From the Province of the Cat 13: The Language of the Birds
“The past is unbearable, the present is degenerate, so our only hope lies in the future.”
So wrote Bertolt Brecht some 70 years ago. He had Europe after World War Two in mind but it is tragically a maxim which holds true for any artist at any time. Brecht’s immediate dilemma was that he was fleeing an intolerant democracy which had stopped him working – the US – and going to a newly formed Communist state which was offering him everything he desired – East Germany. This was a journey to the land of opportunity, only in reverse.
This business of moving between two realities is the common experience of all artists. Nothing is fixed. Everything is lived, remembered, forgotten. What seems important now is only the received litanies of the past which refuse us entry into tomorrow. Those who have looked beyond the perennial now are shunned as being mad, difficult or disruptive. The gods of mediocrity wear expensive clothes, hold down responsible jobs and employ reasonable language to perpetrate outrageous crimes against the imagination of the people. They will talk about “living in the real world” or “everyone understands that their must be savings” when in fact the world they administer and manage is as artificial as cyberspace and the savings they insist the majority make are to fund the excesses of the few.
So it was last month when all the local authorities in Scotland set and passed their budgets for the coming year. When we talk about local government in Scotland we are actually employing the language of the birds but unfortunately, in the Highlands at least, we have no Olivier Messiaen to turn it into music. The Highland Council have made it almost impossible for children to study music at school. The Moray Council have just cut their entire arts budget which includes closing seven libraries and doing away with their very successful arts outreach programme. These two authorities along with Argyle and Bute and the Western Isles have “saved” some £20 million this year with cuts for next year expected to be double that. There are 32 local authorities in Scotland employing around 278,000 people. Of the budget of £30 billion Holyrood receives from Westminster approximately one third of it goes to fund local government. The question is this: is this really democracy?
The leader of Moray Council took great delight in telling Radio Highland that the council had consulted extensively with the people of Moray and that at every surgery he attended people had said to him that employment, education and housing were far more important than the arts. I suspect such things would only be said if he, the councillor, had asked them, the people, such a question which, I also suspect, he did not. What I actually suspect is that Moray Council did not consult with anybody very much and even if they had they are not structurally or culturally programmed to respond to any recommendations they do not like. What the leader of Moray Council did not say was “I will fight these un-necessary cuts with every fibre of my being!” No-one in local government last month uttered anything so defiant. The amount of cash saved by Moray Council in cutting their arts budget amounts to approximately .02% of their annual spend. This passivity is reflected in Holyrood as much as it is in Westminster. This is what the politicians call consensus. What ordinary people know it to be is betrayal.
We are being asked by the Scottish Government to debate the future of Scotland yet that debate is taking place in a climate where the future is being diminished every fiscal year, every salaried month, every budgeted week, every pay-day loan resorted to as and when the state inflicts its financial extortion on the least able to pay or resist. One would think, listening to politicians and political commentators, that “the deficit” is as natural a part of the human experience as evolution. It is not and when interest rates rise and borrowing becomes more expensive and quantitive easing is seen as the economics of the Mad Hatter and the banks fail again we will very soon learn to understand the true nature of thieving and deceit because it will not be perpetrated by sub-working class criminals, as posited by the Daily Mail and Tory MP’s, but by government itself.
The passivity displayed by our local authorities is of the aggressive kind. What we have in Scotland at the moment is local authoritarianism. Last week the Highland Council, with funding from the Scottish Government which allowed it to hire a team of expensive consultants, held a “charrette” week in Thurso and Wick whereby local people were asked to participate in a series of “ideas workshops” which will, so it was claimed by the consultants, contribute to the creation of a “community plan” which the council will use to map out the future for these two struggling northern communities. This is the fruition of the Planning (Scotland Act, 2009) and the Community Engagement programme which is part of the legislation. All fine and good. Yet the “charrette” can only make recommendations to the Highland Council’s planning department to inform them in their work of drawing up a community plan for Thurso and Wick which, if the behaviour of the Highland Council since its inception is anything to go by, it will ignore. In the past, as far as Thurso is concerned, the community plan has been abandoned by Highland Council as soon as a big business such as Tesco or a nuclear spin-off company from Dounreay required a site or when some developer wants to create an industrial estate. Whether these enterprises are situated on a green field site or close by a housing estate would, one would think, be the concern of the community plan. Recently half of Ormlie had to be evacuated when an engineering plant across the road caught fire on a Saturday afternoon and highly toxic fumes and black smoke wafted over the houses.
The “charrette” has come and gone from Caithness and the council officials and consultants on show were unmistakably sincere in their efforts and much good sense by committed and genuine people was spoken, noted and entered, one would hope, into the report. After that the authoritarianism of government will do its grinding work. Many say that Scotland with 32 local authorities has too much “local” government. I would take the opposite view: I believe Scotland has very little real local government at all. It is not just from Edinburgh and London that the stifling tentacles of centralism emanate. Inverness, Elgin and Stornoway are just as capable of exerting control over their domains as the national administrative centres.
To avoid authoritarianism we must invest in localism, in a system of representation where it does not take a traveling “charrette” to garner local wisdom, which contributes to the deconstruction of power in order to wrestle control away from centres to peripheries, whether they are islands, headlands or villages. Our human energy investment into the re-drafting of the political charter for Scotland must be concentrated on creating an expanded network of local political power structures which are directly responsible to the people who create them. We cannot afford in a new Scotland to just adopt the tired old political structures of the past with their legacies of domination because if we do it will be a disaster waiting to happen and, like the coming rise in interest rates, it will happen.
The recent controversy over the Raasay sporting rites where the Scottish Government for the sake of saving a few hundred pounds rode rough shod over the interest of the island community is a case in point. The continued toleration and legitimisation of huge landed estates throughout the Highlands and Islands by the Scottish Government and the Highland Council is another negative signifier. As a result the depopulation of the Highlands and Islands by its economically active indigenous young population to be supplanted by retirement, tourism, recreation and dubious industrialisation such as wind and fish farms will go on a-pace. This is what happens when people have no real power and confuse the state with society which is what the state insists upon. It is people who create society and in the Highlands we will become our own internal diaspora if we destabilise the future of our children by wasting the potential of the country.
In Alastair Macleod’s novel “No Great Mischief” there is a scene of touching beauty when Calum Ruadh MacDonald, who in 1779 has crossed the Atlantic from the peninsula of Moidart in the West Highlands to Nova Scotia, gets off the ship after many weeks at sea and sets foot on the pier at Pictou. He breaks down and weeps. He weeps for two days and no-one knows what to do with him, so they just let him be to get it out of his system. When he left Scotland Calum Ruadh was a married man. When he arrives in Canada he is both a widower and a grandfather. When he left Moidart he was a member of a community with a tightly knit culture shaped around a common language. In Nova Scotia he is a foreigner with a foreign tongue and from one end of the vast continent to the other he knows no-one. So he weeps. He acknowledges his weakness, his fate, his destiny, his history and he aches for the land and people he will never see again. He weeps for all of this, for his family who have survived and for his wife who has not. But mainly he weeps for himself because at that moment on the pier at Pictou he is the loneliest man in the world. Sometimes, when I look along the streets of Thurso, the place of my birth, I feel like Calum Ruadh.
Herbert Marcuse has pointed out in “Eros and Civilisation” that “Psychological categories have become political categories” but it is a doleful consciousness which does not get up off the pier of exile, stop weeping and walk out to create a better world. The “unbearable” past has to be learned from, the “degenerate” present transcended and the “hope” of the future secured. Scotland is a country in transition. What we cannot afford is to unthinkingly adopt the repressive structures of the past and expect that somehow, miraculously, they will deliver us our freedom. They will not.
We may employ the language of the birds when we talk about the political hierarchies which force us into submission but we need to translate that language so that we can learn from it and for that to happen Scotland needs her artists to become more engaged with the political transition that is taking place. The ground of the “perennial now” is moving forward in time. What the birds speak of is this movement and the necessary solidarity of survival. They also sing about the joy of life. I like to imagine Bertolt Brecht whistled that tune to himself as he headed from the hearing of the House of Un-American Activities to the airport in October 1947.
© George Gunn 2013