The Story of Becoming a Modern Scottish Man: Part One
Scottish Review, June 8th 2011
I am a Scottish man and I think we have a problem. There is the familiar story of Scots men behaving badly – drinking, being violent, committing crime, harming others and themselves. We have the worst health and life expectancy for men in Western Europe, and shameful suicide rates for men.
Then there is the stereotyping of Scottish men – with clichés about ‘the West of Scotland man’ and the caricaturing of some of our poorest communities by middle class professionals talking about ‘Shettleston man’.
Even more serious than this is the fact that Scottish men don’t write or think about themselves as men. This is one of the central paradoxes of modern Scotland. Scottish men are everywhere – in public, in life – making noise, dominating people and places – and yet are silent about what it means to be a man.
How we encourage men to begin a national debate – requires starting with basics and a different route. It requires public personal reflection. Why then am I the kind of man who thinks Scottish men have problems and need to address them as men?
I grew up in Dundee. My parents, Edwin and Jean, married relatively late for their generation at 29, and I came into the world as their only child when they both turned 31. I had a happy, positive childhood filled with hope and warmth. My parents were loving, supportive and there for me. My home was filled with friends and neighbours, animated conversation, and in a way I recognised was different from all my school friends – filled with books – mostly Book Club novels and reference books.
I grew up in Ardler, on the north west outskirts of Dundee, in what had once been a private golf course, where the council built six large multi-storey blocks surrounded by acres of green space. Each was named after a golf course – and we lived on the thirteenth floor of the second row – at 13A Edzell Court.
It was in the 1970s a peaceful, safe place for a child to grow up with a tangible sense of people looking after each other. Once Kenneth Williams appeared on ‘Parkinson’ in about 1975 and commented on ‘the isolation and remoteness of living in tower blocks’. That was enough for my mother to fire off a letter to him pointing out the example of Ardler. And getting a reply. That was typical of my mum!
Eddie and Jean were self-educated working people. My father and mother had both left school at fourteen and he read all three volumes of Marx’s ‘Capital’ at sixteen in the local library. My mum read all the time – Orwell, Greene, Kafka and much more.
My father worked in NCR, a huge local employer along with Timex, where he was a shop steward and Communist, believing in the Soviet dream. He was a little too much of an iconoclast, loner and dreamer to somehow be a complete believer in everything Soviet. He had a very unserious side to him, and liked to crack ‘weak’ jokes and make Eric Morecambe impersonations with his specs!
My mother was a do-er. Working in the local chemist shop, she had declined training as a pharmacist when I came along. She ran the local community newspaper, ‘Ardler News’, where under an alias I wrote the bi-monthly pop and rock column – my first experience of public writing!
She organised rent strikes against the Heath Government and campaigned for a new secondary school – Ardler High – whose cancellation in the mid-1970s was one of the first major signs of economic troubles ahead.
My father, like many of his generation, didn’t get feminism. My mum had a copy of Helen Reddy’s ‘Greatest Hits’ on cassette, and my dad actually regarded her ‘I Am Woman’ as a personal threat and attack on him. Sitting in our living room in a 1970s fashionable brown leather swivel chair, hearing the words, ‘I am strong, I am invisible, I am woman’ on my parents all singing all dancing Sharp music centre, was enough for my dad to feel deeply uneasy and make some dismissive comment. He couldn’t stand the sentiment in the lyrics.
His constant lament to my mother was, ‘Why do women want a separate revolution? Why can’t they be part of the general revolution?’ It wasn’t the sort of question I imagine asked in that many Dundee homes. And I am sure that my dad wasn’t really looking for an answer.
For years because my father talked ‘big’ politics I thought he was the political one of my parents. It took me until my early 20s to realise that my dad was an armchair activist who didn’t do very much, whereas my mum as a community activist was the ‘real’ political one.
My dad did like sounding off at points. When my parents went out to friends my mum would try to keep the conversation away from politics. My recollection is that she would usually manage to do this most of the evening – until the last minute!
I can remember one evening in the mid-70s when my parents were seeing my mum’s friend, Dot. She was a bit of a snob, a Tory and fancied herself because she lived in a Scottish Special Housing Association cottage, so she didn’t completely get on with my dad. The evening went fine until near the end. Dot commented that ‘the country was going to the dogs under the socialists’.
This impelled my dad to launch his thesis that ‘we have never had a socialist government. That’s the problem’, and all hell broke loose! My parents left, my mum got cross with my dad, and the night was ruined. I now think looking back that this self-indulgent behaviour gave my father some enjoyment.
My childhood was characterised by a constant stream of people coming to our home, while I unlike my friends – could retreat to the sanctuary and quiet of my bedroom – which I didn’t have to share with brothers and sisters. It was filled with books, a decent desk to work at, and lots of maps and charts on the walls. At the age of eleven I got an old black and white TV before portables became the norm. Many an evening I spent in my bedroom, head in a book, listening to music or playing myself at Subbuteo and practising to perfection my flick to kick!
There was something in the ether in the late 1970s that the world was changing. My parents sole advice career wise to me was ‘to not go into a factory’ like my dad. Then there was a sense that what it meant to be a man was changing too. People talked on TV about gay liberation and sexuality. There was the sensation one Sunday night of Quentin Crisp’s ‘Naked Civil Servant’ being broadcast. This met with my mother’s approval – as she knew lots of gay men – through one of the optician firms she had once worked in being the centre of the then subterranean scene. My father enjoyed the film, but was uneasy about the whole subject of gay sexuality.
Then there was the argument that men should be sensitive, talk about their feelings and more open to their feminine side. As a child I understood this via the appeal of Woody Allen films such as ‘Play It Again, Sam’ and ‘Annie Hall’. Woody was a bit strange, clearly neurotic, and yet with all his hang-ups he nearly always got a gal although he sometimes lost her.
Being an only child I had the time and space to think and ruminate about all this. And then my world and my parents began to change in ways none of us had foreseen.
cont …. tomorrow