Survival Music


I have started making a playlist called ‘Survival Music’. In these end times it feels like we are playing cards with the Devil Himself; it is hard to decide whether humanity has been this close to ending itself before or whether it is just some sort of massive practical joke written by Private Eye where the headlines every day get a bit worse. Perhaps the reason so few people believe journalists these days is not because they are lying but because they are fucking telling the truth.

David Bowie’s Heroes came on BBC 6 Music this morning and as soon as the first notes hit my ears I cried. At first it was selfish: an upset at how dark and quiet the world seemed in the face of awful things. Then it became about how feeble and far away the lyrics of sitting on walls and togetherness seemed. Then it became about the absence of Bowie. But there was something electrifying about the power of this incantation; there was something that even in death felt like some banshee of the man himself could lift up the entire building or the entire city and lob it further into the universe and the way his voice could push the air from the very bottom of his diaphragm, near the centre of himself, out over people like waves, and after I had finished crying I felt completely recharged with what I needed.

I guess they call it surviving.

This essay opened with the phrase “playing cards with the Devil Himself” because there is a throwaway line in Pat Barker’s The Ghost Road where the First World War poet Wilfred Owen plays cards with another officer in a trench under bombardment. I always think of the image and try to occupy his state of mind: how do you play cards at such a time? More importantly: is survival an act of determinedly playing cards until you can have a hand in your own fate? Perhaps because I work in video games this occupies my brain more often than it should; the act of playing seems in direct opposition to what is needed quite often these days.

But I always remember that Wilfred Owen returned to the Front from a shell shock hospital in Scotland, went over the top in Ors, and was killed in action though he had done everything he could to speak up about the injustice of the entire construction of the war, often risking court martial and execution and never seeing his men again. He wrote that ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ is a ‘lie’; that the phrase ‘it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country’ is a lie – something that I imagine literally could not be said by a serving soldier right now, and we are not fighting a world war. It has come to that. I think about it often.

Perhaps there is something that Wilfred Owen himself can teach us about despair, then. How do you carry on surviving in horrible circumstances? How do you regain the energy to act? If you think, like the UK government seems to insist, that the answer is investment in STEM subjects, you are wrong. Wilfred Owen probably did not get up in the morning and think about how the scientific wonder of the machine guns that tore soldiers apart was inspiring and incredible, and investment in tank technology would certainly lead to a win for his side. He probably didn’t want to think about the machinery of the world at all. Perhaps instead, it was more fuel to think of stories, of writing, of poetry, to think of a way out of the present, to process things through art and beauty and build his own hope. Hope was very hard to find in his situation. There were only a few things that kept soldiers moving on despite not being listened to, despite their great misgivings about tactics, despite the lack of morale.

MCpl. D.M. Drysdale CD, a piper in the Canadian Scottish Regiment, wrote a history of Canadian Scottish pipers in the Great War. It’s available online here. (A ‘piper’ is a person who plays bagpipes.) Bagpipes are generally, nowadays, something that is a subject of ridicule, particularly outside of Scotland, and in England I have heard them called detestable in polite conversation quite often. But even here in Scotland, bagpipes’ popularity isn’t surging, and there’s a polite embarrassment about the raw power they have, the loudness, the skirl of them, they are almost rude in nature. Pipers here in Edinburgh stand on street corners and play Scotland the Brave for pennies from tourists, and visitors tut as they pass by because they find the sound annoying. It interrupts their conversations. It demands attention.

But I grew up around the sound of bagpipes – not only on street corners, but on intensely happy community occasions. For me the sound of bagpipes and the familiar tunes they play create a feeling – even if it is attached to an ugly patriotism – of pride and love for other human beings. My aunt used to have a cottage in a village with the unlikely name of Auchtermuchty, and every Hogmanay (New Year) spent there we would walk a couple metres to the town hall to hear the bells and sing Auld Lang Syne to pipes. Everyone would hug each other and share wine or beer they had brought. Music would start, a barn dance happened on the common. People would invite each other back to their houses. Every Scottish wedding, every Burns’ Night, every Hogmanay, every St Andrews day or Highland Games I have attended, there the pipes are, to indicate that we are together. I do not – like an American friend once told me he does – associate bagpipes with funeral dirges, military funeral processions. In fact, I find that sole association quite offensive in my heart. Bagpipes are not a sad thing for me. They are something that makes me proud to be alive, and the songs played on them are often upbeat, rousing, technically difficult, interesting things. They are not meant to indicate only sadness, although they can. They usually tell me that I can feel good about who I am. And even though pipers often play alone, they are a symbol of the fact that I am not. The very act of playing bagpipes is like a beautiful sacrifice to some archaic god, some god of music that gently tips his hand to press people together.

MCpl. D.M. Drysdale CD (what a mouthful, but I do want to give him his rank) writes that during the First World War, the Canadian corps had a number of pipers who provided such a service to the soldiers who were participating in one of the most desperate situations humanity had ever seen. Some of the situations were similar to the community service and spirit I wrote about above (except they had Flora the goat mascot):

“On Dominion Day, 1918, the Canadian Corps held a sports’ day at Tincques, west of Arras… During the day every competition proper to Highland Games was engaged in; piping competitions (both individual and regimental, in which twenty-two pipe bands and numerous individual pipers competed), Highland dancing, putting the stone, tossing the caber, tug-of-war; and when at the close of the day the massed pipe bands, two hundred and sixty-four pipers and one hundred and forty-eight drummers, under Drum Major Graham of the 16th Battalion and led by ‘Flora’ the pet goat of the 13th Battalion, played ‘Retreat’, the like which had not been seen before. Then, on July 15, the Canadians went back to the line.”

It is the going back to the line that is hard. But the pipers were there too.

Most pipers knew that it was their duty and their job to go first into No Man’s Land when the time came, and not only would they be a large silhouette on the battlefield thanks to the bagpipe drones over the shoulder, they would also be one of the loudest things on the battlefield. By the end of the war, out of 17 pipers in the Canadian Scottish 16th Battalion alone, only 3 were left alive. And yet the pipers fought amongst each other to be chosen to go over the top. Piper Alexander McGillivray played soldiers over the top at Passchendaele, and his service seems typical of the fearlessness required of pipers at that time. Drysdale quotes:

“When all ranks were feeling the strain of remaining inactive under galling fire, and when the casualties had mounted to over 100, a skirl of the bagpipes was heard, and along the 13th front came a piper of the 16th Canadian Scottish. This inspired individual, eyes blazing with excitement, and kilt proudly swinging to his measured tread, made his way along the line, piping as only a true Highlander can when men are dying, or facing death, all around him. Shell fire seemed to increase as the piper progressed and more than once it appeared that he was down, but the god of brave men was with him that hour, and he disappeared, unharmed, to the flank whence he had come.”

A lot of this document is imbued with the sort of military pride that comes of military propaganda – the sort that disgusted Wilfred Owen, and made men volunteer for a hopeless and wasteful war that killed a whole generation. And few military establishments would record the feelings of pipers who were afraid of leading the charge, who doubted their ability to go on, who knew that they were being used as a military recruiting tool, an emotional cosh over the head, a siren to lead people to their deaths. But among the confusing feelings I have about this, there is one thing that I think is true: that those that did have to endure this awful moment of history were comforted by the music. It was unlikely dulling their feelings of disgust, or their contempt for their superiors who sent them blindly into mud quagmires so deep men were sucked under. But what it might have done was make the situation more bearable. Perhaps they felt like though they were probably going to die, looking increasingly likely as the war headed into 1918, at least the piper was there to guide their steps, to have them do what was necessary to get home. They knew they weren’t alone. I think even now I can tell that music was something that made them determined.

It is hard to understand what was endured back then, but I think it would be a disservice to forget any lessons volunteered at all by history. I doubt there is a direct line from a man sacrificing his life on the WW1 battlefield to my listening to pop music to try to get through the day. But I do know that there is a lot of stuff to do now. There are lot of things to be righted. There are a lot of things I think I have a responsibility to do: to volunteer and to support and to complain and to talk and to help. Energy and determination are assisted by music, and every day some weird kernel of a musical phrase will eke its way into my head and have me think: I could carry on a while. I think we will all need a piper.

Anyway, I have started making a playlist called ‘Survival Music’ and humming ‘do it do it do it do it’