How a visit to America has deepened my understanding of Scotland
I’ve recently returned from the United States. My thoughts were often on Scotland: in part it was my holiday reading. Alan Bissett’s ‘Pack Men’, his exploration of sexuality, sectarianism and football in contemporary Scotland, also examined how education can tear the bright products of working-class communities from their roots. Fine stuff, but before I settled into James Robertson’s ‘And the Land Lay Still’, it was America itself which made me contemplate Scotland.
There is a curious intellectual snobbery in the UK. The US is perceived as a parvenu interloper on the cultural stage. My experience was the opposite. The John F Kennedy Library, a museum of contemporary politics, projects a rich, accessible, coherent narrative of America’s 20th-century history. I can think of no UK equivalent. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts equals the equivalents in almost any European capital. A few miles distant, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem (population 40,000) was showing a powerful, moving exhibition on the surrealists Man Ray and Lee Miller. In Portland, Maine, conurbation population 200,000, the Museum of Art (with its Magritte, its Picasso and its Renoir as well its wonderful collection of American art) shines out as a jewel. These are facilities unequalled in similar size Scottish towns.
There were also explicit political contrasts. The United States is characterised by a uniquely popular, optimistic patriotism. In Boston, and Massachusetts in general, the home of the American Revolution, that patriotism is recounted in a proudly public narrative. It is partly a chorus sung for the tourists but far too pervasive to be merely a commercial construct. In this most anti-revolutionary of nations, the very term ‘revolutionary’ and the names of countless individual revolutionaries were on statues, street names, plaques, in the titles of football teams.
The force against which that revolution struggled was also explicitly named: British tyranny. (It might benefit a few Americans to consider some of the fairly brutal tyrannies which the US has supported so long only as these regimes sustained US economic interests.) My favourite story of American revolutionary tradition is that in Boston, that most Irish of American cities, 17 March is celebrated not as St Patrick’s Day, but as Evacuation Day, the day the British forces and their Tory (Yes, the American unionists also were known thus) supporters finally evacuated the city and sailed, defeated, to Nova Scotia.
The Americans’ celebration of their own traditions of liberty does however require a caveat. Mary Dyer’s statue stands beside the Massachusetts State House. Massachusetts was created by Puritan settlers who had fled England seeking religious liberty. The ruling puritan clerics of Massachusetts guarded their power by insisting that God spoke only through them. Mary Dyer, a Quaker, asserted that God spoke directly to individuals, including herself, and her right to preach that doctrine. The Puritans hanged her in 1660. Those who ardently sought religious liberty were niggardly in granting it to others. It was a further century before the revolutionary constitution separated church and state.
I had one curious day-dream as I toured Bunker Hill, the Old North Church (from where Paul Revere was warned of British troop movements) and the Old State House. Our trans-Atlantic cousins were fortunate that British politics in 1770 were populated only by Whigs and Tories. Had the Labour Party existed then (I know, it’s almost the ultimate anachronism) it would have insisted that the Boston Tea Party was not fundamentally a rejection of the sovereign rights of the colonial power and that minor problems could be resolved by devolving some additional powers to the State of Massachusetts. It would have insisted that America and Britain were far stronger together than apart. It would have warned that separatism was in no-one’s interests. (Just an idle reverie, no more.)
There was however more to ponder than cultural excellence and revolutionary tradition. Countless piers on the shoreline of Boston, once a great exporting port, are today rotting. The largest export now is scrap-steel. On the train journey to Portland, Maine, the major towns, Exeter, Dover, Saco, once major centres of world cotton weaving, were monuments to decay, the industry entirely gone. The mills are luxury flats, hotels and museums. The world’s most powerful economy has also deindustrialised (perhaps not as comprehensively as Scotland) and the results are illustrated on television advertisements for debt counselling, debt consolidation, avoiding burdensome health payments. Uncertainty lingers close to the surface.
I left with an augmented admiration of much about America: the ever-present courtesy, the respect for the arts and culture, the open discourse in the quality American media. I enjoyed the excellent food, moaned initially at the cost of alcohol but noted the absence of Scotland’s late-night drunken violence and reconsidered my reservations over minimum pricing.
There were some negatives. Despite the constitutional separation of church and state, there is a pervasive culture of conservative religiosity and of political deference to religion. USA Today, one the most liberal newspapers, celebrated as if it were a major advance (and perhaps it was) that ‘more than a third of Americans now oppose the death penalty – the highest level in nearly 40 years’.
One other American tale perplexed me. In Harvard University there is a memorial to the Harvard students who died fighting for the union in the American civil war. Those who died serving the confederacy are not acknowledged but the second world war memorial names, as well as US and allied dead, two Germans and one Japanese.
My understanding of Scotland was deepened by that opportunity again to compare and contrast it with that most vibrant of western cultures, but also, while in the US, by reading James Robertson’s ambitious, panoramic observation of Scotland, ‘And the Land Lay Still’. From the post-war, social democratic optimism to the shattered communities of the post-industrial decades of this new century, Robertson illuminates 70 turbulent years of constant change in Scotland, change almost beyond fore-telling. Yet prophecy is at the heart of this book.
Jack Gordon, profoundly damaged ex-prisoner of war, liberated by the atom bomb, is the seer who understands but cannot participate in the Scotland to which he returned. It is a generous book which recognises virtues across the political spectrum but uncovers dark corners. It captures with searing accuracy the effects of alcohol dependency. It considers the role of the British security services as agents provocateurs and in the troublingly mysterious death of Willie MacRae.
Like all great historical novels, ‘And the Land Lay Still’, despite its meticulous underlying research, has at its heart an implacable ambiguity. Not even Jack Gordon can foresee the outcome of the seismic forces rocking this small country. Only the impermanence of human institutions is certain. It is not only a great historical novel, it is a traditional historical novel, a modern rather than post-modern work in which narrative is central. The inter-connectedness of people and things is stressed as is the perspective that history is a process but what is vital is the narrative itself. ‘Trust the story,’ the central character tells us. ‘It twists and turns and sometimes it takes you to terrible places and sometimes it gets lost or appears to abandon you, but if you look hard enough it is still there. It goes on. The story is the only thing we can really, truly know.’
In a world too dominated by quantitative and arithmetical values, the authenticity of the narrative and the integrity of the narrator may re-emerge as the keys to grasping our past and our future. My souvenirs from America were the stories. I need a few more, like Robertson’s, to better understand my own country.