The provincial, the global and the inner émigré

by Paul Maharg on 18/03/2015

About a month ago I was out at Murrumbateman, visiting a couple of colleagues.   Craig and Skye invited some of us from Legal Workshop out to their fine house for dinner and a performance of Macbeth – in a winery, Shaws.  Think Birnam Wood translated to a vineyard.  The tiny touring company chose well.  Macbeth is one of the shorter in the canon, and with no sub-plots, easier for a small company.  On the other hand, its driving pace and the sheer intensity of its descent into bloodshed and horror is extraordinarily difficult to manage.  They did well; and the major speeches still held their magic.  And the setting was magical too.

But as a representation of Scottish history the play yet again raised my hackles.  MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh, to give him his proper name, was actually a pretty good king for the eleventh century, reigned for 17 years or so, popular enough to leave the kingdom and go on pilgrimage to Rome, and find it still in one piece when he returned, according to one account.  His name, son of life, not the usual filiated genitive, is probably a mark of respect.  Thanks in part to Shakespeare’s marvellous play, his reign and by default Scotland = bloody, divided, a violent political mess, needing ‘gracious England’ to arrive with 10,000 men at Dunsinane to set all to rights.  It’s been the exact opposite. England repeatedly honed her bloody, divisive, murderous strategies on Wales, Scotland and above all Ireland before exporting them globally, aka empire-building, a couple of centuries later.  Six months on from the Referendum, it’s still a live issue.  Westminster civil service neutrality?  Aye, sure.  And with the SNP due to increase their representation substantially at Westminster, and the general conviction in the UK that Scotland will leave rUK at some point, issues of cultural representation and historical analysis become all the more important.

Shakespeare’s (and Holinshed’s) account has spawned recent alternative accounts of Macbeth.  It takes a historical novel such as Dorothy Dunnett’s King Hereafter (published in the early eighties, a huge panoramic Condition of Scotland novel) to give us the detailed complexity of Scottish politics in the context of northern Europe (and a Viking Europe, too, that was vividly rendered by Dunnett before the pioneering work of Barbara Crawford on Scandinavian Scotlandand Alex Woolf – a major artistic and historical achievement).  More recently, David Greig tried to dramatise the complexity of that Scottish historical scene with his play Dunsinane; and as with Rona Murray’s recent The James Plays, it’s hard to miss the political references to Scotland’s recent Referendum experiences and the rise of contemporary, nationalist politics.  These and others serve to strip off the laminations of Shakespeare’s account, in part a propagandistic political fable of origins written for the pious wishes (let’s all play together nicely, now I’m here) of the recently-arrived, in every sense, King James VI & I.

I was thinking of all this cycling home to Ainslie.  Craig had been kind enough to drive me and my trusty runaround, the Soho Trek out to Murrumbateman and I cycled back, starting around 2300.  I love cycling in the complete dark.  Not too far, around 49K, and the roads were almost silent, entirely dark except for my bike light, which revealed, also en route, a swivelling snake and a truly enormous spider; and in the darkness above me billions of stars.  Wonderful.  There’s a sense of the world being stripped back, as if I could see in the darkness with fresh eyes.

But never without memory.  I was cycling around Lake Burley-Griffin a couple of days ago in gathering dusk, and to my eyes the west end of the loch is remarkably Scottish.  And looking across to Black Mountain from Yarralumla, with the woods sweeping down to the lake, reminded me of the Woods of Lettermore on the Appin hills, curving down to Loch Linnhe.  The colours are different of course – eucalypts with the lovely matt grey-green-bluey sheen of their canopy, the white boughs keeking under it, not the multi-colours of a misty Scottish autumn.  Will you stop making the comparison: you’re here, try to see the place in all its original strangeness.  So, ‘a tune upon the blue guitar / of things exactly as they are’?  Hardly.  But maybe because I was trying to block the memory connections, cycling through the flitting shadows of the pine plantations, so that it could almost be part of the Loch Lomond National Park, at the south end of the loch, near Rowardennan, glimpsing the moon through the trees, that it suddenly came to me how indeed different and strange it all was; but also that I belonged here, with the National Museum across the almost still water, Telstra Tower on Black Mountain behind it, the ANU campus in the darkness to the right.

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It’s taken over two years of coming and going for that to happen.  It’s sort of like a taking-for-granted or a relaxing into the place: making networks of places and people, and having a personal history in the place.  But it seems more than that — as if enough familiarity with a place enables you to begin to forget visual memories and see the real, detailed, wonderful strangeness of the place for what it is, without the almost unconscious overlay of memory.

Sometimes the physical relocation of my own remembered geographies jars.  Near the Lake one weekend a while back I saw what looked like a caravan or mobile home mini-convention.  Actually it was a Canoe Club, come to spend the weekend exploring the Lake and Molonglo Reach.  And with their own flag too, to declare themselves from Sutherland Shire.  ‘The Shire’, as they called it when I stopped to say hello, is in NSW, just the other side of Campbelltown.  Which is truly confusing for a Scot because Campbeltown is in Kintyre, and Sutherland is actually way to the north (because to the Norse settlers of Caithness and the Northern Isles it was the land away to the south), and never called a shire.IMG_1778

Of course on a superficial level it raises the question: can one be a Canberran and a Glaswegian?  Is such a thing ontologically possible?  A couple of weeks back it was Canberra Day, and I passed a couple strolling along wearing matching new T shirts that said CANBERRA.  Not possible to see a T shirt like that in Glasgow.  Not just that there isn’t a Glasgow Day, or that Glasgwegian aren’t proud — it’s just that they wouldn’t often declare it like that.  And when I mentioned it to a couple of Quaker Friends in Canberra Meeting they said yes, it wasn’t representative of Canberran culture either.  So it was good to know the two cities weren’t poles, as well as hemispheres, apart.  But in some ways they are.  Canberra is astonishingly new, just over one century old; Glasgow probably a sixth century foundation, though largely nineteenth century industrial in its appearance.

But Canberra has a much older, ancient history as a place of corroborees.  The word is co-opted into Canberra — there are named parks, and I rent accommodation in a Corroboree Park Urban Conservation area, in Ainslie, one of the older inner-city suburbs.  The account, reproduced at the penultimate link, demonstrates the gulf of understanding in the minds of those Australian settlers (of Scots descent) watching the dances, unaware of or turning away from the complete and catastrophic loss of the past and the future for the indigenous dancers.  There they are, performing on request for settlers.  What could the settlers know of what they watched, any more than we can know of the culture of prehistoric burials – the Irish souterrains, Scottish weems, Kentish dene-holes.  The occasion could be Walter Scott, cherry-picking Gaelic culture, which was fast-disappearing as he wove his version of it into the pell-mell narrative of Waverley, mediating that culture for a European audience, and acting as the liminal guarantor of authenticity for a new bourgeois readership that lapped up the thrilling noble savage stuff,[1] even as they wore the wool from the sheep that were replacing the displaced, destitute families in Sutherland, in Strathnaver and many other glens.

The corroboree dancers have long gone.  As the poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal wrote:

The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.
The eagle is gone, the eu and the kangaroo are gone from this place
The bora ring is gone.
The corroboree is gone.
And we are going.[2]

Overlaying their place, in their country that owned them in a sacred bond, is a designed capital the land of which is owned by multitudes of strangers. It’s a city of dis-location, un-location, re-location, for all its remarkable beauty and careful plotting, and with its own overlaying history.  You can pause as I do when cycling round the lake at one point and look across it to the great buildings of state and culture, Parliament, National Galleries, the National Library.  Then turn around and look up ANZAC Parade, thronged with memorials to conflicts, death and loss, to the Australian War Memorial at the end of the boulevard.  The city’s suburbs were designed around the Lake, north and south, but at that moment, standing on what seems like a meridian, Lake Burley-Griffin is like the Nile dividing Thebes, with the City of the Living on one side, the City of the Dead on the other.  And names again reveal history’s bitter lamination, one history obliterating another — Thebes is the overlaid Hellenistic Greek name for the city, the conqueror’s name (who misheard the demotic name for the city, calling it after their Greek city, Thebes): the much more ancient and Egyptian name is Waset, and truly royal — city of the sceptre.

So if I felt I belonged, in what sense do I belong here?  I’m not an Australian citizen, not even a permanent resident — an alien, little right to the place at all. Not a tourist, not an immigrant, certainly not an expat.  There isn’t a word for it.  There is poetry for it though.  Heaney asked the crucial question, ‘How did I end up like this?’ and gave the answer, in Singing School:

I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, […]
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows

An inner émigré.  It is a balance of global and provincial, here and not-here, belonging not-here but not belonging everywhere.  Heaney felt it and sensed it in other poets – in John Crow Ransom, for instance:

Like Auden, Ransom was at a detached angle to what he cherished. He was in two, maybe three places at once: in the parochial south, within the imposed Union, and inside the literary “mind of Europe.” He was in place and displaced and consequently his poetic challenges and their resolutions were tactical, venturesome and provisional.[3]

And it applies to legal education as much as to the politics of erasure and appropriation or imperialism.  I recall the BILETA 2010 conference in Vienna – at one of the panel presentations I was struck with one senior manager at the host institution characterising Wien Universitat’s approach to ICT as one of ‘smoothly assisting technology’, ie assisting the status quo in teaching and learning.  How was it possible, I wondered, for anyone to think that digital technologies would only ever be tamed and co-opted into conventional teaching and learning?  I had to speak up at questions.  Have we learned nothing from industries such as music, journalism & book publishing, photography? Wien University, we were told, had a fourteenth century foundation, so by my reckoning if it missed the first big information revolution of western culture in the thirteenth century, it would have been around for the second in the fifteenth century, ie manuscript to book, and could have learned a few valuable lessons from that.  My point was responded to, but not answered.

Next morning, jogging around Vienna in the half-light the next morning, past urban relics of Hohenzollern imperialism, it seemed to me that one of our problems in thinking about technology and learning was the imperialism of the conventional — the claim it makes upon us that really, there is only one way to learn, and new, provincial or even barbarian technologies must be subsumed to that.  But that’s not what history tells us.  It tells us imperialism anxiously constructs and reconstructs its own perennial histories even as it legitimises conquest and appropriation, and erases alternative possibilities, or co-opts them into its own dominating versions of diversity.

A week earlier, at the OER 2010 Cambridge conference, where I gave a paper on the necessity to share resources in innovations such as simulations, a senior Cambridge academic, introducing the history of the building we were in to the assembled delegates at the dinner, referred to William Pitt as ‘one of England’s finest prime ministers’, as if the Union of Parliaments in 1707 had never taken place, and I protested.  It seemed to me that if I weren’t turning into some kind of snarky nationalist I was railing against an incompetent system of resource-sharing between institutions and academics, against erasure of the alternative vision of technology under the twin steam-rollers of the quotidian liberal educational model and the neoliberalist model, against slipshod versions of technological thinking; and post-Referendum, an émigré from Scotland itself.

But that’s too negative.  Flip it over: there’s lots to be achieved.  Our centre, PEARL (Profession, Education And Regulation in Law) will be live in July of this year.  We’re planning good things for it here at ANU.  We want it to embrace global legal education research and researchers; but also for its work to be located in Australia, in Canberra, to be in Heaney’s terms, tactical, venturesome and provisional; and for its work to be open to you in your place, dear reader.  And as for Scotland, who knows what might happen in the UK May elections and their aftermath.

The leaves are beginning to fall here in Canberra, getting cooler of a morning cycling to ANU, though the temperature still soars in the afternoon to be the equivalent of a really hot Scottish summer day.  Time to be heading back north to Scotland soon, where one of my tasks will be to write the final draft, with colleagues from Notts Law School, of our article on laminated learning (more of which anon), given as a conference paper last year.  Bit like my laminated life, Australia, Scotland, England, elsewhere, global, provincial, émigré.

  1. [1]It’s become stock tartary now, but was radical when it first appeared – deer hunts, reiving, honour codes, violence, romantic doomed love matches, executions (but not of Waverley himself, the perennial tourist, who always has somewhere else to go, and walks, uncommitted, unscathed from the post-1745 carnage).  Most generations since Scott have some version or other.  For us now, see cable TV and Outlander.
  2. [2]Noonuccal, O. (1970).  My People.  Brisbane, p.78.  Cited in Shoemaker, A. (2004).  Black Words, White Page.  Aboriginal Literature 1929-1988. ANU Press, ANU, Canberra, 205.  Shoemaker’s book is an excellent introduction to the subject, and deservedly ANU Press’s most popular download.
  3. [3]Heaney, S. (1986). Place, pastness, poems: A triptych.  Salmagundi.  No. 68/69, The Literary Imagination and the Sense of the Past (FALL 1985-WINTER 1986), pp. 30-47, 46-7

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