2007 - 2020

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.

Comments (16)

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  1. Mark Bevis says:

    There is an interview with Derek Jensen over on Collapse Chronicles on youtube, where he states he didn’t understand why the corporate elites, who have never cared about the peasants as long they work themselves to death to pay taxes, have suddenly developed nationalisation of great parts of the economy. and some kind of vague attempts at forms of UBI with faux compassion.

    On consulting other specialists, he came to the two possible conclusions:
    1) They are prepared to break the economy now because to leave it to the market now would mean a bigger hit to the economy later. {Remember this is going to be an 18 months pandemic}
    2) The bulk of the victims of the pandemic tend to be male, over 60 and not in best of health. Which is the same demographic as the bulk of the corporate elites. IE, they are shit scared it will get them too.

    1. Donald McGregor says:

      Thanks for the link.
      It is sadly true that we are being told to accept personal responsibility for alleviating the current consequences of the pandemic. It is equally and even more sadly true that the consequences that need to be avoided are entirely the result of political economic choices made for many years by a bunch of bastards that give not a fig for human equality and decency, and that they continue to make those choices right now, even as we hide inside.

      Sadly I am not minded to wander the streets meeting and greeting people to raise the flag and resist. And yet somehow we must. My brain hurts.

  2. Jim Ramsay says:

    Thank you.

  3. Tom Hubbard says:

    Thanks again George.

  4. The Over Extended Phenotype says:

    The Great Leader is no longer leading.
    The People of Facebook are leading.
    The POF have two demands:
    1. Nobody should ever suffer.
    2. Everybody must live forever.

  5. Richard Gunn says:

    You must have noticed that, when Johnson made his “Stay at home!” pronouncenent, his voice dropped and embarked on the “Boris-as-Churchillian” tone. When this happens, Boris as buffoon is before us. Maybe there is or maybe there isn’t sense in what he says. Anyone who wants to take him seriously faces the additional problem of signing on for the buffoonery at stake. Will anyone who splits his sides in hysterics be arrested as taking too much space?

    1. Wul says:

      Yeah…I’m kind of wondering if “weirdos and misfits with odd skills” are the best people to have running a country.

  6. Fay Kennedy says:

    Thanks George as always for your insightful and uplifting writing. Down here in the antipodes it’s the usual gangsters and their sychophants that are charting the course. So more than ever the poets, artists, writers are necessary as they have always been.

  7. fiona macinnes says:

    Tis an ill wind, an unforgiving Spring and a bed for snow
    Tapadh leat a’ sheoras

  8. SleepingDog says:

    Saying “nothing is new” is stretching poetic licence beyond self-parody in a piece complaining about techno-babble and false economic doctrines.

    I don’t find Boccaccio musing on the impacts of the Internet on public information, or whether virus gene-sequencing was a better remedy than mocking, or how air travel had increased the efficacy of flight in this plague-themed excerpt from The Decameron (1353?):
    https://www.themiddleages.net/life/decameron.html
    Indeed, he is interested in the novel behaviours and apparent abandonment of tradition and belief that the plague brings (no mention of toilet rolls).

    “-besides the qualified there was now a multitude both of men
    and of women who practised without having received the slightest tincture of
    medical science–and, being in ignorance of its source, failed to apply the
    proper remedies”
    which seems to all too aptly applied to many creative interpretations of our current predicament, lacking in scientific (or science fiction) understanding and systems thinking.

    The claim that “It is the poets who will tell the truth about these events” is, in light of all this, ludicrous hubris. We should be listening to the people who have explained, scientifically, that this sort of pandemic was going to feature frequently in our modern world, just as we should listen (without suspending critical judgement) to the scientists who warn of other dangers like climate change, nuclear war, cyber-attacks and other such threats.

    What I find interesting about the few Boris Johnson’s recent pronouncements I have heard or read, is that he seems to be making a stronger case that government policy should be science-led than I can remember from a senior British politician in recent times. No room for ideology, no reference to classic poets. Because if you accept the logic in science-led policy for the coronavirus emergency, what reason would there be for not following science-led policies for the climate change emergency, or wartime, or times of no emergency whatsoever, in the fields of human activity where science can be appriopriately applied?

    1. fiona macinnes says:

      Poetry is about how people feel and ways of communicating new configurations of thought which would have been present at every ‘catastrophic’ moment in human evolution.
      To state the obvious poetry is not science but then science can be poetic.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @fiona macinnes, I would agree that science writing can be poetic. Charles Darwin’s ending to On the Origin of Species, passages and concepts from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, for example. I share your “new configurations of thought” view, although that is common to many human activities: creative, inventive, philosophic, mathematical, play, idle musing and so on and is also a contradiction of “nothing is new”.

        My objection is to the idea that professional poets are somehow best placed to tell us “truths”. That would imply they understood often enormously complex and technical developments. As I may have said before, a rational philosopher like Greta Thunberg does not call upon us to “listen to the poets!”. Given that most scientific hypotheses will be proved wrong (which is in mainstream tradition the duty of scientific researchers), how often are poets wrong? If on the other hand poets cannot be wrong, how can they ever be right?

      2. Jo says:

        Feelings are simply that, Fiona. They’re real to us all, of course, including poets, but that’s all they are.

        1. Wul says:

          Did Emmeline Pankhurst have a feeling that women should have the vote?
          Did the citizen’s of Germany, in the 1930’s have a feeling that their country had been wronged by the Treaty of Versailles?

          Feelings are powerful things. They create action. And poets can arouse feelings. That’s why so many of them end up in jail.

          Without prejudice towards any commentators here, I sometimes wonder if this difference in viewpoint is between people who make things and people who do not? Anyone who has made something; a poem, a chair or a railway bridge knows that it starts with a dream and feeling that it is possible. Combine the dream and the feeling with knowledge (science?), skill and opportunity and you have immense energy.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Wul, poets can indeed arouse feelings. That is why so many of them end up working for ministries of propaganda, in marketing, writing advertising jingles or hate-graffiti in toilets.

            I agree with your points associating feelings with value and motives to act, and dreams of a better world. Although I think much of actual poetry is navel-gazing and regurgitation, and inspiration comes in non-poetic forms possibly much more frequently.

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