I spent the summer of 1989 at my parents’ home in Northern Ireland preparing to join the British Army. Although I was born and educated in Scotland, when I ﬁnished secondary school my father, a minister, was called to a large Presbyterian church in an overwhelmingly Protestant area known for being ‘quiet’ and middle class. I had many friends there and enjoyed their afﬂuent lifestyle; they had cars, speedboats and yachts. House prices were so depressed by the Troubles that many parents paid off their mortgages before their forties, freeing up large amounts of disposable income.
Outside our cosy enclave the violence continued. In 1989 alone nine policemen, 14 soldiers and 39 civilians lost their lives through political violence. One night that summer a new neighbour had a housewarming. I was travelling the next day to Wiltshire to undertake the Army Ofﬁcer Selection Board, which meant a 5 a.m. start. Most of our neighbour’s guests were drinking outside. As I tried to sleep the acoustics between our houses kept me awake. Past midnight and the host decided to test his powerful motorcycle. After ten minutes of deafening revving, I went down and asked someone politely if he could stop. As I returned to bed I heard him yell, ‘Fuck off, you dirty Protestant bastard!’
As odd as it sounds for someone who had been living in Ulster for four years, and who was planning to join the Army (making me a “legitimate” terrorist target), it was the ﬁrst time in my life I had been directly identiﬁed by my religion. My family were East Coast Scots and had no experience of sectarianism. My parents had married on the 12th of July with no idea that the date was signiﬁcant. I had not known our new neighbour was Catholic and since moving to Northern Ireland had not yet met any Catholics. I wasn’t offended by the man’s outburst, just surprised, but in a strange way the division it represented felt more real than the daily experience of armoured Landrovers, bomb scares, bag searches, barricades and soldiers.
Twenty-two years on and sectarianism has been making the headlines in Scot-land, fuelled by controversies surrounding Celtic manager, Neil Lennon and the Scottish Government’s cack-handed attempts to introduce further anti-Sectarian legislation. With his fourth novel, Pack Men, Alan Bis-sett’s timing could not be better. In large part an examination of Protestant working class culture, the story follows three of the four principal characters from Bissett’s debut novel, Boyracers, as they travel to support Rangers at the infamous UEFA Cup Final in Manchester in 2008, where some of the 100,000 ticketless fans who descended on the city rioted following the failure of large screens in Piccadilly Gardens.
Alvin, narrator of both novels, has left Falkirk for the University of Stirling and after graduating is now working in a bookshop and has no more than sporadic contact with his old school friends. Despite having only a passing interest in football, the trip offers a chance to reconnect with Dolby, who has recently separated from his wife, and Frannie, who still works in Tesco. Alvin travels with his friends in a supporters’ bus, a micro-climate of Protestant bigotry. With his university-acquired liberalism, Alvin is horrified by the chants led by a human Lam-beg Drum known as ‘The Cage’. But he is soon put in his place: ‘Think ye’re above aw this, wee man? Eh? Think we’re just bigoted scum?’ Frannie tries to diffuse the tension, saying, ‘We are bigoted scum… Ken? No one likes us. We don’t care!’
It is this belligerence that Bissett believes is at the heart of the Rangers fans’ self-justification, which is focused on a perceived inconsistency in attitudes between the Old Firm. ‘That lot cannay face uptay the fact that they’re as prejudiced as every ither cunt,’ says Frannie. ‘Ye can jump up and doon in a pub in the Gallowgate glorifyin IRA atrocities and folk’ll pass it off as “the craic”… But the second anyone sticks “The Sash My Father Wore” on the karaoke… ye’re as popular as Freddy Krueger in a primary school. We no got a right tay celebrate oor culture?’
But Bissett also highlights the hypocrisy at the heart of much of the debate on sectarianism. Cage says, ‘I’m sickay this “Scotland’s Shame” business. Ye’re allowed to rip the pish out the English all ye like, but the minute it’s the Old Firm there’s a steward’s enquiry. I’ll stop singin “The Billy Boys” when them Tartan Army wanks stop singin “Floweray fuckin Scotland”’.
In The Sign of the Cross – Travels in Catholic Europe, Colm Toíbín, on a visit to Glasgow in 1993, asks a journalist who among the new wave of Scottish writers is Catholic. The journalist cannot think of any, with the exception of Muriel Spark, a middle-class convert rather than a voice of the immigrant Irish in Scotland. Toíbín asks others the same question. No one can think of any writer apart from Thomas Healy, author of several novels and the boxing memoir, A Hurting Business. Everyone says it is a question they have never been asked before. Toíbín is surprised, and implies that sectarianism has perhaps consciously or unconsciously edited out Catholic voices from Scottish literature.
Undoubtedly he was asking the wrong question. While other writers did come from a Catholic background – Tom Leonard for example – the literati did not identify itself by religion at a time when reacting to Thatcherism and the politics of class were the deﬁning cultural impulses. Since the demise of the last Conservative government and rise and fall of New Labour, more overtly working-class Catholic writers have emerged, including Andrew O’Hagan, Anne Donovan and Des Dillon.
However, there had been little literary engagement with Protestant sectarianism before Bissett’s Pack Men. Despite his working class Protestant upbringing, James Kelman has rarely been interested in the religious divide or sectarianism. It is pushed to the background of early stories such as ‘Away in Airdrie’ and the more recent novel Keiron Smith, Boy. Kelman has said he deliberately chose to support Aberdeen as a child and Manchester United when he moved to England.
Alan Spence is one writer who has explored the subject, both in his story collection Its Colours They Are Fine (which also considers Glaswegian Catholic experience) and in the early sections of his first novel The Magic Flute. In The Magic Flute, Brian and Tam escape their working class Protestant backgrounds through education and jazz respectively. In Pack Men Bissett is more focused on the conflict in Alvin’s personality: he is both repulsed and attracted to everything the Manchester riot represents. The working-class identity he has shed so successfully equals misogyny, homophobia, bitterness, paranoia, powerlessness; but also honesty, camaraderie, defiance of authority, acceptance, a tension mirrored in his equally confused sexuality. This dichotomy is most obvious in language. As a child young Alvin speaks in broad ‘Fawkurt’ and as the novel progresses his acquired middle-class RP begins to break down as he reintegrates with his mates.
In terms of sectarianism, Bissett’s thesis is that it is ugly and violent, but it is also a legitimate expression of a working-class identity marginalised by cultural, social and economic structures designed to keep the proles in their place. One character gives the game away: ‘Listen… everybody on this bus works nextay Celtic supporters day in, day oot, and we’re no aw kickin fuck oot each other every break-time. But on Old Firm day it’s yer bog-standard, let’s-kid-on-we-hate-you-hate-us fitbaw rivalry wi the stakes just that wee bit higher… That’s whit makes it so giud… Celtic supporters love it tay. Dae ye hink everybody on this bus actually wants tay round Catholics up and shoot them?’
Certainly, sectarianism can lead to brutality. The murder of 16-year-old Celtic fan Mark Scott in 1996 by Jason Campbell, who was released from prison in June, is a example that continues to shock. But many more random acts of violence occur in towns and cities across Scotland every year where the ultimate cause is poverty: poverty of opportunity, poverty of ambition.
While my Army career was inglorious, a knee injury cutting my military service short to a pathetic three months, I did take a job in Belfast where, because of involvement in the RUC’s Conﬁdential Telephone Line, employees were encouraged to check daily under their cars for bombs. Around the same time my father received several telephone death threats from the UVF for holding ecumenical discussions with the local Jesuits.
Having lived and worked in Northern Ireland, it’s hard to take Glasgow sectarianism seriously. In The Sign of the Cross Colm Toíbín agreed. When attending an Old Firm match he observed, ‘Celtic waved the Irish tricolour, Rangers waved the Union Jack… There was a peculiar unreality about it, since this was Glasgow, and it was unlikely that either side had spent much time in England or in Ireland, places to which they now swore fierce loyalty. It was intense, misplaced fanaticism.’
Much of the recent furore around Neil Lennon has been the product of a concerted campaign by both manager and owners at Celtic Park to galvanize players and supporters through the age-old trick of perceived injustice. The enemies: referees, the Scottish Football Association, the media. Alex Fergu-son, when Aberdeen manager, was master of this tactic. To some Lennon and Celtic’s then chairman Dr John Reid, former Home Secretary and New Labour ‘attack dog’, are heroes for being the ﬁrst at the club publicly to challenge discrimination, although so far the only hard evidence is an emailed joke about paedophile priests. The unfortunate consequence has been to legitimize sectarian behaviour amongst fans of both sides. It has always been there but lending ofﬁcial endorsement to age-old paranoia has given new impetus to the bigots. And unsurprisingly, the politicians have been caught ambulance-chasing.
This is not to say that anti-Catholic discrimination didn’t exist. Of course it did. Catholics in Scotland were excluded from banking, commercial law, broadsheet journalism, local government administration and accountancy, the good middle class jobs. But they didn’t suffer the same discrimination in housing, politics or business that existed in Ulster. These days in Scotland discrimination is more likely to be based on class or race than religion and should sectarianism disappear overnight, it’s likely that some other point of difference, real or imaginary, would soon take its place.
Despite the contentious nature of its sectarian themes, Pack Men is a wry, entertaining and mature work, both affectionate toward and critical of the Protestant working class at play. In the wrong hands fey metrosexual ingénue Alvin could be deeply irritating but Bissett succeeds in making us root for the most unlikely of antiheroes, even as he implodes, a trick he pulled off with similar aplomb in his previous novel, Death of a Ladies Man. However, at just over 60,000 words, Pack Men is more concise and yet feels more substantial.
HACHETTE, £12.99, 192PP ISBN 978-0755319435