. ,5; x 4. ' Izo," V?!” y ' . a . mgtutasm M GJQW’1¢"‘W ’9'.
. -_ ber'.
& 3 9,; w‘l/I‘l/t w;o‘-
hey may not know the precise details, but more or less everyone has heard of the Chartists, the Peterloo massacre, and how English union activists were transported to Australia. Similarly, Scottish schools teach the history of the Irish ﬁght against British rule, from Wolfe Tone, to Charles Parnell, to the Easter Rising. But ask anyone about the Scots equivalents, ask, for instance, when the first general strike in this country took place, and mute incomprehension will be your only reply. We can, it seems, wander through George Square in our Sandinista T-shirts and gaze at the ANC flag ﬂying, as it did again last week, above the City Chambers, yet still remain ignorant of our own history of resistance.
It was precisely this ignorance which provided the starting point for James Kelman’s new drama, Hardie and Baird, about to be premiered at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. His first work to see the light of day since last year’s Booker-nominated novel, A Disaffection, Hardie and Baird examines the lives of two of the leaders of the 1820 ‘Radical War’ as they lie in prison, awaiting execution.
‘I wrote this version probably a year ago,’ says Kelman. ‘But I did the original research for it thirteen years ago. First and foremost I found the actual story of Hardie and Baird interesting, rather than initially being interested in the contemporary resonances of it. It seemed to be so valid in terms of Scottish — and Glaswegian - history, and I was fascinated by the fact that I didn’t know about it.’
The radical movement between 1780 and 1820 provides the background to the play. In Scotland as in England, the weavers were at the forefront of illegal union organisation and the ﬁght to preserve living standards. (Throughout the 19th century, the textile industry was far and away the largest employer in Glasgow). Andrew Hardie and John Baird, condemned for their roles in the insurrection, were first put into solitary conﬁnement in Edinburgh, and then taken together to Stirling Castle, where they were to be hanged.
Kelman’s play, based as much as possible on original sources, foremost among them Hardie’s own account of his life which was smuggled out of prison, deals not only with the political ideas of the time, but also with the more individual dilemma of the prisoners. ‘First came the fascination with the historical period,’ he says, ‘then it was the idea ofwhat it must have been like for the two men to come to terms with their impending execution. They knew they were going to die - or rather, be killed. It’s not an easy fact to grasp, that you’re going to die in a few months’ time — let alone for a crime you didn’t commit.’
As we discuss the play, and, it would seem, as Kelman wrote it then revised it, there appears to be an increasing number of what he terms ‘contemporary resonances’ 4 ways in which the story of Hardie and Baird corresponds with modern reality in general, and Kelman’s own life in particular.
Foremost among these resonances is the notion of censorship and suppression. Not only have the radical ideas of the period been successfully hidden from history, but even at the time, Hardie’s letters from prison were severely censored. ‘The history of radical politics is still not taught,’ says Kelman,‘And the censorship continues. It’s not just so-called swear words — last month I was not allowed to use the term
“subversive” on the BBC. So much cenSorship is tacit: people should ask themselves what are the
things that are consistently being suppressed. I don’t just mean the IRA or anything explicit, but what is done tacitly.’
And if radical ideas do escape censorship, the authorities then ﬁnd ways to discredit them, he argues. ‘James Wilson, the third weaver who was executed with Hardie and Baird, was described as a semi-literate halfwit. But Wilson was in contact with Thomas Muir, and was well educated, so what you get is distortion, misrepresentation. The possibility of a working man like James Wilson being in contact with Muir, the revolutionary advocate, was looked on as dangerous — the fact that someone from the lower classes could be in touch with someone from the
professional classes. But that was quite prevalent then — there was a fundamental belief in the dissemination of knowledge.’
The modern equivalent, he says, are the trade union leaders who are branded as lunatics. ‘They are always said to be puppets of someone else, be it Moscow, Hanoi or Libya -— it’s regarded as impossible that they can think for themselves, they always have to be thought of as working on someone else’s behalf. If anyone from the lower orders has an idea, it must have come from some nefarious person with an upper-middle class background.’
Kelman regards his being labelled a ‘working-class writer’ as another example of the same approach. ‘That description obscures the issue — it’s a way of dismissing my work by pigeon-holing it.’
For Kelman, neither the play’s subject matter nor many of the current political campaigns in which he is involved are class issues. ‘It’s more to do with fighting authority,’ he argues. ‘If you’re a danger you’re a danger — it doesn’t matter what class you’re from. Terms like working-class and socialism are becoming redundant — they allow the Neil Kinnocks of the world to come in and take over, then you can just relax into your DSS benefit and ﬁnd ways to circumvent your poverty. I think it’s much more courageous and practical to face up to reality.’
'It’s not only facing up to reality, it’s acting to change it. Kelman both advocates and practises — another contemporary resonance — what Hardie and Baird did — taking grass-roots action to organise resistance. ‘1 think it has to be issue by issue, whether it’s the campaign against the poll tax, or the fight to save the steel industry. You can’t help but establish contacts and precedents, but I’d be very wary of setting up any permanent organisation, because then you get bogged down in committees and bureaucracy.’
The ﬁnal, and perhaps most important, way in which the play corresponds to modern life is the relation of the characters themselves to Kelman. Inevitably, given his political views, the author appears embattled, if not literally imprisoned. The existential stoicism of his protagonists, too, is an outlook he shares — staring life (and death) straight in the face, and keeping one’s nerve. Settling for a quiet life is the last thing on his mind. His intellectual rigour will not allow him to toe anyone’s party line. to take the easy option. One sentence of his not only sums up his stoical
attitude, but may also stand as a testament to the courage of Hardie, Baird and the other workers who, 170 years ago, fought to improve their lives, and were killed for doing so: ‘Most people know what’s going on — they just don’t want to admit it.’ Hardie and Baird by James K elman, directed by Ian Brown, runs at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 29June—Sun 22 July, then throughout the Edinburgh Festival. J
The List 29 June:le July 19909