Kirsty Gunn: Would our current crop of politicians match up to brilliance of Churchill?
As we all stumble out of the latest in a round of elections and referendums, dazed and with a kind of hungover feeling after the massive drubbing that goes on before these things, I can't help but wonder if the last four years haven't played as something of a morality tale. A parable even: Those who call loudest, lose hardest '“ or something along those lines.
For there’s surely a bit of a pattern emerging by now. With Salmond and Cameron pushing for referendums that they thought couldn’t go any way but theirs; May with her U-turn and snap election that she thought was going to clear up the matter of Brexit once and for all... hubris is the word that comes to mind. I feel like sending them all copies of Aeschylus and Sophocles so that they may learn a thing or two about Greek drama and the terrible consequences of pride. Or rather, and more beautifully and subtly described in those classical tragedies than we’ll ever see at Holyrood or Westminster, the effects of individual will. For these leaders of ours intent on shaping an outcome that they might claim is for the benefit of all but leaves out of their thinking the society and culture they seek to influence . . . They’ve had their come-uppance alright.
In America last week, I was up on a rooftop, as one is quite often in New York at this time of year, taking in the trees in full leaf below, and the jets zipping in to JFK and Newark around my head, talking about politics with, well, a group of Scots, actually. Golly there are a lot of Scottish people living in New York!
There we were, sitting on a roof on the Upper West side discussing a wedding in Queensferry.
The logistics involved in scheduling the Church of Scotland Service and ceilidh on the same day as Yom Kippur and was there a synagogue anywhere in the vicinty? And even if there was, one member of our party interjected, how on earth to cover both bases in the one afternoon?
Anne, who I’d never met before, is from Kirkcaldy and who met her American husband in Nairobi, has been living in Manhattan since the Seventies and was inclined to think it possible. “I suppose I must feel American, then” she mused, sounding as though she’d just that moment got off the Aberdeen to Waverley train.
“Because I can’t believe the bride didn’t think of all this. But then, of course I don’t really believe I’m American,” she finished. “I’m Scottish. Even though I’ll never live there again, I don’t think . . .”
Fiona Wilson, from Aberdeen, and who I did know from earlier visits and from her poetry, was up there too. She’s married a native New Yorker psychiatrist and with both her children American-born can’t see that she would ever “go home” either.
Her work is published here, in magazines like The Edinburgh Review, but her publisher is in America. Her beautifully melancholy collection, A Clearance, full of Scotland, as I read it, and pervaded by a dry wit and long-held sense of an absence, isn’t available here. You’d have to order it from The Sheep Meadow Press in the US if you wanted to read her finely-tuned stanzas and contemplations of place.
“The sounds and smells of where I grew up and first encountered poetry were in Scotland,” she says; a country is “formative” in that way. “Even though I’ve been here...” She gestures around the air of the Upper West Side, “for over 30 years.”
Earlier in the week Brian Cox, who’s been living in America for a very long time and was talking about his new film Churchill in a movie theatre in Times Square, seemed, for all the world, to be having a chat in a bar in Leith. “He talks about going back to Scotland every day,” his wife, the actress Nicole Ansari told me.
At the preview, he was describing how his uncle was involved in helping out with Winston Churchill’s visit to Dundee back in the day, peppering his anecdote with Scottish words and phrases many present would have been hard put to translate into Americanese.
“They didn’t think much of him there, Winston, in Dundee,” he told his very New York audience at the Q&A after the screening.
They recognised he was a marvellous speaker, he went on, demonstrating perfectly in his funny and self-effacing but immensely erudite way how playing the character had given him enormous insight into aspects of an individual “many still think of as ‘the greatest Briton of all time’”. Brian’s representation of the politician gives us a very different man – riddled by guilt and depression and a terrible feeling of powerlessness, as well as aspects of his life in English political society,Maybe right now we could benefit by seeing what great actors might do with our current lot. For sure we need someone to prove to us that they’re not just blown-up versions of their own idea of “great” and are people with anxieties about our country and the nations that make it up – just like the rest of us.