2007 - 2020

The Freedom of the Mountain: From The Province of The Cat

Tim-cover-03-2By now the Beltane fires lit across Scotland will be smoking ashes. In the far North of Scotland the last two weeks of April were like the first two week of January, so a celebration of the beginning of Summer, of the coming colours “of the land of joy” as the old Gaelic “Beltane Blessing” puts it, was especially welcome. Traditionally, on May Day, all the fires in the houses throughout the district were extinguished and the tein eigin, the need fire, was produced on the nearest hillock. This fire was divided into two and the people would drive their cattle and themselves between the two fires for purification and safekeeping against any future ailment during the coming year. The people then obtained fires for their homes from the tein eigin. It was bad luck not to do this. At Beltane we are all creatairean, or “creatures” as it translates into English. The ritual, after all, is for everyone or it is for no-one. From where I work I can see Ben Dorrery. Up until the outbreak of World War One the Beltane fire was joyously lit upon it.

The fire in Scotland is being lit in many ways every day now. I write this before the election on May 5th and if the polls are to be believed the result is fairly certain: a majority for the SNP. The need fire, the tein eigin, we need to take form this particular Beltane blaze of political vanities is independence for Scotland. We need to take that flame home with us and put in our homes and we need to keep it burning there, and do the same next year and every year thereafter until the dream is a reality and then every hill in Scotland can have a bonfire on it. We have, after all, many mountains. Sometimes a bit of the tein eigin, the need fire, is handed to you when you least expect it. So it was on a day of intermittent blizzards that a knock came to my door and a man from Wick handed me a package. In this package was Timothy Neat’s new book of 338 drawing, entitled “The Day of the Mountain”. It was the day after the UK parliament had voted down (294 to 276) an amendment to the Immigration Bill which would have required the UK to accept at least 3,000 unaccompanied children currently living in dire conditions in European refugee camps and the day before the verdict of “unlawful killing” was found in favour of the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989. So when a little piece of human illumination is handed to you in the form of a beautiful book of art then it is easier to believe in “the land of joy”, or even in the possibility of a good Summer.

“The Day on the Mountain” is a beautiful thing. The drawings, mainly in pen and ink – sometimes other “fluids” such as wine, spit, sweat, blood, spices, egg white and even the mucus from the nose of a bull were used. These drawings may be fire but they are also light and are the result of a huge burst of creative energy as all were produced between the Summer of 2011 and the Summer of 2015 and in themselves represent only a percentage of all the work Timothy Neat produced during that period, and is still producing. As John Berger says in his short “Oncoming” piece at the beginning of the book,

“Tim Neat carries a pen, a brush, ink and a notebook with him, and he draws the faces and bodies of the people he passes, of people he imagines, of people he remembers. Occasionally he draws a landscape, a sky, an insect, a tree, an animal… Just as the cinema records events using twenty-four frames a second, Tim Neat depicts life by assembling the energy of multiple life-times on a single page. And we turn the pages.”

After turning the pages my eyes were a ceilidh of images. All of them dancing like the pen that drew them; scribbly, classically realised, impressionistic, smudged, defined, confident, haphazard, delicate, rough, questioning, celebrating and all full of life, the fulfilment of the perennial contract between the artist and the subject, the eye and humanity. I was reminded of what Nadezhda Mandelshtam said of her husband, the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, that he possessed and endless supply of “zhizneradostny”, which translates literally as “life-glad”. Somehow “joyous” or cheerful” are just too feeble a rendition. Tim Neat possesses “zhizneradostny” in abundance.

Living in the dying days of Tory Britain one has to be “life-glad” or one is in danger of being terminally depressed. The very day that the light shone from “The Day of the Mountain” a seeping darkness crept across Scotland as the UK’s expected betrayal of the shipyard workers of Scotstoun and Govan began to reveal itself. 800 jobs look to be in danger. Also the British Home Stores fiasco was ongoing as the company went into administration with 11,000 jobs across the UK at risk. Dominic Chappell, the majority shareholder at BHS moved £1.5 million out of the company a week before the collapse. The company’s previous owner, Sir Phillip Green, trousered millions before he sold the company for £1, leaving the company some £1.3 billion in debt. He paid his wife £400 million in share dividends via the tax haven of Monaco. There is also the small matter of a £570 million pension fund deficit. To turn on the TV or radio news is to participate in the Tory scripted Brexit soap opera. The ongoing sequence of corruptions and failures is never contextualised. We need to look elsewhere for that.

Living in the dying days of Tory Britain one has to be “life-glad” or one is in danger of being terminally depressed. The very day that the light shone from “The Day of the Mountain” a seeping darkness crept across Scotland as the UK’s expected betrayal of the shipyard workers of Scotstoun and Govan began to reveal itself. 800 jobs look to be in danger. Also the British Home Stores fiasco was ongoing as the company went into administration with 11,000 jobs across the UK at risk. Dominic Chappell, the majority shareholder at BHS moved £1.5 million out of the company a week before the collapse. The company’s previous owner, Sir Phillip Green, trousered millions before he sold the company for £1, leaving the company some £1.3 billion in debt. He paid his wife £400 million in share dividends via the tax haven of Monaco. There is also the small matter of a £570 million pension fund deficit. To turn on the TV or radio news is to participate in the Tory scripted Brexit soap opera. The ongoing sequence of corruptions and failures is never contextualised. We need to look elsewhere for that.

At the beginning of his “Artist Statement” which, modestly, appears at the back of the book, Timothy Neat writes, “Latha mor na Beinne ‘The Day of the Mountain’: this wonderful phrase was used in old Scots Gaelic society to describe the day of one’s death – the Day of Judgement – Great Day of Mountain. It is a phrase that, in addressing death, exults life.”

As the Tories make everyday life for the majority of people ever more difficult it is Timothy Neat who reminds us, so timely and opportunely as we wrestle with this new stage in our evolving democracy, that art can make life possible, joyous. As Pushkin wrote “Pechal moya svelta” or “My sadness is luminous”. What the artist supplies us with in “The Day of the Mountain” is a “luminous” truth and the four year period these drawings were created in proves that in Timothy Neat Scotland possess an artist who is obsessively busy and who is also aware of time and how it passes. If we are to achieve the freedom we require then all of Scotland’s artists have to be similarly “busy” telling the truth because the other mediums to which we can turn are few. In our political processes we may stutter and stagger. It is in our artists we succeed. Timothy Neat sets it out quite plainly,

“When I bought my sketchbooks and began drawing again (after a break of fifty years) I had a vague sense that I was preparing myself for artistic, cultural and political responsibility.”

As I said: busy.

The UK government is also busy, usually at two things: creating economic failure and distracting attention away from their economic failure. The current non-debate about the European Union and the referendum in June is a case in point. What all this pseudo-politics and media grandstanding does is to make lying the new reality: in fact, the only reality. The government lies, those who support the government lie, as do those who oppose the government and everyone else just lies to stay sane. Lying is the language of the great singularity of corruption which washes and swills around from Trident to PFI; from TTIP to police cover ups; from illegal wars to the World Cup and the Olympic Games; from heartless social security restrictions to the Panama Papers; from John Sinclair aka Viscount Lord Thurso schmoozing into the House of Lords on the vote of three Lib Dem hereditary peers to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority spending £8 million on a runway extension at Wick airport to transfer weapons grade uranium “back” to the USA. The examples are too numerous to list. So on it goes, everywhere and anywhere. Democracy is our need fire, our tein eigin. Real democracy will burn corruption. We cannot do that in Scotland if we are constantly heaved onto the “broad shoulders” of a robbing elite who will only carry us off to the poor house.

The UK government is also busy, usually at two things: creating economic failure and distracting attention away from their economic failure. The current non-debate about the European Union and the referendum in June is a case in point. What all this pseudo-politics and media grandstanding does is to make lying the new reality: in fact, the only reality. The government lies, those who support the government lie, as do those who oppose the government and everyone else just lies to stay sane. Lying is the language of the great singularity of corruption which washes and swills around from Trident to PFI; from TTIP to police cover ups; from illegal wars to the World Cup and the Olympic Games; from heartless social security restrictions to the Panama Papers; from John Sinclair aka Viscount Lord Thurso schmoozing into the House of Lords on the vote of three Lib Dem hereditary peers to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority spending £8 million on a runway extension at Wick airport to transfer weapons grade uranium “back” to the USA. The examples are too numerous to list. So on it goes, everywhere and anywhere. Democracy is our need fire, our tein eigin. Real democracy will burn corruption. We cannot do that in Scotland if we are constantly heaved onto the “broad shoulders” of a robbing elite who will only carry us off to the poor house.

In his biographical note in “The Day of the Mountain” Timothy Neat cites the seminal influences upon him as a child. One was a rural bairnhood which stimulated his sensuality. Two others were “Arthur Mee’s ‘Children’s Encyclopaedia’ (‘the most beautiful girl in the forest’) and the rhetoric of Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign (the world moving towards a more civilised future) … which… nurtured my interest in politics.” Whilst I had similarly grown up with the treasures bestowed by Arthur Mee’s encyclopaedia I was sadly ignorant of Gladstone’s campaign of 1880. How synchronic was it then that I had read, just the day previous to receiving Neat’s luminous book, Hamish MacPherson’s informative article about Gladstone in The National. Despite Gladstone’s nineteenth century habit of referring to Britain as England how refreshing was it to read a of a politician who could speak these words to Scottish voters,

“The foreign policy of England should always be inspired by the love of freedom. There should be sympathy with freedom, a desire to give it scope, founded not upon visionary ideas, but upon the long experience of many generations within the shores of this happy isle, that in freedom you lay the firmest foundations for the development of individual character, and the best provision for the happiness of the nation at large.”

To mix Hamish Henderson and Heinrich Heine into a revolutionary formula: freedom becomes people so that poetry (art) can become people and then poetry (art) becomes freedom. In England, or for that matter in Scotland, where is the contemporary mainstream politician who vocalise this or even begin to match Gladstone? As Timothy Neat proves in “The Day on the Mountain” being on the mountain (art) is to embrace the freedom of the mountain, the joy of life.

In her short accompanying and introductory piece to the book the Canadian poet and novelist Anne Michaels writes that, “To draw is to draw breath.” And that

“The exhilaration of being in the world, of communion, the range of subjects, the eye roaming and alighting, the quick empathy and falling in step with another human being, the artist looking at and simultaneously looking from. All occurs in that empathetic moment, a quick grace, bestowal and receiving…. This great freedom to look and feel to let in the world, to cast one’s gaze – is contained in these hundreds of drawings by Tim Neat. His free hand reminds us what it is to be a free man.”

This timely collection of drawings, this revelation of a book, comes when our UK politicians are hell bent on keeping the world out. They must not be allowed to do so for they will deny us the freedom of the mountain, the right to our own country. “To draw is to draw breath”. To be active politically is to hope, is to possess “zhizneradostny”, to be life-glad, to light the tein eigin, the need fire in the house of Scottish democracy, our own great Beltane bonfire. The Sun is shining today.

©George Gunn 2016

“The Day of the Mountain” is published by Polygon. wwwpolygonbooks.co.uk ISBA 978 1 84697 358 1

The Fall of Light: 200 new drawings by Timothy Neat opens on 7th May at Wallprojects in Montrose. See www.wallprojectsltd.com for details.

Comments (15)

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  1. Gordie says:

    Cheers George, got a spare couple of quid this month. I’ll buy some books and one of yours will be top of the list

  2. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Thanks again for your informative and uplifting writing.

  3. John Page says:

    Thank you, George……just wonderful. This is why I follow Bella.

  4. Alba Woman says:

    I loved this piece. Your writing is a gift. Many thanks for sharing your life-glad thoughts in such a excellent way.

  5. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Yes, this is a characteristically deep reflection, thanks George. Timothy Neat is likewise one of the most important thinkers of Scotland’s future. He understands psychospiritual depth, not just individually but culturally, like in Hamish Henderson’s phrase that he lauds, “Poetry becomes a people.”. Neat’s essay in The Carrying Stream from the Islands Book Trust is absolutely superb.

  6. Kevin Williamson says:

    Another beautiful piece George. An antidote to party tribalism. Gonna seek out Timothy Neat’s new book. See you in Edinburgh next week.

    KW

  7. Craig Miller says:

    I spoke a poem to Hamish once in a chance meeting , years later he not only remembered me from that meeting , but he remembered the subject of the poem, and the response he had had to it ….Wow

  8. Kevin Brown says:

    What to say without sounding repetitive? Oh well… great article, thanks for writing it.

  9. Marlene Sim says:

    This is a breathtaking piece of writing ! It helped me also to more fully understand
    ‘The Day of the Mountain’ intellectually, not just with my heart. Eureka !

  10. Redgauntlet says:

    George never disappoints, but for me, we need more anger, we need to go out and some kick some ass…

    …we are being robbed blind by a bunch of privileged swindlers. The Panama Papers, friggin Cameron, the son of Thatcher, Osborne…

    What would Burns have said? What would Wallace have done? William Wallace one fine day – and I would like to make a film about the 24 hours in which Wallace pondered what to do and decided to rebel – got on his horse and burnt down Newcastle. Him and two mates. “I am no longer going to have any truck with this…”

    The greatest national martyr any country could ever wish for. A figure almost comparable to Christ. If it wasn’t for the personal sacrifice of Wallace, maybe Scotland wouldn’t even exist.

    In Madrid, Podemos and the United Left are finally talking. There will almost certainly be a repeat of elections in June. If Podemos and the United Left can strike a deal, the SORPASSO is on….the sorpasso is the moment the new left leaves the PSOE behind, the Spanish equivalent of the Labour Party…

    …Felipe Gonzalez´s wife features in the Panama Papers. So does the ex-wife of Cebrian, the editor of what was once a decent newspaper, EL Pais, these days, a neoliberal rag, give or take two or three excellent journalists…

    ..strange days….days of one minute a feeling of hopelessness, followed by hope…

    Simeone, for his part, has crafted a feisty a team of underdogs who have put the shitters up Real Madrid and Barcelona on one tenth of their budget. He shows what great management can do. And Saul’s goal the other night is the stuff of legend. The barrio was rocking. An all Madrid Champions League Final looks possible.

    Strange days, but time for some action, methinks. Something. Anything. Arts of resistance.

    The average Scot has been blessed with a DNA which revolts against the abuse of power and social injustice, both a speciality of that country down south. We need to break free from them. And I don’t believe the SNP on their own will ever do that…

  11. Redgauntlet says:

    KW…check it….one of these against the Huns at Hampden wouldn´t go amiss…

  12. Jean says:

    A jolt I needed to activate my too long idle imagination from its winter slumber…..what a beautiful article.

  13. Alison says:

    Thanks for the reminder of life-gladness, green gladness, the green force giving forth.

  14. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Ric Hudgens @rchudgens, just drew my attn to this from Tolkien; it sits well with George’s gift.

    “[Family life must have been different] in the days when a family had fed on the produce of the same few miles of country for six generations, and that perhaps was why they saw nymphs in the fountains and dryads in the wood – they were not mistaken for there was in a sense real (not metaphorical) connections between them and the countryside. What had been earth and air and later corn, and later still bread, really was in them. We of course who live on a standardized international diet…are artificial beings and have no connection (save in sentiment) with any place on earth. We are synthetic men, uprooted. The strength of the hills is not ours.”
    (J.R.R. Tolkien, from an unpublished letter to Arthur Greeves, June 22, 1930)

  15. Dougie Strang says:

    Wonderful piece. Bella’s showing next week of ‘Play Me Something’ by Tim Neat, at the Glad in Glasgow, is now sold out, but you can also see his amazing documentary, ‘The Summer Walkers’, at the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on Tuesday night: http://www.tracscotland.org/festivals/tradfest/events/5187/summer-walkers-journey-to-a-kingdom

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