The following article by George Gunn was first posted on bella caledonia,.
LOVE AND MAGICAL THINKING FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT
Next year in September will be the tenth anniversary of the 2014 referendum campaign. Although the result was gut-wrenchingly disappointing those who were 16 then and first-time voters will be 26 in 2024, and the majority of them will still be for Yes, with a desire to see their country reassert her independence. The optimistic spirit of 2014 – the closest Scotland came to a year of magical thinking – still survives, despite setbacks and hostility from every media outlet – as poll after poll shows support for independence at a steady 50+%. This is nothing short of miraculous, especially when you consider the brain-rotting antics of the SNP. Surely to god they cannot all be in MI5?
From Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin the magical thinking crosses the Skye Bridge, from Ayr to Inverness it marches to keep the magic alive. The young lead the way in Edinburgh to claim that Scotland can and should rejoin the European Union, that they have a confidence in Scotland, that there is another way to be free of the racist millionaires who sit in Westminster and to rise above the mediocre aspirations of the three main parties in Holyrood. What the young know is that both governments have failed Scotland. The one on the Thames is malevolent. The one beneath the Castle Rock is disappointing. The former will go down into the pig-swill of history and be consumed by the very monsters they have created. Of the latter the young people ask: where is the realistic strategy for achieving independence other than the one produced by Believe in Scotland? Just what the fuck have you been doing for the last decade?
Recently I watched on STV a mind-numbingly clueless representative of a Labour think-tank trying to get his head around what the Scotland in Europe rally in Edinburgh meant. All he could come up with was that if all those thousands of people – a sizeable proportion who would be young – spent their time going around the doorsteps at the up an coming Rutherglen and Hamilton by-election then their time would be better spent. Even the presenter was left a bit agog at his inability to see Scotland as a nation and the campaign for independence as something else other than a party political election campaign issue. The cause of independence crosses over all the boundaries of Scottish society and politics. This is Labour’s great betrayal of the Scottish people – they keep us trapped in the prison of the Union by their mindless (and groundless) adherence to it. The only future for Labour in Scotland lies in the acknowledgement of the need for a just constitutional settlement for an ancient nation and the reasserting of the sovereign rights of the Scottish people. Unless Labour recognise that this settlement is the concern of the people of Scotland, and not in the power of any government other than our own to grant it, then Labour are gone like snow off a dyke North of the Tweed and the Solway.
This set me to thinking – what, actually, is a country? How can the struggle for independence be more than a hopeful gaze to the future coupled with a fearful glance to the past? I have read and agree with Believe in Scotland’s independence road map and Salvo’s Stirling Directive – you can read this for yourself here – and am encouraged by both. Yet somehow our country is more than this. Where does Scotland start and stop in our consciousness? What is it made of, other than rocks and bog? For our people – for any people in any country – the answer must be love. A kind of love that is both active and passive, that gives and takes, which moves forwards and back at the same time. This is what the American writer James Baldwin had to say about it in his 1963 non-fiction book, The Fire Next Time,
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
That “sense of quest and daring and growth” is what we must embrace. It is a synthesis of future projection and of memory. A country, an individual, without a memory, is a ghost. John B. Yeats, the father of the poet W. B. Yeats, once wrote in a letter to his son,
“The best thing in life is the game of life, and someday a poet will find that out.”
Needless to say he did not think that his son, William Butler, was that poet. John B. Yeats was trying to get his genius son to come out of the fairy mound and to observe the people, before it was too late. That was the future he was trying to secure for his poet son, mainly because they had shared memories and the father wanted his son to acknowledge them.
My first memory is of my mother’s heartbeat as she told us stories from Homer and the Norse sagas, and the musical sound and rhythmn of milk hitting a pail as my Gran milked a cow as she sang the beast a song from Strathnaver. How could I forget that? That for me is Scotland: my mother’s stories and my Gran’s songs. I have held onto them all my life. Which is just as well because in my first week at Dunnet primary school I encountered Dick and Dora, Fluff the Cat and Spot the Dog. I am afraid they had no agency and held no interest compared to Achillies and Hector, Sveinn Ásleifarson and Magnus Erlendsson. Having read through Dick and Dora once and expressed my derision I was given a copy of the King James Bible and told to sit at the back and read it and if I had any questions just to put my hand up. Which eventually I did. “What,” I asked Mrs Docherty “does begat mean?” “What do you mean?” she answered wearily. “Well, Miss, there’s pages and pages of it!” My declaration was met by stony silence. Somebody else had their hand up and that was the end of that. My mother was a district nurse and midwife and over the years I soon learned what begat meant. I also learned, through the King James Bible, about language and what it could do. This to me is Scotland
The first lines in the King James Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” These are mighty and resonant words for a young boy to read and hear in a Caithness primary school in the early 1960’s. Now, like Tony Blair famously declared, I “don’t do God”. But I am a playwright and I do theatre and in 1994 in the village of Helmsdale in east Sutherland the Grey Coast Theatre Company mounted the huge community play, “The Great Bunillidh Volcano”. The performance began with a young boy from the primary school, standing proudly in front of the Bridge Hotel, and he addressed the audience with these words, “In ay beginnin wis nuhain. Then thur wis suhain.” Then the play was on and the production moved through the village taking the population of Helmsdale with it. That is a memory and also a future. The people of Helmsdale still talk about it and they are Scotland.
Baldwin was right – memories, like love, should not be a mask that “we cannot live without and know we cannot live within”. They are the cultural soil from which meaningful lives grow. This is not without struggle and at the heart of this struggle it is difficult to remember what is important. For example it is often the case that we can forget that the cause of Scottish independence is an heroic one. We are confronted by a massive power and the outcome, as yet, is unknown, if not binary: either the UK persists in its repression of our desire or it doesn’t. We either achieve independence or we don’t. Either the SNP wins a majority of seats at the next general election or they don’t. It is a form of madness to think that Scottish independence will mean that life goes on as normal once independence has been achieved. We are challenging an entire system and I suggest that when the Union is dissolved every aspect of our cultural and economic lives will change. We must be prepared to “Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being,” as Rumi the 13th century Persian poet wrote. “Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.” Or, as the Sardinian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) put it, “The challenge of modernity is to live without illusions and without becoming disillusioned.”
A good example of this living without illusions and overcoming half-heartedness, to reach out to majesty, is the poetry of Rob Donn Mackay. Not so much the poetry itself, which is a music unto itself, but the fact that it exists at all. Rob Donn (1714–1778) was a cattle drover from Strathnaver in North West Sutherland. He did not read nor could he write in his native Gaelic. His poems were composed on the tongue – and mainly to pipe tunes – as Strathnaver, at that time, was entirely an oral culture. Nothing of Rob Donn was published in his lifetime. The Gaelic literary establishment thought little of the Bard of Strathnaver and considered his Sutherland Gaelic as being crude and unrefined. When a selection of his poetry was eventually published long after the bards death the poems were almost unrecognisable so altered and refined had the editors thought to make them, much to the disgust of the people of Strathnaver. Now Rob Donn Mackay has more poems and songs extant in the Bàrdachd than any other poet to date. Why this has come to be is because the people of Strathnaver memorised all of Rob Donn’s poems and kept them alive in their tradition, to this day. I cannot think of a greater act of collective love than that. This is reaching out into the majesty. This, most definitely, is Scotland. Magical thinking and practical actions. Surely that must be the motto of our dream?
As a poet and dramatist I am always looking to combine the personal and the political, the intimate with the epic. Each individual who assembled in Edinburgh, and at every rally and meeting across the country in the future, to declare their belief in Scotland and their desire to see their Scotland re-connected on her own terms with the rest of the world, has their own story, their own memories, and in so being are part of the collective energy – they, most certainly, are Scotland. They do what they do from love and how precarious and elusive are the ideas with which we attempt to explain the mystery of love. A mystery that is part of a greater one: the human being, who, suspended between chance and necessity, transforms their predicament into freedom. There is an intimate, causal relation between love and freedom.
Our politics transcends the material world even though the material world will kill us all. What is a country? What is the opposite of magical thinking, love and freedom? Well, it is this. It is not just oil companies that are raking in massive profits at the expense of the public. Across the UK many big companies are posting huge profits, as their prices soar. The top 350 companies in the UK have doubled their profit margins since 2019, according to recent research from the Unite union.
Why is this happening?
Many companies are using the cover of inflation to push their prices up beyond their increased costs and so making more profit. Unite has dubbed it “greedflation”. Overall, this means that the ‘flows of wealth’ from ordinary people to the rich are increasing. And this is driving inequality. Inequality growth in the UK has been put into hyperdrive by this cost of living crisis, as big companies and the rich drain more and more wealth from the rest of us. There is no mystery to it. It’s called exploitation.
This is why we need an independent Scotland. This is why we need loveand magical thinking. This is the game of life. Let’s play it, wholeheartedly and when we march along our city streets and Highland by-ways let us have a real sense of quest and daring and growth which is the end is what magical thinking is. It is love.