Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Francophilia; New words; Driving around the world; & Scotland.


It been illegal for quite a while to display symbols of the Franco regime in Spain. But here in Galicia alone there are more than 50 on walls in the major cities. Here's one of those still remaining here in Pontevedra:


Talking of signs . . . One town in Galicia had had to replace all its wooden yellow-arrow Camino signs because they were being stolen as quickly as they were replaced. They're going with granite. Something similar happened at the bottom of Penny Lane in Liverpool. Where the street name is now painted in black on the red sandstone wall. 

I don't read many novels but I've just embarked on one - Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale. In the first 20 pages he's used 5 words I didn't know:-
Gimp:- 'Twisted silk, worsted, or cotton with cord or wire running through it, used chiefly as upholstery trimming.'
Doxology - 'An expression of praise to God.'
Unliable - 'Not liable'.
Cheval glass - 'A tall mirror fitted at its middle to an upright frame so it can be tilted.'
Drugget:- 'A heavy felted fabric of wool or wool and cotton, used as a floor covering.' 

Bennett also calls the North Sea 'the German Ocean". Perhaps everyone did back in 1904, before the First World War. As with the Alsatian dog. 

On the past 2 mornings, as I've walked into town, I've nearly been hit in the middle of a particular zebra crossing. OK, it's a new one and it's placed at the top of a side road, as it slopes down, making it slightly hard to see from the main road, but there was no excuse for nearly mowing me down and one of the drivers had the decency to apologise. But, anyway, these 2 near-injury experiences got me thinking about driving in different cities around the world. The conclusion - Where it's terrible (Tehran and Jakarta, for example) you take this as the norm and just deal with it, taking on local practices in order to survive and prosper. Where it's good (say the UK), you take this for granted and get annoyed at the occasional lapses by other drivers. Here in Spain, where there's a mixture of the two extremes, your reaction also gets to be mixed. Sometimes (e. g. bizarre signalling) you just shrug but sometimes (e. g. tail-gating) you get annoyed. Así son las cosas. Maybe one day I'll just shrug at everything. 

Finally . . . Scotland: As D Day approaches: 

1. "If the UK survives on Friday, new powers for Scotland will be necessary but not sufficient. England itself must change too. And so must the way we all do politics. Back under the duvet is not an option".

2. Here's a beautifully crafted cri-de-coeur from Melanie Reid, in the un-citeable Times:- As I write this in the sun, overlooking the mountains of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, hearing only the mewl of buzzards and the bleat of sheep, I reckon I’m in one of the most idyllic places possible. To my left, beyond the wee wood, is the village, a happy, peaceful community where everyone knows everyone, where our children went to primary school and where our community-owned shop thrives.

Yet right now all I feel is wretched. Scared and absurdly powerless, like a child in trouble. The way you might feel if you heard your parents quarrelling every night or observed a really bad patch in the marriage of dear friends. In Scotland, you see, we’re at the point where the time for rational arguments and the counselling has passed: all that’s left is a slender hope that they decide to stay together. For their sake, yes.

But mostly, if you’re honest, for yours.

For those of us lucky enough to live in this lovely country, who are emotionally British, the threat of divorce from the UK is genuinely devastating. For us it is the forced destruction of our personal national identity. It’s terrifying. The news a week ago that the Yes campaign was ahead in the polls was seismic. I actually felt my world jolt. I felt physically queasy; found myself looking around the room for reassurance. Other friends said they burst into tears, overwhelmed with a sense of impending loss. Suddenly, all we could see was upheaval. Our future. House, pensions, jobs, savings. Every security that I had worked for as a UK citizen, taken for granted in one of the most tolerant, benign, democratic, prosperous and, yes, bloody wonderful countries in the world, was no longer secure.

Suddenly this was personal. It was about me and mine.

Let me tell you about my grandfather because he’s my touchstone on this. William Reid was born in 1883 into a dirt-poor crofting family in the northeast of Scotland. Real poverty-porn stuff. When he was 11 his father died, leaving William to support his mother and five younger siblings. My grandfather went to work straight away as a millwright’s apprentice to feed the whole family. In the evenings his mentor, the village schoolteacher, gave him lessons.

William was a man driven by brains and social purpose. He became a travelling millwright; always saving, sending money home to his mother. From his boyhood he was aware of the rampant poverty around him, the hordes of indigent women, unwanted children, limited horizons, the ruin of alcohol on men. He never drank. By the 1910s he was a successful engineer based in Liverpool and Belfast, installing passenger lifts on the Titanic and her sister ships. As soon as he could he bought his mother and sisters a house. By the 1920s my grandfather was rising, literally, in the employment of the multinational engineering company Waygood-Otis. He was in charge of putting the lifts in the liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth and in the Empire State building.

Between the wars he did the same on much of the London Underground. He never learnt to drive and family legend tells how he was chauffeured all over the city through the night, the only time the work could be done, supervising those very escalator shafts that today millions tread. By the end of his career the humble man from rank poverty, one of Kipling’s Sons of Martha, was managing director.

For an autodidact he was knowledgeable in literature, painting, religions, finance, gardening, world affairs. In his retirement in Harpenden, my sister remembers his unfaltering quotations from Shakespeare next to the strawberry patch. He had socialist leanings, but feared anarchy. Self-betterment was the way to fight poverty and the degradation that went with it. He told my sister she should become a social worker.

Without overplaying it I think you could say he and his wife, my grandmother, a farmer’s daughter from his home area, were part of the Scottish diaspora that helped to build the modern world. I’m proud of what he constructed for Scotland, for Great Britain, for shared values of humanity. He was possibly the least inward-looking man you could ever imagine: he loved his country but saw it for what it was: a small, tough, poor place, integral to a larger whole. I think we can safely say, on both intellectual and emotional grounds, he would consider independence wilful madness.

The thought of blaming Westminster, or by extension the English, for Scotland’s plight would never have occurred to him. Life was about outreach, enlightenment, opportunity, not seeking someone to hold responsible for his plight. I bet there are several million families in Britain with similar stories to mine of intermingled lives and the export and input of enterprise. 

William Reid brought his family prosperity. His son, my father, was born in England. My father married a Northern Irish woman and I was born in London with a deep sense of British, Northern Irish and Scottish heritage. The way the wheel turns, I chose to go to university in Edinburgh. My parents were pleased: I think it satisfied my father’s romantic yearning to return. As a naive 18-year-old, I expected the Scots to understand that I was pretty core Scottish as well. I thought I’d fit in. I wasn’t some aristocrat’s daughter: I was descended from soil and grit and graft. I got a shock. Because I have a neutral accent I was automatically labelled 1) posh and 2) English by ordinary Scots. The deadly double whammy. Always an outsider. 

I’ve been here nearly 40 years. I married a Glaswegian, for God’s sake. You can’t get more Scottish than that. I stayed because it’s a wonderful place and hopefully over the years I have put something of my grandfather back into the country. But because I don’t sound like them I’ve come to realise that Scottish was the last thing I would ever be allowed to be. Yes, that kind of ignorance, that two-bob racism, prevails. 

Research in 2003 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Union of the Crowns indicated that one quarter of English people living in Scotland were victims of antagonism, harassment and prejudice. One third considered the Scots basically Anglophobic. I wonder what the figures would be if you did the same poll right now. 

Being reasonable can be a curse. Despite my comfortable middle-class life I have always tried to walk a mile in other people’s shoes. Today I understand perfectly why young Scots, newly enfranchised 16 and 17-year-olds, are being seduced by political fantasy as surely as the children of Hamelin were lured from their town by the pied piper and led deep into the mountain never to be seen again.

I fully grasp why the Labour voters in Glasgow, taken for granted as electoral fodder for generations, are beginning to follow the piper too. The siren call that says forget the rotten housing, life expectancy lower than the Gaza Strip, intractable social problems and 50 per cent unemployment, just come and vote “yes” and we’ll transform your lives. Of course anyone in their situation would follow the music. The young and the poor, those that don’t know better and those who have nothing to lose will project on to Alex Salmond’s deliberately empty canvas all their dreams. But they are being conned. It’s economic fantasy. They’re being led over a cliff. The teenagers are the poor saps that will have to pay for everything when they hit the ground. How dare the Yes campaign infect our children’s generation with the insanity of their false promises, their la-la land? The clever ones will simply leave; the rest will be trapped. 

How can nationalists be so inward-looking at a time when this tiny world of ours has never been more threatened by dark forces? And how dare they imply that No supporters, by setting out the realities of global finance, are somehow blocking greater social justice? As if we are all fat, neoliberal, poor-bashing Tories. I mean, grow up! If we are going to talk about social injustice, then the Yes campaign is surely guilty of cruelly manipulating the least wise, educated and articulate people in society. 

Almost 40 years from the day I first arrived in Edinburgh, completing a sentimental family circle of immigration, and unpacked my suitcase, I’m scared. I love this country for all it has given me: quality of life, people, peace, humour, beauty, freedom, roots. I am both British and Scottish. I am my grandfather’s descendant. The Yes campaign has no monopoly on passion. I have the right to care. Scotland is mine too.


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