The Story of Becoming a Modern Scottish Man: Part Two
Scottish Review, June 9th 2011
First, my father took voluntary redundancy from NCR in 1978. He was for a period of six months unemployed and went on a government-training centre course. This involved him fine-tuning his arithmetic and maths skills to a level I was well past, so I was able to assist my dad’s tutoring.
I felt ashamed that my dad was unemployed. We lived in a working class neighbourhood filled with bank managers, teachers, and people running small firms. I had only known one unemployed person – a friend’s dad – who had to get a job as a bin man. I distinctly remember to my shame that I and some of my pals made fun of our friend and his dad.
I didn’t tell a single person about my dad’s unemployment. It was the first time I ever noticed my parents consciously being careful about money. When I talked to my careers adviser about my O Grades I recall him saying, ‘if you study hard you can do as well as your dad and get a job like he has building computers’. I stood there at the time thinking that it wasn’t a great job in the first place, and now he doesn’t even have that!
After just six months – a very long six months – my dad got another job working with Tayside Police as a traffic warden. This was a momentous change, because my father hated everything about the job. The public persona; working with the police with their overtime scams. This was a bit far removed from ‘workers of the world unite’. His only enjoyment was letting off students and people who looked poor, and on one occasion booking the Chief Executives of Dundee and Tayside councils at the same time. This was how he continued the class war.
This changed something in my dad. It hurt his pride and sense of himself. And I suspect it undermined my mum’s view of him in some respects. Two years later my parents split up when my mother left my father for Frank, a more traditional, machismo man, who lived one floor above us. He was everything my father wasn’t, a qualified electrician and very practical around the house.
My father was just away to turn 47 when this happened – the age I am now – and it was a turning point. He never fully recovered from it; emotionally and practically collapsing. Even though he went through the motions he never saw life in the same way, and died aged 60 still heartbroken.
Their split changed everything. Until then I had felt protected in the warmth of my parents love and home. I thought I knew my parents. Then it turned out I didn’t as they both changed into something else.
This gave me a huge insight into the fragility of the human condition. What is the true sense of ‘the self’ if people can change so quickly? Or act in ways which ultimately turn out to be self-destructive?
My father was unable to keep his life on the rails, and had a long period off on the sick with depression, while he was unable to run his life – financially or in any sense. I ended up as a sixteen-year-old child, still at school, running the house, paying all the bills and doing the shopping.
My mum’s story wasn’t simple either. At first she and Frank worked out; they clearly loved each other and Frank was Mr. Practical, a contrast my mum enjoyed. But he seemed to my mum at times controlling and angry at the world. After my father died, thirteen years after their separation, my mother began to remember the Eddie she had loved. All of this became more poignant because my mum in some way blamed herself for his premature death, while Frank couldn’t deal with my mum’s still powerful emotions.
Slowly my mother’s stories of the Eddie of the good times re-emerged: the charmer, the joker, the man who could bring light into a room. The other side remained: the black and white politics, and the lack of practicalness, but slowly mattered less and less. By the time my mum died, a few years ago, aged 73, Frank having passed away nearly a decade before, my mum in her heart had made her peace with my dad.
My relationship with my father was never easy after my parents separation. He became an uncomfortable person to be with, and yet we still had lots of connections. We shared a love of politics, football, supporting Dundee United, and Frank Sinatra. To this day these are three of the biggest passions in my life.
And I also learned from my father that unless someone is a racist or homophobic, that you don’t fall out with people over political differences, or ruin evenings. Friends might tell you otherwise.
I did have positive moments with my dad. Dundee United won the league in 1983, just before Thatcher won her second term. Then in 1987 United got to the UEFA Cup Final against IFK Gothenburg. In those days this was a two-legged final, home and away, so the second leg was at Tannadice, after we lost the first leg one-nil.
It was a packed, romantic, expectant Tannadice that Wednesday May night. It was again just weeks before Thatcher won another election. I can still visualise that night and standing next to my dad in the terracing behind one of the goals known as ‘The Shed’. We played well, but a first half goal from IFK Gothenburg killed the tie, and although we scored, we drew one-all, and lost the final two-one on aggregate.
Then something magical happened. The United fans aware of the occasion – started applauding both teams off the park in a sustained applause. It was a special, inclusive moment, and one UEFA recognised by giving United a fair play award.
My father, whose story with Dundee United went back to his father and tales of United playing in front of crowds of 500 while second bottom of the Second Division, started to cry. He stood there on the terraces and cried, tears running down his cheeks.
It felt completely natural to him and to me; we were caught in a wonderful, emotionally affirmative coming together as father and son.
Years later returning to that May night, discussing it with friends, I would recount that it was the only time I ever saw my dad cry. Some friends have reflected on the sadness of this; that it took a football match for the tears to flow. Others though, and over the years this has become the prevailing reaction, have commented how lucky I have been to have that rare moment with my dad which so many others have been denied. They felt I had been accorded a privilege and insight into my father. I take the latter view as true, but so is the former.
That’s why I am driven about Scottish men. I am a Scottish man, from a proud working class background. I was shaped by good parents, trying their best, filled with hope, love and an innate belief that society and the world would get better: better for them compared to their parents, and better for their son.
In some respects they were right, but in many other respects those feelings are like a postcard from another age and world: an age of innocence, before Thatcher and Blair. Scottish masculinity has given the world so much: discoveries, explorations and ideas, and yet as we speak it has got stuck somewhere unhelpful. There is something deeply rotten at the heart of the condition of Scottish men, in our behaviours, in our evasions, and most of all in our silences as men.
Isn’t it about time we dared to speak and relate to each other as men – as brothers, lovers, husbands, fathers and sons?