Sean Bell: The long goodbye

“We can do better than this, and we have no right not to try. We have no shortage of those who have not given up.”

“Get ready for the future

It is murder.”

Leonard Cohen

SOURCE was launched on 16 March, 2020, the same day that everybody in the UK was advised against ‘non-essential’ travel and contact with others, and two days after the first death from Covid-19 was recorded in Scotland. The pandemic began before we did; it has now outlasted us.

We relaunched in part because it had been decided we would shift from the reportage which characterised our earlier incarnation as CommonSpace to a greater focus upon commentary, analysis and polemic (also, because our old website had finally imploded like the Ecto-Containment Unit midway through Ghostbusters).

I still believe this was the right move. Explaining what is happening is difficult if you cannot also take a stab at explaining why those things are happening. We were not short of subject matter.

If you look back to the early months of last year, you will likely remember the fear, the uncertainty, the increasingly forlorn hopes that were daily whittled away by the realities which lay beyond our mutual isolation. You may also remember just how quickly almost everyone seemed to arrive at a similar, unavoidable realisation: things could not go back to the way they were before.

It was not just the crisis we were living through that fed this understanding, but the growing and ever-more urgent awareness of what almost certainly lay on the other side – the even greater and, I fear, more deadly challenges and conflagrations that await us in the years to come, as economic depression, mass unemployment and environmental catastrophe exact their toll. “You may live,” Nikola Tesla warned, “to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension.”

The pretence that informed the early, manic days of Covid – that crises inevitably end, that it will all be over by one Christmas or another – is one we can no longer afford. We should get used to that now.

This was seemingly understood even by those for whom the idea of people receiving money without first being exploited for their labour, retaining housing without threat of eviction, or being given medical treatment without opening their wallets, was sheer anathema. This was not due to a sudden, magical change of heart – capitalism, Yevgeni Preobrazhensky noted, is “only interested in the protection of public health in so far as this was necessary for its own safety.”

Nevertheless, those in power appeared to accept what was required, albeit grudgingly, like truculent children being forced to eat their vegetables; we were going to ‘build back better’, they said. Bridges have been sold more honestly.

It didn’t last, of course. Given the choice between building a better world and maintaining an unfair, unequal, inhumane one with an ever-shortening shelf-life, it is no surprise which option certain people and interest groups chose. A year and a half on, you can ask those landlords agitating for the return of their right to make people homeless, or the UK ministers currently mulling over approval for a new Shetland oil field extension capable of producing 150 million barrels (just in time for COP26).

As has become horribly clear across much of the world as we look ahead to Covid ‘recovery’, there is no guarantee that what was lost during the pandemic will be rebuilt, or that what survives will be reformed for the better. Things can always get worse. After what we have endured, that’s not so much pessimism as a promise.

In Scotland, we have some understanding of this, though we are far from unique in that. Survivors of the generation which saw industry systematically destroyed for the sake of a viciously shitty monetary theory are still with us, with little more than memories to show for it. By contrast, students who enjoy free tuition but still strangely find higher education to be ruinously expensive know the old system of grants the same way Plato knew of Atlantis. Our trade union movement remains proud and defiant, but is far from the syndicalist behemoth some of our forebears imagined in the early days of the last century. Meanwhile, those who dismiss our struggling, once-proud fields and institutions as comfortable, cossetted cloisters fail to understand how much those worlds have shrunk, or the precariousness of those who persist within them.

In too many ways, we are a nation where the sun is always setting, with no certainty it will ever come up again.

As our national politics was demonstrating long before the arrival of Covid-19, the most bereft among us are those who retreat into the delusion that things may just stay the same, or even that we might return to a now-vanished status quo if we wish hard enough.

Some never got over the 2014 independence referendum for example, and yearn to undo the revelation it provoked – that the British state and the constitutional arrangement underpinning it may not be eternal. Others simply resent that many now speak of things they do not recognise and have no wish to understand. This is the traditional fate of those who once flattered themselves as progressive, only to discover they have become baffled, bitter old reactionaries.

Yet despite their pathetic decline, we are still at the mercy of those for whom ‘moderate’ is more than a political identity, but an article of faith; who believe that no problem can be addressed except by tortuous increments and regard every disaster as an anomaly to be overcome, rather than a preview of coming attractions. The irony is, the longer such a worldview holds sway, the more radical and extreme our dwindling range of solutions become.

Either we make a better world, or we watch this one burn.

To the surprise of no one, the advent of Covid did not suddenly imbue international politics’ theatre of the absurd with dignity and seriousness of purpose. When the chronicle of our plague is written, it will have to rank Donald Trump high in its dramatis personae. ‘Nuff said, really.

The UK was (and is) little better. Though it’s best to avoid making assumptions about those hidden motivations lurking in our leaders’ psyches, I suspect our Churchillian fanboy of a prime minister always hungered for a mythic national crisis through which he could cement his place in history. If so, I doubt this is what he had in mind.

Boris Johnson ambled and blundered through the pandemic, secure in the knowledge that, unlike the vast majority of the British citizenry, his job was under no serious threat. In this, he was buoyed by a cabinet that, like Trump’s rotating coterie of grifters and white nationalists, was just as venal and out of their depth as he was, but crucially less durable. Johnson will be remembered because his personal affect sticks in the mind, like a particularly annoying sitcom character; his underlings have no such staying power, condemned to futures as Trivial Pursuit questions which all players prefer to skip.

What should instead be remembered is that, as of last month, Johnson has presided over the fifth largest number of recorded Coronavirus deaths in the world. He has done so while pandering to every tabloid headline crying out for a distinctly American form of ‘freedom’ – that is, the freedom to die. Meanwhile, the Tories reaffirmed the philosophy already made clear throughout the process of Brexit: the people of Britain exist to sustain the economy of Britain – not vice versa. Think on this, and bear in mind the words of Tom Nairn: “Escape from the final stages of a shipwreck is its own justification.”

As the pandemic wore on, much of the Right – whether Tory or Trumpian – exhibited a weird inversion of their usual mode of thinking. Where they usually presented the manufactured realities of capitalism as entirely natural, its architects blameless and its invisible hands irresistible, the virus and all it brought with it must, they insisted, be the responsibility of some nefarious human agency – preferably one which could justify a ramped-up Cold War with China, but in a pinch, may also be used to bludgeon scientists, ‘liberal elites’ and sundry other freedom-hating eggheads. All these traditional conservative boogeymen, right-wingers decided, could be defeated along with Covid by sneering scepticism and pig-headed blindness in the face of extremely obvious danger.

Countless dead are the result. Naturally, no scapegoats were served up to account for them. Yet as David Harvey presciently wrote in March of last year: “Viruses mutate all the time to be sure. But the circumstances in which a mutation becomes life-threatening depend on human actions.”

It’s easy to look good in comparison to such a record, and the SNP have predictably taken advantage of this. There are plenty who believe Nicola Sturgeon got a distinctly easy ride throughout the pandemic; they may be right, but the solution to that – as we have seen proven time and time again – was not to give equally soft treatment to the countless opportunists, cranks and embittered vendetta-merchants whom many inexplicably decided had a shot at displacing her, despite their abject failure to add anything of worth to our national politics.

The present Scottish Government is far from the best of all possible worlds – indeed, somewhere in John Swinney’s attic, there’s a cursed portrait of him repeatedly resigning – but I don’t believe anything better can be achieved by the application of Brasso to some extremely old turds. Such tawdry personality projects, and the distractions they provide, have allowed the Scottish Government to evade scrutiny for its many genuine failures, but have not moved us one inch closer to the independence we so desperately need.

Following May’s Holyrood election, I wrote that Scotland is a politically engaged nation – a fact which, I suspect, quietly irritates those whose lives and agendas would be made simpler if we stayed docile and apathetic. However, the unfortunate flipside of this engagement was that the pandemic did not pause the efforts of those who seek to block or reverse progress, or to attack and undermine the rights of our most vulnerable and marginalised.

In light of their clownishness, many of us underestimated the speed and ferocity with which the most powerful and reactionary forces in our society would mount a fightback against anything that threatened their vicious little view of the world. Even after socialism reasserted itself as an ideological current on a mass scale, those high-profile Western candidacies around which it rallied were largely beaten down, while its enemies are still comfortably in power. A year ago, much of the world seemed to be grappling with racism as an often-lethal systemic reality; now, we apparently must waste our time untangling paranoid word salad about the insidiousness of ‘Critical Race Theory’. And though it has been proven repeatedly that the majority have scant objection to recognising the rights, liberation and humanity of the LGBT community, our discourse remains in the grip of those who either pretend that transphobia and homophobia don’t really exist, or maintain they aren’t worth talking about.

We can do better than this, and we have no right not to try. We have no shortage of those who have not given up. As the superlative Sarah Jones wrote earlier this year: “Most of us don’t have the means to abandon optimism, after all. The feeling is not a luxury but a necessity. What can we do except believe a different world could exist?”

At Source, we did our best to tackle all of this, despite the enormity of the task. How exactly do you cover the world when your own encompasses little more than four walls and periodic expeditions into a punishingly familiar neighbourhood?

I gave it a shot – partly because there was no other option, but also because I knew it was possible… because of the many years I spent watching my father sit in his favourite chair, and write.

In his life, Ian Bell had not been an unadventurous sort. This was a man who drank wine in French vineyards, rode across Death Valley on a horse named Diablo (who reportedly did most of the work), and spent decades trying to recreate the perfect roast beef sandwich he ordered in a 1970s New York deli. He spoke with Salman Rushdie during the fatwa, dined with Dustin Hoffman, and received an unexpected blessing from Little Richard. He plotted with Sandinistas while campaigning for a Contra-free Nicaragua, joined the White House press corps during the Clinton impeachment hearings, and stood in Omagh while glass still littered the street. It was a full life.

I heard all these stories and more, but what I saw, for the most part, was a man who wrote; a man who, from a remote home in the Scottish Borders, through books and newspapers and television and phone calls and all the other means of remote research available to our trade, let the world come to him. As those who remember his writing will attest, that distance did not limit or dull his insight or perspective. It can be done. Under trying circumstances, I tried my best.

Since Source launched in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have covered the recognition (or lack thereof) of the Armenian Genocide, the enduring secrecy of post-Franco Spain, the ignominious end of the Trump administration, and the violence at the Capitol which followed. (I also interviewed a beaver. I’m quite proud of that one.)

Yet analysis and commentary can only do so much: while most of the British media was offering its own unsought opinions on the Black Lives Matter protests which erupted through the US last year, I am glad that Source was able to provide space for some of the activists who embodied that movement, letting them speak for themselves, in the hopes of bridging the distance that existed between there and here, them and us.

In a rather pompous editorial written upon Source’s launch, I wrote that, “at it’s best, journalism is more than the articulation of truth; it is a point of connection for those who would otherwise be alone.” I cannot speak for our readers, but it certainly served me that way.

To my peers in the rest of the Scottish media, I can’t say much. Given the circumstances, I am hardly in a position to lecture anyone else in my profession, except to give my usual advice: if you haven’t already, join the National Union of Journalists, the one group of people in the country always on our side, and sometimes in a position to do something about it when times get tough. Beyond that, I wish you all the best – watch your backs, and do your vital work whenever and however you can. It is a privilege.

To the rest of you, please continue to support good, independent journalism. Hopefully, if I have made anything clear, it’s that we shall need it in the days to come. Otherwise, be kind to each other. Eat the rich, don’t trust cops, attack and dethrone god, etc.