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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Making history out of the ruins

This was written for Kill Your Pet Puppy but - maybe has a bit too much on Galloway Levellers and not enough punk. It is now Boxing Day and I am listening to The Cure/Ponography[1982] and Siousxie and the Banshees/ Peel Sessions [1978/1986]

1.Christmas Eve 2007. Started cooking some of the stuff for tomorrow. Listening to “Classic Trance Nation”, a 3 cd Ministry of Sound compilation. Thinking about history. Got a pile of books beside me, like “1715 The Great Jacobite Rebellion” by Daniel Szechi and another by same author (professor at Manchester Uni) on George Lockhart of Carnwath who was a Scottish Jacobite in same period. All part of background reading for my Galloway Levellers research.

2.The way I see it, the online archives of Kill Your Pet Puppy reveal a similar ‘forgotten history’ to that of the Galloway Levellers. As the Galloway Levellers are to the history of Scotland, so KYPP is to the history of punk.

3.Who were the Galloway Levellers? By most accounts, a bunch of revolting local peasants who spent a few months in 1724 going around the countryside knocking down (levelling) stone walls built for landowners who were enclosing the land to rear cattle to be exported to England. And why not? Just a bit of 18th century direct action, though not entirely non-violent, since the Galloway Levellers allegedly had a few hundred muskets. These were on display when they confronted 50 or so landowners in April 1724 - an event which left the landowners to put in a panicky call for military back up. Six months later there were enough dragoons to create an armed stand- off. The Levellers blinked first and about 200 were arrested, though most were allowed to escape and only a handful ever had their day in court. About 30 ended up getting sued for damages in January 1725.

4.Had there been a bloodbath, would have made the history books, but with no fatalities and no mass hangings, ends up as a footnote to 18th century Scottish history. It also happened at least 40 years too early. After 1760ish there was a huge wave of enclosures and evictions - now called the Lowland Clearances and which probably had bigger actual impact on Scotland than the later Highland Clearances which were made famous by Karl Marx who put them into Volume One of Capital. In 1830 there was a wave of rural revolt across southern England from Sussex to Somerset (I blame The Mob) which was violent direct action, with threshing machines broken up and barns full of wheat burnt. These were the called the Captain Swing riots and were similar to the Ned Ludd urban riots of the same(ish) time. But -apart from the Galloway Levellers a hundred years earlier, there was never any Scottish equivalent to such resistance to the rise of capitalist farming.

5.For a few years now, I have been trying to work out why the Galloway Levellers revolt was so unique - and why it didn’t end in a bloodbath. I think the Jacobites are the answer, which is why I am ploughing through the hefty academic texts mentioned above. (You can tell they are academic - 250 pages of writing and 100 pages of footnotes and references). The landowners who really pissed off the peasants were Jacobites. Not the famous ones of 1745 - Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden - but the south Scotland/ north England ones of 1715 who were defeated in a battle at Preston in Lancashire. What the Jacobites in 1715 (and 1745, also 1708 and 1718) were trying to do was restore the Stuart kings to the English/ Scottish throne. Which goes back to king Charles Stuart I having his head chopped off in 1649 and his son king James Stuart II /VII getting kicked out in 1688 in a Glorious Revolution.

6.In south west Scotland/ Galloway the end of Stuart rule was welcomed - for complicated religious reasons, the region had been anti- Stuart since 1638 (with a brief respite during rule of Oliver Cromwell) until 1688, with thousands killed in various civil wars and uprisings. When the Jacobites tried it on again in 1715, thousands volunteered to fight them. These volunteers were organised by the governing/ ruling group who had seized power in 1688/9 and who would have been kicked out/ killed if the Jacobites had won. So when a few of the surviving local Jacobite landowners started evicting their tenants in 1724, I reckon there was not much official enthusiasm for holding back the wave of popular direct action against these Jacobites.

7. O.K, I could go on and on about this, but where is the link to punk/ KYPP? Um… I guess that what I have found from doing this proper history - which could end up as a book one day and already has attracted the interest of various professors of history - is that important bits of history can get overlooked. Only when a real effort is made to do the research, to go back to the original (primary) sources and poke about a bit, can such neglected bits of history be brought back to life. Far too often, all that happens is that events get skimmed over. It is easily done if the source material is obscure, hidden away in local archives and local histories. It doesn’t help if the story (narrative) is complicated and doesn’t fit with the bigger picture, with the clichés of history. [ X Ray Spex song : I am a cliché, for younger readers]

8. But why should there be history by cliché? Its ideology, innit. If you know your history of punk, you will know it got written about and presented almost from day one as a set of clichés. 1976 as Year Zero being one, but there are plenty more. Punk made by unemployed kids living on the dole in tower blocks off the Westway another. What is amusing/ infuriating is the way such journalistic inventions then became the reality of punk as since written about endlessly as part of ‘cultural / media studies’ creating a semiotic fog. Which is why the content of KYPP online is so startling. Here is the raw material - the pages of KYPP, the flyers, the photos of people and places, the music - made accessible.

9. But as I have found with the Galloway Levellers, access to the raw material of history is not enough on its own for forgotten events and situations to become part of history, to be made into history. There has to be a shift in the ideological clichés before what is there can be seen. With the Galloway Levellers the reason they seem to float around in isolation from Scottish history as cliché is recent events. To make sense of the Galloway Levellers, you have to understand the Galloway Jacobites and to understand them you have to understand the Galloway Covenanters and their 17th century struggle against Charles I and II and James II/VII. But just a few miles away from Galloway is northern Ireland. In northern Ireland that part of history was never been forgotten. It was celebrated and fought over and led to a thirty year war which killed nearly 4000 people - including people in England. The whole British cabinet was nearly killed by one bomb in Brighton.

10. So although every other part of Scottish history, including mediaeval Galloway, has been revised and re-written over the past 40 years, that of 17th century south-west Scotland has not. All just a bit too close to current events and so not history. Perhaps now, with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness sharing power in Northern Ireland Assembly , the story can be told.

11. And punk? Again the history cuts too close to the bone. Although the Thatcher Tories won the UK election in 1979, it was only after they won again in 1983 (with a boost given by the Falklands War) that the political shift to the right was secured. And although Blair’s ‘new’ Labour won in 1997, there was no change of direction. It is only now, as the economic prospects for 2008 look very grim - capitalism in crisis again- that doubts begin to emerge. The long new Labour economic boom looks like it may have been an illusion - a south sea style bubble blown by ever rising house prices and smoke and mirrors financial jiggery pokery. If the house of cards falls down, recent history will get re-interpreted and punk restored as the voice of prophecy, crying in the wilderness. Was it not a way to make something out of nothing? Punk as a material culture was impoverished, but out of poverty it created an enduring culture of resistance to the commodification of everyday life - to the spectacle.

12. If economic crisis melts all the seemingly solid ‘progress’ of the past 20 years of economic growth to thin air, then punk will be re-invented . Re-invented, not revived. Re-invented in so far as the physical/ material conditions which existed circa 1978/ 85 will re-exist : - mass unemployment ( lots of people with nothing else to do)and a collapse in property values (lots of empty spaces within which to do nothing I.e. be creative).

23. That’s all folks.


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