SINCE FIRST the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice and Eng-land. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second, the ruins; the Third, which inherits their greatness, if it forget their example, may be led through prouder eminence to less pitied destruction.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851.
Recently, after a day in my Kirkcaldy office, I got off the train at North Queens-ferry and walked up to where Gordon Brown’s house views the Firth and an odd, tapering metal tower – the railway bridge, seen end-on. I remembered Fife sixty years ago, in the summer of 1949.
Then we were off to a family holiday at St Monance and as the train came out of the tunnel just below Brown’s eyrie, there on the right was a one-off panorama, dripping with symbolism. Two battleships were in Inverkeithing Bay: the Nelson and the Rod-ney. The Nelson was still intact, the Rodney was a cadaver, down to its keel and bilges, its armour and guns chopped up and being loaded into railway trucks. Only five years earlier they had been hurling high explosive at the Atlantic Wall.
Their fate was what awaited Turner’s Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth in 1838, though Dreadnought technology was that of the frumpish steam tug towing the three-decker of the Battle Trafalgar in an image of simultaneous triumph, destruction and foreboding, composed by that genius-juggler with light, then rephrased in John Ruskin’s Modern Painters as the apotheosis of Britain: “did any object more exemplify the genius of man than the three-decker warship?”
Every week or so, Gordon Brown would look out on the bay, the firth stretching out to the Bass Rock and North Berwick Law. But could he actually take it in? He was by training a historian. His university girlfriend, Margarita, was a Hohenzollern, of the dynasty brought down in 1918 by underestimating Britain’s capacity for industrialised warfare. Could he have made out the sequence, from Ruskin seeing in Turner’s work a projection of Britain’s progress and fate – successor to Tyre and Venice – to Kipling taking up the theme over fifty years later in ‘Recessional’:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire: Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.
God of the nations be with us yet Lest we forget! lest we forget!
Brown was given to reading and quoting, and such connections would occur to him. Yet, like Kipling, he viewed the world through clouded sight – something that connected him to that other magus of Britishness: John Milton as Cromwell’s secretary for foreign correspondence, during the closest union that the islands had ever known: Scotland under the solicitous, costly rule of the Major-Generals. If there are power people and feelings people there are also the musical and the mute, word people and eye people.
In traditional culture the bard was blind, spared from battle but kept on as historian, recorder, celebrant. Tom Nairn’s squib on the beleaguered premier ‘The Bard of Britishness’ was well-aimed. Such deviations of the senses would, however, affect what Philip Larkin called the “myth-kitty”, the overall interpretation and use of the national museum. They were not utterly predictable. Churchill’s militarist obsessions were deflected by being a competent painter – expressionist, Mediterranean, ironic, a bit bohemian. Through Lloyd George, he knew William Orpen, Augustus John, Walter Sickert. Lloyd George, the most extraordinary and innovative of the lot, had a background utterly removed from British culture – he only started learning English at five – and a facility to co-opt the talented, wealthy, imaginative and downright devious. “Radical and Welsh home ruler” as Dod’s Parliamentary Companion still described him in 1919, he had signed the cheques for battleships like those in Inverkeithing Bay and used them to destroy German militarism; though in so doing he wrecked the economy of his own Wales and Scotland, triggered the Soviet experiment, the Hitlerian reaction and the Armageddon of 1939-45.
Gordon Brown, as well as the matter of Britain, was the upshot of such experiment, conscious of some ideas and personalities, ignorant of others: perhaps a concentrated image of that parallel Victorian opportunity-predicament – that work and effort would be succeeded by entropy and exhaustion – particularly concentrated in Scotland by the generation of Kelvin and Clerk Maxwell.
Most ironically of all, Scotland was the country he had helped recall to political life in his Red Paper of 1975, that commenced the process which would ultimately distort and condemn his own career. The British Sonderweg would, at the end of the Brown years, prove as cadaver-like as the redundant dreadnoughts. His monument would be – irony moving towards black farce – two huge aircraft carriers, as useless as they were vulnerable, to be welded together in the Rosyth dockyard visible from the other side of the Queensferry promontory. Scotland’s scarce stock of marine technicians would turn away from the North Sea’s life-saving bounty of renewable power and carbon capture to “stuff the carcases” of the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, cost five billions and counting: the Monarchs of Nowhere.
Resuming the politics of Scotland after thirty years – and getting off a bus or ferry meant asking myself ‘when last here?’ as some such distance opened up. Wordman Brown’s literariness provided a perilous link between present and older, once resilient cultural unities, these days usually rendered by the near-meaningless word ‘iconic’.
2010’s circumstances required another icon. Francois Truffaut’s film Fahrenheit 451 made in 1964, is set in a future in which a totally visual culture has systemically evicted print. In its coda guerrilla book-people, in a wood outside Paris, have to turn into what they read: “He’s Weir of Hermis-ton; we’re Fathers and Sons …” By learning (from each other) they live. Brown’s whole being – and mine – had been fractured by the end of the Gutenburg age. The ‘“gunpowder, Protestantism, and printing” of Thomas Carlyle, Ruskin’s master and once a Kirkcaldy teacher, had ushered him into the political domain, only to deposit him in Eliot’s Waste Land:
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats …
To return to such high-print-capitalist imagery was simultaneously consolatory and alarming. The last sight we had of that more toothsome EveryScot, Neil Oliver, at the end of the BBC’s History of Scotland was of him stranded in another tract of stony rubbish, the scrubland that had been Ravenscraig Steelworks in Motherwell, as if waiting, not for national rebirth, but for Vladimir and Estragon to turn up, out of another post-protestant threnody, Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.
Think about the monarchs and even darker symbolism squelched out. The giant aircraft carriers got cross-party support. The SNP’s condemnations of Trident didn’t extend to them because they brought jobs, just as every new supermarket descending on a Scottish town was greeted ecstatically because it brought jobs. Even if it closed down lots of local shops and businesses and replaced Adam Smith’s merchants and their self-regulating civil society, with microserfs doing the bidding of supervisers and marketing men, and business mortally dependent on petrol. What summed this up was an apparently random, freakish tableau from our temple of commerce, that Church of Shopping whose scripture reads: ‘Pile high. Sell cheap.’
Consumption in contemporary life is not marketing alone: it proceeds to deposition. Snowbound in the borders, I happened on a vast supermarket when its toilet had been visited by a man-mountain who had consumed carbohydrate and liquid sufficient to propel his weight of twenty stone. Evacuating some of this into the toilet, he waddled forth, leaving attendants to cope with a turd so gargantuan as to block the WC. For those of a morbid turn-of-mind the responsible statistic developments were seconded: overweight, obese Scotland breathing tobacco, swallowing carbohydrate, alcohol and sugar, excreting it, dying from it. Thus was brought to mind Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the other end of the avante-garde from Beckett’s Godot, prophet of the modern age at his inauguration in 1896, whose royal greeting was “Merde!”
* * *
APPROACHING a study of Gordon Brown’s statecraft and economics was straightforward enough within its own terms. Or appeared to be so, until the European context of this was factored in. I then found that my criteria had after nearly thirty years effectively migrated from Britain, become European. Symbolically enough, my editors excised my prefatory quote, probably correctly – who in Britain read Rainer Maria Rilke? Yet Rilke’s post-Christianity and its fate had given direction to my work and above all humanised its subject:
The knight rides out in his armour black Out into the windraging world
And outside is all, the day and the vale And the friend and the foe and the feast in the hall
And May and the maid and the wood and the Grail
And God himself a thousandfold, minding every road.
Yet in the knight’s armoured shell Behind the darkest ring
Death squats and plots:
‘O when will the blade come home through this ring of steel,
the fremd, piercing blade:
to take me from here
where I bide cramped, day-long
so I can stretch myself
The poem and its translation preoccupied me; because it seemed relevant to part at least of the Brown disaster. Rilke’s knight, starting out in the florid vocabulary of romanticism, ends like Eliot in his waste land: that thin chant of hope wiped out by a final, physical but also mental, negation.
Scotland from its earliest dealings on the international stage balanced its Europeanness against its own internal cohesion, what Ernest Gellner called its “strong” civil society: church, law, burghs, learning. Goethe and after him Herder read MacPherson’s Ossian; Herder translated Burns, and Thomas Carlyle would publicise the whole Weimar galere, and German learning. Thomas Common of Corstorphine translated Nietzsche, William Archer of North Berwick Ibsen. Hugh MacDiarmid introduced Rilke to the British canon in the 1920s, following Eliot’s borrowing from J G Frazer’s Golden Bough and Herbert Grierson’s ‘Metaphysical Poets’ essay of 1921. If anything Scots Europeanism had strengthened after 1707 as a means of balancing the Union. Now, 2010, post-millennium England seems to us continentals to have acquired the same sort of exotic archaism that pre-1745 Scotland presented to the Whig English in Scott’s Waverley. Attempts to suggest a way out for the United Kingdom through the carpentry of constitutional and federal reconstruction had grounded on les barricades mysterieux, submerged cultural roads. Where now?
It was at this point that I found myself putting my own cultural geography into play, after thirty years of professing British and Irish Studies at the University of Tuebingen. To re-read Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus: Diogenes Teufelsdroeckh of the Chair of Things in General at the University of Weissnichtwo, on the Philosophy of Clothes, was at least to get a bead on a model of our discontents, and perhaps a way forward.
Our cultural paradox seemed akin to what confronted Carlyle: the dominance of unsubtle Newtonian scientism, the replacement in religion of organisation over reverence, the breakdown of society into economic competition. And most agonisingly of all, the sense that one’s own generation was responsible for the decline. For those of us who in the 1960s and 1970s bridged the end of the Gutenberg age and the experimental new media, every day had been Christmas: cheap literate paperbacks, Dennis Potter and John McGrath on the telly, adaptations of Sartre, Flaubert, Mann and Suedermann. Henry Miller at the Edin-burgh Literary Conference. Love’s pleasures came with a new reading list: Kate Millett, Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing, Sheila Row-botham. Within months, there was the start of the Open University, and of the remarkable 1970s, something not conveyed in the taxidriverese of TV history – incessant strikes, unburied bodies, Maggie to the rescue, etc. – but stylish, independent, adaptable and, even on North Sea rigs, heroic. Scotland was poised to go somewhere new, and this poise was given a person in Gor-don Brown.
The 1980s were delusive, the 1990s pure loss. Brown thought he presided over a transforming “knowledge revolution” in British capitalism, but this problem child had mutated, matured, and incestuously impregnated its own offspring. Cultural capitalism elided the necessary boundary between cash return and moral discrimination. Carlyle’s “demon of mechanism” reappeared to impose a similar comprehensive agenda: everyone made to follow a syncopated Cool Britannic agenda – the new art galleries, the literary competitions, the book-to-jazz fests became Darwinian processes to select ‘Number One Best Seller’ winners, driven by the potency of profit; while outside the shrinking boundaries of the State of Gutenberg, the crazy plot-lines of the soaps merged with the even crazier variants of reality TV. ‘Reality’ and ‘iconic’ joined ‘celebrated’ in the supermarket dump-bucket.
The pabulum of Brown’s youth, say the original Doctor Finlay’s Casebook adapted from A J Cronin in the 1960s, had been Ibsen and water. The Scots Catholic panel doctor had after all inspired the young Aneurin Bevan in Tredegar. Forty years on, to watch Monarch of the Glen, based on another good-read author of the 1930s, the nationalist Compton Mackenzie, was to be force-fed with tablet. Ukania’s “cultural capitalism” had quite different criteria from the busyness of the Scots 1980s: Gray, Kel-man, Byrne et al., but Scots were apt learners of the argot. A fricative intellectual scene in the 1980s was sharply grossed up by the big booksheds into the ‘Number One Best Seller’ show, with J K Rowling co-opted as the Scots ubernovelist – and bankroller of Brown – because she was rolling in geld. Scotland had become a brand, and the brand was sales.
Parody was a control on this sort of thing. Someone mentioned recently the absence of any Scots cartoonist, akin to Carl Giles or Osbert Lancaster in the English past, or Bud Neill in the 1950s, created their reflectively manic private worlds. There was a useful Edinburgh guerrilla in Frank Boyle of the Evening News, but he didn’t empathise much with his feral shell-suits and hadn’t yet the cumulative subversion Posy Simmonds directed at Metrolit in Literary Life or Tamara Drewe. In the first, a slightly foxed critic at a party slurs over the girl with the canapés: “You’re so beautiful, you ought to be a novelist.” In Drewe, a nasty rock drummer slags off the put-upon heroine’s rustic litterateurs: “a bunch of deadbeats in elasticated waistbands”. Ouch.
“Scotland was poised to go somewhere new, and this poise was given a person in Gordon Brown”
We are in Tom Nairn’s Necrosis Country. Almost literally. Holyrood got two million hits on Google; Grand Theft Auto IV 87 million. The mayhem of its screenplays made Hobbes’ State of Nature look paradisiac, while our political party world seemed as abstracted from their version of reality as Alasdair Gray’s ‘Institute’ in Lanark. Politics seemed no country for young men. Hardly anyone under 26 featured in them, outside the spads and gofers who revolved around the leaderships. At the last count St Andrews Nationalist Students numbered three, and this had been the nursery of Alex Salmond. Had Yoof downsized its reading to invest digitally? Maybe, though no-one had actually worked out the economics of this. Balancing my own online enlightenment against expenditure made me look like a one-man version of Fred Goodwin’s finest hour. Our ignorance of foreign languages, by now engrained, seemed to have spread to the native tongue. From time to time letters about complex subjects would arrive, even from authoritative bodies, whose meaning thanks to wayward syntax was anyone’s guess. Yoof faced huge challenges, particularly from its bosses: us. e baby-boomers had taken early retirement and expected the youngsters to work and save on our behalf -while presenting no reassuring role models.
* * *
BRITAIN was white-shrouded for the New Year satellites. On the box a blechlawine (tin-avalanche) of winking headlights supposedly reassured as some commuters headed home; but for how long? The economics of oil say it will run out before I do. The $10 barrel was in 1999 and it wouldn’t be back. The world’s new fields were in perilous places: Indonesia, Vietnam, the Caspian, Venezuela. Jaggy graphs showed ahead, each rise bigger than the last. The $300 dollar barrel by 2030? Our current political economy of transport offered, instead of apprehension, J K Galbraith’s vacuous “culture of contentment” with long fallow spells spent at the wheel, while bikes made you fit and small computers made buses into offices. The bill, when it came, couldn’t be met.
I found that Broonland, my study of Gor-don Brown’s economics, was pervaded by the sense of an ending. But whose ending?
Friends hoped my short political career would be influential and, though agnostic about my capabilities, I could sense, with the SNP government, a political drama into which my experience might fit, despite the inevitable public embarrassments when lecture-theatre and tabloid collided. The euphoria of gaining one’s way street by street contrasted with specific policy debates: not just about Scottish government business but anent the foregoing ‘Matter of Britain’. A historian who has been a political participant may be over-prone to metatheories of social change. The problem comes when these must be related to personal situations, individual capabilities.
The personal element came from going into politics deliberately and out of loss: of many friends and my wife. I first visited Holyrood only days after Virginia’s funeral and, prompted by lines out of R S Thomas – “those great glass towers which are laboratories of the spirit” – saw that it might give me the chance to take risks about a foreseen crisis. A fortnight before, V had been sitting up in bed – something out of Anglo-Irish stoicism and Buddhist practice made her an undemanding invalid – reading Trollope’s The Duke’s Children, which starts with Lady Glencora’s death and Omnium’s desolation but ends with him at about fifty joining a Liberal government in an advisory role. When Alex Salmond made contact we seemed in for an upheaval. I might be able to map it for the benefit of others, as a contribution from those to whom I stood as trustee.
Set against a continuously absorbing life: the Borders, Edinburgh, Oxbridge, London, boats and railways, the Open University, broadcasting, Germany, France, etc., and being able to experiment in teaching and writing through the OU and the German seminar system, was a circle halved by death. Not in any epidemic, predictable way, but from cancer, thrombosis, alcohol, suicide; the self-neglect of folk committed to ideas and politics. In 2007 the economic crisis came, which would bring the action before me, early every Wednesday, on the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee. I found I had got there before the others; a critique of Gordon Brown’s economics being carried in the Guardian in May 2004. This in turn had been affected by Tuebingen seminars on political fiction in which economics students pointed out flaws in ‘light touch regulation’ which added up to what would later become known as ‘moral hazard’. A book which had come out in the same year as Brown’s Red Paper, John Mack and Hans-Juergen Kerner’s The Crime Industry (1975) argued that computers, globalisation and tax havens would blur the line between “robust business practice” and outright criminality. The space between them would be filled by various difficult-to-regulate-or-prosecute operations, up to and including substantial frauds, along with energetic money-laundering from the proceeds of international villainy: arms-and-people-smuggling, counterfeiting, and of course drugs.
My economics students were now increasingly alienated from a mathematical approach, which filleted the discipline of any social content. It proved quite easy to enlist them as fellow researchers: we had an impressive case in the next town, Reutlin-gen, where the boss of Willy Betz, Europe’s biggest road haulier, faced fraud, bribery and coercion charges running into several million Euros. By the time I came to contest Kirkcaldy the dot.bomb scandals in Britain were succeeded by the still uninvestigated Farepak failure, occasioned by an HBOS foreclosure: the first sign of something bigger falling apart. Even so the dimensions of the crash when it came, in autumn 2008, were overwhelming – not only to us, we soon discovered, but to most of Edinburgh’s financial community. Even in early 2010, the front line between the new plutocracy of ‘kleptocrat bankers’ and the public interest is only now becoming distinct. An earlier, more politicised, generation would not have taken so long to react: something sketched in two books by the BBC commentator Misha Glenny. In The Rebirth of History (1999) the new order in East Europe was heroically democratic, led by dramatists and samizdat journalists. In McMafia (2008) the change was down to the sharp-eyed, cash-seeking spawn of the nomenklatura backed up by redundant thugs from the secret police.
* * *
THE problem about Scottish and British political writing was not just that economics had gone asocial, but that historians and political scientists didn’t talk to one another, let alone to cultural interpreters. A crisis provoked by the mathematical, mega-nerd, deformities of the Chicago school, was unforeseen and hence uninsured against. Satire on the public service had denoted the novels of C P Snow and William Cooper, and in a more farcical sense Yes, Minister. But by the 1990s their objective correlative – power stations and new towns and motorways – had vanished from the public sector and business of statecraft, replaced by the statistical entrails of polls and house prices, degenerating to peak viewing figures and the votes for reality TV contestants.
Our Scottish national movement was also cultural: there to be fed on the one thing needful, not just to match other cultures but to overreach them: apt to clutch at random dishtowel screeds of inventors, which classed Michelle Mone, the lingerie entrepreneur, alongside James Clerk Maxwell, the pioneer physicist. Think about a rather driven critique of the SNP: Tom Gallagher in The Illusion of Freedom on Alex Salmond, seen as a milder version of Welles’s Citizen Kane. A key point in his indictment was the First Minister’s wish, asked about a favourite past, to live in Byzantium. Ah, says Gal-lagher, a yen for the arcane mysteries of Bamboozlium. Not so. Salmond knows his poetry, corresponded while a student with R S Thomas, and Yeats’ Byzantium was an obvious fascination:
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed; Night resonance recedes, night-walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
Perhaps Yeats got the symbolism from John Buchan, whose story ‘The Watcher by the Threshhold’ has a Scots laird haunted by Emperor Justinian. Tyrant in a city foetid with intrigue, he was also the restorer of empire, church-builder, founder of civil law. Yeats’ Byzantium is a totality and an epoch.
An interest in Yeats’ ‘System’ may be as suspect as populism, although it is little different from other Conservative cosmologies. Yeats saw the migration of worship from Greece to Constantinople as the end of his classic cycle, the beginning of law. At Olympia in the workshop of Pheidias, the Chryselephantine Zeus, his image of civilization, had been fashioned; it was captured and transported around 600 AD. The point about that surviving huge and unglamorous shed was that it was built to carry an overhead crane along its length: transporting parts – stone, ivory, crystal, gold – from the craftsmen’s workshops to the great statue. It was the first erecting shop, of a type multiplied along the Clyde in the nineteenth century. Which we thought until months ago we could do without.
Tom Gallagher got Salmond wrong; yet suggested that a more subtle decoding of complex symbolism could enable resilient national conversations. Carlyle, Buchan, Yeats and after him Salmond seemed to pace along the same path: trying to break out of a cyclic history, presently voiced by the doomed British state, concerned to explore the psychological truths behind religious and political systems, broadly defined. Such notions, of being able to move in and out of historical epochs, are not dilettantism but present on one hand images of ease and recuperation, and on the other maps of unexplored and potentially troublesome history.
Again one came back to Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus. Amazed, of course, how anyone got through this cocktail of German Sturm und Drang and Calvinist sermon, but then dragged along by its sheer energy and insight. The ‘Everlasting Yea’ is knowledge smashing into the formulae of authority. Diogenes Teufelsdröckh’s “philosophy of clothes” is sociology without obscurantism, an exhilarating debate between ‘commonsense’ philosophy’s general rules and the panoramas of boundless self-education. Out of it comes the injunction: in a crisis like the present, don’t retreat into the habitual and quantifiable, which are discredited any way, but use the energy you reap from its chaos and new means of transmission to seek out pragmatic general theories and diffuse them.
In Carlyle there was a democratic kernel, nurtured in the wilds of Dumfriesshire, that he couldn’t ultimately live up to, so terrifying was the ambition and energy required. But it was infective: as if he combined with Burns to compass the achievement of William Blake – lyric inspiration and complex world-philosophy. Carlyle’s goal was something like Max Weber’s verstehen: a charting of possible futures, and global in its conspectus: His ‘Hero as Prophet’ in 1841 wasn’t Knox or even Luther but Mahomet. Timely, since coping with the last has been a task the technically-advanced West tried to filter through troops, money, febrile post-industrial social relationships and a media, broadsheet as much as tabloid, far gone in escapism.
What Carlyle had conveyed was the centrality of social science, and the multiplicity and interchangeability of cultural codes. It was better to hold matters together in a general forum, of practical and immediate value, than to allow them to drift apart into mumbo-jumbo and arcane specialism. On the other hand, it involved stripping the Scots of the comfort they derived from a largely confected nationality. ‘The Condition of England’ was the necessary reduction of the UK to its majority component, and ultimately Carlyle gave up on it. But out of his vast learning there emerged an alternative destination for Scotland: its institutions as part of a humane internationalism.
This ranged from ‘the Gods of the copybook headings’ – a proposition as unpopular among Victorian politicians as among any of their successors. ‘Two and two make five’ is not from 1984 but from Anthony Trol-lope, bequeathed via Kipling to Orwell. All institutions compel. To act like Truffaut’s book-people was to keep a dialogue alive, and if it was livelier outside Scotland, to connect with it.
There was the balance of public and private, home and abroad, literary and visual. Last year John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti, first shown in 1987, was resurrected on DVD. This had taken over twenty-three years, a whole generation, for the BBC to do. Was Scotland all that different from England? Yes. Converting procrastination into life support/art form: as in German faculty life when the agenda dries up, preserve tedium by revising the examination statutes.
But back to Byrne and the Majestics. Bomba peers round the B & B door “What are you lot watching? Christ… Postman Pat in Gaelic!” To reappear an hour later, asking “What happened?” Indeed what has happened since 1987? At 9 am Pat and cat are still incomprehensible, though in real life declared redundant. The Gaelic-speaking population has dwindled further. But the bureaucracies have continued to grow, inside and outside the state system. What remains of the public service? What fraction of our conscience and initiative does its oligarchy consume? What use can culture be in springing it?
Where there might have been dialectic, there was instead too much information to digest or properly edit, except through the random, hazardous strategies of flyting and the dialogues of the Edinburgh pubs. Angus Calder, our greatest historian and a fine critic and poet, showed alcohol was, as ever, the worst of masters. William Boyd got on the trail of the Scots and film culture in his novel The New Confessions (1987) with an innovatory link to the world of John Grierson and Sandy Mackendrick – the transposing of vastness and intimacy – which Scotland can and must manage, but then seems to have stalled. The importance of national myths ought to be, since they are wide-ranging enough – religious, aesthetic, scholarly, historical – to slap laziness and impose good behaviour. Otherwise the cockroach-like survivor will be post-modern irony, twittering and tweeting.
My own inclination at 65 would be to modulate to painting, long neglected, and a poetry akin to Brahms Ernst Gesaenge, which he wrote for himself. But my material had been about huge forces: universities, constitutions, steelworks, railways, oil rigs, ocean liners, all the apparatus on view at North Queensferry. If I set out to explain what all this did to each other and to us, who used them profligately but now have little to show for it, why stop?
Metrolit’s audience, however, was addressed by mass-artists, sometimes conjured into weird popularity by the political endorsement of “being seen on the telly’: William Hague on William Pitt, Fionn Hague on David Lloyd George, making millions, adding nothing new. I got the bum’s rush from the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2004, after having impudently suggested that it was Waterstone’s, only bigger. Various members of our literaturist establishment wrote to the Scotsman, vociferous in condemnation if limited in literary production. At the end of that road are the trophy historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama, ‘War’ weighing down Waterstone’s shelves, and dinner with the Browns. Enough.
Such an establishment depends on an oligarchy pre-empting political power, possessing the sitzfleisch of the bureaucracy, and the mastery of over-large governmental units. Just as we need new and responsible finance capital, we need sheltering institutions bridging the arts and society, which will tend this fragile country as his friends looked after Angus Calder. Something local, that cannot coexist with the loutish extremities of wealth encouraged by recent orthodoxies and oligarchies.
* * *
AND so to an agenda, but one in which moderately-priced reforms, achievable within the present system, demand compensatory savings and an ecologically-minded framework.
Anticipate the approach of Peak Oil, and set in motion plans for a radical restructuring of fuel demand, diminishing transport’s dependence on oil drastically and safeguarding our informational/media resources, powered by high-efficiency means. Audit our need for complex financial products and associated structures, instead prioritising ‘narrow’ banking (state bank plus local savings banks) and housing funding for high thermal efficiency (reviving building societies). Introduce universal social service for eighteen-year-olds, using the gains from this to subsidise higher education, shifting it from Adam Smith’s “rental occupations” (law, public relations, which themselves have displaced the humanities) to the technologies we need to survive. Create an economy based on the valuation of carbon, positive in terms of energy delivered, negative in deterring carbon foot-printing. Increase the voluntary element in local government, by the creation of ‘energy and environment boards’ at small-town, city-district and region level.
This was what I believed in when, after the debacle of the 1979 referendum, I left for Germany: and it was justified by what met me: the strength of the old traditions of lehrfreiheit and lernfreiheit: freedom of the academic to teach and the student to learn. For me this worked, in a way which the students matched – though unreflected in Ger-man faculty organisation, which remained, and alas remains, paralytic. Carlyle’s resource was the scholar’s ambition, something which welled up “frae unplumbed depths” as MacDiarmid put it. This drive to systematise and poeticise knowledge contrasted with the myopic over-specialisation too common in today’s Scotland. It went back to the philosophical first year of the Scots university tradition, something that sits well with the advances of modern digital learning and editing, and must return.
Against this? Here I misjudged. Back in 1977 in the first edition of Scotland and Nationalism I assumed that a specialist elite, the group to which Red Paper Gordon Brown belonged, could with devolution become a benign power elite. This was too simple. Power could continue to deal and pay without bothering to diffuse a democratic enlightenment; those worried about it could weigh up the risks and be of use elsewhere. Out of that experience I can help, but it will be up to others to build up continuing action.
“A deep and smooth river” had been Walter Scott’s image of the Union in Waverley. But on the Queensferry promontory Brown seemed out of Ibsen, from young tormented Pastor Brand to old tormented John Gabriel Borkman in his penultimate work of 1896. The dying Borkman, a banker jailed for fraud, struggles from his house up to a belvedere where he imagines his “Kingdom”: his steamers, his factories, and the gold he has animated to build them:
That blast is the breath of life to me. That blast comes to me like a greeting from subject spirits. I seem to touch them, the prisoned millions; I can see the veins of metal stretch out their winding, branching, luring arms to me … You begged to be liberated and I tried to free you. But my strength failed me; and the treasure sank back into the deep again.
Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown
pp256 : ISBN: 13 978 184467 439 8