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SRB Diary: London calling – Scottish Review of Books
by Harry Ritchie

SRB Diary: London calling

August 3, 2014 | by Harry Ritchie

NOW here’s a fascinating question that’s guaranteed to amaze your friends and break the ice at the most frozen of parties – how many Scots live in London? Go on, take a guess. Number of Scots in London. I’ll have to hurry you . . . And the answer is – somewhere between 250,000 and 350,000. The estimates may vary but they all make London the third biggest Scottish city. We must all be down here for the same reasons – the easy commute, the friendly locals, the scenery. That and the jobs, I suppose – that’s why I flitted to London in the late Eighties, swapping a life on the dole in Edinburgh for the chance to become a human sardine twice a day on the Victoria Line.

Hundreds of thousands of us expats in London, but collectively we’re invisible. Where’s our special area? Where’s Little Scotland gone? Every other ethnic minority in London has somewhere. Take the Portuguese – they have Stockwell and bits of Notting Hill. The Irish have entire postal districts. Even the Americans have St John’s Wood and the Japanese, inexplicably, suburban Colindale. Yet we Scots can’t call even the Caledonian Road our own. Where are all the shops and services catering for this huge community of exiles? Where can I and the possibly 349,999 other London Scots buy our Irn-Bru and deep-fried Mars bars, our clootie dumplings and Sunday Posts?

* * *

In honour of Gordon Brown becoming PM, Time Out offered a guide to Scottish London. It stretched to a page – just. A few shops selling whisky, the London branches of a couple of football supporters’ clubs, the Gay Gordons (‘London’s lesbian and gay Scottish country dance group’ ) – it was a bewilderingly brief list.

Compare and contrast this absence with the capital’s new wave of Polish immigrants. In the space of a few years they’ve acquired their own support networks and newspapers, their own supermarkets selling pickled foods. And Hammersmith.

But more than four hundred years after the two countries merged their monarchies and the Scottish migration to London first began in earnest, we have somehow failed to make any cultural impact whatsoever on the capital.

I suppose there are the occasional balls and flings in Mayfair for the kind of posh Scots who think they’re Scottish and who have lots of Scottish-sounding surnames and who happen to own substantial swathes of Scotland but whom most Scots regard as English. So I don’t think that the Highland hi-jinks of the Dalgliesh-Hamilton-Sutherlands and the Fyffe-Kirriemuir-Bethunes and their ilk really count.

For the rest of us London exiles, there’s the Gay Gordons, if they’re still on the go, a pub in Paddington which at any rate used to host the local branch of the Tartan Army for Scotland games – and that’s it.

Fractured, disparate, hundreds of thousands of individual exiles with no sense of community. Until recently, this absence of a Scottish enclave struck me as no more than a mild inconvenience, amounting basically to having nowhere to watch the football apart from that one pub in Paddington. But as the day of the Big Vote has crept ever closer, I really have felt the lack of any backup, having to cope on my own as I fend off the referendum queries of increasingly curious/puzzled English friends. Fortunately, the conversation can usually be terminated very quickly.

English friend: So which way are you going to vote?

Me: Neither. I don’t have a vote.

English friend (taken aback): Why not?

Me: It’s done by constituency, not DNA.

That’s usually that – a devastating point, delivered with an attractively supercilious smirk. But recently, that wasn’t that, and the English friend wasn’t put off by the devastation or the smirk. ‘Why not?’ he persevered. ‘You’re Scottish. If it was football, you’d play for Scotland, wouldn’t you?’

Which brought me up short. Obviously, it is a theoretical question – don’t get me wrong, it’d be an honour, and I’d give it 110%, but at 56, I have to admit that I’ve probably lost a bit of my youthful pace – but nonetheless pertinent. Because I would play for Scotland and would qualify only for Scotland. So why can’t I vote? And if I’m not Scottish for the referendum, what am I if the Yeses win? Will I be officially English? I could be caught on the wrong side of the border, clinging to the mesh of the steel fence at Berwick, calling piteously to my what the news would call loved ones on the other side, forever rent asunder. . .

I feel Scottish, right enough, but now that I’ve had to think about it, maybe I’d fail an SNP citizenship test. After all, I’ve lived in England for a total of 32 years, my wife is English, my two sons are English. Some of my closest friends are English. I’ve found out that not all of them are UKIP-voting landowners and pin-striped stockbrokers. Also, I rather suspect that not all of England is filled with cash and right-wing free-marketeers. There are indeed two distinct economic areas in the for-the-moment-United Kingdom: however, the border between the two runs not from the Solway Firth to the Tweed but from the Severn to the Trent. South of that boundary, it’s all million-pound, one-bed flats and 200k-a-year starting salaries; north of that line . . . . not so much.

* * *

The truth is that I’m secretly relieved I don’t have a vote because I’m in a tizz about the whole business. In my idealistic youth I was hardcore SNP, but now? Now, I’m confused, ill-informed, out of touch, veering between vague feelings and unthinking prejudices – this is how George W Bush must have felt in the White House, and it’s not nice, I can tell you.

Recently and completely out of the blue, my switherings and doubts and confusion about the nationalist issue gave way to crisis, when England began their brief World Cup campaign.I settled down, on my own, to watch the England-Italy game, with the usual, private squirm of anticipation, knowing full well what was going to happen next and looking forward to it all immensely. Then something truly weird happened. Three minutes in, Sturridge got the ball, and I felt my heart leap in excitement. Not that he’d fall over or pass to Pirlo. I was hoping Sturridge would score . . .

Preposterously, this continued for the rest of the match. I supported England. A one-off, I thought – a bad prawn the night before, a moment of madness, nothing to worry about. But then the same thing happened against Uruguay, and even plucky little Costa Rica – I supported England. Not with the visceral, gnawing intensity that I’d watch Scotland, but calmly, nicely, as if England were, say, Wales. I tried telling myself this had to be a good thing. It had been getting awkwarder and awkwarder fervently supporting whoever England were playing, leaping to my feet and doing a wee jig of delight around my devastated young boys every time an England goalie threw the ball into his own net. Awkward and possibly not very edifying.

But I don’t welcome this development. My footballing Anglophobia may well be a vice, but it’s one I’d much rather not give up. Partly because it’s been a source of great enjoyment. One thinks fondly of Seaman, lobbed from downtown by Ronaldinho, one thinks of Poland’s breakaway goal at Wembley in 1973, of the computer salesman Davide Gualtieri scoring for San Marino after eight seconds, of all those World Cups fated to end in goalkeeping blunders and botched penalty shoot-outs. Yes, there’s the long, often challenging preamble – ‘Trevor, just how good do you think this England side is? I’ve got to say, Gary, I think we can go all the way this time’ – which can be torture but made exquisite by the nurtured foreknowledge of the ‘Trevor, what went wrong?’ inquests due cherishably soon.

Happy days, happy days. Gone. Replaced by genuine disappointment and bafflement that Stevie G, Lamps and co. couldn’t quite make it this time around. Why? I do not have a clue. It’s nothing to do with personal maturity, and possibly everything to do with that particular England squad conspicuously posing no threat at all of success. But whatever the reason, I also feel bereft and bewildered. Take away my sporting Anglophobia and what Scottishness do I have left down here on my own? Maybe my Rs will be next to go. Maybe I’m doomed to going completely native – give it a year and I’ll be into morris dancing, singing along to ‘Jerusalem’, nurturing an admiration for Norman Tebbit and Nigel Farage . . .

So this is a plea for help. If it’s Yes, please could there be some sort of rescue plan for us poor, abandoned London Scots. Even those of us so lost and confused they wanted Sturridge to score.

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