Writing exclusively for Bella Caledonia author Irvine Welsh reflects on childhood days spent in London and his hopes for Scottish Independence and the stronger cultural bonds that could result:
SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE & BRITISH UNITY
Most people from Scotland, to varying degrees, tend to identify themselves as Scottish and/or British. For personal reasons, (and we’re all products of our past, as well as, hopefully, visionaries of our futures) I’ve always felt a strong emotional connection to both. This might be expected to place me in the ‘better together’ unionist camp, alongside the three major parties of the thirty-five year British neoliberal economic consensus; Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour. However, this was never a tenable position for me. To explain why I’m going to crave the reader’s indulgence and ask you to stick with me on a long digression to Southall, Middlesex, through the 1970’s.
As a teenager I spent a lot of time down in this west London suburb with my Aunt Jessie. She was my Uncle Alec’s wife; they met at a dancehall when he was working on London’s railways and she was a Nurse at St Thomas’s Hospital. It was an instant stellar love affair, and one that evaporated the substantial differences between them. Jessie’s folks were both domestic servants in a large Kensington home, and she had inherited their ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ view of the world, whereby ruling elites were both duty-bound and well-trained in the effective running of the nation, and would largely discharge this thankless activity in everyone’s best interests. Alec, by contrast, was a union man, a railway worker who came from a family of dockers, and steeped in industrial socialism. He liked a drink, and had a strong sense of joie de vivre. I think they complemented each other; he brought out her fun side, while she grounded and centred him. They started married life in Fulham (when it was a working-class district) where they had a daughter, Elizabeth, and a son, Alec Junior, known as ‘Young Alec’ in my family. As neither Alec nor Jessie came from well-to-do circumstances, they understandably wanted to give their kids some of the opportunities they’d never enjoyed. They were delighted to have saved up enough cash to move to the northern part of Southall, Middlesex, which was then a leafy, desirable suburb.
The family lived happily at Somerset Road and Uncle Alec obtained a better-paid job within British Rail, as Jessie quit work to look after the kids. Their life, when I was conscious of coming into it as a small child in 60’s, seemed to be a very good one. Alec had been a committed Hearts supporter and he’d adopted Chelsea as his London club, due to the Stamford Bridge ground’s proximity to their old Fulham home. Alec junior thus grew up a Chelsea fan, so on family visits south I was regularly taken to the Shed. It was an almost identikit, smaller version of the old Copland Road End at Ibrox. If you went there in the 70’s, you could see why so many Rangers supporters working in London made Chelsea their team; it would have felt a home from home for them. Those long 207 bus treks along the Uxbridge Road, then the tube ride from Ealing Broadway to Fulham Broadway became etched into my DNA. There were afternoons in the beer garden of the Lady Margaret pub, and most impressive of all for me, being from a council flat, there was the house, with its small wooden conservatory attached, leading to a beautiful garden containing a shed and greenhouse.
Every family has its tensions and struggles. While I was oblivious to any at Somerset Road, I’m aware that, through my child’s eyes, I’m making this life seem more idyllic than it probably was. What is beyond question is that it was shattered by my Uncle Alec’s untimely death at work, through a sudden heart attack. The post-mortem revealed a congenital issue, which had gone undetected. This was devastating for the family. For reasons I’ve never quite understood, Aunt Jessie became estranged from Elizabeth, who had married and moved to Surrey and would soon have children of her own. However, my uncle’s extended family back in Leith was very supportive of Jessie, and they became even closer following the tragedy of Uncle Alec’s death. We all kept up our regular London visits, and Jessie and Alec junior particularly, were frequently in Edinburgh for extended spells.
I’m not inclined by nature to look back, and I’m not big on dates, nor do I tend to keep, or gaze at, loads of old photographs. It’s therefore difficult to be exact about how many visits/extended stays I had to that house at Somerset Road through the 70’s. But it’s impossible to over-emphasize just how much those excursions helped to form my outlook on life. As we know, kids perceive time differently, so the summer of 75 and 76 seemed to me like two lifetime’s worth of experience, and even a weekend jaunt to a gig, a sporting occasion or a wedding, gave the sense of cramming in more adventures than a month’s travelling does now.
I idolized Alec Junior, who was ten years older than me. He was a handsome guy who looked very like the young David Hemmings. Alec inherited his dad’s dapper bearing and swagger and dressed very well, an archetypal London wide boy and determined ladies man. Every time he’d bring a girl home, Aunt Jessie would be on the phone, saying hopefully to my mum and aunties, “I really think this is the one for Alec…” but she’d invariably be replaced by another mini-skirted doll, many of whom I had the torturous privilege of observing at close quarters on my Southall visits. At thirteen, covered in spots, hormones raging, I’d brood with twisted envy at how lucky the effortlessly cool Alec was, with his seemingly endless procession of London lovelies. But sadly that was to be far from the case; Alec was still in his twenties when he was killed in a hit and run incident on Lady Margaret Road, after leaving the Lady Margaret pub, the local watering hole. The driver was never apprehended.
My Aunt Jessie was thus cruelly prematurely bereaved for a second time, losing the son she truly adored. And she was terribly isolated, as the community she’d known was rapidly changing, due to a massive influx of Asian immigrants. People, mainly from Bangladesh and Bengal, started to arrive in Southall, first in the poorer section of the area, around the railway station, south of the Uxbridge Road. “They’ve even got their own banks!” my Aunt Jessie would exclaim in outrage. The incomers (any discussion of class, race and nationality in Britain’s toxic social waters always makes the most innocuous word sound so pejorative and loaded) then started to jointly purchase the smarter houses on her side of the district. Those single-family homes thus became multiple occupancy dwellings, as different music and new cooking aromas started to fill the air.
It was my first awareness, coming from a council house in Scotland, of just how much the economic and social life of the South East was driven by the property market. Whites panicked and sold up, most moving even further along the M4 corridor. To make matters worse for Aunt Jessie, Fulham, where she, Uncle Alec and their children had moved from, had gentrified and become a sought-after, solidly bourgeois neighbourhood. She watched her old terrace house there exponentially gain in value, while property prices on her Southall home stagnated.
It was around this time my visits to her became more frequent, first with other family members, then on my own. I loved Jessie’s white painted house, and that amazing garden. Coming from a grey scheme of systems-built rabbit hutches, the invigorating effect was similar to the one I currently experience when I leave the bleak Chicago winter and head south to sun-kissed Miami Beach for an extended stay. One of my best memories of my dad is of us working together to repair Jessie’s shed, greenhouse and conservatory, which had predictably suffered from neglect since both Alec’s had departed.
Whereas Aunt Jessie understandably saw only threat in Southall’s changing demographics, the whole place was just mystical to me: suggesting enough of Bombay or Calcutta to make me want to go there. The two Asian girls next door were beyond gorgeous and as soon as they appeared in their adjoining garden, I’d be right outside, pretending to do stuff. Sadly my attempted seductions got no further than some exchanged flirty grins and urgent whispers through the hedge. I recall being the only white in a Bollywood film screening at a makeshift cinema on the Uxbridge Road. The other movie attendees looked at me as if I was mental, and I probably was, but I had a marvelous time, though I kept this experience from Jessie.
The local white kids adopted me readily. Their shrinking, beleaguered tribe could always use another face, albeit a temporary one. Because of my Scottish accent they thought I was ‘hard’, and while I wasn’t, I knew enough real radges back home to be able to front it with aplomb. Every time I returned to Southall they were a little older, and we graduated from playing football to drinking and attending Chelsea and QPR games (although West Ham were my favourite London club) and rock n roll gigs. The writer, Tim Lott, comes from the area, and although we don’t recall each other from this time, we would later become friends, and Tim’s observations of Southall chime with a lot of my own memories. Social networks have recently reunited me with one of that crowd, Trevor Bryden, who now lives in Melbourne.
But my best friend in Southall was my Auntie Jessie. She read the Daily Mail and quoted from it like a bible. Her politics were always Conservative-inclined, but had drifted further to the right in the absence of the counterbalancing forces of her husband and son. The only time I ever heard any malevolence from this kindliest of souls was on the issue of immigration. Now I realise that she was displacing her anger; grieving for the two Alec’s and her lost life, and today I would just let her vent. At the time though, I had a scanter sensitivity to these issues and I would argue and debate with her all day, and sometimes all night. I would bring home the Socialist Worker and quote from it in the same way as she did with the Mail. Aunt Jessie loathed Tony Benn, who was my political hero, but who, as an aristocrat, had done the unforgivable in her eyes by not patronizing working people, but instead encouraging them to stand up for their rights. But Benn was positively angelic compared to the detested local Labour MP Sidney Bidwell, a Tribune group member who was an ex NUR colleague of my Uncle Alec’s. “I know all abaht ‘im!” Jessie would smugly intone.
This ought to have led to discord, but Aunt Jessie loved our playful political jousting as much as I did. Now I can see that it was almost certainly something she had engaged in regularly with the two Alec’s. So despite the fact that we were such an unlikely pairing, we never, ever fell out. Outside of my immediate family household, I had never felt so loved by another person, and she made Somerset Road seem like a second home to me. For my part, I worshipped this hurt and lost but absolutely wonderful, big-hearted and generously spirited woman with all my heart. She would say to me, obviously mindful of the terrible experience of her son, “I don’t care what you do, you can come home as drunk as a lord if you wish, but you never, ever stay out after 1.00 am. That means you have to leave the West End before midnight to get back here. If you don’t return by then, I’ll be forced to phone your mother and tell her that you’ve gone missing.”
I would later appreciate how the terrible tragedy of Alec Junior weighed heavily on her, but also that Aunt Jessie was giving me, a teenager alone in London, tremendous license, which I didn’t have back in Edinburgh. At the time though, I quietly resented the imposition of this curfew. I was conscious of being a Cinderella figure; at a club or pub I would vanish before midnight, with all the resultant social and sexual heartbreak, in order to catch the tube and bus back to Southall. It would almost be worth it however, when I came in and saw a plate bearing two rolls on the kitchen table, one with ham, the other with cheese, with always the same accompanying note: “IRVINE, SSHHH! XXX” The rolls had very chewy light-brown crusts, and I’d never, ever tasted anything like them. I used to argue that the well-fired rolls from the bakers in Muirhouse were better, but I think Jessie saw, via the number I got through, that I was a committed fan.
Jessie and I had, what to me, was a crucial bond between us. At sixteen I had been on a drunken night on the town in Edinburgh, with three pals, Raymond, Paul and John. We were at the Office Bar in Tolcross, an Italian ran establishment, and a well-known underage drinker’s joint. We were heading back to the scheme through town, and stopped off at the Alba D’Oro chip shop. There was, as always, a huge closing time queue at this popular spot. John and myself opted to wait, but Raymie and Paul lost patience and left. A few minutes later, they were driving past in a white van they had broken into, tooting the horn and waving at us. The blurred view through those big, plate-glass windows of that New Town chippy was the last time we saw them alive. Both were killed in a head-on collision with a lorry on the Forth Road Bridge.
Going into my work as an apprentice that following Monday, this old cunt (I can only describe him as such) had a made a comment in relation to the story of the fatal crash about ‘car thieves getting what they deserve’. I first blew up then ran to the toilets, choking in a silent rage until I managed to compose myself. Still very much boys, John and I felt that everybody would judge us as low-life car thieves, (we obviously would have been in that van, as we had others before, but for the salvation of our greed) so we kept our mouths shut about our presence on that night, to every one other than our friends at school and Raymond and Paul’s families. Apart from Raymond’s mum, the only adult I was able to talk about this incident to was my Aunt Jessie, in that other world that was Southall. I told her how much the loss of those two great friends affected me, and shared my undoubted relief but strange guilt that I wasn’t in that van with them. At the time I didn’t realise that Jessie must have considered that my pal’s actions might perhaps have been mirrored in Southall, but by youths who went on to destroy Alec Junior, rather than themselves. But she didn’t judge, she just listened and let me talk. I begged her not to disclose this confidence to my parents. Jessie promised she wouldn’t, but told me that I should. (I eventually did, at her urgings, and they were great about it.)
The frequency and length of my London visits increased with my growing independence, to the extent it became clear to me, and to my mum, that I was ramping myself up for a permanent move south. I moved down Somerset Road for a spell, then into a squat (though I never at the time told either Jessie or my mum it was that) at Shepherd’s Bush. Then I met a girl from Ilford. When I decided (wrongly) that I needed a formal education, to be close to her I attended Essex University at Colchester, which was actually much further from Ilford (and Southall) than I thought. Even though I spent a lot of my early time at university alternately trying to extract myself from, then rekindle, this turbulent but oddly compulsive relationship, I would traverse across London to visit Jessie. I still salivate at the thought of those restorative roast beef and roast lamb Sunday dinners. I also kept in touch with Tony, Jack and Trevor from the local crowd; I was at the Hamborough Tavern on the Uxbridge Road the weekend before an infamous race riot erupted there, following the performance of a right-wing white supremacist band.
Aunt Jessie and I started to move –literally- in separate directions. As I completed my course and settled into London, she gave up on her beautiful little house and its bittersweet memories, selling to an Asian couple and heading north to Leith, the home of her beloved late husband’s family. She was the very last white resident in Somerset Road to move out. Later, whenever I spoke to her about Southall, she readily admitted that her perspective was clouded by her terrible losses. Otherwise, she would have accepted that her part of the London Borough of Ealing had transitioned into an area of young Asian families, and that as an older, single white woman, it was an inappropriate location for her in terms of lifestyle and culture, and simply moved away. However, she had a tremendous emotional attachment to the house where she and Uncle Alec had raised their children.
Fortunately, my Aunt’s story has a happier ending. Jessie loved Edinburgh, and it loved her back. She was an integral part of my family and made a strong network of friends, keeping busy and getting involved in local activities. Hearteningly, she and her daughter Elizabeth put whatever was keeping them apart behind them, and she enjoyed bonding with her grandchildren, visiting them regularly in the South East. She remained very much one of us until she passed away, leaving us all with heavy hearts, but beautiful memories.
As a rule I dislike talking about my family or my close friends. They are precious and special to me, and often the thought of using them as part of my tale seems inherently shabby and cheapening – especially as their stories are invariably far more interesting than my own. Why then, this long, self-disclosing preamble? Well now comes the crux of those reminiscences; as much as I loved London, I was also learning that the widely assumed political and cultural homogeneity of the UK, even in the seventies, was exaggerated and breaking down. Communities like Southall were emerging all over England, but NOT Scotland. These differences, due to black and Asian immigration, and obviously related to imperialism and the emergence of a relatively prosperous and different type of economy in the South East, would only exacerbate.
I discovered that London and the South East was massively subsidized by the rest of the UK, by the very structure of unitary government. There is no divine reason for the United Kingdom to exist as a centralised state, any more, say, than there is for the German Republic to operate as a federal one. This is simply based on precedent, the one for Britain being that it is a class-divided, hierarchical society, with a hereditary head of state, large aristocracy and unelected second chamber. Of course, Germany’s differing status means that the civic wealth is shared across the nation, not concentrated into one region.
With the parliament, civil service and media all stuffed into one city, the private investment soon follows, as does more public money on infrastructure and sporting and cultural arenas, in order to show to the world that ‘we’ are indeed the best. I learned, and it has to be said to my personal gain, that the main premium of this concentration of the ‘unitary state subsidy’ lies in the local property prices. Thus any other regional ‘subsidies’ were simply a paltry redistribution of this bigger, on-going subsidy.
But the property obsession gripped me. I knew that I would one day buy and sell houses to make money, and as a teenager had conceived a not so unlikely plan of being able to retire by thirty. This notion enthralled me: you can make money without working. You didn’t need to do anything. You simply studied the movement of property prices across those tightly packed London postcodes and bought and sold accordingly. Of course, I needed the sort of start-up capital few ‘schemies’ could accrue, but theoretically at least, it could be done, and to an extent, it was.
I also learned that this concentration of wealth might, in the short-term, have operated to the relative benefit of London’s poor (in relation to the other urban poor in Britain), but was invariably to their overall detriment. London (much more so than Berlin) is now a very hard city to live in without a great deal of money. It owes its much-vaunted social mix solely to Hitler’s bombers. If so much council housing hadn’t have been built on those gap sites to cater for the post-war boom, thirty years of neo-liberalism would have driven all the working classes and the poor from the inner city, and thus spared much of the ‘multiculturalist’ bourgeois angst about the schools their offspring should attend.
Like many Scots, I grew up saturated in something I assumed to be ‘Britishness’, and I loved it. Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads, Play For Today, they were my cultural staples, and I was personally liberated by the welfare state, specifically the Butler Education Act. This meant that my college fees would be paid in full by the state, and I would also receive a full grant, which amounted to 2/3rds of my dad’s wages. Now all that has gone, and I personally would never enter the prison of debt, in order to go to University for a degree that has been rendered pretty meaningless. I would choose to invest any resources I had in other directions; like many bright, eager young kids from poorer backgrounds now do, I’d probably buy a rock of cocaine, cut it and sell it. And repeat. It simply makes more economic sense.
But as post (military) imperial, welfare state Britain declined, what I’ve also learned, and, like many Scots, am constantly having reinforced, is that a lot of what I believed to be ‘Britishness’ was really just another term for ‘Englishness’. I watched a Jamie Oliver special just before Christmas, when the Chef was having a desert cook-off with the Italian masters. The terms ‘English’ and ‘British’ were repeatedly used interchangeably on relatively politically correct ‘regions and nations’ conscious Channel Four. Of course, it’s hardly the fault of Oliver or his buddies that asserting their Englishness puts them in a defacto position of marginalizing and oppressing Scots or Welsh or Northern Irish people. Nor is it Scottish people’s culpability for being cast in a recalcitrant and belligerent role if they dare to bring up those continued slights. After all, sticky toffee pudding is an English dish, not a British one, so why not call it so? The accountability for this does not even principally lie with the shifting reality of ‘Britishness’; it can be placed squarely on the shoulders of the UK imperialist state.
This English appropriation of Britishness, what Stuart Hall calls ‘an assumed Englishness, which always negotiates against difference’, is now a powerful hegemonic force, which serves this state. In the past, when that ‘Britishness’ was formed by imperial and industrial expansion, and the esprit de corps engendered by WW1 and WW2 and the creation of a welfare state, it was largely an inclusive concept. Then, this ‘assumed Englishness’ was only a minor irritant to Scots. In the context of these islands now being a ‘sales territory’ in a globalized, monolithic, neo-liberal economic order, it becomes a far more sinister, inherently marginalizing force.
So my main contention; the problem for both Scotland and England is not so much an inherent cultural assumption of the movable feast that is ‘Britishness’, but this within the context of the UK as a political state, formed on imperialist, hegemonic structures. This state has stopped England from pursuing its main mission, namely to build a inclusive, post-imperial, multi-racial society, by forcing it to engage with the totally irrelevant (from an English perspective) distractions of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. From the viewpoint of the Scots, it has foisted thirty-five years of a destructive neo-liberalism upon us, and prevented us from becoming the European social democracy we are politically inclined to be.
Therefore I’m advancing another proposition: political separation could promote the cultural unity that the UK state, in its current form, with its notions of ‘assumed Englishness’ is constantly undermining. Despite the shallow flag-waving social engineers in Government and sections of the media, who tried to turn it into a bread and circuses propaganda event, the Olympics were the best expression of inclusive Britishness we’ve had for decades. (The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, despite massive media hype and the pathetic efforts of a few unionist Labour councils, still amounted to an inconsequential joke in Scotland.) Danny Boyle, in a couple of hours, did more to assert democratic socialist values over neo-liberalism than the UK Labour Party has managed to do in almost forty years. But it was also nostalgic; it mirrored not just what many of us still aspire to, it showed us what we have to accept we’ve irredeemably lost. But I cheered just as ecstatically when Brad Wiggins crossed the line as when Chris Hoy did, and plenty other Scots I know did too. So post UK, why not, for example, just keep the British Olympic team?
If we rid ourselves of the political imperialist baggage of the UK state, new possibilities emerge. For example, it would become feasible for Ireland, as an established sovereign nation, to see itself as part of a shared geographical and cultural entity. This, in turn, brings potential opportunities for the continued development of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The idea of the political independence of England and Scotland leading to conflict, hatred and distrust is the mindset of opportunistic status-quo fearmongers and gloomy nationalist fantasists stuck in a Bannockburn-Culloden timewarp, and deeply insulting to the people of both countries. Swedes, Norwegians and Danes remain on amicable terms; they trade, co-operate and visit each other socially any time they like. They don’t need a pompous, blustering state called Scandinavia, informing them from Stockholm how wonderful they all are, but (kind of) only really meaning Sweden.
Poisonous resentments may surface most readily in the embittered personality, but it’s more fruitful to look at perceived injustices rather than individual pathology, in order to find their roots. Most Scots who go to England, and most English people who come to Scotland, stay because they like it. They contribute to each country. Yes, some Scots might get wound up by arrogant and pompous types who’ve made a killing on the housing market and revel in playing the big white chiefs in their new surroundings, just as many English folks might get tired of the aggressive, scrounging jakey’s, and the carpet-bagging politicians drip-fed by our sludgy Labour Party bureaucracy into the Westminster system. But only a bigoted arsehole, or someone with a self-serving agenda, would seek to infer that either Scottish and English people are inherently more racist than either each other, or the rest of the world, by seizing on isolated incidents. It would be good, though I’m being very optimistic, to hope that we could dispense with all this shite in the run-up to the 2014 referendum, and consider the real issues.
As an imperialist, class-based state, the UK is poorly equipped to meet the divergent needs of its constituent nations in this rapidly transmuting world. Scotland and England both deserve better, as do Wales and Northern Ireland. Whether the change to facilitate this comes from the 2014 Scottish referendum or not might be important to Scots, but is almost irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. The point is that it will happen. The Union Jack is the increasingly shrinking fig leaf that strives to cover the growth of an English nationalism and consciousness, which is visible in almost every aspect of life in these islands over the last thirty years. And that, in a post-imperial world, is how it should be, and probably how it has to be. The problem that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have to face, is that they have no place at this party, and neither should they: it just isn’t a great deal to do with them.
When the Labour Party stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Conservative dominated coalition to contend that we’re ‘better together’, what exactly are they arguing to preserve? The more reasoned, calculating Conservatives know that the UK state isn’t, nor will ever become, some kind of Socialist/Social Democratic republic, that some members of the Labour left still seem to fantasise it as being. Far from it: in our ‘home nations’ over the last thirty years we’ve all been absolutely taken for a ride. If you doubt the veracity of this statement, just look at where the distribution of wealth has gone. It’s hasn’t been to a beaten underclass, a working-class on paltry pay and suffering worsening conditions, nor has it found its way into the pockets of a debt-ridden, fearful middle-class. Notice who is doing better than okay? The UK state can be said to have served somebody well over the last thirty years; it just hasn’t been the vast majority of its own citizens.
Getting rid of it won’t instantly redress the massive inequities that have shamefully been allowed to heap up since I spent time in Southall in the 70’s, but it will allow the constituent countries the opportunities to put their divergent houses in order. And I believe it will permit an inclusive, respectful sense of true British identity to emerge, based on shared cultural values, rather than disparate political ideals flimsily held together around the shabby worship of an exploitative hierarchy. Better together? Yes, certainly, but better independent and free together.
(c) IRVINE WELSH, 2013