Mastering Scottish Miserabilism?

During my stay-at-home summer, I tried to avoid the allure of Euro-soccer and Olympic Games in order to catch up with my reading of novels that I felt I ought to have read, but hadn’t got round to yet.

High on my list were two of the most successful Scottish novels of recent years: the Booker Prize winner, ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart and the highly-praised ‘The Young Team’ by Graeme Armstrong.

In ‘The Glass Half Full,’ (Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2014), authors David Manderson and Eleanor Yule presented a study of the incidence and significance in Scottish literature, cinema and television of what has come to be called ‘Scottish Miserabilism’. They defined this as ‘. . . a tendency in film, literature, and other cultural output to portray the negative aspects of Scottish life.’

At first sight, these novels might be taken as representing the apotheosis of this tendency. Stuart examines in almost forensic detail the growing up of a gay boy within a dysfunctional Glasgow family, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Armstrong’s narrator gives his account of life as a member of a gang in Airdrie, from his early teens into his 20s.

Both novels make use of the language of everyday urban Scots, making no concessions to the over-sensitive reader. Both describe characters caught up in lives where they have to cope with problems that blight today’s Scotland: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, violence, crime, urban decay and fragile mental health.

However, despite the bleakness of the subject matter, the main protagonists in each novel eventually overcome the misery of their circumstances, and are able to find ways of escaping from the ties that bind them to their pasts.

Powerful fictions that I recommend to anyone interested in contemporary Scottish culture.

A Head Full Of Ideas

What is now known as ‘The Folk Revival’ began in Britain at the tail end of the 1950s. The likes of Lonnie Donegan emerged from the world of traditional jazz to record versions of American folk songs, and performers such as Robin Hall and Jimmy McGregor appeared on TV’s Tonight programme with songs from the UK, arranged in a style that drew on instrumental techniques from The States.

As a schoolboy, just entering my teens, I was fascinated. Here were songs that depicted the past of working people and their real lives, but also songs of contemporary protest – CND had a particularly rich supply that could be guaranteed to infuriate parents and relatives for whom The War was still a live issue.

Friends at school started to buy guitars and lead impromptu performances of currently popular recordings in the genre: ‘Hang down your head, Tom Dooley’ and ‘Jailer, bring me water’ come to mind, songs you could belt out on a bus run.

In the middle years at secondary, I began to think of myself as a folk fan, and in the way of teenagers the world over, I associated with others sharing my tastes. I began to act out the self-image that I believed was appropriate, sharing records, endlessly discussing the meanings of songs, buying the right kind of denims and woollen sweaters, and eventually obtaining, and teaching myself to play, a ramshackle five string banjo

By this time, with the intolerance of youth, I had decided that ‘proper’ folk music should be confined to the songs of Scotland, Ireland and (occasionally) England. In this I was heavily influenced by the work of Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, and The Clancy Brothers.

My closest friend, Jim, who was the best guitarist I knew, was transatlantic in his taste, being into Ragtime, Blues and Woody Guthrie. We argued incessantly about what was appropriate for Motherwell folksingers to perform. (At this time I was much taken up with authenticity. This tendency later came to be known as ‘Folk Fascism’.)

Jim had an older brother with a pal who made frequent visits to the USA, and brought back records not obtainable in this country. Jim was always going on about one particular LP. He said it was the most wonderful thing he had ever heard, and I said it was probably a load of commercialised American rubbish. He said that the performer wrote his own songs, and they were terrific. I said that if he wrote his own songs, it wasn’t proper folk music. He kept offering to let me hear this fabulous record, but I, in my purity, refused even to listen to such degraded material, lest I be infected by it.

Then, one night on TV, there was a folk music program. Ready to be destructively critical, I settled down to watch it. A woman sang a song that powerfully affected me. It was a not-quite-love song, touching just those nerves that reduce hormone-packed adolescents to mush. When I told Jim about it next day, he asked the title.

‘Something about not thinking twice,’ I said.

‘That’s the first track on that LP you’ve never lowered yourself to experience,’ Jim said.

Jim loaned me his copy of ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’, and my life changed. I became an obsessional fan.

Over the years, Dylan has continually surprised his audiences by changing and developing his work. The folk singer became a protest singer, and then an introspective balladeer. He shocked listeners by moving into electric pop, experimented in country music and, no matter the popular genre he used, has consistently demonstrated incredible songwriting talent.

On May 24 this year, Bob Dylan reaches the age of 80 and is still creating and performing. I can only hope he goes on for many more years. He has been an enduring and illuminating presence in my life.

Holidays, Haircuts and Beer.

I try to fight off encroaching old-fogey-ism when I become aware of it in my thinking or behaviour. I have managed (sometimes) to stop myself complaining out loud at the dire state of popular music these days, or shouting at the television when particularly infuriating comments are made by politicians, pundits and others whose views rattle my cage. But I cannot deny that the signs are still there.

The current pandemic affords me ample opportunity to exercise my sense of outrage, and in particular the recurrent obsession of the media with speculating about the ending of lockdown and the possibility of a return to ‘normal’ life. The current easing of some restrictions has heightened this media onslaught, and increased my annoyance.

I should, I suppose, offer explanation for my negativity.

My life has been, for a number of years now, close to permanent lockdown on account of my limited mobility. I don’t get out much, unlike the restless gadabouts who appear regularly on my television, weeping about not being able to go to nightclubs, restaurants or the gymnasium. Staying in doesn’t bother me any longer.

Similarly, I gave up trying to arrange vacations when, for the third time in a row, hotels advertising full accessibility for the disabled turned out to be lying, not only in their websites, but on the telephone when I contacted them to double check their claims. It had a negative effect on my blood pressure to arrive at a hotel only to be confronted by steps at the front door which could not have been negotiated in a Sherman tank, never mind a wheelchair, and to be told, ‘Oh, we used to have a ramp but it got broken.’

I recently heard a couple on the radio declaring, ‘We both work hard, and we just live for our holidays.’ I hope I can be forgiven for my slight lack of sympathy. I can feel the fogey-ism beginning to bubble up as I consider these poor souls whose only reason for living is the annual fortnight in somewhere foreign by the sea. Probably I am being unreasonable, but the importation of Coronavirus by returning holidaymakers last year seems to have been forgotten, not only by the travellers themselves but also by businesses desperate to return to profit.

The other whinges that particularly attract my elderly disfavour are the incessantly stated longings for hairdresser appointments and ‘a pint of beer in a pub,’(to quote the Westminster Prime Minister – I could perhaps understand had he expressed the former desire, rather than the latter).

But then, I am bald as a coot, with a poor capacity for the retention of fluids, so neither of these predilections are high on my list of priorities.

What is important to me is that the following of the data is observed, and compliance with necessary restrictions thus continuing the management of the pandemic, and reduction of infection rates, consequent illnesses and mortality.

I know, I know, the Conservative backbenchers have explained again and again that we must open up the businesses that have suffered for more than a year; but too often, it seems to me, this plea is made with little regard to the safety of the population.

But then, I am just an old fogey. I may as well admit it.

A Free Press?

Back in the 1960s, when I was wee, the local Health Board (or whatever it was called then) decided to extend the clinic across the road from the tenement where I lived. Part of the extension was the construction of a new delivery room, to improve its maternity facilities. This was built on the upper storey, at the same height as the upstairs tenement flats opposite. The delivery room had large windows, and when the work was finished, they were entirely covered by Venetian blinds. From time to time, these blinds were open, but never when the delivery room was in use.

However, gossip began to spread. There were whispers, in the Co-op and elsewhere: ‘The folk in the hooses ower the road can see the weemen havin thur bairns.’ Soon, a reporter from the local newspaper arrived in the street, and started conducting a survey of the locals, shuffling up dark closes, knocking on upstairs doors and trying to find someone to confirm the scandalous accusation. Since it was entirely nonsense, the reporter was sent packing at every door – except one.

Mrs B was famous in the street for being easily led. It was never discovered whether she had been offered cash for her story, or whether she simply craved the celebrity of being ‘in the paper’ ,but when the weekly edition hit the streets, there she was on the front page, telling how, while giving birth to her eldest child, she had been able to wave out of the window of the delivery room (unimpeded by Venetian blinds) to her neighbours across the road. Public decency was, according to the newspaper, outraged. Something had to be done!

There was much hilarity in the street. Not only had Mrs B’s firstborn been delivered in a maternity ward in a town three miles distant, but the birth had taken place a year before the extension of our local clinic. But it was just Mrs B behaving true to form. Nobody was bothered.

The story has come back to me after I have been faithfully tuning in to the Scottish Government’s daily briefings during the Covid pandemic. Every now and again, during journalists’ questions, Government representatives have been challenged by statements clearly designed to imply the existence of some shameful scandal: ‘Minister, we have been speaking to a woman in Dumfries who said . . .’ or ‘Minister, is it true that . . .’ or some similar opening, often making use of wild speculation or the words of unidentified complainants.

And when I hear these representatives of our supposedly free and trustworthy press, I cannot help but recall how, way back then, a member of their profession duped or coaxed a member of the community into putting her name to an outrageous untruth. Fortunately, it was quickly refuted and widely mocked, but I worry that professional standards in the press may still leave much to be desired. It would seem that many of the journalists attending the briefings bring with them agendas hostile to the Scottish Government, and represent publications with strong Unionist leanings.

Could there possibly be an onslaught in progress against the Scottish Government, co-ordinated between a right wing media and opposition political parties, in the run-up to the coming election?

Or am I merely an old cynic with paranoid tendencies?

Image and Imagination

In Buckie, in the North East of Scotland, there is a small but beautifully organised museum, focused on the fishing heritage of the town. A number of years ago, I visited while on holiday in the area, and was fascinated, particularly by the enlargements of old photographs used to illustrate the lives and work of the fisher folk of the late 19th and early 20th century.

There is surely nothing more evocative than photographs from the past, that offer us a glimpse into a departed world, but one inhabited by people like ourselves, in strange clothing and unfamiliar contexts, but revealing in their faces and postures the common humanity that we share with them.

In the museum shop, postcard sized copies of some of these photographs were on sale, and, finding them irresistible, I purchased a selection. As with many holiday souvenirs, their number reduced after the return home: some lost, some torn, some marked by coffee stains. Eventually, only one, for me the most fascinating, remained, perched among other clutter on a bookshelf.

The photograph shows a young woman engaged in the work of filling a barrel, probably of herring, topping it up with brine. I found the image unsettling and spent much time imagining how the life of this young woman might have been lived.

At length, an idea crept into my mind that, some visitor to the museum, seeing the photograph, might see in its subject a similarity to someone he had known in the present day. I played around with the conceit, trying it out first of all as a framework for a ghost story. This proving unsuccessful, I used it as the basis for a poem.

The resultant work was published this month. You can read it below.

A Victorian Photograph

Over one hundred years ago this photograph

was taken; but the woman it shows might be you.

The hands, slightly too large, are unmistakable;

the narrow waist. The shawl around your head

accentuates your features: full brow and wide dark eyes,

your lips almost a smile.

I can imagine you thus occupied: the harbour side

the reek of fish, your arms glittering with scales,

your fingers numbed by the snell wind.

Such concentration, as you pour, into a barrel,

brine from a chipped enamel basin,

your clothing soiled by labour, masking your beauty;

yet you are beautiful, then, now.

And did some deckhand, trembling with joy,

love you, and come to know, as I have known,

the tender miracle of heart on heart?

First published in Marble Poetry Magazine, Issue 8, Jan. 2021

Copyright © Gordon Gibson

Claret

During the long, dreary, Covid-19 summer just past, my output as a writer diminished to a trickle. There was too much news to keep up with, too many anxieties cluttering the mind, and I sank into lethargy. At length, I picked out a list of publications open for submissions, and looked into my extensive files of unpublished work, seeking something salvageable to send off.

I came across some notes that I had made at a writing workshop, long forgotten, and started to tinker with them. The tutor had asked participants to focus on something that they really liked, and to identify a list of its attractive features. They should then construct a line of poetry about each of those features. The outcome, we were assured, would be an expressive and entertaining poem.

Perhaps it was a warm day, or maybe my attention was wandering, but my notes consisted of some random and uninspired jottings under the heading ‘Claret’. I gave it another go, but this time, influenced by some reading I had been doing about Edinburgh in the 18th-century, I attempted to use Scots in the exercise, and it seemed to suit the topic well. A few glasses of the liquid described also helped with the creative processes (or that, at least, was how it felt).

Having completed the task, I sent the resultant poem to Lallans, the Journal o Scots airts an letters. Although I write occasionally in Scots, I had never before felt confident enough to submit to this admirable and well-respected publication. It was therefore with great pleasure that I learned the poem had been accepted to appear in Lallans 97, Yuil 2020. You can read it below.

A Bottle o Claret

An aesome kyle, roond-shoudert, nairae-neckit.

Sandwich-buirdit in the leed o Fraunce,

Rantin its ain praises.

Brammed up wi a silver-paper croun,

Like an uncle at Hogmanay.

The green gless gleams,

The wine is daurk within.

Its soond is the dunt o a mell on the table tap.

Amang ithers o its kind,

It jowes wi conveeviality.

Chucklin, it haunds oot weelness.

The air is wairmed bi its fruitfu braith.

Its taste, o muild an sunshine,

Bumbaisies an delites the tongue.

The Student Experience

There has been much attention given to university students in recent weeks. Most people seem sympathetic to their plight – forced as they were to return to their studies despite Covid-19, many of them suffering quarantine, some of them in uncomfortable lodgings and residencies, a few left short of rations, all expected to forego the joys of restaurants and pubs.

Conditions have proved unpopular with them, especially for those entering their first year. No freshers’ week, limited opportunities to socialise, little contact with lecturers. There have been calls from student representatives and from parents to allow resident students to return home. The universities have not been keen, whether for financial reasons or in order to stop the spreading of the virus.

There have also been some less kind comments in the press and social media suggesting that the young people are responsible for their own problems (boozing and cosying up when they were told not to) and telling them to ‘grow up’ like their hardy forebears had to do.

It has all caused me to recall my first term at Glasgow University back in 1966, and to wish the students of 2020 all the very best in putting up with the fix within which they find themselves.

No one in my family had ever gone to university. At the end of my secondary education I could only think of one job that I wished to do – to teach English. This required a university degree, and so, having received no advice from anyone on the school staff, I applied to study English at Glasgow (nowhere else). Unfortunately, I was part of the ‘post-war bulge’, all of whom seemed to have decided to do the same thing. My application was rejected, and I set off to look for a job.

I was about to begin work (reluctantly) at the Caterpillar factory in Uddingston when I received a letter from Glasgow, offering me a place in the Faculty of Engineering. Apparently, as I had mediocre passes in maths and science, I could just meet their entrance requirements.

An innocent abroad, I went back to my secondary school to ask for advice. Would I be wise to accept this place? A member of staff, who had probably attended university 40 years earlier, assured me that, ‘Once you are in, you can change your course to something else, as long as you don’t fail exams.’ He was completely wrong, but I didn’t find that out until later.

There can never have been anyone less prepared or worse advised for starting university than I was. I had studied no engineering at any point in my schooling. Not only did I struggle with mathematics, but I loathed it. I could just about cope with rudimentary physics, but chemistry was pretty much beyond me. I remember vividly an introductory lecture on Vector Analysis. I did not know what a Vector was, and the professor did not feel it necessary to start with such basic explanations. I had no idea how to use The University Library, and only went to The Reading Room in order to ogle haughty girls from fee-paying schools.

When, after the Christmas break, I went to see someone called The Adviser of Studies, to ask what I should do about my course, having crashed in all but one of my first term exams, he said ‘My advice to you, son, is to leave.’ So I did.

There were jobs in those days, and I quickly became a Commercial Apprentice (i.e. Trainee Clerk) with The British Steel Corporation. I stuck that for two years, licking my wounds, until the boredom got to me, and I set off to College of Education to train as a primary school teacher. Only then did I learn how to survive in higher education, and when I was qualified, I started further study with the newly formed Open University.

I can only hope that there is more preparation and support available to the new students of today than existed back in October 1966, but even if some of them struggle, as I did, to make sense of their experiences, I would reassure them that there are always ways forward, even after initial disasters.

Acting My Age

It was only when I began to commit time to writing, after my retirement, that I realised just how many other people there are similarly engaged. As I became increasingly familiar with the world of small magazines, e-zines and writers’ organisations, I couldn’t help but notice that much of the published work I saw, and a large proportion of editors and organisers, came from the same generation as myself.

Now, although I am an enthusiastic writer, and ambitious to have work published, whether online or on paper, I have tried not to set myself goals unlikely to be achievable. I don’t expect to be the next Rowling (!). I do, however, work hard at my writing, and seek advice and support wherever I can, as much as age and mobility difficulties permit.

Therefore when I came across a Facebook site called ‘Autumn Voices‘ which stated itself to be ‘a community forum for anyone interested in creativity in later life, interested in posts about events, initiatives, topics of interest, photos, quotes, books and reviews that can be shared among later creatives,’ I was immediately interested.

The organisation runs free writing competitions, offers opportunities on its website to showcase creative work, enables one-to-one links between subscribers, and supports many other activities aimed at sustaining a community discussing and promoting creativity in later life.

If, like me, you feel that Autumn Voices is likely to be of interest and value to you, why not check out their website at: https://autumnvoices.co.uk/

I signed up (for free) a few weeks ago, and have already submitted a short memoir that was published online as part of a current Flash Memories Project. You can read my contribution below.

Crowning Moments

The very first time that I remember being annoyed with my mother was when, without preamble, she announced: ‘Our British soldiers are the best at marching. They’re that smart. None of they foreigners can match them.’

What did she know about soldiers? When I played soldiers, it was a boys game. Not girls, not mothers. Yet here, in front of the new television that my father had bought specially for The Coronation, with money he’d won on the fixed odds coupon, we watched rows of faint figures on the tiny screen, parading through London streets, and my mother’s voice soared with pride as if she was personally involved.

The room was full of women. We had the first television in the street, and to celebrate our good fortune my mother had invited all the neighbours in, to watch The Queen . They were packed into the tiny living room. They brought their own chairs, and, once seated, it was impossible for them to move. My mother had borrowed cups in advance, and early in the proceedings, a dangerous serving of tea had taken place, during which a teapot was passed around, and cups filled to overflowing. Milk and sugar (bottle and packet) followed, less likely to cause accidents but even more prone to spillage.

No other children were allowed, although from time to time waifs would knock at the door and whine for admission. The responsibilities of motherhood were abandoned for the day. The callers were told: ‘Away you go and play. Your mother’s busy.’ I was the only child watching the spectacle. For what seemed an interminable time, I sat on my mother’s knee admiring the matching men, the cavalry, the carriages with their oddly-dressed passengers, the excited onlookers, the falling rain.

When my patience evaporated, I was dumped on the floor to explore the dark forest of chair legs, nylon stockings, worn leather shoes and grubby slippers, with their strange miasma of feet. Occasionally, there were fascinating glimpses of suspenders and naked hips, mysteries of femininity that have haunted my dreams through subsequent years.

[First published (online) in Autumn Voices Blog, September 2020]

Anthems For Doomed Union?

After intervention by PM Boris and probably by the BBC’s new director-general, Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia will be sung as well as played at the last night of the Proms this year. Traditionalists, including many Tory backbenchers, were outraged when it was suggested that the singing of these ‘patriotic songs’ should be cancelled to avoid possible spreading of virus by flying saliva. Some seemed to think it was really a vile plot by political malcontents to detract from the celebration of Britain’s glorious imperial past.

As someone who, despite enjoying classical music, cringes at the annual community singing fest of English self-glorification, (let us not be kidded by the presence of a few saltires, when they sing of Britannia, we know what they really mean), I would have been quite happy to experience the melodies without the flag-waving. At least this year’s performance will be delivered by a limited number of professional singers, or so we are promised.

This does not mean that I am hostile towards my southern neighbours, but only that there is a certain kind of nostalgic yearning for the days of Empire that goes along with a narrow minded refusal to accept the facts about Britain’s Imperial past. Sir Edward Elgar himself was said to have loathed the lyrics that were written in 1902 for his Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 byA.C. Benson. In 2020, who can still reasonably foster the hope that ‘God who made thee mighty’ will ‘make thee mightier yet’?

It may be, of course, that establishment voices wished the songs to be performed as part of the current campaign to convince the dissatisfied among the population of the value of remaining in a United Kingdom. If this is so, it demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of why the majority of Scots have indicated that they would, in any future referendum, vote for Scottish independence. It is not for dislike of the English, but rather showing realisation of the unbalanced nature of political power wielded at Westminster, and in particular the glaring incompetence of the government currently in charge there.

Keeping Active

forest-path-2825133_640

Like many others, having retired from paid occupation, I am constantly alert to the possibility of sinking into mental decline, now that the daily delight of working for a living has been removed from me. Momentary lapses, such as forgetting the name of a politician, or being unable to provide the answer to a question on a TV quiz, can send me into a panic.

In an effort to ward off such anxieties, I have for several years now made use of FutureLearn and Coursera, online organisations giving free access to short courses at universities around the world. These courses are clearly designed to provide ‘tasters’ to attract paying students, but for an old buffer like me, they offer up-to-date information, either in familiar subject areas, or in new fields. I am convinced that the study will do my brain the world of good.

My other retirement project has been to engage in writing for publication, and so the courses I have chosen to study over the past 10 years have tended to be literature or arts based, including some designed to assist aspiring writers to develop their skills. Such writing courses, I have discovered, also refresh the enthusiasm when it flags, as may happen at times of fatigue, pandemic or paucity of ideas.

A couple of years ago, I took part in one such online writing workshop in which participants were encouraged to seek images from nature and use them metaphorically in a poem, exploring an aspect of the human condition. I had a bash at the task and filed away the end product. From time to time, looking over unpublished work, I revisited the poem, tweaking a phrase here and there, adjusting lines to alter their rhythm, cutting out what did not ring true. I did not seek publication.

Then,earlier this year, I noticed on social media a call for submissions from the magazine Here Comes Everyone, which publishes both in print and online. They were looking for writing on the theme Green (to be interpreted in whichever way the writer chose). I remembered my workshop piece, and sent it off.

I was delighted when the poem was accepted for publication online, on the magazine’s website. You can read it by clicking on the address below.

https://hcemagazine.com/near-sleep-within-his-arms-gordon-gibson/