Kirsty Gunn: Have a ceilidh, before you get sucked into that virtual world of your own

We are all in a world of our own. I see it with my daughters and their friends '“ a bunch of them all sitting together and chatting but also all of them with a mobile phone in hand, scanning and swiping and selfie-ing, sending messages to other friends while skimming through various sites and films and magazine channels. Here but not here, somewhere else altogether.

Too many of us are obsessed with scanning, swiping and selfie-ing on our mobiles and ignoring the people around us. Picture: Getty
Too many of us are obsessed with scanning, swiping and selfie-ing on our mobiles and ignoring the people around us. Picture: Getty

And I see it with people my own generation – to a lesser extent, perhaps, but I see it even so. We sit down at a table, to have a coffee or lunch, and there it is, on the table, having lunch with us, the mobile phone. “Do you mind if I just get this?” goes the common refrain, interrupting conversations, interrupting thought – half an eye on the phone, half on the person who’s being talked to – as the possibility of another form of communication, outside the face-to-face one that’s happening right now, in this present moment as we have our coffee or our sandwich or whatever it is, is also very much present. There’s always the “Sorry about that” afterwards, as the phone is put down again, but the damage is done. “Now, where we were we again?”

Is it a way to live?

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I read this week that we are moving swiftly towards people-less supermarkets as the ghastly Amazon, like some super monster in a Marvel Comics movie, doubles its heft in seconds, and goes from being a delivery service for everything we might need outside a supermarket, to being a delivery service for everything we might need inside a supermarket as well. Apparently we’ll be able to place orders with Amazon-Fresh online and then drive along to a special sort of ghostly shopping mall, pick up our orders, and leave again. Without having seen or spoken to a single person throughout the whole transaction. Then home we go, I suppose, to watch movies streamed online or play some virtual game or other and text and email our friends, one of who are actually with us in the room. Where’s the ceilidh in all that?

Recently at a party for the London Book Fair I was telling our guests, booksellers and publishers from around the world, who gather together to talk books, sell books, project forthcoming books and syndicate current books, about the Scottish concept of the ceilidh, the sort of party where everybody contributes by way of performance. “You have a song here. A recital there” I said. Everybody joins in on creating the programme for the evening as it is happening. You might have a funny joke. Or someone else gets out a violin, or someone else organises music and an Eightsome Reel. The publishers and agents loved the idea, and in this case, because it was a Book Fair sort of ceilidh, I suppose you might call it, we had a lot of poems that were read out loud, in various European languages, and in English and Scots spoken with kinds of various accents, American and Scottish and English and Australian...

And there was a lot of talk, as the whole thing played out, between the “items” as my granny would have called them, about Scotland and internationalism and the Auld Alliance and Brexit, with everyone agreeing that while they were delighted it was the case, it was also clear Scotland hadn’t been under the sort of pressure England had, when it voted to stay in Europe last summer. “Because how could you feel that way?” a German publisher said to me. “The way they did in England? You have very few immigrants up in the Highlands, where you live, yes? You have very few immigrants anywhere in Scotland! So of course no-one is frightened, in the way they are frightened in England. You know, they are frightened in Germany , too, a lot of people...”

Then we had another poem or two, and something to eat. At some point I sang a song as my “item”, a lovely old anonymous air that my sister and I used to sing together at ceilidhs when we were children growing up in New Zealand and we had ceilidhs in places with names like Taupo and Eketahuna and my father used to play the play the pipes for the Highland dancing at “The Highland Games of Waipu”. The song is called She Moved Through the Fair, quite well known, and one or two people, Scots who live in London, said they remembered their mother or granny singing it to them when they were little. I told everyone before I started that I was going to sing the song as a “charm”, I said, a sort of spell, against Scotland having another referendum and splitting off from the rest of the UK. And then we had another spirited discussion about a Federal Britain and Gordon Brown, and everybody agreed that a Federal Britain as part of Europe sounded like a pretty good idea – and perhaps the only way we had of standing up to the behemothic and tax-dodging monsters of Amazon and the like. Booksellers and publishers aren’t keen on Amazon, of course, even though publishers can’t avoid dealing with them, now that Amazon is here. One person at the party knew someone who had been to that first Amazon supermarket in Seattle that sold everything apart from books because you could get them from the regular Amazon and said that it had been “really, really spooky”.

I believe it. Thinking about that made me think, by comparison, about the guy in the Tesco Metro at Dundee. No matter what kind of day I’ve had, or he’s had, or anyone for that matter who’s in there shopping has had, he has a joke, a bit of a song, a story to tell, to cheer us all up. I asked him once if he’s an out of work actor, moonlighting on the Tesco till until he gets his big break? But no, he just works at Tesco’s he said, and is pleased to be there. It’s why I wait in the queue at the Dundee branch. And I am not the only one to do so. Though the managers in all the supermarkets keep telling us to to use the self-service counters we should think about where that is leading us, shouldn’t we? This way, when we get to the till, we hand over our groceries and, with everyone else, have a bit of a chat. A sort of a mini-ceilidh even, you might call it, given all the entertainment on offer in those few, personable minutes of buying a few groceries... Given that a ceilidh is about everyone, and not each one, on his or her own.