Surely it is the beauty of the internet at it very purest.
Catching the sound of faint echoes that might otherwise have been forever forgotten. Echoes which might otherwise have been locked away into an eternity of silence.
We have entered an era where the left click is the gateway to things that once upon a time could be hidden away far from the public gaze. I find it hard to imagine how hard it must have been for authors in times past to undertake their research. Hour and after hour spent in big city libraries digging and delving through dusty paper. Now there is no such problem in following a thread. You merely left click and left click again. And again. And the only challenge is to gauge which bits are true and which bits are as mad as a bag of frogs.
Twitter can often provide the entry point. And so it was for me the other day when a re-tweet advertised a newly released edition of the Scottish Independence Podcast. Much of my life tends to be spent plugged into podcasts these days, whether I be driving from A to B or splitting logs or walking dogs.
65 podcasts and counting.
Tariq Ali’s speech at a university in
was predictably calmer on the ears
than Tommy Sheridan’s recent performance which as I write this has been left
clicked 113,554 times. However, in terms of painting a picture of Glasgow becoming
a kinder and less morally bankrupt place to live, Tommy and Tariq are pretty
well as one. Scotland
Tariq started off by recalling how as a young man he read about the exploits of John Maclean and was duly inspired.
The name meant nothing to me. So when the podcast was done I typed ‘John Maclean’ into the Notes section of my phone.
24 August 1879 to 30 November 1923.
A man of the left. Of
A man who grew into being a socialist in the grime and choking dust of the
Lanarkshire coalfield. A school teacher who used his eloquence to give a voice
to thousands who spent their days dying slow deaths hundreds of feet below
ground. A socialist who evolved into a Bolshevik once the industrial slaughter
of the Great War trenches took root. In his eyes, the war was all about
Imperialism and the implacable forces of capitalism competing for market share.
He saw the jingoistic propaganda of the Glasgow
‘Your country needs you!’ posters as a means to hoodwink working men on all
sides to sign on the dotted line for a big lie. He raged at the fact that
working men were being duped and corralled into hacking each other to pieces
with bayonets in the name of patriotism. Kitchener
Well that was never going to play well. He was arrested and duly banged up under the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’ in May 1915.
The Defence of the Realm Act?
Parliament passed the Defence of the Realm Act on August 8th 1914. Bloody hell. They didn’t hang about. The war was only four days old when they voted it into law. Every politician of the day was out and about telling the people that the reason we were fighting the Kaiser was to defend our treasured British freedoms against the marauding Hun. And at the very same time, they passed a new set of laws through Parliament that made it possible to pick up and detain anyone without any kind of trial for crimes such as flying a kite or criticising the Royal Navy. It seemed like the best way to defend our treasured freedoms was to get rid of our treasured freedoms.
Well it seems that some things never change.
Detention without trial did nothing to shut up John Maclean and as the death toll ran into the millions he never stopped blaming capitalism for the greatest slaughter there had ever been.
In the end the Government could stand no more of him and they arrested him for sedition in May 1918. His trial in the High Court in
found its way
into folklore, especially when he used the dock as a stage to have his say. His
words are worth repeating. Worth turning into yet another faint echo to be
found with a left click. Edinburgh
‘I wish no harm to any human being, but I, as one man, am going to exercise my freedom of speech. No human being on the face of the earth, no government is going to take from me my right to speak, my right to protest against wrong, my right to do everything that is for the benefit of mankind. I am not here, then, as the accused; I am here as the accuser of capitalism dripping with blood from head to foot.’
Fine words indeed and when we consider that he spoke these words mere months after countless young British and German lads had drowned in the sucking, poisonous mud of Passchendaele, it is hard to argue with them. But the judge wasn’t interested. The judge sentenced him to five years of penal servitude and they took him from the court to Peterhead Prison. And then they got stuck into the task of breaking him.
They never quite managed it.
He raged and he fought and in the end he was left with nothing but the last resort of political prisoners down the ages: hunger strike.
But the Government wasn’t ready to let him become a martyr. Every day they held him down and forced rubber tubes down his throat and into his stomach to force in enough nutrients to keep him going.
They let him out soon after the German Army caved in. Mentally, they never came close to breaking him. Physically he was a wreck. Less than five years after walking free from HMP Peterhead, his health finally collapsed and he was gone. He was 44 years old. Rumour had it that the thousands who lined the streets of
for his funeral made it the greatest send off the city had ever seen. Glasgow
Years passed and the echoes faded. The British Establishment never learned to love John Maclean. Why would it? The Establishment won. And to this day the very same Establishment remains firmly in place. Half a century later, Nelson Mandela used his trial to make a speech that was heard all over the world before he was packed of to
. Nelson differed
from John Maclean in two crucial areas. He had the constitution of a lion which
meant they never managed to break him physically. And of course the
establishment he fought tooth and nail collapsed like a pack of cards. Robben
For a while the place where the echoes of John Maclean were heard most clearly was in the
Soviet Union. In
1979 the Kremlin named a
street after him – Maklin Prospeckt. And then on the anniversary of his death
they produced a stamp in his honour. But when the Bolshevik dream finally
rotted away like a tired old cabbage, Leningrad Leningrad
and Maklin Prospekt was tossed into the dustbin of history. It became Angliisky
Prospekt. St Petersburg English Avenue!
A pretty bitter pill to swallow for a man who had dreamed of an Independent
Had there been no world wide web, the echoes of John Maclean would had become ever fainter.
Instead his words are but a left click away, especially now we have reached the hundredth anniversary of the slaughter of the trenches. The Establishment seems hell bent on remembering that bout of butchery as a heroic sacrifice in the name of freedom. I guess they will be pretty keen to gloss over the Defence of the Realm Act. Will they succeed? Probably not. Instead, those echoes of John Maclean will get steadily louder. And if we all vote ‘Yes’ next September it would be nice to think that we might name a Glasgow street in his memory to make up for Maklin Prospekt becoming English Avenue.
The renaming of the Russian street took me back to the early days of the 80’s when I was importing stuff from Rajasthan to hawk around summer festivals and autumn university fresher’s fairs at universities up and down the land. We criss-crossed the country in my venerable old VW Beetle and it seemed no matter which campus we pitched up at, there was always a Steve Biko building. I wonder if they are still Steve Biko buildings now? Or have they been renamed as history has moved on and Steve Biko’s words have become echoes from another time?
Steve Biko was a John Maclean. The apartheid establishment hated him for stating the blindingly obvious. His message was always one of peace. He made the point that people of all colours lived under the vast South African skies – black, white, brown and yellow. Maybe they should simply stop hating each other and learn to live in harmony. It didn’t go down well. The Pretoria Government issued a gagging order which promised imprisonment if Steve ever talked to more one person at a time. Like John Maclean before him, Steve refused to shut up. And so it was that they came for him in the night.
They took him to police room 619 in the
They tortured him for 22 hours and put him into a coma. Then they moved him to
Walmer Police Station and beat him some more and then ignored his major head
injury and chained him to the bars of his cell. Eventually a doctor figured
that hospital might be a good idea. So they stripped him naked, chucked him in
the back of a car, and drove him 1100 miles to the prison hospital in Port Elizabeth . Apparently Pretoria didn’t do
hospitals. Against all odds, he survived the journey and managed not to fade
out until an hour or so after his arrival in Port Elizabeth . Pretoria
The Government issued a statement saying he had died as a result of a week long hunger strike.
More echoes of John Maclean.
Memories from other times.
Search box ‘Biko Peter Gabriel’
Are you sure?
‘Port Elizabeth 1977, weather fine…
It’s business as usual in Police Room 619….”
But echoes all the same. Echoes of the words of brave, brave men who preached decency in times on obscenity.
Words to be remembered. And treasured. And left clicked down the ages.
In the end Steve Biko’s dream of a
where every man and woman has the chance to cast their vote regardless of their
colour has come to pass. South Africa
Maybe next September John Maclean’s dream of an Independent Scotland where we can do things better might also come to pass…