20160730_FBD001_0History seems to find it difficult to deal with messy accounts which lack beginning, middle and end. Is it something to do with how our brains work? Take Brexit — please take Brexit — The Economist is now imposing a structure on the story to create an account of how Brits (and by extension Americans) are now dividing along drawbridge-up and drawbridge-down lines, not the hallowed class lines which originally set up the Tory/Labour divide. By this they mean people who are open to internationalism, world trade, other countries and their nationals, as against those determined to cling to what it is they think of as their own culture, keeping the hands of all outsiders off that treasure.

My thoughts are provoked by a review in the TLS of Set Adrift Upon the World: The Sutherland Clearances by James Hunter (2015, Birlinn). “Can the generalizing eighteenth-century improvement narrative, itself a Scottish manufacture, with its justification for sweeping the Highlands into the modern world, ever be reconciled to an account that bears witness to the price paid by those whom its implementation ‘set adrift’?” Of course the answer is no. There’s just more than one story, and selecting one so as to make our account satisfy the demands of our narrative-structure-besotted brain will always close off options. I only know two people who voted “leave” in that ill-advised Brexit referendum: and they voted that way because they didn’t like having regulations imposed on them by Brussels. (As if regulations from Whitehall will be any better!) I suppose you might call that the sovereignty issue, although I think it’s really narrower than that. But let’s say there’s sovereignty, there’s immigration, and there’s anti-globalization, to name the three main stands of motivation for voting leave — though sheer bloody-mindedness and anti-establishmentarianism were doubtless also potent stands. Surely it’s premature to tie it all up with a neat bow in a package marked “anti-globalization”.

Anna Karenina may in fact really be about Levin rather than Anna K, but Tolstoy can’t avoid giving it a neat structure hung around two railway station deaths in both of which Mrs. Karenin is involved. Much of A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones‘ appeal (to me anyway) is that its narrative arc is still hanging up there, awaiting resolution: the fact that the television series can’t wait for George R. R. Martin’s snail’s-pace composition and has gone ahead to impose its own version of the story is a fascinating development. If he ever catches up it will be interesting to see if Mr Martin accepts all the TV writers’ story choices: no doubt they have talked.

Even if we can’t accommodate all the strands in our narratives, we are of course clever enough to carry more than one wholly satisfying account of events in our collective heads at any one time as Norman MacCaig, quoted at the end of the TLS review reminds us in “A Man in Assynt”. We just have to open our eyes wide enough:

Who owns this landscape? –
The millionaire who bought it or
the poacher staggering downhill in the early morning
with a deer on his back?

Who possesses this landscape? –
The man who bought it or 
I who am possessed by it?

False questions, for 
this landscape is 
and intractable in any terms 
that are human.