A World of Borders, Space and Culture: A Tribute to Roanne Dods

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 31st 2017

Much of modern life is shaped by the chasm between the official narratives of institutions, authority and experts and how most of us experience everyday life.

This is obvious in the bizarre experience of Britain and Scotland’s current election – one which is consuming the attentions of the political classes and its hangers-on, but which is bemusing and infuriating most of the rest of us. Don’t switch-off now. This isn’t another piece about the election and how awful it is. Instead, I want to take a journey into what it is that makes us human, the imagination and how we interact with each other.

Last weekend I went to a tribute to my friend and colleague Roanne Dods who recently passed away at the age of 51 after a battle with cancer. Many of you reading this may not have heard of her. She was a Scottish-based cultural maker of things – connections, exchanges, spaces, projects, interventions and insights. She had previously run the Jerwood Charitable Foundation arts body in London, and returned to Scotland several years ago to work on a range of projects.

One of Roanne’s great gifts was that she combined a curiosity about people, ideas and practice, with a desire to do things and to be practical (in an ambitious and wonderful way). And it was because of that rare mix that I ended up getting to know and work with her, co-creating and running Scotland’s Festival of Ideas.

At the tribute to my friend at the Glad Café in Glasgow, the playwright David Greig spoke of two of the big areas which characterised Roanne’s work: ‘borders’ and ‘space’. This is the age of borders. As Greig pointed out this is true of Scotland in 2017: ‘a place of hard borders, Yes and No, Remain and Leave, Left and Right, Men and Women, Baby Boomers and Millennials … everywhere I look I see hardening binaries.’

This is a Scottish expression of something universal. Arundhati Roy in her recent novel ‘The Ministry of Utmost Happiness’ explores how borders run through all of us: caste, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and many more. These she believes have the effect of ‘dividing people in ways which preclude every form of solidarity’ and instead lead to us being ‘co-opted into the business of this hierarchical, silo-based society.’ Today’s developed world and identities see more and more fine-tuned, microscopic distinctions, Roy thinks: ‘So that what people think of as freedom is really slavery.’

Borders have multiple meanings and purposes. They include as well as exclude. For example, there is a powerful idea of ‘Britain’ – as an island – separate from the rest of Europe, an idea that mythologises parts of its coast and headlands such as the White Cliffs of Dover. This is even though the UK is made up of thousands of islands and part of another one nearby – Ireland.

Yet this idea of Britain as an island contributes to the notion of the border as protection and security against those from the outside trying to get in. Through ages this has been applied to various invaders and external threats from the Vikings and Normans to the Nazis, and onto today’s asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. This historical sense of borders and separation was undoubtedly a factor in the Brexit debate and vote, surfacing explicitly in the infamous UKIP ‘Breaking Point’ poster (which pictured masses of migrants waiting to get through a European border).

The Bulgarian writer Kapka Kassabova wrote a recent meditation on this subject called ‘Border’ focusing on the area where Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria converge: a south-east corner of Europe which has seen huge historical changes.

Kassabova notes in her travels this double-meaning of borders and in relation to the UK thinks this is particularly acute:

The idea in the public consciousness in Britain post-Brexit is that borders are there to protect you against ‘them’. But if you were on the other side of the Iron Curtain the border was something that stopped you leaving. So the border was the oppressor, which is how the refugees of today are experiencing the borders of the EU.

Borders are defined by their character and the spaces and territories inside and outside them. One of the biggest challenges of the modern age is to contribute to making spaces authentic, safe places where we can trust one another. Greig’s tribute addresses this poignantly, drawing on his experience of Roanne holding and making a space filled with verve, energy and imagination to help facilitate the Creative Scotland stramash of a couple of years ago.

There are countless other examples he could have drawn upon and it is a practice we need to nourish in contemporary Scotland. Equally valid is breaking with the ‘unspace’ of orthodoxy and officialdom which has dominated too much of public life. I used to think ‘unspace’ was mostly in our past – to do with things like religion, deference and hierarchy – but it is always with us. The old forms have withered, but new versions have emerged – such as in the Scottish Government, public bodies and the corporate claptrap that suffocates us.

One other valuable aspect of Roanne’s unique contribution was that she understood that life has perpetual tensions that often never fully resolve themselves. In all of our discussions there was a mutual recognition of the neverending conflict between the forces of light and dark, and in this the power and pull of darkness. This is one of the powerful manifestations of what it is to be human that Roanne understood, and the reality that so much of life involves searching through the shades of gray to try to find the light.

Another subject we used to endlessly discuss was the differing ways to interpret the word culture. The other related topic was the meaning of power – with Roanne often reflecting on my frequent use of the term ‘soft’ to mean strength and as a positive.

Our cultural conversations ranged across the subject as artistic work or act, a process of development, collective ethos, consumption and ideology. But we were continually brought back to our experience of Scotland and its rich mosaic of inventiveness and creativity, contrasting it with the paucity of too much official discourse – even when often trying its best.

In this conundrum a central player is the SNP which, for all its Scottish nationalism is, in many respects, a very British force that is conservative, narrowly political and lacking in much of a cultural intelligence or understanding of cultural change.

This has created a missing dimension in Scotland which cannot be filled by Creative Scotland or a Scottish Government cultural strategy – with the latter currently being prepared and due for completion late next year. Instead, this wider, more diffuse sense of culture – of change, power, attitude, can only really come from us. It cannot really come from officialdom and ‘unspace’, no matter how enlightened. It has to come from the sum of our many actions and somehow capture a spirit and practice.

A major theme running through my thoughts here is loss. The feelings of losing a remarkable and precious friend and the emotions and grief this leaves. The conversations that don’t happen. The insights that don’t occur and which aren’t shared. The challenges you don’t face. And the wisdom not found. All with the calmness and quiet force that Roanne personified.

Loss is pivotal to being human. To hurting and feeling pain. That is what we feel personally and we have to accept this as part of life. But what we also need to reflect on is the wider sense of loss which characterises large segments of developed societies as millions of people worry about even the most basic essentials of life. All over the West people fret about the bewildering pace of change of modern life, or are disorientated by the decline of once-powerful traditional identities and tribes.

These sentiments are prevalent in the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack which understandably feels like an attack on all of us and our way of life. How we respond to such challenges and give time and space to loss, mourning and grieving, including in the midst of an UK general election, says much about who we are.

The importance of how we view borders is pivotal in this – between the UK and the rest of the world and within the UK. The writer Douglas Murray of the hard right-wing Henry Jackson Society last weekend on ‘BBC Sunday Politics’ shockingly associated all Muslims with the actions of a tiny few, declaring that the problem in Britain and the West was ‘too much Islam’.

This was the result, according to Murray, of the promotion of a ‘borderless world’ by pro-globalisers. Now while he may genuinely believe this, no government anywhere in the West has ever supported such arrangements, with Murray giving voice to fears and anxieties of Islam and somehow thinking ‘British culture’ will be submerged by an overwhelming human tide of migrants and ‘militants’. This points to an existential angst about Britain, borders, Europe and the West which is alarmist and irrational, but deliberately taps deep emotional worries held by many.

Roanne’s legacy gave so many of us insights, wisdom, intelligence and wit, all with her consummate patience. It seems to me that her roving curiosity and inquisitiveness combined with her desire to take risks, bring people together, and create spaces where we redefine ourselves, blur and shift borders, boundaries and definitions, and encourage a bit of magic, touch some of the fundamental issues of what it is to be human. And critically, is more needed than ever in these times of anxiety, fear and so much noise.

We need these rare qualities in Scotland. A fitting tribute to Roanne would be to continue her work, informed by a cultural intelligence, wisdom and practice beyond party politics, addressing that missing dimension in public life which cannot be filled by government and officialdom, and holding a spirit and verve which isn’t afraid to get things wrong or even on occasion be unpopular by standing up for principles and due process.

These aren’t optional extras. They are just as fundamental as the big formal questions we face, whether it is the UK election, Brexit, or Scottish independence. How we come to these and other issues and how we agree and disagree and show our common humanity matter more than our many differences. Living up to that is a tough ask, but trying would be a fitting tribute to Roanne and a worthwhile and precious task on it own. We cannot afford not to continue.