Supporting England

Do I support England when they play football? Certainly not; in fact if they played tiddlywinks against North Korea, I would go for Kim Jong Un’s boys and girls every time. Isn’t that racist? No, it isn’t. And you’ll be delighted to know I’m going to explain why.

First of all, let’s look at geography (we’ll get to history later). The English are our neighbours. And there are ten times as many of them as there are of us; that makes us, in strictly numerical terms, the junior partner. It is simply in the nature of such relationships that there be rivalry, and that it be sharper on the side of the smaller neighbour. Even in commercial terms, if you have a small company competing with a large one, the rivalry will be sharper for the smaller one. And anyway, neighbours are rivals: look at Newcastle and Sunderland, Liverpool and Manchester, England and Wales, England and Ireland, England and France, England and well you get the picture. It’s normal, and it doesn’t mean anyone hates anyone else, and it is in no way racist, and in fact it’s healthy.

Now, history. There is a lot of this between Scotland and England, before and since the union. We are separate nations, similar in many ways, but not identical and not indistinguishable. And humans haven’t always been as civilised and peaceful as they are now (I know, I know, but it’s true): everything used to be settled through war and subjection, especially between nations. And because England is much bigger than Scotland, they would often kick our arses and make us subject to their will and whim. As a result, they felt superior to us, and things like that take MANY generations to die out; most English people still feel superior to Scots, albeit that for most of them it isn’t something they would usually be aware of and generally would never lead to any kind of violent attitude. On the Scottish side, that rankles, which again is perfectly normal and natural. In fact, considering that at various times (including after the political union between our nations, which anyway wasn’t, shall we say, entirely voluntary on the part of the Scots) they have banned our culture and language, starved us, humiliated and ridiculed us, kicked us off our own land, jammed us onto ships in numbers that would have been illegal on slave ships, and much else… well, considering all of that, supporting Uruguay in the World Cup with not a brick, bottle or bullet in sight is a remarkably mild response. Some of the verbal retorts can be extremely sharp, but they’re not exactly slaughter and enslavement.

But the biggest reason for supporting England’s opponents is neither exactly historical nor geographical. It’s the telly. And radio and print and electronic media. The English media are unbloodybearable; they’re smug and narrow-minded and childish beyond belief.

When the England football team plays, especially in a World Cup match, Scots take bets on how long it will take for them to mention 1966 (the year England “won” the World Cup). Even now, almost half a century later, they go on about it endlessly, even in games England aren’t actually playing in. The record, I kid you not, is less than zero. Thirty seconds is about average, and anything over about three minutes leaves them quivering and clinging to a blanket. Every commentary is based almost entirely on how each player or event affects or connects to England, and if England aren’t playing then they talk about the last England game with usually a nod to the teams that are actually playing. And all of this applies at least as much to the “British” Broadcasting Corporation as to anyone else, their responsibility to viewers and listeners in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ignored and/or forgotten.

It’s fucking awful. No bloody WONDER we cheer when they lose. Watching those idiot broadcasters and journalists trying to cope with the apparently unforeseeable occurrence of exactly what’s happened the previous forty-three times is hilarious. These days, they always tell us in advance that expectations are low, but then react to their defeat exactly as they always have done, in the manner of people whose only previous doubt had been whether they would play Brazil or Germany in the final.

Damn right we don’t support England. And we never will.

Advertisements

Equality

When I was a lad of fifteen, unknown to me homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Scotland. That was 1980, the year of decriminalisation, although technically the law didn’t take effect until the following year, so “homosexual acts” were still illegal here until 1981. And it remained a very homophobic society even after that. As I’ve grown older, racism has gone from casual acceptance to embarrassment to unacceptability. Much more recently homophobia has, remarkably, gone the same way; just this year, our parliament (which didn’t even exist from 1707 to 1999) not only passed but overwhelmingly passed one of the most progressive marriage equality laws on Earth, at last bringing full legal equality to gay couples: the first same sex weddings are expected in October, and they will happen to widespread joy and celebration. This was supported by a majority in virtually every social sector, including our Catholic community (although, just, not among the elderly), so we have come an incredibly long way in only thirty-three years.

Bigotry and prejudice, in Scotland, are pretty much entirely criminalised now, and well on the way to becoming a thing of the past as unfathomable as slavery. But there’s one area where that still is emphatically not the case.

Not only in Scotland but across our world, transgender citizens are still looked down upon, openly and flagrantly discriminated against, assaulted, battered and murdered. Scotland’s marriage equality law has taken trans people into account and they have full marriage rights, including the availability of gender free ceremonies for all couples and the option of continuing an existing marriage while obtaining a Gender Recognition Certificate.

But these are people who, while harming no one and doing nothing wrong, are pointed at, stared at, laughed at, and thrown from and refused employment for no reason other than their expression of gender. Let me illustrate with two deeply regrettable instances from my own past.

When I lived in Munich from 1996 to 2004, I spent a lot of time, like pretty much everyone there, in the U-Bahn (the subway). A couple of times I found myself on a train across the aisle from a trans woman who had a fairly masculine face. I wasn’t as educated then as I am now, and I kept looking at her, thinking “is that a man or a woman?” In reality she was clearly a trans woman and nothing about her was any of my business. That was a form of transphobia my online friend Sophia calls “cis gaze” (cis means “still living in and as your birth assigned gender”). I’m now horrified that I behaved like that, because that woman had done nothing to deserve being stared at by a stranger, once let alone the time I STILL did it when I found myself near her on a train for a second time. I am not and never have been transphobic in the sense of wishing harm or unpleasantness on trans people, but staring at an innocent passer-by due to nothing but one’s own ignorance is absolutely transphobic behaviour, akin to the nudging, pointing and whispering that used to happen if two men were seen holding hands in public, a homophobic behaviour that would rarely be seen now, and less often tolerated.

A few years later, I was working in customer service for a satellite broadcaster. A customer, Mrs. Something, phoned in to rent a movie. She gave her account password, but I was suspicious, because she had a deep, gruff, masculine voice; I refused to believe she was the customer (it “mattered” because renting movies adds costs to the account). I even called my manager over to speak to her and told the manager it was “obviously a man”. I was suspicious because she had said she was Mrs. Something and had a deep, gruff voice, but in truth it was again none of my business anyway, because she had correctly given me the account password, which entitles the caller to full account access. I was again being ignorantly transphobic: the assumption that a woman, or a man, MUST have a certain type of voice or MUST look a certain way is transphobia pure and simple.

I would nowadays never be guilty of either of those offensive attitudes, because I have learned; I have grown up, matured. There are women with deep voices (and penises) and there are men with bare chins and soft skin (and vaginas). That is reality. I write poems that neither rhyme nor scan; they are poems because I SAY they are. And people are whatever gender they say they are, and some people can be different genders at different times; and everyone should be accorded the personal pronoun (he/she/they/whatever) that they prefer, because it’s no one else’s business but theirs.

I’ve made a personal journey away from transphobia and towards accepting all my fellow humans just as they are, but society still has much of that journey to make. We’ve managed it with racism; we’re managing it with homophobia; and now it’s long past time that we grow up in our attitude towards our transgender communities. People are people, people: some are wonderful and some are arseholes, but it has nothing to do with their skin or their genitals or whether they consider themselves male or female. Has a trans person had surgery? Do they intend to? That’s entirely up to them and none of your business. Are they human and therefore deserving of the same basic respect as anyone else? One hundred per cent.

Trans people are people. They are not “trannies”, because a tranny is a forty year old radio; they are people. And people are the same, and every one of us is entitled to determine for ourselves who we are and who we will be, be we black or white, male or female, gay or straight, trans or cis.

There are no pakis or niggers, no poofs or faggots, and no trannies; there are only human beings. And if you were shocked by the first four names in that list but not by the last, have a good, long think about that. This is the next chapter in the eternal struggle for equality. You managed to stop hating gay people. It’s time to do the same for your trans brothers and sisters.

My Journey from Union to Independence

There was a time when I was a unionist. I opposed Scottish independence because the union with the rest of Britain had served us well, although initially imposed utterly against the will of Scotland’s people, who were never asked. It gave us access to England’s trade routes and colonies, which suited our entrepreneurial nature, and it gave our artists access to a far wider public, and our nation access to deep pockets, which was important as England had pretty much bankrupted us by ensuring the failure of our plan to create a colony in Central America, a plan that had been massively subscribed to by our nation and our moneyed classes. On the whole, caveats aside, the British Union had been good to us. And as an ardent supporter of the European Union, it struck me as foolish to leave one union only to join a bigger one that included everyone we had just got away from.

But I always understood that it was Scotland’s decision to make; the Scottish people’s decision to make. And I supported federalism, at all levels, within Britain as well as beyond it. That included regional governments within England as well as home rule for the Celtic nations of these islands (and home rule had been a Liberal policy at the time for over a century, considerably longer than the SNP had even existed).

In 1997 came the referendum to reconvene the Scottish parliament. I was an enthusiastic campaigner for that despite having just suffered a stroke, and victory was sweet. I admired SNP leader Alex Salmond’s handling of the campaign and his relationship with the then leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Jim Wallace.

In that campaign, I attended a party for the count and met SNP members, who seemed reasonable and to have reasonable arguments. And I was reading newspaper article comments, where the arguments of the dreaded “Cybernats” made a lot of sense to me. I became convinced that an independent Scotland would be viable, lost all fear of it, but still supported the union because I believed in abolishing international borders and not creating them.

Then, in 2007, the Scottish National Party won the Scottish parliamentary elections, but with a minority of the seats. There could now be a coalition between them and my party, the Liberal Democrats, and a referendum to let the Scottish people express their support for independence or for the union. But to my astonishment, dismay and disgust, the LibDems refused to accept that: the heirs of the Liberal Party’s century long commitment to home rule, these passionate (once) about democracy and self-determination political progressives, stood with the fusty and exhausted Labour Party against allowing Scotland’s people to decide their own future.

It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. All of Britain’s democratic deficit flooded my mind; the reality of Scotland’s being governed almost all the time by governments it opposed and of being forced into subservience to the London based parties was, I now saw, indefensible on any democratic grounds.

In 2011, after four years of good, competent government without even having a parliamentary majority, the Scottish people gave their verdict on the SNP by returning it to power, but this time with an outright majority that ensured there WOULD be a referendum.

We’re in the middle of the campaign now; the referendum will be held on 18th September this year. And my goodness there’s been a lot of information that makes a compelling case for independence.

In the 1970s, when oil was discovered off the Scottish North Sea coast, the UK government quickly realised that if the already restive Scottish population knew what vast wealth they were sitting on, there would probably be an irresistible demand for independence. So they lied– flat out lied– and told us the oil wasn’t worth THAT much, while burying the true numbers and confining them to secret vaults. If you search for the McCrone Report you can see the whole sorry tale.

Meanwhile, it turns out that, since World War Two, there have been virtually no UK governments elected which would have been any different without Scotland’s votes. Only in the 1970s was there a period when Scottish MPs actually made any difference. That decade ended with a majority vote for a devolved Scottish assembly, which was deemed insufficient under the dishonest and undemocratic rules imposed by the Westminster government (that said there had to be a majority of votes AND 40% of the entire electorate for it to pass; in other words, not voting was effectively counted as a No vote).

It continues. Far from being too poor to be independent, for every single one of the last thirty-three years, tax revenue per head in Scotland has been higher than in the rest of the UK, which means we’re actually wealthier than the rest of the UK, and than every single region of it other than London, which continues to suck at the teat of these islands and devour money raised in Scotland and elsewhere. AND Scotland spends less of its income on social welfare, including old age pensions, than the UK as a whole, which means we can actually BETTER afford to look after our ageing population than Britain can, contrary to all the scaremongering by the No campaign.

Britain’s “independent” nuclear deterrent, Trident (which in fact isn’t independent at all as it can’t be used without the permission of the USA) is sited here in Scotland. All of it. Which gives Scotland a higher concentration of nuclear bombs for its population than anywhere else on Earth. Westminster explains that it can’t go anywhere else because it would be too dangerous to put it near a major population centre. But… it’s in Scotland’s central belt, where most of our people live, and only thirty miles from Glasgow, our largest city. An independent Scottish government could remove it, and if that government is the SNP, WILL remove it. The remaining UK could then choose to put it thirty miles from one of ITS cities or get rid of it. Scotland could then spend all the money we’re paying for it to better use (along with the £50 million we spend every year sending useless MPs to Westminster).

In independent Scotland, there would be no bedroom tax further impoverishing those too poor to pay their own housing costs, no threat to our free education or free prescriptions unless it’s from people we elect ourselves, and no more of the hated “fit for work” tests by the appalling Westminster appointed Atos “Health Care”, which have been known to remove benefit from people with no legs, no sight or with just weeks or even days to live. We will be able to further improve our already excellent record on renewable electricity generation as a hedge against the day, about forty years from now, when the oil runs out. And when that day does come, we have a full quarter of Europe’s wind and sea generation potential (and 37% of its annual fishing catch, without the power to negotiate for that).

Of course there will be challenges and difficulties, and times when our governments make mistakes both small and huge, but that’s normal for ANY country. With independence, they will be governments elected by US, and not by people elsewhere who do not have our interests at heart. None of the quibbling, whining and boasting about a pound here or five hundred there can gainsay that democratic fact.

It’s time for freedom. It’s time for independence.

Rest now, Madiba

The first time I heard the name of Nelson Mandela was in 1981, when my native city of Glasgow became the first in the world to award him its freedom. At the time, it was controversial; he was in prison in South Africa, so how could he be free in Glasgow? And wasn’t he a terrorist? The city, many people felt, had made a laughing stock of Glasgow. These naysayers included my parents.

Then I discovered he was an enemy of those who in 1976 had made the news by slaughtering schoolchildren in a far away place called Soweto, and started to feel he couldn’t be ALL bad. As I grew older, became an adult, I learned a lot more about him and his struggle.

As a member of the Anti Apartheid Movement, I attended demos, rallies and leaflettings and I scoured the news. And the Nelson Mandela I learned to know was not a terrorist but an extraordinary hero.

Apartheid South Africa treated its majority black population not just as second class citizens, but not even as citizens at all. It was racism taken to its logical conclusion. The brilliant young lawyer Nelson Mandela wasn’t allowed to vote, use the same swimming pools as white people or even live where he chose; his children wouldn’t be able to attend decent schools. It was utterly evil. Not unreasonably, Madiba (his clan name and a term of respect) decided this system should be torn down and became a member of the ANC (African National Congress) to fight it, and he moved swiftly through its ranks. He led the movement to using armed force against military installations and other infrastructure, although never against people. In 1964, along with seven others, he was sentenced to life in prison, with hard labour, on charges of attempting to overthrow a government whose overthrow was in truth a moral necessity.

The convicts were sent to Robben Island, where they broke rocks in a quarry every day. They also discussed politics and the struggle. Madiba was there for eighteen years and then transferred to a mainland prison where he lived in conditions that were a bit more humane. In all the time that he was imprisoned, his reputation grew while the apartheid government’s reputation became ever more notorious and a steadily lengthening list of countries imposed economic and other sanctions against it. Eventually, those sanctions took their toll and the regime was forced to start talking to Mandela, by now the unquestionable moral leader of his country.

They tried to soften him by offering him privileges such as visits from his wife (married not long before he was sent to jail) and family. Madiba refused such privileges because they were not on offer to his fellow prisoners. His moral constancy, along with the economic woes produced by sanctions, finally wore them down and on the momentous day of 11th February 1990, after almost 27 years in an apartheid prison, he was released.

Those who felt that the elderly, white-haired man now among his people would not be able to maintain his legendary status were soon to be disappointed. Far from being violently embittered, Madiba told the movement’s hotter heads to throw their pangas into the sea and called off the armed struggle. Far from hating white people, he put them on his staff and even in his personal security team. He fought, as he had said, against white domination and against black domination. One person one vote was his immovable objective, and the regime could not in the end stand against the supreme morality of that objective. In 1994 there were extraordinary scenes as millions of people bore the blistering African sun to queue (in some cases all day) to vote for the first time in their lives in their country’s first ever free election.

The result was never in doubt. The ANC was handed a landslide victory and Nelson Mandela became his country’s first black president, to waves of joy in South Africa and around the world. After that, his by now vast moral authority never wavered. He could have been president for life, but, true to his democratic ideals, he stood down after just one five year term.

He then became a kind of global moral champion. He stood up for gay rights; he helped find justice for the family of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager murdered by four racist thugs in South London; he undoubtedly contributed to the civil rights advances that helped Barack Obama to become the first black president of the United States. He became admired and loved with a breadth and depth matched by no one in the modern age, and that means by no one in the history of humanity.

In 1993, he came to Glasgow to receive the award made twelve years previously, and this time it wasn’t controversial. Thousands of us stood in the rain in George Square and cheered, chanted and sang for this astonishing man, who spoke from the stage and even danced for us.

And last weekend, as my wife and I sat watching television, the broadcast was interrupted by the shocking news that Madiba had died. We had always known he was old and would die some day not VERY far in the future, and that he had been very ill for most of the year, but still the news was like a heavyweight punch in the gut. We were in shock, and then in tears, as the story unfolded and as his remarkable life story was retold and retold, over and over again, on almost every channel. As I write this, his funeral is only hours away. It will be an emotional day, hard to take but necessary to take part in as far as is possible from six thousand miles away.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, the father of modern South Africa and surely the most loved human being who has ever lived, is gone. I remember that anew every day, and every day my heart sinks a little and the world feels far less than it used to be because he is no longer in it. But we still have his shining example, his glorious example, and we still have all of the beautiful memories he has left us.

Madiba will not be forgotten.

Choices

This time, a poem.

CHOICES

I am a human being, like any other.

Like any other, I have a body. Like any other, I have skin. Like any other, I love. Like any other, I chose none of these.

I did not choose black skin. I did not choose a female body nor to be a woman. I did not choose to love mainly women.

Some people hate others with black skin, with female bodies or identities, with same sex lovers. Some people choose to silence such people.

I choose to speak out.

I choose to defend my fellow humans, no matter their skin; to defend them, no matter their body or gender; to defend them, no matter who they love.

Will you defend my right to choose that? Will you let me speak out? Will you allow me my voice? Despite hate?

I do hope so.

I did not choose black skin, nor the white skin that I have.

I did not choose a female body, nor the male one that is mine, nor my male identity.

I did not choose to love women, but I do, and one above all others.

Will you let me speak out? Have you chosen?

On Dodophobia and insignificant difference

When I first created the word dodophobia and the poem Dodophobia, it was a joke: a phobia is an irrational fear and you can’t get much more irrational than fear of something which doesn’t exist. Maybe a slightly self-conscious joke, maybe even a wee bit up my own arse, but there you go. By the way, the poem is in an earlier post here and I’m not going to paste it into this one; if you want to read it you’ll have to exercise your scroll button.

Anyway.

The joke’s on me, because I’ve realised that dodophobia really exists; maybe not literally, but, in terms of fear of the non-existent, definitely and absolutely.

The United States has been convulsed lately by the soul-crushingly abhorrent George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case. George is white (at least that’s what he calls himself, for whatever reason, although there are those who insist he’s actually hispanic, no doubt for a multiplicity of convoluted reasons). Trayvon, his victim, was black (or African-American, or whatever other label you might choose to attach to his particular melanin level). And there began the problem, because George is a racist. Whether he has no melanin in his skin, a tiny bit, or a slightly higher amount, he hates/fears/dislikes/mistrusts (delete as desired) people who have as much of it, or a similar amount, as Trayvon.

But here’s the thing.

If you lined up every human being with the Celts (pale blue) at one end and the central Africans (jet black) at the other, in strict order of the amount of melanin in their skin, you could tell a Scot from a Rwandan, but if you started at one end and moved along the line you would never be able to tell when one race ended and another began. So how would George and his ilk know when to stop loving and start hating? Human skin colour is an infinite individual spectrum, not a bunch of demarcated groups; there is more genetic difference between two neighbours on that line than between the aggregated left end and the aggregated right end. And it’s utterly, insignificantly minuscule between neighbours (it’s barely 1% between a human and a chimp).

But I’m not advocating colour blindness. The racists don’t deserve to get off that lightly. Racism exists. Racists exist. George exists, and neither he nor any racist deserves to get off lightly.

The effectively arbitrary distinction between people of differently coloured skin has had huge historical consequences, has massively altered the experiences of individuals. Wars have been fought, nations raised and destroyed, cultures arisen and faded, cultural forms bloomed, survived, fused, divided and evolved; genocides have been attempted. Much serious shit has happened on that insignificant basis.

And we are all human. We have evolved these relatively massive brains, every one of which is buzzing with curiosity and wonder, and memory. And we need to study; we have to learn. We have to honour the victims of wars, genocides and murders by recognising and understanding what happened. And we have to celebrate and cherish the cultural sparks and individual brilliance, the memories, that have been spawned by the insignificant differences, racial, sexual and otherwise.

We have to learn. We have to understand. And we have to spread our learning and understanding until every human being shares them. Until racism disappears. Until hatred disappears. Until our George Zimmermans disappear, and we can all live.

Ode to Mount Unpronounceable

Okay, so Susan had a direct flight from JFK to Glasgow. Naturally, it was delayed by two hours. Which meant she only got in THREE hours ahead of her originally scheduled time rather than five. Boo bloody hoo. We had a wonderful time together for a week and a half, including a stunning meal at Raeburn’s which, remarkably, was entirely Scottish, including the wondrous cheeseboard. And I got a cheese shop recommendation from the owner’s daughter, Melli’s in the west end of Glasgow, which of course I shall have to try out. That cheeseboard had the most insanely fabulous cheddar I have ever tasted, as closely related to the average supermarket version as I am to a shrub growing on the side of an Icelandic volcano.

We got most of the marriage documents filled in (or out if you prefer), Susan got a look at the venue for our reception and approves mightily of it, but best of all we got to spend some time together. At the end of her stay, we went down to Glasgow Airport in time for her flight, couldn’t check in immediately because no desk number was listed, so we went and had breakfast (which itself was a recurring theme of the visit). Once we had devoured that, there was still no gate showing so Susan went off to try and find out what was going on. It turned out the flight had been cancelled, along with all the other flights that day, due to a return of the sainted ash cloud. She rebooked and got a flight for two days later, on the Friday. So we got an extra two days out of it. We LOVE Icelandic volcanoes! That meant she got to be here for the general election to the UK parliament, and she was very game about it on the basis that in a few months she’ll be living here. However, compared to a US election, it was all much too complicated for her: all those parties all over the place, some only standing in Scotland, some in Wales, some mainly in England, and then Northern Ireland has a completely different set of parties, at which point she gave up trying to understand it all, sensibly I think. She was confused also because of the two biggest parties, the most right wing one is blue and the slightly further left one is red, exactly the opposite of the US. And when all the votes had been counted, the winner was no one at all, only there were no court cases and no corrupt practices leading to that outcome. The Daily Show, which is available here on More 4 (but WHY no Colbert Report, hmm?), has been having enormous fun with it all, and Susan has been hugely appreciating their stuff about it. As have I.

Anyway, we are now separated again, communicating much more often than daily by phone, text message and internet. The difference this time, though, is that when she next comes here, we think in September, it will be forever; so I can now say to her “when you get back home” rather than “when you visit next”, and we get to try to feel that she is just on an extended holiday in New York. Since her visit, my divorce from my first wife has been finalised, so there are no obstacles in the way now, well other than UK Immigration of course. Mind you, when she got here this time, an eager beaver decided she walked like an actress (I’m not making this up), interrog… sorry, interviewed her on the basis that he suspected her of being here to work and eventually phoned me on my mobile as I sat at international arrivals waiting for her. Oddly enough, our stories matched, mainly because his suspicions were bollocks. So he was kind enough to let her in. But Susan was rather excitimicated by the time she reached me, and it took her several days to calm down completely. In the circumstances, she is doing amazingly well with the visa process, although she is terrified at every turn that she will be turned down, even though she knows there is no reason for that to be the case.

So, in October we get married. We are both looking forward to that rather a lot, in fact we are being completely pathetic about it all. Watch this space.

Oh, yeah, I’ve written a poem, inspired by this most recent visit. Here it is.

AND
And cups of tea and breakfasts and free baby food
and salads and scones and fruit loaf and bin bags and
toilet roll and buses. And drunks on the bus and tramps
in the street and junkies at the chemist’s and news in the
paper and Jon Stewart on the telly and standing in the
rain and looking at trees and sitting on benches and
shopping for sandwiches and Indian takeaways and
Chinese prawn crackers and deep fried pizza and pints
in the pub and nothing is dull or everyday if you’re there.