Vanishing: FROM THE PROVINCE OF THE CAT
1st October 2017
In September, in Caithness, three things happened that highlight the political dilemma Scotland is in.
First, the deployment by MayGen of four tidal stream turbines on the seabed in the Pentland Firth generated 700 Megawatt hours in August which was hailed by engineers as a tidal stream “world record”. The day after this positive announcement WWF, the conservation charity, published analysis which showed that on the day of the 19th of August alone wind turbines generated enough electricity to power nearly five million homes, or 150 per cent of Scotland’s total electricity demand. That same day in September the press reported that the proposed Moray Firth offshore wind farm will be built for £57.50 per megawatt hour, about half the price of building a wind farm two years ago. The cost for the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point, on England’s southern coast, is £92.50 per megawatt hour.
Secondly, a consignment of weapons grade uranium, filched by the US military from sites in the former Soviet republic, and now the independent country, of Georgia in 1998 and stored at Dounreay, was flown from Wick airport in Caithness to the US nuclear complex in Savannah River in South Carolina. This bomb making material was loaded onto a giant US Airforce C-17 Globemaster transport jet, which had to off-load fuel at RAF Lossiemouth because the runway at Wick is 1,1712 feet too short for a fully fuelled Globemaster to get airborne. The C-17 then refuels at Lossiemouth and subsequently crosses the Atlantic to Tennessee. All this as the UK governments terror level was raised to “critical” as two days previous there had been a serious tube bomb attack in London. This is the third such flight and there are up to ten more such risky adventures expected in the future as the decommissioning of Dounreay continues.
Thirdly, some days later, the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy snubbed an application by Atlantis Resources, the parent company of MayGen, to provide support for the expansion of the Pentland Firth tidal power scheme, casting doubt over the future of this revolutionary energy project. The plan was to install a total of 49 turbines on the seabed (the final ambitious total is for 269 turbines, producing enough power for 175,000 homes) which, according to Atlantis would create 5,300 jobs, which would go some way to compensate for the eventual loss of the 2,000 jobs at Dounreay, the downturn in the North Sea oil and gas sector which has a big impact in the Far North, and would put Scotland at the forefront of a major global industry for decades.
These, to my mind at least, highlight Scotland’s weak political position within the current British constitutional set up, because our democratically elected Parliament in Holyrood with its SNP Government can do nothing about any of this. Energy is reserved. Power (political) is retained. Power (mechanical, electrical, potential) is wasted.
Two smaller, personal and random but related events took place, just after the UK Government’s thumbs down for the Pentland Firth project, which helped further focus my mind on just what power (political) and power (mechanical) are and what they mean to us, the people who live and work in Scotland.
The first was that I met a friend of mine who is a retired engineer from Dounreay who has had a Damascene conversion to renewable energy. He, unprompted by me, lamented the short sightedness of the Tories in Westminster in relation to MayGen and their tidal array, but said it was down to their addiction to nuclear and the spiralling cost of new nuclear. Most significantly, he went on, the Hinkley Point C farrago, the cost of which in July had risen by £1.5bn to £19.6bn and the construction of which could be delayed by at least fifteen months.
The second thing was that the morning I met my friend I had just signed a contract with a publisher to have my “Selected Poems” published. Now this is a major thing for me but perhaps not for anyone else and I won’t bore you with the details other than to say it represents 25 years of work, and that’s a lot of energy.
All these things are related. My credo as a poet and a citizen is that poetry is energy and energy is freedom and freedom is poetry. This is, I admit, is an extension of the late Hamish Henderson’s cultural rallying cry of “Poetry becomes people”, which itself channelled both Heinrich Heine and Antonio Gramsci into vibrant life.
One of the qualities the ancient Greeks prized in lyric poetry, which they considered to be the greatest of all the arts, was energeia. This translates, more or less, as the actualization of a potential. The energy the Greeks prized was the energy need for living. For them, some 2,800 years ago, pleasure is an energeia of the human body and mind whereas happiness is more simply the energeia of a human being a human. I would argue that this generation of Tory politicians are actively supressing the potential for the Scots to achieve political “happiness”, by that I mean happiness to be the actualization of a potential, by serving the needs and interests of their own elite at the expense of the common good of the Scottish people. What else but an example of this elite interest was the refusal of the second stage funding for MayGen in the Pentland Firth?
According to the poet and critic Allen Grossman, “Poetry becomes a principle of power invoked by all of us against our vanishing.”
What is vanishing is the political threshing floor where ideas can be presented, discussed and acted upon. The perpetual chaos the Tories have deliberately strewn across this space, which is one of the tactics of their Brexit coup, has stymied political opposition, especially in Scotland: it denies alternative narratives a purchase. Waiting for the un-chaos of a post-Brexit world is a dangerous ploy for the Independence movement, most especially in setting the time for a second referendum. The Tories will spread chaos indefinitely. It is what they do. They disguise it as “bumbling on” as “Good old Blighty” and all that gut-turning, brain frying, Bo-Bo Borising rot that undermines democratic engagement and social and economic progress, not to mention cultural participation. What is vanishing, day by day, is democracy itself.
The sooner we understand the real Tory tactics, and not the official, BBC sanctioned dog-dance in which Theresa May and David Davis appear nightly (bemused, sleekit, vain) spouting well-rehearsed lies about the myth of “progress” and “decisive steps forward in Brexit talks”, and all the rest of it, the sooner we in Scotland can create alternative scenarios. We cannot afford to “wait and see”, which is more or less what the SNP are proposing. In as much as there is no forward movement in what the Tories are up to, which is confusing, divisive, self-interested, backward looking, the lack of ambition form the SNP also has no energeia. What it is, is inertia. That is a form of anti-energy we literally cannot afford.
The Tories have no energeia because they have no forward movement, they are not part of the future, they insist upon a permanent “now”. Their right wing nostalgia consigns Scotland to a permanent past. The vast Highland shooting estates are signifiers of this condition.
Scotland is a poetic nation with a constructive and optimistic population which is why I think it has, over the years, produced such an abundance of fine poets and engineers. James Clerk Maxwell, a great poetry lover, managed to calculate the composition of the rings of Saturn by observing the natural world. He turned what he saw in nature into mathematical symbols and confounded the Victorian world with the accuracy of his calculations. Poetry too is observation. Poets, like the physicist Clerk Maxwell, observe the natural world and the symbols we use to reveal its meaning are words. The revelation is what science and literature have in common. It was Einstein who noted that “Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.”
Independence for Scotland is a logical idea, so we must be alive to the present by being as aware as we can be to what is possible. The island in the middle of the Pentland Firth is called Stroma. It is in the channel to the south of Stroma where MayGen have their tidal stream turbines. Stroma, in old Norse Straumr-øy, means “the island in the stream”; the “stream” being the second fastest tidal current in the world, which reaches up to 11 mph. This is the poetry of the North Sea meeting the Atlantic and its energeia is provided by the pull of the Moon. Here, physically, the anti-social chaos of the Tories, created by their Brexit coup, is literally countered by the measurability of nature, and the energy potential of the Pentland Firth which is an example of “the poetry of logical ideas.”
The joy of it is that it is there, it has always been there since the world was born, and will always be there as long as humanity has need of electricity. Poetry is energy and energy is freedom and freedom is poetry. We do not need to “wait and see” in order to become a sustainable economy or an independent nation: the means to that end I see every day in the sea. We do not need to be brainwashed by the media who, as the Greek poet George Seferis put it, have “Sleepwrapped you in green leaves like a tree.” Our observation must become our revelation, our political awakening, the release of our collective energeia, the positive action of a confidant people.
To return to Hamish Henderson again, because what he says about creativity in this interview given in 1966, is relevant to this debate.
“What Wilde wrote in De Profundis has some bearing on this… when he says that the object of love is to love. To feel itself in the joy of its own being. To a certain extent this is poetry too, one shouldn’t divide it between the moment of creation and the created completed thing. It’s the joy of itself to feel itself in being…to have this sensation of the thing moving and being and in existence, and not dead and failing… this has always with me taken the shape of direct communication, not so much communication via the printed page, although I have published things here and there. I have preferred to read poetry out, and if it is a song, to sing it.”
So, with our country, our engineering, our poetry, we have to allow it to “feel itself in being…” If we do we will not vanish, much as the Tories would love us to do and actually treat us as if we have.
If the SNP Government is serious about a Scottish National Investment Bank then MayGen’s tidal array in the Pentland Firth must be a first priority. When Scotland produces all her own energy and is independent of imported power and electricity then Scotland will become politically an independent country. We have “to sing it”. Let it be the Tories who do the vanishing.
©George Gunn 2017.
George Gunn’s novel “The Great Edge” is available from Grace Notes ISBN: 978-1-907676-94-9
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