An 1890's view of the Tay Rail Bridge, which spans the Firth of Tay to Dundee. Credit: Getty Images
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“People will laugh at you if you sound like that”

When A L Kennedy was growing up in Dundee, she was taught to sound English. It was only in exile that she embraced her Scottishness

I am a Scot. The statement may not have ­become more meaningful in the past few months, but it’s certainly grown more topical, as the Kingdom debates whether it will stay United. Any identity – national or personal – is a work in progress, moulded by experience, circumstance, emotion and belief. Of those, belief may currently be the most important for Scotland, because the debate on Scottish independence is a contest between beliefs.

Against independence are those who believe Scottishness is a variation on an English theme, an alternative to the default. There are many quite convincing arguments against independence – economic, military, constitutional – but they seem always to be based on an assumption that, to many Scots, is patronising at best. For independence are those who believe Scottishness is something authentic and valuable. Scots may not trust their politicians, may worry about the future, may not care that much about in­dependence – nevertheless, they find it hard to ­believe they and their country don’t exist and will not warm to arguments (however well supported) that accept these absences as facts. 
 
I dislike the media’s tendency to pick a voice from a minority and assume it speaks for all, but I will say that I have found part of the non-default experience to be one of absences and non-existence. Although I am one of a relatively cosseted and familiar minority, during my lifetime I have still radically changed my understanding of what I am a Scot can mean, and what understanding and owning that part of my identity allows me to say. 
 
I grew up in the country of the Bay City Rollers, Jimmy Krankie and Benny Lynch. I live in that of Annie Lennox, Peter Mullan and Andy Murray. In only a few decades the self-doubt, self-immolating success and degraded tartanry have receded and Scotland has given itself permission to be somewhere more con­fident and complex. Scotland is still a small, relatively poor country with a troubled history, but it seems to believe it can be more. Not for the first time in our history, we have the gift of desperation. We can comfort ourselves with sectarian myths, new racisms, lazy political clichés and cronyism. Or we can embrace what is less known but also ours: a tradition of fierce education and enlightenment, invention and co-operation. The acknowledgement and rejection of sectarianism, the saga of SuBo, the electorate’s canny use of proportional representation, may all be little signs that Scotland is trying to make the best of itself. Absences are becoming presences.
 
I began in a place of absences – Dundee, a city still haunted by a railway disaster and the space no longer occupied by a collapsed Victorian bridge. The city had long been blighted by local government corruption, vandalism disguised as planning and a feudal division of wealth. My parents lived in the middle-class west end enclave where soup should be spooned away from you and peas balanced on the back of your fork. It was important to read the Booker Prize shortlist, attend the Art Society exhibitions and have tea at the Queens Hotel, looking out over the Tay Estuary and the stumps of the missing bridge. And it was important to sound English – sounding Scottish would define you, syllable by syllable, as a failure. 
 
My parents actually were English, but not the right sort. Like most of the adults I knew, my parents had educated themselves out of the working classes. For their generation, social mo­bility wasn’t just an X Factor pipe dream, but it did demand adjustments, sacrifices. My mother was brought up by her Welsh grandparents and had to jettison her North Walian accent during teacher training – people will laugh at you if you sound like that. My father, a lecturer, never quite shook his Brummy whine. But at least they weren’t cursed by Scottish vocabulary – dreich, scunner, bam – or still worse, regional Scottish vocabulary – plettie, cribby, pullashie. They had succeeded by being partly not themselves.
 
Beyond the west end and before Broughty Ferry, was another Dundee. It was a city of adults as short as children and children with old faces, of drunks in men-only bars, poverty and powerlessness. I was taught – by my school, my parents, my radio, my television – that nobody wise should sound as if they came from there. Get a vowel wrong and somewhere harsh might come to claim you. I learned what so many children in non-dominant cultures learn – that the inside of your head was wrong. There was one way of speaking indoors, another in school and another for the street, while well-meaning attempts to save children from the prejudices of others left me feeling inwardly deformed in a muddle of competing languages. 
 
So often, what could allow individuals to be polyglot, adaptable, as linguistically experimen­tal and joyful as Shakespeare’s many-voiced London, simply leads to silence and insecurity. Even with all the advantages I had – good schooling, a book-filled house, comfort, received pronunciation piped in anxiously from birth – I still felt my own voice wasn’t mine. When I read Stevenson, should he sound like the BBC, because he was successful, or like the people I knew from Edinburgh, because he was from Edinburgh ? When I read Oor Wullie, should I be ashamed of revelling in the cartoon’s confident presentation of landscapes I recognised, words that were from my home and only my little, ugly home?
 
And the history of my little ugly home was closed to me. Beyond a gruelling course of study in the early saints who saved Scots from themselves, I was taught no Scottish history at school and was kept from most Scottish literature and art. I didn’t really live in Dundee, because I ­didn’t understand what it was. Just before I left for university in England I spent a summer in my local library, reading and reading and feeling increasingly as if I had been robbed. Here was so much that had been kept from me: Dundee’s monolithic industries – whaling, flax processing, jute processing – the city fathers’ hatred of the poor, the revolutionary fervour in 1789, Dundee’s writers, painters and folk songs, and its gloriously bad reputation and sense of humour. Here were its sharp working women and fey housekeeping men – that in itself explained so much of me. Here was a real life.
 
I was heading south partly because Warwick University offered the course I wanted and partly because leaving home would be softened by staying relatively near my grandparents. I thought I understood England, because I understood them. In fact, I was entering a country of other customs, habits, foods, landscapes, hatreds, loves and arts. Despite what my teachers and broadcasters had led me to believe, I was entering a foreign country – pleasant but not mine.
 
For the next three years – in its absence – I studied Scotland. I became obsessed with what else I’d missed. I read John Prebble’s remarkable, groundbreaking histories. I read The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, an explosive play by the Liverpudlian John McGrath which redefined how I looked at Scotland’s distribution of wealth, land and the complexity of its injustices. This was nothing like the weird, dead Scottishness I’d been peddled, which involved men ­being manly, women being invisible, losing at football, singing kitsch songs, asexual dancing and everything being England’s fault.
 
I adored Ray Carver’s America, I worshipped Chekhov’s Russia and Calvino’s Italy, Ribeiro’s Brazil, Orwell’s England, but I could also enjoy a new flowering of Scottish literature. Unlike Buchan, Conan Doyle, Barrie and the rest, there were now Scots authors who could be Scots. Alasdair Gray, James Kelman and Tom Leonard all transcended nationality, as good writers should, but were also clearly from somewhere that I knew, loved and missed. They were male, working class, older and yet were so committed to writing as a free, strong and inviolable expression of individual life that they allowed me to write as myself.
 
In the 1980s, I found my voice. It became my profession to make up for all that early silence, absence and confusion. Meanwhile, Thatcher­ism redefined what it was to be British: no to sex, regions, disabilities, women, industries, (non-public school) homosexuals, public services, mi­norities. The UK became a few hundred blokes in Westminster and Maggie, the Iron Maiden in an M&S frock. She gave Scotland ­despair but we took it. Like being proudly from Toxteth, or Handsworth, simply being Scottish suddenly became a transgressive joy and, yes, we did ­literally dance in the street when she went.
 
The UK faces new pressures to conform, shut up, hate ourselves if we don’t earn enough or sound as if we’re the right sort. I would be only delighted if the Union debate allowed citizens on both sides of the border to loudly, variously and happily discover how very much they can be themselves. I hope it can allow us to enjoy each other and to believe we all have a right, fully and usefully, to exist.
 
A L Kennedy is a novelist and comedian

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

DAVID YOUNG FOR NEW STATESMAN
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An English tragedy: how Boris, Dave and Brexit were formed by Eton college

It's said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Was Britain's relationship with Europe wrecked there?

The brief window in which it was cool to be an Etonian has closed. That period was marked not just by Etonian success and visibility – in politics, on the stage, in the media, even on the balcony of Buckingham Palace – but also by a new-found unabashedness in expressing pride at having attended King Henry VI’s Thames-side ­college, founded for 70 poor scholars in 1440. David Cameron summed it up when he said he was “not embarrassed” that he had gone to “a fantastic school . . . because I had a great education and I know what a great education means”.

All this was quite strange and ­perturbing to me, as an alumnus of an older era, the 1970s, when being an Etonian seemed decidedly uncool. When asked which school we had attended, my contemporaries and I muttered that we had been to a comprehensive near Slough. It was perturbing because I always had my doubts about Etonian confidence, or arrogance.

The closing of this window can be dated precisely to the early hours of the morning of 24 June. At that moment, it became clear that David Cameron had taken an insouciant, arrogant and disastrous gamble, in the interests of maintaining Conservative Party unity, by calling an unnecessary referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union that he believed he was sure to
win. The window closed even more tightly a week later, when Boris Johnson, having helped to lead the Leave campaign, suddenly declared that he was no longer standing for the Tory leadership – the glittering prize for which he had apparently abandoned his principles and betrayed his friends.

If the Battle of Waterloo had been won on the playing fields of Eton, it now appeared that Britain’s relationship with Europe, and even its continued integrity as a nation, had been wrecked there. It was no surprise that there should be a turning against Eton, with gleeful opinion pieces from the left-leaning commentariat mocking everything from Tom Hiddleston’s backside to the commitment to public service of one of our ablest MPs, Jesse Norman.

I find this reaction as shallow as the ­excessive pride that preceded it. Maybe that is not surprising, as I both love and feel dissatisfied, even disappointed, by the school where I spent five years of my boyhood and then two and a half years teaching English literature as a young adult. The feeling of let-down is more than personal. Eton has something to answer for, at a national level. A few years ago, I wrote these words: “I’ve often wondered whether this famous Eton confidence could be skin-deep: certainly people such as Boris Johnson and David Cameron do not lack chutzpah, but the confidence to believe you deserve the high position does not necessarily mean you possess the other talents – humility, for instance, and the ability to listen to others – needed to honour it.” Now the 11 Eton pupils who managed to secure an interview with Vladimir Putin have trumped even Cameron and Johnson
in the chutzpah department, but not necessarily added lustre to their alma mater.

I had a chance to reassess the ambivalence I feel about Eton, and to reflect on the role that this ancient and eccentric place has played in our national crisis, when I attended a reunion at my old school just three days after the dark night of 23 June.

This was not a reunion of old boys but a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Eton English department, an institution for which I feel affection and profound gratitude. As a boy, I was inspired not only to read voraciously and widely – the novels of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Dickens, William Faulkner; the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, T S Eliot, Charles Causley, Louis MacNeice, Henry Vaughan; Shakespeare at his most intense – but also to analyse, think and feel simultaneously. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country and Dickens’s Hard Times opened my eyes to conditions as far from my comfortable Home Counties upbringing as you could imagine, to the realities of racial segregation and working-class ­deprivation; opened my heart, too, I hope.
I was being challenged to reflect on my privilege, even be discomfited by it – not just blindly perpetuate it.

For those reasons, I was honoured to be invited back to teach, initially for just a year, in the department that had given me so much mind-and-soul nourishment. I was not the most confident or organised of teachers, but pupils I bumped into years later said they had enjoyed and gained something from classes in which discipline was not always the tightest. A debate I set up to discuss the miners’ strike turned into a riot. Above all, I enjoyed directing motivated and talented boys in productions of Journey’s End and Death of a Salesman which moved audiences.

***

Inspiration, warmth and a streak of anarchy are, perhaps, not the qualities you associate with Eton. But they were present in the English department, which started as a sort of anti-establishment challenge to the hegemony of classics. Angus Graham-Campbell, my laconic head of department, summed up the department’s signature virtues as scholarship, exuberance and irreverence.

The English department was not exactly typical of Eton as a whole. It was, I suppose, the haven for sensitive and artistic souls, for subversives and mavericks. Eton had other, for me less attractive, sides. I particularly disliked Pop, the self-elected club of prefects who strutted their stuff and lorded it over underlings in brightly embroidered waistcoats – the club to which Boris Johnson (but not David Cameron) belonged. This was more Game of Thrones than “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.

Eton, above all, was intensely male, intensely hierarchical and intensely competitive. Like Boris, I was a King’s Scholar; successors of the original 70 poor scholars, we lived apart from other Etonians in ancient quarters close to the 15th-century chapel, wore gowns and competed more for academic honours than for social kudos. Like Boris, I won the Newcastle Scholarship in classics and divinity, a strange 19th-century leftover that involved composing verses in Greek iambics, reading the Gospel of Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles in Greek and answering a paper on the doctrine of the Atonement – all in the term before A-levels.

I was proud of my academic achievements. But having had a chance to reflect on the Etonian male culture of competition from the outside, and then seeing it from a different angle when I went back to teach there, I began to doubt how healthy it was. I realised that coming top of the form and winning prizes had mattered far too much to me. It had even affected my choice of A-levels; I was good at classics and felt fairly confident of being the biggest fish in that smallish pond, rather than swimming in the broader waters of history and modern languages. Surely what mattered was finding yourself, your passion and your vocation?

I was artistically minded and Eton provided wonderful opportunities in drama (the groundwork was being laid for the flowering of acting talent we have seen recently) and music; but “creative writing” and painting, encouraged up to the age of 14, were suddenly put away as childish things when you reached adolescence (this, mind you, is not unique to Eton). From the age of 15, I never even considered choosing to go to music, art or drama school rather than taking the well-worn path to an Oxbridge scholarship. Achieving that seemed to be the pinnacle of Etonian success, and the only thing my worldly housemaster ever cared about.

Certainly no one talked much about happiness or emotional health. Eton’s pastoral care seemed close to non-existent. I kept my unhappiness to myself, with unhelpful consequences. For four of my contemporaries in college, who committed suicide in their late teens or twenties, the consequen­ces were more dire.

This may be sounding too much like a personal lament, or a reprise of Cyril Connolly’s theory of permanent adolescence in Enemies of Promise. I found my way eventually to what I wanted to be and do (it involved a lot of psychotherapy and a wonderfully liberating year in Barcelona). But I think my criticisms of Eton have a bearing on our national tragedy.

The atmosphere at the Eton English department celebration a few weeks ago did not lack the appropriate exuberance and irreverence, and the setting in the provost’s garden, surrounded with sculptures by Rodin, Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, was exquisitely beautiful. Yet I could not help sensing the unquiet ghosts of Dave and Boris stalking the corridors behind us. I imagined them locked in an immature male rivalry that has ended up inflicting incalculable damage on a nation. Now Dave has decided to quit the political stage, leaving rather little in the way of legacy behind him.

Perhaps Boris, the King’s Scholar, could not forgive Dave for winning the ultimate prize. However, in taking revenge, he found himself hoist with his own petard, before somehow managing to emerge with a lesser prize, which some see as a ­poisoned chalice.

It all made me think of that supremely pointless sport, the Eton wall game. I played once or twice before giving up, repelled by the sheer unpleasantness of being ground into either brick or mud, and the tedium of a game in which the last goal had been scored in 1909. As a Colleger, though, I supported our team of brainboxes, drawn from the 70 scholars to play against the brawn of the Oppidans (the rest of the school, 1,200 of them). No doubting that it was antler-to-antler stuff, or like the contests of male musk oxen that knock each other senseless.

Eton remains archaic in its attitude towards women. It is still a boys-only boarding school (though a small number of girls, mainly the daughters of teachers, have been pupils there), and the staff are overwhelmingly male. Being largely cut off from women and girls for much of your boyhood and adolescence does not seem to me an ideal recipe for emotional health, or for regarding women as equals.

The school that has educated 19 prime ministers may provide a brilliant academic education and countless other opportunities, but it can leave its pupils emotionally floundering behind a façade of polish and charm. The effects of that emotional impoverishment can be far-reaching indeed. I am encouraged that the new headmaster, Simon Henderson, has signalled a change of tone at Eton, with more stress on “emotional intelligence” and “mental health”. That change is long overdue.

Harry Eyres is the author of “Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet”, published by Bloomsbury

This article first appeared in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation