On grief and independence, part two

It is just over a year since my dad died. In theory I should now be in the final stage of grief – reintegration, accepting your newfound reality and moving on.

I find myself questioning all those words. Re-integration suggests returning to some kind of normality. ‘Newfound reality’ seems to suggest something else.

What if they feel incompatible? What if the grieving process changed the way you look at the world so much that nothing seems ‘normal’ or ‘real’ anymore?

In the 1972 Russian science fiction film Solaris, a team of scientists on a space station above a mysterious ocean-covered planet are confronted by eerie simulcra of people from their past, which the alien planet has somehow manifested from their most vivid and traumatic memories. For the main character, Kris Kelvin, it’s his wife, who committed suicide years before, an event he is now forced to relive, and re-examine, again and again. At the end of the film, Kelvin returns home to his elderly father’s countryside home, then realises that this too is a simulation – it is raining inside the house and his father has not noticed. In reality, as we discover in the film’s extraordinary closing sequence, Kelvin has landed on an island on Solaris, and is now living inside a simulation of his old life.

This week I watched Adam Curtis’s film Bitter Lake, and was struck by his use of Solaris’s final scene to illustrate the way Russians felt when they returned home from Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the war there was finally lost. As Curtis describes it, the Russians, having failed so spectacularly to create a Communist utopia in the Middle East, could never look at their home country in the same way again. Nothing about it seemed normal. Their ‘newfound reality’ was incompatible with the reality of Russia. This, in Curtis’s analysis, helped to hasten Communism’s demise.

I am writing this from my own version of Kris Kelvin’s alien island. It is a facsimile of my elderly mother’s house in Helensburgh. On the surface it looks like the real thing, but there are enough subtle differences to tell me it is a construct. Objects are not quite where they used to be, either when my parents, both creatures of meticulous routine, both lived there, or when my mum began to forget where things went. There is an alarm system, notes left on tables, instructions for the carers who visit four times a day. The fridge is half empty, with just one of everything. The freezer is full of microwaveable food. My mum is living in a version of her home built by aliens. Like Kris Kelvin, she is disorientated but increasingly accepting of this. One morning recently she appeared in the living room looking happier than I’d seen her in weeks. ‘This is just like my house,’ she marvelled, as she waited for the carer to bring her breakfast. ‘Everything’s just the same.’

Bitter Lake’s thesis is that modern life has become so disorientating, complicated and frightening that, rather than attempt to explain it, politicians have resorted to telling simple stories of good and evil. The result is absurdities like the ‘war on terror’ – the idea that you can somehow declare war on an abstract concept rather than a specific political opponent with legitimate or at least comprehensible concerns – and the American obsession with bringing ‘freedom’ to countries in the Middle East, when what in fact tends to happen is that foreign interference makes things worse, as British and American soldiers have experienced in Afghanistan. I could add the recent ‘Je Suis Charlie’ meme to this list – by which I mean the popular notion that the attack on the Charlie Hebdo office was a strike in a war between tyranny and freedom rather than a crime with complicated political motivations and contradictory outcomes, and that the correct response was to choose a side.

The campaign for Scottish independence was often accused of something like this – of creating a simplistic narrative of hope over fear, of acting as if a fully self-governing Scotland would be some sort of utopia. There is an element of truth to this – how could there not be in a complicated debate which, in the end, came down to a single, landscape-changing binary question? As much as all of us who were involved in it think of our political views as complex and nuanced, pragmatic as much as idealistic, based on solid policy research rather than the sentimental nationalism we were constantly accused of, there is no getting around the fact that the summer of 2014 was also characterised by a rush of giddiness – the playwright David Greig likened it to a ‘summer of love’ – as we dared to imagine a different sort of country, a different way of governing. Neither is there any getting around the fact that the days following 18 September were characterised (as I’d expected and feared) by something like the first stage of grief. Shock, denial, despair. I know people who genuinely felt that all was lost, that all political hope had died in that moment. That everything felt unreal. This was, after all, more than just an election, something you could have another go at in four years. It felt like a one-off, and in that moment it felt as if we’d been defeated for ever. The starkness of that feeling seemed to transcend everyday political concerns.

On 19 January, the anniversary of my dad’s death, I started taking anti-depressants again for the first time in years. I went through long-term depression in my twenties, from which I have now mostly recovered, but occasionally there are relapses if I’m not looking after myself well enough. In this case I was suffering from stress and exhaustion, trying to do several freelance jobs simultaneously while looking after two very small children who wake me up seven or eight times a night, and something had to give. At least, that’s what I think the reason was. But I may be wrong. I’m accustomed to lack of sleep, and to multi-tasking, and have survived many Edinburgh festivals without succumbing to depression, so it was odd that it happened now. It wasn’t until two days later that my wife pointed out to me that I’d gone to the doctor exactly a year after my dad died. She was surprised and concerned that I hadn’t talked about this, and that I might be keeping something from her. The truth was that I hadn’t actually realised what date it was. Was it a subconscious reaction, then? Was my mind somehow rejecting an idea that still felt unreal to me? Was my ‘newfound reality’ too much to bear? I genuinely don’t know. I’ll figure it out in time. In the meantime, the pills are helping.

Last week I joined the Green Party, which caught me slightly by surprise. I have been a Labour supporter most of my life, even through the Blair and Brown years (although I let my membership lapse when John Smith died and haven’t been a member of any political party since). While I like to think of myself as left-wing, when it comes down to it I’m also too much of a pragmatist ever to be any sort of political radical. My dad was the same. He was fond of the Otto von Bismarck quote “politics is the art of the possible” and Churchill’s suggestion that “democracy is the worst form of government apart from all the others that have been tried”, and would repeat at least one of them most times we had a conversation about politics. Both of these ideas are lodged deep in my psyche, to the extent that I am instinctively suspicious of anything that feels too radical. My mind rejects it. It’s partly why I became a journalist – a good journalist, I always felt (rather idealistically, perhaps), should always try to find the middle ground, to give every side of the argument a fair hearing.

Except that this reality, the view of the world I inherited from my dad, has fallen apart in recent years. It couldn’t survive the referendum. Those years of heightened debate helped to open up endless numbers of questions – for me and many others – about how this country, and the world in general, is governed, and what the alternatives might be. If it’s possible to break up the United Kingdom after hundreds of years, after all, what else is possible? If it’s possible for Scotland to rid itself of nuclear weapons, what else is possible? The more we asked these questions, the less radical they seemed.

Also, these questions were being asked in a way that broke the usual rules of political debate. The most interesting answers, for me and many others, weren’t coming from politicians or the mainstream media, they were to be found in blogs, on Twitter, in public meetings and in conversations with friends, an intense level of public engagement in a political issue that most of us had never experienced before.

And at first, being the person I am, I leaned towards the view that looked more moderate, more pragmatic. Why break up the United Kingdom? Except that the people expressing this view – Labour, the Tories, the LibDems, almost all newspapers, the BBC; in other words, the mainstream, ‘centre ground’ of British politics and the media – seemed to be living in a parallel world to the one I was in. The mainstream, the centre ground, felt increasingly unreal to me.

I could reel off examples all day. There was the media’s relentless, almost never challenged repetition of the Orwellian propaganda term ‘cybernat’, eloquently described by the poet Harry Giles as “the latest in a series of fantasy constructions designed to silence… hiding a diversity of opinion and debate behind a monster mask”. The Daily Telegraph described Harry as “sinister”, and when a Sunday Express survey inconveniently discovered that 21 per cent of Yes voters had been abused online, compared to just 8 per cent of No voters, the newspaper buried this fact so far down the story that it was almost invisible.

Then there was the idea that the Yes campaign was fuelled by anti-Englishness or ‘ethnic nationalism’, an idea given a prominence in the media out of all proportion to any evidence offered. A quick Google search will find dozens of examples, but the Telegraph’s story from 10 September 2013 is typical. Leading with the headline ‘row over anti-English racism link to independence referendum’, it finally acknowledges, in the second last paragraph, that far from the ‘sharp increase in attacks’ suggested, ‘the number of incidents with English victims had fallen from 84 to 57 over the past three years’. Oh, and the nationalism? It was mostly to be found on the No side.

Then there was the pervasive idea that the debate was a conflict ‘between the heart and the head’, with the heart saying Yes but the head saying No. This idea was parroted so relentlessly that even active Yes campaigners internalised it, and yet, for anyone in the thick of the debate, it made no sense. There were more than enough facts, figures and research papers in support of the Yes argument to fill anyone’s head with hard, practical information. You could read the White Paper, or the vast quantities of Common Weal research, or Blossom by Lesley Riddoch, or thoughtful blogs by Pat Kane, Gerry Hassan, Robin McAlpine, Kate Higgins and others. Ask most Yes campaigners why you should agree with them and they tended to cite information from one of these sources. Meanwhile, ironically, the No campaign constantly appealed to the heart. David Cameron said he would be ‘heartbroken’ if Scotland left the UK. Hundreds of celebrities pleaded with us to stay, in an insultingly brief open letter that had nothing of substance to say beyond ‘let’s be friends’. Better Together made posters on which people said they were voting no because “we love our kids”.

And yet the message, repeated constantly in the mainstream media, was that for Scotland to stay with the UK was ‘common sense’ – the safe, sensible option. For Scotland to be independent was a reckless, emotional decision, a “risk”, while the very real risks of staying in the UK – a debt-ridden country attempting to hide its perilous economic situation by turning itself into a tax haven for millionaires – received little attention.

Mostly, though, I had to give up on the mainstream because, while thinkers on the Yes side seemed capable of imagining endless numbers of possible futures, the ‘mainstream’, whether it was the Tories, the LibDems, Labour, or much of the media, essentially only offered one – austerity, a neoliberalist agenda that consistently puts the interests of banks and big business above those of the poor, because that, we are told, is just the way the world works now.

This week I read an article by Alex Andreou, one of the voters who helped bring Syriza to power in Greece. His reasons were fascinating, and echoed my own reasons for voting Yes – and, later, for joining the Greens. “Syriza’s supporters were accused of being irrational, were threatened and cajoled not to destroy the country in advertising campaigns of breathtaking negativity,” Andreou writes. Sound familiar? “This confirmed in my mind that conventional politics supported the very system that collapsed globally and spectacularly only a few years ago,” Andreou continues; “a system that eschews taxation, but required unprecedented bailouts from taxation; a system that, somehow, has now gone back to being considered infallible, supreme and self-correcting. I concluded that voting for that would be irrational and that trying something different with Syriza, however risky, made better sense. Dignity might be an abstract concept, but its absence is a very real and practical thing.”

Andreou is not naïvely hoping for utopia. He acknowledges, in his article, that Syriza could well fail, that the odds are stacked spectacularly against it. “The leviathan of politics may swallow its politicians and regurgitate them wearing the same ties and telling the same lies as those before them. But this election was about putting down a marker. About saying ‘no more’. Shock doctrine has its limits.”

I felt much the same about Scottish independence. The sheer hostility towards the idea from the political mainstream, most of the media, and much of the business world, suggested that the obstacles put in its way would be formidable. It too might well have failed. But ‘mainstream’ thinking has its limits. I just couldn’t subscribe to it anymore.

(There is a theory that what happened to white, middle class moderates like me during the referendum debate was that, for the first time in our lives, we found ourselves going through what women, black people and the disabled endure every single day. Women with strong opinions are labelled harpies. Yes supporters with strong views were labelled ‘cybernats’. Feminists are branded ‘man-haters’; Yes supporters were branded ‘anti-English’. Women are dismissed as ‘emotional’. Yes supporters were too. Women who call out sexism are accused of ‘playing the victim’. The SNP was ridiculed for having a ‘persecution complex’. Etc. The intention behind each of these accusations is the same – to dismiss, to control. It is what people with power do, consciously or unconsciously, to preserve the status quo in the face of external threat. It is fascinating to me that the media’s response to the accusation of unionist bias was, on the whole, to say “Biased? Us? Don’t be ridiculous.” Each time I heard this it sounded more like “Sexist? Me? Don’t be ridiculous”, and just as hollow. Sometimes they would offer counter-examples of theoretical mainstream media bias against the No side. And yes, these existed, but to continue the analogy, they existed in the same way that sexist behaviour by women towards men exists. It is simply not the same thing, because the balance of power is so different.)

As for the Greens, if by some miracle they ever got to form a government the obstacles put in their way would be even more formidable. Now that the party are looking like serious contenders, it is fascinating to watch the mainstream media and political parties attempt to ridicule and rubbish their ideas. Yesterday I watched Andrew Neil tear into Green Party leader Natalie Bennett with a ferocity that was brutal even for him, interrupting her every few seconds, as if irritated that he was expected to take this dangerous radical at all seriously. Nigel Farage, a more dangerous radical, never seems to get the same treatment.

What is happening here, though, is that mainstream debate is having to engage with ideas that would usually be dismissed, and politics is suddenly getting a lot more interesting as a result. The Telegraph article linked to above is clearly designed to expose the terrifying radicalism at the heart of Green policy, warning that the party wants to “change life as we know it”. The Greens even appear – gasp – to be soft on terrorism. But what if, once all these individual arguments are given a platform in the mainstream media, rather more people than expected – people who would never think of themselves as radicals – find that they want to change life as we know it too?

If the outpouring of grief on 19 September didn’t surprise me, the speed at which Yes supporters picked themselves up again did. As SNP and Green membership grew and grew, it was as if thousands of people were moving from the first to the third stages of grief in the space of a couple of weeks. Perhaps this was because the world left behind by the referendum defeat didn’t seem real anymore. Look, we were told, now things can return to normal. But, like those Russians, we were all living with the ghosts of another country – not a country we had tried and failed to create in our own image, like Afghanistan, but the opposite, a country we had imagined so vividly that we couldn’t let the idea go, but which we never got the chance to try and build. Where do you go from that thought? Not into acceptance, it appears, but into action, into a determination to build it some other way.

Before Kris Kelvin leaves for Solaris, he is visited by Henri Berton, a pilot who flew over the planet years earlier while searching for two lost scientists. Together they watch footage of Berton’s testimony. He describes seeing a four metre tall child on the ocean surface. His report was dismissed as hallucinations, and he is unable to convince the sceptical Kelvin that this was wrong. Later, he contacts Kelvin to say that back on Earth he has met the child of one of the scientists he had been searching for. The child looked just like the creature he encountered on Solaris.

Berton sends this last message from his car. The sequence that follows is a POV shot as the car drives through traffic. It seems to go on forever, is increasingly hypnotic, and has been lodged in my memory ever since I first saw the film as a teenager. It was late at night, Mark Cousins’ Moviedrome was on, and Mark introduced Solaris by saying that it was a long film but you should really stick around until the end because it was ‘conceptually better than 2001’. That drew me in and kept me watching through what, to a teenager, seemed like longeurs.

Solaris is often likened to a Russian version of 2001: a Space Odyssey, released four years earlier in 1968. In that context, its traffic sequence is the film’s equivalent of the scene in 2001 when Bowman travels through a wormhole in space – another POV shot that seems to go on forever. Except that, while Dave Bowman embarks on a fantastical, psychedelic journey through the cosmos, Henri Berton is just speeding through traffic on Earth. The longer it goes on, though, the stranger and more unreal that mundane landscape outside the car seems, a collection of abstract shapes and sensations rather than boxy 1970s Russian cars. It’s as if Berton, despite being back home on Earth, is traversing an alien planet.

My mum was very worried about the referendum. ‘This is so important,’ she told me weeks before the vote, pointing at the ‘No Thanks’ sticker on her blouse. A Scot who had been married to an Englishman for over 50 years, she had a strong emotional attachment to the union, and its potential separation must have been a particularly painful idea for her in the months following Dad’s death. We all worried about what effect a Yes vote would have on her. It would have been like grief, a second wave of it.

A year on, my world and hers seem very different. She is alone on Solaris, in a facsimile of her and Dad’s old house, a landscape that was disorientating and unfamiliar at first but to which she is steadily adjusting, as benevolent aliens hover invisibly around her, correcting mistakes and fine-tuning the details to make her feel as comfortable as possible. One day I’ll be on Solaris too. But for now, I’m speeding through the traffic, watching it become more and more unfamiliar, and contemplating a journey to somewhere else entirely.

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One thought on “On grief and independence, part two

  1. Thank you so so much for this piece. You refer to the Adam Curtis documentary and I feel I can pay you no greater compliment than to say your piece reminded me so much of the experience of one of his documentaries. Your description of you parents house as a facsimile of the real thing was touching and haunting.

    I lost my father two years ago today and the timing of reading your article hit me hard and if all the praise I want to heap on you, I want to thank you most for catching and committing to text a lot of what I have thought and felt but would never have been able to describe.

    Once I have dried my eyes I’ll be looking for where I can get hold of Solaris and I’ll start there for my own journey.

    Take care my friend.

    Like

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