A Short List of Things I Love About Living in Modern Scotland
August 26th 2010
Years ago – inspired by the ending of ‘Manhattan’ the film – I wrote a list of over twenty things that made feel glad to be alive. Woody at the end of the film – feeling down in the dumps – cites a load of things that make life worth living; I cant remember if like me he cited Frank’s voice, but I feel he did in spirit, and can still recall him mentioning Louis Armstrong and other jazz references.
That list got a great positive reaction – and I was humbled to know it even served its uses around the world – with a friend in Australia coaching a friend through a painful break up – using my list to aid them making up their own about life!
This is a shorter and less grandiose list. I love modern Scotland in lots of ways, and love living here. Of course, as in any relationship it drives me mad, and I know that we are imperfect as a nation and society in all sorts of ways. I constantly write about those sort of things, but here for a change of tone … is a short list of things I love about living in modern Scotland.
The Mitchell Library Glasgow
This is Glasgow’s past, present and future, rolled into one building. I could have chosen Kelvingrove, but I like libraries, and in particular, I think the ‘modernisation’ (dread word!) of the Mitchell has made it a modern building, while retaining the feel and ghosts of the Victorian past. A nice café, a good sense of public space in Glasgow without that ‘edge’ which you can sense across large parts of the city. And then there is ‘Aye Write’ (Glasgow’s literary festival) which I much prefer to Edinburgh’s – as it is less luvvie and brings more of the city’s population into events.
Changin’ Scotland, Ullapool
What can I say about Changin’ Scotland? The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool? Jean Urquhart? Well I have known Jean for twenty years, and she is a renowned force for good and change. Years ago I did two book talks in Ullapool – the first which became mythopoetic because myself and a friend drove eight hours from Glasgow in a blizzard in December to do the talk, and were greeted on a Friday night by a packed house. From there – 2002 – Jean and I started doing the Changin’ Scotland weekends: politics, culture and ideas – with film and music. Every March and November; eight years on and our sixteenth weekend. So many stories, high points, comedy – and most of all love and nurturing somewhere to have good conversation.
Dundee United FC
The football team I have supported since being a small lad. The team my dad and his granddad supported. In my formative years, United became a great team and won the League, thrashed big teams in Europe, and got to a European final which we lost. Strangely enough as I get older, United matter more to me again, helped by having at the moment a decent squad, and having won the Scottish Cup last season. Tannadice, a small, compact stadium is the home of many memories for me, and many memories with my dad.
Small Scottish Football Grounds
In recent years with my friend Eddie (our close friendship which has been a story and a half over nearly the last twenty years!), we have slowly weaved our way round Scotland visiting each and every one of the 42 ‘senior’ Scottish football grounds.
We have ten or so to go. Some standout experiences include the half-time stovies at Palmerston Park, home of Queen of the South, getting the teams completely the wring way round at Albion Rovers v. East Fife for the whole game (they play in the same first colours!), and the cared for, lovedness of Glebe Park (Brechin) and Station Park (Forfar). I used to think that we needed to get rid of lots of the small clubs from the Scots professional game, but now realise they are one of the wonderful stories of survival against all the odds! It is the SPL and Celtic and Rangers which are the problem.
The Fact we have a Scottish Parliament
The fact that we have a Scottish Parliament is enormously important. It righted a profound wrong, and brought some element of democracy back to Scotland. Okay it has been disappointing on lots of levels, but we have to be able to differentiate between what politicians do and the potential of democracy. And without going down all that it’s a ‘process’ not an event’ waffle, it is hopefully the start of something. Changing Scotland (with a second ‘g’), working out who and what we want to be in the world, and that being something that isn’t just about the Parliament.
The Writing of Tom Nairn
Tom I think is an inspiration to lots of us. ‘The Break-up of Britain’ is a seminal, vital book, its thesis as relevant now as when Tom published it in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of ’77. Maybe in history Tom’s revolutionary counterblast will be seen as even more important than the Pistols incendiary anthem of that year. ‘Break-up’ is a classic, and his argument about de facto dissolution, the rise of Scottish nationalism and the English dimension, has been proven through time. I had the pleasure of publishing a 25th anniversary edition of ‘Break-up’ a few years ago as a labour of love. And I kind of think of people like myself from my generation – left and nationalist or post-nationalist – as ‘Tom’s children’ intellectually.
Thoughtful, Emotionally Literate Men Singing About Love
We do go on a bit about Scottish men and this and that. We have lots of problems, and then don’t acknowledge them or do anything. Well there are different ways of being a Scottish man, and different kinds of Scottish men.
I used to adore the Proclaimers music in the late 1980s; tunes such as ‘What do you do when democracy fails you?’ gave a sense of hope and voice during Thatcherism. Then I began to find their music and sentiment a little problematic, as I realised we had overdone the ‘we are all together against Thatcherism’ mentality. But what happened was that as Scotland changed, so did Craig and Charlie, after a few years writers block. And they began writing songs about growing up as Scottish men, their dads, and bringing up their kids.
Along with the utterly brilliant Michael Marra, these are different Scottish men finding voice. Marra, a fellow Dundonian, and according to him a Dundee FC fan who has written two songs about Dundee United (and none about Dundee), has written some heart affirming music about love; in particular his ‘True Love’ about the power of a kiss touches me emotionally in the way Johnny Cash’s ‘A Thing Called Love’ does.
Living in Strathbungo, Glasgow
I have lived in Glasgow for eighteen years and always on the Southside, since being a student, and then having a short period in Newcastle. I first lived in a tenement in Kenmure Street, and then in 1996 moved to Moray Place, Strathbungo. I moved into Kenmure Street in January 1992 with Rosie, my long suffering other half who I am still with, on the day ‘The Scottish Sun’ came out for independence with its famous ‘Rise Now and Be a Nation’ front page!
It has been a great experience living in such a small, tightly knit community as Strahbungo, in a beautiful street in a Victorian terraced townhouse. There are the advantages of living near the city centre, a glorious park (Queen’s Park), and loads of eateries (a special mention to Cookie!). And it feels – with all the things that happen in Glasgow, safe and kind of special. Not too yuppified, and not too changed by developers and their ‘property porn’!
The Cocteau Twins being from Grangemouth
Scottish singing voices which come from another world. Pride and place has to go to Liz Fraser, lead singer of the Cocteaus. I would adore their music wherever they came from, but it makes it special that they came from Scotland. Maybe it was something about Grangemouth, but their music is magnificent, spine-chilling in a wonderful way, and god knows what it is about. And then as another example, there is the genius and tragedy of Billy Mackenzie, from Dundee, with that operatic, shattering voice.
A Scotland of Strange, Magical Imaginations
The books on Scotland which have most affected and touched me in the last decade or so, have by and large, have not been straight non-fiction, and certainly, not politics or history. Bill Duncan’s ‘The Wee Book of Calvin’ is a total, subversive tour de force, and a magisterial execution of ideas, jokes and mythologies in one book about North East fishing community culture. And the fact that it is so subtle, some of Scotland’s more earnest voices saw it as part of the problem and took it all so literally, only adds to its genius!
And there is Momus’s ‘The Book of Scotlands’. Already being a bit of a Momus music fan, I was bowled over when this came out in late 2009. His idea is to explore over 150 parallel Scotlands of past, present and future. Some are plausible and only incremental changes from the present, whereas others jump into an imaginary Scotland and world of other dimensions. I think Momus’s book will be studied decades from now, and revered as an example of a Scotland that wasn’t afraid to experiment, be daring, stupid, play, laugh and be different!
Cathkin Park, Glasgow
This is a very special place which people come from all over the world to pay their respects to. Almost like a secret garden. The last remains of Third Lanark FC, the last Scottish football team to go out of business for over thirty years (until Airdrie, Clydebank and Gretna in recent years). Their entire stadium stands – minus the wooden grandstand – in eerie, silent tribute to the thousands who came here years ago. All the terracing and barriers remain, as does the pitch and goals. In a city defined and obsessed by football, this is my favourite Glasgow football spot by a mile. It has – even though it is literally right next to Hampden – a serene quiet about it – which makes it all the easier to imagine the passion, dreams and disappointments which occurred here. And noise. There is sadness here, but memory and much more.
I am not a film buff in the real sense, but I do like my film, and I like seeing a Scotland which breaks with the West of Scotland miserbalist tradition and genre. Apparently miserablism is a Scottish genre, and some people – self-confessed ‘miserablists’. Peter Mullen being one obvious example. The sort of films I adore about Scotland are films like the recent ‘The Illusionist’ – an old fashioned animated film inspired by a Jacques Tati short story – set in the Highlands and 1950s Edinburgh. Older films I adore include Powell and Pressburger’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going’, ‘Whisky Galore’ and ‘The Maggie’ (which I had forgot had a starring role for the Glasgow Underground!).
Memories of my Parents
I also feel increasingly as I get older, part of my hope and optimism about Scotland and indeed about life comes from my parents. Despite the anxieties about cuts and what the current UK government is going to do, I have a belief that somehow things can be different in a positive way here and even globally. There is a political justification for that, an intellectual one, and lots more. Yet, more profoundly I think it is an emotional, instinctual sense, and part autobiographical, which is shaped by my parents’ innate feeling that the world was going to get better. That didn’t turn out to be the case in lots of way, but they instilled in me a sense that you have to try. So for all their other human weaknesses and frailties, thank you to Jean and Eddie, my parents.
One of the underlying threads behind some of the choices and feelings is that I have a sense of pride and privilege for a wider group of people I know, work with in a variety of capacities, and learn from in so many ways. I am thinking of people who bring about change nearly always by supporting others, by pushing, by being generous, and by them making it not about them. There are so many people like that in Scotland – and I have named a few of them above.
And trying to find that balance between seriousness and frivolity, something I really try to embrace, and as friends will tell you, don’t always get right! We do in these dark days, need both a sense of shadow and light, because despite everything these are not entirely dark days, but days of hope in so many ways.
I would welcome anyone else contributing his or her thoughts – about what makes life special and unique in a positive way – living in Scotland. Or generally. I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive in any sense ….