Notes

I saw that my life was a vast glowing empty page and I could do anything I wanted

Tag Archives: Identity

New Kids on the Block

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Rarely is anyone judged for who they really are. As anyone who has ever attended a party or social gathering will already know, new friends and acquaintances will invariably want to know ‘what you do’ for a living. It’s unsurprising really. Perhaps it is just human nature for us to compartmentalise our personalities and responsibilities in this way.

Graduates lose their progressive status within a year of leaving university. Thereafter some of the greatest young minds on this planet will be defined by their occupation – waitress, drug dealer and freelance blogger; or as they are more commonly known in the Eurozone – unemployed.

Our preoccupation with status has been further amplified by the sheer number of people who have a handle or profile promoting their job and lifestyle. Such a culture inevitably leads to people branding their identities and heightening status anxiety to extraordinary levels.

Alas in the words of the late Virginia Woolf ‘the eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages’. The lowly shelf-stacker at Tesco, who has read the works of Joyce, Mishima and Ezra Pound, is certainly not going to feel any better by spending too much time on LinkedIn.

Although there is a light blogging alternative to the online brand phenomenon, where nobody knows your name or what you do. Tumblr is an offbeat social media service with a pop-culture twist. Irreverent by nature and heavily meme based, the Tumblr generation post endless streams of fashion, photography and literacy quotes in splendid anonymity.

With no comments or trolls, there is something highly refreshing about Tumblr’s eccentricity and complete disregard for how we all have to make a living. Nobody cares what you do, it’s all about what you feel and know to be true.

Predominately US-based and with over 120 million users every month, Tumblr has given rise to some of the most entertaining and offbeat blogs around today. From the sexual intellectualism of Book Porn, soppy boredom of Dogs on Trains and the late great Kim Jong-Il looking at things, Tumblr is a wonderful place to waste time. A digital scrapbook for the creative moths of this world, there is something refreshing how people can express themselves so vividly online in such a weird and odd fashion.

However, success comes at a price and while the light blogging service remains the domain of hyper-intelligent college kids. Old media organisations such as The Guardian and New Yorker now want a piece of the digital action. With traditional newspapers spreading their ‘content’ online, there is a danger Tumblr will succumb to the wishes of large media groups wanting to promote their corporate image. Indeed it has probably happened already such is the power of big business.

But while people remain weird and strange there will always be a place for the marginalised and ignored on Tumblr. It remains somewhere pure and anonymous and relatively untainted by the status obsession culture found on other networks.

And while the pressure to be someone will never cease and every fresh handshake and sideways air kiss will inevitably be followed by an enquiry into your occupation. There is now a small place where outside thoughts no longer have to be our cages, and where labyrinth minds can express themselves freely on laptops in unkempt bedrooms and solitary library chambers.

A Stateless Nation

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On growing up in the nationalist heartlands of the North East of Scotland and with parents of Anglo-Irish descent, I am a first generation Scot. Always sensitive to any hint of anti-English sentiment, I remember my first impressions of nationalism and I considered it back then to be inherently nasty, bigoted and deeply parochial. Largely this was a result of a feral loathing of the English football team and the hysterical fear of the ‘auld enemy’ winning the World Cup.

Laughable as this might sound to educated observers, especially anyone who knows anything about football, the populist cry was that ‘we would never hear the end of it’ and they are right. It would be absolutely unbearable but our European partners usually come to our aid whenever this is in danger of happening.

Football might seem frivolous to some but the social consequences of this nationalist hysteria led to me preferring the union. As a result and unaware of the grim economic conditions taking place outside of the affluent fields of Aberdeenshire, I felt very comfortable being simultaneously Scottish and British. While I always considered myself Scottish, I owed my existence to parents and as a son of economic migrants; I was a product of oil rather than the Mearns soil.

Although looking back my British identity crisis was an emotional form of solidarity with my parents. It co-existed with my Scottish identity, which back then was a geographical and localised phenomenon.

T.C. Smout, the brilliant social historian, once stated that ‘what is unusual about Scotland is the widespread acceptance that national identity does not have to coincide with state identity’. He succinctly tapped into the political separation of powers of the 1707 Union settlement, where Scottish cultural and religious nationalism was allowed to flourish outside the sphere of the British state.

Shaped by the desire to secure a Hanoverian Protestant succession in the early eighteenth century, British identity has been formed around the crown, empire, industrialisation and the emotional solidarity of two World Wars. In the twenty-first century, the contemporary framework of British identity has shifted radically.

With the British Empire now confined to the dust columns of history, the BBC, NHS, Royal Mail and celebrity television shows such as the X-Factor and Big Brother provide ‘Britons’ with a shared cultural identity.

On being entirely comfortable with being both Scottish and British, I can trace my slow conversion to independence from attending two of Scotland’s oldest universities. On first attending Kings College in Aberdeen, I took great pride in learning that until 1858 Aberdeen had two universities, the same number as the whole of England.

Education always appeared to be a great Scottish virtue and with the devolved Scottish administration paying student’s tuition fees since 1999 it became clear that education in Scotland is a universal right and not something confined to the privileged few.

On transferring to Glasgow University and studying History, I slowly developed the opinion that Scotland had everything in place to be thriving independent nation but somehow shied away from taking full responsibility. A country blessed with huge natural resources, a brilliant university network, untapped green energy, a booming tourist industry and two of the greatest cities in Northern Europe only 40 minutes apart. Scotland has enormous potential to become a progressive and wealthy European state.

If Scotland were to vote for full independence in autumn 2014 then the British state will cease to exist but Britishness will not. Norwegians, Swedes, Finns and Danes are still Scandinavian despite living in politically autonomous states. The Scandinavian nations co-operate on matters of shared national interest such as security, immigration, energy and tourism.

There will be no custom officials and razed wire fences in Berwick-upon-Tweed or Gretna Green if Scotland were to go their own way. And by retaining the Queen as the head of state, the SNP have offered an olive branch to unionists uncomfortable with the pace of radical constitutional change.

With his High Excellency Alex Salmond at the helm in Holyrood anything now feels possible. A truly outstanding political operator, the SNP has been blessed with the most gifted political communicator in the British Isles since Tony Blair.

Commanding over an extremely disciplined and ‘on message’ party, Alex Salmond is gradually persuading the Scottish people there is nothing that cannot be achieved by ourselves. On turning full circle I now believe in independence. The wheels of progress have been slow but the destination now feels inevitable.

Same Jeans

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As a Scot who once neglected to wear a kilt at a local girl’s wedding, I know from personal experience the emotional power of sartorial nationalism. On being subjected to bitter scorn for rejecting Scotland’s national dress, I had not only betrayed a local tradition but my country’s sense of identity too. Although anyone walking around Scotland today is unlikely to see any men wearing kilts on their way home from Tesco. The Highland veil of tears is nowhere to be seen on the high street and Scottish citizens wear the same jeans, t-shirts and dresses as everyone else.

Germans describe the purpose of clothing as Schutz, Scham and Schmuck – protection, modesty and ornament. Clothes are essentially a non-verbal language and wearing a kilt has always been a clear demonstration of Scottish identity. Ironically there has always been a long tradition of anti-Highland satire throughout Scottish history. Lowland poets such as William Dunbar and Sir Richard Holland caricatured the Highlander as being feckless, violent and stupid, while his costume, the belted plaid (see above) was an object of ridicule. The use of tartan to symbolise a pan-Scottish identity rooted in antiquity still resonates today but it is grossly unrepresentative of everyday life.

As illustrated in Niall Ferguson’s recent televised series Civilisation: Is the West History?, the advent of mass consumption has now consigned traditional dresses to the laundry basket. Previously there had been a spectacular variety of styles all over the world. In 1909 the millionaire French banker, Albert Kahn, set out to create what he called an ‘archive of the planet’. The 72,000 photos he collected reveal an astonishing variety of costumes and fashions.

All over the world it was clear that clothing defined national identity. However, with the rampant power of American consumption leading to an unprecedented convergence of Western fashions, people are simply no longer what they wear. Even some of the most ornamental fashion scenes in London’s trendiest districts are grounded in uniformity.

Anyone walking down Brick Lane on a Sunday afternoon will see thousands of young people listening to lesbian Bulgarian folk music and drinking Chai Lattes. Invariably middle-class and well-educated, the young gentleman on display will be wearing second-hand jeans as oppose to anything on sale in Top Shop. Meanwhile their female counterparts will be snapping up colourful vintage dresses from pop-up shops throughout the city’s alternative style mile.

Seemingly original at first but when thousands of people start re-buying old clothes on a mass scale. Even self-styled individualists begin to look very familiar, especially when they all congregate in the same street. No more so than outside British railway stations, where teenage skate-punks loiter outside in the identikit black uniforms imported on mass from the United States of America.

Superficial groups may appear to diverge away from the majority culture but compared to the astonishing ethnic and regional diversity captured in Albert Kahn photographs. Everyone in the West wears the same uniform cottons on a truly unprecedented scale. Sartorial nationalism still manifests itself in a post-modern fashion, where countries such as Scotland celebrate their national identity by wearing kilts on formal occasions. Uniformity of course provides a feeling of solidarity, which I discovered to my cost when I wore an English tuxedo at a Scottish wedding.

Aye Right

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As part of this year’s census people in Scotland will be asked if they understand, speak, read or write in Scots. The census counts everyone in Scotland once every ten years and I was initially surprised that the Aye Can website referred to ‘Scots’ as a language. Gaelic in my opinion is Scotland’s only independent tongue whereas Scots is a broad term for a loose confederation of dialects. Scots is a Germanic language and has evolved from Old English and Norse to be spoken throughout the land although not exclusively, as speaking in a Scottish accent is not the same as speaking in Scots.

Having spent the majority of my life in the North East of Scotland, I am already familiar with one of the richest Scottish dialects in Doric. The 18th century poet Allan Ramsey (1686-1758) was the first to apply the name Doric as an alternative name for Scots. In the 18th century, Scots was compared with the rustic peasant tongue of Ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, while English, the official language of the new British state of 1707, became associated with Attic, the standard language of the city states.

In post-industrial Scotland, the Doric label crept northwards and is now commonly associated with the Grampian region. Despite living in rural Aberdeenshire for over twenty years, I can’t speak in Doric or even read it properly as this wonderfully impenetrable article by Robbie Shepherd will duly illustrate. With my Anglo-Irish parents holding sway, I grew up from my Mother’s knee speaking English and often felt estranged from my peers and elders who did spik in the mither tongue.

As a product of North Sea oil, I found myself being brought up as a British migrant child in the part of Scotland no one really cares about. Geographically isolated and deeply unfashionable, I remember going to primary school and watching oil rigs pump billions into the nation’s economy from my class window. With oil barely receiving a mention in Thatcher’s memoirs, I can recall studying History at two of the country’s oldest universities, one of them being Aberdeen, and hoping to learn about how my region shaped our nation’s fortunes.

But Aberdeen rarely ever featured in my lectures and text books. All the great battles, figures and political incidents took place in the social and economic heartbeat of Scotland’s Central Belt. While the misty romances of Gaeldom provided the poets and tourists with a chocolate box vision of the Highlands. Even when the North East should have become more relevant in the latter end of the 20th century, it appears going offshore every two weeks in Thatcher’s Britain is nowhere near as romantic as ‘goin down pit’.

On being asked whether I speak or read in Scots, I can recollect the social differences in dialect from my childhood years in a commuter village south of Aberdeen. Even my Scottish peers spoke in a far softer tone than the raw Aberdeen dialect we regularly encountered at football matches and school activity weeks. Children from my school would dismiss kids fae Aberdeen as ‘toonsers’ and their accents were frequently mocked for being uncouth and poorly spoken.

Obviously I was too young to understand the social class dimension behind these childish views.  The oil boom of the late 1970s had transformed a previously isolated region, and resulted in a steady influx of non-Scots speakers into the area. Although miles away from the coastal strip of oil rich villages, the Doric tongue continues to baffle outsiders in the traditional braes and communities of the North East. As a student I remember labouring in the summer around the time of last census in the market town of Stonehaven. While obviously out of place, I struggled to keep up with the broad dialect of the labourers in the yard. The old men manning the vans would comically refer to me as a lanky ‘guffy’, and curiously enough this is a derogatory term for an Englishman.

Despite being born and raised in Aberdeenshire, I persistently felt like an outsider during my three month stint in the yard. And while any attempt to speak in Doric would have made me an imposter, I am relieved globalisation has not completely extinguished the ancient tongue of the North East. For while I cannot speak in Scots, I long for it continue regardless of whether it is a language or not.

Nationalism is a Created Product

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After attending the Pioneering Painters exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, I began to question why I never learned about the Glasgow Boys at school. Radical, bold and fervently European in their outlook, the Glasgow Boys represent a new progressive Scotland. However, the art collective remained off my cultural radar until I attended Glasgow University and stumbled upon their works at the nearby Kelvingrove Museum. On re-examining their most radical and exciting works at the Royal Academy of Arts, I drew an immediate contrast with Burns Night.

Reflecting back on my primary school days in Aberdeenshire, I vividly remember my P6 teacher’s poetry recital classes with ‘A Man’s a Man for all That’ being the proverbial jewel in the crown. With my Anglo-Irish vowels, I always dreaded Burns week and felt extremely self-conscious that I couldn’t recite verses in guttural Doric like my Aberdonian peers.

While I eventually grew to admire some of Burns vernacular gifts, I have remained curiously ambivalent about Burns Night. It always felt somewhat contrived to me. Almost like a post-modern image of Scottishness that bears no relevance to day-to-day life.

Burns Night is arguably the biggest literary event in the world with an estimated nine million people participating last year. A typical Burns night has poetry recitals, bagpipes and three courses of traditional Scottish fair, which usually involves cock-a-leekie soup, haggis, neeps and tatties and a complimentary dram.

With the greatest respect this dour cuisine is certainly not the most alluring of European dishes. If there is a Scottish restaurant in Rome or Barcelona then I certainly haven’t seen one. All the while the Haggis represents a comic sentimental image of Scotland and I find it deeply regrettable that a foul peasant condom is our national dish, when the nation’s glens, forests and lochs are home to some of the finest game and fish in Northern Europe.

Whereas other countries define themselves around wars, revolutions and kings, Scotland remains a stateless nation and embraces cultural nationalism to exert her identity. Burns Night remains consistent with the twee sentimental image of Scotland constructed by Sir Walter Scott in the nineteenth century.

After nearly two hundred years of progress, Scotland is still renowned for its kilts, whisky and majestic Highland landscapes. Anyone walking past a triumphant Visit Scotland billboard will be in no doubt of the country’s national identity. What is fascinating is that the Glasgow Boys emerged towards the end of the 1870s and radically vowed to challenge the sentimental Victorian obsession with the Highlands.

By challenging this twee conservative vision of Scotland, I found inspiration from the Glasgow Boys exhibition that there is an alternative to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. The Glasgow Boys were bold, radical and experimental painters, whose stunning collection of works represent a genuinely progressive movement. A collection of artists that dared to look towards the Mediterranean and Japan for inspiration instead of turning inwards towards the Highlands.

What I find surprising is that the Glasgow Boys remain a quirky afterthought in Scottish culture. If I hadn’t stumbled upon their paintings in the Kelvingrove Museum, then I could easily have remained ignorant of their existence.

A truly confident country should look outwards for inspiration and I see no reason why the Glasgow Boys shouldn’t be universally affiliated with Scotland like Dali, Gaudi and Picasso are with Spain. It is regrettable that this radical confederation of painters have been unable to impose a greater cultural influence in their own country.

Robert Burns remains Scotland’s most iconic and influential poet but anyone tucking into their Haggis tonight should be under no illusions that nationalism is anything other than a created product.

The Illusionist

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After leaving my university town of Glasgow in search of a media career in London, I have often found myself trying to preserve my Scottish identity. By living and working in a global metropolis, I fear my Scottishness will eventually become so diluted that I’ll lose touch with my Aberdeenshire upbringing.

Nostalgia can be very misleading but on recently watching Slyvain’s Chomet’s animation The Illusionist , I immediately knew that I wanted to return to Scotland for the festival season. Chomet’s visual love affair with the Scottish capital is a melancholy fairy tale and offers a romantic throwback to a seemingly more innocent era of steam engines, roast fires, whisky drams, red post boxes and candlelit evenings.

The Illusionist is about an elderly French magician who has become increasingly marginalised and ignored after the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Unable to sustain his vaudeville show in France, the magician travels over the English Channel and performs on stage in empty theatres in the far north of Scotland. Such is the remoteness of the Hebrides in the 1950s they represent one of the few remaining indigenous communities in Britain unaffected by the cultural impact of America.

On a remote Gaelic island, the magician meets a young girl called Alice, who secretly follows him back to Edinburgh. They quickly form a paternal relationship and spend their lives surrounded by eccentric miscreants, loners and forgotten souls. They are the moths of the world with troubled hearts, living beyond their means in a cosy domestic abode. Struggling to communicate in their adopted tongue, the pair slowly drift apart in a sad and beautiful tale of two outsiders trying to find their way in a lonely world.

Slyvain Chomet creates a melancholy vision of Scottish capital and it is set around the death of the British Empire. This fading spectre of imperialism would have been keenly felt in Edinburgh, which even to this day represents a kitsch romantic version of Scotland wrapped in kilts and colonial union jacks.

Chomet’s love affair with Scotland explores the green fringes of the city and takes you on a cinematic journey northwards towards the Forth Railway Bridge and the luminous fields of Fife. While to the south you can marvel at the gentle rolling hills of Lothian, which fades aimlessly into the horizon like an electric green sea.

Edinburgh is a beautiful place and during the summer it is comparable to classic European cities like Paris or Prague, especially when every accent in earshot is almost inevitably from outside of these shores. What is so remarkable about The Illusionist is the grainy imperfection it lends to its adopted landscape. This beautiful animation captures the sensation of walking through the Old Town at night, where it literally feels like you are walking in ink.

Chomet’s elegiac vision of Écosse is tinged with a homely sentimentality and dangerous as this might be, I am looking forward to walking in the Illusionist’s footsteps this summer. The textural grace of the Scottish tongue may be slipping from my grasp but I hope to reacquaint myself with my homeland, while listening to the sound of pneumatic tyres rippling over the cobbles of the past.

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