In the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice when on their wedding day Eurydice is bitten by vipers and tragically dies Orpheus goes down to the land of the dead, to Hades, to find her. He is granted this privilege by Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, because of the power of his song but on the condition that he does not turn back to look at his rescued bride until, as Ovid puts it, “he had emerged from the valleys of Avernus”. But as they almost reached the surface of the earth Orpheus grew anxious in case his beloved wife’s strength was weakening and such was his desire to see her that he looked back and, as Ovid laments, “straightway Eurydice slipped back into the depths.”
From Virgil through Ovid, through Rilke to Ted Hughes, the story of Orpheus in the underworld has come to represent the triumph of life and art over death and destruction. As 2013 turns into 2014 I like to think of Orpheus as representing Scotland and Eurydice as symbolising our future political life and our reimagined freedoms and liberties. The underworld as described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses is the infernal regions of the Roman Empire as imagined two thousand years ago and contemporarily restated by the Daily Mail and Fox News. As Orpheus’s weakness and Eurydice’s fate prove the underworld is a difficult place to escape from but what the myth encourages us to consider is that in order to inhabit the halcyon possibilities of the future it is wise not to dwell in the past: in other words – don’t look back.
It is Hogmanay as I write so it is habitual to look back but as the coming year promises to be so monumentally full of change and surprises, it is after all – whatever else it will be – the year of The Referendum, the eye, the instinct of optimism, looks forward. If we Scots vote Yes next September we have then given ourselves the chance to create a new country out of the infernal regions of the British Empire because, historically, that is what we are witnessing the final death throes of. Come 2016, if we have an independent Scotland, it will not be aversion of the past – which, thankfully, is impossible – nor will it be a continuation of the present – which, in a UK context, is unbearable. Now, as we emerge like Orpheus from the valleys of Avernus, is not the time to falter: for Scotland, like Eurydice, it is a matter of life and death.
All these things and more came into my mind earlier this month when I attended the funeral of my father in law, a 95 year old Orcadian from the island of Rousay, as we ferried him home for the final time from Tingwall to the Rousay Pier. He died the day before Nelson Mandela and other than an infection of the lung which killed them both, there was an enduring strength and dignity which Roy Russell shared in common with his more celebrated contemporary. Roy had volunteered for the army on the outbreak of World War Two and found himself in the North African desert as part of the 51st Highland Division in the British 8th Army fighting the Italians and Rommel’s Afrika Korp. Many of the Italian conscripts captured in that campaign ended up, ironically, building the Churchill Barriers in Roy’s native Orkney and directly across from where family came to live in Holm on the Eastern Mainland. Like Mandela Roy Russell’s consciousness was shaped by struggle.
Roy always spoke of the terrible poverty he witnessed as the 51st landed in Sicily and then fought their way up the leg of Italy. This experience changed profoundly the way he viewed “the enemy” for he saw that they were ordinary people trying to work the land as best they could just as his own folk were doing back in Rousay. Roy Russell was typical of the private soldier, the squaddie, who was politicised by the tragedy of World War Two and who in their many thousands vowed that they world after the war would be a better place than it was before it and voted Labour en masse in 1945 to ensure that change. Ever since those heady days of promise, despite the significant advances of the post-war British government, there has been a steady erosion of that radical desire to the point now, when we buried the old soldier, that the society he left was one of the most unequal since the 1930’s, the very opposite of his desire.
The daily spiralling of both national and individual debt, the falling living standards of the majority, the constant deconstruction of our political freedoms and civil rights, the privatisation by stealth of the NHS and the reversal of education as a right and now normalised as a privilege, the stigmatisation of the poor, the old and the weak by a wealthy spiv-wracked ruling elite is a betrayal of Roy Russell’s working life and his generations heroic efforts on our behalf. Those who govern the British state, despite their platitudes, despise the faith placed by the common man and woman in the democratic institutions and processes of government. Every improvement and entitlement won by hard work and struggle is being stripped back, reduced and rescinded by the forces of reaction emboldened by the “war on terror” and the financial collapse of 2008. The mono-mania of the new fascists was never the temper of the ordinary people of Scotland, of which Roy Russell, my father in law, was one. Their optimism and humanity is being trampled into the dust.
All Better Together offer the people of Scotland is the past, repackaged, rebranded, rebuffed and relived as a lie. It has not been an edifying spectacle. A procession of Tory snake oil salesmen peddling their hypocrisies as arguments we have grown used to but the comprehensive descent of Scottish Labour and Liberal politicians into putting the interests of the British state (and their own careers) before the interests of their Scottish constituents has been risible. The recent revelations as to the identities and interests of the latest cohort of Better Together funders has only added to this sense of sordidness. Scotland, if it is to be fit to live in, has to shed all these restricting skins.
The year is turning. The days are short and the nights are long. September is close. The future is near and is possible. There is an old Highland song, a kind of carol of Hogmanay, which goes
“I am now come into your country,
To renew to you the Hogmanay,
I need not tell you of it,
It was in the time of our forefathers.
I ascend by the door lintel,
I descend by the doorstep,
I will sing my song becomingly,
Mannerly, slowly, mindfully.
…Give it to us if it be possible,
If you may not, do not detain us.”
It seems to me that the job of Scottish writers in the coming months is to be like Orpheus to the extent that his song was so powerful as to induce the trees to gather to enjoy the melody. The weeks between now and September is a time of work, of shedding the nay-saying voices of The Sirens, the “hoodies that croak for doom” as Hamish Henderson put it; to say “I will sing my song becomingly”. For make no mistake the siren voices are tempting us onto the rocks. Unlike Orpheus, for the sake of ourselves, we must not look back. Happy New Year!
© George Gunn 2013.