Close, 3

(I was struck while reading this review of Murakami’s latest book of short stories by the parallel between his ‘dialled down’ male protagonists, and the ‘hermless’ aspect of Dundee’s male population during the heyday of the jute industry, the ‘kettle-bilers’ who signed up for teetotalism and quietly worked their gairdens. These recurred in the otaku and hikikomori figures I identified with from the doldrum years of the 80s onwards, the redundant, the unemployed, the under-deployed loafers, weirdos and losers. (See also herbivore males.)

As I find myself writing new Doldrums which appear to be about the internalisation of this state, and while I attempt to reclaim a set of pathologising phrases as creatively meaningful (procrastination, nostalgia, whimsy, secondariness), I am in a way trying to position this egosyntonic tendency in the social dynamic or lack of it from which I emerged. Thus the third part of this set of posts turns to Wedderburn and Geddes as a way of looking at civic roles.)

I’m finding it very helpful, as a Dundonian poet, to contemplate the social structure set out in what is usually agreed to be a sixteenth century Dundee text, The Complaynt of Scotlande (1549), that rallying cry against the imposition of English political will, in the form of the Rough Wooing, onto the Scottish polity. (What, parallels with now? Surely not!)

The Complaynt explores a subtly different configuration of that polity to that set out in Sir David Lindsay’s Satire of the Three Estates. Instead of the nobility, the clergy, and the burghers, Wedderburn follows Alain Chartier’s model in the Quadrilogue invectif (1422), and has Dame Scotia round rebarbatively on lords, priests and commoners (those ‘callit lauberaris’).

These three remind me of the categories of the close, the land, and the lobby, and how these units fit into the larger frame of my city (Dame Dundee). It doesn’t seem too large a leap to say it was the priests’ role to establish our closeness or distance from virtue (God), while the nobles owned the land, and the commoners had only that last limen of their labour, in which their bodies and that of their families were, precariously, their own.

But crucially, he also introduces at the outset (in the ‘monolog recreativ’ – where the echoing of Chartier’s title cannot be accidental) the mediating figure of the ‘actor’ or author, who plays a significant role in establishing the grounds for the complaint itself. In a sense, the author introduces, then acts out each part of the four way discussion.

Perhaps then a helpful model for the poet of the polis might be to pick that configuration up, and one way of doing so would be to follow Patrick Geddes’s favourite division of the city, and therefore of society, into conceptual quarters: the lanes and closes and lands and lobbies our thought inhabits.

As Volker Welter puts it in biopolis, like Wedderburn from Chartier, Geddes borrows from the French philosopher and social theorist Auguste Comte the idea that a city can be divided into four ‘social types’ which have (or have not) either temporal or spiritual power: ‘Comte divides the temporal powers…into “people” and “chiefs”, and the spiritual powers into “intellectuals” and “emotionals”…’

When Geddes applies this to the medieval city, ‘he identifies as “people” two distinctive groups of the population: peasants in the country and burghers in towns. The chiefs are the barons or nobility. The regular clergy in abbey and monastery are intellectuals, and the secular clergy in the cathedral church represent emotionals.’ We can see this as a sort of composite echo of the divisions in Wedderburn and Lindsay.

Being of a morphological bent, Geddes can then apply these categories to any other type of city, including the modern industrial city, where we find the people identified with business, the chiefs with politics, intellectuals with education, and the emotionals with religion. As Welter warns, ‘The four social types cannot be seriously considered as well-defined sociological categories…This model is not so much an analytical as a moral one…’

If we treat it as such, then, but add in the understanding that all such structures have not only inevitably evolved, but will equally inevitably contain their own internal power division, ie that each quadrant contains both ordinary members and bosses, in the way that an Edinburgh close housed both masters and servants, then that might give:

1. the commons of the workplace representing the ‘people’ (both franchised and disenfranchised), its bosses therefore including those of industry and its cognate field, the criminal;
2. the council being the ‘chiefs’ (municipal and governing), its bosses being the political class at local and, especially, national levels;
3. the colleges as ‘intellectuals’ (now including both centres of learning and, frankly, the remains of religion as it is administered and delivered) its bosses therefore being vice chancellors and archbishops;
4. the clerics as ‘emotionals’ (media and artists), its bosses being press barons and bureaucratic mandarins.

Each of us has a role or more than one role in relation to these four categories. and it is in the interactions between the roles, and between the roles and the power structures they contain that we begin to glimpse our individual social responsibilities, our closeness to or distance from power.

Thus, in the first of these quadrants, like many writers, I am a worker and, like some, a parent (particularly, a ’pater familias’).

In the second, I’m a voter and tax-payer, who can be called upon to be a juror, and, as a poet in a localised public sense of the term, a ‘Makar’.

In the third I’m a professor (equally lecturer, practice-based researcher, and administrator), and, typologically, a ‘creative’.

In the fourth I’m an author (therefore understood to be employable as a reviewer or broadcaster), though, as pointed out above, actually in the problematic category of ‘poet’.

So if we observe how the major/minor, empowered/disempowered division operates in each quarter, I’d say that in some of these cases I may find myself switching between major and minor positions, but, in several, like most poets, I occupy the less powerful bracket.

Thus a worker is not a boss, but a father can be, wittingly or otherwise, an agent of patriarchy; a voter is not a councillor, but a Makar has a (sort of) public voice; any professor has a considerable amount of status, but a creative one may be seen as unorthodox, not quite academic enough; and while an author may well be an opinion-maker, a poet may be perceived as shouting in a bucket.

To the extent that each writer divides their roles between such categories, we can plot out our areas of relative strengths and weaknesses, our closeness to the communities we are part of, and, crucially, our distance from those who would control and administer them, and thus, to the extent to which a writer can plan anything, we might just be able to determine where our energies could be best spent.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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