I STILL find it a bit counter-cultural that you should be reading this as the New Year dawns. In the world I grew up in, English newspapers were published on Christmas Day but not New Year’s Day. Scottish papers vice versa. And never the twain would meet.
As in most respects, we have long since fallen into line with the Christmas pre-eminence. Whatever else this results from, it is not a rise in religiosity, though it might have something to do with the decline of Presbyterian Scotland which was never very keen on Christmas.
The old order changeth and yieldeth place to new. In other words, things move on. Much of Scotland used to work on Christmas Day. Now there are more holidays, greater prosperity, easy credit, unbridled materialism. So we end up with a two-week hiatus from normal life, which is more than enough and then has to be paid for.
My New Year’s Day ritual used to involve being taken by my father to the Celtic v Rangers game in Glasgow. Since I grew up in Dunoon, this was no mean expedition though in these days there were real ferries connecting with trains. What a quaint idea! Leave at ten, see the game, avoid the bottles and back by tea-time.
My father was a Church of Scotland elder and we were Celtic supporters. It was a badge of pride that this contained no contradiction since our lot were open to all and always had been. This made me something of a social oddity and, as a child of the grim era before Jock Stein, I learned stoicism at an early age.
The new year was the only time when a bottle of whisky entered our household. This was not due to any particular aversion to the stuff but to the simple fact that it could not be afforded. Scotland, in these more frugal days, divided quite sharply between those for whom drink was the first thing to be bought out of a pay-packet and others, probably the majority, for whom it was the last.
As for turkeys, I was in middle-age before I tasted the species and never felt any sense of deprivation. Turkeys were very English – or maybe it was a class thing. Anyway, our festive meals centred around chicken which was itself a rarity to an extent that now seems unimaginable. (I use the generic term “meals” since dinner, at least in the West of Scotland, happened at lunch-time so it all gets a bit confusing).
Small-town Scotland was a good, safe place to grow up and I have always been grateful for it. At least among the innocent young, there was an unspoken egalitarianism that few dared to breach. We more or less all went to the same school, shared roughly the same interests, walked the same streets and spoke with the same accent.
When John Smith, the late, lamented Labour leader, spoke at the school’s reunion, he declared “a Scottish county education” to be “the finest in the world”. John might have been over-egging the pudding, or had a couple of drams, but we all knew what he meant. It produced a lot of people like himself, well-grounded and with a deep sense of self-worth.
Accent, and the way I speak, is something that has never given me a moment’s pause for thought. As far as I am aware, it has been neither asset nor obstacle – just an inherent part of who I am. I have never knowingly adjusted, diluted or exaggerated my natural way of speaking which, I’m sure, puts me in the same position as the vast majority of my fellow-Scots.
Just before Christmas, I saw a BBC Scotland programme which started as a bit of fun with archive material of Scottish images Hollywood has projected over the decades. If anyone felt aggrieved, they should spare a thought for the Mexicans and native Americans! And the Irish still subsidise American film-makers to churn out banal caricatures of themselves.
The programme then moved into heavier waters about the doing-down of the Scottish accent and dialects mainly, it seemed, by the Reithian hand of the BBC. Ancient grievances were exhumed for dissection. The White Heather Club was ritually sneered at. Being the festive season, a pantomime villain was required so the effete art critic, Brian Sewell, representative of nobody and nothing, was hired to be patronising and offensive.
It was quite amusing that the savant engaged to turn this sackload of chips-on-the-shoulder into some kind of quasi-political thesis addressed us in impeccable standard English. Surely this was a chance to exhibit his gallimaufry of suppressed linguistic inclinations? But I suppose he wanted people to understand what he was moaning about.
What struck me was how time-warped it all was. Society evolves, attitudes change, creativity triumphs over conservatism (except, perhaps, in Scottish documentary-making – I doubt if John Grierson would have thought much of this lot). As the programme had to concede, somewhat self-contradictorily, the BBC’s Play for Today produced great, earthy Scottish drama in the 1970s. Bill Forsyth’s hey-day was more than 30 years ago. Billy Connolly’s Parkinson breakthrough was in 1973, not 2013. So what’s the problem?
In contrast, I caught a gem of a BBC Radio Scotland programme in which Billy revealed his MP3 Shuffle to Janice Forsyth. One of his choices was Barbara Dickson singing Jock o’ Hazeldean. He savoured not just her wonderful voice but also the rich Scots language and recalled the “middle class numpties” who discouraged its use in his schooldays.
No quack thesis was required. As in any society, there were prejudices which prevailed within Scotland which now seem as outdated as bottle-throwing at football matches, Christmas not being observed and newspapers taking New Year’s Day off. We spoke to ourselves in a certain way, not because of some external conspiracy but because it was the custom of the time.
In another great piece of festive broadcasting, I heard Kevin Bridges in hilarious conversation with Terry Christian on BBC Radio Four, in the uncompromising accents of Clydebank and Manchester. It was further confirmation that Lord Reith is dead, so get over it. The last thing anyone can now complain about is the shortage of Scottish accents broadcasting to Britain and beyond.
Indeed, the practical as well as metaphorical question for 2014 is whether it matters more to us that Scottish voices and attitudes should speak outwards to the world or inwards to ourselves. I hope we get the answer right. Happy New Year.