Kirsty Gunn: Scotland’s Orwellian nightmare, courtesy of Brexit, globalisation and ‘Happy Holidays’

Bonfire Night used to be kids mooching for 'a penny for the Guy' not mass municipal gatherings
Bonfire Night used to be kids mooching for 'a penny for the Guy' not mass municipal gatherings
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Communities. Tribes. Followers. Gatherings… These are the kinds of collective nouns that have come to settle permanently at the heart of contemporary life.

Whether part of some crowdfunded plan to launch a poetry collection or sending out blogs or vlogs or Instagrams into the Twittersphere, hoping each message and post will return with a million “likes” attached, it seems as though everyone in the world now wants to be attached to something larger.

And, as if having a virtual friend on Facebook who lives in a remote mountain village on the other side of the world wasn’t enough, there’s also got be a sense of the “gang” about real-life activities now, too, it appears. The idea of masses of people all doing the same thing at the same time in a massively self-absorbed sort of way…

This is now where, in contemporary society, we seem to be “@”.

I was thinking about all this as I fought my way – along with everyone else who happened to be in a city centre at the time of Hallowe’en – through throngs of the undead, along with ghouls and werewolves and the odd walking pumpkin, before passing by effigies of Guy Fawkes or notices for any number of municipal bonfire night parties this past week.

When did everything get to be so…group’y?

Bonfire Night used to be a few kids rumbling round asking for 50p for firecrackers: “Excuse me, Miss. Penny for the Guy?” Whatever happened to that?

Now it’s bangers going off every night beforehand and all the cats and dogs in Britain so heavily medicated on PetCalm and Valerian spray they can barely move from terror, torpor or both. Where are we? In Scotland or somewhere else?

With the shops veering from a mass of witches hats to sparklers to pre-Christmas trees and fairy lights all in the space of a couple of weeks, we might be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a sort of perpetual Americanised present. We’re just waiting for a turkey Thanksgiving theme to kick in at the butchers to complete the picture.

“Happy Holidays!” as they say over there. Happy Holidays, eh? Well, I’m not so sure. I heard my younger daughter saying “Happy Hallowe’en” while dishing out massively expensive – to my mind – and individually wrapped mini Mars Bars to a cluster of equally mini-scaled Draculas and skeletons. I had to nip that in the bud. Happy Hallowe’en? When did that start? Did I even hear a “Have a good one”? referring to Bonfire Night this past weekend? I fear I did.

For this is where the world is headed, it seems: to a permanent, globalised, Westernised state of “Happy this, happy that”.

As if we might insulate each other and ourselves from the terrible realisation that we live our life alone by buying over-priced schlock from the shops and uttering a few banalities into the dark.

As though we might pretend the massive selfishness of a capitalist-generated mindset can be assuaged by ganging about on the streets together like extras for some second-rate horror movie we think we want to be in.

Hah! What a mood has come to settle upon me, reader. Blame it on the clocks going back.

In his beautiful book The Last of the Light, a meditation upon the meaning of shorter, darker days in the works of art, in the poetry and literature he knows so well, Peter Davidson, a writer, poet and former Aberdeen University history of art professor, talks about the melancholia of growing up in the 1970s, remembering a kind of straitened, old-fashioned sense of Britishness that seems, in our cities at least, to be all but gone.

“We were aware of inhabiting the twilight years of the Britain into which we had been born,” he writes, the fine, measured texture of his prose recalling a sensibility that revered private as much as public expressions of feeling.

“The decade of our explorations was itself a dusk, the last glimmering of a way of seeing… before the wholesale demolitions and reconstructions of the 1980s. It is lost and built over and gone now…”

These were times, his book seems to suggest, when lives might be articulated with no less sense of pleasure or enjoyment, but quietly, thoughtfully, idiosyncratically, even.

It makes me think here how our celebrations and festivities used to be contained within familial spheres, with friends and acquaintances who live near us, or who we know very well – not paraded about on this new grandstand stage of a globalised entertainment industry, all of those massively scaled festivals or happenings where everyone knows each other in exactly the same ‘friendly strangers’ sort of way and can replicate the gestures and attitudes of the masses in one great shared cheer of assent which shouts: Yes! I belong!

Much of what is going on in Scotland, alas, plays along with the kind of groupspeak – as George Orwell began thinking about it in his dystopian novel 1984 about terrible outcomes and socially engineered futures – favoured by those who don’t want to think for themselves, or, because of poor education and lack of opportunities, can’t and so, as Trump’s America and Brexit show us, have let some party political rhetoric do it for them.

“Newspeak” Orwell called it then, in fiction, for a means of governmentally managing individual forms of expression. That fiction is now a fact.