Halfway through Suetonius’s biography of Caligula (12 – 41 AD) there comes a turning point, where he says, “So much for Gaius the Emperor; the rest of this history must needs deal with Gaius the Monster.” All Summer long I have been searching for a way to make sense out of how we have made the transition from Britain the State, to Britain the Monster. Suetonius (c69 – c122 AD) wrote in the “Silver Age of Latin”. I fear I write in the “Fag-end of Democracy”. What use is poetry to people who live in a state which sells arms to a client regime that targets and kills innocent children on a school bus and then has a former government minister shuffle on in front of TV cameras to tell us all that such an issue is of “a secondary nature”, as Andrew Mitchell did, without a peedie blink of shame, on Channel Four News at the beginning of August?
How to search for meaning? You look for signs. Three significant things happened in July. The 6th marked the thirtieth anniversary of the night when the Piper Alpha blew up killing 167 men in 1988. On the 16th the Dutch registered 2,228 tonne cargo ship “Priscilla”, carrying a cargo of fertiliser, in a flat calm, almost unheard of in the Pentland Firth, ran aground on the Pentland Skerries. On the same day the BBC ran a story which announced that,
“A peninsula on Scotland’s north Highland coast has been identified as the site of what would be the UK’s first spaceport. Vertical rocket and satellite launches are planned from A’Mhoine, Sutherland.”
These three events are revelatory portents, at least to me, which can help to make sense of an increasingly senseless world. As the Sutherland bard Rob Donn said in 1771, “I declined early and my veins chilled”. (Translation from Gaelic by Ian Grimble).
These “portents” of July do not mean that I am Cassandra. Apollo has not spat into my mouth nor have snakes licked or whispered into my ears. Cassandra’s curse was that no-one would believe her, especially her fellow Trojans. Britain is not Troy and yet the wooden horse of Brexit is being hauled into the city and the seeds of destruction are contained within. However reasonable and pragmatic, tactical and honest Nicola Sturgeon may be, she cannot control events or manage their outcome once the trap-door in the Brexit horse is opened and the forces of destruction descend upon us.
“So much for Britain the State; the rest of this history must needs deal with Britain the Monster.” as a modern Suetonius would put it.
The senselessness of events, from the referenda of 2014 and 2016 to the anxiety of pre-Brexit now, the election of Trump, the increasing manifestations of climate change; all these are due, as far as I can see, to the twin conditions of drift and cascade. We are slowly leaving behind democracy and the welfare state as we knew them, fought for them, constructed them, developed them, nurtured them and are heading slowly for a vast waterfall of reaction over which we will tumble, in a way similar to the belief the ancient Greeks had in Oceanus, the great river that flowed around the world and beyond which lay Hades, the land of the dead. Beyond that was the endless cascade of nothing.
It is not so much that Boris Johnson is a monster and that there are equally monstrous personalities within the wooden blue horse of the Conservative Party and its reactionary ranks, it is more that Bojo is the monster lost within the labyrinth of himself. He devours the red thread of safety every time he opens his monstrous mouth and roars out his deliberate, acrid slogans. It was not Daedalus who constructed the labyrinth of Westminster – it was the British ruling class. Now, in the form of the Tory Party, they wander its endless crumbling corridors like cannibalistic lizards, ravaging and consuming each other out of appetite, greed, fear, paranoia, ambition and cynicism. Ian Blackford is not Theseus, destined to kill the Minotaur, because he is equally lost in the Westminster maze, and Nicola Sturgeon is not Ariadne, who can guide him out. In the modern labyrinth each time Theseus kills the monster another Bojo rises in its place. The red thread, which joins the people to their politicians, has been bitten through, broken by self-interest. So we drift. We drift to an emerging form of post-modern fascism. The senseless, planned randomness of needless destruction.
When Scottish independence eventually comes, and Ireland is united, the British Empire will finally be over. The monster will continue to prowl habitually throughout its labyrinth. But the beast is wounded. Its lifeblood, financialised capitalism, is draining from its body.
In 1967 J.K. Galbraith, like Cassandra, warned that capitalism was shifting from a market society to a technostructure in which capital would be owned and controlled by a cartel of corporations. Not many believed him. That hierarchical technostructure is now the accepted normality. In the financial collapse of 2008 we saw how this cartel was actually a house of cards and was only “saved” by vast amounts of cash interventions by governments, mainly those of the US and China. The political policy of Austerity, so beloved by reactionaries like George Orborne, is the class war-child of this monster, whereby all risk and all financial loss is transferred onto the poor, the weak and the vulnerable whilst the cartel’s political advocates (the Tories) peddle the myth that deregulation is part of the modern democratic process. Meanwhile the cartel who incurred this private debt are enriched and secured by public funding. With the mainstream political parties offering no real alternative to this monstrous paradigm the poor, the dispossessed, the homeless and the hungry are pushed into the welcoming arms of right wing parties and racist organisations all across Europe.
The technocratic monster is wounded, fatally I would suggest, because no government can repeat the trick of the “quantitative easing” bailouts of 2008 when the next crash comes, as it inevitably will, sometime soon. Like the Priscilla on the Pentland Skerries, the monster is on the rocks.
The portents of July, the omens from this long hot Summer, signify that without our own, native democracy we are vulnerable, just as the North Highlands of Scotland is vulnerable to the effects of shipwreck, mad schemes for rocket ranges and North Sea oil field disasters. These are not the visions of Cassandra, but rather observations of recent history, and literature, after all, is an observational art.
The Priscilla was full of fertiliser, in itself relatively harmless even though the IRA used to turn it into bombs. If the ship’s hull had been holed and the stuff had leaked into the sea then it would add to our already concerning pollution levels. Fortunately that did not happen, and the vessel was eventually re-floated and towed into Scapa Flow to safety. In 1999 we almost had a major disaster when hundreds of villagers were evacuated from their homes along the North Coast when a blazing tanker, The Ascania, carrying almost 2,000 tonnes of highly flammable chemicals threatened to run ashore. Only the bravery of the Scrabster lifeboat crew in getting a line on the ship, in atrocious conditions, saved the day. What would have happened if they hadn’t?
The plans for a space-port on A’Mhoine in North Sutherland is another instance of our vulnerability. The UK Space Agency is behind this proposal and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise have already been promised £2.5 million to develop the project which numbers the US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin as one of its partners. The chief executive of HIE, Charlotte Wright, has called the proposed space-port “Tremendous news”. That there are environmental concerns about this scheme is obvious, not tremendous. Moine is the Gaelic word for peat. Lockheed Martin is the American for the worlds biggest military contractor. The UK Business Secretary, Greg Clark, displaying a worrying lack of a geographical awareness, has told the press, “We want Britain to be the first place in mainland Europe to launch satellites.” Sutherland is one of the biggest counties in Scotland with the smallest population. It is owned by a handful of individuals. It was systematically cleared of its native people in the nineteenth century and has been deliberately kept empty for the benefit of hunting, shooting and fishing ever since. As one local commentator succinctly put it,
“It’s very odd and very sad indeed that the effort to cultivate jobs here has been left in abeyance until it suited the Westminster government who now find themselves needing an isolated place to suit their purposes.”
East of A’Mhoine and the Melness peninsula is Dounreay. The same old song was sung in the 1950’s. Now it is just nuclear junk. The reality of its legacy is radioactive pollution.
No economy in the North of Scotland can be sustained unless it is created by the people who live there. What the North Highlands needs is not big Government schemes of dubious worth and morality, but people who can create their own micro-industries. Without people we have no economy. Without access to the land, to turn it from a dormant, wasting asset owned by a few, into a vibrant generative resource for the many, there will be no opportunity to attract people to stay in or to come to the Far North. Until the political will to make that happen is harnessed in Holyrood the Highlands and Islands remain vulnerable. Democracy, only works, does it not, if it is generated from the bottom up?
Watching director Anthony Wonke’s and writer Stephen McGinty’s harrowing 2013 film, “Fire In The Night”, thirty years after the actual tragedy of Piper Alpha, was a difficult and deeply moving experience. The gruesome spectacle of the death of the production platform, the remembered experiences of the survivors, brought back vividly the reality of the events of the night of the 6th and 7th of July 1988. I had worked in the North Sea oil field for ten years up until 1984. My brother was offshore that very night. The horror of watching 167 men just like us being needlessly burned alive has never left either of us. One image that stays with me from that time was Margaret Thatcher warmly welcoming Armand Hammer, owner of Occidental oil, the operators of the Piper Alpha platform, off his private jet. To say that Hammer was controversial was to say that Caligula was erratic. He was a genuine monster. The company’s UK headquarters in Aberdeen was known – none too affectionately – as “Hammer House of Horrors”. In the end Occidental built a new platform, Piper Bravo, from the insurance paid out on the first, sold it to Talisman Oil and left the North Sea with a huge profit. The popular myth is that after the Piper Alpha exploded the North Sea changed. It has not. Oil companies, as Napoleon said of the Bourbon kings: “They learn nothing, and they forget nothing.” The only ones who learn anything in the North Sea are the workers. The latest strikes on the Alwyn, Elgin and Dunbar platforms bear witness to their concerns for their conditions, safety and the environment.
The artist Sue-Jane Taylor’s Piper Alpha memorial sculpture of three roughnecks in Hazelhead Park is the only beautiful thing to emerge from that brutal episode. It represents humanity, renewal, the tide of life.
The monster of Bojo will continue to prowl the labyrinth of Westminster, slouching to Brexit to be born. Because that is what it is all about for the ruling elite – an opportunity to better themselves, for enrichment, to consolidate their power. The everyday lives of ordinary people do not feature in this calculation. Yet the ordinary people are entering into a time of what the ancient Greeks – even a “novus” Greek like Suetonius – would call “aporia”: that is, an irresolvable internal contradiction, a period of intense bafflement demanding a new model of the world we live in.
At the end of his history of Gaius Caligula Suetonius tells us that on the night before his assassination the Emperor dreamed that he was standing beside Jupiter’s heavenly throne, when the god kicked him with the great toe of his right foot and sent him tumbling down to earth. In reality he was stabbed to death in the same fashion as Julius Caesar. So ended the reign of one monster. How can we rid own time of our own monsters?