Pete Martin: Voters must take plunge

Govanhill Baths in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
Govanhill Baths in Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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I RECENTLY found myself in the deep end at Govanhill Baths in Glasgow, fully dressed.

This was not one of those Swimming Certificate exercises from your schooldays where, wearing your pyjamas, you rescued a rubber brick. No, this was immersion in the cutting edge of contemporary Scottish culture, and the only liquid I was diving into was a pint of lager.

As you probably know, Govanhill Baths closed down in 2000. After a long-running campaign by the local community, the building re-opened last year. Since then, the drained, run-down pool has been used for a number of creative “happenings”.

I was there for the launch of the new album by Quickbeam – a small Glasgow band, if you can call a group with ten people onstage small. This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll though. Just Youtube their first single 700 Birds. You’ll find a slow, strange, melancholic blend of strings and harmonium. Then a girl’s fragile voice sings in a Scottish accent. The song’s about new love, but sounds like heartbreak. It’s a quiet classic, perhaps the most perfect piece of pop made in the western world last year. To say Quickbeam sound “miserablist” would be something of an understatement. Last year, my mate Alan saw them play a gig and, afterwards, asked if he could book them for his funeral. So you can imagine that listening to their music demands a certain reverence.

The defunct swimming pool could be the perfect echo chamber for the mood of the music too – drained of everything but a little love and hope. It’s practical too. The pool floor, covered in makeshift carpet squares, slopes from shallow to deep, giving the whole audience a great view of the performers. Down the front at the deep end, it’s the perfect place to hear Quickbeam’s new album.

Or it would have been, were it not for a bunch of self-obsessed socialisers standing near by. They yammered, persistently, consistently, through every song – no matter how quiet, no matter how emotive – until I felt forced to ask them to can it. And I felt like such a jerk. I know that my generation grew up under the illusion that music was important. We believed performers were god-like geniuses and that pop could illuminate life. But I do understand that, for many younger people, a song is just part of consumer society. It’s not even Mick Jagger in It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll threatening: “If I could stick my pen in my heart, And spill it all over the stage; Would it satisfy ya?” All music is muzak now – just something to be filtered into coffee shops as background noise. I also realise that for viewers of TV’s pap factories, the bar is set so low for taste, originality and counter-culture that only musical pygmies can scrape under it.

In the late 90s, Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen, Changing Rooms and chunks of MDF made everyone a designer. Today, Louis Walsh, TV “singing” contests and slabs of MOR have made music critics of us all. In the process, what it means to be a star has become horribly compromised. Season after season, week after week, instead of Louis shouting “You’re a star” at young hopefuls, we’d all be as well yelling “You’re a bricklayer” or “You’ve got a great career ahead of you – in retail”.

So, faced with live musicians on stage, I can appreciate why young people might feel as if the most heartfelt music is merely aural décor, an inferior backwash to their own fleeting thoughts and fascinating lives.

But I still don’t understand it. Fair enough, if you’re going to see Bon Jovi at Hampden next month. You know the music’s loud and it’s only “schlock and roll”. Want to talk over Jon Bon Jovi? Knock yourself out. But, at an event where there’s quiet self-expression onstage, I confess myself baffled.

I first noticed the “talking over gigs” phenomenon about ten years ago at a show by legendary Scottish beat combo, Trashcan Sinatras. As frontman Francis Reader started to play Funny, someone shouted out “The man’s a genius”. And he laughed. It was such a perfect moment. But then a gaggle of girls down the front ruined it by gabbing loudly all the way through the song. It just seems so disrespectful to the artist, and so annoying to the rest of the audience. But the selfish individualists don’t just waste their own time and money. Sure, they’re cut off from the communal experience but they’re also changing the result: making it worse for everyone.

As we plunge headlong towards the #indyref, the experience down the deep end of Govanhill Bath struck me as a salutary summation of modern Scotland.

Let’s forget the oddly public changing cubicles round the pool-side – half peep-show, half Presbyterian hang-up. Before us on stage, there are a lot of young people with deeply felt, if quietly expressed, hopes and fears.

Above us, the red paint is peeling away from the girders like Clydebank’s old commitment to firebrand socialism and Ed Miliband’s pretence to progressive politics. Around us, the pool’s blue water, like Scotland’s long-lost Tory past, has drained away. Up the back, in the shallow end, independent beer mongers Brewdog are running the bar. With fair prices and efficient service, they’re doing a brisk trade. Like those other purveyors of independence, their punky brews may not be to everyone’s taste but when that’s all there is…

And yet, among us all, chatting away as if none of this were happening, as if the show were yet to start, there’s the uninterested. They’re just not listening. In the same way that communal respect for music is draining away, democratic participation has been dropping. Polls suggest that maybe 20 per cent of voters don’t know which way they’ll swing on 18 September 2014. But there’s a good chance 40 per cent of us won’t swing by the polling place at all.

In the 1979 Scottish referendum, 36 per cent of the electorate stayed at home. In the 1997 devolution referendum, 40 per cent didn’t turn out. In the most recent elections to the Scottish Parliament, 50 per cent of us had better things to do.

So how many of Scotland’s four million voters will turn out for the #indyref? It’s hard to say. Possibly less than 60 per cent? But turnout could make a dramatic difference.

A Ipsos/Mori poll earlier this year suggested than 58 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds would vote ‘Yes’. But younger people are significantly less likely to vote than previous generations. Arguably too, the poor may feel they have a lower stake in the status quo and less to lose in independence. But the deprived are also disconnected from formal politics.

In contrast, the SNP’s softly-softly approach to currency and monarchy may be intended, not to win friends, but to minimise any apparent policy shift and keep the more conservative naysayers at home.

Currently, both sides are playing to their existing fanbase. But where are the big themes? Where’s the emotional depth? Where are the notes that resonate with ordinary people? Detailed drudgery and point scoring won’t grab the attention of likely non-voters, never mind fire their imagination.

To draw out non-voters, the contest needs to look close. But, to give the debate deeper meaning, the campaigns need to portray how a vote either way could lead towards dramatically different outcomes – offer a compelling vision of how life changes for the best under ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. But unless each side changes its tune, from minor to major if you like, there’s a real risk over 1.5 million voters will simply turn their backs on the process.