by Brian Morton

Westward Ho!

October 19, 2009 | by Brian Morton

In his ‘Cornish Heroic Song For Valda Trevlyn’, Hugh MacDiarmid makes much of the connections between Cornwall and Scotland: not just their marriage, or the reproduction “golden lunula” he has made for her – “Linking the Early Bronze Age and the Twentieth Century” – but also something deeper, symbol-ized by the “trick drive-way” to their remote hermitage and place of union, “Cunningly contrived as the prehistoric communications/Between our peoples were – between/North Scotland, Ireland and Corn-wall/. . .The coastwise movement from the south-west . . ./ Presupposed in the bronze industry of Jarlshof/And illustrated by the souterrains and fogous,/Identical with the coulisses, the nervous system,/Of all my politics and my poetry now”. The lines adumbrate a personal trajectory, or would have done if MacDiarmid had mention Wales instead of Ireland, and also a hard-wired cast of mind that is central to Christopher Harvie’s concept of a vividly distinct “littoral” culture and civic society gathered round the “inland sea” bounded by Bristol and Dublin in the south, Belfast and Glasgow in the north.

Harvie makes frequent reference to Mac-Diarmid, as a reporter on the Monmouth Labour Leader and in Liverpool, and as author of A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle, but remarkably makes no reference to Valda or the ‘Cornish Heroic Song’. Nor, interestingly does he make any reference at all to WS Graham, whose own life and career observed a similar though slightly smaller arc from the Clyde to the South-West. He can hardly be faulted for the omission, though, given the astonishing richness of his reference and the weight of detail – geography (human and physical), history, politics, and above all literature – which he brings to bear on his concept of ‘West Britain’ as a confidently self-determining alternative to the ‘core’ philosophies and practices associated with London and, to a lesser extent, Edinburgh.

His argument proposes a kind of asynchronous literary and philosophical synergy between Burns and Carlyle on the Clyde and Solway to Thomas Hardy in his Wessex, not just the Hardy of The Dynasts but also of The Mayor Of Casterbridge where the Scottish moderniser Donald Farfrae brings unwonted (perhaps unwanted, too) tears to eyes in the saloon of the Three Mariners by singing a Jacobite song. It seems a paradox that the living embodiment of self-made pragmatism, representative of a famously phlegmatic people, should provoke emotion second only in strength to the infamously self-pityingly epitaph of Henchard (the novel’s Mayor). There’s art(ifice) to this as well though, for Hardy is at pains to point out that Farfrae sings the final verse twice, wringing out the tears with a showman’s nice calculation. Hardy’s death in 1928 marks, almost, the end of Harvie’s span in A Floating Commonwealth. The poet and novelist claimed a kinship with Nelson’s Captain Hardy, and Trafalgar marks the prelude to the period he covers. The American Civil War, which resolved the Whiggish traders’ anxiety about benefiting from slavery, comes at its beginning, catalysing the North Atlantic culture that reached its hubristic zenith with the fateful voyage of Titanic, which Hardy also commemorated in ‘The Convergence Of The Twain’.

I’d argue that there is a further relevance in Hardy, but in books like A Laodicean (which Harvie does not mention) where the novelist strikes an appealing balance between what might be called atavism and meliorism, between the magma of ancient feeling and custom and the “thin crust” of improvement, order, science and profit which defines the economic history of “the inland sea”. Or at least defines one element of it, because as Harvie makes clear there is a steady opposition – found in Burns and Carlyle, in Steven-son, Galt, Hay, Buchan and Alasdair Gray – between the idea of civil society and volcanic violence. Hutton’s geology and the string of volcanic plugs from the Bass Rock and Arthur’s Seat to Ailsa Craig obviously have something to do with this, and the harsh Scottish landscape, always portrayed as such by the English-speaking Scots in contrast to the Gaelic poets or the early Welsh bards with whom we shared a linguistic and literary history, stands as the perfect metaphor for the thinness of the divide between civilisation and barbary; it was Buchan who gave the distance as that of a thread, or a pane of glass.

The notion of an Atlantic culture is not new. It has been posited by historians as various as Barry Cunliffe in Facing The Ocean and Norman Davies in The Isles, but also by Kenneth White and Richard Demarco. It is not new and the phenomenon is arguably not unique to the west, where the land is always supposedly bright. There is another sickle-shaped sweep of civilisation, oppositely curved, down from Bergen and Stavanger, Jutland and Baltic, Heligoland, the Frisian Islands (where our closest linguistic kin are to be found), right down to the short sea-crossing and now tunnel that links Eng-land to France. A similar thesis might treat the cold North Sea as an inland waterway, even more richly and controversially provisioned, but there is less romance and a more complicated set of politics in this story.

The west – and that includes the knowledge of America, and the direct experience of it in the cases of Arthur Hugh Clough, Frederick Delius and Sir Thomas Lipton – has a more compressed common history, partly because of the mentalités Harvie describes, but largely because of its practical advances: crucially, the very railway system that bypassed Hardy’s Dorset and consigned to history’s backwater the development of fast freight passage by sea. I spent a significant part of my childhood on the overnight passage by Burns Laird from the Broomielaw to Belfast, trying to stay awake long enough to glimpse or imagine the bulk of Paddy’s Milestone, half-way. We docked not far from where Titanic was built, and we travelled in those years with a special frisson, instilled by recent memory (it happened while my mother was carrying me) of the foundering of the Princess Victoria, not struck by an iceberg but swamped in a hurricane off Belfast Lough. Another powerful symbol of the period, also once familiar on the Clyde, was Sir Thomas Lipton’s steam yacht Erin; Lipton was shaped by Ireland and the new retail economy of the USA, and made his fortune in his native Scotland.

Harvie’s allusiveness is quite extraordinary, and one finds oneself returning to deceptively familiar texts, looking for further confirmations of the thesis. I’ve since re-read chunks of John Davidson, who came to man hood overlooking the Tail of the Bank at Greenock and later walked into the sea in the South-West; I was sorry Harvie didn’t have anything to say about him, particularly given Davidson’s powerful synergy of industry and the imagination in the urban. I re-read Clough’s The Bothie Of Toper-na-Fuosich for the first time in twenty years. I half-read, half-remembered Alan Sharp’s A Green Tree In Gedde, where I first saw the word “littoral” in print and wondered if it was meant to be “literal”. And I’ve reminded myself of the fire-and-flood apocalypse of Gray’s Lanark which draws its masculine energies from Carlyle and Davidson and somewhat from Bernard Shaw’s curious post-Marxism as well, I think. John Bull’s Other Island is one of the texts I’ve piled up to revisit after finishing A Floating Commonwealth. Others include George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career, as well as Benjamin Disraeli’s late and posthumously published Falconet.

His footnotes make fascinating reading in themselves, but a key component to the book is a far-from-pro forma prelude and acknowledgements which don’t simply namecheck colleagues, rivals, friends and antagonists but explain the aetiology of a book that has been on the stocks longer than Titanic; it’s significantly more water-tight, too. Harvie’s intellectual adventure kicked off nearly three decades ago with the thwarted devolution programme of 1979. It was probably inspired, in part and in scope, by Joseph (J.J.) Lee’s magisterial Ireland, 1912-1985, which came out a decade later. It has been adumbrated, as they say, in countless papers and an impressive series of books, including No Gods And Precious Few Heroes, his interim history of Scotland in the “short 20th century”, as well as a study of British political fiction The Centre Of ThingsThe Rise Of Regional Europe and (he’s looked east, too, where the land is now dark) Fool’s Gold: The Story of North Sea Oil. More recently, Harvie has been diverted from his desk by membership of the Scottish Parliament for Mid Scot-land and Fife, in the SNP interest. The preface even finds a moment to register the superiority of the now disfavoured WordPerfect over Word as software for anyone who wants to do decent footnotes. And it acts as a poignant reminder that his wife Virginia Harvie, who saw all those books through the presses – and gently suggested here that “antisyzygy” won’t do in polite society – isn’t around to crack a bottle of champagne over A Floating Commonwealth. I met her once, and she was clever and funny; he must miss her like hell.

The sea isn’t so much genderless as a place where the male principle is met on equal terms by the restorative feminine. It is both fruitful and destructive and is now seen more as barrier than highway. Where I am writing, there are touches of this all around. Not far away, standing on a plinth and from a certainly low angle scandalously pregnant, Burns’s Highland Mary gazes away towards Ayrshire, wondering if he’ll come back and do the decent thing. Freighters ply up and down before her – and the odd submarine – but no longer the overnight Belfast boat. A few small boats trawl for scallops and squat lobsters. The military dimension – and I thought Harvie went surprisingly light on this – becomes more obvious as you move round the coast: an abandoned military camp from which the Western Approaches were once watched; a building once designated HMS Brontosaurus; a still-functioning NATOPOL facility in a loch where the bouncing bomb was tested, convoys were parked out of sight of the Luftwaffe, midget submarines were tested and mined warships came to die. If war is the male spirit in extremis, the sea embraces and counters it. If I stand on the headland here – and character after character in A Floating Commonwealth does just that – and look west I can see bonfire smoke and make out a human figure clearing brush. He is almost within hailing distance, an easy row through a fatal swim, and I know he has hares and rabbits. I have some early produce to trade. We know this because telephone – the fine thread of civilisation set down by the great cable-layers – gives the illusion of banished distance. He’s twenty minutes away in the boat neither of us has, and an improbable three and a half hours away by the car neither of us can afford to drive at the moment.

The coastline here is a fractal, every turn in it containing a further turn in miniature, every historical association containing a previous one and suggesting a fresh irony, back through NATO to the Vikings, back through the new-builds on flood-fields to the Neolithic stones and cup-and-ring marks wisely up on the raised beach that MacDiarmid saw as definitive of our condition, back through latter-day Kingdom Halls, deconsecrated and retasked pre-Disruption churches and the odd Episcopal enclave to the first Ninian church whose founds border my ground back through a culture fragmented by water to one held together by it. This is at the northernmost tip of Harvie’s inland sea. It hasn’t shrunk and dried like Aral or Lake Baikal, but its waters seem less easily navigable now and culturally, economically and politically its littoral seems by contrast with the heyday Harvie describes absurdly far from Ireland, and Wales and Cornwall.

There is, at all levels, a kind of elegiac poignancy to the book which only adds to its authority and its power. I recommend you read it twice, once at speed and without pause for the footnotes or to jot down the flurries of reference, and once with pencil and notebook at hand. Impossible to fault, other than by lame recourse to omission, it’s an intellectual masterwork and one of the most important books of the present decade.


A FLOATING COMMONWEALTH: POLITICS, CULTURE AND TECHNOLOGY ON BRITAIN’S ATLANTIC COAST, 1860-1930
Christopher Harvie
Oxford University Press, £55.00
pp320, ISBN: 978-0-19-822783-0

From this Issue

Love Craft

by Pat Kane

Only Connect

by Lesley McDowell

Westward Ho!

by Brian Morton

SRB Diary: My Annulled Eyes

by Candia McWilliam

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