Monday, 13 February 2017

To See Ourselves...Through A Glass, Darkly? Outsiders’ Views on Dundee and Angus

A peculiar thing happened to me around 18 years ago while I was sitting in a pub in Bristol city centre (no longer there, the establishment soon afterwards was swept away by ‘improvements’).  In all honesty several strange things have happened to me in public houses in various places.  But this was different.  I was hovering on the brink of sobriety, having drunk two pints (either Guinness or Newcastle Brown, McEwans 80/- being almost unattainable in barbaric England).  I was – as they say – ‘minding my own business’ – keeping myself to myself etc.  It was early afternoon.  There were a few other people around, but it was not crowded.  By accident I tuned in to the conversation of two men at a table nearby.  They were talking about drug rehabilitation issues and the experiences they had gone through in that demanding line of work.  Fair enough, God bless them.  After reeling off a few horror tales and bleakly comic anecdotes about junkies and detox units, they began talking about where in Britain was the worst for hardcore drug problems.  A few places in England were mentioned, plus Glasgow and Edinburgh.  Then the one man says to the other something along the lines of, ‘You know, the worst place I ever saw was Dundee.’
   Now this set off alarm bells.  Dundee is where I come from.  How could they have known?  Was it an elaborate practical joke, or had they sized up my accent and somehow launched into a sinister game?  But the pair had arrived after the point where I had gone to the bar and I had spoken to no-one since.  What were the chances of these two psychically latching on to my hometown, reading my mind, and launching into a diatribe about Dundee?  More fat-fetched than that supposition was the idea that it was some kind of cosmic co-incidence being played out hundreds of miles from Dundee.

   On and on they went about how the junkies of Dundee were below the underbelly of any lowlife addicts anywhere else in the U.K.  I stumbled out, in a state of paranoia, soon afterward, feeling outraged for my hometown and for myself. A few more pints and I would have been tempted, unwisely, to add my own opinion. It wasn’t even true, or was it?

   Scots may look on the dark side about themselves and all that concerns them.  As the Aberdonian poet Alexander Scott (1920-1989) pithily put it in his poem ‘Scotched’:
Scotch Optimism
Through a gless, Darkly.

Scotch Pessimism
  The Scots do no want anyone else discussing their short-comings, real or imaginary, for they live cheek by jowl with constitutional darkness. It is still necessary sometimes to listen to opinions on oneself from someone outside the national bubble.  Two visitors to Angus, nearly four hundred years apart, give different perspectives on the Angus they witnessed. 

   We have already, in a previous post, encountered the ‘Water Poet’ John Taylor, who walked on foot from London to Scotland in the early 17th century and published his adventures as The Pennyles Pilgramage in 1618.  On the way north, as previously stated, Taylor stayed in a ‘sluttish’ inn in Glen Esk and suffered the attentions of either bed bugs, lice, or some other blood sucking insect life which took a delighted fancy to his soft southern flesh.  Coming back from Braemar, Taylor reached Brechin and again had a disturbed night, but for a different reason that that which unsettled him in Glen Esk:

...a wench that was born deaf and dumb came into my chamber (I being asleep) and she opened the bed, would feign have lodged with me...I think that either the great travel over the mountains had tamed me; or, if not, her beauty could never have moved me.  The best parts of her were, that her breath was as sweet as sugar-candian, being very well shouldered beneath the waste; and as my hostess told me the next morning, that she had changed her maiden-head for the price of a bastard not long before.  But howsoever, she made such a hideous noise, that I started out of my sleep, and thought that the Devil had been there: but I no sooner knew who it was, but I arose, and thrust my dumb beast out of my chamber, and for want of a lock or a latch, I staked up my door with a great chair.

   Taylor, having escaped one of the Seven Deadly Sins, went onward to Forfar and Dundee next day.  He should have counted himself lucky for the poor lass’s misguided attentions:  by all accounts, and his own admission, he was no oil painting.

   Moving forward into the 21st century we have some American evidence to consider.  Several years ago I stumbled across a blog written by an American woman who had settled in Dundee.  There were few posts, but among these were some wonderful photos of Balgay Hill and cemetery and some interesting insights about the architecture and culture of Dundee.  I would certainly have quoted this directly and supplied a link, but its author has evidently deleted the blog and so – one of the wonders of the digital age – this resource has vanished without trace forever. What struck me when reading her observations is how absolutely different her perspective was, even to the extent of regarding the architecture of tenements, flats and houses of the city as idiosyncratically unique.  Judging from her excellent photos, I think she may have settled in the Logie area, between the city centre and Lochee. Pity her record has been lost in the ether.

     Another American who settled in Angus was Belinda Rathbone who authored a semi-breathless account of her marriage to the owner of the Guynd near Arbroath entitled Living With the Laird (subtitled 'A Love Affair with a Man and His Mansion.').  I must admit, hearing about and then reading this book, my hackles were raised on account of my personal prejudices.  Guynd was owned by a member of the Ouchterlony family who had been resident on the estate for centuries, but like many of his ilk he had been educated in England and the residual Scottishness in him appeared to be a very thin veneer.  Also, like may others of the distressed gentry, there was a heartbreaking array of symptoms associated with being distressed gentry:  lack of staff, crumbling infrastructure in the mansion, and perhaps a pervasive underlying sense that the surrounding world, especially the local world was being a teeny bit harsh in its regards and interactions with the Big Hoose. 

   Before I castigate myself as being too harsh towards this social commentator, I would nevertheless have to take into account her attitude towards her new surroundings. First impressions of the rundown  house itself are not happy: ‘the centre-piece of a system gone to seed, deeply suggestive of the forbidden desire to give up and give out’.  To be fair, the book is a well-written account of a very small corner of the country and the strange tribe of landowners who still own too much of our native soil.  Does the rest of the work instruct us in anything?  Take this description of the denizens of Arbroath:  ‘Everybody on the street looks about sixty, slightly stooped and grey haired...The clock stopped around 1950.  If they aren’t sixty they’re sixteen...’  The lack of jovial Anglo-Saxon inns is bemoaned, missing the fact that Arbroath is anywhere but jovial olde England.  Low life types from Dundee and caustic insights about the benefits system and the nanny state are hardly the insights which might compensate for a less than riveting roll call of the author’s domestic struggles in a fading mansion.  But the author knows her market and it is certainly not one which inhabits the neighbourhood of the Guynd.  Tellingly, the writer bailed out of Scotland after a few years and wrote her tale from the distance of America and at least had the decency not to do so with rose tinted glasses.

   An even darker side of the interaction between 'native' and 'incomer' is the targeting of those people who come into the new community in order to start new lives and who, for a multitude of reasons, rub up their new neighbours their new neighbours the wrong way.  It's one thing to snigger at White Settlers and their funny accents and assumption of superiority.  Next thing, there might be a nascent campaign of intimidation - as evident by the Settler Watch poster which appeared in various places in Angus in 1993 - after after that, a small step into a full-blown hate campaign. Thankfully no major incidents of that kind have happened, yet.

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