Scotland or Not-land?

 

From unsplash.com / © Stewart M

 

Most people in Scotland last week were disappointed, though probably not greatly surprised, to see their national team get a drubbing in the first round of the Euro 2021 tournament.  However, I suspect not everyone in Scotland was sad to see the team fail.

 

One person I’m sure was delighted was the Scottish, but very British-nationalist, blogger Effie Deans, who before the start of the tournament had tweeted a picture of a past Scotland-England football match and demanded angrily, “Why are there international matches between parts of the same country?” Similarly, I imagine certain fans of Glasgow Rangers, a football club whose culture revolves around such British symbols as the Queen and the Union Jack, weren’t sorry to see the Scottish national team flop.  Indeed, an article in the Daily Record newspaper on July 8th confirmed that some Rangers fans were unwilling to support Scotland during Euro 2021.

 

For Deans and a certain segment of the Rangers faithful, the belief seems to be that if you regard your country primarily as Britain, then you can’t support Scotland.  In fact, acknowledging Scotland on an international stage is damaging to your sense of Britishness and shouldn’t be encouraged.  Scotland?  No, it’s Not-land.

 

It’s not just in sport.  The idea that Scotland might have its own culture and languages is anathema to some people.  The right-wing Spectator magazine has printed pieces by embittered Scottish Daily Mail columnist Stephen Daisley and uptight Scottish composer James MacMillan complaining that (a) Scottish culture is infantile and embarrassing; but (b) if you’re stupid enough to be into Scottish culture, you’re somehow a Mussolini-type fascist too.  Amusingly, after MacMillan complained – falsely, because the man has actually won a number of Scottish awards – about Glaswegian novelist Andrew O’Hagan being cold-shouldered by the Scottish arts establishment for not being sufficiently supportive of Scottish independence, O’Hagan began, in the wake of the Brexit referendum, making favorable noises about Scotland becoming independent.

 

Particularly nasty has been the abuse aimed at the Scottish Gaelic and Scots languages.  Right-wing unionist twitter in Scotland is a constant whinge-fest about road-signs having names printed in Gaelic as well as in English.  Effie Deans again, complaining about travelling to Fort William last year: “The number of times I missed my turning made me wish the signs were in one language or the other, but not both…”  Well, dear, maybe try reading the parts of the signs that are written in the language you understand?

 

Meanwhile, dodgy, right-wing Unionist political carpetbagger George Galloway – at least, he’s right-wing when he’s in Scotland trying to hoover up Conservative votes; when he’s in England he campaigns as a left-wing man of the people – recently caused a pile-on on Scots-language poet Len Pennie after he made disparaging remarks on twitter about her and the medium in which she works.  And a few years back, Jackie Kay, Scotland’s Machar (poet laureate) received brickbats when one of her Scots-language poems was among the items given to new mothers as part of Scotland’s ‘baby box’ initiative.  “A woman from Bishopbriggs, writing doggerel,” sneered Ian Smart, prominent social media presence and self-styled ‘lefty lawyer’ and ‘Scottish Labour Party hack’.

 

Again, among many Scottish people who don’t see Scotland as a country but as a region, or as a big glorified county, of the mightier and more majestic entity that is the United Kingdom, there’s a conviction that Scottish culture can’t be real.  Accepting the existence of Scottish culture implies the place being different from the rest of the UK.  Therefore, culturally, there’s no such thing as Scotland either.  It’s Not-land.

 

From youtube.com

 

Predictably, the fact that there’s now a Scottish parliament in existence, separate from the parliament in London, is something that drives many British-loyal Scots to distraction, especially when the past 14 years have seen it run by a party, the Scottish National Party, dedicated to pulling Scotland out of their beloved UK.  Particularly guaranteed to make them gnash their teeth and froth at the mouth is any suggestion that the Scottish government, like the Scottish football team, might be recognized on an international level.  The moment First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pronounces on some international matter or dares to show her face at some international conference, Scottish twitter is raging with indignant people who have Union Jacks in their profiles (and usually the words ‘Rangers’ and the acronym ‘WATP’, which a Glasgow-Celtic-supporting friend assures me stands for ‘We adore the Pope’) slavering about her having ‘ideas above her station’ and being just the head of a ‘wee parish council’, and not knowing ‘her place’.  Can’t she see that she isn’t the First Minister of Scotland, but that of Not-land?

 

This desire to erase the concept of Scotland from everyone’s consciousness is, it has to be said, one that’s been exhibited lately by the British government too.  British diplomats have been ordered to stop talking about the ‘four nations’ of the UK and talk about it as a single country only, while supermarkets have seen a recent craze for plastering Union Jacks over foodstuffs made in Scotland.  Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, that symbol of everything decent, moral, honest and faithful about dear old Blighty, was heard bragging that at the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow he was going to slather the event in Union Jacks and wouldn’t allow Nicola Sturgeon anywhere near it.

 

Just last Friday, Johnson’s education minster urged schools across the UK to honour something called One Britain, One Nation Day, wherein schoolchildren were made to sing a song, specially composed for the occasion, that ended with the four-times-repeated refrain: “Strong Britain, great nation!”  Though considering what’d come to light by Friday, I suspect the savvier kids had changed the words to: “Matt Hancock, penetration!”  Unfortunately, hopes that this would convert all Scottish children to worshipping Winston Churchill, Spitfires and the Union Jack were dashed by the fact that in Scotland most schools had broken up for the summer holidays the day before.

 

This strikes me as ironic because I’m old enough to remember a time in Scotland when it was perfectly possible for many people, possibly even a majority of people, to wear their Scottish identity as proudly as they wore their British identity and segue effortlessly from one to the other even when it involved expressing contradictory sentiments.  This meant they enthusiastically supported Scottish sports teams, enthusiastically recited Scots-language poetry by Robert Burns and, generally, enthusiastically indulged in all things Scottish: golf, whisky, tartan, ceilidhs, Highland games, etc.  Simultaneously, though, they thought the Royal Family were wonderful, cheered on the British Olympics team and got misty-eyed with nostalgia about how ‘we’, meaning Britain, had fought off the Nazis during World War II.

 

They also voted for anti-Scottish-independence political parties, mainly the Labour Party, although there was support for the Conservative Party too.  Scotland’s Tory MPs, incidentally, were experts at broadcasting a dual Scottish / British identity.  See Albert McQuarrie, MP for Banff and Buchan, who loved whisky and called himself the ‘Buchan Bulldog’; or Nicholas Fairbairn, the tartan-swathed representative of Perth and Kinross.  Although McQuarrie worshipped the ground Margaret Thatcher walked on, I think he was at heart a decent bloke.  Fairbairn, however, was a vile specimen.

 

When I look at Scottish right-wing / pro-British twitter, I see a common sentiment expressed in many of the profiles: “Hate what the SNP have done to Scotland!”  Which suggests that in the old days, before the SNP achieved political dominance, Scotland was a kinder, less partisan place.  But I remember it being far worse when there was no parliament, the SNP had only a handful of MPs and independence was regarded as a crazy pipe-dream.  In the 1980s, I recall crowds of Scottish rugby fans in pubs in Edinburgh, after international rugby matches, coming out with vehemently anti-English abuse that would probably get them arrested today.  Indeed, English rugby skipper Will Carling has terrible memories of playing in Edinburgh in 1991, when the Scottish Rugby Union decided to air the anthem Flower of Scotland, with its references to sending the English ‘homeward, to think again,’ before the start of the match.  There was, he claimed, “more noise, more patriotism – more hatred – than I have ever experienced”.  Yet many of these Scottish rugby enthusiasts were well-to-do and would have voted Tory. The prospect of an independent Scotland would have horrified them.  Evidently, feeling British for a good part of the time was no barrier to you wanting to stick it to the English.

 

Incidentally, before the SNP took power in Scotland and even before the Scottish parliament was created, Scotland was still allowed near the international stage occasionally.  This was despite it being an era when Margaret Thatcher and then John Major ran Scotland from London with what at times seemed an imperious disdain you’d associate with a colonial governor.  For instance, in 1993, while I was living on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, I remember the Scottish Office sending a group of officials there for a special Hokkaido-Scotland link-up.  I blagged an invitation to the event through a Japanese colleague with political connections who’d later serve in the House of Representatives in the Japanese Diet.  Obviously, the Scottish group had the delicate job of talking up Scotland without commenting on the running of the place by their bosses, the British Conservative government, whom few Scottish people had voted for.  They remained impeccably straight-faced, non-committal and evasive when, during a panel discussion, my colleague raised the possibility of a devolved Scottish parliament being set up.  (Actually, I’d primed her to mention this.) Their masks only slipped, from blandness to dismay, at the reception afterwards.  Some hapless Hokkaido bigwig gave them a speech of welcome and told them how he loved “that great Scottish song, Danny Boy.

 

© James S. Kerr

 

I suspect the comfortable co-existence of Scottish and British loyalties was fostered largely by the military. The British Army’s Scottish regiments were canny in exploiting soldiers’ sense of Scottishness, decking them out in tartan and having them led by pipe bands, even while they defended and promoted Britain, the Crown and the Empire (an empire that, admittedly, the Scots did very well out of).  I found it fascinating in my youth to see how normally uppity and cantankerous Scotsmen would suddenly become deferential and forelock-tugging at the sound of a posh, officer-class, English accent.  However, cuts to the military budget have left the 21st century British Army a shadow of its former self and the old Scottish infantry regiments have been reduced to just one, the Royal Regiment of Scotland.  So that influence barely exists now.

 

Another thing that once made Scots feel proudly British, certainly working-class ones, was the existence of many nationalized industries that provided them with employment and had the name ‘British’ in their titles: British Coal, British Gas, British Rail, British Steel and so on.  These encouraged the idea that working-class Scots were toiling alongside their comrades in England and Wales for a common cause, for the good of a benign, fair, welfare-state-supporting UK.  Of course, that idea died a death when Thatcher, with her zeal for privatizing the British economy, arrived in power in the 1980s.

 

I’m not sure how this will end.  It may be that Scotland gets another shot at an independence referendum in the future and votes to go its own way.  Or it may be that the stringent British nationalism / unionism of the 21st century prevails and Scotland becomes merely a Union-Jack-swathed province at the rump-end of right-wing, post-Brexit Britain.  If the latter option happens, I expect Westminster to abolish the Scottish parliament at some point.  Not-land indeed.

 

But what’s isn’t an option now is the comfy middle-ground, the old fashioned, dual-loyalty, at-ease-with-both-worlds, Scottish / British identity.  As far as that’s concerned…  Well, to quote a well-kent Scottish anthem: “Those days are past now, and in the past, they must remain.”

 

From unsplash.com / © Kristina G.

The big Gray man

 

From pinterest.co.uk

 

Today, January 25th, 2021, has been designated ‘Gray Day’ on Scottish social media in honour of the celebrated Glaswegian polymath Alasdair Gray, who died in December 2019.  As my way of marking the occasion, here’s a reposting of a blog entry I wrote shortly after the great man’s death.

 

Much has been written about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish novelist, poet, playwright, artist, illustrator, academic and polemicist who passed away on December 29th, 2019.  I doubt if my own reflections on Gray will offer any new insights on the man or his works.  But he was a huge influence on me, so I’m going to give my tuppence-worth anyway.

 

In 1980s Scotland, to a youth like myself, in love with books and writing, Gray seemed a titanic cultural presence.  Actually, ‘titanic’ is an ironic adjective to use to describe Gray as physically he was anything but.  Bearded and often dishevelled, Gray resembled an eccentric scientist from the supporting cast of a 1950s sci-fi ‘B’ movie.  He once memorably described himself as ‘a fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glaswegian pedestrian’.

 

He was also a presence that seemed to suddenly loom out of nowhere.  The moment when Gray became famous was in 1981 when his first novel Lanark was published.  I remember being in high school that year when my English teacher Iain Jenkins urged me to get hold of a copy and read it.  I still hadn’t read Lanark by 1983 when I started college in Aberdeen, but I remember joining the campus Creative Writing Society and hearing its members enthuse about it.  These included a young Kenny Farquharson (now a columnist with the Scottish edition of the Times) explaining to someone the novel’s admirably weird structure, whereby it consisted of four ‘books’ but with Book Three coming first, then Books One and Two and finally Book Four.  And an equally young Ali Smith recalling meeting Gray and speaking fondly of how eccentric he was.

 

In fact, I didn’t read Lanark until the following summer when I’d secured a three-month job as a night-porter in a hotel high up in the Swiss Alps.  In the early hours of the morning, after I’d done my rounds and finished my chores and all the guests had gone to bed, I’d sit behind the reception desk and read.  It took me about a week of those nightshifts to get through Lanark.  I lapped up its tale of Duncan Thaw, the young, doomed protagonist of what was basically a 1950s Glaswegian version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which constituted Books One and Two; and I similarly lapped up its alternating tale of the title character (mysteriously linked to Thaw) in the grimly fabulist city of Unthank, which constituted Books Three and Four.  A quote by sci-fi author Brian Aldiss on the cover neatly described Unthank as ‘a city where reality is about as reliable as a Salvador Dali watch’.

 

© Canongate

 

That same summer I read The Penguin Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka (1983) and the fantastical half of Lanark struck me as reminiscent of the great Bohemian writer.  Gray himself acknowledged that Kafka’s The Trial (1925), The Castle (1926) and Amerika (1927) had inspired him: “The cities in them seemed very like 1950s Glasgow, an old industrial city with a smoke-laden grey sky that often seemed to rest like a lid on the north and south ranges of hills and shut out the stars at night.”

 

The result was an astonishing book that combines gritty autobiographical realism with fanciful magical realism.  Fanciful and magical in a sombre, Scottish sense, obviously.

 

With hindsight, Lanark was the most important book in Scottish literature since Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy (1932-34).  By an odd coincidence I read A Scots Quair four years later when I was working – again – as a night-porter in a hotel in the Swiss Alps.  So my encounters with the greatest two works of 20th century Scottish literature are indelibly linked in my mind with nightshifts in hotels decorated with Alpine horns and antique ski equipment and surrounded by soaring, jagged mountains.

 

Lanark also appeared at a significant time.  Three years before its publication, the referendum on establishing a devolved Scottish parliament had ended in an undemocratic farce.  Two years before it, Margaret Thatcher had started her reign as British prime minister.  During this reign, Scotland would be governed unsympathetically, like a colonial property, a testing ground, an afterthought.  So Lanark was important in that it helped give Scotland a cultural identity at a time when politically it was allowed no identity at all.

 

Whilst telling me about Lanark, Iain Jenkins mentioned ruefully that he didn’t think Gray would ever produce anything as spectacular again.  Not only did it seem a once-in-a-lifetime achievement but it’d taken up half of a lifetime, for Gray had been beavering away at it since the 1950s.  He once mused of the undertaking: “Spending half a lifetime turning your soul into printer’s ink is a queer way to live… but I would have done more harm if I’d been a banker, broker, advertising agent, arms manufacturer or drug dealer.”

 

© Canongate

 

However, two books he produced afterwards, 1982, Janine (1984) and Poor Things (1992), are excellent works in their own rights even if they didn’t create the buzz that Lanark did.

 

Janine takes place inside the head of a lonely middle-aged man while he reflects on a life of emotional, professional and political disappointments, and masturbates, and finally attempts suicide whilst staying in a hotel room in a Scottish country town that’s either Selkirk or my hometown, Peebles.  (Yes, Peebles’ two claims to literary fame are that John Buchan once practised law there and the guy in 1982, Janine might have had a wank there.)  The protagonist’s musings include some elaborate sadomasochistic fantasies, which put many people off, including Anthony Burgess, who’d thought highly of Lanark but was less enthusiastic about Janine.  However, it seems to me a bold meditation on Scotland in general and on the strained, often hopeless relationship between traditional, Presbyterian-conditioned Scottish males and the opposite sex in particular.

 

Poor Things, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) set in Victorian Glasgow, initially seems very different from Janine but in fact it tackles similar themes.  The narrator, Archibald McCandless, relates how his scientist colleague Godwin Baxter creates a young woman, Bella, out of dead flesh just as Frankenstein did with his creature.  McCandless soon falls in love with her.  There follows a highly entertaining mishmash of sci-fi story, horror story, adventure, romance and comedy, but near the end things are turned on their heads because Bella takes over as storyteller.  She denounces McCandless’s version of events as a witless fantasy and portrays herself not as Frankenstein-type creation but a normal woman, albeit one ahead of her time in her views about feminism and social justice.  Again, the book is a rebuke of male attitudes towards women, especially insecure Scottish ones that are partly possessive and partly, madly over-romanticised.

 

© Canongate

 

Gray’s other post-Lanark novels are entertaining, if less ambitious, and they’re never about what you expect them to be about.  The Fall of Kelvin Walker (1985) looks like it’s going to be a comic tale of a Scottish lad-o’-pairts on his way up and then on his way down in London, but it turns into a caustic commentary on the loveless nature of Scottish Calvinism.  Something Leather (1990), which is really a series of connected short stories and again features much sadomasochism, isn’t so much about kinkiness as about Gray’s disgust at the politicians and officials who oversaw Glasgow being European City of Culture 1990, something he regarded as a huge, missed opportunity.  A History Maker (1994), a science-fiction novel described by the Daily Telegraph as ‘Sir Walter Scott meets Rollerball’, isn’t an absurdist sci-fi romp at all but a pessimistic account of how humanity can never achieve peaceful harmony with nature.  And Old Men in Love (2007) promises to be a geriatric version of 1982, Janine, but is really an oddity whose ingredients include, among other things, ancient Athens, Fra Lippo Lippi and the Agapemonites.

 

Gray was also a prolific short-story writer.  He produced three collections of them, Unlikely Stories, Mostly (1983), Ten Tales Tall and True (1993) and The Ends of out Tethers: 13 Sorry Stories and had several more stories published in Lean Tales (1985), alongside contributions from James Kelman and Agnes Owens.  I find the quality of his short fiction variable, with some items a bit too anecdotal or oblique for my tastes.  But many are excellent and Ten Tales Tall and True is one of my favourite short-story collections ever.

 

The fact that Gray was also an artist meant that his books, with their handsome covers and finely detailed illustrations, made decorous additions to anyone’s bookcases.  The illustration by Gray I like best is probably the one he provided for his story The Star in Unlikely Stories, Mostly.

 

© Canongate

 

He also liked to make mischief with the conventions of how books are organised, with their back-cover blurbs, review quotes, prefaces, dedications, footnotes, appendices and so on.  For example, he wasn’t averse to adorning his books with negative reviews (Victoria Glendinning describing Something Leather as ‘a confection of self-indulgent tripe’) or imaginary ones (an organ called Private Nose applauding Poor Things for its ‘gallery of believably grotesque foreigners – Scottish, Russian, American and French.’)

 

As an artist, Gray was good enough to be made Glasgow’s official artist-recorder in the late 1970s and to enjoy a retrospective exhibition, Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal, at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 2014-15.  His artwork included a number of murals on the walls of Glasgow and it’s a tragedy that some have been lost over the years.  Among those that survive, perhaps the most famous is at Hillhead Underground Station.  It contains the memorable and salient verse: “Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing / To earn what we need to keep going / Prevent what you once felt when wee / Hopeful and free.”  Also worth seeing is the mural he painted, Michelangelo-style, on the ceiling of the Òran Mór restaurant, bar and music venue on Glasgow’s Byres Road.  It looks gorgeous in the photos I’ve seen of it, although regrettably when I went there with my brother a few years ago to attend a Bob Mould gig, I was already well-refreshed with several pints of beer… and forgot to look upwards.

 

I never got to meet the great man, though I’m pretty sure I saw him one night in the late 1980s in Edinburgh’s Hebrides Bar, talking with huge animation to a group of friends and admirers.  I was, however, too shy to go over and introduce myself.

 

One writer in whose company I did end up during the late 1980s, though, was Iain Banks, whom I got to interview for a student publication and who then invited me on an afternoon pub crawl across central Edinburgh.  Banks was delighted when I told him that his recently published novel The Bridge (1986) reminded me a wee bit of Lanark.  “I think Lanark’s the best thing published in Scotland in years!” he gushed.  Come to think of it, it was probably the favourable comparison to Gray that prompted Banks to take me on a session.

 

From austinkleon.com 

Goodbye to all that

 

From unsplash.com / © Andy Newton

 

So adieu, EU.  Boris Johnson has finally achieved an agreement by which the United Kingdom can withdraw from the European Union at the end of 2020.  During the painfully protracted negotiations it looked like Johnson was going to end up with a ruinous no-deal withdrawal, but no doubt he was deliberately prolonging the negotiation process until Christmas.  This was so that (a) when he agreed to a deal on Christmas Eve, he could spin himself as Santa Claus delivering the UK a bumper Christmas present, and (b) members of Britain’s parliament would have hardly any time to scrutinise the 1246 pages of the agreement’s details before voting on its approval on December 30th.  Meanwhile, the more the agreement does receive scrutiny, the clearer it becomes how shit it is, for everything from Britain’s financial services sector to its fishing industry.

 

One thing the agreement closes the door on is Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which had allowed 15,000 British students annually to study in European universities without paying fees.  Johnson has spouted some bollocks about it being replaced by a British-run scheme to be named after the British mathematician and computing genius Alan Turing.  If such a thing ever gets off the ground, I’m sure it’ll be run by some private company headed by a member of Johnson’s ‘chumocracy’, it’ll farm British students out to eye-wateringly expensive universities in the USA and it’ll be affordable only to the offspring of Britain’s privileged, moneyed classes.

 

This reminds me of a lengthy entry I put on this blog in 2017, about the first time I ever left the British-Irish Isles and entered a non-English-speaking country.  I did this thanks to the European Economic Community (EEC), which became later the European Community (EC) and then the EU we know today, and through a small programme that existed five years before Erasmus came into being.  Anyway, it seems timely to post that entry again….

 

In the spring of 1982 I was about to finish high school and I resolved to take a year out before I went to college.  No one else in my school year intended to do this.  Those with plans to go to college were doing so six months later in the autumn.  And everybody around me, especially my parents, seemed to believe I was mad for postponing entry into college by a year-and-a-third so that I could do absurd things like…  Well, what exactly was I going to do?  I had vague dreams of travelling and seeing something of the world, and of funding this travel by doing short jobs here and there, hopefully abroad.  But as the end of high school neared, my year-out plans remained worryingly nebulous.

 

Incidentally, nowadays, it seems you’re considered mad if you don’t take a year out, or a gap year as it’s called in modern parlance, between school and college.  Indeed, employers expect it to see it on graduates’ CVs as an indicator of boldness and initiative.  I was just 38 years ahead of my time but didn’t know it.

 

Eventually, I went and tormented my school’s careers advisor for ideas and she suggested a programme I could try for part of my year out.  The EEC was funding young people in its member countries to visit other EEC countries and conduct short projects about some aspect of life in them.  The thinking was that this would give young people a better understanding of their EEC neighbours and thus create better, more empathetic EEC citizens.  All you had to do was complete and send off an application form, which if accepted got you a grant of about £250.  Then you made your own travel and accommodation arrangements, headed for the EEC country of your choice, did your research, wrote a report and submitted it a few months later.

 

I decided to go to France, because apart from the Republic of Ireland it was the closest EEC country to the UK and hence the cheapest one to get to.  Also, I’d studied French for six years at school and shouldn’t have too many communication problems.  Or so I thought.

 

© histoiredeçinema.canalblog.com

 

For my French base, I decided to use the town of Soissons, about 100 kilometres northeast of Paris.  This was because my high school in Scotland ran a student-exchange programme with a school in Soissons, some of my teachers kept in touch with the teachers there, and I’d heard that the Soissons school had rooms on its campus that could be temporarily rented out.  So I asked the head of the French Department at my school if he could drop one of his Soissons counterparts a line and arrange something on my behalf.

 

I was dubious if anything would actually come of this.  But to my surprise, in May 1982, I received a letter from a Soissons teacher called Monsieur Masson confirming that he’d booked me a room for me for three weeks the following month.

 

And what would my project be about?  I didn’t know what career I wanted to follow, but if people asked me I usually told them I intended to be a journalist, because I read a lot of newspapers and liked writing.  It was this journalistic predilection that made me propose going to France, doing research into French newspapers and investigating how they covered the big stories that were affecting Britain at the time.  How different would the French perspective on such stories be from the British one?

 

© Le Figaro

© Le Monde

 

Actually, about half-a-year after I’d typed up and sent off the report, I was in Waverley Station in Edinburgh one day when I saw, at a newsstand, a whole rack of newspapers on sale from other countries, including France.  Among them were most of the newspapers I’d consulted for my project, like Le Monde and Le Figaro.  I realised then that such newspapers were sold in Scotland in places like Waverley Station because lots of foreigners passed through them.  And, guiltily, I realised that I could have stayed in Scotland and done the exact same project by buying those French newspapers in Edinburgh.  Thankfully, the EEC never cottoned onto this and never demanded their £250 back.  (With the Internet, of course, you could do the whole project today without ever leaving your house.)

 

I set off for France at the start of June.  I was 16 at the time, unused to travelling, ignorant of foreign cultures and generally utterly naïve.  The experience that followed was so intense that I really only remember certain moments of it where my impressions were either strongly positive or negative.  Here, I’ll describe the bad stuff first and then relate the good stuff.

 

I didn’t enjoy the journey.  I’d booked seats on the night-train from Edinburgh to London.  As well as being my first time in continental Europe, this was also my first time on a train and my first time to travel to London.  Then I was scheduled to use a coach service that ran from Bedford Square in central London to the Gare du Nord in Paris, with the cross-channel part of the trip being made by hovercraft.  Needless to say, this was my first time in a hovercraft too.

 

When I got off the train at six o’clock in the morning at King’s Cross Station in London, I immediately decided that the station, and by extension London itself, was bloody horrible.  I know that today’s King’s Cross Station has been done up and is a site of pilgrimage for young foreign tourists who worship the Harry Potter books and want to see Platform 9½ there, where Harry, Hermione and Ron would board the Hogwarts Express.  But back then the station was shabby, dank and disreputable.  It was populated by vagrants, most of whom were pissed even though it was only six a.m. and most of whom, disconcertingly, seemed to be Scottish.

 

My opinion of King’s Cross Station didn’t improve three weeks later when, during the journey home, I traipsed through one of its entrance doors and a pair of skinheads promptly ordered me to shut the door behind me.  Tired and not thinking properly, I assumed they were employed by the station and did as they said.  I turned around and spent a minute trying to get the door to shut, until I realised it was an automatic one and wouldn’t shut until I stepped off its pressure sensor or moved out of the way of its motion sensor.  Then those skinheads guffawed and ran off.

 

The Gare du Nord in Paris, from which I planned to get a train to Soissons, was less grungy.  But it was here that I made a shocking and embarrassing discovery.  I couldn’t speak French.  At least I couldn’t speak real-world French, as opposed to classroom French.  With hindsight, all I had to say to the lady in the ticket booth was “Soissons s’il vous plait.  Aller simple.”  But I tried to word my request as a sentence – “I’d like to buy a…” – and it came out as gibberish.  Then I didn’t understand what the lady asked me in reply.  Finally, after a nightmarish minute of miscommunication whose memory still haunts me to this day, and while a queue of impatient Parisian rush-hour travellers lengthened behind me, she managed to identify the name ‘Soissons’ amid my gibberish and gave me the necessary ticket.

 

From unsplash.com / © Moiz K. Malik

 

It was nearly dark when I arrived in Soissons.  By the time I got to the lycée Monsieur Masson had long since gone home and I had to deal with a bemused caretaker.  He found me a room where I could spend the night, although it hadn’t been inhabited for a long time and was full of cardboard boxes, dust and stale-smelling air.  I lay on the bed wondering if this grim place would be my abode for the next three weeks.  (It wouldn’t, of course.  When the administrative staff came in the next morning, they saw to it that I was put in a different room, a clean one that even had a balcony and a view.)

 

Despite it being June, I was wearing a big bulky coat with loads of pockets, handy for carrying things in.  My grandmother had been visiting my family in Scotland when I set off and she’d given me a giant bar of Dairy Milk chocolate to eat on the journey.  I hadn’t had dinner that evening but at least in my fusty room I could snack on that.  I stuck my hand into a pocket to retrieve the bar and discovered it’d dissolved, messily, thanks to the intense body heat I’d exuded all day inside that unseasonably heavy coat.  Then I noticed some big brown smears on the back of my coat.  How had the molten chocolate leaked out there?  Then I noticed the odour coming off those smears and realised they were dogshit.  At some point, I’d accidentally set my rucksack down on some pavement-poo.  When I’d hoisted the rucksack onto my back again, I’d transferred the poo to my coat.

 

But thinking about it now, I see how most of the bad moments related to getting to Soissons.  When I was in Soissons, however, the good moments began to happen.

 

Firstly, it soon dawned on me how kind and helpful people were, even if my communication skills were so woeful that I must have appeared as a gurning, inarticulate man-child.  Particularly hospitable was my contact in the teaching staff, Monsieur Masson, who with his stylish clothes and immaculately trimmed beard reminded me of the French actor Michael Lonsdale when he’d played Hugo Drax in the 1980 Bond movie Moonraker.   As well as checking up on me regularly to ensure I was okay, he and his family invited me to have dinner and stay at their charming Soissons home the night before I returned to Scotland.  Happily, there was enough of my £250 left for me to buy him a bottle of Scotch whisky as a thank-you gift.  To my surprise, he immediately drank a measure of it out of a glass stuffed with ice cubes.  What, I thought, you can drink whisky with ice cubes?  Nobody I knew in Scotland did this.  They just drank it neat or with tepid tap-water.  And kept drinking it.  Until they fell over.

 

Then there was the pleasure of discovering a place very different from what I was used to.  I’d wander through residential areas of modern blocks of flats that were colourfully painted and had flowers growing out of pots and window-boxes.  Where I came from, blocks of flats were associated with failed 1960s planning, urban deprivation and vandalism.  Most of the shops were no larger than those in my home town but they looked unfeasibly smart and chic.  As part of my arrangement with the lycée, I got breakfast and an evening meal there every day and I also discovered the French dining experience.  Breakfast wasn’t about stuffing yourself with Weetabix and fried egg and bacon.  It was a simple but delicious ritual of dunking pieces of fresh baguette into a bowlful of coffee.  Dinner didn’t come with everything piled willy-nilly on one plate but as a series of little courses – hors d’oeuvres, soup, fish, a main course, some salad, desert.  Bewildering but somehow very civilised.

 

© PolyGram Filmed Entertainment / Universal

© Kennedy Miller Productions / Warner Bros

 

It was also strange seeing cultural items you were familiar with through a French prism.  I spent ages in Soissons’ bookshops, wanting to find out which of my favourite novels had been translated into French and what their French titles were.  I went to the cinema one evening to watch Costa Gavras’ newly released political thriller Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and set in Chile after the Pinochet coup of 1973.  It was dubbed into French, but by this time my French-comprehension powers had improved and I understood about half of it.  What puzzled me was why the French had decided to give Costa Gavras’ deadly-serious movie a Woody Woodpecker cartoon as its supporting feature.  Also, they showed the trailer for Mad Max II, with the consequence that even today when I watch that Mel Gibson post-apocalyptic action-classic, I hear a solemn French voice intoning, “Mad MaxDeux!”

 

I was unhappy with the report that I finally submitted.  It seemed crude and slipshod and not remotely how I’d envisioned it being.  But its topic was certainly a good one to be focused on during a sojourn in a foreign country.  Studying how the French press depicted Britain was an eye-opener.  As Robert Burns wrote wisely in his poem To a Louse, “To see oursel’s as ithers see us / It wad frae mony a blunder free us…

 

One story I covered in the French newspapers was Pope John-Paul II’s visit to Britain, which was happening while I was in France.  It was the first time a reigning pope had ever been on British soil and the visit had sparked protests by such predictable figures as the Reverend Ian Paisley and his Glaswegian Mini-Me, Pastor Jack Glass.  Although John-Paul II was a socially conservative pope and France seemed a very liberal Catholic country, French commentators were surprised and upset that anyone in Britain could object to his presence.  Not very scientifically (or geographically, since the protestors were Northern Irish or Scottish), one writer in Le Figaro explained it thus: “In the north of England, they still believe in ghosts.”

 

© thepapalvisit.org.uk

From historyimages.blogspot.com

 

However, the biggest British news-item during my three weeks in Soissons was a war.  Britain was fighting Argentina over possession of the Falklands Islands.  Coming from Britain, where the Falklands War had sent most of the newspapers into a bellicose, jingoistic frenzy, the detachment and scepticism on display in the French press were discombobulating.  Many French commentators, even in Le Figaro, which was supposed to be conservative, seemed to echo the famous remark by the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges that the conflict was like “two bald men fighting over a comb.”  Meanwhile, a gruesome cartoon in the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné that depicted a naked Margaret Thatcher making love to a missile and wailing, “C’est bon!  C’est bon!” has been etched on my memory ever since.

 

Thus, it was a project about newspapers that first induced me to leave Britain and start exploring the rest of Europe.  And during the rest of my year out, I would build on that Soissons trip.  By the time I got to college in the autumn of 1983, I’d been in Switzerland, Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria, Belgium and Holland too.

 

Ironically, newspapers were now been instrumental in building barriers between Britain and the rest of Europe.  The British newspapers owned by a cadre of right-wing magnates, like Rupert Murdoch, Lord Rothermere and the two Barclay Brothers, did much to create the hysterical, xenophobic atmosphere that led to a small majority of the British public voting for Brexit in 2016.

 

I find it sad to think that the EU, in its old EEC incarnation, gave me my first opportunity to travel; and travel, as they say, helps to broaden the mind.  In modern Britain, where many minds could do with broadening, such opportunities have been considerably reduced.  75% of British voters in the 18-to-24 age group voted to stay in the EU, but young Britons will now find it harder to study in Europe, work in Europe and even travel in Europe.  The Brexit vote, largely the responsibility of an older and more reactionary electorate, has put a damper on such aspirations.

 

Back in 1982, I didn’t know how lucky I was.

 

From unsplash.com / © Adam Wilson

Exit Q

 

© Bauer Media Group / Q Magazine

 

This week saw the publication of the final issue of Q, the British monthly music magazine that’d been on the go since 1986.  You could argue that it’d been as much a victim of Covid-19 as, say, Terence McNally, John Prine or Tim Brooke-Taylor.  In recent years Q had struggled financially and the lockdown in Britain caused by the virus and consequent lack of sales dealt the killer blow.  Its editor since 2017, Ted Kessler, reflected in its last issue, “We’d been a lean operation for all of my tenure, employing a variety of ways to keep our head above water in an extremely challenging print market.  Covid-19 wiped all that out.”

 

That’s a shame because for a decade-and-a-half, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Q was a fixture in my life.  Buying it every month was both an ingrained habit and something I looked forward to.

 

It was launched in the mid-1980s by David Hepworth and Mark Ellen – the latter’s claims to fame include playing bass for a short time in the 1970s Oxford University band the Ugly Rumours, which had one Tony Blair as its singer.  You mightn’t have expected Hepworth and Ellen to start up something like Q, aimed at older music fans, because previously they’d edited the shiny, teen-pop weekly Smash Hits.  However, they’d also spent the 1980s hosting the BBC’s long-running highbrow rock-music show The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-88) and on July 13th, 1985, helped to present the BBC’s coverage of the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium.  Indeed, it was in response to something Hepworth said during the broadcast that Bob Geldof made his famous “F*ck the address!” outburst on live TV.

 

Hepworth and Ellen angled Q towards an older readership because they realised that pop and rock music were no longer just a young person’s game.  By the mid-1980s, folk who’d spent their teen years listening to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the like were well into their forties and those who’d been old enough to enjoy the soundtrack of the Summer of Love were pushing middle-age.  Furthermore, a new innovation, the compact disc, was causing many older records to be reissued in a new format and older people were spending money on older music again – buying on CD what they already owned on vinyl, a technology that suddenly seemed obsolete.  Unsurprisingly, the ‘reissues’ review section in Q was almost as long as its ‘new releases’ review one.

 

At the same time, the existing British music press seemingly offered nothing to anyone who was older than their mid-twenties.  The teenybop magazines, pursuing an audience interested only in New Romantic bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Wham – a movement I have to say I found unspeakable, as well as unlistenable – certainly didn’t, and the ‘serious’ music weeklies like the New Musical Express and the Melody Maker treated anything recorded before the advent of punk rock in the mid-1970s as the music of boring old farts.

 

No doubt reading Q in the late 1980s marked me out as a boring old fart too (I recall the NME once describing Q as a ‘living death of a magazine’), but I preferred its more measured, less partisan and less pretentious style and its willingness to cover with an open mind a range of musical genres from a range of eras to the attitude of the highbrow weeklies.  The NME particularly got up my nose, its scribes broadcasting their musical preferences (and personal politics) in such an annoying, self-conscious, stuck-up and patronising way that I sometimes wondered if they were all clones that’d been grown from the cells of Rik Mayall’s character in the TV sitcom The Young Ones (1982-84).  I actually enjoyed much of the music that the NME championed, like punk, new wave and indie, but my two favourite musical genres at the time were heavy metal and goth music, both of which the NME loathed and ridiculed, dismissing their fans as gormless morons.  So yes, by 1986, I was ready for Q.

 

That’s not to say Q was toothless.  Some of the most scathing pieces of musical journalism I’ve read appeared in its pages, though they were effective because the writer simply recorded was seen and heard and allowed the ‘stars’ in question to talk and string themselves up with their own words.  I’m thinking of an article about an American tour attempted by late 1980s teen heartthrobs Bros, in which the brothers comprising the band, Matt and Luke Goss, came across as delusional and out-of-their-depth plonkers.  Or a piece about Simply Red doing a concert in Cuba, in which the Q journalist had to deal with the mood-swings of a megalomaniacal, self-pitying and generally bloody awful Mick Hucknall.  Or an encounter with the Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, in which Corgan’s behaviour was such that the interview’s strapline was Marvel at the horribleness of Billy Corgan!

 

This ‘give-them-enough-rope’ approach, along with a strong dose of sarcasm, was evident in what for me was Q’s best regular feature, Who the hell does… think he / she is?, which ran until the late 1990s and was often but not always written by the late Tom Hibbert.  This involved a unflattering interview with one of the ‘characters’ who were fixtures of British popular culture at the time – prominent in British TV, radio, comedy, sport, music, publishing, journalism or politics, but not showing much evidence of the talent that, in a rational world, would have secured them that prominence.  The rogue’s gallery getting the Who the hell… treatment included Jeffrey Archer, Bananarama, Simon Bates, Jeremy Beadle, Gary Bushell, Barbara Cartland, Jeremy Clarkson, Edwina Currie, Jim Davidson, Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards, Samantha Fox, Hale and Pace, Neil and Christine Hamilton, Benny Hill, David Icke, Bernard Manning, David Mellor, Michael Winner and not one, but two Starrs, Freddie and Ringo.

 

The interviews with those last two people were particularly memorable.  An unhinged Freddie Starr ended up raving, “Jesus Christ tried to please everyone.  And look what happened to him.  Am I right?  Am I right?”  Whereas Ringo Starr, taking umbrage that in 1992 Hibbert still wanted to talk about the Beatles, raged: “That was 30 years ago, man.  I’m still making records and you can hear that I’m a great musician on the new record, Time Takes Time, if you can ever be bothered to mention it.  This is an actual bloody legend in front of you.”.

 

And it’s fascinating, if extremely disturbing, to note how many of the Who the hell… interviewees were later revealed as paedophiles and  sexual abusers: Max Clifford, Gary Glitter, Rolf Harris and, worst of all, Jimmy Savile.   Of Savile, Hibbert wrote: “People are loath to speak ill of Sir James.  The man is a saint, millions raised for charity; he is the kiddies’ friend, ever on the telly placing a Jim’ll Fix It gong around the neck of some abashed youngster who’s just been a hovercraft pilot for a day.  It is churlish, cynical beyond belief, to suggest there might be something untoward about the benevolent one.  But isn’t there, perhaps, some oddness afoot.  You hear tales, entirely uncorroborated, of course, whispered in sniggers at dinner parties…”  To which Savile retorted that there were no skeletons in his closet because “I got knighted and that proves it, doesn’t it?”  The wizened old monster then started bragging about his promiscuity with the ladies:  “You can’t be in a disco with 600 birds in Aberdeen and stopping overnight and faithful to one f*ck in Leeds…”

 

Incidentally, an interview Hibbert did with Savile’s good friend Margaret Thatcher also appeared in Who the hell…  Asking her what her favourite sort of pop music was, she professed to liking How Much is that Doggie in the Window?

 

© Paul Rider

 

Q was lucky in its timing, for the anodyne, superficial music that dominated the charts during the early and mid-1980s was later, partly at least, dislodged by Madchester and grunge.  And then the Britpop phenomenon hit the country in the mid-1990s.  In other words, music got rockier again, and with bands around like the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, Oasis and Blur, Q had proper rock stars, displaying proper rock star attitudes, as material for entertaining articles and interviews.  During the 1990s, the magazine also established the yearly Q Awards Ceremony, which became famous for the raucousness and rudeness of certain invitees.  For example, John Lydon heckled Phil Jupitus and Johnny Vegas as ‘Teletubbies’, and Liam Gallagher called Chris Martin of Coldplay a ‘plant-pot’ – quite right too.

 

I spent a good part of the 1990s living in the Japanese city of Sapporo, and between 1993 and 1998 I bought every issue of Q from my local branch of Tower Records.  Just before I left Sapporo, I donated my collection of back issues to my mate, Steve Burrow.  I hope he’s still got them, as they would be worth a fortune today.  A little later, I went to Ethiopia and worked there for the Voluntary Service Overseas organisation, and my brother in Scotland was kind enough every month to post me the latest copy of Q after he’d finished reading it.  I think those Q back issues, from 1999 to 2001, ended up sitting on the shelves of the volunteers’ library in the central VSO Office in Addis Ababa.  Who knows?  Maybe they’re still there now.

 

But I lost interest in Q in the early noughties, partly because every issue seemed to indulge in that most pointlessly bloke-ish of things, compiling lists: ‘The 100 best albums of all time’, ‘the 100 best gigs of all time’, ‘the 100 best drummers of all time’, and so on and so forth.  I know I’m guilty of putting the occasional list on this blog, but at least I don’t charge people money to read them.

 

In truth, Q was running out of interesting things to write about.  By now the popular music scene had become a lot duller, thanks in part to the rise of identikit pop stars spawned by TV reality shows like Pop Idol (2001-2003), The X-Factor (2004-present) and The Voice (2010-present).  These non-entities were products of what I like to think of as ‘the Simon Cowell conveyor belt of karaoke’.

 

That’s not to say that there wasn’t good music still around, but people were accessing it on the Internet and making the discovery and enjoyment of that music a much more disparate and individual experience.  The days when large numbers of people suddenly hooked onto the same musical craze, which the old-style music magazines would then cover and capitalise on by selling loads of copies, were dead and gone.  The Internet too was where people were increasingly turning to for information about music.  Indeed, it was ironic that Q, a magazine partly created by new technology, the CD, was scuppered by new technology too.

 

That’s said, I’ve heard good things about Q under the editorship of Ted Kessler during the past three years, and I wish I’d dipped into it again while it was still there.  But it’s too late now.

 

That’s not to say, of course, that good writing about music doesn’t exist anymore.  It does, but you’re more likely to find it online than on the (ever-thinning) magazine racks of your local newsagent.  That’s why I recommend you click onto – and if you like it, donate to – the Quietus.

 

© Bauer Media Group / Q Magazine

Millennium Dom

 

From the Cyprus Mail

 

Spin doctor Dominic Cummings, the Svengali to Boris Johnson’s Trilby, the Rasputin to Johnson’s Tsarina Alexandra, the organ-grinder to Johnson’s dancing monkey, the puppet-master to Johnson’s, well, puppet, has become Britain’s Most Hated Man.

 

That’s because everyone in Britain now knows that Cummings didn’t just break the coronavirus-lockdown rules that he himself helped draw up for the population, but pulverised them.  The Gollum-like governmental advisor apparently believed that rules exist only for plebs and he, as a superior being, had a divine right to flout them.  In late March he drove his wife and child 260 miles from London to his parents’ farm near Durham in northeast England, while his missus was displaying coronavirus symptoms.  He developed symptoms soon after.  Also, while in the northeast, he drove 30 miles to local tourist attraction Barnard Castle, an action he subsequently justified by claiming he’d done it to check if he could drive safely even though the virus was affecting his eyesight.  I guess that’s the equivalent of a brain surgeon performing an operation to check if the palsy he’s been suffering from isn’t making his hands shake too much.

 

I should say not quite everyone in Britain is baying for Cummings’s blood, for I’ve noticed a few right-wing folks complaining on social media that Cummings has been the victim of a stitch-up by Britain’s hideous lefty mainstream press.  Such people regard Cummings as the Messiah, thanks to him being Campaign Director of the Vote Leave movement in 2015-16 and playing a major role in getting Britain out of the European Union.  According to them, the lefty newspapers that have it in for poor Dom include that notoriously socialistic organ, the Daily Mail.  Looking at the state of the comments posted by those fulminating right-wingers, I just hope they cancel their subscriptions to the Daily Mail and invest the money they’ve saved in taking punctuation courses where they learn how to use apostrophes correctly.

 

Anyway, reading the screeds of print written about Cummings in the past week, I’ve been reminded that Cummings first made a name for himself during a little-remembered episode in recent British political history.  It happened shortly after the advent of the new millennium, in a part of the world where I was living.  I’m talking about the referendum on setting up a regional assembly in northeast England, held in 2004.

 

Soon after Tony Blair’s New Labour government arrived in power in the late 1990s, devolution was implemented in the non-English parts of the United Kingdom, with the creation of the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Irish Assembly.  This left England as the only part of the UK without devolved government, which caused some awkward anomalies.  How, for example, could Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians turn up at the British parliament and vote on issues affecting the English population, when English politicians weren’t allowed to attend the three devolved parliaments and have a say on equivalent issues affecting the populations there, like health and law enforcement, entrusted to those parliaments under the devolution settlement?

 

The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act of 2003 was meant to restore constitutional balance.  It was envisioned that, eventually, eight regional assemblies would operate across England.  As England had a population five times the size of that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined, a patchwork of small English assemblies would ensure that too much power wasn’t concentrated in a single, huge English assembly.  And the first English region to get the chance to approve the establishment of its own assembly was northeast England, which had an all-postal ballot on the matter on November 4th, 2004.

 

Cynics would say that the northeast was given first say because it seemed highly likely to do what the government wanted it to do.  It was deeply pro-Labour at the time and contained Tony Blair’s constituency, Sedgefield.  Also, it seemed the English region with the strongest local identity – a place that’d want its own assembly making decisions on its behalf rather than having decisions imposed on it from faraway London.  At the time I was living in the northeast’s biggest city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, without wishing to confuse the city with the region, I have to say the Geordies of Newcastle did seem a complete race apart.

 

I’d spent most of my youth in Scotland, where devolution had been a burning political issue for a generation.  There’d been a referendum about establishing a Scottish parliament back in 1979 and a majority had voted in favour of it.  Due to some disgraceful rule-bending by the Labour government of the time, though, it was decreed that the majority wasn’t big enough and the parliament wasn’t delivered.  Soon after came the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, which massively reshaped the economy and culture of the UK in the 1980s.  Most people in Scotland didn’t vote for Thatcher but the existing constitutional set-up left her free to do what she wanted with the place – a sorry state of affairs that resulted in the nadir of the Poll Tax, imposed solely on Scotland in 1989 as an experiment to see how it was likely to go down in the rest of the UK.  A great ‘what-if’ of Scottish political history is how a Scottish parliament, if one had been created at the end of the 1970s, might have stood up to Thatcher.  I certainly can’t imagine things being any worse than they were.  Anyway, it seemed to me a no-brainer that people in northeast England should get their own assembly in 2004.

 

However, in the run-up to the referendum, I realised my devolutionary enthusiasm wasn’t mirrored in the Geordies and north-easterners around me.  This was largely due to the influence of the anti-assembly campaign North East Says No, chaired by local businessman John Elliot and with a certain Durham-born, Oxford-educated character called Dominic Cummings as one of its prime movers.  The anti-assembly campaign whipped up resentment against the proposed establishment.  It warned that an assembly would be an unnecessary extra layer of government, diverting yet more public money into the pockets of yet more politicians – and diverting it away from areas that really needed it, like health.  “More doctors,” declared one of its ads, “not politicians.”  Actually, that sounds familiar.  Didn’t Dom peddle a similar message in a more recent political campaign?  Although in Newcastle in 2004 I didn’t see it emblazoned on the side of a bus.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

It didn’t help the assembly’s cause that the senior politician entrusted with overseeing its creation was deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, who famously had not one but two princely Jaguar motor cars at his beck and call and generally wasn’t known for his frugality.

 

Cummings’s anti-assembly message certainly got through.  With hindsight it was scary how many left-wing, liberal-minded people I knew in Newcastle, who’d normally have detested everything Cummings stood for, unconsciously parroted his rhetoric.  I remember in my workplace a Russian woman, who had British citizenship and the right to participate in the referendum but wasn’t too clued-up on local politics, asking a colleague for advice on how to vote.  The colleague, a Guardian-reading progressive if ever there was one, promptly told her the assembly was a nonsense and to vote against it.  Meanwhile, my best mate in Newcastle, also no right-winger, dismissed the proposed assembly as a ‘white elephant’ designed to ‘line politicians’ pockets’.

 

It didn’t surprise me, then, when Prescott and company lost the referendum and a majority voted against the assembly’s establishment.  It did surprise me how emphatic that majority was – of those who bothered to vote, 78% voted against it.  And that wasn’t only the prospect of a north-eastern assembly killed stone dead, but the prospect of any future devolution in England generally.  No politician would touch the project after that whipping.  Dominic Cummings had secured his first and, alas, not his last big victory.

 

Although Newcastle is pictured by some as a drunken hellhole where ghastly nightclubs are pillaged by stag and hen parties clad in little more than jockstraps and G-strings while freezing easterly gales howl around them from the North Sea – an image that admittedly isn’t wide of the mark if you venture into the city’s Bigg Market district on a Friday or Saturday night – I thought it was a great city.  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there during the first half of the noughties.  It had some great pubs (away from the Bigg Market), a good live music scene, decent shops and easy access to libraries and galleries.  You could generally find whatever it was that floated your boat, be it antiques markets or creative writing groups or comedy shows or whatever.  And I loved how you were mere minutes away from some of the most scenic landscapes in England.  And the Geordies were great company.  Indeed, I would have stayed for longer if the money I was earning in my job there hadn’t been so crap.

 

Looking back, though, I was probably lucky that I left Newcastle when I did and avoided the years of austerity that were inflicted on it by David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 onwards.  The newspaper reports I’ve read about what happened to Newcastle make grim reading – slabs of money hacked off its budget every year, a total of some 300 million pounds lost by 2019, with a resulting cull of libraries, youth clubs and children’s centres and a general neglect of public services.  Even the city’s lollipop men and ladies weren’t spared – their numbers declined from 64 to seven in the space of five years.  Would a north-eastern assembly have been able to protect the city against some of this savagery?  Like the hypothetical 1980s Scottish parliament and Margaret Thatcher, I doubt if it would have made things any worse.

 

 

Incidentally, I think the missed opportunity of the English regional assemblies will contribute eventually to the breakup of the United Kingdom.  Occasional senior Labour politicians – Gordon Brown especially – still talk up the prospect of a federal UK as a way to keep Scotland British.  With their parliament nestling amid a bunch of similar-sized English ones where power is equally distributed, the Scots, the theory goes, will neither feel neglected nor get ideas above their station.  They’ll accept they’re fairly treated and accept their lot as happy Brits.  That might be true in an alternative universe, but it isn’t going to happen in this universe.  There won’t be a properly federal UK because people in England, as 2004 proved, aren’t interested.  And with so much power entrusted to dolts like Boris Johnson in London, I can’t see the Scots putting up with the existing constitutional status quo for much longer.

 

Modern right-wingers adore Dominic Cummings for what he’s supposedly done to restore British sovereignty.  But he’s actually done more than most to crock the whole concept of Britain.  Thanks in part to his exploits, including those in 2004, Britain as a union of four nations is doomed.  Dom-ed, in fact.