On Saturday the 28th of June thousands of people across the British Isles celebrated Armed Services Day. It has become quite the tradition for British nationalists in their attempt to camouflage the decline of a once imperious power. Many would have you believe that Armed Forces Day has nothing to do with imperialism and war. I know this may seem surprising that I would humour the idea, but we must if we are to dissect its meanings and implications. It is of course important for us to make sure that when men and women from the most deprived neighbourhoods are sent to die in often futile and morally corrupt wars we take care of them when they return. The cause in which they were sacrificed may be shameful but they are still comrades. But what I find so interesting about this Armed Forces Day is its cultural ramifications in the context of the referendum on Scottish independence and the centenary of the First World War.
As a teacher and poet I am acutely aware of my duty. This is not the duty to rouse the nation to war or to point out the dangers of foreigners or even promote a culture of masculinity based on unthinking aggression. We in education or those with children in education must see the power of culture to frame historic events in a new way. Scotland has always been blessed with having a separate education system thus allowing her people to be shielded from the cultural reprogramming going on south of border about the war. It has also meant there is a clean psychological break that will aid a future independent Scotland to reassess her position in the family of nations both in terms of her past and future actions. For what is at stake with a Yes/No vote is the chance to either leave or continue on the uncontested march into illusion and irrelevance.
When we say never again or that at the going down on the sun we will remember them I always feel queasy. I am profoundly ashamed in fact. For those of us who pay attention and have seen the many machinations of the British state down the years know full well that in any society there is no action bereft of political intent or power. These platitudes are jokes and sick ones at that. The poetry that captured the futility of war did not only attempt to convey the horror of the trenches, it communicated to us the mistakes made in the run up to the slaughter and during. Undemocratic systems, an unashamedly nationalistic and complicit media, a hypocritical political elite hell-bent on maintenance of privilege at home and imperial expansion abroad and finally the nurturing of an aggressive culture and a military cult of worship.
Poetry and plays are crucial in this fight. David Greig spoke at a recent Red Pepper meeting on independence in London about the need for a national theatre. He spoke about the history of the National Theatre of Scotland but also delved in to the deeper meaning of such a statement. We need a theatre without walls that incorporates all the views of the national as a collective while not losing our individual selves. If culture is represented from the grassroots up then this affects our choices far beyond on the world stage. Poetry can remind us of our obligations as the bearers and keepers of peace. It is never a nation’s job to allow its dead or fighters to be used for political and cultural manipulation. Support out troops? Yes. The best way to do so is to vote for Scottish independence and without pens, books, paintbrushes, chisels forge a new dialogue that will emphasis a culture of Yes. A culture of peace and solidarity. Of solemn contemplation, not nationalistic manipulation. So children will know in that new nation, that it is sweet and honourable to rebel for your nation, your entire nation.
In some horrendous haze I awoke
To find honour transformed to fetish
My fiery thoughts being solemnly stoked
By nationalism’s malevolent message
Beholding the faces of poets long dead
Who fought for liberty and for lies,
And the joy of communally breaking bread
Such historic creativity I despise
By mercenary traders of news and worship
Decorating themselves as keen patriots
And the blood of buoyant boys they sip
Curdled in the mouths of cruel patriarchs
Robert Somynne is performing ‘National Collective Presents’ at the Scottish Storytelling Centre during the Edinburgh Fringe on Thursday 7th August alongside Liz Lochhead, Marit & Rona and Kieran Hurley. Click here for details.