powered by FreeFind

Home > Articles & Essays > A Letter from a Western Empire


A Letter from a Western Empire

Post Colonial- (and other ‘-Isms’) in Alasdair Gray’s early work

David Manderson
first published in Chapman 97, 2000

“The only change required is the elimination of the first syllable in the last word of the title.” So writes Gigadib, Headmaster of Modern and Classical Literature, in the last letter of Alasdair Gray’s black political allegory Five Letters from an Eastern Empire. He’s talking about Bohu’s poem, composed shortly before its author’s death. The slight alteration to the word will change the poem’s meaning from protest to acceptance, from commitment to ‘irony’. The old empire has won again.

Alasdair Gray’s early work is sometimes seen as the starting point of contemporary Scottish literature. This elevation to establishment status is double-edged – simultaneously, it idolises the work and consigns it to history. In a way which is more than a bit like Gigadib’s treatment of Bohu’s poem, Lanark, Unlikely Stories Mostly and 1982 Janine are more likely to be studied in universities now under the term classic (for that read no longer relevant, or long ago) while a younger generation of writers – Warner, McLean, Hird and the two Welshes – supposedly carry us forward on an optimistic wave of drugs, rave music and popular culture into the new century. With Scottish literature, Gray among it, and all writers over forty firmly swept under the carpet, we’re meant to be free to write about the ‘new’ subjects: sexual politics, trangenderism, post-feminism. No doubt writers with these themes have much to say, but it isn’t quite that simple. In this essay I’m going to argue that Five Letters led, and still leads, to an acute political perception as relevant today as when the story was written.

The empire is dynamic, controlled completely from the centre, which is wherever the Emperor is, and his coterie of headmasters. His power is constantly renewed by the crushing of his citizens, the point being not to resist an opposition, but to use the threat of one to maintain control. Education is crucial to the process. Headmasters are the Emperor’s most powerful courtiers. They train the population to behave as expected, destroy creativity in all but the most gifted, fail the majority, choose the elite and school it to take over the key posts, such as the ones given to Bohu, the Emperor’s tragic poet, and Tohu, his comic one. Bohu’s talent was made by his parents, but Gigadib claims the credit. Gigadib shadows Bohu for life and beyond, training him, taking him to the new palace, advising him to write to his parents, and tricking him into writing his tragic poem by saying they are dead. When Bohu himself dies, his poem becomes justification for the real slaughter of his parents and the destruction of the old capital. Education has stolen literature, changed it and used it for the empire’s ends.

The Emperor’s power is everywhere. Bohu describes what he sees as he sails upriver to the new palace: a wide flat plain with no sign of life, except for the occasional tent of a waterworks inspector. He’s struck by how all this area must have been cleared to feed the new palace. Inside the palace, rivers can be diverted to starve unruly provinces. People who displease the Emperor are mutilated or dismembered, or have parts of their bodies replaced by wooden ones. The poor are punished for being unnecessary (and under the new code of conduct established by the Emperor, being unnecessary and disobedient are the same thing). Under the new etiquette, the old capital is disobedient, and must be destroyed. It will be razed to the ground. The poor can be denounced for extravagance and blamed for any crime. In times of poverty they must sell surplus children (the girls) for money for firewood. The new etiquette enforces a strict hierarchy. Rank is everything: badges, symbols and knee-ribbons show a person’s status; others are too low to be seen at all. The Emperor himself, to Bohu’s shock, turns out to be a symbol – literally a puppet passed from hand to hand. Only he has the right to be tiny, for etiquette demands that rank be shown through height. Bohu, as one of the empire’s most important people, wears ten foot high clogs. Rank or height can, of course, be as easily taken away as given. When the boat docks below a wall so huge it fills the horizon, the party find the doors are only tall enough to roll a barrel through. So the great poet gets down on his hands and knees and crawls.

Written and first published in 1977, Five Letters from an Eastern Empire predicted the Thatcher era with eerie accuracy. Almost every part of the story came true in Britain in the subsequent fifteen years. Thatcher took class war to every aspect of British life. The witch-hunt against Militant (supported by the Labour party), the battles against the miners and the jingoism of the Falklands conflict were designed to show her mettle. She razed large areas of her empire to the ground, usually those containing unnecessary people. The poor had their uses, though: they could be denounced for living above their means, accused of crime, harassed for laziness – all methods of gaining support and votes. The harder she was on the weakest and most isolated section of the population, the more she bribed the middle: skilled workers, middle and upper managers, lawyers, doctors, business people. While the poor became socially invisible, politicians, industrialists and media celebrities staged carnivals and built palaces. It was an almost foolproof method of keeping power, as old as the most ancient of empires.

Education was the cornerstone of this system. The Tories were very concerned to bring in national testing in primaries, and a national curriculum. Private schools, where most of them sent their own sons and daughters, were given more freedom. In tertiary education, vocationalism (sometimes known as training) was the cry. Those who could be most effectively bribed rose to the top.

Corruption and nepotism became the norm. Business and marketing subjects boomed. Subjects like history – publicly criticised by Thatcher on one occasion – and philosophy, were attacked. In education institutions, as in all other working places, there was a new etiquette. Bullying became the accepted management style, the powers of principals and headmasters were increased, the cynical exploitation of fear was encouraged, and the cowing of the teaching and student populations deliberately and systematically planned. There was an attack by politicians on the freedoms and rights of all working people, an attack put into practice, at its most basic level, by headmasters. Rank was all. Dissent was disobedience, punishable by disgrace and personal extinction (banishment to the ranks of the socially invisible). Industries were wiped out. The cities built to service them were starved. Meanwhile the media busily reported shares indexes, produced sentimental drama, or helped create a myth of new prosperity. ‘Culture’ was a word used to justify expensive public junkets, just as ‘quality’ became a word in business synonymous with shoddiness. Thatcher herself was a puppet passed from hand to hand by the shadowy figures behind her. When her figurehead became unpopular, they dropped it.

Thatcher’s empire is sometimes seen today as ancient history, something obsolete, no longer relevant. That’s a mistake, on several levels. First, her memory influences almost every major political decision and personal interaction, from economic planning to minority awareness. We can only react to what she imposed. Second, we’re not out of the empire, not yet. It may be crumbling, but it’s far from finished, although the establishment of the Scottish parliament did at least bring some powers home. Parts of England – the north and west – are maybe better candidates now as raped regions, but the Emperor’s palace still holds sway in Scotland too. The Mike Tyson fight and political reaction to Brian Soutar’s ‘referendum’ on Section 28 are two instances of central control over-ruling local concerns, decisions that still smack of centuries of deep indifference to Scottish affairs. It would be dangerous to underestimate the latent power of the old empire, much of which still exists in Scottish institutions. Third, and most important, colonialism isn’t just a question of nations. Internal colonialism has always been with us, of women, of subordinate men, of ethnic and sexual minorities, of dispossessed peasants and the housing scheme poor. In the brave new Scotland, marginalising and disenfranchising social groups – any of them – is just the old process again.

We can see it all in Five Letters from an Eastern Empire. Because it’s all there: politics, gender and repression, and the parts they play in the worlds they make. The author may not agree with labels, and other authors may not like it, but feminism, post-colonialism and quite a few other ‘isms’ are all in the story, or in its shadow, and Welsh, Galloway, Kennedy, Rankin and the rest are only building on ground first cleared by Gray and his generation of writers, territory that would never have been cleared without them.

Written as an allegory, Five Letters should be read today as a record, and a warning. It’s not irrelevant because it was written years ago – rather, it tells us who we are through our recent history. It’s not disposable because our world has changed: it could still be the future. Let’s hope not. The closer we move towards political and personal self-government the less allegorical it becomes. Maybe the author would be delighted to see it.

At least old Gigadib got one thing right: he knew words are cheap and easily changed. Devolved to independent is just seven syllables.


Copyright © David Manderson 2000


Last updated 19 August 2010.