PEOPLE IN A LANDSCAPE: From the Province of the Cat
The twenty first century is noise. It is a babel of voices. An inarticulate banging. A swirling morass of incoherence. As we approach the end of its second decade it could be argued that the 21st century is already the most violent century yet. Certainly, in every year, in every continent, the gods of war have set humanity dancing on the “fields of Ares”, with weapons of such violent potential unknown and unimaginable in previous centuries.
The mayhem caused by armed conflict is only surpassed by the violent damage done to the environment by capitals ruthless and relentless consumption and destruction of the planets natural resources. Addicted to economic growth the 21st century could yet prove unique and be the only century humanity does not survive. The “Age of the Anthropocene” may be a short epoch for the virus that brought the disease. This will not be the end of the world, but the end of a single species: us.
In Book Six of his last great work “The Aeneid” (unfinished at his death in 19 BC) the Cisalpine Celtic poet Publius Vergilius Maro, or Virgil as we know him, sent his hero, Aeneas, down to the Underworld to visit his father, Anchises. The purpose of this rendezvous on the other side of the River Styx was so that the father could show the son his future, which for Aeneas and his band of Trojan refugees would be the founding of Rome and its subsequent mighty empire. Virgil was, after all, writing “The Aeneid” for the ears and ego of Augustus, Rome’s first Emperor. With his future secured Aeneas emerges from the Underworld, fights many battles, overcomes his enemies and, so the story implies, founds Rome. Sadly, the poet died of a fever before he could complete his epic. What Virgil was providing for the Emperor Augustus was the necessary creation myth all empires require. Out of the fall of Troy arose the might of imperial Rome.
This was the core tragedy at the heart of the Roman Empire. The creation myth process can be seen to comic effect when it is employed in reverse, as it is enacted by the ever increasingly confused and confusing political manoeuvres, pronouncements and counter intuitions issued by the British Tories on Brexit. Unlike Aeneas who had to go down into and then returned from the Underworld with a vision of Rome, the various warring factions of the Tories are constructing their new founding myth in the bright open light of reason (they would claim) above ground. Then, having done so, they are determined to lead their followers down into the Underworld, where the vision is happily dead (or undead) and will take its place as yet another version of the past. The past is where the Tories breathe happiest.
This comic inarticulacy is sometimes called the Commonwealth, Empire 2.0, Global Britain or whatever they name it next week. It is merely a construction to hide the lie, which is the only veracity going, that the warring Tory factions are actively engaged in the withdrawal from the EU for their own material gain. They can never admit it but they know that the hardened corruption which is gnawing at the heart of the British state – and fed by themselves – is incompatible with membership of an admittedly far from perfect but evolving European Union. The future regulations forthcoming from the EU on financial probity, for example, are a threat to the power of the elite. Better to get out and stash the cash while you can. The question this throws up for those of us on the political left, for those of us who desire an independent Scotland, is: how can we redeem this violence, this greed?
The first of May is both Beltane, the beginning of Summer in the ancient Celtic calendar, and International Workers’ Day, as designated by the Second International in 1889 to commemorate the massacre of steelworkers in Chicago. Traditionally on May Day the people of the North of Scotland would drive their cattle between the twin fires of Beltane (the past and the future) and then move them up to the higher hill-pastures for the Summer season. It was a time of great joy and optimism, of music and song. I would suggest that now is the time for the people of all of Scotland to drive the cattle of their political will between the twin fires of democratic representation and justice and to graze them on the fresh green grass of a constitution.
Because with not enough of the salt of decency in their societal brains the warring Tory factions of the British state see nothing wrong with the Underworld they are taking us into. As Virgil notes in “The Aeneid”, as the father tells the son, “Each of us finds the world of death suited to himself.” As the poet Hamish Henderson would counter, “Quo life, the warld is mine!”
“The first of May is both Beltane, the beginning of Summer in the ancient Celtic calendar, and International Workers’ Day, as designated by the Second International in 1889 to commemorate the massacre of steelworkers in Chicago. Traditionally on May Day the people of the North of Scotland would drive their cattle between the twin fires of Beltane (the past and the future) and then move them up to the higher hill-pastures for the Summer season. It was a time of great joy and optimism, of music and song. I would suggest that now is the time for the people of all of Scotland to drive the cattle of their political will between the twin fires of democratic representation and justice and to graze them on the fresh green grass of a constitution.”
Have no doubts, this is a Tory Underworld where it is normal for politicians to lie and get away with it, and if found out to relinquish their office in the full understanding that they will be given another cabinet post once the fuss dies down. This is a place of darkness where it is normal to undertake yet another act of meaningless war on an already ravaged, defenceless Middle Eastern people, without the approval of Parliament, a UN resolution or any scintilla of a covering in international law, just to please the North Atlantic Overlord, while concurrently, over the past three years, selling Saudi Arabia in the region of £4.5 billion in arms so that they can fight a proxy war against Iran in Yemen. This is a realm of the dead where it is normal to discriminate and persecute people who have a darker skin colour from those who live on the Great White Way of some imagined Anglo-Saxon homeland, even when these “undesirables” have contributed unstintingly to the British economy for half a century or more. This is the far side of the dolorous river where it is normal to privatise the social welfare of the majority, to denude their human rights and monitor their every movement while at the same time liberating their tax generated wealth to benefit the elite who have not earned it and who then can harbour that wealth in off-shore tax havens, which are the plague-ghosts of an imperial past and the template for the new Global Britain.
Brexit is the least of it. It is, none the less, the signifying flavour of this Underworld. Do we really want to follow the warring factions of the British Tories down there, do we want to join Theresa in the Underworld? We cannot afford to accept the Underworld as being normal. If the British are keen to descend, then the Scots must aspire to ascend. How else can we redeem this violence, this greed?
There are alternative visions. The Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty once memorably said, “All writing is a series of pictures.” So here is a picture: drive ten miles south west of Thurso and you are, in the minds of many, at the beginning of nothing: “terra nullius”, as Captain Cook might have said. He certainly thought so of Australia. If you stop and get out of your car, if you have arrived in Altnabreac, for instance, and you look in any direction you will see the great bog stretching out, “uninhabited” and “valueless”. This is, in almost every way, a debatable land. Much discussed. Much written about. But, as John MacInnes, points out in his essay “Religion In Gaelic Society”, “Most of what has been written, it seems to me, about the history of the Highlands is governed, often quite subtly, by an ‘imperial’ idea.” (Dùthchas Nan Gàidheal, Birlinn, 2006).
Of course, the “empty” land of West Caithness and North Sutherland is not uninhabited or valueless. Its population is much reduced, admittedly, from the peaks of the mid-19th century, and it is very much coveted by the handful of wealthy individuals who own it. No matter how much they paid for it, these North Highland acres to them are very much “terra nullius”, just another kind of “underworld” to which they bring the benison and light of their proprietorship.
In 1770 Captain James Cook landed in Botany Bay, home of the Eora people, and claimed possession of the East Coast of Australia for Britain under the doctrine of ‘terra nullius’. According to the international law of Europe in the late 18th century, there were only three ways that Britain could take possession of another country:
• If the country was uninhabited, Britain could claim and settle that country. In this case, it could claim ownership of the land.
• If the country was already inhabited, Britain could ask for permission from the indigenous people to use some of their land. In this case, Britain could purchase land for its own use but it could not steal the land of the indigenous people.
• If the country was inhabited, Britain could take over the country by invasion and conquest – in other words, defeat that country in war. However, even after winning a war, Britain would have to respect the rights of indigenous people.
Britain did not follow any of these rules in Australia. Since there were already people living in Australia, Britain could not take possession by “settling” this country. However, from the time of Captain Cook’s arrival the British Government acted as if Australia were uninhabited. So, instead of admitting that it was invading land that belonged to Aboriginal people, Britain acted as it were settling an empty land. This is what is meant by the myth of “terra nullius”.
(Source: The myth of terra nullius NSW Board of Studies, 1995. Reproduced in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1996)
As a native of the North of Scotland the ground on which I stand is owned by someone else. The wind that blows across the craggy tops is harvested by landowners and energy companies and sold back to me as electricity once it has been relayed to the South. The tides off the coast which are pulled by the Moon are likewise harnessed by power companies, turned into a commodity and exported South to the direct benefit of no-one in the North. If the people do not own the land and hold it in common then the people cannot benefit from what nature provides and as a result the people cannot actively nurture the environment which sustains them. Without this primary power we cannot redeem the violence and the greed perpetrated by those who would drag us down into the Underworld, nor can we translate the babel of the 21st century into the poetry we need to survive.
The warring factions of the British Tories may act as if the democratic mandate of the Scottish people does not exist, that we represent a political “terra nullius” and that they can do with us as they will. We have to remind them that we will not be treated in such a fashion. We must, all of us, in every way we can, protect our Parliament in Edinburgh. The Scottish government must not give in to the Tories demands that we surrender everything we have gained since 12th May, 1999. We must urge them to be brave and to remember that independence is a claim of right of the Scottish people and not a political bargaining chip. Those of us on the left must demand that our movement concentrate, more than ever, on protecting the rights and welfare of the broad mass of the Scottish people. By doing this the poor and the vulnerable will believe that independence can benefit everybody.
The landowners, the rich and the Tories in general have proven that they despise democracy so we should cease to placate them. We must remind them that all they have is the result of invasion and conquest of one kind or another. This is how we must translate the incoherence and the noise of Brexit. We must use history to our advantage and make it plain to the rest of Europe and the world: the Scottish people are not invisible, just as the Eora people of Eastern Australia were not invisible in 1770. We must write and construct a new picture of ourselves and we must call it, “People in a Landscape.” Without people a landscape is just scenery. Scenery is not a nation.
In “The Aeneid” Virgil makes plain that Aeneas and his Trojans were refugees, fleeing for their lives from a war-ravaged city, seeking sanctuary in a land across the Mediterranean, hoping for a new beginning. The modern equivalence is not hard to spot. How Virgil’s poem was used by Augustus Caesar is another matter. The Roman Empire excelled in building walls just as the British Tories and Trump’s regime in the US aspire to, and the newly elected right wing governments in Eastern Europe have recently done. Scotland cannot afford such ignorance or isolation. We must open our hearts and believe in what is possible. As Virgil reminds us in Book Six of “The Aeneid” – “Desine fata deum flecti sperare precando”, or “Cease to think that the decrees of the gods can be changed by prayers”. In other words, “fortune favours the brave” – and that for us means social engagement, political action and a compassionate public language to counter the hungry alarms of a violent and voracious age.
©George Gunn 2018
George Gunn’s new book, “After The Rain” – new and selected poems, will be published by Kennedy and Boyd later in May. http://www.kennedyandboyd.co.uk/index.html