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Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers

Karen Campbell, James Robertson and Helen Boden first published these pieces as part of the Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers project. We hope you enjoy reading them here.

July 30, 2020

Scottish PEN wishes to apologise to Karen Campbell, James Robertson and Helen Boden for errors in printing their contributions to Declarations on Freedom for Writers and Readers. The correct versions of all three pieces are featured here. 

Please use these links to jump to the piece you would like to read:

Saorsa, by Karen Campbell

A Declaration of Hush, by Helen Boden

Early Days, by James Robertson

Saorsa

by Karen Campbell

You can’t see me.

I was born when I began to walk, moving into the bright beyond. Or maybe before, in the quiet mist of consciousness when I learned to pull a thread of thought from swirls.

In the beginning was the word.

Perhaps I was born when men rolled great boulders and marked the spot. Their spot, the one so vital that they would forgo the hunt and break their skin, would bleed and sweat to position granite markers against the light. Grey granite. That sunset song. Stone marks the spot.

Of what? Of place, of time? Of boundary?

You need me to make your boundaries. And release you from them too.

I am, in truth, not for glory, nor riches, nor honours – yet often they are my banner-maidens.

I do not seek them. But nor do I shy from the light. I am there at the head of a crowd, and in the lone passage of a frightened soul; the one who is facing and facing their demons.

I am there in the bilge-water of a leaking boat, in the stifled cry, the resolute hand.

I stand witness when chains are broken.

And I live in the barred cell too, and in the burgeoning cells beneath the soil, when shoots burst through, reaching gloriously outwards to perennial hope.

Sometimes, I think I need that darkness. I wish it were not so; that I could walk alongside you companionably, and you would recognise me always, for what I am. But  you seem to need dark places in which I might germinate. That solitary confinement. Dark matter against which I must push. Repression. Terror. Rhetoric which whips with words of passion and difference. The freedom to hate.

Boundaries again. Your blessing and your curse.

You think I reside in power, but I do not. I live in dignity, and choice.

I am present when a child leaves home. I am there in a prayer freely given, and when a woman takes her seat and folds her arms and will not move. I am there when a hundred thousand folk proclaim their truth, and take to the streets to march. And when others stand aside to let them, or to protect their right to disagree. I straddle dykes when they are levelled. I build them skywards to reach the stars.

I contradict you? Well. I am never steady. Never still. I am as abstract as air, and as concrete as the ground you stand on. As the things you stand for.

For your right.

What is right? Choice or obligation?

I stand by your right to disagree.

I stand by the shoulders of lawgivers, of leaders.

In the beginning was the word, and the word cannot hear. 

Justice is blind. Yet I make it see.

I am there when countries are made and built and fall and are built again. But you will not find me in empires.

I am in the community breaking bread. Breaking ground. Widening doors.

I am there when one single, solitary mind is challenged to look up, and think. And think.

I am fundamental. Never  fundamentalist.

What do you think of, when you think of me? Fairness? Resolve? I bring energy, education, democracy. I defend the other; I am the other. And I make. I am your Makar.

Meet me.

I am in the blank page, and in that first glorious mark of ink. I am in the fist clenched over heart  or held high; in the song, the tears, the proud back or bended knee.

I am in the freedom to say my name.

Say it. Say it.

You may not yet know how. Because there were times when it was beaten from the very land. But you have the freedom to learn. So say it.

Saorsa

Saorsa.  It is but a whisper on the breeze. And I am there too. I am in the wind, in the wide, in the opened window. I am in your mountains. Your lochs, your cities and your glens. I am in your deepest past and your distant future.

I am boundless – if you let me. Be.

Och, I have many names, take many forms. You know that. Do you want me bare-breasted by the guillotine? Away in a boat to Skye?  Or held within one single candle, wreathed in barbs of wire? Come, help me hold my torch aloft. Light my fire. Bear my flag.

I am all in your mind.

I dwell in your dreams and disappointments. Your spirits and your guts. I am the turn of left of right of wrong. Regroup.

I am that one first step. That long look back.

I am in the moment. I am careful. I am bold.

You will sense me at the ballot box. I am never at the fight.

I dance in the early days of a better nation.  If you look, you will find me in that thread of pride and self-esteem that has been almost but not quite…not ever broken or forgotten. I am in all the love and intellect that has gone before and will come again.

I am in statements, declarations. Legends, dates and lores. I am in constitutions and complexities. In reason.

In your heart.

Feel me in your mouth. I am on the tip of your lip.

Saorsa

Freedom.  Let me out. And let me in.

*Saorsa is Gaelic for Freedom.

A Declaration of Hush

By Helen Boden

The night the year ends and the last bus leaves early

garden birds reoccupy the Mains Drive tarmac.

The traffic lights have been out since Christmas Eve.

The glow from the pedestrian crossing sign

makes a pillar box of the Braidburn bridge’s stone pier.

I’m not a great believer in keeping calm and carrying on

don’t think we’ll need a Ministry for Hush unless

it’s to promulgate nurture, keeping counsel

or for guidelines about not passing on our prejudices

embracing neurodiversity

staying in step with other species and those

who went before

before the crescendo of ring-tones sirens high decibel hand-driers

knee-jerk car horns noisy motorised everything

left us in a state of aural emergency.

Let’s not so much be against

speaking up or out when necessary

– never hush up what needs said –

but more for

listening, in order to hear

rather than to start to formulate a response.

Let’s be for listening

to chaffinch, buzzard, burn and tide

listening for nuance, dialect, inflection, influence

for calling out bias and hate-speech calmly

not standing for devices out-loud in the street

someone else’s choice of music pervading the park

premier-league matches streamed on top of Allermuir

private one-sided arguments on public transport

unnecessary racket and clamour and din.

Let’s see on-the-spot penalties for idling engines

imposed to fund cycle lanes, NHS, poets in residence

in railway stations and hypermarkets

quiet coaches by default

libraries for creaturesong, tunes of trees, calls of stones

til we can start to hear again

our own hearts beat, breath and footfall

the pulse of the fir hill

that turn-of-year quiet on the Braidburn bridge

volume still low beyond twelfth night.

EARLY DAYS

By James Robertson

with grateful acknowledgment to Alasdair Gray and Denis Lee

I

Emergent

            s             e                    e              y                          on

                                              h   ea     d   

                                 v           h   ear                       t

                            r   i                                     f                   t

                                      g        e                             t

                   o  wer    i                                               t      

           s                   l   ing i                                               t

                        w      i   ng i                                     t

         a     y        e

                you                       th                                        at

w                       ere          in t     ear          s        be        at

              f   ou

w      as                                 t e          d

                                              h  ear

                                             the

wor                                                      d

              f                                         ly

  or                                                                      be                     

                                                                 s     a     t           on

           s                                 h                                       at on

                       we

      k                  e        n    n                         o                    o

           s     o            liv            e           d       o     be

           s          we                         a                          t

                                                                  s             t  r  a i  n

           s                                t                                e  er

           s                      ing

                  ou                       t

     r              u              n

              f             re                 e

  o                                n                  ly

                                                                           be

                y        er

           s                e l                                 s

work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation

II

13×14

work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation

as if the work were you living in a nation of better early days

as if days of you a nation early in living were the better work

the work living better if you were in early days as of a nation

the nation living as in a better you if days of work were early

you as if early living were a nation in the days of better work

if you the living work of a nation were better as in early days

you work early as if better days were in the living of a nation

better if the early days of you living were work as in a nation

if you work as a nation the days of better living were in early

the early days if of a better nation were in you living as work

work early as if the nation of a living you were in better days

as if the better you were a living nation in early days of work

III

2020

Now we are in them,
those early days.


As if is not as this.
This is.
This is not
as good as it can get.


Better than as was,
it can be better too than
as now is.


Work now
not for glory
not for riches
not for honour
but for those
living in this nation
for whom these early days are


not so great
irrelevant
or growing late.