Madness first sparked my love of England, and of London in particular. And I fell hard: One Step Beyond, Baggy Trousers, and Night Boat To Cairo were the soundtrack to my late primary-school years, the bounciest moments at the school disco. Their 1980 album Absolutely had a picture of the Nutty Boys outside Chalk Farm tube station on the cover. I had a longing to visit this exotic place and find out where this nutty, anarchic music came from, a longing almost as strong as my desire to get a crew cut and a Crombie (neither of which I was allowed).
Madness seemed like a logical extension of Grange Hill, which I loved. Everyone in my class could do a passable “Pack it in, Tucka!” We were adept mimics, and our favourite English accents poured out of the telly every day after school like visiting cousins, aunts and uncles. I knew that the stuff that happened on the telly was happening somewhere else, and that the day-to-day life I lived bore little resemblance to that. At playtime, we imagined our way into the worlds we knew from the telly.
I was 18 before I saw London in the flesh. My then girlfriend was at dance school there, and she took me to Camden, to Shepherd’s Bush, to theatres and to parties in impossible-seeming houses. The enormous abundance of things to do and see, of people, was overwhelming and compelling; I felt like I’d arrived in the world from the telly.
A thing that’s always struck me about London is that you mostly can’t see out of it when you’re in it – everywhere you look is London. I always have a thought at some point during visits there that home feels very far away, not just geographically, but mentally. The concerns of life at home seem to shrink somewhat as you get swept up in the relative scale and pace of it. And the majority of Londoners that I meet know relatively little about where I’m from, while I know and love their town pretty well.
I’ve been there a few times for work, but more often to play with my old band. Putney, Shoreditch, Kentish Town, Clerkenwell, Islington – we won them over (mostly) and made firm friends along the way. There are musicians of my generation who are making music there today with an attitude that I recognise from the London bands I loved as I was growing up, and that’s great to be around.
Music’s an excellent route into life, and it’s enabled me to travel around some of the country. I came to know Newcastle, Leeds, Harrogate, Manchester, Sheffield, Oxford, and (weirdly) Glossop a little bit through playing gigs there. Glossop was glorious, by the way. That part of the Peak District just rolls and dips beautifully. I hiked up Kinder Low End for a look while I was there: stunning.
Oxford left me somewhat torn, I have to say. It’s so pleasant to be there, but every once in a while I’d catch myself and think “Why aren’t other places like this, this agreeable?” I took a lot of pictures, mostly of college buttresses through railings while thinking how it’s nice that they let some folk from my background in, these days.
I was having a swift one in a pub before a show there when I heard three middle-aged men in tweed (I could hear the tweed) chatting as they took seats at a table behind me. Their conversation went something like this:
Tweed #1: …bloody Gordon Brown, bloody jock, ruining the bloody country.
Tweed #2: Well, when have the bloody jocks not been ruining the bloody country?!
Tweed #3: I suppose we ought to be a bit grateful for the whisky revenue, all the same.
Tweeds 1-3: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!
General clinking of whisky glasses.
“Whisky revenue? That’s the bloody least of it,” I thought. I weighed up a righteous, Caledonian-accented intervention but decided to let it lie. I’ve been there before; it’s just sport to those guys.
Now, deflated as I was to hear a shit prime minister being decried for being a jock rather than for being shit, I don’t mean to paint that kind of latent racism as an English-only phenomenon; living in the West of Scotland has taught me otherwise. I met some nasty French football fascists in Britanny one time – bigotry’s international. I’ve even met un-ironically xenophobic Greeks. No, what Tweedgate did was to remind me that I was not ‘one of us’ in this place; I was ‘other’. I was in another country, not at home (where at least we knew that if Alex Salmond and Henry McLeish were shit first ministers, it was because they were shit, not because they were “bloody jocks”).
But that little incident is funny in retrospect. It doesn’t dampen my love of England a bit, and why should it? God, I’ve been just as ashamed and more at conversations I’ve overheard in Glasgow.
England’s a wonderful country. And it’s another country, distinct from Scotland.
My England-dwelling friends often bring up the independence referendum – usually tentatively, to their credit – and with the ones who aren’t pro-independence, it always feels a bit like you’re breaking up a relationship: What did I do? Don’t you love us anymore? So this is for them, a love letter dedicated to everything we cherish and share, and a reassurance that our connections are much stronger than mere politics. Politics is important, but let’s keep things in perspective.
The relocation of decision-making to Scotland is merely political and doesn’t end our relationships or stop us enjoying being in each other’s neighbourhoods. But that relocation is necessary in order for Scotland to give full expression to its distinctive outlook. And that can’t be allowed to shrink away to almost nothing amid the skewed order of business at Westminster. The concerns of Scotland must seem at least as distant to the Westminster government as Scotland does to me when I visit London. It’s “up there somewhere”. That can’t happen in a fully independent Scottish parliament.
Westminster… HP sauce bottles – another imagined place, mythical as Grange Hill and Chalk Farm.
I do have similarly warm feelings about other places – Paris, Nantes, Barcelona, Galway – but it would seem ridiculous to have a government in one of those places making decisions for Scotland, utterly incongruous. And yet they’re no more foreign to me than London is. They’re places where I’ve made strong links with people, where I’ve had brilliant experiences, and I hope to continue that.
My idea of independence is not ‘anti’ anything; it’s not any kind of ‘-ism’. I see September’s referendum as an opportunity to put us in tune with the rest of the world and have Scotland making its own decisions, as most countries do.
And when it happens, a beneficial side-effect for our dear ones in the remaining UK countries will be the inevitable debate and re-evaluation of the whole Westminster system of government, a debate that seems unlikely to be taken seriously if Scotland were to plump for the status quo. And what a gift to our neighbours that debate would be. I’d be glued to the telly.