Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fail, Caledonia!

Six weeks without posting. Has it really been that long? Anyway, as a pot-boiler, here's my latest epistle for the SI.

Despite being a proud son of the city, I’ve never been much of an Edinburgh Festival person. If pressed why, I’d put it down to my own days as a musician, where after playing solidly with my band most of the week during summer, I was more inclined to want to spend a Saturday night in the pub with friends, in preference to trawling around the city in search of a bit of culture.

With that said, I love the atmosphere of the city during festival time. It really is impossible to be immune to the cacophony of creativity which emerges from the capital each August. While I only went to one Fringe show this year, one of the productions in the official Festival which I regretted not being able to see was ‘Caledonia’, a play by Alistair Beaton performed by the National Theatre of Scotland.

It's based on the story of the Darien scheme, or as the blurb puts it - Scotland's “failed foray into colonialism”. It is a story of “greed, euphoria and mass delusion”… of a “small, poor country mistaking itself for a big, rich country - an ancient story for modern times”. Even if the marketing weren’t so unsubtle and self-flagelatory, the parallels with the present financial crisis would be blindingly obvious.

Darien is widely held to be a failure, a cause of shame - the final, conclusive proof that collectively, Scots just weren’t up to it. However, what’s forgotten is the initial Dutch and English backing for the project. The very existence today of the Panama Canal stands as testimony to the wisdom of using Panama as a trade route to Asia. Yet if the concept was sound, the execution was not. In the end, despite the malaria and the unpreparedness of the settlers for their conditions, it was the eventual opposition of the English and Spanish colonial powers to a palpable threat to their dominance which finally did for the adventure.

There’s no doubt the crushing blow which the aftermath of Darien had on Scotland and it’s a tale worth telling, just as it is worth pondering the path it set Scotland on to union with England just a few years later. It's also worth pondering how, with a shared monarch, Scottish interests were subordinated to those of England and how in the free market now offered by the EU, the rationale for a narrow British Parliamentary union has all but disappeared. However, what’s been puzzling me is the split personalities which some seem to adopt when discussing the production, as evidenced in a recent feature on Radio Scotland.

Scottish colonialism as an independent country was exploitative and bad, we were invited to conclude, as if that, as much as Darien's eventual demise rendered our forbears as collectively unworthy. However, fast forward a few years and as part of the United Kingdom, Scotland was one of the most successful colonial powers in the world – an enterprise which the reporter appeared to suggest was somehow worthy. I’m really not sure there are enough hours which could be spent on the psychiatrists couch trying to get to the bottom of that contradiction.

And in fairness, that's not the impression that the writer or the director have given in interviews of how they see the play and its context. In fact, it's what they have to say when speculating about the impact that Darien may have had on the national psyche, insofar as it exists, which is arguably of greatest interest.

As director Anthony Neilson said in a recent interview with The Scotsman's Chitra Ramaswamy: "Scots aren't seen as being the most optimistic of people". "The sense of humour is fatalistic. But it's interesting that there was a moment when we weren't like that. A moment when we came together and had this spirit of fervour... and then it went wrong. What part did that play in the psychology of the nation?"

What part indeed? We Scots often seem to have a strangely ambivalent attitude towards success. However, it's our attitude towards anything which is not successful which is particularly lacerating, especially when it comes to the personalities of those involved. Sometimes, it seems that the greatest shortcoming any Scot can have in the eyes of some of their compatriots is not to fail, but to inspire in others a hope which fails to come to fruition.

It's an extraordinary mindset when it manifests itself. The overwhelming desire not to be taken for a mug; the near certainty that things can't be done or that new ways simply won't work; which leads us to be excessively sceptical of opportunity where it may exist or the possibility of success. The wisdom of crowds can be scant at the best of times – the cynicism of crowds sadly less so.

All human achievement and discovery has resulted from failure as a learning, iterative process, coupled to the determination to try again. We need our dreamers, our visionaries and those who can think big thoughts. Rather than castigate or ridicule those who face setbacks, whether in sport or business, when they encounter a lack of success, we should be mature and reflective enough to let them try better next time, and whether they manage it or not, to benefit collectively from their experience.

There is seldom anything to regret in failure, only in not having tried. If we were looking for a motto which would serve Scotland better in the modern age than the truculent and spiky Nemo Me Impune Lacessit, it would surely be to Fail Often, Fail Better, and Succeed Finally.


voiceofourown said...

Couldn't agree more, Richard.
Proof of that is my huge and unstinting admiration for one Alistair McLeod.
He took the risk of telling us that we were good enough.
These days Scotland managers let it be known early and often that the players are at best mediocre.
It's a win win for them: we lose? - just to be expected 'cause we're rubbish. We win? - the tactical nous of the manager has overcome the odds.
It's a cowards way out that the great Ally would never have taken.

Richard Thomson said...

I agree about Ally McLeod. I mean, what the hell was he thinking, trying to give a potentially great Scottish team a bit of self belief...