New Lübeck Letter
Scotland, 11th October 2016
Dear Frau Stadtpräsidentin Schopenhauer and the People of Lübeck,
Thank you for inviting me to send this letter.
I love letters.
I love the feel of a letter in my hand. I love to receive a letter and wonder what is in it, and, of course I love to read a letter, and, if it contains love, or stories, or gossip, I love to re-read and re-read and re-read again and then fold it away and put it carefully in a box full of others so that sometime in the future I can find it and read it again, or perhaps, further still in the future, my grandchildren can find it and feel in its touch a spark of connection to you and me, to reader and writer.
It’s hard to love email.
It’s hard to love text messages.
Twitter is addictive but twitter has no place for human presence.
No, if we want to make a real connection, to convey the breath and touch of our selves and our bodies, we must use paper and pen. That’s what my countryman William Wallace did when he sat down to write the original Lubeck Letter in 1297. He lit a lamp, sat down at a desk in a cold Scottish castle and set down part of himself, in the hope that it would reach your countrymen far across the sea.
His letter was a plea for Scotland and Europe to maintain connected.
That is what my letter is about too.
Let me start by going back in time. 10,000 years ago, the island we now call Britain was connected to Northern Europe by land: a large area of undulating plains and marshes which archaeologists call – Doggerland. This land bridge is under the North Sea now but back then it was a green and fertile place, covered with woods, populated by deer and aurochs and other wild fauna. Doggerland also supported a thriving human population. Villages dotted the landscape. There is evidence of farming, as well as hunter gathering.
And of course, there was trade.
Goods, ideas, songs and people all moved freely along the criss-crossed paths of Doggerland, and along those treads the ancestors of our far-apart peoples forged a binding connection across the great northern shoulder of Europe.
We know this because we find artefacts in Scotland which were made in ancient Germany. We know it because we find in Scotland ways of making pottery, or buildings, that bear the influence of styles that came from Europe. We also know it because… well we know it. We know that humans are human and when two peoples are nearby each other they will send out missives… they will seek to trade, they will seek alliances, they will fall in love. How could it not be so?
The Northern European land bridge disappeared around 5000BC when the Ice melted and the whole area was flooded. The paths and byways of Doggerland were lost underwater. Where once a woman might have walked from one village to another, to make a marriage, there was now seaweed, above her head, the bottom of boats. Britain was separated by sea from Europe and the only evidence of the life below was the strange mammoth bones that Dutch fisherman would sometimes haul up with the herring in their nets.
But, despite the flood, the impulse to connect remained.
For many centuries the North Sea became both the means and obstacle to communication between Scotland and the Baltic. The ports of eastern Scotland, and the ports of Northern Germany were linked by ships trading goods, ideas, people and… wool… a lot of wool. This trade was so strong that by the time of the Hanseatic League there were many merchant houses in northern Germany where Scots Language was commonly spoken. Marriages were made, alliances forged, money and ideas spread, and people moved.
This trade was nice for you,
But it was vital to Scotland.
As you may know, Scotland is not a greatly fertile place. Our country is mostly a thin scraping of land on top of rocks perched at the far, cold, end of the continent. For Scots, connection and trade are not luxuries, they are what makes life bearable. We import wine, and good foods, technologies and ideas. We move. We spend time abroad to learn and advance ourselves. We do not have much natural resource to offer in return, sheep and rain mostly, but we have people, and if you have people then rain can become whisky… and, as you know, whisky makes life considerably more bearable whether one is in Edinburgh or Lubeck… and so we sit, we drink with each other, we share stories… and this is what we call: trade.
In 1297, when my compatriot William Wallace first wrote to the people of Lubeck, he wrote in defence of trade. Scotland was in a time of crisis. The Kingdom of England, our larger and more numerous neighbour, wanted to subsume Scotland. In order to achieve this, the English Kings had threatened to cut off the North Sea trade routes so vital to our well-being. So William Wallace wrote, with urgency and clarity, to the people of North Germany and he asked their help in maintaining the North Sea connection. He asked you to help us to keep Scotland’s door onto the world open – and you did.
Since Wallace’s time the connections between Scotland and Lubeck have waxed and waned but they have always been there. In the modern era, during the lifetime of the European Union, our connection has perhaps been taken for granted. After all, what’s so special about the connection of Scotland to Germany when Estonia is connected to Spain?
When Bulgaria is linked to Ireland? In amongst the vast web of connections that binds our continent together, Scotland’s threads perhaps seemed trivial, or unsurprising.
This is not so now.
In 2016 Scotland finds itself once again in a time of crisis. We are to be taken out of the European Union against our will. Despite every part of Scotland voting to remain, we are to be made to leave. This exit is, for me, and for many Scots, heart-breaking. We feel like a wife whose husband has, without consulting her, suddenly announced that the house is sold and the family is to emigrate.
The many and intricate webs of connection that have grown up between us and Europe over the last 50 years are, it seems, about to be unpicked. The flow of people between us is to be staunched. The many criss-crossing paths and byways of our intercourse – in academia, trade, art and love are to be closed.
Doggerland is once more to be flooded.
But it need not be so. I began this letter with optimism and I am determined, like William Wallace, to end it with optimism. Let us think again of the materiality of this letter. This paper you hold in your hand, like the original Lubeck letter, is testament to the enduring human impulse to connect. This solid object with its trace of human presence is the physical evidence of many acts of open-ness and invitation: the act of inviting me to write, my act of writing, the act of translation, and, of course, the act of conveying the letter. All these acts form threads of connection. Like synapses in the human brain, these multitudinous threads of connection are what make us who we are. And each time we activate a connection we simultaneously maintain it. By writing we maintain the ability to write. By reading we maintain the ability to read and by connecting we maintain the ability to connect.
So, dear Stadtpräsidentin, I write to you with a request from Scotland. In this time of shutting down, please continue to write. Please continue the tradition of the Lübeck letter. Please keep this small door open.
Dear Stadtpräsidentin, I write you this letter on a silvery autumn morning by the banks of the River Forth. From my window I can see ships leaving our sheltered estuary and moving slowly on the tide out into the North Sea. Some of these ships, no doubt, will sail for the ports of Hamburg, and some perhaps destined even for Lübeck like this letter.
I look at the ships and I remember:
The human impulse to connect remains. People will still move.
Lovers will still pursue each other.
Missives will still be sent.
David Greig Playwright
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