A Fluffi-shambles

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From the National

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Last week was not an auspicious one for politicians who’ve served as Member of Parliament for Peebles, my hometown in Scotland. 

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Firstly, Lord David Steel, who was the town’s MP from 1965 until 1997 (while it was part of the constituencies of Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles and then Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) and who is also a former leader of the Liberal Party (now the Liberal Democrats) found himself in some severe shit.  He admitted in a hearing for the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) that in 1979 he’d ‘assumed’ his fellow Liberal MP Cyril Smith was guilty of child abuse at a hostel in Smith’s constituency of Rochdale.  Not only did Steel appear to turn a blind eye to this matter at the time, but nine years later he recommended Smith for a knighthood.  Since Smith’s death in 2010, police have uncovered ‘overwhelming evidence’ that he was an abuser of young boys.  By Thursday last week, it’d been announced that “the office bearers of the Scottish Liberal Democrats have met and agreed that an investigation is needed.  The party membership of Lord Steel has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation.”

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Then there were the desperate and undignified squirmings of David Mundell, the Conservative MP for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, a constituency that Peebles got lumped in with in 2005.  Since 2015, Mundell, or ‘Fluffy’ as he’s commonly known, has also served as Secretary of State for Scotland in the Conservative governments of David Cameron and Theresa May.  He didn’t win this position because of the possession of a stunning intellect, abilities or personality but because in 2015 he was the only Conservative MP left in Scotland.  (Back then, at the yearly Agricultural Show held in Peebles, the Conservative Party would invariably set up a tent and Mundell, aka The Only Tory MP In Scotland, would sit inside, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any present themselves.  Passers-by would invariably point and crack the well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”)

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Last week, it became clear that the UK government and parliament were in omni-shambles mode.  The parliament managed to vote against Theresa May’s Brexit deal, against the holding of a second Brexit referendum, against the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, against the so-called Malthouse Compromise and against parliament being allowed to take control of the whole sorry Brexit process.  But even in the midst of this omni-shambles, Mundell’s behaviour stood out as particularly shambolic – his was the Fluffi-shambles. 

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He found himself caught between the rock of his party’s enthusiasm for Brexit and the hard place of knowing, quietly, how damaging Brexit is likely to be for Scotland (which voted overwhelming against leaving Europe), for his heavily agriculture-dependent Scottish constituency and for his own re-election prospects.  Finally, he defied the government whip when the vote was called on ruling out an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit.  The Conservative government demanded he voted against it being ruled out, whereas Mundell wanted it ruled out.  Being spineless, though, he chose to abstain rather than vote the other way from his political peers and masters. 

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In ordinary times, even Mundell’s abstention would be treated as a defiance of government policy and a resigning matter for a minister.  However, in these extraordinary times, with Theresa May exerting about as much authority as a wet paper bag, Mundell got away with it without resigning.  Happily for him – the basic salary for an ordinary MP was £77,379 in 2018, but as Secretary of State for Scotland he can claim £67,505 on top of that (well, going by 2017 figures). 

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A subsequent interview saw Mundell give a less-than-polished account of himself: “I’m not, er, resigning because I support the Prime Minister in her course, er, of action.  Her course of action is, er, to leave, er, with a deal, er, in an orderly Brexit but I just… I’m very clear that I don’t support, er, a no-deal, er, Brexit and I’ve made, er, I’ve made that clear on numerous occasions, the House has made its view clear, and the government is responding and taking forward, er, the decision of the House today…  There are a number of cabinet ministers, ministerial colleagues, er, who didn’t wish to oppose what was clearly, er, the will of the House on not leaving, er, without, er, on not leaving with, er, in a no-deal, er, Brexit…”

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I’d say that during the interview Mundell looked like a rabbit frozen in some car headlights, but that would disparage the courage, grit and determination displayed by rabbits frozen in car headlights everywhere.  Indeed, Mundell’s snivelling performance would make the average rabbit frozen in car headlights look like Mel Gibson leading the Scottish forces into action at the Battle of Stirling in Braveheart (1995).

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Oddly, the ‘numerous occasions’ when Mundell made it clear he was against a no-deal Brexit didn’t extend to an amendment tabled in parliament in late February to rule out that very thing.  Mundell refused to support it, or even abstain on it, because those tabling the amendment were the Scottish National Party.  He dismissed this as a ‘stunt’ and claimed that the SNP actually want the chaos that a no-deal Brexit would cause.  Which is evidently why they proposed an amendment calling on the UK government to prevent a no-deal Brexit from happening…  What?

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From twitter.com / @scottishlabour

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When it comes to tying himself in knots like this, Mundell has form.  In October last year, he and Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson threatened that they “would resign if Northern Ireland faces new controls that separate it from the rest of the UK” in some new Brexit deal.  Officially, this was because they feared it would “fuel the case for Scottish independence.”  Unofficially, I suspect they were playing to the hard-line Protestant, Glasgow Rangers-supporting gallery in the west of Scotland that has strong ties with the pro-British Protestant community in Northern Ireland, a gallery whose votes they’ve benefited from in recent years.  A few days later Mundell turned round and declared that he hadn’t intended to resign at all – and by mid-November May had indeed proposed a Brexit deal that might involve separate arrangements for Northern Ireland.  At least his £67,505 ministerial top-up salary was safe.

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In fact, whenever I see yet another cringing turn by David Mundell, I wonder why there’s any point in having a Secretary of State for Scotland at all.  After all, responsibility for the running of Scotland’s domestic affairs doesn’t lie with him but with the Scottish government, at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, which was set up in 1999.  But the real reason why there’s a Secretary of State is obvious – the Scottish government is run by the pesky SNP and London feels the need to have the likes of David Mundell hovering in the background, looking on and harrumphing disapprovingly, like history’s crappest colonial governor ever. 

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And I sometimes wonder too if Theresa May, whose empathy, emotional intelligence and people skills are not thought to be large, even knows who poor old Mundell is.  It wouldn’t surprise me if she believes he’s some fluffy-faced Caledonian footman who’s on hand to tend to her whenever her advisors decree that she visits the God-forsaken northern regions of her domain. 

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Still, awesomely hapless though he is, at least last week Mundell didn’t vote to leave the door open for a no-deal Brexit, even though by abstaining he didn’t vote against it either.  That’s more than could be said for most of his dozen fellow Scottish Conservative MPs, who cravenly ignored the pro-EU wishes of their electorates and voted with the government.  These include such specimens as Kirstene Hair, the intellectually-challenged MP for Angus, who once admitted to not voting in the Brexit referendum because she found the choice on offer ‘very difficult’.  Or the splendidly unhinged Ross Thomson, MP for Aberdeen South, who last month got involved in a stushie in the UK parliament’s Strangers’ Bar, where he was accused of groping a number of people’s bottoms.  Thomson’s defence was that he’d been drinking for five hours and was merely grabbing those bottoms in order to stop himself falling over, like they were handles or ledges.  From this, I can only surmise that there are some very peculiarly shaped bottoms in the pubs of Westminster.

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Actually, should Mundell decide that he can’t take it any longer, don’t be surprised if Mad Ross ends up as the next Secretary of State for Scotland. It’s not as if he’ll have to live up to the reputation of a distinguished predecessor.

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From the Evening Times

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It’s all Scotland’s fault

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(c) BBC

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One of the least edifying sights of the past week has been that of moderate and pro-European Union Conservative MP Anna Soubry attempting to walk to the Houses of Parliament, her workplace, while a pack of far-right, anti-EU protestors wearing yellow high-visibility jackets – a gimmick that with no sense of irony they’ve borrowed from the gilets jaunes protestors in France, a country in the EU – follow her and bray into her face that she’s a ‘Nazi’.  Not only are these tactics bullying, intimidating and generally horrible but, I’ve learned recently, they’re also Scottish. 

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Yes, as many respected politicians, commentators and media outlets have reminded us over the years, only bad things come out of Scotland.  Historically, these bad things have included: Sawney Bean; the failed scheme to colonise Darien in central America; failed Jacobite uprisings; the Highland Clearances; Burke and Hare; Angus McMillan who left Skye for Australia and led the Gippsland massacres of Aborigines in the 1840s; unscrupulous 19th century opium-trading company Jardine Matheson & Co; and Thomas Dickson, whose 1905 novel The Clansman became the basis for the notoriously racist 1915 movie Birth of a Nation and helped revive the Ku Klux Klan.

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And let’s not forget such horrors as: bagpipe music; Andy Stewart records; the Bay City Rollers; the Krankies; teeth-rotting amber-coloured fizzy drinks; deep-fried Mars Bars; deep-fried pizzas; Andy Murray’s hipbone; catastrophic World Cup campaigns; and Mary Anne MacLeod of the Isle of Lewis, who married Fred Trump and gifted the world with little Donald.

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Yet more, terrible things to emerge from Scotland include ghastly and unpopular drinks like whisky and foodstuffs like salmon, which British supermarkets have lately been kind enough to slap Union Jacks on and rebrand as ‘British’ rather than ‘Scottish’ to spare us embarrassment.  Then there’s that hellish commodity North Sea oil, which during the run-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, we were assured, was totally worthless and would bankrupt an independent Scotland’s economy.  (Mind you, now that the referendum is past, the Daily Telegraph has been enthusing about how North Sea oil will be important part of the economy of post-Brexit Britain.)  And there’s the hideous Scottish renewable energy industry which, the Times informed us recently, is riddled with ‘perverse incentives’ – while, per head of population, it only produces 18 times as much as energy as its English equivalent.

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To this list of Caledonian-spawned infamy we now must add the strategy of making political points by mobbing, yelling at and intimidating opponents while they innocently try to walk to work.  I know this because a few days ago the broadcaster, journalist, author, businessperson, hillwalker and trustee of the Glasgow School of Art Muriel Gray tweeted her abhorrence at a “repugnant new style of personal abuse / pile-ons / harassment and hate-mongering (that) began as far back as the run-up to the referendum in 2014 and was consequently adopted as the norm.”

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Muriel Gray is absolutely right.  Prior to that repugnant, hate-mongering business of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, there was no unpleasantness involved in politics in the United Kingdom, anywhere, at all. 

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From libcom.org

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Admittedly, I spent the 1970s in Northern Ireland and I do have memories of Northern Irish politics then being full of abuse, hatred, bullying, etc.  But as the Scots hadn’t invented that stuff yet, those memories must be false.  I don’t know why I have a particular memory of my elderly grandmother on the day of an election (and shortly after my grandfather had died) phoning up my Dad in tears to tell him that some political activists had coerced her into crossing the box on her ballot paper for a candidate she hadn’t intended to vote for; but somehow, wrongly, I do.

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And all my memories of politics in the 1980s – of Labour Party Deputy Leader Dennis Healey being shouted down by members of Militant Tendency; of the long-lasting, often violent and acrimonious miners’ strike instigated by Maggie Thatcher’s Year Zero economic policies; of Peter Tatchell being slandered by the media and his Liberal Party opponents for being a homosexual when he stood as Labour Party candidate in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election; of the Federation of Conservative Students on my university campus shouting “F**k the Pope!” and “Hang Nelson Mandela!” and making life as unpleasant as possible for gay students – are surely fake memories too.  Because as Muriel Gray has implied, British politics were all sweetness and light before that awful Scottish independence referendum happened.

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What else do I mis-remember about British politics?  The Poll Tax riot in London that helped to do for Maggie Thatcher?  Can’t have happened.  John Major referring to his anti-EU tormentors in the Conservative Party as ‘bastards’?  I’m sure he never said that, really.  Scottish Labour party councillor Susan Dalgety using the 1998 Omagh bombing atrocity to liken the SNP to the IRA?  I’m sure she never said that, either.  The industrial-strength lies generated by Tony Blair and his gang as they led the country into the 2003 invasion of Iraq?  Just my imagination, surely.

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(c) STV / From amazon.com

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Or what about the hot-headed young lady who used to write columns for the Scotland on Sunday in the early 1990s and excoriate establishment right-wingers like Andrew Neil and Sir Nicholas Fairburn, plus obscenely-wealthy landowners who owned huge tracts of the Scottish countryside and kept them for themselves and their equally-rich pals to shoot grouse on, instead of letting hillwalkers roam across them?  She must have been a figment of my imagination too…  Still, it’s just as well Twitter didn’t exist back then.  Otherwise, people like this imaginary columnist would surely have been directing abuse, pile-ons and harassment at poor old Andrew, and Sir Nicholas, and Lord So-and-So of Glen-Whatever, via social media.  (Now I remember this columnist’s name – Muriel Gray.)

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But I’m wrong.  Because all politicians, political activists and political commentators were as good as gold, and as gentle as lambs, and as pure as the driven snow towards each other in those idyllic, far-off days before 2014.

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Seriously, though…  I don’t pretend that there wasn’t the odd bit of nastiness during the 2014 referendum campaign, though I feel the egg that was chucked at Jim Murphy got blown out of all proportion considering that eggs had been thrown previously at Harold Wilson, Michael Heseltine, John Major, Norman Tebbit, John Prescott, George Galloway and others with far less fanfare.  But it was a stroll in the park compared to what happened before – the murder of an MP – and after – the surge in racist incidents across Britain – the 2016 Brexit referendum.

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(c) STV

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Two last points.  If Ms Gray wants to blame someone or something for the uncivility that prevails in British politics at the moment, she’d do well to point a finger at Britain’s mainstream and mostly right-wing media, which has always been quick to coarsen political discourse and has become worse than ever in recent years.  Witness the screeds of anti-immigrant headlines and the general demonization of anybody who isn’t a right-wing, Brexit-supporting Tory in the Daily Mail, Daily Express and so on.  But of course, the mainstream media is a clique to which she belongs and many of her good buddies on Twitter are or have been writers for the same rabble-rousing newspapers.  So that isn’t going to happen.

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Secondly, it seems to me that those Unionists, like Ms Gray, who won the 2014 referendum and ensured that Scotland stuck with the United Kingdom are, not to put too fine a point on it, shitting themselves in 2019.  In the past four years they’ve seen the UK that they exhorted Scottish voters to remain in, because it was supposedly a beacon of enlightenment, tolerance, liberalism, economic health and social order, turn into a basket-case over Brexit.  And they know that if there is another referendum on Scottish independence – which I’m pretty sure there will be, sooner or later – the yes side is going to be in with a much better shout of winning it.  (The 45% of the vote they polled last time was far higher than anyone on the no side had initially expected.) 

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With the prospect of another referendum looming, it’s in their interests to exaggerate and distort the conduct of the previous one; to rewrite history and turn the event into a nightmare that no one in their right mind would want to go through again; and to generally make out that the vote on Scottish independence was the worst thing since…  Well, since the last worst thing that came out of Scotland. 

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Scotched earth policy

 

From culture24.org.uk

 

Last month, it was announced that the debt-troubled newspaper firm Johnston Press had been taken over by JPI Media, a company especially set up for the takeover by the firm’s lenders.  Soon after, it emerged that the value of one particular outpost of Johnston Press’s empire, the Edinburgh-based triumvirate of the Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and Evening News, had dropped in value from 160 million pounds in 2005 to just four million today.

 

I’ve intended since then to write something about this sorry state of affairs – and especially about plight of the Scotsman, which at one time could justifiably claim to be Scotland’s national newspaper.  But apathy has prevented me from writing about it until today.  That’s unsurprising.  As far as my feelings about the Scotsman are concerned these days, ‘apathy’ is the operative word.

 

It’s hard to believe in 2018, but for a period of my life I read the Scotsman a lot.  When my family arrived in Scotland in 1977, it was one of the daily newspapers they had delivered to their door.  They – soon it was ‘we’ because by the time I was 12 or 13 I’d got into the habit of reading it too – liked it because everything you needed to know was there: news about Scotland, about Britain and about the wider world, plus some intelligent comment and opinion.  And for my Dad, who was a farmer, it had a good agricultural section.  It’s interesting  that in those days we never felt any urge to sample the London-based newspapers, even though they were freely available on the shelves of the local newsagent.  I suspect this was the same in many households across Scotland.

 

By the time I’d become a college student, my political beliefs had shifted to the left – and to the belief that Scotland should be ruled not by London but by the people who lived in it and should be an independent country.  Now I understood that the Scotsman was never going to be the reading matter of choice for revolutionary socialists intent on sticking it to the Man, or as it was in those Thatcherite times, the Woman.  But in its sombre, quietly-on-the-side-of-social-justice way, the old newspaper still had my respect.

 

Incidentally, for a period in the early 1990s, I really liked its sister paper, the Scotland on Sunday.  I remember living for half-a-year in Harlow in Essex, working at a private school where the senior teacher also came from Scotland.  Every Sunday morning, we left our respective houses and embarked on a desperate race to get to a particular newsagent’s shop first – the only newsagent in Harlow who stocked the Scotland on Sunday and who seemed to only ever stock one copy of it.  I enjoyed its columns, which included ones written by the agreeably curmudgeonly Kenneth Roy and the spiky, outspoken Muriel Gray, who was one of my heroines at the time since she was a knowledgeable TV music presenter, a horror-story writer, a dedicated hillwalker and a commentator with fire in her belly.

 

(Kenneth Roy, alas, passed away just a couple of weeks ago.  Meanwhile, nowadays, there’s someone called Muriel Gray who tut-tuts about how ghastly Scotland would be if it ever voted for independence and occasionally on twitter plugs opinion pieces written by her right-wing pals for the likes of the Daily Mail and the Spectator.  But I refuse to accept that this Miss Jean Brodie-esque creature is the same Muriel Gray whom I used to worship.  I believe that the real Muriel Gray has been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by an evil pod-person double.)

 

Anyway, in the late 1990s, after a lengthy stint in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again.  I bought a couple of issues and gave up.  It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone.  It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London – even though the Scottish population had just voted for that, in 1997, in a referendum about the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament.  Hold on, I thought.  Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been firmly in favour of Scottish devolution?

 

When I asked old friends from my college days – folk like me, interested in politics and current affairs and belonging to a demographic who’d certainly buy newspapers if they thought they were worth buying – they’d shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman?  Never read it now.”

 

© BBC

 

It transpired that something tragic had happened.  In the mid-1990s Scotsman Publications had been acquired by media, retail and property tycoons the Barclay Brothers, and they’d installed as their editor-in-chief Andrew Neil, formerly Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant in the UK (and in 2018 a heavyweight political journalist with the BBC).  Back in the day in the newspaper world, Neil was the man with the reverse-Midas touch: everything he touched turned to shit.  He edited the once-respectable Sunday Times in the 1980s and transformed it into the snide, smug right-wing rag it still is today.  Other publications he was involved with like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.

 

Although Neil didn’t have anything to do with the Scotsman after it passed from the Barclay Brothers to Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right – where Neil had dragged it – and basically never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his tenure.   By 2017, the year of its 200th anniversary, its paid-for circulation was down to about 17,000 copies daily.

 

It’s not as if there hasn’t been much news for the Scotsman to cover in Scotland during the last two decades.   1998 saw the creation of the first Scottish parliament in nearly three centuries, 2007 saw the hitherto unthinkable spectacle of the Scottish Labour Party being booted out of power by the Scottish National Party, 2010 saw the financial collapse of Scotland’s biggest football club Glasgow Rangers, and 2014 saw that wee matter of the referendum on Scottish independence.  Plus we’ve had the tragic death of a Scottish First Minister, Donald Dewar; the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing; the enthronement of President Donald Trump, someone with embarrassingly strong links to Scotland; and the removal of Scotland from the European Union thanks to the Brexit vote, even though most Scottish voters wanted to stay in it.  With so much going on, how come the Scotsman failed to capitalise?  How has the reverse happened – its current dismal readership figures suggesting that it is, to use a memorable simile by Billy Connolly, “as popular as a fart in a spacesuit”?

 

Obviously, the coming of the internet and online news services where stories are continually broken and updated impacted negatively on the Scotsman, but it hasn’t helped itself with the scorched earth policy it’s seemingly waged against its readership and potential readership.  As I said earlier, Andrew Neil’s reign put many people off it.  Then in the run-up to the 2014 independence referendum, its partisan unionist / ‘vote no’ stance surely pissed off any pro-independence readers who’d stuck with it.  Indeed, two independence-supporting people I know, of my age or slightly older, told me they’d cancelled their Scotsman subscriptions because they were scunnered by its referendum coverage.

 

Of course, many newspaper readers voted ‘no’ to independence – and their side won in 2014.  But politically nearly all the Scottish newspapers are unionist and most are right-wing, so by appealing to those people (and not the 45% who’d voted ‘yes’) the Scotsman was competing for readers in an already crowded field.

 

My Dad soldiered on reading it, mainly for the farming coverage, though he’d frequently grumble that the Scotsman generally ‘wasn’t as good as it used to be’.  Eventually, ill-health meant that he stopped buying it too.  Thus, while its right-wing British-unionist stance pissed off a sizeable section of my generation – probably the last generation in the habit of regularly buying physical newspapers – an older generation more likely to approve of its conservative politics was sickening and dying off.

 

© Daily Record

 

I have to say that only the threat of torture by thumbscrews, the rack and waterboarding would make me fork out money for a copy of it nowadays.  Not when its columnists include such specimens as Brian Wilson, a former minister under Tony Blair, a staunch supporter of the Iraq War and a man with a visceral hatred of the concept of Scottish independence and of anyone who might ever countenance voting for it; Brian Monteith, who led the campaign in 1997 against the establishment of the Scottish parliament and then demonstrated he was a person of true principle by, er, becoming a Conservative Party Member of the Scottish Parliament and pocketing an MSP’s salary there for the next seven years; and dyspeptic political journalist Euan McColm, who detests the SNP so much that steam must pour out of his ears every time Nicola Sturgeon appears on the telly.

 

Recent articles in the Scotsman and its sister newspapers have done nothing to change my mind.  A few weeks ago Brian Monteith, writing in the Scotsman’s sister paper the Evening News, penned an attack piece on Nicola Sturgeon so jaw-droppingly full of sexist jokes about her being obsessed with having her ‘nails done’, deciding ‘what blusher works best’ and making sure she ‘never runs out of killer stilettos’ that I wondered if I was reading something written by the ghost of Bernard Manning.  Meanwhile, Euan McColm wrote an article in the Scotsman dissing the Scottish Politician of the Year award, which in November 2018 went to an SNP politician, Jeane Freeman: “Are you entirely mediocre at your job,” he sneered, “barely capable of carrying out the duties for which you are employed and devoid of imagination?”  McColm had been oddly silent about the award’s shortcomings during the previous two years when it went to Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives and darling of Scotland’s mainstream media.

 

I should say I only know of the above articles because I’ve read extracts of them that were posted on the Internet.  I’d no sooner click on the Scotsman website these days than I’d wade into a dung-filled midden.  Technically, the site is all over the place and is maddening to navigate.  And the comments threads below the online articles are infested with frothing British-nationalist bampots who’d probably like to see people with my political views arrested and locked up for treason.

 

So having roused myself from my apathy, I’ve offered my thoughts on the poor old Scotsman.  Once it was a staple of my daily life in Scotland, now it’s something I avoid like the plague.  And those circulation figures indicate that most other people are avoiding it too.  A few years from now, I suspect its financial situation and that of its parent company will be even more dire and it’ll end up like the Independent – which ceased its print edition in 2016 and exists now in a phantom online version, with a migraine-inducingly bad website and its news team apparently made up of journalism interns who trawl the Internet and social media looking for stories.

 

Well, as the 2018 Scotsman website is already bloody awful, it’s halfway to the Independent’s living-dead status now.

 

Remembering

 

 

Like so many other things in the Anglo-Saxon world recently, the First World War and the way we remember it seem to have been subsumed into a culture war between left and right.  Therefore, if you decide not to wear a poppy, or decide to wear a white one rather than a red one, or voice distaste for the masses of poppy-related tat on sale in late October and early November – like a 75cm x 50cm poppy tea towel (“handy in any kitchen, as well as looking gorgeous”), or a giant glass poppy-shaped bird-feeder, or a cotton / polyester poppy onesie – or even question the political decisions that sent so many young men marching off to their deaths between 1914 and 1918, you risk having a baying mob chase you on social media and accuse you of being an unpatriotic, nay traitorous, dis-respecter of the fallen.  See the abuse that Kevin Maguire, the Daily Mirror’s associate editor, has received on Twitter today for pointing out the uncomfortable fact that half the men serving in the British Army during World War One weren’t actually allowed to vote.

 

Well, with today the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War on November 11th, 1918, it’s time for me to stick my head above the parapet and say that I’ve felt uneasy about the more ostentatious ways that the war’s centenary has been marked in the UK these last four years: starting in 2014 with Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which saw a huge crimson torrent of nearly 900,000 poppies (each representing a fallen soldier from Britain and its then-colonies) filling the moat at the Tower of London; and ending now with the Shrouds of the Somme, whereby 72,000 shrouded figurines (symbolising the soldiers from Britain and the colonies who died at the Battle of the Somme and were never given a proper burial) have been laid out at London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.  Both displays seem to turn commemoration of the war into something that’s part massive art installation and part transitory tourist attraction; which, despite the best intentions in the world, doesn’t convey what was surely its most important feature for the people involved in it, its absolute bloody hellishness.  I wonder what World War One veterans themselves would have made of these showy centennial commemorations – but of course, we can’t know that because the very last of them passed away in 2011.

 

Indeed, a few days ago, the journalist Ian Jack wrote a thoughtful piece for the Guardian entitled Conceptual Art Can Never Capture the Tragedy of the Great War, which mirrors my feelings.  The comments thread below the online version of the feature predictably has Jack being berated by a baying mob for his lack of patriotism, for treading “a fine line between risible and insulting” and being a “privileged liberal smughole.”  But Jack simply observes that he finds the old, traditional means of remembering the fallen — the monuments, statues, plaques, services and ceremonies that were established after World War One — more moving and more informative.

 

I agree.  At least those things were largely erected or initiated by the generation who’d been there.  No doubt there was a fair amount of spin added by the establishment, mindful of what’d happened in Russia in 1917, worried about the thousands of demobilised soldiers who’d come back expecting but not finding the ‘land fit for heroes’ promised by Lloyd George, and desperate to channel those men’s energies towards something patriotic and away from something revolutionary.  But still, for me, those monuments and rituals have always had a sad, sombre authenticity that strikes an appropriate chord.

 

When I was a kid, I had a paradoxical relationship with the First World War.  On one hand, I was born into a Protestant community in Northern Ireland, over whose shared sense of heritage the Great War and especially the Battle of the Somme loomed incredibly large.  (During the first day of the Somme, the 36th Ulster Division was the only UK division to achieve its objectives, overcoming a sizable chunk of the German line; but by the end of its second day, 5500 men in the division were dead, injured or missing.)  Yet despite the yearly gathering on Remembrance Sunday at the big commemorative plaque in the local church, and like a lot of a little boys in the 1970s, it was actually World War Two that filled my imagination, thanks to the countless movies and series about it shown on TV and the slew of World War Two-themed comics on sale every week at the newsagent’s.

 

I only properly became acquainted with World War One in the mid-1970s when the BBC repeated its legendary 26-episode documentary The Great War (originally made in 1964, the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s start), narrated by Michael Redgrave and with music by Wilfred Josephs.  The BBC aired it on Sunday afternoons.  As a result, staid, God-fearing, not-much-happening Northern Irish Sundays got indelibly linked in my mind with melancholy, black-and-white film footage of the trenches.

 

It wasn’t until much later that I realised how the war’s tragic influence had seeped across the decades into, or almost into, my own memories.  For instance, a few old spinsters, well into their 70s by then, lived in lonely seclusion around our village, and only years after did it occur to me that they’d never married because the war had culled so many young men from their generation that there’d been nobody left for them to marry.  Meanwhile, my Dad would recall how, up till the 1960s, there’d been a World War One veteran living in the village who’d been shell-shocked and had never recovered from it.  The village still had a functioning railway station then and, supposedly, every morning the poor man would visit it, march along the platform and salute the guards on the trains – believing from their uniforms that they were army officers.

 

And it wasn’t until 2008 that I went back to Ireland with my Dad and finally visited Ballyconnell Parish Church in County Cavan, on whose wall is a Roll of Honour commemorating the local men who served in uniform during the two world wars.  The names of two of my great-uncles, Alfred and Walter, are recorded there for World War One.  Both of them survived it.

 

 

In 1977, my family moved from Northern Ireland to Scotland, where World War One was less loaded with historical significance on a collective level; but was still remembered poignantly on a local level because it’d reaped a dreadful harvest among the populations of Scotland’s cities, towns and villages.  Peebles, the town nearest our new home, had an impressive cenotaph commemorating the fallen, which had been unveiled in a ceremony in 1922 by none other than Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of the war.

 

(The Edinburgh-born Haig was massively popular at the time and his funeral in 1928 was marked by a day of national mourning.  Which seems hard to credit now, given that historical revisionism in the form of, say, Alan Clark’s 1961 historical volume The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth has made us less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent with such posthumous nicknames as ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’.  As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode of Blackadder, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.”)

 

Less fancy than the cenotaph in Peebles was the small statue of a soldier, head bowed in remembrance, that’d served as the war memorial in the nearby village of Walkerburn since 1920.  The statue made the news in 1998 when it went missing, presumably stolen to be melted down for its metal.  As a result, Peebles’ Beltane Studios were commissioned to make a similar (but bigger) statue as a replacement.  Then, after the new statue had been installed, the old one was retrieved by the police, still intact, and returned to Walkerburn – so that now it has two war memorials.  The original was placed in a different location, opposite the town’s old mill building.  During World War One, Walkerburn lost a higher percentage of its men on the battlefield than any other settlement in Scotland.  So it certainly deserves its two war memorials.

 

My favourite memorial, however, is the one pictured at the top of this entry: the one commemorating the men of the picturesque Slitrig Valley a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick, which also stands near the entrance of a former military camp.  It indicates how even the remotest, most tranquil-looking communities couldn’t escape the baleful reach of the war.  And for me that still has more impact than floods of ceramic poppies or plains of shrouded figurines.

 

Le Cirque de Salmond

 

© Daily Record

 

I’d always assumed there was no dirt to dig up on Alex Salmond, ex-leader of the Scottish National Party and First Minister of Scotland from 2007 to 2014.  I assumed this for the simple reason that if there had been, his countless enemies in the old Scottish establishment and the Scottish press – the latter largely a sub-set of the former – would have dug it up and used it to wreck his reputation long ago.

 

Thus, it came as a surprise when last Thursday the Daily Record reported allegations of Salmond sexually harassing two female Scottish government employees while he was First Minister, which have recently been the subject of an inquiry by the Scottish government and have now been passed on to the police.

 

What didn’t surprise me was the absolute circus in Scotland’s newspapers that followed the disclosure of these allegations.  ‘SALMOND SCANDAL,’ screamed one headline.  ‘ECK SEX PROBE,’ barked another.  ‘BOOZED-UP SALMOND “TOUCHED WOMAN’S BREASTS,”’ brayed a third.

 

You got the impression the hacks were throwing so much muck at Salmond because they hoped that, even if the allegations against him weren’t proven, the muck would still stick and besmirch his reputation forever after.  Occasionally the coverage went beyond even that.  From some headlines, you’d have thought Salmond wasn’t just under investigation but had been already tried, found guilty and sentenced.  The Scottish Sun claimed that he was in a ‘Shakespearean play’s final act’ and had ‘gone from national hero to laughing stock’.  In the Times, a piece by Alex Massie bore the headline, ‘WHATEVER HAPPENS, IT’S OVER FOR SALMOND’.  No wonder some people on Twitter likened the sentiments to the old approach for detecting witches, i.e. by chucking them into the river.  If you float, you’re a witch, and you’re dead.  Whereas if you sink, you’re not a witch, but you’re still dead.

 

Before I continue, let me warn that, like most of the press coverage, this post is going to be all about Salmond.  There’ll be little reference to the women who’ve made the allegations, even though they may well be the victims in this ugly affair – but they’re difficult to focus on as they’re currently staying anonymous.   Also, let me say that if Salmond is proven guilty of harassment, I believe he deserves everything he gets.  Politically, legally and reputationally, he should be strung up by the balls.

 

But I can’t see how the reporting of the story so far, reeking of score-settling, vendettas and political partisanship, is going to help anyone involved.  Not only Salmond, who’s still supposed to be innocent until proven otherwise; but also the women making the allegations.  If there’s substance to what they are saying – and again there may well be – then they’ll surely want the process of the investigation to appear measured and impartial.  They’ll want Salmond to be convicted after a fair hearing.  They’ll not want biased press coverage giving it the shrill trappings of a witch-hunt, because that’ll leave people believing the guilty party isn’t really guilty but is the victim of a stitch-up.

 

It’s long been obvious that many influential citizens in Scotland have hated Salmond’s guts.  I remember living in London in the early 1990s after Salmond had been made SNP leader, and drinking occasionally with a Labour Party spin doctor, also from Scotland.  He had no inhibitions about telling me, at every opportunity, what a detestable creep he thought Salmond was.  With his smart-Alec manner (ouch) and his habitual smirk, which frequently expanded into a Cheshire-cat grin, and his arrogance that no doubt came from knowing he was intellectually streets ahead of the numpties making up the majority of Westminster’s Scottish MPs, you could understand how Salmond was an annoyance to his opponents.  But back then the SNP had just three MPs, so he at least could be dismissed as a minor annoyance.

 

How long ago that seems now.  In those far-off days, the Labour Party controlled much of Scotland at council level, provided the lion’s share of Scottish MPs for Westminster and, when it arrived in 1999, dominated the Scottish parliament too.  If their party also happened to be in power at Westminster, which it was occasionally, Scottish Labour-ites must have felt like lords of all they surveyed.  If the Conservatives were in power at Westminster, which they were most of the time, those Scottish Labour-ites grumbled a bit, but diplomatically kept their heads down while right-wing Tory policies were imposed on Scotland.

 

This suited Scotland’s newspapers, owned by magnates and companies that were sympathetic to either the Labour party or the Conservative one.  The Tory papers could rest easy because although Scotland was a Labour fiefdom, they knew the party’s Scottish branch wasn’t going to kick up a big fuss about Scotland’s political will being kept subservient to that of London.  Meanwhile, the relationship between Scottish journalists and Scottish politicians was ickily close.  As Iain Macwhirter observed in his book Disunited Kingdom (2015), “Scottish journalism is almost as tribal as Scottish politics, and Labour has traditionally called the shots in the Scottish media through its extensive patronage networks.”  And if you were a columnist in a Scottish newspaper, you could have a high conceit of yourself indeed – luxuriating as a big, opinion-forming fish in a safe, wee political pool.

 

Then in 2007 the sky fell in.  Salmond’s SNP won the biggest majority of seats in the Scottish parliament.  They’ve remained in power there during the 11 years and two Scottish parliamentary elections since.  They also won the majority of Scotland’s Westminster seats in the UK general elections in 2015 and 2017 (admittedly a lower number in 2017, but still more than all the other parties’ Scottish seats put together).  They lost the independence referendum in 2014 – an event that led to Salmond resigning as First Minister – but the percentage of the vote they got, 45%, was still far more than what anyone had expected at the campaign’s start.

 

This stuck in a great many craws – not just in those of the Scottish Labour Party, with its historical sense of entitlement, but in those of the majority of Scotland’s newspapers, who discovered to their horror that no matter how negatively they reported the SNP and its performance as the new Scottish government, a significantly large proportion of the Scottish public ignored them and kept on voting SNP.   All that, plus a catastrophic drop in Scottish newspaper sales during the 21st century – the Herald, for instance, declining from a circulation of 85,000 in 2003 to one of 30,000 in 2016.  Scottish journalistic teeth gnashed frenziedly while their influence dwindled.  Meanwhile, the grin of Alex Salmond, the bastard who seemed emblematic of the good times coming to an end, grew even wider, his mood grew ever merrier and his girth grew ever more Falstaffian.

 

 From twitter.com

 

Of course, Salmond’s media and political foes have been desperate to get back at him and he’s looked increasingly vulnerable since he lost his Westminster seat in the middle of 2017.  To be honest, lately, Salmond hasn’t just given his detractors ammunition for this.  He’s handed them a whole arsenal.  In August 2017, he put on at the Edinburgh Festival a chat-show called Alex Salmond: Unleashed, which from all accounts was a graceless, self-indulgent and ego-driven affair.  Mind you, those accounts were mostly published in the Scottish press, so they weren’t ever going to be positive.

 

Soon after, to cries of outrage, he developed his stage-show into a programme called The Alex Salmond Show, which was broadcast on RT, Russia’s international English-language news channel.  The show has featured some interesting guests, including Charles Puigdemont, Alastair Campbell, Bertie Ahern, Mary McAleese, Peter Tatchell, Brian Cox, Doddie Weir and Jackie Stewart.  And there’s been plenty of stone-throwing in glass houses among the show’s many political critics – after all, both Conservative and Labour MPs have accepted payments to appear on RT in the past, and UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has happily shown his face on Iran’s notorious Press TV, and former Welsh Liberal Democrat leader Lembit Opik still hosts a show for the same outfit.  Nonetheless, despite all the humbug, associating himself with Vladimir Putin’s televisual voice to the world was neither a wise nor ethical move on Salmond’s part.

 

Still, now, it would be edifying if Scotland’s politicos and pundits could stand back and quietly allow the police investigation of Salmond to run its course, so that the truth can be finally and convincingly arrived at – and if there’s been criminal behavior, it gets punished, and if people have suffered from criminal behavior, amends are made to them.  A lot of folk would do well to wind their necks in for a while.  But that won’t happen, will it?  The next few months in the Scottish media are going to be a circus of lurid Alex Salmond headlines – le Cirque de Salmond.

 

Enger-lund

 

From fifa.com

 

It’s World Cup time and England have been playing unexpectedly well.  They’re in the final four with a semi-final game scheduled for seven o’clock BST tonight against Croatia.

 

Less unexpected is the debate that flares up north of the border whenever England qualify for a World Cup, irrespective of whether Scotland have also qualified or, as has been the case these last 20 years, they haven’t qualified.  The question of this debate is: Should Scottish people support England during their World Cup games?

 

As usual, opinion pieces have clogged the pages of newspapers and current affairs magazines, penned by Scottish journalists adding their tuppence-worth to the subject.  Since the first kick of the ball in the first World Cup game of 2018, we’ve had Lesley Riddoch in the National, Chris Deerin in the New Statesman, Kevin McKenna in the Herald, Stephen Daisley in the Spectator and many more.

 

Daisley, for instance, stated his belief that Scots are obliged to support England in the competition: “If Scotland were heading into a World Cup semi-final – come now, it’s not nice to laugh – you can just picture the response south of the border.  England fans would throw their support behind the plucky 11…  Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would discover long-lost great grannies who once had a fish supper in Portobello.  The Sun would give away novelty kilts bearing the legend ‘It’s coming hame’; the Mirror would reprint the lyrics of Flower of Scotland for its readers to sing along.”  Funnily enough, I was in the UK two years ago when Wales reached the semi-finals of the European Championship and I don’t recall Therezza, Jezza, the Sun and the Mirror being so enthusiastic about the Welsh.

 

© Bob Thomas / Getty Images

 

Back in the days of my youth, there was certainly a strong Scottish penchant for not supporting England at football and, indeed, for supporting any team playing against England.  When England took on Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, everyone I knew in Scotland hooted with laughter when Maradona showed the poor old English the door aided by his dodgy ‘hand of God’ goal.  This was despite the fact that, as part of the UK, Scotland had been at war with Argentina only four years earlier, as of course had England.

 

During the 1990 World Cup, the atmosphere was electric in my regular pub in Aberdeen when England played Cameroon.  This was helped no end by the entry of a group of Cameroonian students, come to watch the game on TV.  While the game was going Cameroon’s way, the students enlivened the pub by performing some traditional Cameroonian dancing, which the locals – rather atypically for Aberdonians, a people not given to over-exuberance – heartily joined in with.  And when England stole the game 3-2 in extra time, the dancing stopped and both Scottish and Cameroonian faces were long and downcast.  Later, when England went out in the semi-finals courtesy of Germany, someone in Glasgow celebrated by painting a local statue of St George in the German team colours.

 

Footballing-wise, it was easy to be ‘anyone-but-England’ in Scotland at the time.  Sometimes it felt like a political protest.  The UK was governed in an autocratic and centralised fashion by a Conservative government led by that most English-seeming of figures, Margaret Thatcher.  A majority of Scots were anti-Thatcherite, but their objections seemed to matter not a jot with those in power in London whose economic policies were dismantling Scotland’s traditional heavy industries and wrecking its traditional working-class communities.

 

Also, much of England’s travelling support seemed to consist of hooligans and / or racists.  In a recent, excellent piece about English football and English identity in the New Statesman, Jason Cowley recalls how a memorable 2-0 England win over Brazil in 1984 was, in the eyes of certain fans, a 1-0 England victory.  To them, one of the goals didn’t count because it’d been scored by a black player, John Barnes.  So who’d want to back a team supported by that unlovable bunch?

 

From www.soccer-ireland.com

 

Conversely, now that Scotland has its own devolved parliament and has at least a measure of responsibility for its own affairs, and now that the new generation of English fans have a better reputation than their predecessors, the anyone-but-England mentality seems much less pronounced in Scotland.  But I don’t see why, as Daisley thinks, Scots should be compelled to support England.  Sure, they can support them if they want to.  But it shouldn’t be shocking if they don’t want to, for a couple of reasons.

 

Firstly, plenty of Scottish football fans still see England as their great rival on the footballing stage – not, admittedly, that they’ve had an opportunity to compete against England in any major tournaments during the 21st century because the Scotland side has been too gash to qualify for them.  And it’s a basic law of sporting physics that rivals, especially near-neighbours, do not support each other.  Rather, they’ll happily support their rivals’ opponents.  When Newcastle United took on Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup Final, I’d bet that very few Sunderland fans, ten miles down the way, were backing them.  And I doubt if many, or indeed any, Celtic supporters were cheering on their old Glasgow rivals Rangers when the latter were up against FC Zenit St Petersburg in the 2008 UEFA Cup final.

 

This rule extends to national football teams.  I’ve had Dutch people tell me that they don’t want Germany to win, and Ethiopians have said the same about Egypt.  And to other sports – I remember a long-ago rugby world cup where an Australian friend told me how disgruntled he was at hearing certain New Zealanders, whom he knew and considered good mates, cheering on any team that played Australia.  I also remember a Canadian friend asking me one time in a puzzled tone about the anyone-but-England mentality among Scottish football fans.  “So when the USA play Finland at ice hockey,” I asked her, “who do you Canadians support?”  “Finland of course!” she said immediately.

 

Secondly – and this isn’t the fault of the England players or supporters – the amount of hype that accompanies England’s entry into every footballing competition, generated by English-based pundits, TV stations and newspapers, puts you off them.  It’s immense and overwhelming and rapidly becomes maddening if you live in parts of the United Kingdom that aren’t England but are still saturated by England’s media.  These days, in fact, most of the xenophobia isn’t to be found among the fans, bad boys though they were in the past, but among the tabloids.  Witness the amount of gloating that went on when Germany were knocked out in an uncharacteristically early stage of this World Cup: SCHADENFREUDE declared the front-page headline in the Sun, which then provided a short definition (“Pleasure derived from another person’s dissatisfaction”) presumably because it considered its readers too dense to know what the word meant.

 

© Daily Express / From the BBC

 

No doubt the frenzied jingoistic coverage of this year’s World Cup has been ramped up in England’s right-wing, Brexit-crazed newspapers in the hope that it’ll help to bury news of the ultra-shambles, mega-shambles, hyper-shambles and total absolute omni-shambles that Theresa May’s government is currently making of the Brexit negotiations.  They probably hope too that if England win the World Cup, it’ll take people’s minds off the 1930s / Great Depression-style economic misery that’ll inevitably follow a hard Brexit.

 

Personally, I don’t see any reason why I should support England as it just isn’t my national football team – for me, that title is shared jointly by Scotland and Northern Ireland.  And for the reasons mentioned above, I’ve borne the anyone-but-England attitude in the past.  But I bear no ill-feeling against this current England side and I’m happy to see them do well.

 

Partly it’s because the current England squad seem like a decent bunch of blokes, certainly in comparison with some of the bloated egos and elephantine senses of entitlement that’ve populated past squads.  (The nadir was surely the England World Cup squad of 2006, who rolled up in Germany with their Sex and the City-style wives and girlfriends.  This led to the gruesome spectacle of Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole, Coleen Rooney and co. descending regularly on the boutiques of Baden-Baden, with the paparazzi in tow, and blowing more money in a single shopping trip than most England fans earned in a year.)

 

I also like English manager Gareth Southgate, who has executed his World Cup duties with intelligence, humility and compassion.  I even had a lump in my throat when, after England got past Colombia in their quarter-final win game, Southgate saw a Colombian player who’d missed an all-important penalty crying and went over and gave him a hug.

 

And he knows how to wear a waistcoat.  These things are important.

 

© CNN

 

So I can support this version of England – that is, if I embargo all English newspapers beforehand and have the TV volume turned down so that my brain isn’t turned to mush by any drivelling, hubristic English-TV-studio commentary.  But I’m still not sure I want them to win the World Cup.  I shudder to imagine the English media’s reaction.  They’d be braying and crowing about it for years.  Come to think of it, they still haven’t shut up about winning the bloody thing in 1966.

 

Then again, if that happens and the “We won! We won!” hysteria gets so unbearable, Scotland could be independent by Christmas.

 

Remember the Ally-mo

 

© BBC

 

One unsettling feature of growing older is that when an anniversary arrives and you think back to the original event, you feel shocked when you realise how much time separates now and then.  The other day, the 2018 World Cup competition began in Russia and it’s just occurred to me that the 1978 World Cup in Argentina took place 40 whole years and ten whole world cups ago.  It’s almost traumatic to realise how much time has elapsed.

 

However, if you’re old enough to remember the 1978 Argentinian World Cup and you were in Scotland at the time, you’ll testify that the event itself was traumatic.

 

For those of you who’re unacquainted with the topic – what happened in 1978 was that of the four national football teams in the UK, Scotland was the only one to qualify for Argentina.  And the country had a team that, on paper, looked like it might achieve something.  It boasted players from some of the mightiest football clubs in Britain: for example, from Manchester United (Martin Buchan, Gordon McQueen, Lou Macari, Joe Jordan), Liverpool (Graham Souness, the legendary Kenny Dalglish), Glasgow Rangers (Derek Johnstone, Tom Forsyth, Sandy Jardine), Nottingham Forest (Kenny Burns, John Robertson, Archie Gemmill) and, er, Partick Thistle (Alan Rough).  And in charge of these remarkable players was a manager called Ally MacLeod, who was remarkable in his own way.  Though not necessarily in the right way.

 

Emboldened by wins in 1977 over the European champions Czechoslovakia and over the Auld Enemy, England – the game concluded with the Scotland fans swarming onto the pitch at Wembley and digging up clods of the turf and breaking the goalposts into wee pieces to bring back to Scotland as souvenirs, much to the horror of the English commentators – Ally began to talk up his team’s chances in Argentina.  When early in 1978 Scotland failed to win the Home International championship involving England, Wales and Northern Ireland, he shrugged it off with the tantalising comment that the championship’s title “could be dwarfed by the World Cup.”  Such statements, and Ally’s general air of swagger and optimism – “My name is Ally MacLeod,” he announced when he became Scotland manager, “and I am a born winner!” – acted like catnip to both football fans and the hacks working on the sports pages of Scotland’s newspapers.

 

From the Independent / © Getty Images

 

As the World Cup approached, a heady sense of expectation began to infect the Scottish population.  Folk started to believe that the Argentinian World Cup would be a jamboree of Scottish footballing genius, culminating in Ally and the gang lifting the trophy.  No wonder a carpet company cannily signed Ally to do a commercial where he sat on one of their rugs whilst dressed as a gaucho – 1970s Britain’s idea of what everybody in Argentina looked like.  This led to a priceless incident where, just before he departed for Argentina, Ally was accosted by an exuberant fan who declared, “Ally, see the day after your commercial?  My ma bought one o they carpets!”

 

Ally was indeed a great salesman.  He could truly market the brand.  Unfortunately, that was not quite the same as delivering the goods.

 

Even my favourite rock band, the Australian (but mostly Scottish-born) AC/DC, got in on act and wore Scotland football strips during a 1978 gig at Glasgow Apollo Theatre.  Also getting in on the act was the Scottish comedian Andy Cameron, who recorded a song called Ally’s Tartan Army that soon rode high in the charts.  It contained such catchy, if posthumously cringeworthy, lines as: “And we’re fairly shake them up / When we win the World Cup / Cos Scotland is the greatest football team!

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Being in Scotland in the spring of 1978 and watching this happen was disconcerting for me.  The year before, my family had moved from Northern Ireland and taken up residency in a farm near the Scottish town of Peebles.  Since then, I’d assumed that the Scots were a stoical, down-to-earth lot, not given to flights of fancy.  But then, all-of-a-sudden, they’d succumbed to this madness about Ally MacLeod, winning the World Cup and having the greatest football team in the universe – what was going on?  I found it particularly noticeable the day before Scotland played Northern Ireland in the Home Internationals.  When I walked into a meeting of the local Scouts that evening, all the other (Scottish) scouts had an insane glint in their eyes and were gleefully predicting how Scotland was going to slaughter, dismember and stomp on the grave of poor, lowly Northern Ireland the next day.  (As it turned out, all Scotland could manage with Northern Ireland was a 1-1 draw, much to my satisfaction.)

 

Still, over time, the madness seemed to seep into even my non-ethnically Scottish soul.  Hey, I thought, it would be cool to live in the country that’d won the World Cup, wouldn’t it?

 

After a delirious send-off at Hampden Stadium where 30,000 Scotland fans whooped and roared as if their team had just come back from Argentina clutching the World Cup trophy, Ally’s Tartan Army flew out and got ready for their first game of the competition’s first round, which was against Peru.  The evening that the game was on TV, I missed the beginning of it for my dad had sent me out to move some cows from one field to another.  I was in the middle of moving those cows when I heard a huge rumbling roar – like how I’d imagine the approach of a tsunami to be.  It took me a few seconds to realise I was hearing cheering coming from the town, a half-mile away beyond the last of my parents’ fields.  It was the sound of 5000-odd people in Peebles celebrating Joe Jordan knocking in a first goal for Scotland in the game’s 14th minute.  Gosh, I thought, it’s startedScotland really are going to win the World Cup!

 

So I completed my task, hurried back to the house and hunkered down in front of the television next to my younger brother, who’d really caught the Scotland World Cup bug and was sitting excitedly with a tartan scarf wrapped around him.  Scarcely had I arrived there when, just before half-time, Peru equalised.  Then in the second half Peru scored two more, so that by the game’s end Scotland had been beaten 3-1.  In a pathetic attempt to hide my disappointment, I pretended that, being Northern Irish, I hadn’t really been supporting Scotland and I thought their defeat was funny.  So I turned around and started laughing at my brother.  I stopped, though, when I realised he was in floods of tears.  However, my mother had already seen me laughing at him and she gave me a deserved bollocking for making him even more upset.

 

Next up for Scotland was Iran – an unstable country in the early throes of a revolution.  Scotland was surely going to win this one, right?  Wrong.  The team played so badly that they scraped a 1-1 draw and that was only because an Iranian player called Eskandarian scored an own-goal.  This game was famous for its images of a totally-deflated Ally Macleod sitting hunched over in the Scotland dugout, his hands clamped over the top of his skull in an attempt to shut out the world – “Ally trying to dismantle his head,” as one wag described it later.

 

From sportingheroes.net / © George Herringshaw

 

To heighten the misery, the Scottish striker Willie Johnston was sent home after failing a drugs test.  Other football players have suffered drugs scandals, most notably the cocaine-snorting Diego Maradona.  But the hapless Johnston wasn’t even caught taking a glamorous drug – he tested positive for Reacitivan, a medication prescribed to him because he had hay fever.  Poor old Willie might as well have been busted for taking Benylin Chesty Cough Mixture.

 

By now the Scotland situation was looking grim.  Also grim was the atmosphere at Peebles High School.  One guy in my class told me there was a record shop in Glasgow that was now selling copies of Ally’s Tartan Army by Andy Cameron for a penny each – so that disgruntled punters could make a public display of smashing them into vinyl slivers on the pavement outside.  Meanwhile, a girl told me she couldn’t bear to drink Scotland’s national fizzy drink Irn Bru any more – because its name sounded it too much like ‘Iran Peru’.  Lessons with our English teacher, Iain Jenkins, strayed off the topic of Shakespeare and became lengthy post-mortem discussions about what was going horribly wrong in Argentina.

 

In fact, I remember us doing some creative writing one day and then Iain Jenkins reading out a poem that a mischievous pupil from south of the border had just penned about Scotland’s faltering World Cup campaign.  It contained the memorable line, “Poor Ally will have to emigrate to the moon” and the even more memorable couplet, “Willie Johnston is over the hill / That’s why he’s on the pill.”

 

To get through to the World Cup’s next round, Scotland now had to beat the Netherlands – and beat them by three goals.  There seemed zero chance of that happening.  From the dire way the Scots were playing, it looked much more likely that the Dutch would murder them.  Yet it was against the Dutch – who’d eventually make it to the competition’s final – that Scotland managed a victory.  Indeed, they were 3-1 up at one point in the game and if they’d knocked in another goal they could have lived to fight another day.   Alas, it wasn’t to be.  The Dutch eventually pulled one back, making the final score 3-2.  Scotland had won, but not by enough to stop them going home early.

 

Still, the game produced a brilliant Scottish goal by the diminutive Nottingham Forest player Archie Gemmill.  It was the best goal of that World Cup and possibly the greatest World Cup goal ever.  Incidentally, it’s also the goal whose footage is intercut with the hectic sex sequence in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995) – no wonder a dazed Ewan MacGregor murmurs at the end of it, “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978!”  (Though I’m pretty sure that back in 1978 the Scottish football commentator Archie Macpherson didn’t really exclaim, as he does in Trainspotting, “A penetrating goal for Scotland!”)

 

From whoateallthepies.tv

 

So Scotland was out of the World Cup but with, technically, a wee bit of pride salvaged.  Sadly, such was the hype that’d accompanied them to Argentina that their campaign didn’t feel like anything other than an absolute disaster.  The day after the Holland game, I remember a schoolmate, the local postman’s son, coming into class.  He pulled out a tartan scarf, waved it around for five seconds and said flatly and unenthusiastically, “See that?  We beat Holland.  Magic.”  Then he put the scarf back in his bag and zipped it up again.  And nobody at school seemed to talk about Scotland, Argentina and the World Cup ever again.

 

Mind you, later that summer, I returned to Northern Ireland for a holiday.  People there seemed to view me as 100% Scottish now and they didn’t stop tearing the piss out of me about how crap Scotland had played in Argentina.

 

But let’s be fair to Ally Macleod (who died in 2004).  In popular Scottish mythology he’s often depicted as a vainglorious balloon, bragging that his team would win the World Cup, and then win the next World Cup, and probably the Ryder Cup, the Stanley Cup, the America’s Cup, the Ashes and the Tour de France as well.  But I’ve scoured the Internet and been unable to find most of the hyperbolic quotes that I’ve heard attributed to him.  It’s fairer to say that he made a few tactless comments and exuded a lot of optimism, which the overheated imaginations of fans and journalists turned into mass hysteria.  In the dispirited environment of post-World Cup Scotland, though, nobody wanted to admit their own culpability and poor Ally became the scapegoat.

 

Anyway, if you can ignore the hubris and focus only on the football, Ally’s 1978 squad didn’t do that badly.  Yes, they had two duff games but they only lost one of those, and then they achieved a win against the eventual finalists.  If the cards had fallen differently elsewhere in their first-round group, they might have got through to the competition’s next stage; and, having had their wake-up call, performed better.  Other teams in other World Cups have done so with the same first-round record of one win, one draw and one defeat – including England.

 

Much has been blamed on that ill-fated World Cup campaign.  People have found significance in how it came shortly before the 1979 referendum on creating a devolved Scottish parliament, which died a death because of apathy.  The Scottish public voted for the parliament, but not in sufficiently high numbers.  It’s tempting to join those two dots – but I’m inclined to blame this collapse in Scottish political willpower at the end of the decade on factors a lot more complex than Ally Macleod bullshitting us a bit about football in 1978.

 

One thing that can be attributed to 1978 is the evolution of the Scotland football team’s travelling support, the Tartan Army.  Thanks to the bitter lessons learnt then, modern Scotland fans have dumped any belligerent, nationalistic sense of expectation and have gone about the (often thankless) task of supporting Scotland with humour, irony, self-deprecation and a determination to have a good time no matter how bad the results.  As a result, they’re now one of the most popular sets of fans in the world.

 

Actually, when Scotland played England a couple of years ago at Wembley, I saw a picture of some Scottish fans posing in Trafalgar Square with a life-sized cut-out of Ally Macleod they’d brought along.   That made me smile.  With his erratic management skills and over-exuberant PR skills, the daft bugger put us through the wringer in 1978, but it’s nice to know his spirit still gets invited to the party.

 

From the Guardian / © Dan Kitwood, Getty Images

 

Let’s get (more expensively) pished!

 

© TriStar Pictures

 

Anyone who knew me in my youth, or indeed in my middle youth, or even in my later youth, will testify that I was commonly fond of a pint of beer.  Or two.  Or three.  And those were often washed down with a wee whisky chaser.  Or two.  Or three.

 

It was even observed of me once or twice that I was “the worse for drink.”  To this I would retort, “No, I’m very much the better for it.”

 

Anyway, if you’re an acquaintance who knew me back in my hellraising days, brace yourself.  I’m about to make a statement that will shock you.  I actually agree with the new alcohol minimum-pricing law introduced yesterday in Scotland. 

 

The new Scottish legislation means the cost of alcoholic beverages will now be determined by their strength, i.e. every unit of alcohol they contain will automatically add at least 50 pence onto their price-tag.  Thus, a two-litre bottle of super-strong cider (containing more than your medically recommended alcohol intake for an entire week), which was previously available for as little as £2.50, will now cost at least £7.50.

 

The intention is to reduce the physical, social and financial carnage wreaked in Scotland by alcohol abuse.  Statistics include 1,265 alcohol-related deaths in 2016; 36,325 alcohol-related hospital stays in 2016-17; 42% of offenders in violent crimes being under the influence of alcohol in 2016-2017; and alcohol’s cost to the public purse in terms of health and social care, policing, lost working hours, etc, being an estimated £3.6 billion in 2007.

 

Personally, I doubt if upping prices and doing away with bargain-basement booze is likely to stop your average, hardened, russet-faced, Godzilla-breathed, middle-aged jakey seeking his or her daily alcohol fix.  But I suspect it will cause a gradual improvement, in that more young people – a section of the population that’s increasingly strapped for cash these days – will be dissuaded from acquiring holocaustic drinking habits.  Mind you, that seems to be the trend now among young folk in the UK anyway.

 

From playbuzz.com

 

My own reason for supporting minimum pricing isn’t to do with public health.  I just think it might reduce, ever so slightly, the competition that Scotland’s hard-pressed pubs have faced from the supermarkets, whose shelves until yesterday were usually a blizzard of cheap-drink offers.  Now that the gulf between pub prices (which are too high to be affected by the new legislation) and supermarket prices is fractionally less wide, a few people might be encouraged to visit their neighbourhood public houses more often – which might in turn save one or two pubs from going to the wall.

 

In recent years, the UK has experienced a virtual bar-mageddon.  According to figures from CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, an average of 18 British pubs go out of business every week.  The ridiculously low price of alcohol in the supermarkets is one of the causes of this, though there are other factors too, including the smoking ban, stricter alcohol limits for drivers and changing social habits generally.   And let’s not forget the sorry situation in London, where many beautiful old pubs have lately been destroyed by the rapaciousness of wankerish property developers.

 

Meanwhile, pubs that have survived in downtown areas of British cities have often been disfigured by proprietors desperate to lure in the Friday and Saturday night crowds: office workers, students, start-of-the-evening clubbers, hen and stag parties.  This means tearing out alcoves and seating areas (making more room for standing-up punters) and blighting the premises with deafening music, giant TV screens, zinging games machines and karaoke, none of which are conducive to meaningful human conversation and communication.  The result is pubs that aren’t so much social venues as standing-room-only drinking stations.

 

Personally, the main reason why I enjoy alcohol is because I enjoy being in pubs – proper pubs.  I’d much rather take a drink in a lively social environment than take it on my lonesome at home, even if that seems to be the default setting for many drinkers nowadays.  And a good pub has so many things going for it.  Firstly, now that most other venues for community interaction have disappeared from modern Britain, such as the corner shop, the little neighbourhood post office and the old-style gents’ barber, the pub is about the only place left where you can meet your neighbours and catch up on the local news and gossip.

 

There’s also the heritage factor.  In terms of interior décor and, sometimes, external architecture, British pubs can be treasure troves.  I’m thinking of such gorgeous bars as the Café Royal in Edinburgh, the Gatehouse in Norwich and the Crown Posada in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

 

And I love the idea that you can walk into a pub and never know who you’ll end up talking to: folk from all walks of life, strangers with interesting, occasionally fascinating stories to tell.  All human life is potentially there, human life that you have no chance of encountering if you’re sitting on the sofa at home quaffing a £3.19 bottle of Rich and Ripe red wine from Asda (now bumped up to £4.88 in Scotland).

 

For that reason, when I reminisce about the different places I’ve lived, half the time I find myself thinking about pubs associated with those places: the Machar Bar in Aberdeen, the Hebrides Bar in Edinburgh, the Honjin Murakame in the Japanese town of Takikawa, the misleadingly-named Tadessa’s Grocery in the Ethiopian town of Debre Birhan, and so on.  No doubt in years to come, when I think back to the time I spent in Colombo, many of my memories will centre on the dear old Vespa Sports Club on Sea Avenue.  It seems to me that a town without a good pub is a town without a soul.

 

Although many towns have lost a depressingly high number of pubs in the last few years, my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders has got off relatively lightly.  The last time I was back, eight months ago, I counted a total of 18 pubs, hotel bars, club bars and wine bars still on the go there, which for a town of 8,376 people (2011 census) works out at one pub per 465 inhabitants.  Not that this seems to have negatively impacted on the health of the population.  On the contrary, the average Peeblean has a life expectancy slightly higher than that of the average Borderer and a couple of years higher than that of the average Scot.  Maybe it’s all the hurrying from pub to pub, from the Neidpath to the Trust to the Crown to the Central – it helps to burn off the calories.

 

© Desilu Productions / Paramount Television

 

A Happy New Year as 2018 blaws in

 

Early in 2017 I posted something on this blog with the title Caledonian Culture War.  This was about the introduction in Scotland of baby boxes – from 2017, the parents of every new-born child in Scotland will receive a box full of baby-friendly goodies like a blanket, changing mat, towel, reusable nappy, sponge and thermometer, with the box itself able to double up as a crib.  Also in the box is a poem of welcome to the bairn written by Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Makar (poet laureate).  This is composed in Scots English and begins: “O ma darlin wee one / At last you are here in the wurld / And wi’ aa your wisdom / Your een bricht as the stars…

 

Unbelievably, some people had a problem with this.  And in the post, I stated I had a problem with them having a problem with it.

 

Yesterday I was surprised and delighted to find in this blog’s inbox an email from Jackie Kay, who’d evidently read the post and had decided to include me in her New Year greetings.  The greeting came in the form of a short poem, part of which addresses the baby-boxes controversy.  You can read it in full at the bottom of the Caledonian Culture War post, but I’ll reproduce the ending of the poem here, as the sentiment expressed is perfect for the beginning of 2018.

 

“…happy new year yin and all, wee yins and big yins and – here’s tae us taking a snip at oor cultivated cringe – and turning the whinge down to a low peep in this year about to blaw in, the year 2018, wha’s like us?!”

 

So as 2018 blaws in, I wish you all a happy, cringe-free and whinge-free New Year too.  Though I have no doubt that on this blog I will continue to find things to whinge about from time to time.

 

According to Western Christianity, today is the 8th day of Christmas, so technically we’re still in the middle of the festive season.  Here are photos I took the other night of the Christmas tree and New Year greeting outside the Asok Skytrain station on Bangkok’s Sumhumvit Road.

 

 

Surgical Edinburgh

 

 

Almost twenty years ago I lived in Edinburgh and worked as a teacher.  Occasionally in the afternoons, when I couldn’t be bothered planning a proper lesson, I’d herd my students along to the medical museum at Surgeon’s Hall on Nicholson Street.   I’d get them to look around the place and make notes and then, back at the school, write a review of it for a pretend travel magazine or a comparative essay measuring medical care a couple of centuries ago against medical care now.  The students always seemed to enjoy the experience, even though while they looked at the items in the many glass cases and glass jars, they’d grimace and exclaim, “Ick!” or “Yuck!” or “Eeew!”

 

Then, a few years ago, while I was posting entries on this blog about various museums in Edinburgh, I thought I’d check out Surgeon’s Hall again.  But I discovered that it was shut.  It’d closed for refurbishment in 2014 and didn’t reopen until a year-and-a-half later.

 

I was recently back in Edinburgh and took the opportunity to visit the new, improved Surgeon’s Hall.  Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to use cameras inside, so the photos accompanying this post are from the street, grounds and stairwell outside.

 

The museum is bigger, more comprehensive and more attractively laid-out that it was in its old incarnation.  It’s actually comprised of three museums – not just the main medical one, but the Wohl Pathology Museum and the Dental Collection.

 

 

The first change I noticed, though, was the addition of a £6.50 entrance fee – twenty years ago, you could wander in and explore the place for free.  If, like me, you remember how it used to be and this sudden, unexpected expense causes a sinking of the heart, it’s perhaps appropriate that the first room you enter after the desk is one devoted to the heart.  Among other things, it houses 27 real human hearts in glass jars and containers, in various conditions of illness and disrepair, often misshapen and leathery and at times so swollen that they resemble giant brown gourds.  The most bloated heart there was apparently afflicted by cor bovinum or ‘cow’s heart’, whereby “increased pressure in the heart chambers causes it to slowly get bigger.”

 

Close by is a pleasantly retro-looking room called the Anatomical Lab, which displays such artefacts as a shark’s jawbone, a six-kilo stone removed from the bladder of an elephant and big, old-fashioned teaching models of the human eye, ear and torso.

 

The museum’s main chamber has in its centre a mock-up of an anatomical-medicine lecture theatre from about two centuries ago.  Banks of wooden seating rise from a dissecting table with a cadaver on it.  You receive an anatomical lecture when you sit there, but it’s conducted in a resolutely ungory fashion – a lecturer in period dress talks from a screen and, as various organs and internal body-parts are mentioned, images of these light up on the cadaver (which appears to be a fibreglass dummy).

 

Meanwhile, a wealth of information and a multitude of objects are displayed on the surrounding walls.  For a start, you get an account of the history of surgery in Scotland.  Key dates include 1505, when Edinburgh town council granted a seal to the Incorporate of Surgeons and Barbers, and the following year, when things were ratified with a Royal Charter from King James IV.  This recognition meant that the guild was entitled to one body (of an executed criminal) every year to be dissected, so that its members could get a proper knowledge of anatomy.  By the late 1500s the Surgeon-Barbers had become the most prestigious guild in Edinburgh and by the 17th century they even had the privilege of being allowed to distil ‘whisky or Aqua Vitae’.  It wasn’t until 1722 that the guild split and the surgeons and the barbers went their separate ways.  The stripy red-and-white pole that still adorns barber’s shops today, representing blood and bandages, is a reminder of how the two professions used to be entwined.

 

The collection’s oldest artefact is a dissected body of a child presented in 1702 by “Archibald Pitcairne, Doctor of Medicine, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and one of the Chirurgen Apothecaries of Edinburgh”.  Standing in an upright wooden case, the body resembles a grotesque puppet left hanging in its box after a performance.  Other items include a baby’s caul (“membranes from the head of a female child born at Colchester, Essex, 10th April, 1888, and much prized by the mother on account of their supposed, supernatural virtues”); a cast of the shoulder of an American soldier blasted by gunshot – the surgeon “cut into the joint and removed the shattered head of the humerus”, leaving the shoulder oddly sunken and deflated; and a bust of the unfortunate Robert Penman before the removal, in 1828, of a huge tumour on his lower jaw – the tumour filled his mouth like a giant, obscene second tongue and is now on display as a weird honeycomb-like structure containing part of Penman’s mandible and a couple of his teeth.  (The surgery took place in the days before anaesthetic, but according to the museum’s website Penman “bore it well” and later grew “a large beard to disguise the scarring.”)

 

Indeed, the museum has countless reminders of why we should feel grateful to live in an age after the development of anaesthetic and after doctors and scientists had learned about the dangers and causes of infection.  One information panel shows the ridicule aimed at Joseph Lister and his theories about infection and micro-organisms by a 19th-century medical contemporary: “Where are these little beasts?  Show them to us, and we shall believe in them.  Has anyone seen them yet?”  Nearby hangs a painting called Opisthotonus, done by Charles Bell in about 1805, showing a dying soldier in the final hideous convulsions induced by tetanus.

 

© Surgeon’s Hall Museums

 

Upstairs, there’s a dental section with antique toothbrushes, toothpicks, dentures, drills and unappetising-looking forceps for pulling out teeth and ‘elevators’ or ‘punches’ for levering out those tricky little stumps or roots left behind by extracted teeth.  It was here that I discovered how the Battle of Waterloo kept Britain supplied with dentures for many years – that’s to say, the market demand for ‘false’ teeth was met with ‘real’ teeth pulled from the mouths of thousands of slain soldiers.

 

Also on display upstairs are more things relating to surgery.  These include an array of ‘foreign objects’ that have been removed from human bodies over the decades, including giant hairballs, lengths of TV cable, hat pins, nails, screws, pieces of a horseshoe and a cherrystone that’d spent 18 years lodged up somebody’s nose.

 

On the other side of the stairwell is the Wohl Pathology Museum, whose shelves contain examples of every conceivable part of the body, suffering from every conceivable disease, disorder or injury.  Hence, you see such things as a skull massively inflated by hydrocephalus, a gangrenous foot, pieces of intestine with Crohn’s disease, a row of five foetal skeletons ascending in age from five-and-a-half months to seven-and-a-half months old, and ten containers – I counted them – housing testes that have been dissected and opened out.

 

Finally, space is given to the Edinburgh medical world’s two best-known overlaps with popular culture.  There’s a portrait of the perceptive and observant Joseph Bell MD, FRCSE, former President of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and one-time teacher to a young medical student called Arthur Conan Doyle.  Later, Doyle recalled how, when he was first formulating the character of Sherlock Holmes, he thought of his “old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his eerie trick of spotting details.  If he were a detective, he would surely reduce this fascinating but inorganised business to an exact science…”  On display too is a letter from Doyle to Bell dated 4th May, 1892, in which the author confesses: “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes.”

 

And inevitably, there’s material about the body-snatchers who 200 years ago kept the medical schools’ dissecting tables supplied with illegally obtained corpses.  In Edinburgh, of course, this practice led to the murderous activities of William Burke and William Hare, providers of suspiciously fresh corpses for the formidable and determined anatomist Dr Robert Knox in the late 1820s.  Burke and Hare are synonymous with body-snatching but in truth they did no such thing – they didn’t snatch bodies but created bodies, by murdering people, and the cadavers they brought to Knox had never been in the earth of the cemetery.  At the museum, this grisly episode is commemorated by the presence of such items as Knox’s violin and Burke’s death-mask and, bizarrely, a little pocketbook that’s said to be bound with a portion of Burke’s skin.

 

However, the museum doesn’t contain the skeleton of William Burke (who, following his execution, had his body handed over for dissection just as the bodies of his victims were).  That’s to be found in the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.