Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Message From Scotland by Catherine Czerkawska

Today is Referendum Day in Scotland and this country where I have lived and worked – on and off – for the past fifty years, is torn in two in a way that I would hardly have believed possible. Way back at the start of the year, my husband said, ‘It will get very much worse. It will be terribly, tragically divisive.’ I didn’t believe him. Well, I hoped he was wrong. But he was right. 

Every morning, for the past few weeks, as the debate - often between otherwise close friends - has become more bitter, more insulting, more angry, I have woken up at three or four in the morning with words practically bursting out of my head. I have, so far, resisted the urge to write them down. They are too angry, too insulting, too divisive in themselves to be committed to paper or screen. But I’m feeling sleep deprived and rather ill. Because here I am, living in a divided country. And make no mistake, it is divided. Horribly so. People speak about winning and losing, they speak about an inspiring and peaceful campaign and all pulling together whatever the outcome, but where more or less half the population are in absolute and occasionally violent disagreement with the other half about a country’s future, the only answer to that is the useful, cynical, Scottish double negative:

‘Aye right.’

I’m working on a new novel. Or trying to work on a new novel. It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Jean Armour, the bonnie Jean who became Robert Burns’s wife and who has been very largely sidelined by a string of mostly male academics, commentators who seem to think that she was somehow ‘unworthy’ of the poet’s towering intellect. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always been on Jean’s side. In fact, I’ve written a couple of plays in the past, one for Radio 4, about the writing of Tam o’ Shanter and one for Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue, called Burns on the Solway, ostensibly about the last few weeks in the life of the poet, down on the Solway coast. Except that both plays turned out to be quite as much about Jean as about the poet. And the more I wrote about her, the more I heard her voice inside my head, the more I realised that I liked her enough to be able to live with her for the time it takes to complete a novel.

For those who don’t know, the couple had a difficult start. He promised marriage and they signed a document to that effect which in those days, in Scotland, meant that the marriage was legal. Her father fainted at the news and then ‘persuaded’ her to go back on her word. The names were cut out of the document. This didn’t invalidate it but perhaps he thought it did. Robert was outraged as only a handsome, self-regarding, self-dramatising poet could be. Jean was pregnant. She gave birth to twins. Robert took the boy to his family farm, Mossgiel outside Mauchline, and left the girl with Jean. The girl died. Robert took up with Highland Mary of unjustifiably saintly memory. Then Robert went off to Edinburgh to be lionised and Mary died as well. Jean’s parents tried to marry her off to a Paisley weaver but she wasn’t having it. Undoubtedly she loved Robert, truly, madly and deeply. On one of his return visits to Mauchline they met up but didn’t make up. They did something though, because Jean fell pregnant again and was turned out of her father’s house in disgrace. Robert relented enough to take a room (and a bed) for her. She gave birth to another set of twins but the babies didn’t survive for long.

And then, quite suddenly, the poet, who had been dallying in Edinburgh with ‘Clarinda’ aka pretty but prudish Nancy McLehose, came back to Ayrshire, married Jean without further ado and set off to Dumfriesshire to establish a hearth and home for his new wife at Ellisland.

It is an intriguing story with a certain amount of mystery about it. On the one hand, it reads like a conventional romance: nice girl goes through hell but tames bad boy who turns out to have a heart of gold. Except that she didn’t and he didn’t. Nor did it really end happily ever after. But it’s a complicated story and one that has huge potential as a novel. I could have written it as a piece of non-fiction but I want to be able to make up what I don’t know, and there is an awful lot we don’t know about Jean. All we have are hints, intriguing suggestions, possibilities. What ifs. 


So what does this, if anything, have to do with the dread R word. Well, the other day, I was chatting to a friend who said ‘how’s the work going?’ and I said ‘It isn’t, really. I’m working around the idea rather than through it.’ And she said she felt much the same. When, as I do, you write with a very strong sense of place, a strong sense of history, your own attitude to that place as a writer makes a difference to how and what you write. I have loved living here in Scotland. But I was born in England. My parentage is Polish, English, Irish. And now, increasingly I find myself putting a little mental distance between myself and the place where I currently live. I think I am doing it for the sake of my health, as a matter of self preservation. I had written ‘have loved’ there, well before I thought about it, about what that might mean for my future.

Meanwhile, I have to find a way for Jean and her story to take precedence over everything else that is going on, that will go on over the next year or so. It’s a very strange thing to say, but I may have to find a way of buying some time in isolation to write this novel. Some time elsewhere. Not here. Otherwise, I know that all my perspectives will be skewed by the nasty mixture of conflicting emotions that is Scotland today.

Pictures of Jean and Rab are by Leslie Black, from the Oran Mor's excellent production of my stage play Burns on the Solway with Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie. If you want to read the play, it's available in eBook form on Kindle - and it should be available pretty much everywhere else too in due course. 


23 comments:

Bill Kirton said...

This reflects exactly my experience of and feelings about the present situation, Catherine. Thanks for articulating it. I lament what's already been lost and dread the aftermath, whatever the result.

Nick Green said...

Following the arguments of Scottish independence, the next logical step should be to divide England up into its former kingdoms as they used to be before Alfred the Great. After all, it never used to be a single country. And we in the Kingdom of Mercia demand the exclusive rights to use our imported African swallows, with their superior coconut-bearing abilities. A big Yes to that.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

And what about Gododdin? Whoever thinks about the rights of the Gododdinonians? That'll be Dun Eidin taken care of then.

Lydia Bennet said...

well my county/ancient kingdom of Northumbria used to go right up into current Scotland, in fact Edinburgh was in England... my heart goes out to you Catherine, and all who are caught up in this sudden upheaval. I'm of scots ancestry myself on both sides, like many north easterners, and am stunned by the hatred of the 'English' expressed on Facebook etc. The idea that I and people like me are in any way the same as Cameron and Clegg et al! I strongly feel like you about writing to give a voice to the ignored, and also doing research to get it right - the wilful warping of history on social media, the rewriting of the last 300+ years, has been astonishing - some people are getting their history from Hollywood and Mel Gibson!

Catherine Czerkawska said...

That movie has a lot to answer for. But back when we watched it in the cinema, there were guys shouting 'effing English' at the screen not choosing to notice that it was the Scottish nobles that had sold him down the river - even in the movie! And I've lost count of the people I've heard joining in rousing choruses of 'sic a parcel of rogues in a nation' without having a scoobie that the parcel of rogues Burns was referring to were Scottish.

Chris Longmuir said...

You're right, Catherine. I think Pandora's box has been opened and we'll never get it shut again. And what has crawled out of Pandora's box doesn't bear thinking about. It seems to have given rise to all the underlying unpleasantness that, to be fair, has always been around but never had the voice it now has. I keep thinking of Hitler's brown shirts, and mob violence, it doesn't do much for the concentration.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

What I find almost more disturbing than the racist unpleasantness which has simmered along below the surface is the fact that so many writers I know (and like!) seem to be content to either ignore it or deny its very existence. Why I thought Scotland would be different from any other country where the nationalist can of worms is opened, I don't know. But somehow, I did. I thought we were better than that. It remains to be seen how or whether we can come to terms with any of this. But to continue your metaphor, Chris - hope was left in the bottom of the box!

Dennis Hamley said...

You've destroyed an illusion, Catherine. We had envied the Scots so much, to be able to have a long, meaningful, mature debate over things that really mattered and which was denied to us. I should have known it was too good to be true. Kay, as a McLeod, is all for yes, I'm in two minds but inclining towards no. But what does it matter? We have no say in deciding what it means for us down here. It may be dire. The contemptuous dismissal of the yes campaign as nothing but a silly dream by the establishment was nothing less than dereliction of duty. Still, we're used to that. If only The Three Twats hadn't crawled hand in hand to Edinburgh last week and the Westminster brigade had had the guts to leave the no campaign to Gordon Brown, who made a brilliant statement about what the Union means to Scottishness on tv last night. Ah well. The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Gordon Brown was unexpectedly, thrillingly brilliant, wasn't he? And no doubts at all about his Scottish credentials!

CallyPhillips said...

I'm sorry you've had such a bad experience Catherine (and others) For some of us (me included) it's been an energising experience, I've made lots of new friends, found a new belief in the decency of the ordinary Scot, and a new hope that we will be able to build a fairer, more just and more equal society if we get our Independence. Scotland has long been a divided country, now's our chance to bring it together. And this morning my dog Hector even kissed the First Minister in person in Turriff High Street. For me, independence is about as inclusive as it gets, way beyond narrow party political garbage, it's about shifting from a representative democracy to a participatory democracy. As I say, I'm sorry it's not been your experience but hopefully we're all about to see some light at the end of a very long tunnel. Time to B positive not O negative methinks!

Lee said...

Nick, whatever the outcome, you're obviously wrong that the historical argument doesn't make sense. It apparently makes sense to a significant number of people. (And maybe it's not comparable, but what about Israel/Palestine, for example?) A sense of belonging and identity is a deeply emotional issue.

Lydia Bennet said...

Nick didn't say that did he, or did I miss it? our ancient kingdom of Northumbria included Edinburgh at one time, so he's saying the historical argument does make sense except that it's a fluid and changing border over time. However Lee raises an interesting point - why are people rewriting history, if yes is right, right now, what does history matter? and if it does/did, why didn't they vote for independence before? it was only in 2011 the snp got in and the figures then for independence were low.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

I just had a phonecall from a friend whose 75 year old sister had been alarmed by loud knocking on her door. She opened it to find a posse of Yes voters demanding to know what way she had voted. When she told them it was none of their business, they shouted at her that it was very much their business because they 'needed' her to vote yes. Not a lady who is easily intimidated (the daughter of a Dalmellington miner who went by the name of Crunch McKay) she told them to eff off. The fireman who lives next door, came in to check that she was OK, having given them rather more than a piece of his mind. That was at least two people who - even if they had been intending to vote yes - would have been instantly converted to no. It's this kind of thing that my friends are turning a blind eye to - and it chills me to the bone.

Dennis Hamley said...

Nick, I rather like the idea of Mercia and Wessex back again. Well, we won't get them, but the Scottish debate has shown us that something must give. Like most sane people, I favour more autonomy for the regions. I'd dearly like to see, but won't, our own referendum with a simple but long question: Are Harry Smith (Harry's Last Stand), Owen Jones (The Establishment) and Thomas Pilketty (Capital in the 21st Century) right? If the right side wins, life will be better for all except the dreadful 1%. But we'd need a new mass political party unlike anything seen before to make it happen. Either that or revolution. But the Establishemnt has the guns all locked up.

Dennis Hamley said...

Nick, I rather like the idea of Mercia and Wessex back again. Well, we won't get them, but the Scottish debate has shown us that something must give. Like most sane people, I favour more autonomy for the regions. I'd dearly like to see, but won't, our own referendum with a simple but long question: Are Harry Smith (Harry's Last Stand), Owen Jones (The Establishment) and Thomas Pilketty (Capital in the 21st Century) right? If the right side wins, life will be better for all except the dreadful 1%. But we'd need a new mass political party unlike anything seen before to make it happen. Either that or revolution. But the Establishemnt has the guns all locked up.

Dennis Hamley said...

Nick, I rather like the idea of Mercia and Wessex back again. Well, we won't get them, but the Scottish debate has shown us that something must give. Like most sane people, I favour more autonomy for the regions. I'd dearly like to see, but won't, our own referendum with a simple but long question: Are Harry Smith (Harry's Last Stand), Owen Jones (The Establishment) and Thomas Pilketty (Capital in the 21st Century) right? If the right side wins, life will be better for all except the dreadful 1%. But we'd need a new mass political party unlike anything seen before to make it happen. Either that or revolution. But the Establishemnt has the guns all locked up.

madwippitt said...

A five ounce bird could not carry a one pound coconut

AliB said...

Catherine, I'm fascinated by your account of the story of Rabbie and Jean. What a great story with so much scope for the novelist. Not sure what world we'll wake up to tomorrow on either side of the border but we must find the space and time for our creative selves. ATB

Lee said...

Lydia, I'd assert that people are not only always rewriting history, but that it's absolutely imperative to do so: enshrining the past in immutable categories is as dangerous as forgetting it, perhaps more so. But no, I don't mean anything like Holocaust denial -- rather a continual and critical re-evaluation.

Lee said...

Lydia, I'd assert that people are not only always rewriting history, but that it's absolutely imperative to do so: enshrining the past in immutable categories is as dangerous as forgetting it, perhaps more so. But no, I don't mean anything like Holocaust denial -- rather a continual and critical re-evaluation.

Lee said...

Apologies for the double posting! My computer seems to be playing up.

Dennis Hamley said...

And apologies for my triple posting. 'I didn't mean to do it' is not reason enough.

Sandra Horn said...

Let us hope that the amazing energy engendered by the referendum will carry on and be used to work towards the best solution for Scotland and the rest of us.
Lee: Israel/Palestine?? NOT a helpful comparison.