The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 47

September 8, 2010

Well, here we are in May 1994 – TAG 38 – and I’m writing this po-faced review of a book about Scottishness in the context of sport. This is pre-devolution, so even more than usual, much of what I say seems like bollocks from a 2006 perspective. It is presented here merely as a historical artefact rather than a statement of current opinion. The 2006 me doesn’t agree with much of what the 1994 me wrote.

State of the Nation

Scottish Sport in the Making of the Nation: Ninety-Minute Patriots? Edited by Grant Jarvie and Graham Walker (Leicester University Press £35!!!)

Your humble TAG scribe receives many weird and not very wonderful texts to review. In many ways this is the most exotic that I’ve seen for a while. It’s another sports book in the continuing series from the Leicester University press. In other words, it’s written by academics.

There are some very clever boffins in that University’s Sociology department. Clear evidence of that can be found in the very fact that they’ve persuaded their paymasters that sport in general, and football in particular, is worthy of intellectual research. Some scam, eh?

Thus, on the pretext of academic study, a truck-load of super-brains get to sit around reading football fanzines, and occasionally slumming it down at the local shed-end. The egg-heads then produce a book which is less than 200 pages long, but which weighs in at the truly mind-boggling cost of £35. It goes without saying that no-one is going to buy this book. Well, OK, a few university libraries might, but that would definitely be a case of more money than sense. I hope that this review will give you some idea of what you’re missing.

Essay, Essay?

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It consists of a series of learned essays by various clever-dicks, including occasional TAG contributors Graham Walker and Bert Moorhouse. It purports to establish that Scotland as a nation/race/cultural unit can be better understood through studying its sports and popular culture. It takes its cue (and its subtitle) from Jim Sillars’ expression of frustration after the 1992 General Election when he said, ”The great problem is that Scotland has too many ninety minute patriots whose nationalist outpourings are expressed only at major sporting events “.

Sillars was referring to the cliched, but nevertheless true, assertion that most of us only seem able to collectively demonstrate our separate “Scottishness” in the context of support for a sports team. Other nations have a parliament. We have Hampden Park. Why has the passion of the “Tartan Army” not translated itself into a demand for political self-determination? That is the question which most of the contributors to the book wrestle with. It is a question which I have often asked myself, though not quite so eruditely.

Think of your feelings when you’re singing “Flower of Scotland” at Hampden or Murrayfield. If, at that moment, somebody wrapped you in a kilt and gave you a claymore, you’d be ready to disembowel the bastard English by the time you got to the bit about “your wee bit hill and glen”. Why do so many of us then go out and vote for all the touts and toadies and lickspittles of the English ascendancy, and thereafter cravenly lick their arses? Some of the answers may be found in this book, but I’ll come to that later.

Meanwhile, several chapters are devoted to sports other than football. They concern themselves with such exotica as deer­shooting in the Highlands, breast-stroking in Motherwell, and caber-tossing in Inveraray. This review will not deal with any of these pastimes, however interesting.

One might expect that a book of this sort would contain many contenders for Pseuds Corner, but thankfully it is generally free of sociology­ department style gibberish. A stunning exception is in the chapter examining sports journalism, which is worth quoting at length, as an example of just how far people can progress up their own rectums, viz:

“That these discourses of the national dimension may be said to construct and reconstruct national identities implies a theoretical tension (after a period of ascendancy of post modernism theory), namely a tension between a traditional conception of the media “representing” real-world activities, and later, Lyotardian, more recently Baudrillardian, conceptions of “invention” wherein no assumptions are made beyond the domain of discourse itself. Our use of terms like “invention” and “construction” refers to our perception that media discourses are best approached as fabrications whose relation to their correlatives in the political world is problematic: as well, that is, as referring to the belief that the phenomena of identity are best seen as continually reconstituted within culture generally”.

All of this is a fairly long-winded way of saying that Gerry McNee talks shite. By the way, have you ever noticed that people who use terms like “postmodernism” and “Baudrillardian” are usually several hundred light years away from ground control?

Wha’s Like Us? (Probably No-One)

I don’t mean this review to be aggressively anti-intellectual. However, when it comes to football there are two problems with the learned academic approach. Firstly, as demonstrated above, there is no point at all in writing something which none of the interested parties are able to understand. Secondly, the things which make football attractive have absolutely nothing to do with intellectual responses to them. Indeed, to appreciate football properly it is necessary to clear your mind of intellectual impulses.

Subject to these qualifications, the book is actually quite interesting. In particular, the chapters dealing with Denis Law, Rangers/Celtic fanzines, sectarianism, and “football and the idea of Scotland” are definitely worth a browse the next time you’re in your local sociology department library.

A common theme is that sport demonstrates that there is no such thing as “Scottishness”, because, rather than promoting unity, sport actually emphasises differences in geography, race, religion, class and gender within Scotland itself. For example, it is beyond doubt that many Scots of Irish descent continue to show greater allegiance to the land of their ancestors rather than to the land of their birth, and football provides the most visible platform from which this allegiance can be proclaimed.

Early on in the book Charlie Nicholas is quoted as saying, “We shouldn’t kid each other on, there are not a great deal of Celtic supporters who follow Scotland”. A later chapter concerns itself with anti-Catholicism in Scottish football and society, but, disappointingly, hardly any attention is paid in that chapter to the sentiment articulated by Nicholas. It hardly matters in the 1990s whether the chicken of anti-Catholicism or the egg of Irish allegiance came first, but it seems obvious to me that there is bound to be antipathy between Scots who support Scotland and Scots who are overtly aligned to the Republic of Ireland. By the same token, that antipathy is likely to drive Irish Scots further away from support of Scotland. The point is well made though, that Scots are not just one big happy Caledonian family, sharing a common sense of themselves. The Scots/Irish, Protestant/Catholic divisions within our own society may well be a major obstacle to our ever re-achieving political autonomy.

(Not) The Fanzines

These divisions are addressed in the chapter about football fanzines. In particular, Follow Follow and Not The View are compared and contrasted. Anyone who has ever read the former will be aware that it has a very strong pro-Unionist editorial stance, apparently revelling in the denial of a separate Scots identity, while simultaneously expressing devotion to a queen whose very title, Elizabeth II, indicates that her Scottish subjects are of no account whatsoever (there never having been an Elizabeth I of either Scotland or the United Kingdom). It allies itself entirely with the idea of the “United Kingdom” and makes it clear that devotion to the Union Flag is not just based on the colours of the flag being shared with the Rangers strip.

Indeed, that fanzine recently carried a debate in its letters column in which the majority view seemed to be that voting for the SNP was entirely inconsistent with supporting Rangers. Readers are expressly encouraged to support the Conservative Party as the only true repositories of the ideals of the Union. Not The View on the other hand tends to be less overtly “political”, but it’s stating the bleedin’ obvious to say that its editors do not share any of the views and opinions of their Follow Follow counterparts.

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The Celtic fanzine really operates as a forum for Roman Catholic paranoia, while the Rangers one provides a basis for that paranoia. One would hardly expect the situation to be different.

Bert Moorhouse concludes that “the fanzines scarcely say much about what it is to be ‘Scottish’”. While I’m not all surprised by that conclusion, I am surprised that Bert is surprised. Fanzines do not have any remit to identify “Scottishness”. Follow Follow wishes it was English. Not The View wishes it was Irish. Quite what either of them has to do with “Scottishness” escapes me.

A Question of Sport

Sport, particularly football, is important in Scottish culture. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. Football is equally important in the culture of other nations, such as Brazil or Italy, so we’re by no means unique. It’s currently fashionable to say that our devotion to football is indicative of some sort of social and political immaturity, and that it demonstrates a complete loss of perspective on the things that are really important in life. The next time some smart arse comes away with this tripe, just ask them what these “more important” things are. The answers will include a load of guff about spiritual fulfilment, communing with the infinite, ski-ing holidays in Switzerland, saving the whale, nappy-changing, the price of truffles, and how quickly their car can get from 0-60.

It’s to the credit of this book that it doesn’t indulge in the “football fans are just emotionally-stunted people who’ve never grown up” kind of tosh peddled by so many scribes. Having said that, it requires a major leap to start defining a nation, or even understanding it, by reference to sport. It would be equally valid, and difficult, to try and define the nation in terms of its reaction to Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan, neither of them remotely Scottish, but both having an “important” effect on contemporary attitudes.

In my opinion, it is practically impossible to draw any meaningful conclusions about Scots from the study of sport, however important sport is in people’s everyday lives. There are roughly 95,000 of us who attend senior football matches every week. It’s a large group, but nevertheless, just a minority. I’m under no illusions about the fact that many people consider my own fanaticism about football as just plain crazy. As noted above, there is very little common purpose amongst the 95,000 of us. Nearly half of them are Rangers fans, most of whom have undisguised contempt for the other half, a contempt which is reciprocated.

Probably the strongest unifying factor in Scottish sport is a pervasive anti­-Englishness (the editor of Follow Follow excepted). Everyone that I know, whether SNP voters or not, gets almost as much pleasure from English failures as they do from Scots success. There are a whole host of reasons for this, comprehending factors like geographical proximity, 1707, Margaret Thatcher, Edward I, the Poll Tax, 9-3, Culloden, Flodden, Glencoe, Jimmy Hill, Jimmy Greaves, Jimmy Young, your hoity-toit relatives from Dorset, 1966, Conservative governments, the National Front, Land of Hope and Glory, the “rebellious Scots to crush” verse in the “National” anthem, Gazza, Ian Lang, North Sea oil being pissed into an English bucket, Britain and England being interchangeable synonyms whenever it suits our larger “partners”, entirely undemocratic Parliamentary “democracy”, conspicuous and vulgar displays of opulent wealth by minor chinless wonders in the House of Windsor, Bob Wilson, the Union Flag being a symbol of English nationalism etc etc.

A Different Ball Game

Even the anti-English sentiment has become noticeably diluted over the past ten years or so. The advent of an era when Rangers have, on occasion, had more players in the English team than in the Scottish one, has contributed. So, also, has the removal of the annual fixture against England. It wasn’t that long ago that the yearly “hate-hour” against England was the most eagerly awaited match on the calendar.

What was it? An annual opportunity for a proud, but disenfranchised, race to re-affirm its distinctive nation-hood by striking out at the oppressor in the only peaceful manner available. Or an excuse for a grotesque horde of drunken savages to get tanked up on pints of heavy and gallons of bile and bitterness?

Of course, it didn’t help when we started getting beaten every year. There’s not much point in playing the “heroic David versus megabastard Goliath” card, when the megabastard invariably pisses all over you, smashes up your catapult and kicks your head in.

It’s arguable that the diminuition of anti-English feeling in a football context has paradoxically occurred at a time when Scotland has been more grievously abused than ever before by the English political establishment. For 15 years an English dominated Parliament has launched a wholesale assault against Scotland, aided and abetted by quislings in the Scottish Office. The Tories, with at times as few as nine seats, have seen fit to use Scots as guinea pigs for the Poll Tax, closed down core industries, ignored popular calls for even limited devolution, savaged local government and generally fucked us about at every available opportunity. If there was a genuine link between politics and football then one would expect that we would be clinging more fiercely than ever to the Scottish national team, as our last barricade against rampant English nationalism.

Instead, deep-rooted support for the National side is probably at its lowest ebb ever. This is not a case of football reflecting politics or vice versa. The simple over-riding reason is that the current Scottish team is generally perceived as being not very good at football.

In the early 1970s I was at Hampden Park on two consecutive Saturdays. The first one was for a Rangers-Celtic cup-final. Some Royal Princess or other was in attendance and “God Save the Queen” was played. It was sung to the echo by the “Rangers end”. The following week was the Scotland-England game. The self-same anthem was roundly booed and cat-called from the same end, which contained many thousands of the same people who’d sung it lustily seven days earlier.

This must be symbolic of something. Precisely what, I’m not sure. After reading this book I’m left with the same “not sure” feeling. Is sport (football) a contributory factor in “Scottishness”? Is Scottish sport a mirror of Scottish society? Are we just ninety minute patriots? Is football a substitute for getting a life? You might not find the answers in this book, but you’ll certainly find the questions.


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