Angry Scotland I
examines the roots of Scotland's 'simmering, boiling rage'
So much misery
The actress Emma Thompson, who is half-Scottish, recently gave an interview about her involvement in the cult TV drama series, Tutti Frutti, in which she played the part of Suzi Kettles, cocktail waitress turned singer with a rock band called the Majestics. Thompson enthused about the script, written by John Byrne, and said it was some of the best material she had ever worked on. However, she went on to observe: 'Tutti Frutti is very much about Scotland – about what will be put up with and accepted as okay, and the tragedy that there's such genius in the country but also so many inhibitions and so much misery. There's nobody more f***ing joy-sucking than one of those old Scotsmen who hate pleasure in all its forms. I understand why so many Scottish artists and actors leave. They have to, because they can't get any air, they feel stifled. There's a tremendous rage in Scotland – and that's one of the things you see in Tutti Frutti. Simmering, boiling rage – and of course rock 'n' roll's a great outlet for that.'
Casting aside the suspicion that I might qualify as one of the 'old Scotsmen' Thompson is referring to, I tried to reflect more seriously on her comments. It might be tempting to dismiss them as the dated observations of a metropolitan luvvie who has lost touch with her roots and with the changing climate of post-devolution Scotland. But there are at least three elements in the critique which deserve some attention.
Firstly, much as we might like to think otherwise, the legacy of Calvinism is still with us. Although some of its more negative features are now largely confined to parts of the Highlands and the Western Isles, there is a still a Calvinist mindset which affects many Scots, even those who would claim to be agnostic or atheist. I recognise it in myself and see it in others. It takes the form of a work ethic which makes it hard to switch off, a feeling of guilt if life begins to seem too pleasurable, and a readiness to pass judgement on the perceived shortcomings of others. It is not an attractive combination.
Secondly, although significant numbers of Scots now achieve success in the arts, there is, for the vast majority of the population, a mistrust of the creative imagination. Youngsters are encouraged to keep their feet on the ground and their heads out of the clouds, rather than strive to pursue their dreams. It is not hard to think of explanations for this. A nation with a history of relative poverty could not afford to lose sight of the harsh realities of life by allowing its citizens to drift into worlds of make-believe. One consequence has been that many Scots have opted for the security of public sector jobs when, in a different cultural climate, they might have been willing to take the risks involved in pursuing deeper ambitions.
Thirdly, Thomson's remark about 'simmering, boiling rage' highlights the psychological consequences of the frustrations brought about by the legacy of Calvinism and the fear of imagination. It is consistent with the image of the touchy Scot with a permanent chip on his shoulder. Walk down any street in a Scottish town and you will see and hear minor manifestations of the pervasiveness of anger in people's lives – pedestrians who always expect others to give way, abusive exchanges over parking, graffiti that expresses hatred or threatens violence. More disturbing are the forms of anger and frustration that are given institutional support. Football in particular serves as a focus for 'approved' aggression. The tribes who worship weekly at the temples of Ibrox and Parkhead find therapeutic release in the chants and songs which both celebrate their own identity and express their hostility towards the 'other'.
In itself, of course, there is nothing wrong with allegiance to a football team. The problem arises when it is accompanied by hostility to those whose loyalty lies elsewhere. Furthermore, too much psychological investment in spectator events means that vicarious pleasure in the skills of others becomes a substitute for direct forms of action that might allow individuals to express themselves in more constructive ways. The same is true of the example Emma Thompson cites – rock music as an outlet for rage (particularly through 'provocative' lyrics). Music festivals such as T in the Park generally involve less aggression than football matches, but those who attend them are similarly inclined to submerge their individual identity in the collective experience. Blending in with the crowd is not a promising route to personal fulfilment. We have a long way to go before it can be claimed that the creative potential of the Scottish people is either properly nurtured or genuinely valued.
[click here] for Angry Scotland II: Islay McLeod witnesses a sectarian disturbance