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Showing posts with label William Paterson. Show all posts
Showing posts with label William Paterson. Show all posts

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

More on Caledonia – and the Herald

Now that the less than enthusiastic reviews are trickling in for Caledonia at the King’s Theatre, we can get some idea of this production, if we haven’t yet experienced it at first hand.

I intend to give it a miss, based on the reviews, and I therefore run the risk of sounding like one of those fanatical critics of works they have not seen, but which nonetheless have deeply offended their sensibilities. Edinburgh and the Festival have been no stranger to such people over the years, and I don’t want to join their number.

Can I blame Alistair Beaton and Anthony Neilson for trying to stir up some controversy over their work? Of course not – it is their job to put bums on seats, and follow the great theatrical maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Alistair Beaton has a track record of satirising powerful politicians in his work, for example his Spitting Image scripts and notably The Trial Tony Blair on television, and my description of him of him as Gordon Brown’s former scriptwriter in my last blog seems in retrospect, more than a little unfair and limiting.

Drama, if is to be worth anything, must confront, must take a position, must challenge beliefs. If Caledonia had claims to be other than a musical entertainment, it should have done all of these things. Early indicators are that it has done none of them.

However, I come back to the quotes, both of Neil Cooper in the Herald and Beaton himself.


Given the subject of the play, Caledonia is already shaping up to be the most contentious home-grown drama for some time.”

Caledonia is potentially skating on very thin ice in terms of how a play funded by the Scottish Government is dealt with by some of the country’s more parochial historians.”


“I wouldn’t be at all be surprised if the keepers of the flame of Scottish history, if I could be so rude, take offence at some point.”

The idea that a whole nation can be deluded fascinates me.”

Neil Cooper: The National Theatre of Scotland’s festival show takes a satirical stance Herald 23rd August

The Darien disaster can be looked from three simplistic perspectives, none of which do justice to the event and its ramifications for Scotland.

1. Darien is evidence that Scotland had overweening and unrealistic ambitions as a small, poor nation, and succumbed to delusions of grandeur. Scotland’s 21st century ambitions to be independent and self-sufficient are equally deluded and run the same risks as Darien. Scotland was saved from utter ruin by the Act of Settlement in 1707. Scotland would be ruined by seceding form the UK in the 21st century.

2. Darien was a shining example of the Scottish entrepreneurial spirit and self-confidence, and would have been wholly successful if it hadn’t been for the English and the monarch, who coldly and deliberately destroyed its chances of success. Independence in the 21st century will instantly restore Scotland’s economy and eliminate poverty and social injustice overnight.

3. Darien is all old history and has no relevance to Scotland and the UK in the 21st century. A frothy, light-hearted little musical production in Edinburgh during the Festival should be seen as such and nothing more.

None of the above perspectives are accurate. Darien matters, because history matters, and history matters because if we don’t understand it, we are doomed to repeat our errors.

I am not a historian, and I have come very late to beginning to understand the lessons of history, especially the history of my own country and the British Isles.

I must therefore leave the analysis of Darien in the hands of historians like Tom Devine and Norman Davies – and many others. But I will be deeply uneasy if the interpretation of Darien comes only from historians such as Andrew Roberts or Niall Ferguson, especially if their historical interpretation, should they offer one,  is seized upon and distorted by a Unionist Establishment running scared of the break-up of the UK, or through media channels with a Unionist agenda.

The respected British historian Linda Colley is quoted by Tom Devine in his book The Scottish Nation 1700 –2007, as follows -

--- even the rawest frontiers of the empire attracted men of first-rate ability from the Celtic fringe because they were usually poorer than their English counterparts with fewer prospects on the British mainland. Having more to win and less to lose, Celtic adventurers were more willing to venture themselves in primitive conditions.”

Unless the Darien venture, William Paterson and Scotland are seen in this context, and unless the brutal hostility of the English Crown and the English government and their contribution to the failure of the venture are taken into the reckoning, any analysis can only be seen as incomplete and perhaps biased.

A play in one of Scotland’s great cities during the greatest arts festival in the world could have made a contribution to this, and to a real understanding of this watershed event in Scotland’s – and the UK’s - history.

The evidence so far suggest that it has missed its chance.

I can speculate how Michael Gove might like the Darien story to be presented in the school curriculum, and what historians he might consult to assist him in this interpretation. I nevertheless hope that under his stewardship the students of this generation might get a more objective view of Scottish history than my generation did.

Darien, Caledonia and the Herald

There's too much of this superficial anti-Scottish comment going on in the media.


Guardian interview with Beaton

Neil Cooper's review 21st August (wrongly shown as 23rd)

Neil Cooper's review - 23rd August


Alistair Beaton’s play ‘Caledonia’ tells the story of the ill-fated Darien project. I have yet to see it but Beaton’s apparent view, quoted in a newspaper interview "A little country deciding to be a big, rich country overnight: what does that remind you of? I hear the word Iceland" seems to indicate an agenda. Whatever the play’s interpretation of Darien, Neil Cooper (Herald 21st August) seems to have adopted a wholly negative one.

A small country with ideas above its station”, “the foolhardy optimism that in part defines that little nation gets caught up in a swell of pride” and “Even in 1698, it seems, Scotland couldn’t quite get over itself” – these quotes capture the pejorative tone of Cooper’s piece. His ignorance of the facts of Darien perhaps stem from his mistaken belief that Paterson and Darien “might not get much of a mention in the history books these days”.

He should consult distinguished historian Norman Davies’ formidable work, “The Isles – a History”, where some 16 pages are devoted to an in-depth analysis, or Tom Devine’s ‘The Scottish Nation’, which makes ten separate references to the ill-fated Panama expedition. Perhaps then he might understand the complex factors that contributed to this disastrous venture.

William Paterson was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of the late 17th century, and played a fundamental role in the creation of the Bank of England. He was a risk-taker, as all successful entrepreneurs are, and he had a detailed knowledge of Central America. Scotland at that time was reeling from the ruination of her export trade by an English blockade, compounded by a succession of seven failed harvests, and many prominent Scots were desperate to find a way to alleviate the miseries of the Scottish people.

Paterson and his partners made bad decisions, were overly optimistic, and were singularly unlucky, but the Darien projects failure was compounded and intensified by the implacable hostility of England, who were intent on destroying Scotland’s commercial ambitions. When the Darien community were at their lowest ebb from sickness and disease – a humanitarian crisis – the English governor of Jamaica, acting expressly in the name of the King, issued an instruction to abandon the Scots to their fate and to deny them any help or succour, on pain of the wrath of the King.

The Darien disaster enabled the English to exert enormous pressures on Scotland in the lead-up to the Act of Settlement. Let’s give the last word to the Earl of Stair, John Dalrymple, speaking in the debates over the Union.

The pitiful outcome of that enterprise is too sad a story to be told again. Suffice it to say that the English did not treat us as partners or friends or fellow subjects of a British king but as pirates and enemy aliens. The union of crowns gave us no security ---“

‘Caledonia’ nevertheless presumes to tell the story again, but with what intention?

Peter Curran