Stop Your Tickling, Jack
by Alan Taylor
AMONG the very few journalists I presently enjoy reading is Ian Jack. Though I have little interest in the trains or boats or planes, about which he writes regularly in the Guardian, Jack usually manages to sustain my interest for a thousand words or so. Indeed, on occasion, I have been known to cut out and keep one of his effusions.
His most recent column (15 Sept, 2012) was inspired by something I wrote in the last issue of this magazine. Writing about Arnold Kemp, erstwhile editor of the Herald, I made the following observation: ‘He was, it must immediately be acknowledged, a romantic, which all true Scots are, and given, as all true journalists are, to intemperate and often ephemeral enthusiasms and antipathies.’
Since the SRB was published more than a month ago, both in print and online, no one to my knowledge has taken any umbrage at this. Except Ian Jack. First, he said, the second part of the sentence is debatable - ‘cool heads have produced some excellent journalism’. I agree. But where did I say otherwise? All I did say was that all true journalists, i.e. journalists worthy of being so called, are given ‘to intemperate and often ephemeral enthusiasms and antipathies.’ How ‘debatable’ is that? Name one journalist who isn’t.
It was, however, the first part of my sentence that most scunnered Jack. ‘What,’ he asked, ‘does the phrase “true Scots” mean in this context? Scots who are quintessential in their Scottishness? Scots who aren’t false to a widely accepted idea of Scottish identity? Scots who wear kilts but no underwear?’
One can always sense the direction of a debate about Scotland and Scottishness when there is an early mention of kilts. It seems to obsess pundits like Jack who, like Harry Lauder of yore, will do anything for a cheap laugh, in the hope perhaps that mockery will puncture the pro-independence lobby. For Jack, the phrase ‘true Scots’ seems immediately to invoke a parodical image of the country in which he was brought up and from which he escaped with his underwear intact.
For me, though, it is simply a statement of who I am. I was born, bred and educated in Scotland and have lived and worked here most of my life. I feel Scottish, therefore I am Scottish. Nor have I any wish to be anything else. Nor do I feel inclined to deny where I come from. For me, it’s not an issue, it’s a simple statement of fact. And, like Arnold Kemp, I want Scotland to be as good a place as it can be. Which means I do what I can to make it better, whether that means voting for independence or picking up plastic bags or -- to appropriate a phrase Alex Salmond might use -- by putting Scotland first.
It’s possible Ian Jack feels the same way. He has, after all, come back to live here in semi retirement. One hopes he’s happy with how he’s found it. What he is unhappy about, however, is the way Scots ‘generalise’, which, he appears to believe, is a peculiarly Scottish trait. If it were up to him generalisation would be outlawed. In short, he believes there is no such thing as a ‘true Scot’, as there is no such thing as a ‘true Englishman’ or a ‘true Irishman’ or a ‘true Catalan’. This, I’m afraid to say, is what happens when you spend too long immersed in the metropolitan melting pot.
All of which is fair in love and journalism. But what scunnered me about Jack’s column was his taking of the phrase ‘true Scot’ and associating it with ‘true-blooded’, which I did not use, and which Jack suggests is imbued with ‘the warning whiff of genetics’. Now looms the word ‘racist’, which those such as Jack, fearful at the shredding of the Union Jack -- ahem! -- while banging a post-imperialist drum, employ in the hope of scaring anyone who ever read a Commando comic.
It is, alas, a sign of things to come. Expect over the coming months many sometime Scots, such as Jack, who have, like countless others before them, dipped in and out of Scotland, opining (and generalising) as they go. They love it, they love it not. Some things never change. But some things must because the alternative is the eventual erosion of that which Ian Jack and his ilk would already like us to think does not exist.
Read Ian Jack 'What is true Scot'? here