Sunday, March 25, 2007

StAnza 7 - Alastair Reid, Scotland, Fire, and Calvinism

Alastair Reid’s famous poem, Scotland, concerns a man around 1971 walking around St Andrews. It’s a beautiful day. The sun is shining, the colours of the surrounding fields and hills make a strong impression on the narrator. He is in a very good mood. He runs into the woman from the fish-shop and says “What a day it is!” The poem ends with the woman’s reaction:

Her brow grew bleak, her ancestors raged in their graves
as she spoke with their ancient misery:
‘We’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it, we’ll pay for it.’

This is the Scottish psyche speaking, not just a woman from a fish-shop. We Scots laugh, and wince, at this recognition of who we are – or were.

At StAnza, Alastair Reid finished off the 100 Poets Gathering by reading it, because he had been instructed to. He then held up the original manuscript, pulled out a cigarette lighter, and set it on fire. It was a wonderfully theatrical moment to end on.

A couple of days before in a fascinating discussion with Tom Pow (one of the festival highlights), Alastair Reid had said that Scotland no longer described the nation. Things had changed, he felt. Scotland was no longer in the grip of Calvinism, with its iron Sabbaths, its dourness, and inability to enjoy itself without thinking of the inevitable payback.

I disagree. Partly I disagree that Calvinism really had much to do with it – the weather, an inferiority complex brought on by colonisation by a richer and more powerful neighbour, relative poverty, and a deep sense that nothing good lasts forever – all those factors play their part in the Scottish psyche.

And when he burnt the poem to express a liberation from the ‘Calvinist’ psyche, I couldn’t help wondering what we now felt free to do – to shop at Tesco and IKEA on Sundays? to pad around the near-identical shopping malls? to adopt a lifestyle of unfettered hedonism? to celebrate our devolved Parliament that most people I know do little but complain about?

I mentioned this over dinner last Sunday evening. One of my companions, a festival poet – not from a Christian background – agreed with me. She even felt that the Scottish psyche described in the poem was a good thing (to an extent), providing a counterbalance to the forces of materialism and globalisation.

I don’t think that psyche has gone. At least I hope not. There’s no sense in destroying who we are to become an unidentifiable part of a global village. We don’t need to be miserable in the face of a beautiful day, but that sense that the weather will change – here, probably sooner than later – is part of who we are as Scottish people. Let’s not burn it out of our heads until we’ve something equally distinctive to replace it with.

1 comment:

apprentice said...

I really enjoyed this post, and I agree with your take on things.
I think we've changed for many reasons, we're a more mixed society - though still much less so than England, and some of our long-standing divisions have started to come down, gosh we're even tackling sectarianism publically these days.

I'd like us to be more mature politically, eg not returning pan Labour administrations at local authority, Scottish Executive and UK level by virtue of habit but because they actually deserve it -which at present I actually doubt.

I'd like to see us more honest about our history, I heard a great quote from a Scots academic the other day about how we like our history simple and inaccurate. If we could understand where we came from we might have a better sense of where we were going.

Confidence comes from ability to know yourself warts and all, so being hard headed about life is no bad thing, provided it is combined with an open, generous and honest heart.

I agree that 24 hour shopping and
super lattes
don't make us a better society.

The best example of Scots I saw recently is the Lewis couple working Zambia, a doctor and an airlne executive,
who have taken in thirty street children and are raising them with their own two daughters.

We're celebrating 50 years of the new Europe today,and 200 years since the abolition of slavery,
let's hope Scotland can continue to look out to the rest of the world, without losing the best of our inherited values and ideals.