There is more to life than politics in the Scotland of 2014
Scottish Review, May 14th 2014
This is Scotland’s year of big decision: a historic and landmark date with destiny which, depending on individual political predilections, people have been waiting all their life for, or dreading, in equal measure.
Yet much of how we have defined and understood politics in Scotland historically has been narrow and constrained. There is the notion of independence as being about ‘the full powers of the Parliament’, a rather restricted view of change to put it mildly. Then there are the pro-union voices that see this as only a debate about the constitution, and oppose any attempt for it to connect to wider concerns, such as what kind of Scotland people want to live in.
Scotland’s debate is about more than politicians and politics. It is about the state of democracy, society, culture, confidence, hopes, fears and emotions, our collective and individual psychologies, and how we understand and construct our past and see our future.
2014 will see many books published on Scotland, addressing politics, constitutional issues, and the possibilities and pitfalls of independence. These are important issues at any point, and particularly when we have an independence referendum only months away, but they only capture a small part of what life is about in Scotland, and tend to represent that narrow, constricted idea of politics without understanding how problematic it is.
If asked what have been the most original, provocative and challenging books of Scotland in its decade and a half of devolution, without hesitation, I would nominate two non-political, non-historical books. One is the inventive and idiosyncratic ‘The Book of Scotlands’ by Momus; the other is ‘The Wee Book of Calvin’ by Bill Duncan.
Both play with archetypical ideas of Scotland and Scottishness in gloriously subversive ways. Momus, who must be in the running to become an alternative ‘national treasure’ in any future Scotland, created over 150 parallel worlds of past, present and future, from the semi-plausible to the magical and surreal. Bill Duncan’s book plays with all those dour caricatures of Calvinism but also the over-zealous dogma of the ‘self-help’ guide to create what he calls a ‘self-hate’ book.
One of the most rich and evocative books published this year so far is ‘Daunderlust: Dispatches from Unreported Scotland’ by Peter Ross – a wonderful collection of over forty vignettes, portraits and slices of life from across Scotland. These pieces previously appeared mostly in ‘Scotland on Sunday’.
Ross’s writing, insights and feel are warm, touched with sensitivity and understanding for his characters, their lives and stories. He gives us backstories, histories and a sense of place with respect and humanity. Interestingly Ross is always invisible and not present in these pieces and it is always clear who the central characters of his accounts are.
Ross’s account of Glasgow Central railway station, 135 years old in two and a half months is an evocative tribute to its staff, passengers, the lives, births and deaths which have occurred under the magnificent and huge glass roof (apparently the largest in the world according to Ross). He takes us on journeys to secret tunnels and forgotten stations, and the station’s wildlife, from pigeons, swallows and foxes, to the odd otter, ferret and guillemot. Passing through Central the other day after a Celtic versus Dundee United game I stood and looked at the place in a different light thanks to Ross’s essay; what higher tribute could there be to the power of writing?
The piece on the joys of junior football is one of the most powerful I have read capturing many of the qualities that make it irresistible. Ross cites writer Robert Jenkins talking about the ‘mysterious masculine sacrament’ of this level of the game.
The romance is conveyed, as is the devotional nature and community mindedness, but most of all Ross captures the sheer intimacy: of how in places such as Auchinleck, Cumnock and Irvine, junior football is a vital spark in the life of the town. One way this manifests itself is that, unlike the English or even Scottish Premiership, fans know their local heroes and have real relationships with them, for example, mixing with them in the local pub after the game.
A host of characters are portrayed around the game including Willie Knox, who turned Auchinleck Talbot into the giants of the junior world, winning 43 trophies between 1977 and 1993. Knox has a great take on what all this meant, ‘What goaded me on was that in Auchinleck there was nothing’ he said. ‘The pits was shut and there was nae work at all’.
Kidd reflects on their first big triumph in the middle of the miners’ strike, ‘When we won the cup that first year, we went back to the village and the scabs and the guys that had stayed oot on strike aw got drunk thegither’.
Ross takes us across Scotland, from inside Barlinnie to the Duke of Buccleuch’s Hunt in Selkirkshire, from the Royal Caledonian Ball in London, to Glasgow’s oldest gay pub, the Waterloo Bar, and karaoking in the Horse Shoe Bar a few streets away. All manner of society is shown, high and low Scotland, and all treated with equal respect.
There is an over-arching elegiac quality to some of these accounts: of marginalised or eccentric characters holding out against change, whether it is economic rationalisation, or societal trends. There is a palpable feeling of loss in many of Ross’s accounts, which is always understated, never made forcibly, and is all the more human and powerful for it.
There are many, multiple Scotlands and settings to which Ross’s observation, intelligence and quality writing has given voice. I can think of no higher tribute than that the combined effect of these pieces is reminiscent in tone and power to Ian Jack who has, for several decades, captured the passing of time in communities up and down Britain in ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Observer’.
This brings us back to the bigger picture of Scotland 2014. Traditional politics and media are in deep crisis and decline, with little understanding in either about how they regroup, renew or reconnect with people.
There have always been shortcomings in how both have been practiced down through the years in Scotland as well as the UK, but the slow decline of the mainstream media, while opening up new spaces and voices, also makes journalism of the quality and reflectiveness of Ross less likely.
This seems a small tragedy. Maybe this doesn’t matter to some in the partisan wars of the independence debate, but there is the loss of something precious and fragile in this: of how we observe and understand our fellow Scots.
Ross’s ‘Daunderlust’ has given us a beautiful time capsule of the Scotland of the last few years. In future when people want to understand what we were really like at this historic point, they won’t have to read a diet of political books about what happens to the Barnett formula and the national debt. They should read this.
In ‘Daunderlust’ there is a deeper insight: that our politics and public life shouldn’t be so focused on politicians and institutional change, but about the human lives and stories of this nation and bringing them centrestage. In this Peter Ross has done us a rare service; it would be uplifting if others would dare to follow his example.