These articles appear intermittently - time and mood permitting
Pet radicals at service of the Queen
"You can either be Makar of the Monarch or of the people, not both. Not in a society where an anointed one occupies a myth-made supremacy over all others"
Two hundred years ago, Percy Bysshe Shelley tore into the British ruling class in his poem 'England in 1819' as he told of "Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who flow/Through public scorn - mud from a muddy spring/Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know,/But leech-like to their fainting country cling". So much hasn't changed. Though Shelley was writing of England, Scotland fell under the same affliction; and, as recent history reminds us, the Anglo-British ruling class is in rude, conceitful health. English nationalism continues to cast a malign spell over millions of subject-citizens while vetoing the interests of the rest. So, where's the spirit of the Shelleys (Percy or novelist Mary) when you need it the most? Uncompromisingly rebellious, disdainful of authority, refusing to play nice with those who could elevate them to comfort, they set the standard for cultural radicalism. I can think of quite a few writers who follow in that bloodstream, but you can discount for a start two national poets. England's Simon Armitage has got his national treasure slippers on, and Scotland's Makar, Jackie Kay, is beaming anew as she queues up for her turn to prostrate herself on the Buck House carpet. Aye, there's a New Year's CBE to add to that MBE on Jackie's mantelpiece.
For so many folk in England, it must be galling to witness this ritual of uber-aristocracy rewarding its obliging talent. Oh sure, there's some talent in among the recipients: the deceit would not be so alluring without them. For people in Scotland, the insults come stampeding. Brexit, Europe, independence? We've just been shafted by serial-abuser Britannia, and what does the country's Makar do? Indulges the blessings of its feudal high-priestess. Who's for a bauble from benefits billionaire Elizabeth Windsor? A knighthood, a CBE, an MBE, a Gold Medal for Poetry? A damehood for extra gloss? Who's for a 'BE' addendum to their surname, as if British Empire in a title was a nod to some benign heritage rather than insignia for the genocidal looting of other people's lands. Several of Scotland's most recognisable and feted poets (Liz Lochhead, Douglas Dunn and Jackie Kay) now boast these royal adornments. The first two received Queen's Gold Medals for poetry, while the latter will soon be needing more shelf space. How does this square with the stated (or overstated) radicalism of their pasts? Few people seem bothered to ask. Why aren't they confronted more often about it? Good question. You can factor in some people's deference - ironically - or shyness, in the face of inflated reputations, a hushed or unwitting submissiveness, so to speak. Or maybe reluctance to single themselves out for the mobbing or ostrazition that comes with doubting the status of culture's living statues. But my guess is there's also something more basic at work: clubbishness and ambition; a nervousness that in the tight circles of influence that dominate Scottish culture, going off message might lead to a cancelled booking, or even no bookings at all. That magic door to jobs, workshops, placements and events might not open in their favour. Go to the back of the queue. So much for dissent: One of the benefits of living in a comparatively small country is that your words can reach far, and not be submerged by a deluge of other voices. One of the pitfalls revolves around the same: you crash heads with people who move or chance up in familiar orbits.
That may explain why Scottish cultural critique appears so anaesthetised. And therein lies a few ironies. Let's not forget that Douglas Dunn built his name for a poetry (The Barbarians, for instance) that demolished notions of the intellectual sovereignty of the propertied class. He was one of us, one of ours. Liz Lochhead's poetry ridiculed the assumptions of male patriarchy. She was a forthright voice in raising women's poetry from the pit of misogynist neglect that for so long passed as the critical norm. What happened to their inner fire? A few months back she was a guest speaker in Edinburgh at a tribute to Hamish Henderson for the launch of a new edition of his Elegies. And yet . . . how safe, I found myself thinking! I don't say so dismissively. She purports to be a republican yet as makar made of herself a pet radical of Britain's highest high heid yin. Queueing up for your turn in front of a monarch whose dynasty has presided over some of the bloodiest crimes against humanity in recorded history, and which exists to uphold the worship of hierarchy, hardly sits well with republicanism, or championing a diehard socialist such as Henderson. And how does it square with the commitment to equality and human rights as a rudimentary standard of social and political interactions. How does it concur with ideas of culture being at the vanguard of progress in human affairs? And if it doesn't, what value is that culture at all?
There's a plethora of excuses made by those who sponge up the regal patronage. The reflexive response is to insist 'I'm doing it to raise the profile of poetry. I'm doing it for my peers. I'm doing it with the heavy qualification of restating my radicalism, my socialism. It doesn't mean I support the Monarchy, but it would be ungracious not to accept . . . ' You get the script. The crucial flaw of these mantras is that they are built on a fiction that Monarchy is anything other than irredeemably brutal to its bones, its fibre; that this can be tolerated without making it more tolerable; or that its present, or recent past, can be separated out from the obscenities of its history. They can't. Unless, of course, it is in someone else's name that Britain's Armed Forces extended their colonial adventurism from Suez to Ireland to the Gulf to the Falklands, Afghanistan then Iraq (for a second go). If not, it's news to trigger-happy Harry and Bro. who thought they were earning their family warrior spurs.
By their accommodations of this, these poets reveal themselves to be fake radicals, easily flattered,
co-opting themselves to the P.R. cause of the Windsor brand. If Jackie Kay really wanted to make a statement, she could reject that CBE. Seize the headlines. Distance herself from the malignant institution from which it is minted. And tip that MBE off the mantelpiece. That would raise the profile of poetry in Scotland in ways that might make people notice for the better; because it speaks for them. It would signal what we want culture to be in a genuinely independent-minded Scotland (before or after a referendum). If not, you might wonder what's the point of a Makar, or makars. You can either be Makar of the Monarch or of the people, not both. Not in a state and society where the anointed one occupies a myth-made supremacy over all others who are deemed of inherently lower human worth, either useful or expendable. Read up on your Shelley, poets.
Magic doors and culture wars
This article was first published on forums for The Poets' Republic
Time was, ‘no-platforming’ was reserved for toxic political extremists, and it was generally accepted that anyone else should be confronted by the power of language. If not, we ceded ground to them by lack of confidence in our own argument. ‘No platform for fascists’ was the mantra because we recognised that fascists were exceptional in that they valued and exploited freedom of speech only so they could close it down and deny it to others.
Censorship was for the state, its agencies, authorities, and the intellectually challenged. Culture – popular, fringe, poetry or punk – was the antidote, the vanguard of alternatives to institutional mind control. The idea that we should ‘mind our language’ and ‘respect, respect, respect’ was something for the church cardigan crew.
All change. No-platforming now is the surreptitious weapon of choice against writers who are deemed off-message. Its orthodoxy of language sets the tone for a cultural code of behaviour that poets, editors and publishers defy at their risk. That ethical check-list stretches from publicly-funded literary venues, bookshops, libraries and universities to reading groups.
And where does that lead us? Let's start by calling 'no-platforming' something else, something less flattering – say, blacklisting: that word most usually associated with Thatcher-era company bosses keeping ‘troublesome’ workers and agitators in quarantine, unemployed, and away from others. Very often without their even knowing the list existed. This new cultural conformism is both domestic – next door – pervasive, and loaded with double-speak, as exemplified by one Edinburgh bookshop that loudly defines itself as ‘radical’ while parading its pre-entry requirements on its website. It’s a big fan, of course, of ‘safe spaces’. Safety is the leitmotif of these professed radical hotbeds: safe for their disciples, not so dissenters, and safely beyond the curiosity of most other people.
They can shout ‘fuck the establishment’ with the best of them, but they’re immersed in it and are its beneficiaries. You’re not the Sex Pistols and this isn’t 1977. No-one gives a f*** any more.
Rewind. Remember the furore that attended the screening of Tony Harrison’s poem ‘V’ on Channel 4 in 1985? It took both political and moral nerve not to retreat from the frenzy of moral indignation at this ‘expletive-ridden filth’ that swept across the political and media spectrum. But the cause of free speech, loaded with the right to cause offence, won the day, so audiences, from young to older impressionable minds, were able to hear and read one of the outstanding politicised outpourings of contemporary poetry (in any language).
The more enlightened view around this time was that free speech meant taking all the potential for general offensiveness that came with it because, well, you couldn’t separate out the parts you liked and the bits you loathed without undermining the entirety. Deny it to others in print or broadcast and you licensed others to deny it to you. Then we might as well be doing the state’s job for it in muzzling dissenting and unruly voices because we had co-opted ourselves to its side.
So it was, for instance, that many of us argued for the right of Sinn Fein’s mouthpiece Gerry Adams to speak for himself when Margaret Thatcher tried to deny him the “oxygen of publicity” on TV under Section 31 legislation. Even though we abhorred the IRA, its acts, and its apologist-in-chief Adams, what right had the state to act as patronising gatekeeper over who or what we should hear? In the climate of pious hysteria that Thatcher and crew fomented, it came as little surprise that education and books, schools and sexuality, were also on the target list. So it was that Britain got the fabricated offence of “promotion of homosexuality”, cheered on by the usual suspects of the national press. It’s something we’d now most closely associate with Putin’s Russia, but worth remembering that this blanket attempt at stigmatisation/censorship was, until relatively recently, government policy. Fast forward a few years and what has changed?
You could be forgiven for thinking that the battles have mostly been fought and won; the state has morphed into a bastion of liberalism; or that all orthodoxies are rendered obsolete by internet-savvy public access to myriad uncontrollable influences.
As if. Most of us now are thankful that many extremities of language and behaviour are no longer tolerated, and face sanction, not least racism and the abuse of gay people and minorities. As someone who endured his share of anti-Irish abuse in 1980-90s mainland Britain, I’m acutely aware of the benefits of a legislative safeguards. But in many crucial areas the shift in attitudes has also been accompanied by an unwelcome adjunct, a new puritanism, with its own ever-lengthening rulebook and economic levers of influence. The terminology of ‘hate-speech’ now has an elasticated meaning that can apply to any degree of offensiveness, or, more likely, the taking of offence, depending on how easily you are offended. That such language is so readily absorbed and adopted as weaponry by the culturally employed speaks, at minimum, of an imagination failure; worse, it indicates a victimhood mentality that is infantilising. Most obviously it’s seen in the efforts to turf out ‘Terfs’, as they are disparagingly branded (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), for having the temerity to argue – or not argue (publicly any more) – that men cannot become women. As aggressive an act of witch-hunting as this might be, and egregious and sinister of itself, it has not happened in isolation, nor could it. It is ushered in by a climate of righteous ethical censure in the guise of radicalism; a pollution of the atmosphere that extends to others who don’t observe the new fundamentalism.
The effect is to police what many writers, publishers and artists create; to inhibit and restrict their platforms and outlets; and, by extension, direct their thinking. The ubiquity of social – or anti-social – media, may cause us to assume that no idea can now be straitjacked, no argument placed off-limits, but that’s a superficial reading of change. Set aside the competing group-think and mobbing mentality that shouts down or pursues any social media comments that are deemed off-message or offensive: there is a more insidious threat and, confusingly, it very often comes from those who would perceive themselves to be on the political left.
What often characterises them is their fixation with identity politics, and oblivousness to its regressive self-absorption. This atomised view of the world seems to me to be at odds with any boasts of political radicalism. By past standards of anti-establishment libertarian socialism, many of these cultural outposts look like the gatekeepers of conservatism that sought to suffocate us. If you don’t speak their language, the magic door closes. Word of mouth, whisper, rumour, accusation without explanation, and unfounded claims, mean more doors closing. You will feel its heat on the back of your neck, and its pressure on your fingertips at the keyboard to hit ‘delete’, even as your accusers take cover. You’ll know as well that the magic door is a revolving one too. Once welcomed within, you’re in a place of mutual benefit, economic favour and status.
So long as you subscribe to its codes, mind your language, and sign up to the rules of the sect, that is.
Most of us who strive to be respectful of others, anyway, take offence at being force-fed these holier-than-thou commandments. Even allowing for evolving changes in the meaning and associations of language, there’s something so alienating, conformist and sterile about these prohibitions that you have to wonder at the value of any writing that emerges from within its safe spaces.
And there I go again with that word ‘safe’, so often synonymous with controlled. If we’re not careful – or, rather, not more disrespectful of it – it will soon be the norm.