Sunday, 30 December 2007

The Jocky Wilson interview

It's nearly 26 years since Jocky Wilson won the World Darts championship, and since then, as you can read below, his life has pretty much fallen apart at the seams. I spoke to Wilson nearly seven years ago, and this is the only interview that any journalist has obtained with him in the last decade. The article appeared in the Scotsman, and was possible because the paper's sports editor, Donald Walker, allowed me a full week to find and talk to Jocky.

"Who is Jocky Wilson?" American and Faroese friends may ask. In 1982 he was one of the best known sportsmen in Britain, so famous that when Dexy's Midnight Runners released their song Jackie Wilson said, the producer of television's Top of the Pops show mistakenly put up an image of Jocky, not Jackie, when the band played the song in the BBC studio.

The picture shows Dexy's Kevin Rowland singing on TOTP, with the image of Jocky behind him.

Jocky's dart out of the shadows

The Scotsman, 17 March, 2001

CHRISTMAS 1995. Jocky Wilson is boarding a bus in Newcastle. He has left his house in Wallsend with a car on the drive and he is turning his back on the game that made him famous to head back to Kirkcaldy, to sanctuary.

Things don't quite work out. Five years on, a council flat recluse, Jocky is in a private hell of diabetes and depression and the whole of darts is suffering withdrawal.

"I've got lovely memories of him," says Eric Bristow for the sport's high and mighty. "I miss him. Darts misses him - the game needs characters like Jock."

Lower down dartdom's ladder the regrets are likewise tinged with warmth. Mention Wilson's name in Uncle's Bar and a few of the regulars edge closer to tell some happy tales of Jocky on the oche.

This pub was once called the Lister, and on a good day years ago, Jocky reckoned there was "a wee bit of the hustler atmosphere that Minnesota Fats and Paul Newman would have appreciated".

He learnt the game here - stung in his first game by a grannying from "Ginger" Snowden - and he played for any number of the local teams.

Now with the dartboard hidden away in the corner and Kirkcaldy's darts league disbanded, the game is dead on its feet in the town. "All the good players are away to Glenrothes," reckons Jocky, as he squints towards you across the hallway of his flat.

There's not many speak to him these days. His wife, Malvina, usually takes the calls, and "No," she tells allcomers, "Jocky won't talk." Today it's a little different. The man of the house answers the door, his Jack Russell terrier scampering round his feet. Jocky is still defiant.

"I just want to be left alone," he pleads from behind his big, square glasses, "because all they write about me is crap, and I don't want to read about that. That's it in a nutshell. I'm sorry. I don't want to shut the door in your face."

And if you protest that his friends are missing him, he's quick to cut you off. "Aye, but it's all over and done with now. I don't even go out. Only to the doctor. I'm sorry, but good luck to you."

Jocky wasn't always quite so shy. Fuelled by lager and vodka, he threw himself from novice to World Champion in 12 years. Once, when a social security official saw him on the television winning money at the Butlins Grand Masters, he had his dole stopped.

But he brought record crowds to darts, and in these parts of Fife he filled the pubs as folk crowded in to watch his big wins on television. When Jocky beat John Lowe for that first world crown in 1982, you'd better believe they were dancing in the streets of Raith. The image of Jocky was hung over Kirkcaldy's Mercat centre and Bill Hill penned a verse: "He's sixteen stain of fat and pain/ When he steps up to the oche/ When he throws the spears you can hear the cheers/ For Fife's wee hero Jocky."

For Jimmy Skirving, an old mate from Harrow's Bar, the pleasure was more immediate. He was there for the double ten that won the final. "Jocky came straight off the stage and gave me his darts - I've still got them. He just said, 'I've done it'. He gave my son the dartboard."

Others talk as warmly about Jocky, but even when you stand outside his door and tell him so, he won't respond beyond the hint of a toothless smile.

"Ach, I enjoyed it while it lasted. But that's life, eh? You get knocked for six, and then that's it. I couldn't do it now."

But then suddenly he raises his voice against the world. "I could have still been playing - I just didn't have it in me.

"Turning up at a venue and taking good money. Maybe my mind wasn't right, but I just couldn't get out of there quick enough. That's not on.

"And playing on TV - ach - I didn't have any go in me. I said to myself 'I'll just have to get out of this because I can't handle it any more'." The drink was part of it. Towards the end, suffering already from the diabetes, he was hospitalised after a drinking binge. That event came as a terrible blow, for reasons that the commentator Sid Waddell makes clear.

"He couldn't be Jocky Wilson without a lot of drink," Waddell believes. "He couldn't be the player he was. Unfortunately, the ten pints of lager and the three or four vodkas are going to kill you if you do it every night. I think, psychologically, he realised that, and quit when he was 45."

It's a tough old sport for the teetotaller. Waddell has got many a tale from days on the road with Jocky and the two remain good friends.

"I remember, at seven in the morning, drinking water from a Lucozade bottle and Jocky said: 'Is that gin or voddy?' I said: 'If you've had a bit to drink the night before, you should rehydrate'. He said: 'My granny told me the English poison the water.' So the only thing he'd drink was Fanta."

The stories might raise a smile, but these days they're no laughing matter for Jocky himself. "When I was brought up with the darts, it was drink and darts, drink and darts," he tells you, keeping the door half shut.

"When you have a few too many you do a lot of stupid things, but you don't think you have. I can understand now that I'm on the wagon, but at the time you never realised.

"They might like a pint now, but they know when to stop. I just kept going. I was always pissed by the end of the night. I enjoyed it while I was there. It got me out of a hole at the time. That's life, eh? I didn't look after my money, but that's another story."

That last is certainly true. Having dragged himself off the dole queue, Jocky wasn't always the luckiest with advisors. His first agent was Ron Clover, of Fourleaf management. In 1983, Jocky wrote: "Ron is much more than a manager; he is a friend. Thanks to him I do not have to worry about deals with sponsors, paperwork or tax."

Some friend. Within two years, his manager was sueing for a share of the earnings. Jocky countered he had signed for Clover when he was drunk, but the judge found for the agent, a decision that ultimately cost John Thomas Wilson around £80,000.

Later, when the Inland Revenue claimed a further £27,000 in back tax, Jocky was in real trouble. No longer earning huge sums from tournaments, he was making shift with a couple of exhibitions a week, for maybe £300 a night. Take out instalments to creditors and a hefty budget for cigarettes and beer and there was precious little left. He was declared bankrupt in 1997.

Financial problems were only part of it. Jocky suffered other pressures in the early years. For a start there was all that palaver over Malvina, when the player and his wife found themselves abused by their patriotic neighbours, for the accident of her Argentinian birth.

"I got stick through that with the Falklands War," he growls. "She's lived here since she was five years old. And they made a fuss of that. It's wrong. It's nothing to do with anything."

And here he will concede the help of friends, such as Jimmy Skirving and Sid Waddell. "Well, they knew," he agrees. "I mean, I've never been politically minded or anything, but a war's a war, eh? That's life."

And then he goes on: "Oh I've seen the world and that. I've travelled. And I'd have probably ended up in the jail if I hadn't because times have been hard here, you know. I don't miss it though. I'm glad I'm out of it, because of the way my mind was at the time."

It's impossible not to ask whether the problems were all down to booze. Jocky pauses. The Jack Russell at his feet has started to growl and he silences it by swiftly caressing the dog's backside with his foot.

"The drink came into it. But I wouldn't say it was just the drink. I just wasn't able to do it. I didn't have the energy."

In truth, depression had set in long before his playing career had finished and he was leading, he says, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde life. Then he adds insistently: "But, still, I did a lot of good for people when I was at the top, a lot of charity stuff. Nothing's said about that."

He's wrong on that score. His friends remember. Skirving can vouch for the player's generosity. "You could always rely on him," Jimmy says. "See the amount of trophies he won and gave away - I can assure you Jocky was taken a loan of quite a lot. Once he won a holiday and a nest of suitcases. He never got home with either - he sold the holiday for 50 quid and the cases for a tenner."

Somehow all the prizes were ephemeral. As long as Jocky could relax and recharge his batteries, he was happy. His most treasured assets became the fishing boats he bought with his winnings and if he could get away for a few days, he was more than ready for the battles at the oche.

Those confrontations, of course, were famously fierce - and none tougher than the skirmishes with Eric Bristow, when even the psychological warfare could turn violent

Bristow can remember a televised international from Livingston, when he was called to the stage to face Jocky in a singles game. "As I climbed up, Jocky kicked me straight on the shin. The officials pulled us apart and I had to climb up, live on TV even though I could feel my leg bleeding under my trousers.

"Jocky came up behind and I had to shake hands in front of the cameras and smile at him." He laughs craftily: "All I wanted to do was strangle him."

And now, well beyond the glare of TV lights and smiling in the gloom at some memory of his own, Jocky can reflect on the genuine friendship the two men shared. "I liked Eric, if you want the honest truth. I could trust him. No matter what the papers thought about cats and dogs, we got the wages."

They brought the punters in, you could say. "That was it. But no matter what, we still wanted to beat each other. Wind-ups and all that. But Eric's got a heart of gold, and I mean that."

And yet it's Bristow, who loudest of all, has urged his friend to end his self-imposed exile. In the gloom of the hallway, Jocky still won't entertain the notion.

"If you've not got it in your heart, what's the point? And I've not. Seriously, I've not. If I went back to darts, I'd end up drinking again, that's a cert. And I'd end up - bump. I'm better out of it. I just can't handle it.

"I liked a drink - Eric's probably the same because we all came up the same way. They like a drink, like's of the older school, but the younger school, they don't drink much. In fact, they're not very entertaining if you want the honest truth."

But surely, whatever his troubles with girls, that Phil Taylor's a good player. "Oh excellent, excellent. He's brilliant. It's a shame what's happened to Phil because I like him and all, by the way. I still think he was set up.

"But that's it, eh? I don't want to talk really."

And, at last, from behind the neat little door with its silver nameplate, J Wilson emerges to shake my hand before he disappears.

Jocky Wilson is a gentleman.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Writing on the wall for Captain Scott

Little known fact. Captain Robert Falcon Scott took more than 1200 books with him to Antarctica, and around half of them were novels and poetry anthologies. Click here for Captain Scott's Christmas reading list, published in today's Times.

Scott's Christmas reading list

Sunday, 23 December 2007

How America rewrote Scottish literature

The Library of Congress has abolished its headings for Scottish literature, provoking outrage in Scotland. This story, my exclusive for The Times, has been picked up by the BBC and is running on the Press Association wire. You can read it in the entry below.

Great Scottish authors? No they're English

The Times, December 22, 2007

With a few strokes of a bureaucrat’s pen, the entire Scottish literary tradition stretching from the medieval epic poetry of John Barbour to the drug-addled excesses of Irvine Welsh has been dismissed by the US Library of Congress and now appears as a subheading of another topic: English literature.

The decision to reclassify 700 years of Scottish writing as a subset of English has prompted the Scottish Government to raise the matter with the US Congress and sparked outrage among Scottish authors and academics.

The Washington-based institution is accused of “subjugating” a unique literary canon and classing Scots as an ethnic group within England. The poet Liz Lochhead described the American move as “appalling” while the crime writer Ian Rankin said the library’s dictat “made no kind of sense”. Even a spokesman for that most reserved of bodies, the National Library of Scotland, accused the Library of Congress of “a gross inaccuracy” and urged it to reconsider its decision.

Under the new rules – announced in the library’s Cataloging Services Bulletin - the heading “Scottish Literature”, and more than 40 Scottish subjects ranging from “Erotic poetry, Scottish” to “television plays, Scottish” are replaced just three headings: “English Literature – Scottish authors”, “Dialect Literature, Scottish” and the catch-all “Scotland - Literatures”.

The results are almost laughable. Readers searching for The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan and similar works of derring-do by Scottish writers will have to look for the books under the heading “Adventure Stories – English”, rather than “Adventure Stories – Scottish”, because that category has ceased to exist.

Similarly, differences between genres of Scottish poetry are wiped out. “Science Fiction, Scottish” becomes “Science Fiction, English”, while fans of crime writing seeking modern “Tartan Noir” authors will have to search in “Detective and Mystery Stories, English” .

But if the changes can seem absurd, they could have far reaching consequences. Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) are routinely used around the world. Even local libraries which employ the familiar Dewey decimal system for organising collections refer to LCSH when accessing material by topic. Publishers and booksellers worldwide are heavily influenced by the classification, raising the prospect that modern Scottish literature and poetry will be subsumed under the heading “English”.

Some of these difficulties have already been raised by the National Library of Scotland, which has urged the Library of Congress to restore distinct subject headings for Scottish literature. A National Library spokesman said that “aside from the obvious objections on the grounds of national identity”, the American decision presented practical problems.

“We are now in the position of having to choose between adopting these changes, thereby adopting what we consider to be a gross inaccuracy to our catalogue records and risking the alienation of many our readers, or else we abandon this international standard and accept a substantial increase to our cataloguing workloads,” said the spokesman.

Linda Fabiani, the Culture Minister, said the decision was ultimately one for authorities in the USA. However, she added: “This government believes that Scottish Literature is quite distinctive from English Literature and should be recognised as such . I shall also be raising this issue directly with Congressmen early in the new year.”

The Library of Congress maintains that “English literature” does not refer to the literature of England, but to all the literature of the countries of the United Kingdom, and the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Irish authors writing in English conform to “the customary scope of English literature as a discipline […including] works by authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas and James Joyce.”

The wider Scottish literary community reacted to this position with a mixture of incredulity and rage.

“Any Scottish writer would be appalled by this,” said Lochhead, the award winning poet and playwright. “We write in English – but sometimes not. I can’t imagine how this can happen, without anyone being consulted. There must be a very strong protest. The British Isles is not England alone. This goes absolutely against the political and cultural movements in Scotland.”

The crime writer Ian Rankin – who has sold around 20 million copies of his novels worldwide – said he was mystified by the library's stance.

“There are specific cultural differences between the countries of the United Kingdom but this smoothes them all out, If I was Irish, I would think it very odd to find Irish poetry lumped in with English poetry. And it is very odd to find Hugh MacDiarmid listed as if he was Shakespeare,” said Rankin.

The novelist AL Kennedy – who recently won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year award for her novel Day – said that the decision was depressing and harked back to her literary apprenticeship in the 1980s, when Scottish writers were routinely treated as if they were part of the English tradition.

“There has always been this difficulty that English literature can mean literature in English. I have one collection of English literature in my house which contains only one author who is actually born in England. It is depressing that there are centres of very fine centre in America which specialise in the study of Scottish literature. It is disappointing that this has happened,” she said.

A spokesman for the Library of Congress said it would consider the issue again.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Edinburgh's Sikhs mourn their 'Queen'

A remarkable journey, which began 60 years ago, when a heavily pregnant Sikh woman walked to safety from the strife-torn region of the Punjab, has ended this week in Edinburgh.

The body of Lachmi Wanti Singh Landa, 86, dressed in fine robes of peach and powder blue, was laid to rest at the centre of a crematorium chapel in Leith.

To her right, a priest in a golden jacket led a chant that was taken up by hundreds of men crushed in around the dead woman. "Satnam waheguru," they cried, "The truth of the creator is eternal", lifting their prayers to heaven for one of the most significant and beloved of women, whose life story echoes the experience of the entire Sikh diaspora.

No-one could doubt the depth of feeling for Mrs Singh, whose passing meant so much to so many. She bore eight daughter and six sons. Between them, her children have produced 63 offspring. There are 85 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, Luckvinder Singh. A further 34 wives and husbands have married into the clan. All are members of a family who knew this woman as "the Queen of Queens".

Edinburgh's Sikh community numbers between 500 and 600. Mrs Singh, who died after a short illness last week, almost 12 years to the day since her husband passed away, was directly related to more than a third of them.

In the chapel, the crowd kept moving forward. From the pews in the body of the kirk, older women in white robes shuffle up to the coffin. They approach the body to touch the dead woman’s feet, paying her the respect which age is due.

Finally, after the coffin lid had brought from the south wall of the chapel, it fell to Akbal “Aaki” Singh, Mrs Singh’s eldest son, to push the button that consigned the body to the incinerator.

An hour later, In Leith’s Gurdwara, the temple converted from St Thomas Church, the family could at last come to terms with their grief.

“She was very highly respected by everybody,” said Aaki Singh. “She loved to give people things. She spread happiness. She never had a bad word to say about anyone. If someone said a bad thing about another, ‘She would say, ‘Never say that.’ She was a peacemaker.”

Born in Lahore, Mrs Singh’s journey to Scotland began after her marriage to Karnel Singh. Sikh tradition dictates that a woman joins her husband’s family and the couple set up home in Gorashah in 1944.

This was the age of partition, the division of India and Pakistan by the British authorities, which led to a form of ethnic cleansing as Muslims were driven from the India, and Sikhs were forced from the new Muslim stage, Pakistan.

Eight months pregnant, and leaving all her possessions behind, Mrs Singh was among thousands of refugees forced to walk the 100km which led to safety in the town of Phagwara, south east of Amritsar, in the Indian Punjab. Here her first daughter Raspal Kaur, was born in August 1947. Four more children would come into the world in Phagwara and Ludhiana, before in 1958, she followed her husband to Britain, and settled with her family on St Mary’s Street in Edinburgh.

“When we came to Edinburgh we were welcomed with open arms, not like we came from some foreign land. Until I was 16 I didn’t even realise I was coloured – this is why the love for Edinburgh is so great,” said Ragbir “Rab” Singh, who came to the city at the age of four.

“There was a difference in England, a kind of segregation. We came from a community with love and care. I was welcomed into my friends at Christmas or at any other special occasion. That was the love we got from Scotland and Edinburgh.”

The family have moved around, briefly as far as Birmingham, but mostly in Edinburgh, to Gayfield Square and now a little further north, to Pilrig. Some of Mrs Singh’s children have been trailblazers. In 1971 Aaki was the first Sikh to win his case as a bus conductor and to be allowed to wear a regulation turban to work. Many of the men have been shopkeepers with premises of their own, others property dealers. Some work in the community, others in big city stores.

These days, many of the younger women are not content with just being housewives, and take jobs, unlike Mrs Singh, whose life was dedicated to her husband, her children, and her children’s children. But all honour and adore her. Mrs Singh will never be forgotten.

“She was more than a mother to us,” said Jagdish Kaur, who married into Aaki Singh in 1969. “ One of her babies came after my own first child. She was very beautiful. We looked after her like a queen. She was a queen.”

The photographs show Karnel Singh and Lachmi Wanti shortly after their marriage, Lachmi Wanti with her great-great grandson, and, immediately abover, at her 75th birthday party with her sons and daughters alongside. Thanks to the family for helping with this article, which first appeared in The Times.

Monday, 17 December 2007

The Odd Couple: Trump and Salmond

One has big hair, a $2.9bn fortune and an ego the size of the moon. The other is a former racing tipster whose own prodigious vanity is swollen by the knowledge that he is his nation's most impressive politician.

They are an unlikely pair, Donald Trump, US tycoon, and Alex Salmond, First Minister. But they have conspired to plunge Scotland into something approaching a political crisis.

Two years ago, Trump, who proudly proclaims Scottish heritage, announced plans for a luxury golf resort on a windswept, lonely stretch of the Aberdeenshire coast. He expected the move to divide environmentalists from the business community, and it did. Now, though, it has turned uglier, with bitter claims of American bullying and Scottish toadying.

Where others see windswept dunes and hear only the relentless squawking of oystercatchers, Trump harbours a dream for a 2,000-acre seaside estate with two championship links golf courses, a new clubhouse, a modern gothic hotel, 500 private homes nearby and 950 timeshare flats. All accompanied by the joyous tinkle of cash registers.

Until two weeks ago, Trump had every reason to believe this huge venture would become a reality. His promise to deliver more than 1,000 permanent jobs and inject £47m into the local economy had wowed businessmen and journalists. He claimed 91 per cent support in the community. And he seemed to have convinced the local Member of the Scottish Parliament; the fact that this was Salmond, the SNP leader, appeared to seal the deal.

More at the Independent on Sunday:The Odd Couple

Sex doesn't sell ... to an 11-year-old

IS THE singalong High School Musical game your must-have Christmas present? Are you vaguely aware that something called "rehab" dogs the life of Lindsay Lohan? Or are you too excited to care because you have just received a free gift of glittery eye make-up?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, you may already be a subscriber to Shout magazine. If not, be warned: you are about to enter the shrill world of girls on the verge of adolescence, a place where the cocoon of childhood is wearing thin but the horrors of acne are yet to erupt.

Ria (short for Maria) Welch, Shout's editor, dressed in black from top to toe, has lived in this world for 14 years. "Maybe I don't want to grow up," she says, with a mildly hysterical laugh. "I love trivia. I like fun."

More of the same at the Sunday Herald: Sex doesn't sell

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Faroe islanders ask: Where's Primark?

The Times, December 5, 2007

* 24-Hour voyage to go Christmas shopping
* Whale meat and lager served onboard ferry

They thought they’d seen it all in Leith. Over the centuries, kings, queens and great armies have landed here, along with drunkards, drug addicts and writers. But the old port has seen nothing like this friendly invasion. It’s the first Tuesday in December and the Faroe Islands – or to be precise 945 of their 48,000 inhabitants – have landed to do their Christmas shopping.

It’s not long after dawn, but already the passengers from the huge Norrona ferry are shuffling through passport control alongside the Ocean Terminal shopping centre, chattering away and checking their purses to make sure they are carrying their plastic.

It is a strange sight. As if they are about to claim political asylum, each person is carrying a huge suitcase, to carry their purchases home. The women rehearse their most important words of English: “Where is Primark?” The rejoinder – the nearest one’s Dundee – brings looks of dismay – but only briefly, as the hordes make their way to a line of 15 coaches ready to carry them up retail heaven on Edinburgh's Princes Street.

As shopping excursions go, this should be one of the most arduous. The guidebook to the Faroes advises against the 24-hour sail to and from the islands from Scotland - unless you have "a cast-iron stomach” . It can be a daunting prospect “far out to sea with nothing to break the swells and towering waves sweeping in unopposed from the coast of North America.”

And that’s in the placid summer season. This was a winter voyage, when even the hardiest old tars revise the lyrics of Nearer My God to Thee before weighing anchor. Not these islanders. In the teeth of a north-north easterly, they sat in Norrona’s Naust bar, eating whale meat and downing litres of Faroyer lager as they lapped up the entertainment from Hilman Jan Hansen, “the funniest man on the Faroes”, and a troupe of Polish hoofers.

“As soon as we got past Orkney it was perfect, as steady as the floor we are standing on now,” says Svein Heidunum, the marketing manager for the ferry operator, Smyril Line, still perceptibly swaying as he reaches out to shake hands.

Halfway between Scotland and Iceland and a day's sail from both there are no chain stores or trendy boutiques in Torshavn, the Faroes capital. Nintendo Wiis are even rarer than they are in Edinburgh.

The bus journey to the city centre is one of quiet anticipation. Susanna Toftegaard and Berghild Jacobsen, young women who work in tourism, have made the three-day trip, are comparing notes. Susanna is checking through her shopping list, which itemises around 30 relatives who must have presents. “We have many second cousins on the Faroes,” she says.

The early forays into the shops are disappointing. Harvey Nichols evokes only laughter – “Seven hundred and fifty pounds? My month’s wage” – and the John Lewis department store is likewise too expensive. The women are thoughtful as they finally emerge on to Princes St.

Here the mood instantly changes. An advance guard of islanders is outside the H&M clothes shop, taking a smoking break. They nod and gesture, as if to say, “This is where the action is.” They’re not wrong.

Inside, it's carnage. There are hundreds of Faroese in the shop. In the women’s and children’s departments every till has lines of 20 or more snaking away, with purchases piled high. In the wide open spaces of the sales floor, men women and children are tottering between the racks of clothing, rapidly striping them bare.

Susanna disappears into the throng near the “Belt Detail Skirts”. She’s spotted 20 minutes later, clutching a child’s jacket, skirts, shirts and three make-up bags. Another half hour passes before she hoves into view again having added to the pile a a Spiderman outfit for her young son and a pair of polka dot pyjamas.

“Do you want a bag for that?” enquires the shop assistant, a film of sweat breaking out over her brow. “That won’t be necessary,” smiles Susanna, deftly flicking open her suitcase.

At 2pm, on coach to Leith, Sonni Jacobsen, who works in the timber trade, is the on the way back to Norrona, with his girlfriend Joan Heinessen and their baby. They have two H&M bags and one each from Curry’s, Lush and the Disney shop.

“We have to drop the bags off at the ship now,” says Sonni. And then what? “More shopping. There are still four hours left.”

* The photo shows Susanna Toftegaard (left) and Berghild Jacobsen outside the Dome in Edinburgh. Thanks to Tom Main for the image. You can link to Tom's excellent website in the column on the right, and from here:

Thomas Main Photography

Monday, 3 December 2007

Flagging up our national day

The Times, December 1, 2007

First the history. The year is 832AD and deep in East Lothian a weary band of Picts and Scots is surrounded by a mighty Saxon army led by Athelstan. Fearing the worst, King Angus (he’s a Pict) turns his eyes heavenwards and sees to his surprise the cross of St Andrew marked out in white clouds spread across a blue sky. The sign is both omen and inspiration. Angus marches out to victory, and in gratitude installs Andrew as his country’s patron saint.

Fast forward to November 30, 2007. Under leaden skies, Scotland’s culture minister Linda Fabiani has chosen to launch the holiday celebrations to mark St Andrews Day at this ancient battlefield now occupied by the village of Athelstaneford - the only place on Earth named after a loser.

Fabiani’s schedule is hectic. In roughly 12 hours time, her day will end at a ceilidh in Edinburgh’s Princes St Gardens. By then she will have presented the Saltire awards for literature, judged a student debate “this house believes that you don’t have to be born in Scotland to be Scottish” (co-incidentally the motto of the country’s rugby selectors), and planted a tree in nearby St Andrews Square gardens.

But for now it seems appropriate that she should absorb the nationalist spirit at the home of the saltire. Appropriate too that she is surrounded by flag-waving children who on the count of three yell “happy St Andrews day!” The minister beams.

Fabiani’s smile grows broader a few moments later, when Sheena Richardson, the Provost of East Lothian reveals that henceforth, the ruling SNP/Liberal coalition have decreed that every public building in the county will fly the cross of St Andrew.

“That an absolutely fantastic idea,” Fabiani tells the children. She will tell every council in Scotland to follow the lead of Athelstaneford and fly the saltire from their buildings. Isn’t that a good idea, she asks the kids.

Silence. And a shuffling of feet. “Well, isn’t it?”

“Yes” groan the kids at last. This must be the “freedom” Mel Gibson was on about in the movies.

When she has finished a photocall, Fabiani takes time out to explain to any remaining doubters that the saltire is a warm, friendly and inclusive banner. “We are so determined that everyone who lives here should feel themselves part of Scotland," she says

It all sounds wonderful, unless you happen to be one of the chippy English incomers, 400,000 of whom make up Scotland’s largest minority group. Isn’t the symbolism of the flag also a sign of their defeat?

“It was the 9th century you know,” the minister oozes reassuringly. “It wasn’t the English and the Scots as we know them now. It was the Picts and the Scots and the Angles and the Saxons. Everyone likes to look back on their history to find wee bits of glory. It is all a bit of fun and games. It’s never the reality.”

So by the same token surely the 800,000 Scots who live in England should feel English?

Not at all, says the minister. “To me, it’s more about saying, isn’t it pretty fantastic what this country’s done. Whether it be Scotland, whether it be England or Wales, we’ve all got a fabulous history, lets celebrate it. Just be part of it. Because it’s about having a good time. It’s about no more than that.” She adds for good measure: “My concerns are about all the jingoism which comes with the union flag.”

That ministerial pronouncement comes to mind again 90 minutes later as she plants her tree in St Andrews Square, to celebrate the opening of the gardens to the public for the first time in history. Above her looms the monument to Henry Dundas, the fiercest advocate of the union in the later 18th century. Out of respect the man dubbed “the uncrowned king of Scotland” has been shrouded in a tarpaulin so he can’t see his sanctuary as it is opened up to the nationalist hordes.

Letting in the public in the public will make this place seem a whole lot “more Scottish and European” says the minister, carefully avoiding the B-word. But, she’s asked, what would Henry Dundas make of it all? “I’m not even going there,” she hoots. “Your’re paranoid.”

She may be right. In the years ahead, it is easy to imagine the comfortable English minority sharing a dram with their tolerant Scottish friends on warm and friendly national holiday shared by everyone. Or almost everyone. Ancient Britons, Angles and Saxons had best beware.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Speaking of nationalism ...

Two English musicians with views on national identity, but only one of them is an arsehole. Can you identify him? No prizes, it's just for fun.

"Britain's a terribly negative place... With the issue of immigration, it's very difficult, because although I don't have anything against people from other countries, the higher the influx into England, the more the British identity disappears. So the price is enormous. If you travel to Germany, it's still absolutely Germany. If you travel to Sweden it still has a Swedish identity. But travel to England and you have no idea where you are! It matters because the British identity is very attractive, I grew up into it, and I find it quaint and very amusing. But England is a memory now. Other countries have held on to their basic identity, yet it seems to me that England was thrown away."

Morrissey, NME, 1 December, 2007.

"I am totally English. I love the lyrics of Noel Coward. I even like Gilbert and Sullivan. But the point I would make to the BNP and the people who go on about their culture being threatened by alien things, is that no-one has allowed and welcomed non-English cultures so whole-heartedly into their lives and into their brains and into their food more than I have. Yet I don't feel the slightest bit compromised or diluted as a human being. I'm as English as my Staffordshire great grandparents. As my Lancashire dad would say, 'What the fuck are you all scared of? What kind of wimps are you if the man standing behind you is wearing a turban, how does that threaten your identity, you twats?' Get over it, for fuck's sake."
Robert Wyatt, Uncut, October, 2007