"Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus imperium; atque ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant." – They ravage, they slaughter, they plunder, and they falsely name it "empire"; they make a wilderness, and call it "peace."
In a time long ago, I was once privy to secret knowledge. Back in my film criticism/journalism days, I talked with directors, screenwriters, producers, all sorts of individuals: I knew a lot of folk who worked at various levels in the industry. I’m lucky enough to call some of them my friends – damned if I know how or why I found myself in their circles, yet there I was, an errant mote in the whirlpool of Important People. One of my favourite secret memories is when I received some… information. To protect my sources, I won’t say anything beyond that it was related to a significant milestone in popular culture – the sort of thing that only happens once.
I knew that, while some elements would surely be divisive, others would be received warmly, & some would have longtime aficionados leaping to their feet in delight. Oh boy, folk are going to love this, I thought. But I daren’t tell a soul what I knew – quite apart from betraying my sources’ confidence, how could I ruin something that means so much to so many? So, I went on forums, news site comment sections, Facebook groups, Twitter lists, and looked at what everyone was thinking about this pop cultural milestone… while I, privy to secret knowledge, cackled in glee like the proverbial Imp of the Perverse. Reading their theories, their hopes, their fears, all while I knew exactly what was going to happen. Then, the pop cultural milestone happened. Sure enough, some criticized a few parts – but the vast majority seemed to adore it. And I felt that kind of contentment, knowing that I never betrayed my source’s confidence for well over a year, waiting for this great event to unfold. Something of the glamour of prophesy, but for fun.
I wish I had happy secret knowledge like that again.
“The traitor within is to be feared more than the foe without. It was not the legions of Rome which conquered me – it was the traitors within my gates. Not alone in swords and ships does Rome deal, but with the souls of men.”
– The Tall Stranger, “Delenda Est,” Robert E. Howard
There’s a phrase that kicks about in times of conflict and war – Delenda Est. It’s most often seen in the term Carthago Delenda Est, “Carthage Must Be Destroyed,” by modern scholars of classical antiquity in regards to Marcus Porcious Cato’s closing words during Senatorial debates between the 2nd and 3rd Punic Wars. The Carthaginian Empire were Rome’s great rivals to undisputed rule over the western Mediterranean Sea, and had been reduced to a corner of North Africa following the 2nd Punic War. The punitive peace treaty of 201 BC- which included losing almost all of its overseas territories to Rome, and barring Carthage from making war without Rome’s permission, even when being raided by aggressive neighbouring Numidia – meant that Carthage presented little danger.
But this was never enough for Rome, & it certainly was not enough for Cato, who viewed Carthage’s wealth & prosperity despite losing two wars in the last century as an outrageous threat to Roman security. Carthage must not only be defeated – it must be destroyed. When Carthage finally acted against the invading Numidians, Cato convinced the Senate to go to war – and Carthage was destroyed.
I try my best not to be too critical of fellow independence supporters, but sometimes I feel like I have to plant my colours to the mast. Such a day is today, where Neil Mackay hosts an interview with Andrew Wilson, former SNP MSP and currently (in)famous for the Growth Commission prospectus on an independent Scotland.
It’s been a difficult few months for all of us. I haven’t commented on it because everyone’s been fighting their own battles, and it seemed self-indulgent of me to rant into the aether. But several things have happened recently that changed that.
A good friend of mine lost somebody very important to them to a terrible disease. They live in a country that doesn’t have universal healthcare, and so they must resort to their own means for treatment. They asked for money, donations, anything anyone could spare, just so someone could stay alive. They kept everyone up to date on how things are going, sharing the little joys and tremendous pains. And through it all, everyone offering their well wishes, offers of assistance, ensuring that their thoughts were with them.
To my eternal shame, I haven’t said anything to them. Anything, everything, I could say feels so profoundly inadequate that it would be insulting to even impart the words. “I’m sorry.” “I’m here for you.” “If you need anything, just ask.” All while they live in a nation where your health and wellbeing is dictated by your income and insurance choices. Where good health is not a universal right – a human right. It seemed the height of perversion to me for a wealthy nation to demand its people look to charity just to make their lives less agonising, their existence less uncertain, their story less bleak.
My friend’s significant other has passed now, just as untold thousands in that nation have, and thousands more will, because they live in a country where the people have decided it’s an acceptable state of affairs.
Yet I can’t cast stones in my glass house. The parliament which governs our nation has voted for a bill absolving public authorities from wrongdoing – including crimes like torture, sexual assault, even outright murder. It comes barely a month after that same parliament decided that breaking international law was an acceptable eventuality in their disastrous talks with the EU. That comes after that same parliament decided that any and every power which should come to the parliament which should govern our nation must go through them first, democracy be damned.
Meanwhile, the parliament which should be governing our nation is preparing for an election, where the government party is looking towards unprecedented support, led by a tremendously popular leader praised across multiple parties, and buoyed by historically high preference for Scotland’s natural status as an independent nation… and yet. I would love to be confident that such an election will even take place given the direction the UK is accelerating towards – not to mention the little demon on my shoulder that reminds me “a lot can happen in seven months.”
It seems perverse to see such a surge for the cause I hold dearest, the party which will and must deliver the goal of that cause, and the people who must make it happen, yet feel utter despair and dread for what the future will bring. The criticism the SNP have faced from fellow pro-independence supporters outstrips even the most severe condemnation I heard in the runup to the first referendum. Back then, I acknowledged that some people are going to just disagree, be it the socialists balking at the White Paper’s plans for corporation tax cuts, or the anti-EU campaigners wanting a Scotland outside the bloc.
Despite the polls, despite the support, despite the glow from the fires of a people newly awakened from apathy and nihilism, it is imperative that criticism – genuine criticism, not the dishonest storytelling concocted by those opposed to independence – must be contextualised & understood. The SNP has survived as long as it has not because it suppresses disagreement, but because it adapts to concerns where warranted. Hence how the Scottish Government correctly changed its initial response to the Coronavirus epidemic; hence how the Education Secretary reversed the initial decision on Scottish exam results; hence how we’re seeing discussions of alternative routes to independence despite the insistence on repeating the circumstances of the Edinburgh Agreement.
And it’s tough. We’re all tired of the UK Government lying and cheating and wrecking lives and communities. We’re all tired of Coronavirus taking away loved ones and necessitating difficult practises. We’re all tired of arguing with each other and being accused of being secret UK Government assets by people who agree with us on just about everything. We’re all tired of being tired.
But I’ll tell you this: we have to get over ourselves. All of us. Because if we don’t, nobody’s going to do it for us.
The Fisk Jubilee Singers, 1875: B.W. Thomas, Julia Jackson, Maggie L. Porter, Ella Sheppard, F.J. Loudin, H.D. Alexander, Georgia Gordon, Jennie Jackson, America W. Robinson, Thomas Rutling
Current events often inspire an itch in me to go back to history. Given the global situation, this means going through my own library, or diving into the internet for digitised offerings.
One such gem is The Singing Campaign for Ten Thousand Pounds by Gustavus D. Pike. This 1875 book covered the journey of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a choir of former slaves who toured the world to fundraise for education for freedmen and other black Americans:
And yet again, I found myself surprised that Scotland – Gourock itself – plays a tiny role in this amazing story.
In case it wasn’t obvious from recentposts (and ones not so recent), I wholeheartedly support the movement which has led to protests against systemic injustices around the world in the past few days. That it should be even necessary to state this is purely because too many people are either conditional in their support, or outright silent, & I didn’t want to leave any ambiguity on my part. I value the lives & wellbeing of my BAME relatives, friends, colleagues, and fellow people, than I do “accommodating” or “keeping the peace” with people who disagree.
I presume most readers are aware of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” An emperor rather obsessed with fashion is always on the lookout for the most flamboyant and outrageous garments. Two con-men catch wind of this, and hatch a scheme: they claim they can weave delicate fabrics so fine and sheer that they would appear invisible to the unworthy and stupid. The credulous emperor commissions them forthwith, and the two “weavers” set to “work,” pantomime weaving & sewing these nonexistent garments. Obviously the Emperor, his ministers, and his officials cannot see a thing – yet rather than speak & be thought unworthy or stupid, they went along with the con. Once finished (and several bags of gold heavier) the “weavers” pantomime dressing the nude Emperor up for the big parade. As with the ministers, officials, and the Emperor himself, the townsfolk also go along with the con, loudly commenting on his finery as he passed. This farce continued until a little child – who, being a child, is not yet susceptible to pluralistic ignorance – loudly comments “the emperor has no clothes on!” His understandably mortified parents attempt to save face, but once the truth is elucidated, it’s hard to suppress. Whispers became murmurs, hubbub became commotion, until eventually all the crowd were exclaiming the same as the child – “the emperor has no clothes on!” And the emperor, vain and proud to the end, realises that he’s been had… but still marches on, while his sycophantic nobles continue holding his nonexistent train aloft.
Imagine if, at the end of the story, rather than point and laugh, breaking the spell, the adults keep up the pretense. They continue to compliment the Emperor on his finery; they still treat the Emperor as a wise and intelligent ruler; they perpetuate the illusion even when explicitly pointed out to them. Because, to those people, it is less frightening to continue the illusion than face the facts – they were ruled by an idiot who was swindled by a con-man.
Such an alternate ending is sounding darkly familiar.
We should be out in our thousands celebrating it – at Arbroath itself, throughout Scotland, and the wider world. We should be marching and dancing and laughing in the streets, singing auld sangs and chanting auld hymns, embracing our friends and family and total strangers. But we cannot, because of circumstances outside our control – and some circumstances which we allowed to happen to us.
A day of great jubilation and self-affirmation for the entire nation is strangled – politically, socially, existentially.
Grannies are formidable figures in Scottish culture, hence why this 4,000 year old megalith is affectionately titled “Granny Kempock.”
Men have sat at the feet of women down the ages and our civilization, bad or good, we owe to the influence of women.
– Robert E. Howard, letter to Harold Preece, December 1928
I watch Suffragette back when it came out, knowing it was going to be rather difficult to get through. I’m not good with historical dramas which centre around oppression and unfairness: I keep wanting to leap into the screen and sort everything out. Because in cinema, that’s how things work: charismatic individuals with right on their side just get things done with rousing speeches or acts of defiance. It’s why heroes like Zorro and Superman are so popular – the will and the determination to change things for the better with the strength & ability to make those changes. The strong should use their strengths to carry, not to crush – but it has been bred into us to suffer some tyranny for some security.
I still profess to having a childlike view of such things. I don’t like it when the strong use their power to keep those weaker than them down. But worse, to me, are those who just stand by and let it happen – because I know there have been times when I was one of those bystanders. When women were beaten by policemen with truncheons, sympathetic men and women did nothing. When women are imprisoned, their husbands are ashamed to pay their bail. When women go back to work, they are disciplined – by their employers, or their husbands – for their insubordination. That was at best. At worse, they were complicit in the social exclusion that the state fostered against the agents of change. Alienating. Shaming. The violence against their bodies is bad enough, but the violence done to their minds and souls is what truly cuts.
And we, as a species, are still at it. For all we’ve made strides in many nations, there are still too many where women and girls are forbidden from basicfreedoms, forced into “marriage” (how anyone can define such a union as marriage is beyond me), where abhorrent treatment is a fact of life. Being part of a global community carries responsibilities – otherwise, it is a community without collective consequences. All throughout history, women made their mark, from Sappho and Elpinice to Aspasias of Athens and Thargelia of Miletus: and this is no less true in Scotland, from the Caledonian Period to the MiddleAges, on through to the present leader of our nation. Even my own little hometown of Gourock can boast women writers, artists, politicians, journalists, and warheroines. – to say nothing of my mammy, my sister, my niece, my granny, my aunties and great-aunties and cousins, and my many brilliant female friends who are such an inspiration to me.
The least I could do is be as brave as they are.
Woman have always been the inspiration of men, and just as there are thousands of unknown great ones among men, there have been countless women whose names have never been blazoned across the stars, but who have inspired men on to glory.
– Robert E. Howard