Spirit and drive sorely needed at both Wembley and Westminster
Having long ago forsaken Caledonia for California, I’m sure my auld aquaintance Paul Pender won’t be producing any sequel to his memorable 1990s documentary series about our recurring fate in international football tournaments – Faith, Hope…and Calamity! That said, I can just imagine him propped on a barstool in Joxer Daly’s, nervously stroking a cool glass of locally-produced Chardonnay as he watches the satellite transmission from Wembley this Friday evening (midday in LA). Going mental about a soccer match is in our national psyche, he’d tell any native Los Angelenos who think they need to dial 911.
Even when Malibu Beach beckons, emigre Rangers as well as Celtic fans would much rather masochistically endure a clash with the Auld Enemy on a flickering plasma screen in some dim-lit Oirish bar. Better still, reflect morosely on the match after another glorious defeat. As a fellow emigrant to Hollywood, the Greenock-born screenwriter Alan Sharp observed in the aforementioned series, we Scots have no difficulty handling defeat. “It’s winning that scares the shite out of us!”
Sadly, in the political as in the sporting arena, there are still all too many Scots who can stand only so much faith and hope. If the nation’s aspirations prove preposterously unjustified (as in Argentina) or simply premature (as during the 2014 Scottish Spring) that’s perfectly fine by them. Far from a sinking feeling, it’s strangely restorative for some of us.
Calamity when it comes can even be strangely comforting after getting carried away for a wee while. ‘We Are the Nearly Nation’ is not something they’d ever chant on a football terrace but it is the subliminal soundtrack to their semi-fulfilled lives.
The late, great A. A. Gill captured this common trait among his compatriots in a sketch he filed for the Sunday Times in the immediate aftermath of the referendum:
When it happened in the early hours and we realised the fight was lost, it evoked an odd familiar feeling — a sort of reflex acceptance — “Ah yes, this is it, this is what it feels like”, what it always feels like for Scots. A comforting, familiar disappointment, great expectations, the daring of hope followed by brave defeat and collapse and dropped shoulders. Of course, that’s how we do things. Why did we imagine that this time it would be anything else? This is the Scottish way. This is the lesson of history. You dream, you fight, you lose. You have your celebration the day before the match, because after that you’ll just want to go home to your bed.
I could have quietly wept when I read those words on a campus in Cornwall, where I was heading up a journalism school at the time. Unlike Adrian Anthony Gill, I was a lot older than six when I left Edinburgh to go gallivanting around the Anglo-Celtic Archipelago and Asia. Nevertheless, like him, I didn’t have a vote in that plebiscite. It was also geographically infeasible for me to return regularly from the toe end of England to contribute to the Yes campaign. And I wouldn’t have had the effrontery to blog about it from Falmouth. Unaware that one of the most eagerly followed Scottish political bloggers was winging it in not-too-far-away Somerset.
Now here I am back in the auld sod and making the case for real independence around-the-clock. Just when others who first came to the fore during that campaign, especially the inimitable minister, have fled the Scottish blogosphere. And poor Craig Murray is struggling to keep himself out of prison. Am I aff ma heid? No more than other members of the newly-formed Scottish Free Media alliance.
It’s when this proud and prickly, ancient nation is being being written off or ridiculed, especially by metropolitan pundits, that enough of us always manage to marshal a steely determination to wipe the smirks off their faces. Who can forget that breathtaking goal Archie Gemmill conjured out of nowhere against Holland in the 1978 World Cup? I believe there’s some of that defiant spirit and magical flair lurking in many Scots. Tragically, it can take a hell of a long time to demonstrate it sometimes. Two decades it took from the 1979 referendum defeat before we endorsed devolution. But, when we finally did it, we did so in emphatic fashion.
There’s a fine Scots word for what I’m talking about – smeddum – which means spirit, energy, drive, vigorous resourcefulness. I have it on the guid authority of mither tongue expert Dr Maggie Scott that Burns used this noun in 1787 in a letter he wrote to Willie Nicol to describe two women with:
as muckle smeddum and rumblegumtion as the half o’ some Presbytries that you and I baith ken
A character in Jean White’s little known 1932 novel Moss Road gives out:
Ye poor smeddumless stock, all ye can do is to scare a bairn.
That’s possibly the most crisp and colourful denunciation of the combined ranks of SNP parliamentarians at Holyrood and Westminster I’ve encountered to date. Time and time again, their phoney chieftains have proven themselves to be little more than 90-minute nationalists. (Naturally, Nicola shared a video of herself standing for the national anthem ahead of yesterday’s match against the Czech Republic). Consequently, those of us who genuinely aspire to full self-government are going to need to do a Gemmill. Even more than the Scotland squad bound for Wembley, we must figure out how to outmatch our English overlords – and their satraps in St Andrew’s House – to emerge triumphant from a geopolitical endgame. It’s time to remind the world Scotland is not always the nearly nation.