A glimpse of a happy land called Scotland

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By Kenneth Roy

Christopher Small, Marxist, Oxbridge, fiercely intelligent, non-sporty, literary editor and dramatic critic:
‘Why is it, Willie, that working-class Scots are so addicted to the game of football?’
William Hunter, Old Left, Paisley Grammar School, of dark humour, sporty, columnist and football writer:
‘Because it’s all they’ve got’.

When this exchange took place, it was not true that football was all they’d got. They had full employment. They were still building ships on the Clyde and mass-producing cars at Linwood.

By Kenneth Roy

Christopher Small, Marxist, Oxbridge, fiercely intelligent, non-sporty, literary editor and dramatic critic:
‘Why is it, Willie, that working-class Scots are so addicted to the game of football?’
William Hunter, Old Left, Paisley Grammar School, of dark humour, sporty, columnist and football writer:
‘Because it’s all they’ve got’.

When this exchange took place, it was not true that football was all they’d got. They had full employment. They were still building ships on the Clyde and mass-producing cars at Linwood. They still had the Labour Party, their tribal home, safe, unchallenged. They had their own newspaper, the Daily Record, which was not afraid to use big words and to publish foreign stories on the front page. They subscribed to a system of education, academic in vision, disciplinarian in application. They had a council roof over their head for life. They went to church and sent their children to Sunday School. At the time this exchange took place, community drama festivals lasted a week and there were such things as local co-operative societies.

What a very sentimental paragraph I have just committed to screen. It is so dripping in it that I wrote the first version of it, went to have dinner at this conference I’m attending, returned to it two and a half hours later, and found that the machine had been immobilised by the shock of so much sentiment and was refusing to take any more. I lost the lot. This machine has not a sympathetic bone in its bodyworks.

But now that I’ve got it started again, I can say (before it decides to pack up again) that history has caught up with my friend William Hunter and given him the posthumous gift of prophecy. Suddenly, it really is all they’ve got. Football, that is.

Last Sunday, I’m told, on the Glasgow Road in Kilmarnock, the posh part of town, you could hear the roars and the cheers from the main drag, John Finnie Street, two miles away, as the team bus made its victorious procession to the inaptly named Rugby Park, where the players were rapturously received after beating the Celtic by a goal to nothing in the cup final.

Kilmarnock’s Islay McLeod wrote yesterday about this phenomenon. I loved her quote from a young man of the town who told his friend Turnip that he was so effing happy, man. Not that the word was effing exactly; and I have fastidiously attached a comma between ‘happy’ and ‘man’. But you get the
drift. You had to be so effing happy (man) because Kilmarnock had unexpectedly found a reason for communal celebration. It doesn’t happen often. That is the nature of our national sadness. Effing happiness – take it when it comes, Turnip, for it may not return in your lifetime.


Why does it take a football team to make Turnip’s pal so effing happy, to bring thousands of people on to the streets of this defeated town, and to release its latent civic pride? I ask the question in a genuine spirit of inquiry.


A couple of weeks before the cup final, jaunty little Johnnie Walker finally quit Kilmarnock. The last workers of the last industry were paid off. There were only 70 of them, hanging on to the end. What work is left? The answer seems to be the council, the hospital, a little bit of retail, and minor admin in dental surgeries and lawyers’ offices. The thriving criminal court must employ a few. Occasionally the BBC turns up as a fly on the wall to film the deprivation – and, in the interests of award-winning documentaries, there are unpaid parts for the extras who have to live here. Remember the three-legged dog called Bullet? Maybe not. Fame is transient, for telly faces and three-legged dogs alike.

The general listlessness has to be experienced. In the 1930s Edwin Muir wrote a book called ‘Scottish Journey’ in which he remarked that parts of industrial Scotland had the quality of an everlasting Sunday. Surprisingly little has changed, although Sunday football is now allowed, and the purchase of alcoholic refreshments in Tesco after a decent hour. But the everlasting Sunday is shorthand for an absence of purpose, and there remains an absence of purpose in Kilmarnock, and Motherwell, and Greenock, and all those other towns upon which the conferring of city status might have acted as a stimulus and an inspiration. (Still getting the nasty letters from Perth, incidentally. They’re gathering while I’m away).

I have no right to talk about Kilmarnock. This little enterprise of ours abandoned it for no better reason than that the roof was falling in on us. We could have stuck around and said hello to the pigeons. Instead we decamped to the nearest airport, as close to the south of France as we could get without actually leaving Scotland. But it astounds me that, last Sunday in John Finnie Street, the street where our roof was falling in, there were moments of such unlooked-for joy that the sound could he heard all the way up the Glasgow Road. How wonderful for Kilmarnock. I mean it. How wonderful.

Why does it take a football team to make Turnip’s pal so effing happy, to bring thousands of people on to the streets of this defeated town, and to release its latent civic pride? I ask the question in a genuine spirit of inquiry. I watched the game on television. Not good. It was played mostly in the midfield. There was very little artistry. There was only one goal, and the usual sterile argument about whether a penalty should have been awarded in the last five minutes. The other lot thought they wuz robbed. The father of one of the players collapsed and died of a heart attack. Some overly respectful person interviewed the Celtic manager about the outcome of the game, extracting graceless replies. And finally we learned that there is to be another cup final, evidently of greater significance, later in the season. The winning team in this one was awarded the Scottish Communities Cup. Who are these Scottish Communities? We were not told. All in all, a complete mystery.

I could have wept. Maybe I did. If only we could bottle the joy momentarily expressed in Kilmarnock, we could re-create Scotland. It would indeed be a happy land. But if football is all they’ve got, it doesn’t feel enough.

 

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review