Speakers Corner – Modern European History, Sculpture and Sheep

I will enter my third year of the Creative Writing course at UHI in September.  Where has all the time gone?  It has been a thrilling challenge, and once my rusty brain cells managed to cope with the discipline of academic life, it’s been rewarding.  With age has come wisdom, and I’ve thrown myself into every aspect of studying.  And it’s been reflected in my grades.   However, the learning experience has revealed some of the most satisfying aspects of being a mature student.  Developing a relationship with fellow students, albeit via Webex, has opened my life to new corridors of thought and understanding.  This has been enhanced by starting the podcast Johnny and Sue – Everything and Anything.  Never in my wildest dreams would I have considered embarking on such a project a few years ago.

Moreover, I feel my identity shifting.  I now, without embarrassment or chagrin, describe myself as a writer. Of course, I’m a wannabe author.  But I have finished a novel, and I’m working on a second book.  Of course, it’s yet to be published, but that’s not the point.  I found an identity that explains this part of my life.

            It would be safe to say that everything has been new in the last two years.  At times this has been stressful, and I’ve felt like an imposter, riddled with self-doubt.  Nonetheless, I’ve come through to the other side.  The unique feeling of learning something for the first time, reading for enjoyment and pleasure, and being able to put words together in a technically proficient way has been exhilarating.  Yet not all things are new.  Oddly, much of what I’ve been working on demands that I look back and evaluate aspects of my life, personal philosophy, and politics. 

Last term, we studied The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, a play by John McGrath performed by the theatre group 7:84.  It’s a tale of the Highland clearances, the development of vast estates for the hunting of deer, and the discovery of oil in the North Sea.  It was a parody of how the natural resources of Scotland through the ages were for the benefit of a few.  It is a socialist critique of capitalism exploring the lost opportunities for the people of the Highlands.  The group’s name was derived from data in the Economist, which showed that 7% of the population owned 84% of the wealth.

            In my class at UHI, I was the only person who had seen the show.  I tried to convey to my colleagues what an effect this had on me.  I was twelve or thirteen when my mother dragged me along to watch the play.  It was a mixture of folk music, show tunes, panto, and a Ceilidh.  I then attended their next production, Joe’s Drum, staged in Willie Ormond’s bar in Musselburgh in 1979.  It was magnificent, and I remember leaving the show ready to join the picket lines to start a revolution.  These memories came flooding back when I listened to the BBC Radio Four programme What Kind of Scotland by Allan Little, celebrating the first 7:84 performance’s fiftieth anniversary.  The reporter asserted that the unintended result of 7:84 was to radicalise the politics of Scotland.  Although steeped in the Trade Union movement and the left, the analysis fuelled the campaign for Scottish Independence.  And I recognised this transition in my views.

            As a seventeen-year-old, I was exploring my thoughts of the world.  I had two influences.  Firstly, my friend Kenny Hunter was more aware of Scottish politics, but we were far from the prevailing views we encountered at our all-boys, fee-paying school.  We joined anti-Nazi League rallies, which were prevalent then, joined several marches, and supported the firefighters and others who were striking for more pay.  The second impact was my history teacher, Dr David Todd, who took us both for higher History.  We studied modern European history, including the Russian Revolution.  Dr Todd was inspiring, radical, and thought-provoking and treated us like adults.  We had three classes a week and a single period on a Friday where we had an hour to write an essay on what topic had been studied that week.  It was enjoyable, and I looked forward to the exercise; it seemed cathartic.  I sat next to Kenny, whose humour was caustic and cutting.  His fabulous doodles kept me smiling, as did his company as we travelled home on the No. 26 bus to Portobello and Musselburgh.  Kenny went on to become one of Scotland’s foremost sculptors.

            In my twenties and thirties, I lost the drive to want change.  Too busy bringing up a family and forging a business career.  I didn’t lose my left-leaning views, just the will to do something about it.  Ironically, this was discussed recently by Brian Cox in the podcast The Rest is Politics with Alistair Campbell.  He experienced the same feelings when describing his activism.  Like me, he’s become more vocal as he’s grown older.

            But the UHI course has forced me to review my thoughts and ideas.  The work has taken me back to pivotal times in Scotland’s transformation, and I have now realised mine.  I’ve rediscovered my passion for social democracy.  I lament that we live in a time where social mobility has decreased.  Brian Cox details how he left school at fifteen and came to London to train to be an actor.  All he had was his grant from his local authority and ambition.  He was a working-class lad who was welcomed into London.  He reflected that acting is now dominated by Benedict Cumberbatch, Damian Lewis, Dominic West, and Eddie Redmayne, all educated in England’s most elite public schools.  And this was a subject that Gregor Riddell, cellist, and composer, discussed during the recording of our upcoming interview for Sue and Johnny – Everything and Anything.   He now lives in Norway with his wife and two young children.  He is struck by how little class structure exists in Norway, and the concept of private education is anathema.   And Norway could be no better model for Scotland to follow when it becomes independent.

            The novelty that has invaded my life of late still harks back to my past.  I aspire to live in a country that gives every individual as much of a start as the next person.  A government that redistributes and addresses the inequalities of wealth that the 7:84 theatre group so brilliantly exposed. 

In fifty years, I hope it’ll be 50:50. Viva La Revolution!