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Cultural Blinkers

I was watching the Argentina – Iran game today (strangely compelling for a 1-0) and was amused to hear the commentator Clive Tyldesley say that most of Iran’s squad had their Christian names on their shirts.

Christian names? For Iranians?

I see from this that it wasn’t just me who noticed…

It’s Your Other Other National Day

Today is your other other National Day. (If you’re Scottish that is.)

St Andrew’s Day.

It is of course now more honoured in the breach as it is not a public holiday nor even – unlike in my young day – a school holiday.

I suppose 30th November isn’t a good time for a day off anyway; the daylight is too short and it’s liable to be considerably parky.

Irn Bru

The title to yesterday’s post was, of course, an allusion to an advertising slogan used by Barr’s, the Scottish soft drink manufacturers, to promote Irn Bru, which outsells Coca-Cola in Scotland. Barr’s use of their Scottishness is astute. I have posted their High School Musical parody before.

Irn Bru has had a few slogans, starting off in a comic, The Adventures of Ba-Bru and Sandy.

The two best, however, are undoubtedly, “Made in Scotland From Girders” and “It’s Your Other National Drink.”

The last is doubly appropriate since the first national drink – whisky – has unfortunate side-effects (hangover) for which Irn Bru is widely thought to be a sovereign cure.

And it does contain iron – at least as a compound – in the form of ammonium ferric citrate.

Here is their parody of The Snowman, which showcases some iconic Scottish landscape features. It’s just a pity the boy treble doesn’t manage to roll the “r” in Irn enough. (I’m not sure he rolls it at all, in fact.)

Irn Bru: The Snowman

It's Your Other National Day

For reasons to do with the Calvinist traditions of Scottish Presbyterianism Scotland’s national day of celebration actually covers two days, Hogmanay and New Year’s Day. (Christmas could not be celebrated riotously due to its religious nature, besides it was tainted with Catholicism.) Everyone, though, needs a blow out at the depth of winter to rejoice at coming through so far and look forward to the turning into light.

Today, however, is your other national day, if you’re Scottish.

It marks the birthday of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most renowned poet, lauded worldwide – most notably in the US and Russia.

Though the tradition may be dying out a little there will still be hundreds of Burns’ Suppers taking place around the world today, and in the days around, in his memory.

I shall not be addressing the “great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race,” nor toasting the lassies (only the good lady will be present,) nor even proposing the immortal memory, but I will be supping on haggis, neeps and tatties tonight.

Burns’s contribution to Scottish letters and culture lies not only in his own verses but in the collection of traditional songs which he sometimes revised or adapted. Without him many of these might have been lost.

He may have treated the women in his life badly, or off-handedly, but there is a concern for common humanity, and indeed for animals, in evidence in his work.

This is Is There For Honest Poverty (A Man’s A Man For A’ That) sung by Ian Benzie.

A Man’s A Man For A’ That

American Imperialism?

Inhabitants of the US tend to refer to themselves as American. This is of course factually correct as their country does lie within that continent (or those two continents if you prefer.)

However, they also tend to appropriate the phrase for themselves, to use it to mean a citizen of the United States. This is an implicit dismissal of the other countries in their hemisphere – possibly a linguistic reflection, or extension, of the Monroe Doctrine which explicitly regards the Americas as the USA’€™s backyard. The doctrine dresses itself up as anti-colonial but was of course in itself nothing but imperialist by appropriating to the US the right to interfere in the affairs of other continental – and Caribbean – states. (This right has sometimes been exerted whether the recipients of the benefit desired it or not.)

The terminology is also prevalent, though, on this side of the Atlantic. I may have used it myself at times, however much I try always to refer to the US or USA rather than “€œAmerica.”

I believe, though, that it is a source of irritation to Canadians in particular and also I suspect to Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, El Salvadoreans, Nicaraguans, Belizeans and Panamanians. Not to mention Uruguayans, Brazilians, Chileans, Bolivians, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Argentines, Peruvians, Venezuelans, Surinamese, Guyanese and Paraguayans – even French Guianese – all of whom are American in the wider sense.

I have seen the proposal that the description Columbian – after the continent’€™s “discoverer”€ – be used to replace American in the narrower sense. This would be the supreme irony, as what was Columbus if not a European imperialist?

It is unlikely to catch on, though, as US citizens would doubtless not wish to be confused with their fellow continentals from South America, ie Colombians.

As other options this would leave us with the rather unwieldy United Statesian. This could be shortened to USian (which may, though, be misread as Usian,) or Uessian, or even in these days of cavalier spelling, Youessian.

Any of these would at least have the merit of being specific (as well as unimperialist.)

The Oxymoron Where I Live

Reading “The Fanatic” recently caused me to reflect on the following question. How much Scottish history was I exposed to at school?

Apart from the brochs at Skara Brae in Shetland, which were suitably far off in time as to be uncontentious, absolutely none. Rien. Nada. Zilch.

This is notwithstanding what Ronnie Ancona said on the TV programme, QI, about her experiences in a Scottish school which were apparently somewhat different from mine.

Instead of Scottish history I was taught European history from the Partitions of Poland* onwards through the Peninsular Campaign of the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna etc and – nearer home – the Chartists, the Reform Acts, Disraeli and Gladstone; all good and worthwhile (shared) British history certainly, but a bit, distanced, shall we say.

This meant that all that Wars Of Independence/Bannockburn/Flodden/Civil Wars/Covenanting/Darien Disaster/Act of Union/Jacobite Rebellions stuff had to be picked up by osmosis from the surrounding culture, or by myself. There was really a kind of black hole where historical knowledge should have been.

I tried to fill in some of the gaps in my early twenties, sugaring the pill by reading the historical novels of Nigel Tranter (I know, I know, but he spun a good yarn while he was at it.)

I always put the original omission down to the fact that Scottishness was in some way considered second class or else had to be kept down by the establishment (it had not been long before this that pupils in Scotland were physically punished for speaking Scots or using Scots words after all.) That it was feared in some way.

But perhaps it was that I had “passed” my qualie (≡ “qualifying” exam; eleven plus) and so went to a Senior Secondary (≡ Grammar School) which was converted to a comprehensive in my last year there, and we were still somehow being trained for Empire – despite the winds of change.

Or maybe it was just the cultural cringe writ small.

Whatever; it didn’t work.

Growing up in a Scotland where the vast majority of broadcast media output was geared to the English audience it was just about impossible to be unaware of England and Englishness. But it was not impossible to feel somehow disregarded as a result of this.

Remember there were only 3 UK radio stations till ca 1967 when it became 4 – though there was also a BBC Scottish service (but I don’t think it was called Radio Scotland at that time.) The pirate stations were never UK-wide. TV had just the 3 channels – only 2 up until about 1962! – which had the occasional “regional” opt-outs.

My sense of Scottishness was only reinforced when visiting cousins on England’s south coast and also, after University, by working for two years in Hertford. My home then was in Essex and involved a long commute – by bus; those were different times.

I discovered then that the vast majority of English people knew nothing of Scotland – and cared less.

I came to the conclusion that for most of my life I had lived in an oxymoron – in a state called the United Kingdom that was neither united nor a kingdom.

It’s actually two kingdoms, England and Scotland; a principality, Wales; and a province, Northern Ireland. And that does not include those anomalies, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, which recognise the monarch as head of state but are not part of the United Kingdom proper as they don’t elect MPs to Westminster. A citizen (sorry, subject of the crown) could be forgiven for being confused.

Maybe that original omission to teach me Scottish history was simply the result of a curriculum choice by the History Dept at the school and pupils elsewhere did receive a grounding in Scottish History as Ronnie Ancona claimed she did; but it still seems bizarre even after all these years.

Was anyone else’s experience like this? Or was theirs more like Ronnie Ancona’s?

*My teacher – nicknamed Greensleeves (that may be another post) – wrote this on the board as the Partions of Poland. To much bewilderment at first, quickly followed by derision.


A relatively recent post by doctorvee got me thinking about flags (again.)
I was first struck by this, of course, seeing all those US TV programmes where a flag stood in the corner of a schoolroom or court, hanging from a house wall, or on a special pole erected in a front garden.
More forcefully, it was after holidaying in France and Northern Ireland in successive years that an explanation of sorts occurred.
I noticed the French tricolour flying (hanging limply actually) outside the local mayor’s office in every town. Now, coming from a place where the national flag was only flown from the pole at the municipal buildings on high days and holidays (or the Queen’s birthday – whether real or official) this habitual flaunting was a strange phenomenon. It seemed such a symbol of insecurity. Though I have seen two or so saltires flying from back gardens in Fife, the county where I now live, they are aberrations.
In Northern Ireland, of course, Union jacks or Irish tricolours fly in profusion from every available location – even the bloody kerb-side stones are painted in three colours in certain areas.
I just can’t get my head round the mindset involved in this sort of thing.
I know who I am. I don’t need a flag flying outside my door to prove it.
I don’t mean to upset anybody – I’m genuinely puzzled about this – but what could all this flag waving be about?

In a word legitimacy; or the lack of it.
The French got rid of their king (twice – three times if you count Louis Napoleon.) They’re now on their fourth or fifth Republic – it’s easy to lose track – rioting/revolution is almost their national sport. Deep down they know their state is illegitimate. They fly the flag to disguise this fact.
Same in Northern Ireland. The unionists know it’s not their country really and have to bolster their insecurity with a show of bravado. The nationalists know they’re not in charge so fly flags to assert themselves. All this in itself is relatively harmless; it’s certainly not as bad as blowing people up.
Does the same sort of reasoning apply in the US? They too got rid of their monarch, albeit not by executing him, though it was still bloody.
I can understand why recent immigrants would wish to assert their new citizenship, but are native-born Americans really so insecure they need to fly a flag to give themselves confidence? After all, most other evidence is against this interpretation.

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