20 December 2012
Every part of
Scotland is a poem.
You are a poem
In memory of Ian: a photograph by Islay McLeod
Ian Mackenzie, the Scottish broadcaster and writer, delivered this speech at the inaugural Young Scotland Programme in November 2002. It has never been forgotten by those who heard it.
I don't have a talk to give you. I did have. I had quite a reasonable talk. The subject was reasonable: is Scotland governable? The content, though I say it myself, was, I think, quite reasonable. That was the trouble. It was too reasonable. Which is possibly why, as my wife and son would tell you, I had difficulty getting it down on paper. And the nearer today got, the more tetchy I got, because the more irrelevant reasonableness seemed in the context of a crazy world and schizoid devolution settlement.
Then on Friday and Saturday two things happened – I'll tell you shortly what they were – as a result of which a subversive smile began to creep across my brain. I waited. Bang on cue, yesterday morning at 4.35am, I snapped awake and knew what I had to do. Can you believe it? Tell you what I believe? Just think of the chaos in the world if we all went around doing that? I mean, of course, what we believe, not what we're supposed to believe. So at 4.45am yesterday morning, I kicked the cat off the bed, kicked the dog off the stairs, kicked the kettle into life, kick-started caffeine into the bloodstream, and stumbled to my desk. What I'm saying now is what I wrote then.
It may not, of course, have as much to do with the governability of Scotland as you might expect. The truth is – and that's what I'm experimenting with here – I'm not greatly bothered about the governability of something I don't entirely believe in. Don't believe in Scotland? We're all supposed to – but deep down, do you? Or is it one of the many living parts of Scotland – Shetland, Galashiels, Galloway, Glasgow, Dundee, Kirkcaldy, Alloa, Alyth, Aberdeen, Peterhead, Inverness, Findochty, Falkirk, Larbert, Perth, Skye, Lochgilphead, Tarbert, Barra, Stornoway, Orkney, Wick, Kilmarnock, Dumfries, Crieff, Kirkintilloch – to mention but a few represented here? Or even deeper into the micro, is it your own community within a community that you believe in, whatever size it is?
Well, the two things that happened to me over the weekend.
The first was a woman from Maryhill. No scandal. It happened on the television – the Scottish News – on Friday. Her home went on fire. The police were the first to get there. They were brilliant. They filled the bath with water – what else? Presumably buckets, pans, kettles. The Green Goddesses arrived eventually, panting, but too late; the polis had already extinguished the fire. Then the woman, youngish, passionate, and crystal clear spoke. If her two bairns had been where the fire was, they might have died. Her utterance was this: 'Bring back our boys, bloody give them what they want. This is ridiculous'. It was pure poetry; words of truth, spoken from the battlements of what mattered to her: the poetry of a mother's scorched love, a face raw in beauty because it was full of her heart.
Love, Truth, Beauty – a mother's reality. It was followed by words by one of our politicians. The contrast was unspeakable. The mother had expressed the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, of her Scottishness, her Glasgowness, her Maryhillness, her motherness. The politician, his tongue controlled by wires from London, was laying out words as lifeless as pieces of cod on a fishmonger's cold slab, with a label proclaiming that political ends justify political means.
So now, I'll tell you what's on my label. I believe in the Beauty of Truth. The Truth of Beauty, and Love.
The poet Keats said it first: Beauty and Truth are the same, and they are all we need to know. But then he was a poet. I might sum it up like this. I believe in love and poetry, but remember what I don't mean by poetry: a po-em (though poetry may be in a poem).
There is poetry of words, there is poetry of motion (sport), there is poetry of politics (Nelson Mandela). There is even poetry in our Scottish Parliament, not because MSPs like John McAllion, Pauline McNeill, Margo MacDonald, Donald Gorrie, speak practically, but because they say things their parties don't approve of.
The planet is a poem, every part of Scotland is a poem, our galaxy is a poem in the epic of the cosmos, and each of you is a poem, each life a growing in time and space of the creative art of being human.
The second thing that happened to me this weekend is what made me mention the galaxy just now. No I didn't pay a visit to it. I may be giving a peculiar talk, but I'm not barking. I didn't have to pay the galaxy a visit. We're in the galaxy, and we've not much choice but to stay in it. It gave birth to our sun; our sun gave birth to us. That is the physical reality. The poetry of the stars and planets in their courses is what made each one of us in this room struggle into existence. That is the truth. The issue is not the governability of Scotland. The issue is the self-governability of each individual person interfacing with the governability of the planet.
The subject of the galaxy arose in a telephone conversation I had on Saturday morning with Nick Webb, the London publishing editor who took the decision to publish 'The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy', written by the late Douglas Adams. This publisher was phoning me because he is writing the biography of Douglas Adams, and the Adams family had told him I'd been a friend of Douglas' father, Chris Adams. As we talked, it became clear that Douglas had been a wonderful person. literally. His defining characteristic, the publisher said, was that he was full of wonder.
He was an athiest, but not the kind of fundamentalist atheist who is as full of shit as the religious fundamentalist. He was an athiest full of wonder – wonder at people, the world, the universe, life in its myriad forms. He was consumed by the beauty of everything. And having known his father, I knew where it came from. I met his father one summer 50 years ago on the island of Iona. Chris was so enchanted by that enchanted isle that he almost went mad in a tempest of love for the poetry of life. If you want a flavour of it, read Shakespeare's 'Tempest'.
In his last couple of years, Douglas Adams took a farther step into reality. He became possessed by a passion to protect our ecology. He developed a desperate sense of urgency to save this planet, this magic island in the sea of stars, this enchanted earth, this paradise which we have the power to close down or at least to uglify, to poison, to bury, under plague, blood, fire and ash. I'm too old now, but you have the power to destroy the poetry, the beauty, the truth of life itself in Scotland – or to save a living Scotland.
Poetry, you see, is not the opposite of action. Poetry is the best action each of us can engage in, to support and affirm what we love. Tell me who and what and where you love and I will have some idea who you are.
We hear of democracy, meritocracy, classocracy, economocracy and that's all very well; or rather it is not very well at all, it can be very ill. I put it to you: loveocracy.
To take a tiny example, in my perception, our Scottish Parliament diminished itself in the tone of voice in which it debated fox hunting. Where was the love – love for the hunting people, the horses, the dogs, the ritual? Oh, the love was invested in the fox. As it happens I too love the fox, but I love no foxy principle. I love the urban fox creeping home at dawn across the Glasgow Kirklee lights after visiting West End dustbins. But I hate the fox from the Galloway hill killing at dawn my mother-in-law's hens. Fundamentalist religion has committed atrocities across the centuries, and still perpetuates physical and psychological atrocities. But does that invalidate the rituals of the mass, communion, a Salvation Army rally, a Hebridean congregation singing the line in a psalm, and all the meditative rituals of the Hindu, the Sikh, the Muslim?
And, speaking of love, who loves the hen? I'll tell you: my mother-in-law, in a remote glen in Galloway, morning after morning going out in all weathers to discover which hen the fox has mutilated before she struggle to repair the fencing. That isn't sentimental: she virtually lives on the eggs.
But will the Edinburgh parliament's next jousting at windmills be to construct legislation to ban the eating of boiled unborn chickens?
At the end of that road, shall we be banned from eating anything other than chemically formed molecules, and banned from doing anything other than lying in a clinically cleaned coffin, voting for Central Control by pressing a button? I'm not saying animal life doesn't matter. But who are we to judge? Foxes kill hens and sheep. Hunters kill foxes. But wow, they're amateurs! We humans kill in millions. And the millions we kill are other humans!
On what we call issues, we take sides too easily. We see things in black and white, right and wrong. And having decided what we 'believe', we demonise the others. Then we feel entitled to call it 'a crisis'.
Do you know the favourite joke of Eric Sykes, comedian and script writer? Here it is: two Irishmen on opposite sides of a river. First Irishman shouts across: 'How do I get over there?'. Second Irishman: 'You are over there'.
Why I make poetry central is because life is more than a battle of logic between two hostile sides, it is a complex cosmos of possibilities. the word poet comes from a Greek word meaning 'maker'. It is for us to make a world we can believe in. You may say: 'But we have to take sides – we live in a time of crisis. We live in a time of revolution'. Yes...but has the human race not always lived in a time of crisis, a time of revolution? Every day on any journey, we are accompanied by danger.
It may be heightened now. It is true, since September 11th this time seems a strange time between times, a journey from one time to another. that's the obvious danger. We've left the shelter of a time we were sure of, but not yet reached a time we're sure will welcome us; we're exposed in the open country of uncertainty. Nobody can now travel underground without wondering about gas in a tunnel. And it's not just in cities. A disco in Bali propels holidaymakers into eternity. Fighter jets at Leuchars were scrambled a week ago to intercept a helicopter over the quarantined space around the Faslane nuclear submarine base three miles from my home. And not so long ago fighters were sent to intercept a plane which might be about to crash into the Sellafield nuclear plant on the south of the Solway. It was a false alarm, but if it hadn't been, and the worst had happened, the fallout would have landed on my mother-in-law's hens on her remote croft on the north of the Solway.
Nor is the danger confined to those of hostile intent. Years ago, my wife, son, and daughter were put at risk by the peaceful processing of energy in Russia. We were staying on that same remote croft on the Solway, the Sunday afternoon that the cloud from Chernobyl reached us. I can still see the sky – a dark yellow quilt of cloud hovering overhead like a space ship and drenching us with poisoned rain. At once the grass on the hill and the fields were so radioactive that the Geiger counters buzzed for years and the sheep who grazed there were excluded from the human food chain.
We weren't travelling in dangerous places, just visiting granny and her hens in rural Galloway. Yet we were on a journey, from a time when grass and water and sheep droppings were innocent, to a time when the hills were alive with the sound of sheep crap crackling and nature was corrupted. Corruption and crap – that's the journey on this planet I'm near the end of and you are near the beginning of. At least I hope are. I hope you are allowed the full stretch, your whole journey through time and history, not corralled on an open plain by ecological banditry or ambushed in a ravine which becomes a biological graveyard.
You see, nowhere is safe. Nothing is certain. The poet sits down with a blank piece of paper. Plus? Himself or herself. This is the moment of danger. Namely, being alive, every empty day. What will come out of my self government? Can I govern myself? Can I save a bit of the world, a bit of someone else, even a bit of me? No place, no time is safe – or ever was. Take an apparently safe place, a true refuge? Where can one take sanctuary? In a sanctuary! Like? The church of the nativity in Bethlehem? Surrounded by tanks? But that's the Middle East. Okay, go into a quiet Scottish church? – it may be closed because of vandalism and the fear of the communion plates being stolen. All right, into a cathedral – but you may be invited to put money in a box, or be threatened by choral evensong.
Read 'Murder in the Cathedral' by T S Eliot. In that lowering verse drama, T S Eliot spells out that there is no safety in the cathedral. In his evocation of the land and the people waiting between golden October and sombre November for their exiled archbishop to return and save them, you can hear the dark throb of the common people's alternating hope and despair in the cycle of oppression. In the case of Canterbury, it was real murder, actual blood on the floor. That was in centuries past. But in our time, cathedrals, churches, temples, synagogues, mosques across the world have throbbed to martyrdom, blood spilled, hopes crucified.
Thus Eliot, the austere, intellectual poet, speaks for us all about the pain of waiting – waiting for what? That's the question. It's everyone's question, the question of humanity, that blood vessel connecting us all. On the edge of the prairie of stars, what matter if we are professors or poets, farmers or primary teachers, firefighters or terrorists, Scots or English, brilliant performers or girls in Cornton Vale whose dreams have crashed? We are the human family ranged against the dark. When shall the human species be born again in what Eliot calls 'The litter of Scorn'?
At that point yesterday morning, I pushed my chair back and looked at my watch. 7.45. I'd been writing for three hours. I stood up. Immediately the cat and dog stirred themselves and approached. The cat lay upside down to indicate it required the tummy to be rubbed, and the dog nudged my knee, a sign that its head could do with a pat or three. But I knew, and they knew I knew, that what they were really thinking was that their bowls in the kitchen were empty. They are both rescued animals, treated sadistically by terrorists called Scottish human beings (one lot in Glasgow's leafy west end), but now their visual poetry and behavioural beauty have blossomed because although nowhere is totally safe in this world, they feel safe by knowing they're loved. I asked them, therefore, 'Do I just stop now and shut up?'. They gazed at me, thinking longingly of their empty bowls. 'Thank you, as always,' I said, 'for your excellent advice'. So I sat down and started to write again.
By now, dawn had arrived. No, I'm not going to turn that into a metaphor. It doesn't need to be a metaphor. It was physical and it happened. The physical sun which keeps us alive was unseen but slanting up rays which were flecking with a silver half light the naked trees across the road, and the evergreen trees which clothe the hill. And then the actual sun appeared. That extraordinary orb winked at me over the hill before throwing a silk scarf of colour around the town. No metaphor. The reality of life on a piece of our planet, a wee bit of Scotland.
While we wait, and think, and feel, and debate and plan, and learn to govern our country, our continent, our politics, our earthly resources, and the future of the planet, all during that time, we also have to get on with personal living. Life is often a bitch, a drudge, sometimes a nightmare. But, by and large, I have loved this life. It's been a party, and I was invited.
I will soon conclude but first a few, almost practical, suggestions, a story or two and some quotes. What I believe in managerial-speak are known as bullets.
First, governing is n0t the same as managing. There's no problem in managing Scotland, one way or another, for good or ill. Management is about manipulation – of situation, resources, people. It's governing that's the problem. Governing is about stewardship – of situations, resources, people.
Secondly, no crisis is worth turning into a crisis. You either create a way out of it, or you work through it with good humour. Every crisis should be weighed against a bigger one – if for example, the sun suddenly went out tomorrow, that would be a crisis.
As regards creating a way out of crisis? In the last days of steam on British Rail, I caught the morning Talisman train from Kings Cross to Waverley. It left Kings Cross one dreich January morning half an hour late. It had lost its slot, its path through signals, so at first we were constantly stopped. The acceleration after each stop was phenomenal, and the speeds extraordinary. Gradually it became obvious that the signals were beginning to go with us. We arrived at Newcastle half an hour early. We hadn't just made up the late half hour. We had made up an hour.
My friend Tom Scott and I raced up the Newcastle platform to congratulate the driver. He was portly and his face was full of years. But age had not wearied him. He smiled beautifically. 'Do you know who I am?' 'Who?' 'Almost right, I'm Driver Hoole.' We were baffled. Only years later, did I discover he was the most famous engine driver in Britiain. He was notorious for breaking every record – and every rule – in the book. He, the fireman, and the engine always became a team of stars who made every journey an odyssey. And they turned railwaymen along the route into subversives who broke the rules for them. There was one rule with Driver Hoole. Forget the rules. I recommend that rule to you. On this day, the engine was Gresley's streamlined loco Mallard, which still holds, I think, the world steam speed record. The signalmen, realising on that grey January morning that Hoole was on the case, began to halt other trains to let our chariot of fire through.
What was all this about? Efficient management? No, a celebratory stewardship of poetic freedom. The train is late. Wring your hands over a crisis? Or seize the moment to recreate? If you say it was irresponsibly bad management, I have nothing to say to you. You are in the same category as the Scottish driver who took over the train at Newcastle. He obeyed every rule. We arrived at Waverley five minutes late.
But – if you can't get out of a crisis, then you work through it with good humour. Crisis? What crisis?
Three months ago, on 17 August, I was on the electric train from Queen Street to Helensburgh. I was sitting in the leading coach admiring the Clyde. The train manageress, a lady no longer in the first flush of youth, had just looked at my ticket when suddenly the driver's door burst open and the driver hurtled towards us. His face lacked serenity. He shouted to us to get on the floor. Within five seconds I was in the foetal position on the floor (I was very impressed by that feat of memory). The bang was loud. The coach shook; but it remained upright. The elderly conductress rose shaking to her feet and in a trembly voice uttered the following piece of sheer poetry: 'Scotrail apologises for this delay'. When we'd stopped laughing, a man shouted out, 'Where's our free cup of coffee then?' 'You're on,' said the lady – no manager now, but our benign governor – and came round distributing a bag of boiled sweets!
It had been a car stuck on a level crossing. Nobody was injured, but it was on the telly news, so you can believe it.
Much of what we call government boils down, you see, to language. An ancient text puts it in these terms: 'In the beginning was the Word; and the Word became flesh'. We could put it another way. The language of the universe achieved a distinct form in our planet, in life, in the human mind and in the explosion of science in the last couple of centuries and in the gloriously inventive technology of our time. Physics, cosmology, mathematics, they are poetry made by the universe via our minds. In everything we do we should cherish that language of creation, use it to affirm life, and work to liberate the governing of the world and of its people. Is Scotland governable? That depends on what you think Scotland is for and the manner of your love for whichever aspect of it means something to you. All of you gathered here today make up a living dictionary of Scottish potential.
It was reported recently that an American scientist has been conducting research into why the British and Americans so particularly die of heart disease. Is it too much food, or not enough red wine? The Japanese drink much less red wine, so they should have more heart disease than the British and Americans. The French drink more red wine, but they eat more food, including fatty food, than the British and Americans, yet they have far less heart disease than the British and Americans. The Italians drink more red wine than the French, Japanese, British and Americans, yet they eat more pizzas, and they have less heart disease than the British and Americans.
The scientist's conclusion? Heart disease is caused by speaking English. But this can't be right. Here we are in Glasgow, where less English is spoken than anywhere outside Stornoway. We speak Scottish, yet we eat more mutton pies and chips than anywhere else on the planet. Conclusion? Culture is not what you deposit in a museum or your belly. Culture, and life, and government is what you sing along to.
Or as the poet Lope de Vega expressed it –
O what will you do
If the day draws to evening
And night overtakes you
Alone on the mountain?
I fear not the night
For I carry the sun.
My message? Good government depends on poetry and love, that is, on creation and commitment. What governs us is the beauty of life. Only if we find that freedom to carry the sun in our time, can Scotland be governable enough to move out among the nations and towards the stars.
An unusual thing happened at the finish of this speech. Everyone in the room – a cross-section of the young people of Scotland – rose in a spontaneous and prolonged standing ovation. Ian died four years later, in 2006. – KR