Beast of a Nation

Andrew O’Hagan

  • Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland by Neal Ascherson
    Granta, 305 pp, £16.99, September 2002, ISBN 1 86207 524 7

In Westminster Abbey a couple of years ago, I stood for over an hour talking to Neal Ascherson. It was one of those freezing January evenings – cold stone, long shadows – and we adopted our BBC faces in Poets’ Corner, looking at the memorials and marble busts on the walls. I noticed Ascherson was taking his time over an inscription to the poet Thomas Campbell, and some words of Campbell’s began to echo somewhere in my head, two lines from The Pleasures of Hope.

‘Tis distance lends enchantment to the view,
And robes the mountain in its azure hue.

Not good lines, but they seemed good enough as I watched Ascherson watching. He gave the impression there was something new to be said about Campbell.

‘Come with me,’ I said. ‘I want to show you something.’ Leading Ascherson across the Abbey, round an altar, down a spartan side-chapel, I pointed through some slats to the Coronation Chair. ‘They took it eight weeks ago,’ I said, ‘the Stone of Destiny.’

‘How did they remove it?’ Ascherson asked.

‘They gouged it out. They broke the chair. It’s a 13th-century chair.’

Ascherson looked at me, then looked again at the dimly lit chamber. He was smiling but I couldn’t tell if he was pleased or not. The Stone of Destiny had been taken back to Scotland, and I remember wondering, as we stood in the Abbey, if Ascherson thought the Scots would be delighted to have their coronation stone back after seven hundred years. ‘It was borne on the back of a polished military Land Rover,’ he writes in Stone Voices.

The onlookers on the pavement were sparse, and did not applaud. They seemed uncertain about what reaction was expected of them; whatever it was, they refrained from it . . . They found this mournful pageant a bit alienating, and in a way it was meant to be. For the Queen, the Stone still remains her personal property; she had sent her son the Duke of York to escort it to Edinburgh Castle where it would be deposited ‘on loan’ between coronations, visible to her subjects for £5.50 a peep.

Ascherson is interested in relics, interested in what they mean, and he’s not short on native instinct when it comes to endowing even the most common stones of Scotland with an uncommon mystical power. This book is a haphazard work of auto-geography, one man’s attempt to map his feelings about his own country, to send his affections first through the prism of history and then though the mincer, to hold up his own experience, his own devotions, to argue with time and battle with his own ambivalence, and above all, in the end, to have a go at telling a story about what it’s like to spend your life married to a scenic fiction: Scotland the Brave.

‘Normally, people inclined to faith rather than to reason tend to affirm the authenticity of a relic,’ he goes on, ‘not to deny it.’

In Scotland, it was the opposite. It had become important and alluring to many people to believe, in the teeth of all probability, that the Stone placed in Edinburgh Castle was a fake.

Why was this? And what was the connection between the unexpected coolness displayed by the Edinburgh crowds and these compulsive denials? It was the fact that over time the Stone’s importance had become essentially that of the grievance it evoked. What mattered about the Stone was precisely its absence: the fact that it had been carted off by an English king in an act of plunder which was also intended to be a symbolic act of conquest. Not the Stone, but the presence of the Stone at Westminster served to define one of the underlying realities of the English-Scottish relationship, and it continued to do so even after the 1707 Treaty of Union fused the two kingdoms into one ‘Great Britain’.

A half-hearted nation will want to hold fast to its grievances, and in that sense Scotland has done well. The nation’s brickwork is cemented with resentments, from ruined monastery to erupting towerblock: blame, fear, bigotry and delusion, their fragments powder the common air – and always the fault is seen to lie elsewhere, with other nations, other lives. Scotland is a place where cultural artefacts and past battles – the Stone of Destiny, Robert Burns, Braveheart, Bannockburn – have more impact on people’s sense of moral action than politics does. The people have no real commitment to the public sphere, and are not helped towards any such commitment by the dead rhetoric of the young Parliament. Yet the problem is not the Parliament, it’s the people, and the people’s drowsy addiction to imagined injury – their belief in a paralysing historical distress – which makes the country assert itself not as a modern nation open to progress on all fronts, but as a delinquent, spoiled, bawling child, tight in its tartan babygro, addled with punitive needs and false memory syndrome.

Neal Ascherson has been through many long nights with this heart-scorching beast of a nation, yet, in spite of what he knows, he most often manages to play the part of the good father, coddling Scotland into a state of temporary sleep with the singing of old lullabies. As you would expect, the voice is tuneful and there is often an intelligent, estranged ring to what he writes. His book hovers over the hills and waterways of Scotland, staring down at the rutted marks of former glaciers and the footprints of deer, but all the while there are questions whispered under his breath: do I belong here? Is Scotland authentic? And most stirring of all: when was Scotland?

The first of his journeys is to mid-Argyll, the place Ascherson’s family come from. At some non-negotiable level of himself, he feels connected to those Bronze Age monuments, to these standing stones and circular cairns that punctuate the fields. In the manner of Hugh Miller, stonemason and essayist, the grain of Ascherson’s thinking is apt to spark off these heathen formations, these ‘ritual spires of condensed fear and memory’, as he calls them, and a melancholic attitude accompanies the notion that the modern age can do damage to such configurations on the headland. Some of the stones have holes in them, peepholes, you might say, into those spots of time that matter to the author. We find him stopping to look at the stones as he makes his way to the Oban hospital where his mother lies ill. Marion Campbell, the novelist, historian and poet, an old friend of the Aschersons, was lying in a bed nearby. ‘Later in the ward,’ Ascherson writes,

I was talking to my mother about the Ballymeanoch stones, and the one that fell, and saying that nobody seemed sure when it had fallen. A muffled voice came from behind me. ‘Well, I know!’ said Marion, suddenly awake. ‘It was in 1943, and a Shetland pony was sheltering up against it from the storm when it broke off. Must have terrified the poor beast.’ She paused, and then said: ‘Nobody would believe now that I remember the stone when it was up, and how I used to look through the hole.’ She slept again, and later that afternoon they came to put screens around her bed. They tried to drain her lung, but it was too late. She must have known how ill she was.

There is a sense of belonging in all this, a sense of belonging to a place and a people, a love of nature, and one’s own nature, and of what Joyce called the ‘ineluctable modality of the visible’. I think Ascherson is less interested in origins, in where stones or people or nations come from, than in what happens to them, in how they are seen or how they see themselves, in what survives, and in the ways that one thing leads to another, which can become a fairly gentle way of describing your own personal history, too.

John Smith, the late Labour leader, believed a devolved Scottish parliament was ‘the settled will of the Scottish people’. He died too young and is buried now on the Isle of Iona, in what is thought to have been the graveyard of the Scottish kings. There’s a large oval stone lying over his grave, and it seems right, in the Ascherson way, for this man to be linked with the rudiments of some timeless, unknowable Scottish material, and tied to a notion of Providence. In 1845, just before the potato failure, the cholera epidemic reached Argyll; the village of Allt Beithe lay in the hills around Tarbert, and one day it was noticed that none of the villagers had been seen for a while.

A rescue party set out, and went first to the hamlet of Baldarroch, where they found only the dead lying in their houses. Climbing on, they reached Allt Beithe. There ‘they found everyone dead or dying except for a baby, Archibald Leitch,’ a little boy of two. He was carried back to Tarbert and brought up by relatives, and in time grew up to be a boat-builder

– and, Ascherson points out, John Smith’s great-grandfather.

When people write Scottish history, they do so, if they’re at all sure of their market, with a certain degree of patience and hope, and with as good an eye for questions of destiny as for questions of fabulation. Scottish people respond to the idea that there is a Story of Scotland, and writers who can make that story a stormy marriage of internal and external strife – of deep feelings and strong weather, true love and ancient rocks – are answering to a need that is taken for granted in Scotland. Where documentary evidence is lacking, rocks can replace papers; people read their ancestral stories into the scattered stones, and even where there are papers, people have traditionally shown a tendency to make for the rocks if there is no supporting evidence for what is written. In this respect, Ascherson takes his cue from Hugh MacDiarmid – ‘There are ruined buildings in the world, but no ruined stones’ – and that is a poetic truth with a mighty appeal for Ascherson’s generation of Scottish politicians. It appeals to those who are more taken with essence than experience, those who, for good reasons not bad, wish for an overarching grandeur, a galvanising truth, something in the Scottish character that can live up to the landscape. It is part of what Ibsen called ‘the saving lie’: the presentation of every sort of necessary, ancient virtue, which, taken together, might seem to compensate for the nation’s terrible smallness of vision. Scotland is presently – and quite horrendously – failing the test of its own modernity. Much of its life is, by and large, a mean-minded carnival of easy resentments; it is a place of bigotry, paralysis, nullity and boredom; a nation of conservatives who never vote Conservative; a proud country mired up to the fiery eyes in blame and nostalgia. It’s not nice to think about, but it’s there, this kind of Scotland, and everybody knows it’s there.

Ascherson’s book is not an uprooting kind of work – it is soft, and soft-hearted, finding perfect cover in the hardness of rocks. It’s difficult not to fail when dealing with the failure of Scotland, so much wells up, and one’s deepest hopes are such a pitiable hindrance, but the time has surely come for calling a shovel a shovel. In place of ‘Heartless Midlothian’ and ‘Young Mortality’ – as yet unwritten accounts of the country’s vast self-pity, arrested development and the way out of that – we are served with another ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Reluctant Patriot’. Ascherson must know that Scotland does not live by the remnants of grandeur alone, it lives by lies, by lies stronger than truths, by fictions stranger than facts. Behind the great myth of Scottish self-observance, behind the chant of ‘wha’s like us?’, lies the fact that modern Scots don’t ever quite look at themselves, and know nothing of what they are like. Wha’s like us? The answer is nobody – especially not ourselves.

Ascherson’s ‘Search for Scotland’ has trouble with the notion of ‘us’, but it has just as much trouble with notions of trouble. He draws his cutlass halfway, only to put it back again, to fix his eyes on the middle distance and ruminate on the efficiency of old songs, his hands sweating as they rest on the sheath that guards his blade. He has a lot to say about his forebears, but what might his own great-grandchildren contemplate when they look back to the Scotland of his day? ‘Webs of mutual support’, he says, the ‘apparently indelible colouring of Scottish society’.

Scotland has survived and still exists as a chain of small collective loyalties: ‘Society People’ singing in the hills or clansmen enlisting with their chieftain, colonists on the Vistula or private partnerships in Bengal, crofting townships in Assynt or mining villages in Fife.

When Scotland’s last deep coal mine at Longannet flooded and closed down for ever in March 2002, a man called George came home from the pit to find his telephone ringing. ‘Dinnae worry, big man, we’ll see you’re no stuck for work.’ This is a nation at home in hard, stony times. It will find its own way in the world.

This is a cold, hard jet of pure nonsense. I’m happy for the chieftains, and happy for George, but Ascherson has witnessed the slow altering of several European societies, and witnessed too much of Scotland, overall, to allow such fetid and unimaginative resignation to stand at the end of his inquiry. I begin to worry that the great explicator of velvet revolutions has dithered too long in the purple heather, and has forgotten to ask what life is actually like over in Greenock, Buckie, Cumnock and Cowdenbeath. A chain of collective loyalties? A nation at home? You must be joking.

A people so addicted to the notion of belonging must surely live in fear of strangers, and, even more so, in fear of the stranger in themselves. In his better pages, Ascherson knows this, and he sometimes puts his powers of clarity to the task of expressing it. One of the first pieces of business in the new Scottish Parliament was to be the repealing of Clause 2a, the one about ‘promoting’ homosexuality in schools and public libraries. An unholy alliance was forged in Scotland to oppose this removal, this ‘routine detail of political hygiene’. With the backing of the brain-numbing Daily Record, the nation’s tabloid newspaper, Cardinal Winning of the Catholic Church joined forces with the Presbyterians and was soon enjoying the financial backing of Brian Souter, a bus-line millionaire and born-again Christian, to Keep the Clause. Souter used his millions to petition every home in Scotland. Of the people daft enough to respond to the campaign, six people out of seven voted to keep the clause and attacks on homosexuals increased immediately. Though the Parliament held its nerve and repealed the Clause, it put in a few sentences about heterosexuality and family life being the best thing since sliced bread.

Ascherson mentions Scotland’s ‘grim and persisting record of religious intolerance and discrimination’. He was able to say this without having the benefit of the Scottish Executive’s most recent survey, which led to a leader in the Guardian this month, declaring that the Scots were possibly the most racist group in Europe.

There was a dogged public assumption that racial prejudice was an English problem to which the Scots – for reasons of social history, for reasons of superior native intelligence – were immune . . .

But this was a prettified version of history. The Lithuanians had at first run into a wall of hatred from the Scottish working class who perceived them, not entirely without reason, as cheap foreign labour brought in to collapse miners’ wages. The Italian community was utterly unprepared for the ferocious anti-Italian riots which flamed through Scottish towns and cities in July 1940, when Fascist Italy joined the war on Hitler’s side. But the central flaw in this self-congratulatory myth, the grand denial of the blatantly obvious, was the matter of the Irish.

With some verve, and some nerve, Ascherson tells a story of his own prejudice, of how he thought his young sister might have caught impetigo swinging on the gates of a Catholic school. But there are no jokes in Ascherson’s book. ‘Here was I,’ he writes, ‘a much-travelled journalist with left-wing opinions and a Cambridge history degree. And, nevertheless, for almost all my life I had never questioned that if you touched a railing used by small boys of a particular religion you would probably acquire a disfiguring disease.’ He mentions other disfigurements along the way – murdered asylum seekers, lacerated Celtic fans, and land abuse, in one form or another – making his sonorous, ballad-singing conclusions about the strain of commonality in the Scottish seem all the more absurd.

You come to wonder why Ascherson won’t attempt to understand Scotland’s victimology. Why doesn’t he relate the sociopathic elements in that small country to what he knows about the hungers of small nations elsewhere in Europe? These are matters most of us aren’t equipped to explain. His book sets up an expectation of something new, and he is sometimes good at describing ailments, but when the call for new ideas and interpretations looms, he escapes into powerless long passages about deforestation, the Picts and the Gaels, 17th-century Scots in Poland, or the Covenanters, leading you to feel that Scotland’s best journalist is becoming one of those writers whose main aim is to ensure polemic never gets in the way of positive thinking. That kind of thing is the opposite of Ascherson at his best, a fact you’re reminded of when you come to passages like the following:

The Scottish trauma is to do with self-doubt (sometimes masked in unreal self-assertion), with sterile speculations about national identity and – as I guess – with suspicions of ‘otherness’ which so often poison relationships between Scottish neighbours. But above all, the trauma shows itself in a chronic mistrust of the public dimension. The invitation to ‘participate’, especially to offer critical comment in public, touches a nerve of anxiety. This derives partly from the instinct that to disagree with another person before witnesses is to open a serious personal confrontation; the English or American assumption that ‘free, open discussion’ is non-lethal and even healthy is not widespread in Scotland . . .

The deep geological fault running underneath national self-confidence is still there . . . and from time to time it makes itself felt. When it does, the confident few who lead political change feel misunderstood and betrayed. In Bertold Brecht’s words about the leaders of the former East Germany, they feel tempted to dissolve this people and appoint another one.

Free-falling anxiety about Scottishness has a tendency, among Scots, not only to turn into hatred of others, but into hating bad news about the country itself, and seeing critics as traitors. There are few European nations in which intellectuals are so willing to serve as soft-peddalling merchants of ‘national character’, handmaidens to the tourist industry: broadcasters, academics, lawyers, some of the poets too, sell pride and tears, spiritual laxity and pawky good humour in place of inquiry.

I recently went to New York to take part in something called Distilled: Scotland Live in New York, a business and tourist junket masquerading as an arts festival, the highlight of which was a march by five thousand kilted bagpipers up Fifth Avenue. ‘We want to show our solidarity with New Yorkers in their time of terrible suffering,’ said the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, ‘and remind you that Scotland is an excellent place to visit and invest in.’ Whisky poured from the bar, commercial blether mixed with the unruly sentiment of the expatriate, and deals were made, palms were greased. I spoke to a man who deals in computer jobs in the Clyde Valley. ‘We’re all New Yorkers now!’ he shouted over his tumbler of Dewars.

Alyth McCormack, an amazing singer of Gaelic music, got up on stage to sing a song about the Highland Clearances. The song is grave and bleak and full of historical complications and human wrongs, but you couldn’t hear the woman and the song she sang. The business crowd and the cultural delegates of Scotland and New York were shouting at one another, their red faces all compliant, their glasses full, and the volume increased, the laughter bellowed out, until it became quite a thunder of ill-consideration, and the sound of McCormack’s voice just disappeared, and the business of land clearance or human loss was nowhere present in these people’s minds. Meanwhile, over by the windows, in the tartan glory of 23rd Street, other people stood and they stared out at the missing towers, and some of them pointed to the view of the Statue of Liberty and the view of Ellis Island. As I made for the exit, I wondered if any of those at the windows were prompted by the drowned-out music to look for the ghosts of their ancestors standing on the quay.

‘This race,’ E.B. White wrote in his 1946 essay on New York, ‘between the destroying planes and the struggling Parliament of Man: it sticks in all our heads.’ Yes it does. And that day – Tartan Day in America – it mingled for me with thoughts of my own about what Scotland wanted to be in the world. Growing up in what the novelist John Galt wonderfully called The West – the West Coast of Scotland – we used to look from the beach at Irvine New Town as if looking towards America, and Polaris submarines would pass and we’d feel happy we were on America’s side and safe in the bowl of the Ayrshire hills. Our Scottish Enlightenment had fed into their Constitution, via Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Jefferson, and the music playing on the local radio – West Sound – was all country music about personal freedom and broken trust and breaking hearts.

In Stone Voices, Ascherson tells of his own visit to America the year before. ‘Tartan Day is about liberty,’ said the right-wing Republican Senator Trent Lott on that occasion, borrowing the Braveheartish banter that now stands for modern Scotland in Washington and Hollywood. Lott mentioned the Scottish clansmen who ‘were our clansmen, our brothers’, as if American kinship were the only kind that counts, the only context in which a small and ancient country might understand its own worth. The Scottish ministers (and Sean Connery) mugged for the camera, shouting ‘freedom!’

Scotland should have outgrown its own pantomime by now. ‘Ending the war in Ulster,’ Tom Nairn wrote in After Britain (2000), ‘entailed a fundamental rearticulation of the United Kingdom’s unitarist tradition, founded on a post-Thatcher recognition that – in the language of the “Downing Street Declaration” – Britain no longer retained “a selfish strategic interest” in retaining control over any part of Ireland.’ The constitutional plates have moved under Scotland, too – the nation itself has outgrown its own people – and Britain is not what is was. Some hatreds will tend to outlive their original occasions, yet traditional Scottish resentments about ‘foreignness’ must surely perish if the country is properly to awake in Europe.

Ascherson’s most invigorating chapter is about the Scottish Empire – the subject of so much Nationalist bad faith over the years – and there can be no argument, now that the old style is gone, about how well Scotland did from the Union. All considered, it did better than England. There is, as Nairn puts it, a ‘tantalising sense of redemption which always informs nostalgia’, but the Scottish people cannot afford to get stuck there any longer, and Scotland must go on now to establish its role in bringing about a new United Kingdom within a new Europe. In the manner of Stephen Dedalus, we might do better to see Scotland’s conscience as ‘uncreated’; for while we must admit that Ascherson’s stones are interesting, they are not as interesting as people. Nationalism in Scotland is a place where good men and women busy themselves shaking the dead hand of the past, but the naming of a tradition is not the same as the forging of a nation, and modern Scotland, now more than ever, needs a new way of thinking, a new kind of relation to the old, a way to live, a way to make itself better than the badness that’s been and the badness to come. The question of what the past amounted to can lie about the grass.