A Complaint in the Time of the Pest
The Pest is amongst us. Broke and banged up I stare out of the window at the emerging Caithness Spring. The performance of my new play is cancelled, my tutoring gone the way of flour, tea and toilet roll in Lidl’s – my life now, although different, is much the same as everyone else in the creative sector, or those who are self-employed and those who constitute the economic precariat. Am I complaining? Of course I bloody well am. It is the duty of poets to issue complaints. A “complaint” is a form of political and lyrical poetry in which the “complaint” will become the means of seeking practical resolutions and emotional consolation, not just for the poet, but for all. In Scotland it is an ancient tradition. In the 15th century Robert Henryson, the Makar o Dunfermline toun, penned these words of wisdom,
Thairfoir I counsell men of euerilk* stait
To knaw thame self…
(The Wolf and the Wether, Morall Fabillis, lines 2609-10)
*euerilk – each and every.
Easier said than done. Every time “our” Prime Minister appears before the cameras he looks more like a man on the run. Or rather he resembles the narrator in Delmore Schwartz’s poem “The Heavy Bear That Goes with Me”, who is “In love with candy, anger, and sleep” and who “Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope\Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.” When Bojo made his “statesmanlike” Speech to the Nation last Monday night on BBC Scotland his lips were not synchronised to what he was saying – this to be fair was not his fault but that of the BBC. The effect was like watching a spaghetti western where the words heard from the gunslinger do not match the action of the mouth, which is the standard reality of this Tory government. In Westminster what we have is the worst of governments at the worst of times.
The good news for Bojo and for the rest of us is that humanity has survived – just – pandemics, plagues and pests before. The will to survive, to be optimistic, seems to be one of the vital components in the common family of our DNA. My current favourite cultural blether is that Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra during the plague “lockdown” of 1603 when all the theatres were shut. So, no pressure then.
Other writers, more qualified than I, have written informed and eloquent articles on Bella – and elsewhere – on just how we got to this sorry state. As Mike Small has accurately stated, “Covid-19 is the disease but the ‘underlying health condition’ is capitalism.”
Alastair McIntosh, in reply, then asks, “What is capitalism? Is ‘capitalism’ entirely something we can and should objectify ‘out there’ and of another order; or is it partly also ‘in here’, internalised in most of us in ways too ordinary for most of us to recognise, and yet we deplore its mass emergent properties?”
The history of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland has been a series of being “out there” and “in here” at the same time. Historically our culture is one of duality, of bilingualism, of a possessing a mythic centrality and of being a political periphery. Emigration and immigration are ongoing human realities. History shows that outsourcing the people of the Highlands in the nineteenth century was a huge mistake, just as for Scotland in total outsourcing manufacturing and general industrial production to Asia in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has also proven to be a major mistake. Not that the Scots had much say in either instance. Both these transitions were a transcendental and physical rejection of localism and the embracing of globalisation, and a severe value shift from the human to the toxic territory where the only meaningful criteria is profit, the bottom line and the balance sheet.
What this Covid-19 viral pandemic, the modern Pest, has shown is that we live in a fragile economic system with an infrastructure which is easily undermined, either by accident or design, but mainly by events which are a culmination of the processes of history but which it seems no politician saw coming. The result is shortages and scarcity – that thing the 20th century economists said we had left behind in history – and leaves us all defenceless, vulnerable and afraid. Thanks to the short-termism of the financial markets and the duplicity of our leaders, who do not lead but serve these markets, we have gone form post-scarcity back to scarcity once more.
There is not enough medical equipment, deep cleaning materials or pharmaceuticals due to chronic under-investment in the health system and the hollowing out of local authorities ability to deliver services. Not enough tenderness, compassion or love because of material addictions of all kinds that we cannot satisfy (hence the empty supermarket shelves) and the dulling of our senses by the techno/psycho-babbling gizmos of the internet cartels. These are the evidences that show us that the narrative we were told by our masters to believe in and follow, which was that this society was progressive, affluent and ever growing, was just the cruel rapture of relentless corporate narcissism. Now we see it is neither progressive or affluent, that it is highly reactionary and oh-so easily undermined by a very real scarcity of materials. Who would ever have thought that this world was finite? Do Exxon-Mobil, now that the oil price has fallen to a thirty year low? Does Jeff Bezos in his Amazonian empire, lost in his internet maze of stuff? What Covid-19 has exposed is that bad economics during a crisis only makes the economic and the crisis worse.
But nothing is new. In 1882 the crofters on the Clyth estate in the parish of Latheron on the east coast of Caithness were in a state of unrest. Since the beginning of the 19th century the population of Latheron had swollen due to the clearances in Strathnaver and Kildonan and the refugees came to manufacture a meagre and precarious living at the herring fishing off Latheron’s seven miles long coast. Large numbers of the evicted settled in Clyth which, by 1882, according to Valerie Amin, ‘Caithness and the Highland Land Wars, 1881-1886’, “was said to be the most severely rack rented in Caithness.” The Clyth estate was bought in 1863 by the Moray merchant Adam Sharp and by 1882 the rents had risen by fifty percent.
Rent day in 1882 was a typical November day in Caithness being one of driving sleet and snow. The Clyth crofters went to Sharp’s Bruan Lodge to demand a fair revaluation of their rents. The landowner refused so the crofters organised a rent strike. The Clyth rent strike was highlighted in the press of the day – although negatively in the local rag – and made headlines in Edinburgh, Dublin and London. This incident added to the clamour for crofting reform which was surrounding the Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone. In 1882 the crofters of Clyth did not have the vote, they would not have it until 1884 and it was not until the Crofter’s Holding Act of 1886 that they were provided with security of tenure. This was also a time of the Pest. The North Highlands succumbed to and endured many outbreaks of cholera throughout the 19th century. Under these conditions it’s is even more impressive that the crofter’s of Clyth managed to organise themselves at all.
These rights were hard won and it is profoundly depressing to see them undermined and surrendered by generations for whom history is just a word. The Clyth crofters of 1882 desperately wanted to change the world because if they did not they would have to surrender the old one they knew for the new world of Canada, Australia and New Zealand which they did not. They had no democratic franchise but achieved progress through solidarity and determination. Recently, from the Brexit referendum to the last General Election, we have seen a situation where a population who have the vote and take it for granted either do not use it or vote for measures which run directly opposite to their own self-interest and to those of their fellows. The crofters of Clyth did not take the vote for granted and when they got it they used it to vote out the sitting landowning Liberal and send a Crofters Party MP to Westminster.
The same day as Bojo was badly lip-synching his way through his Churchillian moment on TV his government were rushing their Coronavirus Bill through the House of Commons, all 329 pages of it. Now, it is sensible to legislate for an emergency but hidden amongst the “sensible” measures such as allowing recently retired doctors and nurses to return to work for the NHS, there were more sinister aspects. Is it really in the spirit of the Covid-19 crisis, in which it is said “we are all in this together”, to grant police and immigration officers the right to detain people “suspected” of carrying the virus and to “take them to a suitable place to enable screening and assessment” and this for an unspecified time? I know some people have to be protected from themselves and the public have to be protected from them but his legislation will be in force for two years. Did Bojo not say the Coronavirus wold be “sent packing” in twelve weeks – and did anyone believe that? The state can now also ban gatherings and events and make it easier for people to be detained in mental hospitals. Like everyone I fully support drastic measures for drastic times but who is to say these pieces of legislation will not have a life after Covid-19 has been dealt with? Perhaps the darker reality of the Coronavirus Bill does not lip-synch with the genuine medical, social and economic needs of the time?
Now this may all seem a bit cynical when the world seems to be going to hell on a hand cart and the shelves of the shops and the supermarkets are empty because people have panicked and put self-interest before community. But when you think about it a bit deeper modern political participation (when rarely it happens) is commonly regarded as an opportunity to assert one’s self-interest, which in most cases means protecting or increasing one’s level of private consumption. However, self-interest, as the German philosopher Hannah Arendt argued, “is a misnomer, since ‘inter est’ refers to the common world that lies between individuals, not inside them.” Which goes, maybe, some way to answering Alastair McIntosh’s “out there/in here” question about “What is capitalism?”.
The other question is, what is governance? Rushing a huge and important bill thorough parliament in one day without proper scrutiny is not a process open to democratic scrutiny. It allows the electorate no possibility of public vigilance. The politicians have said that this is not the time to play party politics but it is not beyond this Tory government to use the current crisis to implement ideology. This pandemic is the child of globalisation. The idea that we can “get back to normal” after it has been contained or burns itself out is a fantasy. The politicians who spout this nonsense obviously do not understand the inevitable hubris leading to nemesis which awaits them. The rest of us cannot afford to be so glib. The Corvid-19 virus is relentless but humanity is both robust and adaptable, as the Clyth crofters of 1882 demonstrate. Capitalism, as recent events have shown, is not.
In Celtic culture there is the concept of dùthchas, which is almost untranslatable, but encompasses the idea of unity existing between nature, land, all living things, people and culture. This chimes with the Socratic proposition that there is a sacred bond between thought and action and it is this bond which energises our lives. Our collective power comes from understanding what has gone before so that we can best anticipate what is yet to come. Our poetry is the code of that power, it is our footprint on the beach of time. No government or dogma, no social, moral or political force has a mandate on that or any real power over it. It is the poets who will tell the truth about these events, not governments. That is my complaint in the time of the Pest.