Sunday, 17 August 2014

Incredible variants of Scottish identity

Mussolini and MacDiarmid

I bought a copy of Gavin Bowd’s book Fascist Scotland. Very good although he covers groups linked to European fascism to the exclusion of ultra-nationalism within Scotland, Republican movements for example.
He has some useful details about MacDiarmid’s pash for Mussolini. - put on display in ’At the Sign of the Thistle. Programme for a Scottish Fascism’ (1923): “Nevertheless there is need for a Scottish fascism just as there was need for an Italian Fascism [.]”.
1923: “Italian Fascism needs most urgently to be exactly reproduced in Scotland in so far as agrarian policy is concerned.”

1929: “What I have said about the need for aristocratic standards for a species of fascism applies equally here. I feel we will never make any real headway till we cease to imitate English organisations by running the party on democratic lines or wanting anything similar in organisation or programme to the English parties.”
1931: “In 1932, in The Modern Scot, MacDiarmid favourably reviewed Wyndham Lewis’ book on Hitler”. (Bowd)
He seems to have moved away from Fascism in the early 1930s. All the same his adherence to Marxism does not tell us very much about MacDiarmid. He did not think like Marxists and did not know the things that Marxists typically know. The ‘superman’ idea is the key.

I read John MacCormick’s memoir, A Flag in the Wind (1955). MacCormick was the first inspiring leader of Scottish nationalism. He gives an account of Spence’s election campaign and also talks about MacDiarmid, whom he views as a disaster: “C. M. Grieve has been politically one of the greatest handicaps with which any national movement could have been burdened.”. Like most poets who get involved in politics, MacDiarmid was very bad at politics. He had no political talent. Early adhesion does not mean that he understood the Scottish voter, or that the other ‘day one nationalists’ liked him or felt like him, or that he had a gift of prophecy. MacCormick points to Grieve’s hatred of the English as something which put possible supporters off.

 Bowd identifies the only indigenous Scottish Fascist movement as Protestant Action, with its radical and physical anti-Catholicism. This was a typical product of the Depression, like Fascist movements elsewhere in Europe, but was not nationalistic - just sectarian. Its leader, the Reverend Alexander Ratcliffe, became anti-Semitic, in line with certain turbid currents of European opinion in the Thirties, and distinguished himself by claiming that there was no proof that any Jew had been killed by the Nazi regime (in 1943), and then by publishing a pamphlet which claimed that the concentration camps (liberated and photographed) were fakes- Holocaust denial in July 1945. That’s going some!

I should add a proviso, before going on, about what I am going to say. This is about a group of four Scottish poets, and bizarre varieties of Scottish nationalism, affecting poetry. It is not saying that ‘these deviations are part of the DNA of Scottish nationalism”, because that is the opposite of what I think. Nationalist politics succeeded by throwing out the infantile forms. There is a link between these malnourished and largely fantastic theories and Scotland being a people without organs for so many years: more devolution led to better quality political discourse, just as the nationalist argument proposed.

Since Bowd finished his book there has been the publication of a volume of letters from MacDiarmid (to Sorley MacLean) which includes his 1940 judgement that it would be better if the Nazis won because they would then be easier to defeat than the English and French bourgeoisie, who were just as bad. (Much comment about this on the internet.)

Celtic twilight

When the new Scottish National Party (not yet called that) presented their first parliamentary candidate, in 1929, they chose Lewis Spence (1875-1955). He also wrote an early statement of the nationalist platform: Freedom for Scotland. The case for Scottish Self-Government (1926). He also wrote the poems in a revived sixteenth-century Scots which gave MacDiarmid the stimulus to start doing the same - ‘complete’ Lallans as opposed to a dialect with restricted vocabulary and range of social contexts.

 I have been reading Murray GH Pittock’s book on Jacobitism, The Invention of Scotland : The Stuart Myth and the Scottish Identity, 1638 to the Present. It is very interesting and clearly there is a lot I don’t know about this rather forgotten area of fringe politics. (Fringe after 1750, anyway.) Ruskin was a Jacobite. Wha? Pittock says “By 1905, neo-Jacobitism in England was largely a spent force[.]” Just as well, you may think. He shows that it was still an emotional focus for some people in Scotland in the 1940s. (Just to recall: James II was deposed in 1688 because he was a Catholic and many people thought he was plotting a Catholic coup in Britain which would have led to the disenfranchisement and persecution of Protestants. He was replaced by his sister, but succeeding monarchs were not the legitimate heirs and so there continued to be hold-out supporters of the Stuart dynasty. James is ‘Jacobus‘ in Latin so this party were called Jacobites. Harking back to 1688 in 1945 is truly bizarre.)

In the 1890s, there was a link between Scottish nationalism and occultism. In 1880 or 1890, the Stuart cause was almost a fantasy, but there was a club, ‘the Order of the White Rose’; one member was McGregor Mathers, the founder of the Temple of the Golden Dawn. There is a history to this. In the 1790s, French monarchists were in exile and had a lot of time on their hands. They also blamed the Enlightenment for their woes. They were ideologically productive and came up with a pattern of ideas of which the rejection of reason, a belief in supernatural intervention in history, a belief in conspiracies, the natural superiority of the aristocracy, and insistence on legitimism as a basis for choosing monarchs, were a few. This was the ‘Counter-Enlightenment’, and it was a dominant and attractive set of thoughts, certainly attractive to the adherents of failed dynasties in other parts of Europe. (After 1918, the Russian monarchist exiles came to be the dominant group in this cultural sector.) The Scottish Jacobite cause was one of these. (English Jacobites were numerically more important.) A certain number of disaffected Scots were drawn to it, and it was logical that they should also be anti-English - since the Hanoverian dynasty was so heavily in power in England. But it was also logical that they should pick up the mystical and occultist components of the Counter-Enlightenment package. At that time this had developed into the form of Symbolisme, which had a pendant in the form of the Celtic Twilight with its belief in fairies, second sight, and what have you. This was the context in which it was possible for a ‘Scottish nationalist’ meeting to attract people who were also Jacobites and interested in Theosophy, the Golden Dawn, and so forth.

Any movement that begins on the fringes loses most of its early characteristics if it evolves into something central and attractive to millions of people. The occultism has nothing to do with Scottish politics. That is why I was perturbed to see Lewis Spence as the National Party of Scotland’s first parliamentary candidate - because Spence was an occultist. In 1943 he published The Occult Causes of the Present War, which links it back to Atlantis. Recently I found a book by Joscelyn Godwin called Atlantis and the Measures of Time, which among much interesting information about deluded and psychic people says that Spence got into occultism after 1940. He was already 64 by that time and at that age people do start ‘hearing secret harmonies’. So it is doubtful that he was inclined to see ‘an occult pattern in history’ in 1926. All the same, he had published a book called Encyclopaedia of Occultism in 1920. If he was born in 1875 he was of an age to have encountered the ‘Celtic Twilight’ lot when they were still active.

I was discussing these strange facts with my mother after reading Pittock, and she remarked that in the east of Leicestershire, at Stamford, there is a house now open to the public which has a Stuart collection: when Henry, Cardinal of York, the last heir of the Stuart line, died in Rome this family from Stamford had acquired his household goods, and they are now on show down there on the river Avon. This is an example of an English family of Jacobite sympathies - but also of the loss of at least one dimension, so that what had been a government (until 1688) is reduced to a set of knick-knacks. Loyalist families were still pro-Stuart around 1770, but this was not on the scale of ‘oppositional politics’ but of sentiment, domestic ceremonies and keepsakes. This reduction is a kind of aestheticisation -and points ahead to a merely literary version of politics. It is a forerunner of the pictures on tins of shortbread which are so often mocked as kitsch versions of Scottish history. For foreigners, let me say that the tins might show highly-coloured images of Mary Queen of Scots, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Greyfriars Bobbie, and Hugh MacDiarmid. An old Welsh periodical quotes someone turning up in court in Pembrokeshire in 1714 for saying “he was sent as Messenger from his master James the Third, King of England, and of Scotland the Eighth [.]”

 Joy Hancox’s 1992 book The Byrom Collection describes a hidden archive of diagrams and documents once belonging to John Byrom, who lived in Manchester, and created in the early 18th century. They were recovered in the late twentieth century. The documents have to do with a range of occultist practices - Kabbalism, Rosicrucianism, the whole set. Byrom was also a Jacobite. There is a Byrom Street just off Deansgate. There were good reasons for keeping Jacobite sympathies silent, as indeed magical and heretical practices. It is hard to measure how much of this secret activity was going on. All the same it may be that the link between occultism and ‘loyalty to deposed dynasties’ existed well before 1789. This is a ‘prehistory’ of the Far Right, generations before the term ‘right wing’ was coined. The addicts of ‘conspiracy theory’ began as members of conspiracies - planning the botched uprisings of 1712, 1715, and 1745. After that, they pioneered exile, the Underground, and cryptic utterance.

I am told that the Anglo-Catholic 'Society of Charles King and Martyr' (founded 1894) are technically Jacobites, although my informant suggests that they are not actively planning military action to further their good cause.

So much of this stuff is literally ‘occult’, hidden, and it is easy to overrate it because it is so hard to find and so neglected. The similarity with the hippy Underground and the whole cultural tide of 1968 and years thereafter is obvious. Sinclair discusses Hancox’s book when he visits Manchester in Ghost Milk. John Michell wrote The View Over Atlantis and was at the outset one of a long line of people who believe that Atlantean technology was wonderful and had dominated the early history of Europe. The main Atlantean writer in Britain was indeed Lewis Spence. This rubbish had been around for at least a century but Michell got it into paperback and was perhaps the key hippy in England. He had certainly absorbed Spence. For about three years ‘the marginal became central’. Sinclair has chronicled apparently the whole range of fringe theories arising after 1968 - but completeness is hardly possible.

Occultism is structurally given for reactionary monarchists since 1792, hence for Jacobites. If you accept that knowledge of human affairs is to to be gathered from facts, statistics, newspapers, etc., you have given in to the Enlightenment and your resistance to Reason is fatally weakened. But monarchy and aristocracy can't really co-exist with Reason. This leaves a vacuum of interpretation in which supernatural influences flourish and you rely on hermits, virgins, ascetics, psychics, etc. to reveal the plan of contemporary events. Spence wrote Occult Origins of the Present War, an unconventional way of explaining the Second World War - but he wasn’t the only occultist in Europe in 1943.

‘Failure theories’ of Scottish History

Spence (as quoted by Pittock) said that there were two currents of thinking among ‘disloyal’ Scots: one which rejected the Reformation, so that everything had been wrong since John Knox; and one which rejected the Hanoverians, so that while the Jacobite risings were OK everything which had happened since the failure of the last one in 1746 had gone wrong. We have to add another theory: the Scottish language has been losing its sociological grip and range of uses in Scotland since the later sixteenth century and this is wrong too. The idea of reversing this and writing poetry in a Scots which covers the full range of intellectual possibilities of contemporary culture was what animated MacDiarmid. It definitely resembles the first two theories. It incorporates the ideas of reliving the bad past in a good way and of four centuries of cultural failure.
If you think that Scotland has since the 1540s been living in a Bad Time which is effectively a Non-Time, you may move on to literary creation of a Non-Time which is also a Good Time. James MacPherson may have pioneered this.

Obviously Mackay Brown and Finn MacColla were two writers who believed that Scottish history had gone wrong with John Knox, but as Pittock points out Edwin Muir was someone who had Jacobite sympathies - although he did not have any expectation that this wrong step would be reversed. Muir underwent a Jungian analysis in 1919. This is an odd moment. Muir was so rational in many ways - but he had these contacts with deeply irrational and quasi-occultist areas. Jung was an occultist, you can’t get away from that. Muir published his long poem ‘Variations on a Time Theme’ in 1934, a strange but brilliant work which explains time in a heraldic way, as stylised characters appear and re-appear throughout history. There is some kind of relationship between the transformed and frozen Time of ‘Variations on a Time Theme’ and the ‘misdirected and lost time’ of anti-Reformation or anti-Hanoverian theories of history. The damaged time is recouped in aesthetic form. The poems disappear into a 'good time' which is too small to live in but for that reason can be stylised and heightened.

Muir wrote of the end of an organic community and its folk creativity in his 1940 book, The Story and the Fable, located in the gap between the Orkney of his childhood and the Glasgow where he moved at about fourteen. For him Scotland had fallen out of the timeless and cyclic into changing Time, which is also meaningless. He does not see any way of getting back. George Mackay Brown also came from Orkney and was Muir’s pupil in the 1950s. His ideas of time are based on Muir, they live in the same special theory. To this he adds a steeping in folk modes - he has disappeared into folk literature. To recycle what I have said elsewhere, he uses forms as stylised as if they were in a textile- he writes in a textile mode. The Norwegian embroideries illustrated in a book of Norwegian art treasures (from an exhibition) I have are a reference point for this comparison. The exhibition catalogue remarks “Together with the simple linear and flat-patterned treatment of pictorial elements in the tapestry, their evenly toned and sharply defined panes serve to enhance the decorative effect.” He solved his stylistic problems by an advance into flat images. As part of this reduction to a decorative schema with rules sharply detached from reality, we have to bear in mind that the designs were simplifications of rather grander designs from centres like Flanders and Byzantium – the quality of picking up driftwood, metaphorically, which grew in a forest far away, is significant for Brown. His language has an invisible loom which makes it come out like something from the fifteenth century –he hides inside a folk idiom but at no point reproduces a real folk form, such as a Scots ballad or a Norse tale. Like Spence, he seems to be speaking from another century. He has recovered Time by abandoning the Present. Brown’s book-length poem Fishermen With Ploughs is an astonishingly rich reworking of basically wrong theories about the course of history. Brown’s last volume has a poem dealing with his parents' wedding, which included Gaelic-speaking relatives of his mother:

The bridegroom, he was drowning
In a sea of lovely Gaelic;
And woke, his mouth cold
With dew of the wild white rose

(Collected p.444)
The white rose was a Jacobite emblem. This was about 1910. If the Stuart dynasty fell in 1688, would Highlanders still have been emotionally Jacobite in 1910? Brown is not really interested in chronology. It is a beautiful stanza though. The story abut being whirled away in a dance and waking up cold is actually one about being carried away by the fairies: the identification of Celticity with the supernatural is lurking there, beneath the threshhold. I was not aware of the late poems before seeing the Collected: Brown died in 1996 but the volume published in 2001 seems to be his best. Perhaps I had re-read the earlier ones so often that their power wore out. This late material has his clearest references to Muir, in the poem about him and in 'Uranium', where Brown refers to 'the fable' and 'the story' (Muir's autobiography was called The Story and the Fable) in a poem warning against mining uranium in Orkney. Here he moves the fatal exit from the fable to the atomic age – which is not where it was placed before. This flexibility shows him thinking, which is not what he normally does and is admirable. The poem recapitulates human history but this time does not wheel on either the Reformation or the fall of the Stuarts or industrialisation – again, the tedious schemas which we expect from Brown fail to show up.

The poem about Muir is unusually explicit about a Time theory:

The labyrinth : an old blind man in the centre of it with a crystal key.
The labyrinth : towers, vennels, cellars.
The labyrinth : wilderness of dark doors, with one bright lintel here and there.
Bright lock by bright lock he turns the crystal key.
At every door, a rag of time falls from him.
Through ghetto, shambles, graveyard he goes.
The brightness spills out, spills out in front of him.
He brings the poem to the hidden bestiary.
The labyrinth. The labyrinth.
He stands, a young man, at a threshold of unbearable brightness.
(from 'Edwin Muir', p. 438)
The style is near Muir (who wrote a book of poems called The Labyrinth), it could be Muir rather than Mackay Brown. The sequence whereby an old man becomes a young one is part of an unusual theory of time. Perhaps unconsciously, this poem also tells the tale of Brown replacing Muir as the poet of archetypes – and orkneytypes. The repetition in this passage is related to the refusal of a syntactic organisation that is not available to folklore. It is like a tapestry preferring flatness to spatial depth.

The story is that Brown only visited England once – he lived in a world whose centre was Orkney. England was meaningless to him. Yet his ideas have no connection with politics. Theoretically he could campaign for the abolition of Protestantism in Scotland– the reversal of the Reformation. But this is an impossible goal – his literary pattern has very little contact with reality.

All of this has about as much to do with the SNP of the past 50 years as I do with William the Conqueror. Bowd’s book is fascinating, for me anyway, but it is a chronicle of people marginal to Scottish political life rather than a ‘hidden current’ even. MacDiarmid was no more influential on the growth of a nationalist current in Scotland than Jacobite-tinged occultism. The SNP has completely given up on Scots language revivalism - I have no idea of the history of this. There are people chewing away at ‘the supremacy of English’, writing in Lallans, studying it – but the SNP is not interested. My feeling about these poets is embarrassment – other countries had politics and governments, Scotland had these halfway-visionaries with their aesthetic systems and their total detachment from ordinary people. Now that Scotland has a government it does not need these deviant theories of Time based on the nothingness, vacuity, failure of the Present. The Present is now where we live.

More vital stuff on Scottish poetry at: