articles’ in 2013.
The incident must have happened around 1956-7 and Leonard recalled how he asked his perpetrator – who claimed also to have been Catholic – that he should promise to go to confession that night, go to communion the following day, and never attack anyone ever again. He would do the same himself. Tom’s innocent faith had shown responsibility towards his abuser but when he went to confession the priest had asked him, ‘Did you let him?’ Leonard recalls replying with a confused ‘yes.’ When asked by his parish priest if he had told the police about this, Leonard had said he had not. Tom was given ‘a bigger penance than I had ever received in my life before.’
In ‘A Taboo Too Far’ Tom had explored the Church’s veneration of sexual purity throughout its history as emblematic of its failure to address such cases of abuse. It is also an interesting fact that Cardinal Cullen himself had taken part in the theological debates that eventually produced the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in 1854.
Tom never told his parents what had happened to him and they both died not knowing. The authority of the church in his life was blown asunder and any authority of any kind would now be viewed with deep suspicion. In a matter of a few years after this event Tom had left the Church for good, failed by an authority he had held dear but that had failed him utterly. His world had been turned upside down, and in the poem ‘Remembrance Day’, first published in ‘Being a Human Being’ in 2006, Tom recalls what happened to him almost ‘fifty years ago’:
I know what it is to be powerless
I know what it is to be made to lie low
while the unknown enemy invades you…..
how I hate male
While individuals can and do overcome terrible experiences, those experiences always remain part of their life’s story. It was the solace of listening to classical music on Radio 3 that gave him a space for reflection, and this too was outside the narrative of most working-class lives. Around ‘about 16’ a friend showed him an ‘external exam for entrance to somewhere or other.’ On it was Stephen Spender’s poem ‘The Express’ which began:
After the first powerful plain manifesto, the black statement of pistons, without more fuss, but gliding like a queen.
This was a poem about a steam engine leaving the station and Leonard became ‘hooked on the music of it’ to such an extent ‘it was to be poetry that I wanted to write.’ He recalls this in a prose piece from ‘Definite Articles’ writing about his father.
In 1967 Leonard attended Glasgow University to study for a degree in English and Scottish literature. He left after two years and this is where his poem ‘The Dropout’ must date from:
well jist take a lookit yirsell naithur wurk nur wahnt aw aye
yir clivir dam clivir but yi huvny a clue whatyir dayn
He returned to complete his degree in the 1970s. The figure of Philip Hobsbaum, a lecturer there, seems highly significant. He came from a Polish-Jewish background in London and was an outsider like Leonard himself. Previously he had been at Queen’s University in Belfast and presided over what came to be known as the Belfast Group of writers, which included the emerging talents of Seamus Heaney, John Bond, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker and Bernard MacLaverty.
In Glasgow Hobsbaum created a Glasgow Group that included Tom, Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, Jeff Torrington, Aonghas MacNeacail and Jim Kelman. When you consider the diversity of literary material all these writers went on to produce you have to ask what it was that Hobsbaum said to them all. I can only imagine that it must have been something like ‘Find your voice and find forms and styles that suit it.’
This was an era when experimentation was very much in vogue and notions of ‘high art’ were being challenged in all the arts. Leonard had read ‘The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry (1940)’ edited by Hugh MacDiarmid, and found MacDiarmid’s early lyrics a source of great interest. However, his use of Lallans or synthetic Scots was not the voice Leonard heard inside himself. His voice was the voice of Glasgow, the voice of the people he grew up with and lived with still. The voices he heard, with their distinctive vowel sounds and the patterns of words that seemed to fuse into one another, were not the voices of any art. Was what he heard badly spoken English? Surely not, was his inner reply.
In a class-ridden society like Britain you are defined by a whole host of things – the school you attended, where you live, your parental lineage, your occupation, the way you speak and the sound of your voice. There can be nothing more political than language, and it would be through the medium of language, his language, that he would challenge the very nature of the state itself. He was keenly aware of how this would collide with the literary authorities and establishments in both Scotland and England. His poems would take such authorities on.
David Pollock, in his Obituary of Tom on 27 December 2018 in ‘The Herald’, said that the poem ‘The Six o’clock News’ was ‘his most widely known and celebrated work’ and most commentators seem to agree with this assessment. It is certainly important but there are many other poems that are equally celebrated, and it is his work as a whole that should be celebrated. Too many critics accept ‘The Six o’clock News’ as a poem that is safe to talk about now because it seems to have come into its own, and praise this poem while ignoring the issues he raises in so many others.
In the poem Leonard imagines a BBC newsreader about to use his customary Received Pronunciation to deliver the news, but who breaks with the established norm to speak instead in Glasgow dialect:
thi reson a talk wia BBC accent iz coz yi widny wahnt mi ti talk aboot thi trooth wia voice lik wanna yoo scruff, if a toktaboot thi trooth lik wanna yoo scruff yi widny thingk it wuz troo
You are how you sound, and how you sound too often means how you find your place in society. David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson – Etonians all of them – speak the language of power, the language of social superiority and the language that is their entitlement to rule. That alone is their ‘trooth’ according to Leonard and by giving voice to a marginalised dialect he challenges this state of unequal affairs.
In one of his ‘Ghostie Men’ poems he broods again on this familiar theme:
right inuff ma language is disgraceful
ma maw tellt mi ma teacher tellt mi thi doactir tellt mi thi priest telly mi
jist aboot ivry book ah oapnd tellt mi even the introduction tay thi Scottish National Dictionary tellt mi
ach well all livin language is sacred fuck the lohta thim
This is not just the voice of the voiceless in a class- divided society, it is a cry of defiance against the stupidity that denigrates the sacred nature of all language wherever it is spoken. The last line of the poem seems to confirm exactly what he thinks of all linguistic authority.
Voice is a signifier of class. And how you talk – or should talk – is not just reinforced by the BBC newsreader and in the media more generally, it is also rammed home in the school. This is a particularly tetchy subject for Scots. In the late 18th century the two most popular books among the Edinburgh literati at one time were Burns’ poems and a book on English elocution. This is another aspect of Scotland’s split identity. Union with England meant the primacy of English, and the use of Scots gradually became associated with the language spoken by the uncouth working classes. It is not so long ago that Scottish school children could be belted by their teacher for using words like ‘aye’ or ‘naw.’ It is, Leonard perceives, the education system itself that is responsible for imposing what he calls ‘a hierarchical diction’ and the English lesson would seem to be where this is most prevalent.
In another poem from ‘Ghostie Men’ he imagines a writer having to appear in court:
would thi prisoner in thi bar please stand
fur the aforesaid crime uv writin anuthir poem
This poet though is to be tried by Leonard himself because the anonymous poem by the anonymous poet was –
awarded thi certificate of safety by thi Scottish education department
fit tay be used in schools huvn no bad language sex subversion or antireligion
This is Leonard showing his displeasure at the increasing level of prescription that came into teaching in general and in the teaching of English more particularly. He would have been fully versed on this by his wife Sonya, who taught English in a secondary school in Glasgow, and by his own children too. Standard Grade English, later replaced by National Levels of Qualification and Higher English all had set authors with set poems handed down to the schools from the Scottish Qualifications Authority. This poem satirises such an authority for its intellectual cowardice and conformity. Any poem deemed worthy by such an authority or any poet considered acceptable to that authority should be tried in court:
I hereby sentence you tay six months hard labour doon thi poetry section uv yir local library coontn thi fuckin metaphors
The sentence he hands down here is for the utterly sterile way that poetry is taught in school. Leonard sought consistently to free the teaching of poetry from the straitjacket of analysis – an analysis to be recalled for the purpose of passing an examination. He wrote at length on this subject in his introduction to ‘Radical Renfrew: Poetry from the French Revolution to the First World War,’ published in 1990. In it he points out that ‘the connection between poetry and school has been the problem.’ He goes on then to state the elements responsible –
1. A real poem is one that an English teacher would approve for use in an English class 2. A real poem requires some explanation and guidance as to the interpretation, by an English teacher 3. The best poems are set in exams.
While there is much truth in what he says here, I feel he is also being a bit tough on English teachers like Sonya – and many others – who would regularly introduce other materials of a less conformist nature including some of his own poems for use in class. Nevertheless, this would be for the odd period here and there and not for preparation for the ultimately more ‘important’ exam.
If Glasgow dialect is ‘the langwij a thi guhtr’ by implication the regional dialects of Newcastle, Sheffield and Liverpool are also languages ‘a thi guhtr.’ Leonard’s campaigning Glasgow dialect poetry assumes that all regional dialects deserve equal status because, as he says in ‘Unrelated Incident 1’ – ‘the langwij a thi intellects Inglish.’ This is partly what made the Irish neglect their own culture and the same has been true of Scotland.
MacDiarmid may have brought about a literary revival in Scotland by challenging this attitude, but many would agree that he did this best in his earlier poetry. His later poetry was essentially prosody and encyclopaedic prosody at that. And MacDiarmid was the leading authority on its merits and you had to agree with him because he knew much more than you did. In some respects his own work was to be seen as a literary canon in its own right – especially by him. This was a form of elitism screaming out to be taken on and Leonard did just that, criticising ‘the culturally elitist attitudes of his work.’
This needed to be said because MacDiarmid, although his significance cannot be overestimated, had become ‘the’ literary authority to be knocked down. In an essay on ‘Edwin Muir’, Leonard noted ‘MacDiarmid’s sometime insistently hectoring sense of his own colonising importance.’ Language should be used to challenge what is around us but it is there for all to use, however they may express themselves. It must not be fitted into whatever grand scheme there is that comes along to lie like the dead stones MacDiarmid wrote about on a raised beach off Shetland. Language must have room to breathe and to be able to freely express itself. That is why spelling and grammar can also constrict expression. Such things as literary authorities, qualification authorities and the rules that abound in the English language itself should be seen as disempowering the many while at the same time entrenching the power of the few, the elites who enforce the rules, linguistic or otherwise.
Language is a political business and Leonard made it his business to not only begin debate around this, but to give voice to the marginalised Glaswegians he lived among. They would be heard as he would himself. Their humanity would shine through their many difficulties. And they would shine through with their distinctive humour. The poem ‘The Voyeur’ captures this humour in the way that most Scots use the word ‘wee.’ Leonard invites his countrymen and women to laugh at themselves:
what’s your favourite word dearie is it wee I hope it’s wee wee’s such a nice wee word like a wee hairy dog with two wee eyes…. a great wee word and Scottish it makes you proud
Humour and irony combine well here and a poem like this one does as much as the lexicography of MacDiarmid’s later writing to keep us on guard against the kitsch renderings of Scottishness that had been so damaging in the past. Leonard seems to share the same sense of humour here as others from his community. I think of people like Matt McGinn and his song ‘The Big Effen Bee’, of Billy Connolly and Frankie Boyle who all share in the love of the absurd, the ridiculous and the irreverent. A nation that can laugh at itself is usually a healthy one.
Leonard also undertook the writing of a partly fictionalised biography of the Scottish writer James Thomson. Thomson had taken the pseudonym ‘BV’ which stood for Bysshe Vanolis, the Bysshe being Shelley’s middle name and Vanolis an anagram of the German Romantic poet Novalis. Leonard described his book as ‘a shape, containing a biography, made slowly in response to the shape of the art of another.’
Tom had first read selections from Thomson’s famous poem ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ (1880) in ‘The Golden Treasury of Scottish Poetry’ and then read the poem with Edwin Morgan, his tutor at Glasgow University. Tom spent some sixteen years researching his subject. A section of Thomson’s famous poem had also been included in ‘Radical Renfrew’, which was an anthology of poets who had lived in Renfrewshire at some time or another, and Thomson was born in Port Glasgow in 1834. The title he gave to his years of research was ‘Places of the Mind’ and it was published in 1993.
What may have struck a chord with Leonard was that Thomson was very much outside the narrative during his era. His mother had been an admirer of the millenialist Edward Irving and when his merchant seaman father died the family moved to London. Within two years Thomson’s mother had died and he was sent to the Royal Caledonian Asylum for the children of indigent Scottish servicemen. He was educated there and at the Royal Military Asylum in Chelsea, and went on to join the army and to become a teacher. When he was posted to Ireland he met Charles Bradlaugh, a secular follower of the social reforms advocated by Robert Owen. Bradlaugh published Thomson’s poetry in his ‘National Reformer’ magazine.
Thomson’s ‘City of Dreadful Night’ was described by Herman Melville as ‘a modern Book of Job’ and its deep mood of pessimism pervades the poem throughout. Sometimes a writer can simply be compelled to go places he or she has to go, and while ‘Places of the Mind’ is a brilliant tour-de-force in biographical writing, the life and work of James Thomson must have struck Tom as deeply depressing – he died a lonely alcoholic in London in 1882. His great poem confronted the possibility that the universe is utterly indifferent to all our cares and emotions. It is a poem of deep-seated alienation and isolation; a poem of melancholy permeated with dark images and spiritual despair.
There are numerous Scots wandering aimlessly around London just now who feel exactly as Thomson did then. Leonard, at least, gave Thomson back his voice and his being in his book on him. There was nothing new about being down and out in London. That has always been the case. Blake’s poem of the city a hundred years earlier than when Tomson was there spoke of seeing ‘in every face I meet, marks of weakness, marks of woe.’ What Leonard maybe had to go through himself in writing this book was to explore the places of his own mind and Thomson maybe enabled that for him.
Interestingly, there was another Thomson, one who spelled his surname with a p, who also lived rough on London’s streets in the 1880s. This was the Mancunian poet Francis Thompson who had become addicted to opium. He, however, was a Catholic and the similar horrors he encountered in London just like his Scottish counterpart at the time, had him being pursued by ‘The Hound of Heaven’. This poem, as disturbing like ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, is in certain respects the Catholic version of James Thomson’s poem. Many a Catholic who despairs or lapses in belief will forever be pursued by the hound of heaven while the non-Catholic in ‘The City of Dreadful Night’ may hear no such voice or senses no such presence.
I think Tom Leonard, who had left the Catholic Church, had to pursue other areas of illumination outside the usual narratives. Thomson was part of this, as was his fondness for the writings of the Danish theologian and philosopher Kierkegaard, who is today considered one of the father figures of existentialist thought. He too found himself outside the narrative of his own Danish Church and once came to the conclusion ‘I want to believe that I believe.’ In a short poem called ‘Kierkegaard’ Leonard acknowledges the influence of the Great Dane:
true to the place of doubt
necessary: integrity of purpose before all
Leonard had left the Church and while you can find religion being used subversively or ironically in his poetry, it could never be said that his poetry is anti-religious. A hound of heaven must have pursued him after he left the Church and I feel that this hound was tamed by him, held on a tight leash and told never to bark at him. One of his early Glasgow dialect poems called ‘The Good Thief’ is also known as ‘The Glasgow Crucifixion’ and, although it is subversive, it is certainly not anti-religious.
In it Leonard imagines Christ on the cross being spoken to by the Good Thief in a Glasgow voice. Christ is called Jimmy as is the habit of most people throughout central Scotland who ask someone they don’t know a question:
heh jimmy yawright ih stull wayiz urryi
hey jimmy ma right insane yirra pape ma right insane yirwanny us jimmy see it nyir eyes wanny uz
The Good Thief is being compared to a modern-day Celtic supporter on his way to Parkhead or to Paradise as it is nicknamed by the fans. Christ was, of course, heading to Paradise as well – ‘this day thou shalt be with me in paradise’ – but before he heads there he is considered ‘a pape.’
Leonard shows the utter stupidity that divides his fellow Glaswegians along sectarian lines. The construction of the word ‘insane’ for ‘in saying’ is repeated to expose how insane bigotry actually is. As three o’clock nears – the time Christ was supposed to have died and the time of kick-off – it is getting dark:
dork init good jobe they’ve gote thi lights
And the lights refer both to the stadium lights at Celtic Park and to the Resurrection. The poem, though irreverent, is certainly not ant-religious and there is reason enough to believe that it was written with the hound of heaven on a tight leash by his side.
When Leonard wrote about Celtic more generally his tone can go from the rapturous as in ‘Fireworks’:
up cumzthi wee man beats three men slingzowra cracker an Lennox aw yi wahntia seenim cooliza queue cumbir
bump rightinthi riggin poastij stamp
Here he is admiring something of great artistic beauty and all football fans everywhere will recognise this. The construction of ‘aw yi wahntia seenim’ stresses the extent of the appreciation for what Lennox has done and this is where Glasgow dialect can have a rhythm that is certainly engaging and distinctive.
In another poem ‘Yon Night’ this highly distinctive rhythm of sheer joy and emotion is found again. The poet has been watching Celtic play Leeds at the original Hampden where ‘a hunnerin thirty four thousan’ turned up to watch the game that Celtic won on the night. While the poet is loving what he is watching he is also saddened by a rejection earlier that day by a ‘wee burdma work’ and these conflicting emotions come together:
well there wuzza stonnin ana wuz thaht happy ana wuz thaht fed up hoffa mi wuz greetnaboot Celtic an hoffa mi wuz greetnaboot hur
There is an energetic rhythm to the language here. And it is achieved by the repetition of ‘ana wuz thaht,’ and ‘hoffa mi wuz greetnaboot.’ The fusing of the words ‘and I was that’ and ‘half of me was’ help to create this rhythm that simply would not work in conventional English. It is ridiculous to suggest that such a dialect is culturally inferior when it can create such an elevated pitch of emotion.
Not all Celtic matches, however, create this mood because in some matches there are referees to contend with who may be biased against Celtic, a long-held suspicion by Celtic fans. The poem ’Crack’ is a case in point. In this poem ‘a right big animull’ fouls ‘Dalgleesh’ and no penalty is awarded. When the Celtic captain McNeill complains to the referee ‘ootcumzthi book’ and McNeill is booked for his efforts. This is ‘tipicl’ for Leonard but not only is this unfairness at Celtic’s expense, it is also in essence ‘wan mair upfurthi luj’, the Orange or masonic variety that exists still to keep taigs like him – and by implication Celtic – in their place.
When Joyce was once asked if he left the Catholic Church to consider becoming a Protestant, he replied that he had not abandoned a logical absurdity in order to embrace an illogical one. Leonard similarly retains an outlook that is Joycean while still belonging to his band of Celtic supporters – be they believers or not.
It would be acceptable for Leonard to be considered a man of the Left. Politically he was never on the Right but he would still insist on eluding any political categorisation further than that. Certainly his collection of prose ‘Satires and Profanities’ (1984) had been sponsored by the STUC and the proceeds from the sale went to support a miners’ strike fund of the time. He also campaigned with activists around the time when Glasgow was made European City of Culture in 1990 against an area of the city centre being turned into the Merchants' City. Leonard and others, including James Kelman, formed ‘Workers' City’ in opposition to this. The idea that these merchants had somehow created wealth out of thin air and not on the backs of African slaves across the Atlantic Ocean simply had to be countered. Not to take a stand against this rebranding would not only be tantamount to eradicating the history of that horrific trade in slavery, it would also make it doubly difficult for workers in Glasgow to realise their historic link with those slaves and with their oppression.
In the poem ‘the case for the lower case’ Tom builds up a clever case against capitalism. Initially he says:
lower case is presence lower case is company…
lower case listens to the voice of the people lower case is not an Edict lower case is the kinesis of democracy
After these qualities are celebrated Leonard then goes on to give his verdict on capitals:
CAPITAL is stasis CAPITAL is the closure of the business in hand… CAPITAL has no being at its centre
And from these musings he then goes on to address the CAPITALIST SENTENCE:
the CAPITALIST SENTENCE begins by setting out its stall the CAPITALIST SENTENCE has the subject as line-manager of the verb…
THE CAPITALIST SENTENCE IS A DEATH SENTENCE
He finishes off with a final flourish extolling the lower case:
the lower case gives you space to live… lower case does not hide behind the toga of the Roman Empire…
always here as natural as breathing
The language we use in speech and on the page invariably determines the politics we espouse. And language itself is formed in that special place of the mind that has to be constantly kept in check, nurtured and fed by all that is around us. Failure to do this is to end up saying nothing of any importance and that way lies blandness, posturing and pomposity. Worse still that way lies an inauthentic existence. He or she who has not thought deeply about language has not thought deeply about politics either. This is the sum of what Leonard is himself working at in much of his poetry. He was also a supporter of Palestine and the poem ‘The Proxy Badge of Victimhood’ was used by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign on their website when it was first written. Without mentioning either Israel or Palestine in the poem he makes it clear where his support lies:
when the possession of nationality is a foot landing on an airport tarmac and the dispossessed fester in the camps of the dispossessed
His support could never be for an oppressor – be it the authority of a church, the authority of a violent adult or the authority of an imperial power. In this poem he manages to blend his preoccupation with the voice sound made by ordinary people as against the voice sound made by an imperial power:
and the natives are hopeless spokespersons who speak in heavily accented English who don’t sound American because they are not American
they are foreigners on their native soil
Be it Glasgow dialect or the Arabic voice deemed ‘foreign’ to imperial powers, he was fully on the side of the oppressed and marginalised. In a poem called ‘The Evidence’, he wrote about the attack by police on the prominent Human Rights lawyer Aamer Anwar when he was a student putting up posters in Glasgow. He uses the exact words that were used by the police that day when beating up the young student:
This is what happens to black boys with big mouths.
Police authority is simply another authority among many that often lack the necessary democratic accountability and is forever misused and misapplied. State authority is an extension of all other authorities and in a poster poem Leonard gives his view on the state:
a parasite that survives by defining the host in ways that maintain its own habitat
the institution of the state
This reads and sounds remarkably like anarchism and that is exactly what it is. In another poem called ‘Flag’ he suggests this again:
The state gang’s signatory graffito on cloth … To the infant the sucking blanket. To the adult the flag.
So while it can be said that Tom was a man of the Left, he was well outside the narrative of any political parties of the Left. Toeing any party line would have been an impossibility for Tom. He chose to be free to challenge injustice of all kinds wherever he saw it. With the changing political landscape in Scotland, largely brought on by the legacy left by Blair and Brown’s Labour, the rise of the SNP and the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014 had the country engaged in a whirlwind of political debate. I recall corresponding with Tom at this time and his response to my comments was to send me via email a photographed ballot paper with the word ‘Scotland’ scored out and the word ‘Palestine’ inserted instead with a tick at the ‘Yes’ box. While I am relaxed about saying I voted for Scottish independence it was also ironic that the Palestinians I know in Scotland all voted ‘Yes.’
The same man, however, had once in a section of a poem called ‘situations theoretical and contemporary’ written:
Scotland has become an independent socialist republic. At last.
Eh? You pinch yourself. Jesus Christ. You’ve slept in again.
Whatever his position is here – playful or ironic? – Tom’s political positions were held with honest conviction and integrity. He openly admitted in the poem ‘rearguard’ that he was prone to ‘losing the rag’ – but who doesn’t when you view the horrors of this world? His output was as much a personal journey as it was his own unique contribution to literature. He said as much in his last poetry collection, appropriately enough called ‘Outside the Narrative’ (2009) when he came to the conclusion in another poster poem – ‘that each one be the subject of their own narration.’ He had travelled far in places of his own mind and reached some conclusions about himself. In the poem ‘A humanist’ he writes reflectively:
This sense of the universal human is the home of all those who have won through to become themselves.
And in the final poem of ‘Outside the Narrative’ called ‘A Life’ he reflects on what he has achieved. He does so with the typical dichotomy of a writer who realises he has said something to an audience that has been listening to him. Like Borges in ‘Borges and I’ and Norman MacCaig in ‘A Man in my Position’ before him, he considers his public persona set against the personal sense he has of himself:
And though he had never been a storyteller, he saw that he had been telling a story all his life. It became important to him that somebody heard the story, now that he realised he had been telling it.
His story was not only his own, it was the story of Scotland and the story of Glasgow. The last word should go to Glasgow in two poems that sum up much about the man and much about his great city. In a poem from ‘Intimate Voices’ (1984), a poetry collection that won him the Saltire Book of the Year, he writes of ‘Glasgow’:
‘This is Tom Leonard,’ my friend said to his companion. ‘He writes poetry.’ ‘If you think I’m impressed you’ve another think coming,’ said his companion – and punched me on the jaw.
In Glasgow in particular, though in other parts of Scotland too, the best bet is never to get above yourself. In Glasgow you can always be brought back down to earth. That is another feature of his work that is admirable – it contains the absolute absence of any pretentiousness. Glasgow made him that way and he manifested this to great effect on the part of his own people and their living conditions. His poem ‘Liaison Co-ordinator’ was used by Darren McGarvey to introduce his prize-winning book ‘Poverty Safari’ (2017) which dealt at length with those conditions that both he and Tom had encountered in Glasgow:
a sayzty thi bloke n whut izzit yi caw yir joab jimmy
am a liaison co-ordinator hi says oh good ah says a liaison co-ordinator
jist whut this erria needs what way aw thi unemployment inaw thi bevvyin nthi boayz runnin amok nthi hoosyz fawnty bits nthi wummin n tranquilisers at least thiv sent uz a liaison co-ordinator
This captures what Tom felt about deprivation and those who created it and those sent to toy with it. Tom had genuine class anger and would express this with brilliant panache at times. Moreover, he articulated this class anger for over fifty years. There was never any doubt whose side he was on. And in international terms as he says in ‘A humanist’ he was ‘an outsider’ himself ‘who felt at home with the art and culture of other outsiders.’ We need more artists like Tom Leonard today.
I shall miss his wry humour, his friendship and, above all, his Glasgow voice.
by Peter Clive
Everything lies in ruins. This Glasgow is an ancient ruined city by the Euphrates after some rival, or barbarian invasion, or simply the passage of time has had its way, gap sites where ziggurats once stood, shards scattered across the brownfield yesteryear whose damp tubercular breath condenses on the back of my neck,
but this is the Clyde, not the Euphrates. This shattered and scattered clay whose pieces you pick up and hold is not some Mesopotamian jigsaw of the sort archaeologists like to solve. These marks are not cuneiform pressed upon the cold hard fragments in your hand that you try to fit together and decipher.
It is you. It is your own living tongue after it has been turned to stone, and after the sledge hammer and wrecking ball have had their way, and broken you, and dumped all your words in a midden and left you able to meet your mute self only behind glass, in a glass case, in a museum, reading how others have captioned you in labels: their interpretations, educated guesswork, accidental errors, deliberate falsehoods, lies,
in some nostalgia palace where the passage of time is frozen to hold the living captive, saying, "this is how things were so this is how they will always be. This is all in the past. It cannot save you. You are only what we say you are now." The word "no" lies untranslated on a cuneiform tablet out of reach, hidden behind something lurid and embarrassing,
but there was a man who turned it back and raised your words from bones and ash, lifted them from this disintegrating clay, breathing life into them with poetry, restoring their voice and making them laugh, and bulldozing museums with basic facts.
Though all that's left of any life, once gone, is an unfinished jigsaw, its missing pieces now forever lost, we'll fill the gaps with pieces of our own rescued from obscurity and the impertinence of casual oppression.