Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

What We Have Lost

7th June 2016

Malcolm Maclean grew up in Uig in the Outer Hebrides.  I grew up in north London. We are around the same age.  Malcolm grew up hearing and speaking Gaelic.  I heard Yiddish from the old people from the old country and cockney in accents that have vanished from London.  He saw the Co Op van come over the hill for the first time, bringing baked beans and condensed milk. They had delicious milk straight from their cows, but that’s the power and lure of modernity, that it tells you that you need something you don’t.  It starts with tinned milk and ends up with genetically modified crops.

Lately I heard that Vivien Sansour is creating the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, a seed bank of the last plants that sustained a landscape for thousands of years. According to the Observer’s Peter Beaumont ‘a form of farming that informed both Palestinian culture and identity – seeping into the language, songs and sayings – has increasingly come under threat from a combination of factors, climate change, Israeli settlement, and agricultural companies’ marketing of hybrid varieties to farmers’.

Here’s an irony of language and seed.  There is no difference between saving seeds and saving words, and no price we can put on that saving, whether it be Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Gaelic, hardy fennel or chard.

My grandfather Dave was in awe of the Co Op form of modernity.  His was a rags-to-comfortable story.  I remember his excitement in the early 1960’s as he watched London’s Centre Point, an office building that remained empty for years going up from his small workroom factory in Soho when it was full of small, rag-trade workshops.  To people like my grandfather, Modernism was a visceral compulsion, a secular belief system.  It occurred to no one to question progress.

Modernism’s latest organising principle, neo-liberalism, has been devastating for intangible heritage.  A photo taken in 1900 of the school room at St Kilda has more children than in the current primary school in Uig, although Uig is not an outcrop 40 kilometres into the Atlantic but on the west coast of Lewis. It is more than a warning of what could happen to so many Gaelic communities.  Spending time in the Hebrides I am convinced that we can only sustain these communities in the long term through subsidy.  They need good and regular bus services, affordable rentable housing and high-speed broadband. Then it will be possible to work in Stornoway and commute from across the island, the school roll will increase and with it Gaelic culture. Otherwise Lewis and Harris will become mini Long Island’s, seasonal wildernesses for the wealthy.

If we do not hear Gaelic, even if like me we don’t understand it, then we lose a thread to the stories and fables, and to the toughness and strength that built the ships, locomotives and railways across the Empire, sailed the merchant navy and died in droves in Flanders. And we’ll lose a way of living just at the moment when it can  move from subsistent to sustainable, with exciting and simple technologies that Malcolm’s grandparents couldn’t dream of – double glazing, wind power, insulation, refrigeration – the best of modernity.

The Yiddish language miraculously survived fascism, one of modernity’s other destructive political systems. It survived because of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer writing in New York in a Yddish Daily newspaper and in novels, and above all because of a charismatic Rabbi in Brooklyn who revived Hassidism from a handful of Holocaust survivors into a world movement.  It was saved by a diaspora in a landscape of the mind, of places and fables that were no more – not in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

The Heritage Lottery Fund pays for buildings but not for running bus services.  Soon we will not know who we are, only what a search engine knows that we like, whilst the words and seeds that transformed Mesopotamians into farmers, town planners and philosophers, and Gaelic woven together with Welsh, Norse, Cornish, the seeds of our rich, cultural diversity, will be carried away on the wind.

The image is of the St Kilda Mail Boat – the main method for hundreds of years by which the islanders of St Kilda stayed in touch with the rest of the Hebrides.