John Mullin is all set for a family re-run of the famous Edinburgh-Glasgow rivalry, and he couldn’t be happier about it. Not when there’s a match, and maybe a pint, to look forward to
I heard him before I could see him, a dull, deliberate thud on each step as he made his way downstairs. It was, I caught myself thinking, like the ghost of Jacob Marley, only in reverse.
What I was about to hear was Important with a capital I: his first real test of success, by the traditional school-leaving yardstick at least. Perhaps it was even life-changing.
We parents kid ourselves that these things don’t matter much. Still, I had awoken with a last, anxious dream. It suggested his customary close-but-no-cigar performance. Two hours in, I was impatiently nursing my fourth cup of coffee. The wait for him to check his e-mail inbox went on. Each passing minute signalled disappointment.
As his footsteps drew closer and he rounded the final bend for the kitchen, I rose to meet him, my never-mind, bright-smile mask ready to fix. He stood in the hall, my lovely boy, an 18-year-old skinnymalink. He grimaced, and began: “I’m sorry, dad …”
I recalled the little speech I had given him just a few hours earlier after a night at the theatre and dinner in Chinatown to take his mind off it all. I told him I knew how hard he had worked that year, and that was all that had ever mattered. That was all true, but I felt devastated for him.
So began A-level results day in the Mullin household last week. Nothing unique in our experience, of course. Except, in their own way, they are all unique.
In the hallway, Billy continued: “I’m sorry, dad. I know you’re a Glaswegian. You’re going to find this very tough. But in September, I will be going to university in Edinburgh!”
His little ruse had worked. My heart had fallen so fast that it rebounded at twice the speed. He had somehow secured two As and a B, and it was enough to win him his first choice – mechanical engineering, since you ask, but where that comes from, God knows; I can’t change a plug any more.
As moments in life go, for me, this will be hard to beat. He is a smart boy, and I always felt he could come good in the academic stakes. Trouble was, it was the same story every year. He never had. Until now. Talk about timing your run into the box.
My delight, though, wasn’t just in seeing his joy. It was in his choice of university, and in him, well, coming home.
Until now, Billy has never viewed himself as Scottish. He has, in fact, spent much of his life goading me about my country’s shortcomings.
Understandable, I suppose. He was born in London, and, though we spent three years in Belfast and two more back in Edinburgh, where he started school under the estimable Ted Brack at St John’s in Portobello, he has lived the past 12 years down south.
My best endeavours at indoctrination started early, but maybe I have been too ambitious in playing the Caledonian card. I took him to Cappielow to watch Morton when he was just three weeks old. They lost, and it seemed to set a course ever since.
After Scotland had drawn with Italy – and had deserved to win – back in 2005, we drove up to see the next match at Hampden, against unfancied Belarus. I was sure the atmosphere would get to him. But we had crashed and burned within ten minutes, and my son was unimpressed.
Sensing my vulnerability, he first pronounced himself English, taking filial glee in my irritation. There was some consolation when, at 14 and keen to differentiate himself from his peers, he adopted his mother’s nationality, embracing all things Irish. At least that has allowed me some bragging rights during qualification for Euro 2016.
He assures me his choice of university is about how much he loved Edinburgh when he visited during the Festival a couple of years back. Oh, and he tells me that it’s just about the furthest he could get away from us in London.
But I am deeply chuffed he’s chosen Scotland. Yes, fellow west coasters, even if it is Edinburgh.
When I was growing up, there wasn’t really much Scotland for me beyond the city limits of Glasgow. I still feel ashamed about how few places I’ve visited, and how poor my knowledge is.
So it was with Edinburgh. I was 19 before I went there for the first time, bridging that 44 mile-gap.
My father was suspicious of Scotland’s capital. He thought Glasgow people funnier, more welcoming, more viscerally human. I was later lucky enough to live in Edinburgh for two years until 2003, and to have the “You’ll have had your tea” prejudices firmly debunked.
A while back, Robert Crawford, professor of modern Scottish literature at St Andrews University, traced the source of the rivalry between these two great cities back to a dispute over bread in 1656. Glasgow’s town councillors decreed the bread there was of poor quality, and when Edinburgh’s bakers cheekily offered to help, their west coast rivals took umbrage. The damage was done.
A half-baked theory? Perhaps. But Crawford says the rivalry is the first of the modern age, pre-dating those of New York and Boston, Sydney and Melbourne and Toronto and Vancouver. He believes the rivalry was a key factor in shaping – even limiting – the modern Scottish nation.
But I still enjoy the jokes. Dads will always have rivalries with their sons – it’s just that the battlegrounds change a bit. Whereas we once clashed on the divide between Scotland and the Auld Enemy, and then with the Irish, now we will enjoy goading each other over respective merits of the Dear Green Place and Auld Reekie.
Of all the descriptions of the differences my father would have recognised between Glasgow and Edinburgh, my own favourite comes from George Wyllie, sculptor extraordinaire and one of the finest people anyone could ever meet. When artwork for the M8 was first proposed, he suggested an empty candelabra at the Edinburgh end, and lit candles to greet the traveller arriving at Ballieston.
This new phase in our lives begins when I drive Billy to his halls of residence next month. He has, to my astonishment, insisted on what we do in the afternoon – a trip to Cappielow to see The Ton play Dumbarton.
Pity it wasn’t last night, mind, when St Mirren were the visitors. Greenock versus Paisley: now there is a proper town rivalry.
But I wonder if I can entice him to a first father-and-son pint in the Star Bar in Port Glasgow before kick-off? That would be something. Sometimes, it all works out in the end.