Decontaminating The Union: Post-Industrial Landscapes And The British Psyche
Whatever anxieties I may feel, as an Englishman, about speaking to a Scots audience in the capital of Scotland about how they view their own geography are vitiated by my own vexed relationship with Caledonia – one that, I will argue, is itself a sort of figuration of the tendencies my psychogeographic practice reveals in the collective Scots psyche.
It’s worth pausing here to consider perhaps one of the most significant scenes in recent cinema. I refer to the episode in Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, when, in search of a nature cure, the junky protagonists take off for a hike in the purlieu of Loch Lomond. Shivering in their cotton T-shirts, sodden in their PVC training shoes, the denizens of rundown Leith are painfully unsuited to this landscape of soaring, scree-sided beinns, snow-capped peaks and icy tarns; nonetheless the antihero, Renton’s, comment says it all: “Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We on the other hand are colonised by wankers.”
Ostensibly this is a remark on the impact of the Union, but given its geographical context it obviously plays upon the beauty of the vista as against the ugliness of Renton’s malaise – and by extension the great natural beauty of Scotland’s landscape as against the ugliness of its political and economic predicament in the 1980s and early 1990s.
I first came to know Scotland a little better than the average English wanker during this period. Or, rather, through spending time in the Scots penultima Thule, Orkney, I came to appreciate two key aspects of the relationship between the nation’s geography and its psyche. The first of these is diversity – and by this I mean not simply ethnic or topographical diversity, but both, combined. Once past the forbidding rampart of the 400ft tall red sandstone cliffs of Hoy, the Orkneys unroll before the visitor as an undulating landscape of rich mixed arable farmland mysteriously plonked down in the anfractuous waters of the North Atlantic and the North Sea.
The current population of Orkney is pretty much an admixture of lineal descendants of the inhabitants of Scara Brae (a fact established by researches conducted under the auspices of the Human Genome Project), and the more proximate descendants of the so-called “Good Lifers” (after the popular 1970s Surbiton-based sitcom of the same name), mostly English incomers to the islands during that period. The union of these peoples has proved remarkably successful, with the Orcadians effortlessly absorbing the Good Lifers, much as they absorbed the Norse before them. One thing is, however, for certain: neither moiety is much disposed to think of themselves as Scots. Indeed, a young Scotsman who lived on Rousay in the early 1990s (like quite a few others a DHSS émigré, who sought to live cheaply on benefits), and who insisted on wearing a kilt, was known derisively as “Jock the Frock”.
You can appreciate why, in a bad year, it’s difficult for them not to think of themselves as wankers colonised by wankers, who have in turn been colonised by wankers (a chain of reflexive self-abuse that, arguably, extends jerking all the way to the White House). From the austere perspective of Kirkwall, Edinburgh begins to look like a dangerously sybaritic Neapolitan city (and like Naples, Edinburgh is indeed a beautiful ossuary built on the bones of its urbane predecessors), while London becomes a positively equatorial sin bin of cocaine-honking samba-dancers. But what the Orcadian experience teaches us is not simply that we should beware of the mono-cultural tendency implicit in all nationalisms, but that we should recognise a particular aspect of the Scots landscape – and by extension the Scottish psyche – and that is its legibility.
Driving north from Edinburgh on the M90 to Perth, the crossing of the Firth of Forth presents the first in a series of parallaxes: the movement of, say, an oil rig moored for refurbishment in Torry Bay relative to Kincardine Bridge, is all that’s necessary for the well-oriented traveller to plot the contours of this wasp-waisted nation on to her mapping table. The long grades up through Pitlochry and then Glen Garry to the uplands of the Cairngorms, no matter how driech it may be, summon equally long prospects to the attentive inner eye: Glen Mor, Glen Albyn, Loch Linnhe, the Firth of Lorn – the deep crease in the landform that supports the complex origami of the peaks may be hidden by the Monadhliaths, but once past Aviemore everything tends to the Black Isle and a liaison with its north-eastern outlet.
Then the Moray Firth, the Cromarty Firth, the Dornoch Firth – with the crossing of each successive sulcus the cranial form of Highland Scotland becomes more and more apparent, until that delirious moment – somewhere around Helmsdale – when our hypothetical driver apprehends – by virtue of the clear view across to the Nairn dunes some 40 miles due south – the entire Nefertiti’s headdress of the far north. And of course, it is only a gearstick pogo-hop and a clutch-skip from Inverness to Ullapool, and a Caledonian MacBrayne pedalo ride from there to the Long Isle.
And all of this brisk quartering of Scotland has been undertaken with no recourse to truly peak perspectives. In whimsical moments it sometimes occurs to me that the Munro-bagging so beloved of a certain kind of Scots politician, far from being animated by a desire to experience the big country, is on the contrary inspired by a megalomaniac impulse; for, by ascending a mere handful of strategically located 3,000-foot-plus summits they can survey the entirety of their domain.
Or can they? The tour d’horizon we’ve just undertaken is just that: a touristic go-round that in no way reflects the purview of the vast majority of Scots, tied down as they are to one or other of the country’s principle conurbations, and leaving these – if at all – simply in order to undertake a workaday or consumption-oriented traverse, along the M8 corridor, to the other one. The apparent naturalness of the Scots rural hinterland is just that: whether you’re standing on Rannoch Moor or in the centre of Renfrew you are confronted by equally anthropic landscapes – these are the competing yet mutually reinforcing spectacles, at once exclusive and interconnected; and it’s worth recalling at this point that the Falls of Clyde were at once a way station on the Romantics’ tours of the picturesque in the early 1800s, and at the very same time the motive force for David Dale and Robert Owen’s socio-economic experimentation at New Lanark.
I said earlier that my own relationship with Scotland was a figuration of the tendencies my psychogeographic practice reveals in her psyche – I should now clarify this: I may have rapidly quartered legible – and spectacular – Scotland since the early 1990s, but by far the bulk of my time here in the past decade-and-a-half has been spent in a confined area; namely the environs of Motherwell in North Lanarkshire, a locale I married into.
Arriving in Motherwell in 1997, I was too late to witness the demolition of Ravenscraig, but the epochal nature of this event was engraved in the consciousnesses of my new in-laws, just as the topography of Motherwell and its sister-communities of Wishaw and Newmains represents a palimpsest that has been worked over for several generations by steely instruments of industrialisation and its aftermath. The redevelopment of the Ravenscraig site will in theory replace the decontaminated ground where the steelworks once belched, with a new town centre. Already 800 new homes have been constructed, together with a certain amount of road infrastructure and two large quasi-public buildings: the upended po-mo filing cabinet of Motherwell College, and the sub-Frank Gehry shed-toppling of the splendidly named Regional Sports Facility.
The developers, Wilson Bowden and Tata Steel – in association with Scottish Enterprise – promise that this, the first new town in Scotland for a half-century, will act as an economic driver for the entire region; although as yet the investment driver is the £10m pump-priming by the local council of a scheme known as TIF (or Tax Incremental Funding), that sees anticipated rates increases hypothecated to service the necessary loans. Critics of TIF observe than in and of itself it catalyses social stratification, intensifying zones of relative affluence and deprivation in a way reminiscent of the Wal-Mart effect.
My late father-in-law, who began as a 14-year-old at Colville’s steelworks (Ravenscraig’s predecessor), and was traumatised by witnessing a particularly ugly industrial accident, spent the balance of his working life as a lathe operator in a succession of metal-fabricating businesses dependent on the Craig’s output. He had taken early retirement when I first met him, but I never recall him speaking about the bizarre fistula left behind once the works was demolished. This ragged zone – once dotted with slag heaps and bings, but now characterised by the sinister regularities of a manufactured area of biodiversity – is traditionally sized by reference to the following telling indices: 450 hectares, yes – 1,175 acres, certainly; but 17 Canary Wharfs? Or for that matter two Monacos? Surely these imprecise units of measurement are intended to implant in the minds of those who attempt the visualisation ghostly images of high finance pinnacles, or the Grimaldis’ fabled castle rising over the shrubberies. Possibly the intention is to evoke the Monaco Grand Prix – and this makes sense, for North Lanarkshire has more than its fair share of boy racers, and the newly constructed Robberhall and New Craig Roads afford ample opportunities for handbrake U-turns on the path to prosperity.
By way of contrast the Clyde Walkway, between Strathclyde Park and Cardies Bridge, offers the walker a five-mile traverse of the southern edge of the city of the future. Standing at the end of the lime avenue that stretches from the tumbledown covenanters’ graveyard all the way to the Clyde’s bank, you can look up over open hummocky ground, still grazed by cattle to where, across the crowns of ancient oaks, the seven 17-storey Muirhouse towers return your gaze with their own cyclopean stares. Why it is that the lift wheelhouses on top of these blocks have been re-cladded to resemble the arched window on Play School is a mystery, but it does mean than anyone of a certain age, who spots the towers from the northbound M74 (and this is a great number of economic drivers), will find themselves wondering what’s through it.
I propose alternative, artificial sight lines then for the M8 corridor to compete with the spectacular afforded by the Highlands: from the top of Red Road in Glasgow look southeast to Glencairn House in Motherwell; from the top of Glencairn House look northeast to Stuart House in Cumbernauld; and from the top of this look still further southeast again to Livingston, within shopping distance of where we are now – thus completing the rondeau we began by driving north across the Firth of Forth road bridge. That some of these structures have either been demolished, or are scheduled to be, should not concern us. The high-rise era of Scottish public housing – which loosely straddled that of deindustrialisation – can thus be seen not as an attempt to realise Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, but on the contrary to lift the benighted inhabitants of the Gorbals into the peak perspectives afforded Munro-bagging Labour party leaders and grouse-stalking nabobs alike. The unconscious aim was to make Scotland legible to the masses, and thus ease replacement of the spectacular of production with that of consumption.
Hence the conflicts that matter in the M8 corridor, and which define its occluded vistas are those between competing shopping malls and the distribution centres that service them. Such employment as there is consists in ministering to this consumption complex, or else servicing still more distant service industries via telephone and computer. The dichotomy between the legible landscape of recreational Scotland and the illegible one of consumption has been fully effected, and in outline it mirrors certain other key dichotomies in the Scots national psyche: Calvinism/libertinism, parochialism/cosmopolitanism, drunkenness/sobriety. The Scots Rustbelt, far from being an unavoidable zone of historically inevitable post-industrial detritus, to be tidied away into museums, piled up into grassy pyramids, planted over with sustainable verdure, or otherwise greenspaced, is simply another Antonine Wall, paralleling the old one, and so dividing the complacent ego from the maddened id of the Scots unconscious. .
This is an extract from the Wreford Watson Lecture given by Will Self at the University of Edinburgh this week.