Monday, September 04, 2006

Maximumrocknroll #275 April 2006

It's all Valerie McMillan's fault. When I was a nipper I was a bit of a swot, always in the quiz team and stuff like that. I don't remember putting myself forward for this stuff, but I was pretty compliant. If the teacher told me, "you're in the quiz team. Practice is at 4." I just turned up like I was told. Valerie McMillan was a year or two older than me (it was primary school, so I was probably 9 or 10). Mrs. McMillan, her mum, was my teacher, and she was brilliant. Valerie, on the other hand, was snobby and mean. I don't know if she thought she was special because her mum was a teacher, or because they lived in a nice house in the nicest part of the village instead of the grey council schemes that most of us lived on, or what. Anyway, one day at quiz team practice I got a question about flowers or something. The answer was "anemone", and I knew the answer even though I'd never seen an anemone or heard someone pronounce the word. I answered it correctly but pronounced it wrong, like "ani-moan" or something, so I didn't get the point. Valerie Watson jumped in to poach the goal, triumphantly enunciating the word while looking smugly in my direction. Looking back (and don't ask me why I remember this crap) it seems obvious that Valerie must have had something lacking in her life if she felt it necessary to vaunt her superiority over a wee boy two years her junior (age wise – probably more like five if we're talking physical and emotional development. I was a late bloomer) but all I can remember is feeling crushed. The incident was just one more reason to feel inferior. How was I meant to get on in the world competing against these folk that no doubt spent their lives up to their ears in anemones, and probably rhododendrons and camellias as well, when all we had was a balding square of grass and a tiny rhubarb patch?
The phenomenon of class is a strange one. Before I developed any kind of class-consciousness, I was ashamed of the hand-me-downs my brother and I would often wear to school. In certain circles (usually around the other 'clever' kids, most of whom lived in houses in nice areas that their parents actually owned and whose dads had white collar jobs) I was ashamed that my dad worked in a factory or that we rented our house from the council. At the same time, I still managed to feel superior to the kids who came to school dressed worse than me, or not clean, or who got the free lunch. Load of shit, eh? Now I'm just ashamed that I ever felt ashamed. Of course, most of the time none of this stuff mattered, it didn't plague my thoughts or anything, but I can see where this stuff might have made its mark on me and how it affects the way I've lived my life and the choices I've made.
When you're working class you learn to keep your head down. It doesn't do to appear too ambitious. If you are seen to be trying to improve your lot or get ahead, people will talk shit behind your back. "Who the fuck does he think he is?" On the other hand, when someone from a Scottish working-class background becomes world famous (Sean Connery, for example), everyone thinks to themselves, "ah, he's one of us."
Is the above really true, or is it my perception of what happens? Maybe it's just my guilt at wanting to escape my surroundings. I didn't want to get out because I thought I deserved better than everyone else. I believed that everyone deserved better. I just created the opportunity to leave for myself.
To this day I have an aversion to speaking up for myself. I keep my modest achievements to myself to avoid sounding like I'm bragging, because I don't want to sound like I'm getting ideas above my station. I'll sit in a restaurant and eat something that's cold or tastes rubbish rather than speak up and send it back. I'm mystified by the air of self-confidence and entitlement that surrounds people that grew up with money. Actually, at first I didn't always realize that's what it was. I'd meet these people who seemed to believe that they could do anything, that the world was their oyster. I'd be in awe of them, wishing I could be like that, and feeling that there was something lacking in me. Eventually someone pointed out to me that a lot of the time, people carry around that self-belief because they've been told their entire lives that they deserve to have anything they want and that every opportunity is open to them. Whereas I'd never seen evidence that anyone from round our way could amount to anything much.
I feel like things are slightly better now, but when I was young the only representations of working class culture you got in the media were total stereotypes. Never mind Scottish working class culture. At school, there were no authentic Scottish voices represented in the literature we studied, with the exception of having to learn a Robert Burns poem once a year. Even this they turned into a chore. No attempt was made to relate Burns' poetry to modern life, we were just supposed to learn a particular piece word for word and the student who could best recite it would go off to a national competition. I never won that privilege. Ironically, Burns was a bit of a radical and I actually enjoy his work now, but I was completely turned off of it by the ham-fisted way it was taught. It was made patently clear that literature was something created by and for the enjoyment of the middle and upper classes, preferably those in the southern counties of England. Turn on the television and you got a similar message – successful people (lawyers, doctors, politicians, actors) were well-bred graduates of the finest private schools and universities. Blue-collar types (when you saw them at all) spoke with 'regional' accents and were generally cap-doffing supplicants. I spent many of my formative years reading books about the heroic exploits of upper-crust English types, like the Famous Five, Just William, Jennings, Bertie Wooster, and Sherlock Holmes. Luckily I later discovered James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, and of course Irvine Welsh, among many other amazing Scottish authors, although I do feel that my earliest influence can still be detected in the way I write today.
I don't really know why I'm going on about all this, except that I was recently reminded of the quiz team story so it's been on my mind. I don't mean this as any kind of exertion of working class pride or some such spurious notion. These are just hang-ups I was born into. It's true that on the rare occasion I find an affinity with someone they often turn out to come from a similar background, but I try not to hold onto any prejudice. I feel very strongly that to feel proud of something that you were born into and had nothing to do with (your class, your race, your country) is treacherous territory and has been known to lead down a rather dangerous path.


I wholeheartedly recommend checking out any of the authors I mentioned above, but particularly the newer Scottish ones. While you're at it, have a go at Alan Bissett, Laura Hird, Alan Warner, Tom Leonard, Ian Rankin, Janice Galloway, or Duncan McLean. Actually, Laura Hird (author of Born Free, one of the best books I've read in the last ten years) has a pretty impressive website at, which, although named for her, also includes a host of material from other writers, as well as a section on her favorite punk bands (phew! Against all the odds, the boy McNaughton manages to slide a punk reference past the bewildered goalie and brings the column back under MRR guidelines as the Ref looks at his watch) including Crass, The Undertones, The Ruts, The Buzzcocks, and SLF. There's hours of reading on this site and I won't pretend I've even started to make a dent in it.

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