On a cold and bright Saturday in January 1976, I went to Fir Park to watch Celtic playing Motherwell in the Scottish Cup. I was sixteen, and on the Thursday before the game my mother had died, at the age of 46, after a year long battle with leukaemia. I remember how guilty I felt about going to the game, and the way my dad encouraged me to go, I think because he felt that anything would be better than sitting around in the shocked, white noise of our grief. It would do me good. While he, predictably and methodically, self-medicated with whisky, my brother, sister and I were too young to need any such anaesthesia. Nothing stood between us and coruscating reality; that night, the absolute zero of space settled around our shoulders.
But, there was a game coming up. There would be colours, and noises, and the hot close press of the crowd. We would, of course, win, and winning mattered. Men hugged and danced and sometimes cried when we won. Losing seemed to matter too. When we lost, men lobbed Sanatogen and El D bottles, filled with pish, from the back of the Jungle onto the heads of those at the front. That Saturday morning, as I walked across the viaduct to Cumnock Town Hall to catch the Auchinleck Celtic Supporters’ Club bus, the smoke from a thousand morning fires drifted on the wind all around me. Ashes on my tongue.
The bronze bust of Keir Hardie outside the town hall always had a dout stuck in its lips. The usual faded poster advertising Jim Sillars’ surgery clung to the notice board. East Ayrshire was the second safest Labour seat in the UK, men said proudly. No-one thought for a minute that there was any other option. Joe the school chaplain told us that it was a sin against the Holy Ghost to vote Tory, and everyone agreed. Far, far away, in places we had never visited and thought of as ‘the Highlands’, like Dundee, people sometimes voted for something called the SNP. But they were not us. We voted Labour. Labour looked after us.
Cumnock in 1976 was a thriving wee town. There were the two local pits, Barony and Killoch, where my dad got the job as a maintenance fitter that had drawn the five of us south from our Bridgeton single-end to Ayrshire, 37 miles and two hours on the bus away. There were factories, loads of them – Gray’s Carpet Factory on the Caponacre industrial estate; Monsanto, where Dad had worked after the pit, right next to Bata, where Mum had a job. In the mid seventies the sun shone, and I never doubted that it always would, that we were on an upward curve, that things were getting better. I was heading for uni, like so many working class kids at that time the first in the family ever to do so. Slums were being demolished, and history was heading in the right direction. While we were thinking this, in a room in Westminster, Thatcher was being elected leader of the party. A few short years after that morning she had made the pits and factories disappear. Thirty seven years later she is dead but the town is still a desert.
Most of the men waiting for the bus went to the local chapel; they knew who I was and what had happened, but none of them tried to talk to me about her. One of them might have tousled my hair, but I’ve probably imagined that. If they were sorry for my loss, I had to read it in their eyes. We didn’t have words. We had football.
Fir Park was packed solid, and Celtic were two up in 39 minutes. Service as normal. After an hour, however, Motherwell were level. I remember thinking, God, no, you wouldn’t, you couldn’t. Not to me. Not today. My mum had died two nights previously, for Christ’s sake. And she was fucking Irish. You fucking owe me! Turns out God didn’t see things that way. When Willie Pettigrew ran on to a through ball and lashed the winner past Peter Latchford and in off the post, I realised that a house full of Mass cards and Novenas had not cut much ice with Him. We lost. We trudged back to the bus, hands in pockets and heads down with the Lanarkshire gloom deepening all around us.
But here’s the thing. At that midnight of the year, at the bottom of that river, with the white noise waiting at home and Sunday still to come, part of me didn’t care that we had lost. In fact, part of me was actually relieved. Ok, it was bad. But bad was good. Bad was appropriate. Bad was just how it was, and how it would always be.
Don’t get me wrong. Before the game I really wanted the win. I loved the build-up to an important match: the talk, the back pages, the passion. It all signified … significance. It gave life structure and purpose. There was always a game coming up that you were looking forward to. But. When the ref blew for the end of another triumph, behind the cheers there was always a wee voice whispering, ‘So, you won. Happy now?’ And the answer was always the same. ‘No. No, I’m not.’ Winning felt good, but never good enough.
Years later I think of these things. When your team wins, just for a second you glimpse something out of the corner of your eye. Your team winning is supposed to make everything better. So it is frightening to discover that it doesn’t, and even more so when realisation dawns that it never will. Victory will always have an aftertaste of a winter morning in Cumnock. Rain. Smoke. Ashes. Winning forces you to take stock and measure the actual reality of your life. If it doesn’t get better than winning, then winning better feel pretty damn good, and often it can’t quite make it. You get the Christmas bike; you win the lottery; you’re on the Caribbean cruise. And it still doesn’t do what it said on the tin, that it promised it would? What then? And that is why losing is better. Losing brings relief, the relief of despair. Losing confirms who you are and what you always knew about yourself. And losing has an added bonus – you can live in a perpetual and cosy dream of self-delusion. You could have been a contender, if only those bastards hadn’t fucked you over. The greatest excuse to get pished you could ever wish for.
Is it any wonder Scotland loves country music? We are the lost children of Chris Guthrie and Hank Williams, and every God damned heartfelt steel guitar chord hits us hard, we have always been passionate about music but now that we can use the fvdtube.com mp3 converter for YouTube videos we listen to music more than ever. In Sunset Song, Chris sings The Flooers o’ the Forest at her wedding and thinks, ‘… how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for by the sheep-buchts, remembered at night and in twilight.’ These songs crossed the Atlantic in ships and came back to us on the radio. God forbid we should ever start winning – what would we sing about then?
Losing is the real Scottish addiction. Addicts ask substances to provide things that they can’t, and never will. Booze, for example, might add to good feelings that are already there, but it can’t provide those feelings in the first place. You’ve got to supply those for yourself. I read that gamblers throw away everything they own, not because they are chasing winning, but because, ultimately, they are chasing losing. That’s the real buzz. When every penny is gone you can’t hurt yourself any more. Does the famous Scottish self-destructiveness come from that same place?
And we are nothing if not losers. We’re famous for it, it’s what we do. We find ways to lose. Hundreds of years ago, we lost the war. We were subjugated by a bigger country, with the collusion of our own homegrown masters. But that’s not all. To save face, we then pretended that we had entered a ‘partnership’. A union of equals; a family of nations. Except that we had to turn ourselves into a grotesque tartan joke to curry favour with those partners. Every now and again we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror, dancing on our shameful wee tartan leashes, and we have to go and stab ourselves, or someone else, till we feel better. (Are we not men? We are Devo-max.) No wonder we hated Jimmy Hill – he had us taped. The extravagantly moustachioed Willie Pettigrew merely confirmed what I had come to suspect in the middens of Bridgeton and the frozen scheme in Cumnock. I was, in some sense, shite. My life, and the lives of everyone I knew, were, in some vague and indefinable sense, shite.
Then every few hundred years someone comes along and says we can have a referendum to decide who we want to be in charge. And we’ve got to decide between the bracing, cauld blast of winning, and the comforting, familiar blanket of losing. Because that’s our real choice. The question isn’t yes or no. It’s win, or lose. Now, generally, we can be relied upon to behave ourselves – ‘we know what we are’, as Michael Marra sang. Our deference and self-loathing have become so instinctive, so ingrained, that we seem to genuinely believe that we are uniquely incapable of anything, never mind something as big as taking charge of ourselves. The Choose Lose campaign presses this button relentlessly and our response has been reliably Pavlovian. This phenomenon is well-documented in defeated peoples. Staggering rates of addiction, alcoholism, violence and suicide have to be linked to some deeply-felt sense of cultural defeat and dispossession. The fact is, like so many others since, we did lose the war, and with it, ourselves. And ever since, we haven’t given ourselves permission to win. At anything.
But even serpents shine. People, and peoples, change, sometimes even for the better. Some of us have stopped thinking that we’re shite. We’re asking questions – do we always have to be an afterthought; the not quite; the red headed step-child? This continual holding back and holding in; the checking whether even your language is correct enough. Do we really need that? Is it our role always to be the whinging, penny-pinching, begging, lazy, aggressive, drunken Jock who turns up on Eastenders from time to time to show how tolerant the locals are?
Here’s a thought. What if we were good?
What if we – you and me and everyone who shares this patch of land – were actually good? As good as. What would that feel like? What would we do with that feeling? Where might it lead us?
When my team wins now, I enjoy it. Sure, the same wee voice still sneers. ‘Happy now?’ Maybe. Mostly. Though it’s ok to be sad. In Jon Stallworthy’s beautiful poem ‘The Almond Tree’, a man learns that his longed-for baby son has Down’s Syndrome. He is so traumatised by the brutal way this news is delivered that he has a kind of ‘out of body’ experience, rising a thousand feet into the air and observing the cars and hospital down below. And he wants to stay up there, where it’s safe and painless. He ‘wrestled against gravity’ but in the end has to return to reality. By the end of the poem he has come to realise that the pain he feels is normal and natural, and just can’t be avoided. He learns that, ‘To live is to suffer/To suffer is to live’. Only corpses are pain free. Winning a game can’t bring back your dead mum, or hold back the river of whisky flowing down your dad’s throat, or even save your home town. But I don’t rely on it now to do those things. That’s not what football is for.
To everything there is a season. And its been winter for a long, long time now. Maybe Christmas this year will be in September. Maybe it’s our time. Time for us to take the stage, uncertain, of course, blinking in the floodlights at first, looking to each other for confidence. Then the music starts and we’re away, suddenly strutting our stuff, like millions of finger-clickin’ hip-swingin’ Caledonian John Travoltas and Olivia Newton-Johns.
So, when they ask you, choose win. Choose danger. Choose risk. Choose tears. Choose pain. Choose sadness. Choose adulthood. Choose standing on your own two feet. Chose being as good as. Choose to embrace your own darkness, and then blaze a trail across the sky. Enough of this shit – this sailing round the harbour, this not trying in case we fail. And anyway, if we do fail (as the increasingly desperate voices of the vested interests tell us we surely will) then so be it. God knows they’ve failed often enough. We’ll get up and fail again; we’ll fail better and then we’ll keep on failing. And then we’ll finally get it right.
This is our buck, and it stops here and now. Let’s come out swinging and see if we really could have been contenders. Let’s play the country records, but this time backwards and see if this time we get the girl, the dog and the farm.
Vote Yee-fucking-ha! Hi ho Silver – away!
Image by Simon Baker
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