After All Of The Days We Will Disappear
‘Popular music can never be valid and worthwhile unless it reflects the environment that it comes from…. Music of any kind should be a working, living, breathing part of a community.” Stuart Adamson, Big Country
At the beginning of his book Soil and Soul, Alastair McIntosh introduces the Hebridean phrase, ‘What are his earmarkings?’ It refers to the way crofters identify sheep, which outnumber people on the Isle of Lewis, by their clipped earmarks. Applied to people it means ‘Where’s he coming from? What’s she about?’
I moved from Edinburgh to Lewis early last year, and have been asked about my earmarkings a few times, in various ways. It’s a reasonable question. I have no family in the Outer Hebrides, except for my wife and children who arrived with me; my dad was from Birmingham and my mum was from Glasgow. I’d never even been to Lewis until three years ago. Neither of us had a job on the island when we arrived. I probably couldn’t even have found Aird Uig, the village where we now live, on a map. Some friends in Edinburgh regarded it as a strange kind of disappearance. You’re going where?
When someone introduces themselves in Gaelic they will ask you ‘Who do you come from?’ rather than ‘How do you do?’ or ‘How are you?’ In English, belonging is defined in terms of property, as in belongings, or status – ie: having the right qualities to be a member of a particular group. In Gaelic culture, though, language and identity matter more than individuality or personal wellbeing. It’s a variation on the idea of earmarkings and seems to be largely practical. In a crofting culture, human survival is reliant on co-operation, communication, and the sharing of skills and resources. And so – if you want to stay alive, at least – your identity is bound up with the land, the language, and your community.
This is not my observation. I stole it from Madeleine Bunting, whose book Love of Country was, alongside Soil and Soul, a source of wisdom and inspiration for me as we were planning our ‘disappearance’. While Soul and Soul describes an upbringing on Lewis, Love of Country is an outsider’s perspective, a journey through each of the Hebridean islands in turn, unpicking each one’s distinct culture.
Both books made me feel very English, which was disconcerting for someone who has spent their entire adult life living in Scotland. Like me, Madeleine Bunting is an outsider on Lewis, and while she is respectful of its history and culture, she is keenly aware of the urge to romanticise it in a way that only outsiders do. The whole premise of Love of Country, after all, is that it’s a personal journey through the Hebrides, the final destination being her home back in London. Much of the book explores the various ways in which outsiders project their own worldview – their own fantasies, often – onto islands whose inhabitants have an entirely different view of their home, their culture, and their history. It is especially tempting to do this with islands, given how potent they are as metaphors; Malachy Tallack’s book The Un-discovered Islands is another good read on this subject. The much-mythologised St Kilda, which you can see from where I live on a clear day, is a particularly good example, a group of islands onto which you can project any idea you like because there’s nobody left living there to argue with you.
A central theme in Love of Country is the role that the Hebrides have been forced to play in British – or, for the most part, English – colonial identity. The Hebrides, Madeleine argues, have long been thought of as an outpost of the British Empire rather than a place in itself, and sentimentalised and patronised for centuries because of this.
I thought of Love of Country when reading Brexit is a collective English mental breakdown, a provocation by Nicholas Boyle in the Irish times arguing that England has never, until quite recently, had to think of itself as a nation on equal terms with other nations. As Nicholas puts it:
The EU challenged England not to give up a national identity, but to acquire one – to give up the illusions embodied in a United Kingdom that never was a nation, but was always a device to conceal England’s colonial relation to the other nations inhabiting Great Britain and Ireland. Instead the EU offered England the opportunity for equal partnership in a common endeavour, which is nowadays all that nationhood can mean. On June 23rd, 2016, the English rejected that offer and opted to continue living the fiction of splendid isolation that sustained the UK and the British empire before it, and to continue denying the Scots and the Irish a will of their own.
This made me wince. I know something about what that ‘fiction of splendid isolation’ feels like, because it describes my own life. I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to realise this.
It’s late September, and I’m driving along the winding road from Uig to Stornoway, listening to Grit by Martyn Bennett on repeat. I’ve appreciated this album a lot more since I moved here. Martyn’s combination of the music and traditions of rural Scotland and the music of cities and computers is a magical thing. It also feels like a fitting soundtrack to my new life, in which I can be digging ditches, feeding chickens, and rounding up the sheep on our croft on a Monday and working in an office in Glasgow on Tuesday, having caught an evening flight from Stornoway.
It’s the kind of life that’s only really possible if you’re living much of it online. I was told a funny story a while ago about a well known film producer who moved to a Scottish island but pretended to their professional contacts that they were still living in London; apparently nobody noticed. The idea persists, after all, that Lewis is a remote, empty place, far from the cultural centre of things, on the edge of the world – in much the same way as Scotland in general is often perceived in the south of England. Travel articles tend to emphasise how ‘lonely’ Lewis is, despite it being home to one of Scotland’s leading arts venues, An Lanntair. So it suited that producer, professionally, to keep quiet about it.
Other people are more defiant. One of my neighbours, an influential and respected figure in Gaelic culture, likes to show visitors a map in which Lewis is positioned as a gateway to the north Atlantic, with the ‘mainland’ on the periphery, barely visible. Uig, he’ll point out, is only far from the ‘centre’ if you define the centre as London, Glasgow or Edinburgh and are travelling by land. In terms of shipping lanes, though, the Hebrides have been a route to the wider world for thousands of years. Madeleine Bunting makes a similar point in her book – the monks of Iona, for example, travelled all over Europe. The lesson is this: why let other people define where the centre is? The centre is wherever you stand; it’s what you do there that counts.
I had thought I understood this, empathised with it even. The first album I released, back in 2007, was called The Regional Variations. I lived in Glasgow at the time, and the title was an attempt to reclaim a term that had always irritated me, ‘regional variations’, as seen in TV listings. The way the word ‘regional’ was used always seemed to imply it was less important, less interesting, than what was happening elsewhere, ie: London. Add a ‘the’, though, and it sounded like a piece of classical music, like The Enigma Variations. I remember feeling quite proud of myself for coming up with that. Years later I was pleased to discover similar sentiments expressed by a Scotsman, in James Robertson’s very funny poem The News Where You Are. Like Love of Country, the poem is full of astute observations about the power of dominant cultures to diminish or silence other ones.
I had grown up in Carlisle, feeling like an outsider and wanting to leave as soon as possible, ideally to be a pop star. As a teenager I remember feeling irritated that there didn’t seem to be any famous musicians – or writers, artists, or filmmakers – from Carlisle. Even now, the brief ‘culture’ section on the city’s Wikipedia page doesn’t name any. And so I gravitated towards Scotland, partly because I liked a lot of Scottish music and films, but also – if I’m honest – because Scots seemed as annoyed as I was by the concentration of political and cultural power elsewhere, in the south of England.
What an arrogant, entitled little prick I was. If I thought Carlisle lacked a distinct cultural voice, I could have stayed and tried to help give it one instead of just whining about how everything seemed to happen in London, and planning my escape. Other northern cities were carving out their own distinct, contemporary cultural identity, after all. There were plenty of great new writers, artists, filmmakers and musicians emerging from Manchester and Sheffield, for example, resisting the pull of London.
One of my biggest wake-up calls was just after the Scottish independence referendum, in the shape of Grayson Perry’s takedown of ‘default men’ in the New Statesman in October 2014. Default men, in his analysis, were white, heterosexual, middle class men who think of their own identity as the norm and everything else as ‘other’, and so are often blissfully unaware of their many cultural assumptions, their power and privilege. “Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity,” Grayson wrote. “They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project. They are individuals.” It is a trait particularly common in English men – Perry came up with the phrase ‘default man’ while making a documentary about the English class system – although you see it in men from all over the world. Ask any woman.
I was, I realised with horror, a default man myself. How had I not spotted this earlier? Partly because I hadn’t bothered to pay attention to the various feminist writers who had been saying much the same thing for decades. Partly because, like a lot of alienated young men, I was so preoccupied by my self-image as an outsider that I failed to notice how mainstream culture, all over the world, was overwhelmingly about people who looked like me, preoccupied with white, male concerns and full of white male protagonists and heroes. I thought I related to Luke Skywalker because he lived on the edge of the galaxy and longed to be somewhere more exciting, not because he was an angry white boy with a sense of entitlement. I wasn’t an outsider at all. I had a tribe, a community. I just didn’t feel I was benefitting from my membership in the way I thought I should.
Or perhaps I just didn’t like them. Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage are default men, after all, droning on about how anti-establishment they are when they are the exact opposite, to applause from lots of other men who are apparently oblivious to it too.
And then, just as I was getting my head around all that, my dad and mum both died. And I had to figure out who I was all over again.
In the weeks and months after I lost my parents, my young son raised the subject of their deaths constantly, often out of the blue. ‘Your dad is dead,’ he would tell me, while I was in the middle of finding him socks or pouring his cereal. ‘When I’m a grown-up you will be dead,’ he would sometimes add. He didn’t seem upset by this; he was just processing an idea that was new to him, testing my reaction, as children do. Sometimes he would experiment with different ways of saying it. ‘After all of the days we will disappear,’ he announced one day. That’s a good title for something, I thought.
My son’s poetic description of death has now become the name of an album, largely consisting of old songs that I’ve revisited to try and make new sense of them, and of song-writing in general, in light of some big changes in my life. I suspect it will be the last music I release, which makes the title all the more fitting.
In August this year Karine Polwart released The Scottish Songbook, a collection of covers of songs by various Scottish bands and songwriters, from Deacon Blue to Ivor Cutler. The sleeve notes include a quote from Stuart Adamson of Big Country. I have been thinking about this quote a lot.
“Popular music can never be valid and worthwhile unless it reflects the environment that it comes from. I think it should be more like folk music in that I can talk about these situations with people, that I can specify events. Music of any kind should be a working, living, breathing part of a community, something that is everyday and completely natural for people to think and feel about, not something that is tied up in a fantasy island world of sex and drugs and fast cars. That, to me, is all the bullshit of modern music, the distance that is has from being valid, of being a genuine part of life.”
In all the years that I was obsessively writing songs, I had never thought of music in that way. I think this was because Carlisle didn’t feel like my community, which was at least partly because, as previously stated, I was an arrogant, entitled little prick who preferred the heroic outsider wannabe pop musician narrative to the humbler folk music tradition of learning about and reflecting on your roots. To be fair to the prick, though, it can be difficult to feel rooted in a place that doesn’t seem rooted itself. I vividly remember being told as a child that the land I was growing up on hadn’t always been in England; it had previously been part of Scotland. Perhaps a political point was being made, but as a child I missed that completely and just felt unsettled. I associate this memory with another thing I remember people saying whenever I told people I was from Carlisle: ‘I went through there once’. It was a place you passed through, it seemed, not a place you stayed. And so my songs were mostly escapism.
My route to escape wasn’t really in the songs about drugs and fast cars that Stuart Adamson refers to. If anything I took pride in enjoying songs that archly critiqued all that pop star fantasy stuff, like How Can You Expect To Be Taken Seriously by the Pet Shop Boys and Cars and Girls by Prefab Sprout. Paddy McAloon, Sprout’s frontman, was one of my childhood heroes, along with Jarvis Cocker of Pulp and the Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant. All were musicians from the north of England who aspired to make pop music that was cleverer than the usual escapist clichés. I loved Jarvis Cocker’s statement that he didn’t own any ‘casual clothes’ because you never know who you might run into. I loved Neil Tennant’s stories about how he wanted to be the Pope before he wanted to be a pop star, and about being told off at school in Newcastle for his unwarranted sense of superiority. I related to all that. The worst thing in life, I felt, was to be ordinary.
Listening to Grit, though, I find myself thinking: I wish I knew or had bothered to learn how to make music like that, properly digging into the roots of the culture I grew up in and the often ordinary lives that formed it. I wish I’d felt connected enough to something, anything, to have done that, instead of just stealing ideas off the Pet Shop Boys, Pulp and Prefab Sprout.
Perhaps this is partly why I’m on Lewis. Like a lot of people in middle age, I’m looking for somewhere that feels like home, mostly for my children but also for myself. Now that I’m settled here, perhaps some new music, better music, will emerge. We’ll see. In the meantime the new album, After All Of The Days We Will Disappear, documents the journey to the best of my musical abilities. The opening song, Medicine, was written just after my mum’s funeral; the video was shot while I was packing up our possessions in Leith for the move to Lewis. The closing song, Dead Orchestras, imagines my own death and what I might leave behind for my children. In The Song That Says They’re Gone, meanwhile, the whole of humanity disappears – which brings me to another reason why this might be the last music I release.
For a while before we moved to Lewis, we had looked at plots of land on various different islands, most of which were ludicrously unaffordable for us, and so we kept spiralling further north and further west. We – and by ‘we’ I really mean my wife Laura, who is much more of a visionary than I am – had realised that a lot of the things we wanted to do were impossible in Edinburgh. We wanted to give our children space to roam, we wanted to keep animals, grow some of our own food, maybe even grow all our own food one day. If you tried that in Edinburgh, on the kind of modest budget we and most of our friends had, your best option was to take over an abandoned plot of land and hope it didn’t get bulldozed by property developers, which it invariably did once your efforts had tidied the place up a bit and made it more valuable. Fuck all that, we thought. Luckily, we were at a point in our lives, and our work, where we could do something different – we could afford to buy a croft, once we’d found one we could afford, and our working lives were adaptable enough that we could, in theory, live on it.
That’s the narrative anyway. It’s all true, but there’s also a part that we usually leave out because it doesn’t go down so well at social occasions, which is this: if civilisation falls apart, as it might do quite soon, we’d prefer not to be in a city.
The last time I wrote something for Bella Caledonia – On Grief and Independence and On Grief and Independence part two, both from 2014 – it was about the Scottish independence referendum, specifically in relation to grief. The referendum happened a few months after my English dad’s death, when my Scottish mum, still reeling from the loss, regarded the prospect of Scottish independence as a denigration of their marriage. I was touched by the many thoughtful comments from Bella readers. For lots of people, I learned, the independence vote was stirring up complex feelings going back to childhood.
It’s shocking now to be reminded of the hope and optimism of that time, the sense of idealism and possibility. Back then I supported Scottish independence – while tactfully avoiding the subject with my mum – because it had made politics exciting again. As I wrote back then, if it’s possible to break up the United Kingdom after hundreds of years, what else is possible? If it’s possible for Scotland to rid itself of nuclear weapons, what else is possible?
I’m more hard-headed about it now. Moving political power from London to Edinburgh is not going to stop freak storms, floods, ecological catastrophe, the grip of global corporations on all our lives, all of the world’s most pressing and destructive problems. And sadly there are as many default men in the SNP and the Greens as any other party, men whose sexism sometimes seems worse than that of Tories because they’re so incapable of acknowledging it. But if independence can somehow keep us in the European Union then count me in. And there is a strong case to be made that Scotland’s future survival largely depends on radical land reform and support for small-scale farming, and that’s a lot less likely to happen under Westminster rule than Holyrood rule. I’m keenly aware that as a family we are already benefiting from hard-won legislation put in place over a century ago to protect the rights of crofters, legislation that it’s easy to imagine being overturned by Westminster as the climate crisis gets worse. So yes, Still Yes.
How do you stay hopeful, though, in times as dark as these? Someone suggested to me recently that what is actually happening, fundamentally, is that the world’s super-rich long ago collectively concluded – probably not together in some secret room but just individually, because it’s common sense – that a global temperature rise of three degrees or more is now inevitable and will be catastrophic, and that the only way forward is to let civilisation fall apart and attempt to clear up the mess afterwards, once half of us are dead – just not the better half, to quote a line from Titanic. So instead of throwing money at green technology that will just be a sticking plaster on an untreatable wound, they’re investing money and influence into the kind of dangerous sociopaths who are likely to push us off a cliff politically, while buying up property in places that might escape the worst of the weather, with high walls and bunkers. In other words people like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are useful idiots, the kind of leaders people will eventually turn on, perhaps savagely, when they finally realise they have nothing to offer. But by then it won’t matter.
Jonathan Franzen’s recent – and controversial – New Yorker essay, What if We Stopped Pretending, begins with a similarly bleak conclusion to that of my imaginary super-rich cabal, but ultimately finds hope in a Santa Cruz organisation called the Homeless Garden Project, a working farm near where Franzen lives, that provides various forms of support to homeless people. In the future, he suggests, “traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbours and respect for the land — nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators — will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it.”
When I read this I immediately thought of Soil and Soul, and its philosophy of ‘dig where you stand’. It is, I believe, a book for our times. As Alastair writes in his introduction:
“The mainstream manufactures people as a monoculture. It turns us out like cloned rows of apple trees on pesticide-manicured fields. The mainstream ‘trains’ people by pruning. It forces growth in standardised ways. The song that we sing from within the mainstream is thereby not our own song. It does not issue from the opened gates of the soul. And so our personal branches and cultural roots atrophy away. We yearn for connection with one another and with the soul. But we forget that, like the earthworm, we too are an organism of the soil. We too need grounding.”
How do people make that connection? Part of my motivation for moving to the Outer Hebrides, I’ve realised, is to try and learn. The communities we tend to form in cities are different to the ones we form in rural areas. In a city, if you’re lucky, you can choose your own community, find a sense of belonging on your own terms. It is partly why so many young people are drawn to them; when you are young you are actively looking for other people who think and feel the way you do. The upside is that, if you’re lucky, you feel a sense of affirmation. The downside is that you can get sucked into a monoculture, which is partly why so many young people who grow up in rural areas flee to a city and then, a few years later, move back, in search of roots.
It can, in other words, take decades to recognise and accept your ear-markings. I’m just beginning to get a glimpse of mine, and trying to dig deeper into the soil as a result. It’s too late for me to go back to Carlisle; there’s nothing there for me now except one old school friend with whom I’m still in touch, and whose voice is on the new album. And so my Star Wars role model these days is not Luke Skywalker but Rey, someone for whom “the belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead”.
It is a stereotype that small communities are less tolerant of people who are different. This has not been my experience in Uig. It is true that you are challenged on a daily basis; you cannot live in any kind of bubble here, especially in a place with only one shop. My experience, though, is that this makes you both more resilient and more willing to see another person’s point of view – a valuable skill, I would have thought, in an age where people who should be allies are tearing each other apart online over apparently irreconcilable differences. And co-operation is an essential part of the culture here, because it is an accepted part of how everyone survives. Even those we don’t get on with, for example, recognise that in adding three more children to the local school register, or in working part of the land, we are playing a role in ensuring the survival of the village.
For me this is a source of hope. Global problems are terrifying and overwhelming. Local ones are easier to grasp, even if they’re not always simple to fix. There’s not a lot I can do about Boris, or Trump, or global warming, but I can resolve an argument about fencing, help with a gala day, raise funds for my local community centre, and apply what I’ve learned over two decades of working in the arts to making a contribution to the Hebrides’ already rich culture. None of this is making me much money, but these are the resources I have to share.
It’s just possible, of course, that like the incomers described in Love of Country, I am idealising and sentimentalising this place, this life, a little bit, or possibly a lot. Time will tell. In the meantime I’m listening and reading a lot. And I’m trying not to be a prick.
For our first few months on Lewis we were living in a static caravan with no running water or electricity. After a long search for somewhere more weather-proof to live, we ended up in a village on a high cliff-top on the island’s west coast that was once an RAF radar station. I felt instantly comfortable there without really understanding why. Then, walking the dog one day among the stark concrete structures scattered across the hill, it suddenly hit me; it was because it reminded me of two specific places from my childhood.
The first was Hadrian’s Camp, a former military base next to Houghton, the village near Carlisle where I grew up. The tarmac roads where I used to ride my bike, the abandoned buildings where I used to build dens, are very much like the places in which my children now play. The second was Lochranza on the Isle of Arran, where my mum and dad took us on caravan holidays each summer.
What both of these formative places had in common was that they gave me the freedom to roam, to escape, to disappear into the wilderness and into my head. Sometimes I think that I’m just emerging from there now, into a place that, as it turns out, is a bit like an old military base in England, but on a Scottish island coastline. I feel like this would make my mum and dad happy, and I wish they could have lived to see it. And so, when people ask me about my earmarkings, this is what I tell them.
After All of the Days We Will Disappear is on sale now via www.allofthedays.co.uk. Andrew is also producing a theatre version of Soil and Soul, with a script by Alan Bissett, a ‘work in progress’ version of which will be staged at An Lanntair on Wednesday 30 October as part of Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival. www.lanntair.com/faclan.
Image Credit: Bj Stewart