2007 - 2021

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH: From The Province of the Cat by George Gunn

The SNP have published a road map to independence. Boris Johnson has taken the high road North to talk up the Union. He also has a roadmap. Tonight a full Moon hangs in the Eastern sky. The Far North of Scotland is covered in ice. I scratch my head at the absurd wonder of it all.

In my cartoon mind where I publish my own newspaper and comic there are two headlines – both different, both the same. “Boris Johnson comes to Scotland” announces the newspaper. “Bojo’s comin! Bring oot yer deid!” shouts the comic. One is factual, the other is truthful.

In 1689 the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō set off on his epic journey of discovery which he turned into the great poem “Oku No Hosomichi” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”. “The spirits of the road beckoned me, and I could not concentrate on anything.”, the poet tells us at the beginning of his seminal travelogue. So off he goes, to the “deep North”, to explore both his country and himself. At one point he comes to a place where there is a mysterious Killing Stone.

“The Killing Stone stands in dark mountain shadow near a hot spring. The gasses emanating from the rock were full of poison still. So many bees and butterflies and other insects lay dead in heaps around it, you couldn’t tell the colour of the sand.” (Translated by Tim Chilcott, 2004)

As I write this the total dead in the UK from the coronavirus is 102,000. 1,725 died yesterday. By the time you read this that daily number will probably have increased. As this pandemic literally moves through us we have gone on a collective journey from tragedy into catastrophe. From catastrophe we now enter into the realm of the absurd. Everything about this pandemic is absurd. The way we live our lives is absurd, in as much as what we expect to consume (which is everything) and where we desire to travel for pleasure (which is everywhere), with no concern for the consequences. This is absurd. The way the UK government has handled the Covid-19 crisis has, from the beginning, been absurd, and becomes more absurd every day.

Unlike Bashō in Japan Boris Johnson in Britain is not coming to Scotland to discover his country or himself – or to visit the Killing Stone. He is the Killing Stone. If we are not careful we will become the heaps of dead insects obscuring the colour of the sand. It does not matter where he goes or what he says to whom. The result will be the same. Dead bees and butterflies.

Scotland is not Boris Johnson’s country. Boris Johnson is his country. He stands before the TV cameras almost daily trying to summon up sincerity from somewhere, but he cannot find it because it is not there. Like all the others of his class and breeding his education, life experience and intimated levels of expectation make it impossible for him to display empathy towards his fellow humans. To have empathy, at base, you will have a cultural background where sympathy and kindness are seen as everyday acts of normal and necessary interaction. Psychologically, in such a culture, you are programmed to embrace co-operation and mutuality as the required implements of social existence and human intercourse. Because such implements have never been required by the members of his class, where everything in life is provided, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom finds it impossible to feel anything for anybody other than himself. When he stood up and told the television cameras how sorry he was about the 100,000+ deaths he was sorry: he was sorry for the fact that this disaster has occurred while he was unlucky enough to be the sitting Prime Minister. He was not sorry for the dead or their families, he was sorry for himself. That is how the ruling class are hot-wired. It is pointless to expect them to act differently, more humanely, because they cannot. They have been conditioned to believe that the point of life is to benefit oneself. Which is why they are clueless about what to do about the coronavirus pandemic, the Brexit fallout and the breaking up of the United Kingdom.

In the house journal for British constitutional confusion and despair, the Guardian, Martin Kettle tried to articulate his version of the absurd from the Southern end of the Narrow Road. (25.1.21),

“Ministers (of the UK government) say they recognise the immensely delicate issues involved. The Tory mind instinctively fears this is a Pandora’s box that could empower separatists from Caithness to Cornwall. But the Tory bottom line is also that they would now lose a zero-sum contest. They cannot appear as if they are arrogant colonial masters, says one minister. So the reform path, however difficult, must be followed. It is an enormous risk, and time is running out fast.”

What is absurd about that is the idea that the “Tory mind” will follow a “reform path”. Tories, with or without minds, do not naturally embrace reform. Their underlying objection to Scottish independence is that they want everything to stay as it is. Which is impossible. The “reform path” they envisage is a raggedy road littered with a virtual set of abstract changes which amount to nothing more than lightless light, soundless sound and tattered flags blowing in the insincere neon wind. Their “narrow road” is so extreme it is only a pixel wide. Just watch and listen to Ruth Davidson at First Minister’s Questions when she rises like a Jenner’s mannequin to ask questions she does not care about only to receive answers she does not understand. Or is that the other way around?

As a “separatist” from the “deep North” of Caithness I, along with many of my fellow Gallach’s, are desperate to join – re-join, or at least to join in – in the collective task of creating a new emergent Scotland. A country where we will be safe from the “Killing Stone”, within or without the Prime Minister of the UK. Everything he says and does is meaningless but fatal. He may walk along the Narrow Road but he will ever get to the Deep North.

The shrinking world forced upon all of us who are constrained by the rules of the present lockdown makes the idea of journeying anywhere absurd, however delicious it might seem or be. The world we currently inhabit is one of absences. It used to be thought that only God makes human actions meaningful in an absolute sense and if there was no God actions and states of mind in the world have no ultimate meaning. If this is so – was so – then life is absurd. Many on the left might argue that the Tories are, in fact, evil. Some septs of Christianity might try and persuade us that the pandemic is justification for believing in the existence of evil. The Killing Stone come to life. There are others, more philosophical perhaps, who would say that there is no sophistry that can ever make sense of why bad things happen to nice, innocent people. You could also save yourself a headache and just accept that the world is beyond understanding, and the best thing you can do is to worry about other people and how we can protect and support one another. In other words living your life is more important than knowing what it means. Yet, as Simone du Beauvoir put it, “We must all answer for everything to the world at large.” Or as Boris Johnson has said, “Now is not the time”. Either for an enquiry into the disaster of his government’s management of the Covid-19 outbreak, or a second Scottish independence referendum. Or anything difficult, in fact.

So what can you do to make human sense out on an inhumanly meaningless world, ravaged by a killer coronavirus? The simple answer, I would suggest, is – stay alive. This is not so easy as you might think when the British government is doing its best to kill you. As it stands the Narrow Road to the Deep North as followed by Boris Johnson leads to a sheer cliff. I wish I could say that Dunnet Head will be the place where the remit of this most reactionary, corrupt and incompetent Tory administration ends and where an inclusive Scottish republic begins. One day I dream that I will be able to do so. To hang onto a vision is hard at the best of times (and these are the worst of times) and even more so when the structure of time itself can simultaneously fall apart and morph into “lockdown time”, when the days of the week change their names to “this day, that day, the other day, the next day, what day, one day and some day”. This is the calendar of the absurd.

The problem for our new Scotland is not just in clearing up the wreckage left by the pandemic but in coming to terms with the nature of the Narrow Road that got us here: all the decades of austerity, unemployment, industrial destruction and thieving of our national wealth cannot be undone just by having Sir Keir Starmer and his new version of old New Labour in power in Westminster. To implement the idea of Britain careering over Dunnet Head requires some revolutionary thinking as well as direct action. Roadmaps, eleven point plans and formless gestures will not make the oligarchs, hedge fund gamblers and squire-ocracy who sit in power on the green benches in Westminster quake in their boots. Likewise they underwhelm the Scottish people. To counter change, such as a second independence referendum leading to independence, the UK government cite the current state of the Covid emergency, and that everything must wait until it is over. That it is too risky to do anything else. A risk to whom, you may ask? The reality is that amid the hot moving plates of political tectonics the emergency, Covid or otherwise, is never over. Right now even an effective leadership would appear revolutionary, as would a real workable proposal from the Scottish government to address the democratic deficit and to take control of economic resources. Is this a risk? What is there to lose except more of the same British Killing Stone?

At the end of my Narrow Road to the Deep North I would want to find a country where it is the people’s government who take the risks in the development of everything, including new technology and medicine. This would be a society where markets are seen as a set of rules for trade that can be re-written and not some mystical realm where only wizards dwell. In this new republic the idea of government as business and the outsourcing of services would be understood for the corrosive and destructive practise it is. How sweet it would be to have a government that would naturally go in the direction that would benefit society as a whole and not just enrich individuals. Brexit, the Covid response, austerity, benefits cruelty, inequality and cronyism: these are our sour UK realities.

In his marvelous epic Basho, a master of Haiku, noted that

“Even a thatched hut
May change with a new owner
Into a doll’s house.”

In the Deep North where I live the Tories have a history of burning down our thatched huts and forcing us to live on rocky outcrops in the sea. Maybe our revolution will be more in tune with Michelangelo, who said that he carved angels out of marble to set them free.

Much as it grieves us we might have to accept that independence for Scotland is a long road but, as the saying goes, “It’s a lang road that disna turn”. A long road, yes – but it doesn’t have to be narrow, or endless.

©George Gunn 2021

 

Comments (32)

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  1. Graeme McCormick says:

    Scotland will surely succeed with such eloquent mastery of the pen! An inspiration!

  2. Alba woman says:

    Beautifully written ….heartbreaking but true. I just don’t have the words to describe the awfulness of the situation we in Scotland are facing….Thank you George for finding those words.

  3. Florence Sinclair says:

    Beautiful writing I wish ,as fellow Caithnessian, I was as erudite. Johnston’s class are indoctrinated to be bereft of humanity, immoral individuals, entirely without empathy or compassion . But no matter how long that road to Independence is The dream will never Die

  4. MARTIN EDMUNDS says:

    What a beautiful piece of writing, it encapsulates the dream of a future Scotland where government is for the benefit of all the people, where poverty isn’t the acceptable punishment for lack of opportunity or education or good health or just plain good luck.
    A Scotland where governments aren’t run by people who think getting rich is the acme of achievement, or by people who think making rich corporations richer is a goal so they can point at the success of the economy as a measure of overall social improvement, while forgetting that in the midst of that booming economy there are folk with no benefit from it whatsoever …. see Thatcher’s Britain.

    In short, could Scotland be a social nirvana?, probably not, but it can be far closer to one unshackled from the insanity it is currently chained to.

  5. brian rooney/ rooney says:

    really enjoyed reading this and it was so accurate, precise thank you.

  6. Barry says:

    I absolutely loved reading this.

  7. Ian Deare TMIET MIMIT FRSA says:

    Excellent piece

  8. Rachel says:

    Just wonderful writing and thoughts. Inspiring and international.

  9. Mai Bee says:

    I feel George Gunn has stepped into my brain and put into words all I am feeling.

  10. Tom Ultuous says:

    Great article George.

    Surely we’ll get independence this time round? The current unionist argument against consists of 1) It’s irresponsible to have a referendum during a pandemic 2) The 2014 referendum was a once in a generation event 3) We give you money (as if they don’t borrow it and don’t want it back). Do they have a 4? They don’t even have the border threat anymore as an independent Scotland would be dealing with them on the same terms as Ireland as a result of their “great EU deal”. Perhaps if last summer’s cancelled orange walk (to “thank the tory govt for their handling of the pandemic”) is rescheduled we’ll all change our minds.

    1. C. E. Ayr says:

      Isn’t it interesting, Tom, that ‘once in a generation’ is repeatedly trumpeted as a promise, whereas The Vow, apparently, was not?

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        To say nothing of the “if you leave the UK you’ll leave the EU” argument C.E.

  11. Tom Ultuous says:

    No. The Westminster govt claims that 102,000 people have died from Covid but this is not correct.

    When the excess death tolls are published we’ll get an idea of the true figures. None of them will be down to 5G save for the odd installer plunging from a tower.

  12. Glen McGill says:

    It’s a very long time since I so enjoyed reading a commentary. In spite of the gloom of the subject, this leaves me smiling.

    1. John McLeod says:

      Agree.

  13. Axel P Kulit says:

    powerful.

    Do we really want a republic having observed Trump over the last four years? Or is that because they did not get the checks and balances right?

    ( I am sure the alternatives are not republic vs Monarchy but there my knowledge ends)

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      ‘Republic’ just means the public domain. The fundamental questions are that of liberty (which of our affairs should be in the public domain and which should be in the private domain) and that of governance (how those public affairs should be administered). Republics can be to varying degrees authoritarian or democratic. Some historians (notably Patrick Collinson) describe the polity of Elizabeth I as a ‘monarchical republic’.

      Quentin Skinner, in John F. McDiarmid (ed.), The Monarchical Republic of Early Modern England: Essays in Response to Patrick Collinson (2007), praises the ultimate success of the ‘monarchical republic’ in the Glorious Revolution of 1688/89 as the endpoint of England’s long journey towards constitutional government.

  14. Richard Easson says:

    If we take the High Road , the Toerags can take the Low Road. Well said.

  15. Dougie Strang says:

    Great essay, thank you. Articulating what so many of us feel.

  16. C. E. Ayr says:

    Excellent piece, George, you have neatly encapsulated a widespread mood.

  17. John McLeod says:

    “….a country where it is the people’s government who take the risks…”. A phrase to cherish and remember. These days, there is a growing, unspoken sense of collectively being on a narrow road the deep north. In times gone by, peoples and tribes would sometimes move on, or be forced to move, to a new territory. That is no longer possible – all the physical territories are already inhabited. Intead, we are on a shared cultural and spiritual journey. Thank you to George Gunn for giving us words and images with which we can talk about this.

  18. Isabel Rayborn says:

    Thankyou for an enlightened discussion based on knowledge to history and literature.

  19. MacNaughton says:

    Great stuff as always George, though for my taste, it is far too generous to mix poetry in with any analysis of this simply insufferable, dangerous clown, Boris Johnson, the man who has led this island into a disaster, with plenty more to come.

    As I recall it, some time ago you rightly described Brexit as a coup by the far right of the Tory Party, and that is exactly what it is. For example, we now have a Home Secretary who believes in the death penalty, and whose police we learn today in The Guardian arrested a newspaper photographer covering the fire at the detention camp of asylum seekers, detaining him for seven hours.

    This at the same time as the so called spy-cops bill goes through parliament, which will guarantee undercover police officers immunity from prosecution for any crimes carried out on the job, giving them carte blanche to commit crimes in the name of the State….it’s happening today this Tory coup against democracy in these isles…

    And for the umpteenth time, the toothless Labour Party / opposition is missing in action as democracy in Britain is steadily washed away by this extreme right wing entryist faction who have taken over the Tory Party and with it, the British State….

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      Wasn’t Brexit rather the collective will of the British electorate, as settled by a free vote? What kind of ‘coup’ is that?

      Fantasy politics!

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        “Wasn’t Brexit rather the collective will of the British electorate, as settled by a free vote? What kind of ‘coup’ is that?”

        A very British coup.

  20. Jenne Gray says:

    What an inspiring piece! It gets right to the heart of the change we need. Thank you

  21. SleepingDog says:

    An acquaintance said something like the media were overstating the dangers of the pandemic since it appeared to be killling mainly people over 80 (who were bound to die soon of natural causes anyway). I disagreed with their analysis of what constitutes danger (death is not the only measure of danger; vulnerable, front-line people are more in danger; the more people infected, the more mutations happen, and who is to say one these will not change the demographic of danger, and so on). Nevertheless, this article brings up “dead bees and butterflies” without exploring the value of non-human life, and to look at the very real danger to human life if we kill off the various species our environmental existence depends on. Or the ecocidal weapons in the hands of our rulers. Or the despoilatory imperial form of capitalism that the British establishment still cling to.

    There is a much greater cone of death projected by our UK governing class that makes the COVID-10 deaths look like a symptom foreshadowing a much greater ill. It has been scientists, largely, who have brought these dangers to public attention, not poets.

    1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

      In danger of what if not death?

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Foghorn Leghorn, one non-fatal danger is long-term physical impairment:
        https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/long-term-effects-of-coronavirus-long-covid/
        and there are various psychological and emotional harms (damage to mental health, feelings of guilt for apparently infected a loved one), each of which has a debilitating and potentially life-shortening effect.

        Other harms would be developmental (the effects on the young), and environmental (lots of single-use plastic). The broader, international impacts are still being assessed.

        The main point I was making concerns a hypothesis about poets and scientists, which is that the defining characteristic of poets is that they want to make themselves feel better/good about themselves, while the defining characteristic of scientists is that they are curious about the world outside themselves. The problem I find with this article is that it advocates doing exactly the kind of thing it criticises in the privately-educated ministers of state: harking back to the poetry of the past, using classical metaphors to deal with modern problems. While poets have been bleating about about a world without borders, closable borders have been the main defence against this pandemic, as people with a basic scientific understanding would have appreciated.

        There is immense danger in being led by poets, as Lord Flasheart sees the war as an endless supply of in Blackadder Goes Forth. Poets don’t have to give solutions, or resolve questions, or reduce their utterances to unambiguous statements. They have no responsibility, no accountability. They don’t even have to supply quality. In many cases it is left to the reader to project their own thoughts on the mess. And how these lovies like to support and give each other a hand up. Poetry is the soma that is poison to a society that needs honest criticism. It does not stand in opposition to Tory-toff rule, it is the very stuff of that rule. Less poetry, more science!

        1. Axel P Kulit says:

          ” Poetry is the soma that is poison to a society that needs honest criticism. It does not stand in opposition to Tory-toff rule, it is the very stuff of that rule. Less poetry, more science!”

          It is not uncommon for repressive governments to shoot poets , especially if the poetry veers into the political domain.

          The problem with political poetry is it tends to get dated very fast.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Axel P Kulit, I would have thought it very uncommon that poets get shot for their poetry, and I have been trying to quantify this threat. I did find a claim that poets live shorter lives than “novelists, playwrights or other writers”:
            http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/3648773.stm
            but this was put down to factors such as poor mental health. Yet, comparatively, as the author is quoted saying “poetry is not a hazardous occupation”. Sure, there are a few who speak out and make the pages of Verso’s Book of Dissent, and a very few meet with the ultimate sanction, a vanishing amount for their poetry alone. The Poets’ Union and devotees of the Cult of the Poet keep their memories alive, but possibly pass over the much greater collaboration of poets with regimes of all stripes.

            In reality, even if some bard slipped the occasional coded criticism into their praise-poetry for their clan chief, their contributions never challenged the system. Poetry is today seems similarly safe in general character, warning labels seldom attached, unlikely to be targeted for suppression in the UK. I have just finished watching the Brack Report, a 10-part television dramatisation from 1982 of an alternate energy strategy, which seems to have attracted complaints by the nuclear lobby, in ways I doubt poetry ever would.

            A scientist is expected to get insights from their research, or the research of others. Where do poets get theirs from? It’s a mystery, or a Muse, or perhaps mysticism? When we really get down to it, isn’t poetry basically self-praise, at some level? And self-praise is what the British establishment nourishes itself on. There is a fascinating passage on UK private school sector propaganda in Francis Green and David Kynaston’s book Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem which covers such a self-commissioned report. The deep problem of Westminster-centred politics is that it is largely performative poetry, soundbite and slogan, metaphor and simile, the double-meanings playing to different constituencies, the slippery statement, the colourful put-down, the intertextual nods to the (real or imagined) ancestors.

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