Jose Antonio Vargas (2018) Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.

I’m not American, nor undocumented. I’m not a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. I’m a British citizen, born in Scotland who voted for independence in the recent referendum. I’d qualify for an Irish passport on my father’s side and probably my mother’s too. Neither of them was born in Ireland. A product of the great diaspora, when the population of Ireland halved from around 12 million citizens, and then almost halved again. President John F. Kennedy’s grandparents made it to the land of the free: America. He wrote a book about it, A Nation of Immigrants, which did not touch on the bootlegging, gunrunning and sharp business practices his father used to get rich. The moron’s moron, President Trump’s grandfather emigrated from Germany. His mother, I’m sad to admit, was born in the Scottish islands.  

 A generation ago, there was a mass shortage of housing in Britain (sound familiar?) private-let landlords had signs: No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs. Scotland is a nation of dog lovers. And not many blacks lived here, and that’s not changed much. So it was a straightforward, No Irish, but that needed qualification. The Northern Irish Protestant varieties were warmly welcomed. It was the Catholic variety of Irish nationality that were called unpatriotic and a threat to the Protestant religion. Jose Antonio Vargas reiterates a maxim: We were over here because they were over there.

Terra nullius, Ireland was an empty land, apart from the indigenous tribes. Long periods of invasion across the Irish Sea, from Oliver Cromwell onwards, religious bigotry were combined with acts of genocide, the first country to feel the might of the British Empire before it had an Empire. The six counties of Brexit British Ireland are the last vestiges of colonialism in which Irish Catholics were moved from the land in much the same way they deposed American Indians and sent them to the unliveable rocky outlets. The grievances against King George III inherent in The American Declaration of Independence were much the same as those fighting for Irish independence. A country and its people should be able to define and defend its borders, but Irish insurrections were quickly put down, whereas in America, the common people won. Where people came from mattered less than the cause for which they were fighting. The Statue of Liberty enshrined this notion with the mantra: Give me your poor huddled masses. Varga notes the first documented case of a minor arriving unaccompanied was a little girl fleeing the famine, and arriving on Staten Island.

Vargas’s Dear America is a polemic written for the world’s migrant population.  He tells us the statistics, 258 million in 2018 and counting. He’s one of them. Which is another way of saying he’s one of us.

He tells us on the flyleaf how this came about.

‘My name is Jose Antonio Vargas. I was born in the Philippines. When I was twelve, my mother sent me to the United States to live with her parents. While applying for a driver’s permit, I found out my papers were fake. More than two decades I am still here illegally, with no clear path to American citizenship. To some people, I am the ‘most famous illegal’ in in America. In my mind, I am only one of an estimated 11 million human beings whose uncertain fate is under threat in a country I call my home.’ 

In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 pilots in the 256th US Army Air Squadron, such as Captain John Yossarian fear their commanding officers are out to get them more than they fear the Germans they are ostensibly fighting. But he had to admit the devilish beauty of Catch-22. He’d be crazy to fly more bombing missions, but if you applied for an exemption not to fly that proved you weren’t crazy enough.   

Jose Antonio Vargas, aged 37, who has lived in America for 25 years as an undocumented immigrant falls into the category of those illegals that should be banished for at least three years if they’ve lived in the country without proper documentation for six months. If they’ve lived successfully in America longer than six months, for a year or more, the banishment lasts ten years. Vargas needs to return to the Philippines and apply for American citizenship in ten years, which will not be granted because he’s already being living here as an illegal, which is illegal. But he notes the American government still expects undocumented workers to pay federal taxes and there’s an official form ITIN which brings in billions of dollars every year. Ranging from $2.2 million in Montana to an estimated $3.1 billion in California.

Kurt Vonnegut, Wompters, Foma and Grandfalloons touches on this generalisation overstretch which applies to poor people in general and immigrants in particular. Rich men control the master narrative of The Little More Theory of Life:  

‘It goes against the American storytelling grain to have someone in a situation he can’t get out of, but I think this is very usual in life. And it strikes me as gruesome and comical that in our culture that we have an expectation that a man can always solve his problems. There is an implication that if you just have a little more energy, a little more fight, the problem can always be solved.’

Conservative Home Secretary, Priti Patel, whose parents Sushi and Anjana arrived from Uganda in the 1960s, admits that under the current system they wouldn’t be allowed into Britain, which is fair enough, but illegal immigrants shouldn’t be allowed into Britain because they haven’t went through the proper channels, but there is no other way of getting into Britain other than being, for example, a multimillionaire oligarch. The Windrush Scandal also showed the tip of the immigrant iceberg and what in America is called ‘expedited removal’. Deporting immigrants before they can come before a judge that will hear their case. Priti Patel’s attack on the judiciary has been well documented.

I was surprised that President Obama (‘Deporter in Chief’) outgunned Bush and all other American Presidents, or that Hilary Clinton—scion of children’s charities—didn’t include children of immigrants in her beneficence. She wanted to send them back so as not to create a legal precedent or, in other words, to create waves. This reminded me of the scandal sheets, both joking and serious, about Priti Patel’s apparent idea to employ wave machines to keep out immigrants like her parents. But they didn’t arrive in boats. They arrived by plane. Vargas notes that most illegal immigrants arrive in America the same way. Despite the hype and ‘build the wall’ right-wing propaganda, they continue to do so. And like him, they’re not Mexican, but Asian.  

To protect us from who? asks Vargas. He exposes the hypocrisy that the most rabid and right-wing Republican states rely more on immigrants to pick their crops and take care of their children and old folk and process their food than others that require more skilled workers. At the bottom of any food chain, real or metaphorical, the immigrant can be found—as we’ve also found with our NHS, with the alleged Boris’s Brexit bonus of £350 million a week going back to pay for services was just another piece of propaganda swallowed by the tabloids and sold for mass consumption.   

While at the top of the food chain, the winners, not surprisingly, are the already wealthy. The cost Vargas suggests is ‘astronomically absurd,’ and getting more so. He quotes from a 2014 article published in Politico (remember this is prior the moron’s moron, Trump)

‘the US government spends more money each year on border and immigration enforcement than the combined budget of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Secret Service and US Marshals…more than $100 billion since 9/11 going to private, for-profit companies.’

Dear America, I know you well, from films and televison. From Casey Jones to Champion the Wonder Horse. From Mork and Mindy to the Fonz, in Happy Days. From Shirley Temple to  Laura Ingalls to Farah Fawcett and Charlie’s Angels the only part of you that wasn’t white was the Wonder Horse. Dear America, you won World Wars. You were the richest nation on earth, but China has galloped alongside and is overtaking you. Your reaction to Make America Great Again is an old trick from the old country. Blame the other. Blame the immigrant. Blame the poor for being poor. Jose Antonio Vargas still lives in America. He didn’t keep his head down. He called you out and got away with it—for now.  

John Burrowes (2005) Irish: The Remarkable Saga of a Nation and a City.

I qualify for an Irish passport. My Da was born in Belfast, but lived his life in Glasgow, and fought in the second world war for Britain. When he married my mum, he moved to Clydebank. John Burrowes is telling us something we already know—many of us have much the same story.

How many? Most folk find statistic boring. My Da was born in 1923. The Irish Free State was formed in 1921, with the six counties still part of Britain. Susan McKay 2021 writes, Protestants outnumbered Catholics by a ratio of about two to one in Northern Ireland… A hundred years later almost half the population is Catholic, there are fewer Protestant than Catholic schoolchildren, and the only cohort of the population to which Protestant are in a significant majority are the over-60s. Demographics tell their own story of No Surrender being outflanked by other means.  

The story of Northern Ireland is one of betrayal. The colonisation of Ireland by the English was piecemeal and ‘plantations’ were established in the North, with the richest land for Protestant immigrant settlers loyal to the Crown. Oliver Cromwell, ‘The Great Protector’s’ troops were ruthless in killing men, women and children who opposed his forces. The best Irish estates went to his followers. We all know about William of Orange, but few people acknowledge that he had the backing and blessing of the Pope at the time at the Battle of the Boyne.

This is all background stuff from sources outside Burrowes’ ‘saga of a nation and a city.’ But when we talk about Glasgow we need to speak of the Irish Holocaust.

‘The Great Famine of 1845-51 was to inflict on the Irish misery and degradation so abject that in proportionate terms it was unequalled anywhere else in the world. More than two million were wiped from the face of the land, either dying from starvation or fever, and fleeing to whatever country would accept them.’  

The Great Replacement Theory sprouting from the lips of the moron’s moron Trump and his ilk has its roots in eugenics and religion. You’ll find it in the triumphalism of little Englanders who hark back to the age when Britain was a superpower with a controlling and hegemonic interest in most nations. We were the industrial workshop of the world. Britain made over ninety percent of the shipping with Glasgow at its hub. Trains were exported to these nascent and newly industrialising nations faster than we could build them or lay track. Glasgow was one of the fastest growing cities in Europe, outstripping London. The English gentleman was regarded as the apex of civilisation, worth several foreigners. At the base of the eugenic triangle were Negroes and Irishmen, regarded as workshy and of the lowest intelligence, unable to work machinery without supervision.

Burrowes quotes from Fredrick Engels the father of Communism.

‘Those Irishman who emigrate for fourpence on the deck of a steamship on which they are often packed like cattle, insinuate themselves everywhere. The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble as long as they are held together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond their needs they spend on drink. What does such a race want with higher wages? …Drink is the only thing which makes the Irishman’s life worth having…’

The Church of Scotland also promulgated hatred and division, regarding the Roman Catholic Irish as a pestilence an ‘Alien Race’ from which the best of Glasgow, the Flower of Scotland emigrated to avoid.

‘the great exodus of the Scottish race was going on,’ Reverend Mair declared to the General Assembly in Edinburgh.

‘Their places were taken by a people of a different race and a different faith, and Scotland was divided into two camps – Scottish and Irish.

In the great Glasgow conurbation there were now at least 450 000 Irish, almost every fourth person. In some areas, it was every third person. The figures speak for themselves. In 1881 there was some 327 000 of the Irish population in Scotland. In the year the report was compiled in 1921, there was 600 000…the Irish population had increased by 30 percent, but the Scottish population had only gone up six percent. Thousands fewer Scottish children were on the educational rolls…

The moron’s moron came out with the same crap. Burrowes points out,  Reverend Mair’s made up his own facts, which sounds familiar (you can have your own opinion, but not your own facts). The fertility of the Scots and Irish were broadly similar, unlike in Northern Ireland, nowadays, for example. And representatives from the Church of Scotland, at the General Assembly in 2002, in a report labelled, ‘Secteranism,’ apologised for their distortions and lies.

Lies cost lives. Many of the passengers packed together on the deck of the overcrowded ship,  Londonderry, fleeing famine on 1st December 1848, for example, thought they had escaped certain death. Many of them travelling from Sligo to Glasgow. Atlantic-gale-force winds and waves, and the engines struggled to cope. 200 passengers on the deck, including children were forced into the hold—for their own safety. Fearing flooding, hatches were closed. Screams and shouts encouraged a ship’s officer to cover the entrance and exit of the hold with tarpaulin to keep down the din and to keep it watertight. The noise stopped as the passengers suffocated. Because of the storm the ship changed course towards Londonderry. Steam and the stench of death rose out of the hold. No survivors. Cattle were better treated, because they had value.

The creation of Celtic in 1888 by Brother Wilfred in the East End of Glasgow is covered here. He modelled the new club on the success of Edinburgh’s Hibernian. Much of the ground being cleared by volunteers. Many of the players being nicked from Hibernian, who played a friendly against the newly formed club to help raise funds, which more fans attended than the Scottish Cup Final. The rivalry with Rangers was a slow burner. But it’s still burning. I still hate those bastards

In ‘Billy Boys and Tim Malloys,’ Burrowes describes the gang killing of James Dalziel (Razzle Dazzle) a runner and collector for illegal bookmaker, Pat Donnachy, and one of the best dancers in the area. The Briggait Boys from the Gallowgate invaded the Parlour Dance Hall, where Razzle Dazzle led his gang, The Parlour Boys. This was the era of No Mean City.

Billy Fullerton of the ‘Brig’ton Billy Boys’ was the kind of true blue commemorated in football chants. He worked for Tommy Gilmour, bookmaker, boxing promoter and manager, who also happened to be Catholic. Fullerton died penniless, in a single end, his funeral attended by tens of thousands, including Tommy Gilmour.

Marching season commemorating the Orange Order parading through Glasgow to remind Catholics who was in charge still goes on. It’s happening now. But whisper it, the poison has begun to seep away. Burrowes reminds of us a time when tens of thousands of Catholics and Protestants rampaged through Partick, meeting their Catholic brethren in street combat, which brought Glasgow to a standstill with rioting. A mate reminded me of the time he used to ease open his window on Kilbowie Road and fire stink bombs with a sling into the throng below. Members of flute bands now are joke figures. We no longer choke on our Cornflakes but snigger as they pass. The school system that educates Catholics and Protestants separately, however, continues. The joke is on us. No one has the political courage in secular Scotland to tackle this historical anachronism.  

John Burrowes gives an idiosyncratic and entertaining look at our past. What remains are the areas of urban poverty he names such as Calton and the Gallowgate. These areas where life expectancy is around ten year’s less than richer areas such as Bearsden. Round up the usual suspects. Whatever index you choose, we lose. Catholics and Protestants having the wrong kinds of children, poor children. In some things we’re number one and remain much the same. Glasgow’s miles better. Fuck off.    

David Gange (2019) The Frayed Atlantic Edge: A Historian’s Journey from Shetland to the Channel.

Historian David Gange journey by kayak around the coast of Scotland facing the Atlantic in winter sounds like madness. Takes in Ireland in spring time. He crosses the channel to the less ragged coast of Bardsey in Wales and Bristol and Cornwall in the summer.  He offers a low-down view from the sea that mimics E.P. Thompson’s bottom-up view of class history.  

Gange rejects a London-centric view of the world. An imperialistic vision that for example classified Scottish islands as empty land until the English arrived.  Scotland was close to home, but full of Scotsmen, women and children that insisted on speaking in their own strange tongue and had strange customs and culture. Scots Gaelic was the mark of a marked man. Similar to Irish Gaelic, or even Welsh, the language of Atlantic trading routes that predated Britain and British as a unifying narrative.

Hanoverian kings in London outlawed kilt and tartan. Daniel Defoe, a spy for the English billeted in Edinburgh before the union of Scotland and England in 1707, wrote to his paymasters and claimed that for every Scot in favour of Union, ninety-nine were against. Riots were quelled. King George, after 1745 Culloden, punished all Highlanders even his would-be supporters. ‘Butcher’ Cumberland imposed a reign of terror.

‘the English forced a union on Scotland that was as violent and unwelcome as that of 1801 would be for Ireland.’

Oliver Cromwell spoke in terms many English kings understood, ‘hell or Connact’, coastal Galway, Connemara. In Munster, in a splintery rockbound stronghold of Gaelic, 300 mainly women and children were killed by Cromwell’s troops.  A holy man, Dairaid O’Sullivan, run through on Scarif Island. Cromwell forced half the population (his troops hadn’t murdered) west, towards the coast and regions thought to be sparsely populated such as Connemara.

The brutal Sutherland clearances. Its population reduced and redistributed. Pushed from valuable pasture land towards the coast.  

‘The modern population of Sutherland is half what it was in the early nineteen century.’

Many of those that clung onto their holding or crofts were undone by the famine of the late 1840s.

‘Potatoes were the miracle food of the early modern coast. Visitors to the Scottish and Irish islands in the eighteenth century describe a population living in abject poverty, but who were tall and strong. These tubers carried far more nutrients and were more efficient, damp resistant and voluminous than the grain on which the islanders had previously relied.’

 Gange rallies against the unifying influence of Enlightenment and the notion of progress leaving those outside it in the dark. But he’s not anti-science. Just its overarching hegemonic influence that doesn’t allow other, coastal, dwellers to tell their stories. ‘The Highland Problem,’ was not an invention of Highlanders, but of the big cities, London, Edinburgh and even Dublin that managed their decline from afar and claimed the high ground. Enlightenment is not singular, but plural and many of the questions and answers for how we should live comes from the watery shores and poetic view of the world Gange champions, based on observation and direct experience.

In saving the world, you need to save the story of that world.  The British Education Acts 1870 and 1872 which aimed to unify the nation around a common curriculum and the currency of the English language excluded the Gaelic languages of the coastal people.

Gange describes their effect ‘as an unmitigated disaster for many coastal zones’ with many young people leaving and not returning. Others returning but unable to speak their native language. But here there is a happy ending of sorts in economic recession (which should be useful during the current rolling recession) which saw an island renaissance and return to the innate languages of the peoples and the myriad and enriching connections that entails.

Famine, clearances and Educational Acts are part of the narrative of who owns the land owns the narrative of what is said about the land. The languages of the people on the periphery are growing slowly back to life. Gage identifies a contemporary problem of multinational companies like Shell who buy up Britishness and Irishness and pollute the water and land for profit. They kill people in Nigeria for oil.

Ireland can be bought wholesale. (I’m thinking here of the Irish government knocking back the 14 billion euros that Apple should have paid in back taxes to the state).  And while the Irish state makes a net profit from the EEC (it receives more than it contributes) selling off Atlantic resources leaves a nation indebted.

‘Corporations registered in Norway, Russia, Canada, the Netherland and Spain draw greater profits from the waters west of Ireland than do Irish interests.’

Small and local might be better. But the paradox that Gange doesn’t address is such interests are easily brushed aside by big business, multinationals. Sometimes we need more, not less government. The explosion of poetry in the 1930s during the Great Depression didn’t change the world. W.H.Auden, Stephen Spender, Louise Mac Niece anti-war poetry didn’t prevent the Second World War. Community versus Commerce (whisper it, it used to be called Communism versus Capitalism) and we all know how that went. I’m on David Ganges side. He’s optimistic. I’m pessimistic, but I hope his vision is the one that endures. More power to the community. Less power to the rich that own the people on the coast land—and mainland—and stir our fears for their own financial gains.