I have many bodies, professional ones that is, and this weekend I attended the 30th anniversary celebrations for the existence of one of them: Person-Centred Therapy Scotland. When not writing, I work in private practice as a counsellor/psychotherapist. Like writing, it can be a rather lonely occupation, so imagine my delight at being with 70 other counsellors in one giant circle of friendliness.
I find the same comfort at gatherings of writers because I do and feel similar things to both these groups of people. And of course what those two occupations have in common is the need to find the right words and to follow stories in all their glorious or painful detail as accurately and delicately as possible.
It seemed an odd choice for a bunch of counsellor, many of whom deal daily with some of the most disturbed, unhappy or deprived people in our society. Huge dark portraits of well-fed white men hung in gilt frames above our heads. Dark panels lined the lower walls and contained the names and ages of dignitaries who bequeathed ‘100 merks’ or more on their passing in the 17th and 18th centuries. In the dining room there was more gold than paper in the walls. In the Grand Hall, a globe and galleon soared in the highest most central spot above what, in a church, would have been an altar.
Last month was Black History Month. There have been events and exhibitions throughout the country, not least in Glasgow where our slavery history is at last coming to light. Slavery through the centuries and around the globe, including present day slavery, has become the obsession of the writing part of me for the last year. It was difficult, therefore, to view the beautiful scale model of a three-masted sailing ship without thinking of the famous diagram of the Brookes slave ship with hundreds of Africans squeezed together like inanimate cargo.
It was ‘challenging’ to view these benign portraits of men amidst the gold with the empathy required of a counsellor when the writer in me knew that much of their wealth derived from overseas plantations they may never even have visited but which were populated by people who were abducted from their ordinary lives and enslaved. The story is of course more complicated than that and Merchant House continues to do the charitable work around Glasgow it was set up to do. This is to be applauded and encouraged, especially today when banks and badly run capitalist ventures are encouraged in their capricious ways by an equally capricious and irresponsible government.
But actually the history of slavery is as simple as that. People we were abducted en masse, dehumanised and treated with absolute brutality.
We are horrified by the Holocaust of WW2 and wonder how the Germans could not have known what was going on in their back yard. But we humans are a delusional lot. We compartmentalise. Out of sight, out of mind. A tiny drop of sugar in your tea doesn’t mean you’ve lost control of your diet. A wee dram of rum won’t tip you over the edge of oblivion. You deserve that chocolate because you’ve had a hard day. But the abstinence movement that was popular around the 1790s, the first popular consumer boycott of its kind in Britain at least, when women were engaged in the fight against slavery by, as housekeepers, refusing to use sugar or rum from overseas plantations, was a major blow to the trade in human lives.
Today most of the world’s chocolate is harvested by enslaved children and young people working in conditions identical to those on the North American, South American and Caribbean plantations. Knowing this makes me careful I my choice of brand.
It is often the job of the counsellor to hold the different and conflicting realities of our clients, and indeed ourselves. It is also our job to do this with clarity, including not muddying up the waters with our own issues. At times it was hard on Saturday to listen to the discussions of the counselling group while so aware of the source of the wealth of the accommodation. But it is my job, and for me it is also my philosophy as both counsellor and writer, to see with the greatest clarity possible what is really going on around me, or indeed far away.
The reality of the estimated 27,000,000 people around the world currently living in conditions of slavery is a reality which is extremely difficult to contemplate, and less easy to bear. But to be fully human we must see it and know it and act.