Reflections on Turning Fifty in the Scotland of 2014
Scottish Review, November 26th 2014
I knew from an early age I would turn 50 in 2014.
It was simple maths. At age eight, reading the ‘Tell Me Why’ encyclopedias of facts and figures, I became aware of a sense of time. Apparently the sun would explode in around five billion years wiping out all life on planet earth and any chance I had of immortality. And at around the same time, confronted with this reality, I worked out that I would be 36 in 2000, 50 in 2014 and 86 in 2050. Plenty time I thought for lots of plans and dreams.
Often the concerns of an over-bright boy or girl confronted with the mysteries of life and universe, are about trying to place yourself and idea of self in it. Whereas, in actual fact, these are deep, timeless and philosophical questions which have taken up the time and efforts of some of our greatest thinkers.
I grew up as an only child with a palpable self-consciousness, large amounts of time and space for reflection, and a constant curiosity and hunger to find out more about the world. It was, as a young boy a big positive, not to have siblings. I had no one I had to share a bedroom with, or be bullied by, or look out for and protect from bullying at school or in our neighbourhood. And I had both quiet and room for contemplation and my own private world when I wanted to retreat to it.
I have always been very sociable and out-going, as well as shy and reserved. From my childhood, I loved blethering with friends: my parents’ house in my teenage years was often filled with neighbours and acquaintances dropping in for a chat or advice. This balance between space and company is one which has shaped me into my adult years: of wanting to be part of collegiate discussions and happenings, but never sublimating my whole identity to them. It is part an insider/outsider thing, and always wanting to retain some critical detachment.
Politics interested me from an early age. My first ever political memory is of my parents bemoaning the dogma and insensitivity of Ted Heath’s Tory Government in the early 1970s. To my parents he was ‘the most right-wing Tory you could imagine’, a frequent trope of the time on the left, ludicrous though it sounds now.
Life was always more than this. There was the tension between action and words inherent in how my parents saw the world. My dad was an armchair activist Communist, whereas my mum was a genuine community organiser and feminist. There was to put it mildly quite a degree of difference and disagreement between the two.
There was also the world of books, ideas and culture. To my parents these were the pathway to enlightenment and knowledge, and thus, a better life. None of this was ever articulated, but implied, and what it was never reduced to was money and status. Instead, the better world they invoked and hoped they could be part of bringing into being was about not working in a job which didn’t draw on your talents, and the liberating power of education and greater opportunity. This was the good side of the British post-war dream before it all went sour.
Talking about my and your Generation
I suppose I am implicitly talking about generational stories. The need and importance for us to carry collective memories and political and cultural imaginations across the ages, and hear and understand those without being a prisoner of the past or one era.
One set of conversations missing from the recent independence referendum was the connection and listening between different generations. There were many examples of this. There was the rather offensive comments of some disappointed Yes supporters after the vote that their side could just wait for the older voters ‘to die off’, giving the impression of wanting to bring it on as quickly as possible.
Another and one more nuanced was that of older, pessimistic voices from a generation who found their voice in the 1960s and 1970s. These were often once radical currents, associated with feminism, the new left and scornful of the worst aspects of the Labour Party, but which now seems in places, out of despair, to advocate that people should turn to voting Labour.
This is the Scotland which benefited the most from the British post-war dream. Yet, the world did not turn out the way some people wanted it to, and for all the chances they have had and opportunities, they now feel a sense of defeat and disappointment. These are perfectly understandable responses, but they then turn to the new young radicals thrown up by the indyref, and dismiss what they see as their naivety and idealism. In many senses, this seems a conversation going on in this older generation’s head – between their older and younger selves – but one that they don’t recognise as such.
But such views should be heard and respected, no matter how unreflective some of us might think them. Loss, confusion and even self-denial are powerful human emotions and it is important to listen to and understand this version of a generational story. And as important, this spirit of ’68 should reflect on the long retreat from its bright hopes of youths to its insular, defeatist pessimism today.
One of the positive developments I have experienced in the last few years has been the eruption of a new generation of diverse voices, who it has been a real joy to get to know. Some of Scotland just do not want to see the different country being created and emerging in front of our very eyes, preferring to cling on to conventional and out-dated labels.
Thus, the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) has grown from nowhere in a couple of years to being a force in the land, and last weekend put on an impressive and wide-ranging conference which drew 3,000 people from all walks of life and backgrounds. But for Michael McMann (Labour MP for East Kilbride) this could be dismissed as a gathering of ‘Trots: extremists, infiltrators, ppl who follow a revolutionary agenda.’
An important reason for RIC’s strength is that they have an awareness of history. They recognise that the lefts which came before them have been defined by defeat and retreat, and critically, an accommodation with the forces of neo-liberalism. They surmise, correctly I think, that this path is a road to nowhere, and that a younger, more educated and political savvy generation do not want to repeat the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. That doesn’t mean, as I think they are aware, that they have all the answers.
Living Through Actual History
As one grows older the difference between lived history and learned history becomes more apparent. When I was a young man in my late teens and twentysomething I knew off the top of my head every World Cup Final and who played, the result, and where it took place. That is no longer true, but something more profound happens with the passing of time, namely, the creation of real memories.
Instead of lists, what can be recalled, what is more vivid and rich, are particular moments of a specific occasion, time and place, and with it a whole panoply of emotions, hopes, fears and disappointments. As you grow older and develop a more potent awareness of lived perspectives, some of this falls more into place. The nature of timescales, and your place and emotional understanding of them, emerge more prominently, which made less sense when you were younger.
Thus, the year I was born (1964) was only a short period in relative terms (19 years) from the end of the Second World War. It did not feel like that at the time in my young head. I can vividly recall in the 1970s a whole generation of young people saying to their elders things like, ‘Stop going on about the war’. I know to my embarrassment I said something along these lines several times, and amazingly never got a ‘thick ear’.
This was a generational revolt against the stuffy, fusty, nostalgiafest, ‘Dad’s Army’ loving, Battle of Britain referencing legions of older folk, who had actually stood up to and defeated Hitler, built the welfare state, and endured great sacrifices in the process.
This throws up some difficult questions about today. The fall of Thatcher was a generation ago. However, when she died in 2013 the battle over her legacy, pro and anti, was as if this was a struggle over the present. To some she had ‘saved Britain’ and single-handedly ‘won the Cold War’; to others ‘she had destroyed everything of worth there was in Britain’ and worse. There was something both revealing and rather alarming in the strength and partisan nature of each set of claims, given the distance in time.
The Passing of Time and the Age of the Self
Understanding the importance of all of this is sadly missing from most of public life, whether in Scotland or the UK. One writer who consistently explores this is ‘The Guardian’s’ Ian Jack, who looks back on past ages and his own personal experiences. He does so while attempting to put his views and life in the context of how the rhythm of life has changed, from industry, to empire and class.
A specific Jack piece explored the memory of his father through his bookcase and books that he inherited. The case in question had come into the family in the 1930s, and by dint of accident, more than design, Jack had left his father’s book collection as it had been in about 1944. This preserved a window into the learning of his father’s self-educated ‘curious mind’ and the young man who brought Jack into the world.
This brings us to the subject of aging and the idea of the self. Lynne Segal has written with insight and sensitivity about growing older as a woman in her recent book ‘Out of Time’. But in this, the experience of men is mostly missing or dismissed, reduced in places to a near caricature. This has been the fate of older men in many feminist tropes such as Susan Sontag’s writing, no doubt feeling the need to correct the seismic imbalance and centuries long effect of sexism and double discrimination which older women endure.
The shifting of time leads to contemplating the fundamental notion of the self. The writer Ursula Le Guin in ‘The Wave in the Mind’ makes the contentious point that cats have an innate sense of what they are, whereas dogs have no such insight. Le Guin goes on from this premise to map out the confusions of humanity:
A lot of us humans are like dogs: we really don’t know what size we are, how we’re shaped, what we look like … We’re like dogs, maybe: we don’t really know where we begin and end. In space, yes; but in time, no.
So here I am having turned 50 in 2014. I am in good spirits and health, particularly so for a Scottish man from a working class background. I am optimistic, hopeful and motivated in life, but like many, also have periods of doubt and blueness. What I don’t have is any feeling of Scottish working class fatalism which hangs over many men I know, including some of the middle class men who come from working class backgrounds. Some of these men say things like, ‘It is amazing I am 63, I could drop dead at any point’, or ‘I will be happy to get to 70. That will do me’. That seems to me a very peculiar self-limiting outlook on life.
This was a milestone of a year for Scotland and myself, and in a small way, at least from my perspective, the two were deeply intertwined. While many focused on the big happening of the independence referendum, life goes on in ways both more universal and personal.
This year witnessed my 50th birthday party, publishing two books, undertake Scotland’s first ever ‘Festival of Ideas’ with Roanne Dods, and run the last Changin Scotland at the Ceilidh Place, Ullapool after twelve years and two dozen weekends. I even had the pleasure of doing a DJ set in the Commonwealth Games cultural programme; and on the night of the referendum I spent part of it with the impressive folk of National Collective, witnessing a whole gathering of young people identify with a cause, hurt and grow up in front of my eyes.
There was another side to the year: my partner Rosie’s dad, Cyril, dying at the age of 89; my travels around Scotland with Eddie visiting small towns and football grounds; my friend Eileen become seriously ill; another friend with deep connection Jean re-enter my life; and a whole host of special moments from late night conversations with Fintan O’Toole to the wonderful, evocative Billy Bragg play two acoustic numbers in the closing session of the ‘Festival of Ideas’ at Govanhill Swimming Pool on Glasgow’s Southside.
What underlies all of this is the search for the good life: any answer to which has to include a range of experiences and enjoyments, from amicable connections, to long term friendships, stimulating ideas, intimacy, empathy and love. There are issues of material security, physical mobility, and as we get older, the perilous navigating of choice and autonomy. Laughter is important, as is joy and sadness, the frivolous and fun; and quiet and solitude. In a society aging, where this is often posed by politicians as a negative, and where increasingly more of us live alone for longer periods, there is an acute need to get the balance right between all of these.
In the long sweep of history this takes us back to the memories of the Second World War, the story which has almost become a foundation myth of modern Britain. My father-in-law Cyril Ilett fought and was nearly killed on Anzio beachhead, south of Rome, in January 1944. He survived, injured, and led a full life, working all his adult days, and raised three children. He epitomised the best and the most understated characteristics of his generation: hopeful, curious about the world to the end, and with a quiet anti-establishment sensibility which meant it was apt that his last words this summer were ‘Sod the buggers’.
One of the most powerful undercurrents in the story of Cyril and his wife Joan, who survives him and now lives in Sheffield, is that their post-war British dream has been trashed, diminished and destroyed by the political classes. They will say in their defence they were only trying to reform and adapt it in light of big challenges whether globalisation or the need for austerity. There are still good politicians in Westminster, including in the three main parties, but the system and its class, have long ago stopped representing and giving voice to decent people like Cyril and Joan.
The writer and thinker Stuart Hall towards the end of his life looked back on his achievements and work, and posed that increasingly he had come to the conclusion that ‘life isn’t primarily a self-project’ and went on:
The first thing is, as I’ve got older I believe less and less in the language of the independent self, personal achievement, the autonomy of the individual … Secondly, I’m less and less impressed by the singularity of my own contribution but value more the many collective occasions when I’ve worked together with others, whether in intellectual or political activities.
We are not the sole authors of writers of our own lives, but wonderfully socially, interconnected and interdependent; the idea of the sovereign, independent self making their own decisions in life is a deception of recent times. It is also true that there were many expressions of this from the 1960s onwards: a progressive selfish individualism of the baby boomer generation, alongside the asocial individualism of hyper-market capitalism.
The challenge of the good life and good society is finding ways to express the balance between individualism and collective expression, and to do both in ways which are not damaging or suffocating. I am instinctively an optimist, as well as a bit of a contrarian, and at my point in life I feel that in Scotland, our society, culture and politics are posed at a crucial crossroads, where we can address making new forms of coming together and living well.
When I turned 50 in March, Rosie had, without myself noticing, removed from the house my father’s tattered 1963 NCR Coronation Shield that he was awarded for winning the company’s annual national golf tournament, and had it lovingly restored. The surprise and warmth I felt opening it on that Friday afternoon was immense. Here was something that really mattered to myself given back to me, an act of thoughtfulness, generosity and love. It was the nearest thing to Ian Jack’s father’s bookcase: emblematic of the passing of time, connecting father and son, and a generational story. I can think of no finer symbol in my year of the importance of the big and the very personal.