Monday, March 24, 2014

Meanwhile, on the Ness of Hillswick: Fulmars and a pool

Nationalism: a dangerous delusion

Six months, then, until the referendum on Scottish separatism. 

Until now, I’ve said little or nothing about this in any public forum. I’ve felt uneasy about my part-time position as a broadcaster on BBC Radio Scotland, where, three late-nights a week, I’m a DJ, committed to playing new and old Scottish rock, pop and folk, set in a broader context of the best in worldwide music. Would stating my opinion alienate some of our small band of listeners? Would it call into question the much-discussed ‘objectivity of the BBC’?

But there has been, and never will be, any political discussion on Morton Through Midnight. Not on air, and not on its dedicated social media feeds or the website. This? This is personal. And too important to ignore. 

I don’t work as a journalist for the BBC.

Also, several of my colleagues in music presentation have made their opinions extremely public. So I thought I would too.

Just to be completely open: I’m a scuffling freelance hack, not on any personal contract with the BBC, paid by the independent production company which makes MTM. The rest of the time I write, books and PR, including professional social media and blogging on the energy sector for the organisation Promote Shetland. I edit the magazine Shetland Life, a monthly for the community in which I live, the Shetland Islands. The radio show is mostly broadcast from a small studio in my home there. I write about whisky and have a live musical show called The Malt and Barley Revue. 

I’m a not-uncritical member of the Labour Party. My wife is deputy chair of the local branch. I love Scotland, celebrate Scottish culture, have spent my entire life here (apart from the first year, after being born in Carlisle. That’s in England, by the way). Just as you don’t have to wear a kilt to prove you’re Scottish (in Phil Cunningham’s immortal phrase, ‘I don’t have to dress up as a Scotsman’). You don’t have to be a nationalist to be proudly Scottish. Even if you were born in Carlisle.

I think, and have always thought, that at its core nationalism, and not just Scottish nationalism, is a dangerous romantic delusion. On its own, it’s devoid of moral value. You have to harness nationalism to other concepts - oppression by a foreign state or interests, human rights - to bring a reactive morality into it. Otherwise, history teaches that nationalism is either a distraction, an entertainment, as at sporting events, or a very dangerous force that can pull communities into anger, blame, bigotry, violence, warfare and death.

In today’s United Kingdom nationalism is essentially divisive and distracting, sucking up energy and resources as the ordinary people of Britain face economic and social crisis, and the poor from Unst to Uttoxeter go hungry. A Britain presided over by a Tory government based on the ruthless pursuit of privilege, propped up by a completely and sadly discredited Liberal Democrat party. 

I believe the poor in Carlisle, Newcastle, Norwich and elsewhere deserve better than being eternally condemned to Tory rule. And that is the utterly selfish promise to the people of England made by a separate Scotland.

Nationalism generally, the SNP in particular, has used whatever political cause it can adopt, adapted to its own ends. The SNP, its present profile formed out of disillusion with the Tories and with its heartlands in former Tory strongholds, has re-invented itself as the supposed haven for the ‘centre left’ in Scotland. A separate Scotland would divest itself of Toryism, they say, reflecting the country’s essential ‘socialist identity’. And, divided from England, Scotland would be, on a Scandinavian model, a social democracy where equality, oil-funded economic growth and glorious tartan fraternity would rule. 

But nationalism, as I’ve said, is essentially value-free. It’s based on emotive concepts such as ‘the right of a nation to establish its own destiny’. Braveheart words with the bruising echo of boots on faces. Nationalism is about flags and tunes, swelling hearts and marching feet. All the rest is stolen. Ideas ripped off for the sake of achieving an end whose entire moral worth, in Scotland, seems to be based on the reactive notion that ‘We’re better than the English.’

Some on the  non-nationalist left have abandoned solidarity with their southland brothers and sisters, believing the nationalist untruth that socialism would rule in ‘New Caledonia’. They see a chance to wield power, at least on a personal level. This is, like so much else in politics, a blinkered reading of history. 

With the death of the SNP in any separate Scotland, I believe we would inevitably see the revival of Scottish Toryism . And with the promise of eternal Conservatism in England, along with the SNP’s back-of-an-envelope currency model giving essential last-word control over Scotland’s economy to the Bank of England, Scotland would still be in thrall to the Old Etonians (and their state-educated fellow-travellers) of London.

And there will be no way back.

No way back for those whose public service pensions will be - at the very least - cut, perhaps lost. No way back for those of us whose families are scattered across England. No way back for those who see their comfortable delusion of ‘socialist Scotland’ founder amid business downturn, oil uncertainty, currency upheaval and inept, self-serving, sentiment-blinded leadership. Oh, and greedy, ruthless investors from around the world keen to divide up what spoils they can tear out of the ruined remnant of a nation.

Britain is a small country. Brutal dismemberment seems horribly wrong. Invoking the strident and historically dangerous emotions of nationalism in any context save the gross exploitation and oppression of a people is foolish in the extreme. And Scotland is not oppressed and exploited by the English. It is exploited and oppressed by the forces of greed and selfishness, the forces of multinational business, the forces of gangsterism, bigotry and sectarian strife. The same basic array of evil faced throughout the UK and beyond.

So I will vote no. No to division, no to separation, no to blind, stupid or deluded, bullying and bitter emotionalism. Put simply, I want greater equality and the alleviation of poverty throughout the UK. And for greater control of our affairs in Shetland, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the regions of England.

I believe the majority of proud Scots want to remain part of the United Kingdom. We must make that plain when we vote in September. We do not want to be railroaded by a minority into the murky uncertainties and empty promises paraded by the SNP. It’s not enough to sit on the fence. It’s not enough to keep quiet.

So it’s a thoroughly Scottish ‘no’ from me. No to separatism. No to division. And an end to this monumental and corrupting distraction from the central moral and political issues we face.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

At 'Magnus Bain's Beach' (Burnside) from 'Shetland' . In Northmavine, Shetland

Wee wander this afternoon 'atween weathers' to get some pictures for the next edition of Shetland Life Magazine. This is the beach (and house) where large chunks of the most recent episode of 'Shetland' were shot. The (derelict) house has been sold and general feeling (rumour) is that it will be demolished and a new one built in its place. It has one of the most stunning positions of any house in Shetland. Or Scotland. Or Europe.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Publishing is dead. Long live the new publishing! A response to Robert McCrum

I read this unintentionally funny, lazy Observer piece about the incredible suffering being endured by today’s cash-strapped, loft-converting authors (having to ‘commission a builder’, which is what you do in London, apparently, rather than ‘head to B&Q’) with increasing frustration and rage.

Why? first, it made it into the columns of the Observer, despite its lack of insight, research, knowledge or perspective. Presumably because Robert McCrum is an associate editor and thus Beyond Criticism. Second, it reflects a London-centric, blinkered, middle class sense of entitlement. Third, it reminded me how I felt when the British Phonographic Institute began its moronic legal actions against poor wee pop music downloaders, back in the day: it illustrated how fear and misunderstanding of technological change can lead the privileged beneficiaries of redundant systems into the errors that shape their inevitable doom. Dinosaurs? Waddle this way.

Publishing is about five years behind the record industry in its reaction to digital technology, and even now, there are those involved in music who think their salvation lies in ‘the comeback of vinyl’ or that the best idea is to get a deal with a major label which will sell CDs and make everyone shedloads of money.

But the record industry is essentially a twitching corpse with a ghastly smile on its stiffening face. ‘Copyright’ as it has for years been understood regarding music is terminally ill. New models of working have been evolving, artists understand that they must retain control of themselves and their art, and that indeed, no-one is offering to buy their souls anymore. If you’re a full-time musician, unless you’re cruising on old contracts, prepared to hack it with the corporate song machines or very, very lucky, you’re a ‘portfolio freelance’, making a living from performance, record and merchandise sales at gigs, selling special, luxurious souvenir editions of your work to fans, teaching, workshopping, consulting, hustling for synch and advertising (selling your music for evil corporate purposes) , pitching for grants and community project funding,and probably seeking any other work on the side that fits with your priorities. Or living off your partner.

Most of all, you’re doing it yourself. You’ve honed your social media skills, you update your own website or blog daily, and you give your music away, most of it, in Mp3 quality, harvesting those who become committed fans as a result and encouraging them to support you by owning those fancy limited edition CDs or collectible cassettes with real fox fur slip cases.

Sorry, authors. That’s the future for you. Just as creative musicians have learned that, if they want to live by their art, they have to let the old maintenance models die, so must you. Publishers don’t want you anymore. Publish yourself. It’s straightforward. It’s cheap. It can even be free.

Oh, but wait a minute. You’re saying you don’t want to do that as (a) it’s too time consuming and your muse will be pissed off? (b) No-one will organise launches or buy you lunch? (c) deep in your heart of hearts, you know your publisher’s been subsidising you and the truth is, you don’t have an audience big enough to support you in the style to which you’ve become accustomed?

Listen, people who make music do it for the love of making music. They will do it for nothing. And as far as I’m concerned, writers write for the love of it too. They seek to communicate, to connect. And you don’t need a publisher to do that. And time? As my student son commented, scornfully: what are evenings and weekends for? And you delicate flowers with your tender, fragile creativity and your need to rent an office where you can swoon over a MacBook Pro running Scrivener, without distractions: sorry, the fantasy is over. There’s the kitchen table, there’s the Tesco Toshiba, there’s next door’s wifi. Get going.

I write as someone who has had six ‘proper’ books published by Mainstream, latterly owned by Random House, now essentially out of business. It was fun. It was even, for a short while decades ago, quite lucrative, though never enough to live on. But I never stopped crofting, reporting for newspapers and magazines, writing columns, doing workshops, whisky tasting, gigs, copywriting or broadcasting. I’ve had two books put out by a small local publisher (owned by my local, and successful, newspaper, for whom I edit a monthly print/digital magazine). I have published other people, locally in print and using Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform. I have the digital rights to my own out-of-print Mainstream books and have begun the process of moving them onto Kindle. I have published (using Blurb - not recommended) a travel book and (using Amazon's Createspace - recommended) ‘the world’s first interactive whisky thriller’. I’m in the process of setting up a small digital-and-print publishing operation which will, I hope, help other authors to begin the process of connecting with a readership.

Perhaps they’ll make some money. But they won’t be sitting in their luxury converted attics, the ones with the carefully-matched Timorous Beasties wallpaper and the designer pram in the designer hall, sipping buck’s fizz while dreaming of lunch at the Ubiquitous Chip. They’ll be the ones running their own websites, working social media with verve and style, making videos and mounting guerilla-lit tours of the remote English wastelands.

And they’ll be doing that because they can write. Because they want to write. Because they’ve got something to say.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Learning To Hate The Beatles...I still stand by the sentiment!

From the long-lost album A Complete And Utter History Of Rock'n'Roll by The Tom Morton Two (me and the much better known James Morton, when he was just 14...)