Tuesday, February 15, 2022

1991 and Scotland – "Caledonia you're calling me ... but now I'm going home"

The first episode of the new three-part series of Hame was broadcast last night, on BBC2 NI. You can catch it on iPlayer here. The genesis of the idea for taking the fourth series of Hame across the water to Scotland was very much in the BC era, ie 'Before Covid', but the specific content and approach was all developed during those various 2020 lockdowns and restrictions, and filmed in September and October 2021.

At the very early stages of that process, I reminisced about my own visits to Scotland from childhood onwards, and in particular I revisited my old Art College era diaries and scrapbooks from a moment in 1991 when I very nearly moved to Scotland to study – this post is me capturing some of the memories and notes from then. Looking back, April and May 1991 were when my life crystallised.

• Belfast, September 1990
Art was my only significant A-level achievement, in an era when nobody took it seriously, and long before the term 'creative industry' appeared in our culture. I actually got the joint highest A level Art result in Northern Ireland in my year – thanks to the colossal support of my art teacher, Judy Parker, for her four years of nurturing whatever latent talent I had. I have a fancy certificate somewhere, and was invited to a fancy reception at Stormont one night, and also some other Saturday morning reception that I can only vaguely recall now. These high-falutin things have never really interested me, and I'm only saying them here for completeness of this story. And, at age 50, it's as relevant now as my Cycling Proficiency Certificate or my 25m swimming badge.

If the art thing didn't work out I was going to be a building site labourer on jobs with my dad for a while, which is what I did every summer anyway. I had an interview for a Foundation Year at the University of Ulster's Faculty of Art and Design at York Street in Belfast, in which one tutor was very positive about my portfolio of work and gave me his office phone number if I had any queries – but at the end of the interview the other one glowered at me and said "you'd better shine boy". So I got a place and did that course between September 1990 and June 1991. I did really well in that year, towards the end of which I applied for my subsequent three year degree in various colleges. I always knew I wanted to eventually get a job in a design practice or advertising agency in Belfast, but going away and being independent for a while was appealing. London was an option and I had a pre-interview lined up with Central St Martin's (I had to courier my portfolio there for them to review and shortlist from) but my accommodation option there fell through at the last minute, so I dropped it from the list of contenders and had my portfolio returned to me. My other options were colleges in Scotland, or to remain in Belfast.

• Glasgow, March 1991
The Glasgow School of Art interviews were held in early March 1991, and I headed across with another student from my year group, Eamonn. We spent a few days there and really enjoyed the historic School and the general Glasgow experience. The tutors there 'got us', they understood Belfastness, and in my interview they bantered with me that I looked a bit more normal in real life than in my passport photo (which was attached to my interview application form) which they said made me look like I'd just been released from Crumlin Road jail. Eamonn had friends in the city so we visited some well-known hostelries and eateries, such as the Horseshoe Bar and Sannino's, and were given flyer invites to an intriguingly titled "ceilidh/rave" and also to a 'Dance Classics Night' at a place called Tin Pan Alley. The American alternative rock band Jane's Addiction were playing at Barrowlands when we were in Glasgow (8th March), but we didn't go to see them. I had time to kill one afternoon, so I visited the famous stadiums of Ibrox and Parkhead (where I was given a private tour by a security guard). Glasgow was very plausible as a destination as my mum had cousins who were living in Rutherglen and, if I got offered a place, they were going to put me up in a spare room for a while until I got settled in the huge city.

• Dundee & Edinburgh, April 1991
The interviews for Dundee Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, and Edinburgh School of Art, were about 6 weeks later in late April. Around the time that I boarded the ferry to travel to those, the offer letter from Glasgow arrived. I couldn't believe it, as Glasgow was, and still is, one of the most renowned art colleges in Europe. I have joked a few times that, aged just 19, it was like being asked to sign for Real Madrid. Here it is – dated 18 April 1991 – but with only one week to accept the post "otherwise it will be offered to another applicant". So time was ticking, but during that very same week I was travelling across Scotland to two other art college interviews, in an era with just letters and landlines – no mobile phones, no email, no ability to communicate quickly. 

From Stranraer I headed across Scotland by train towards Dundee. I met up with schoolfriends who were at St Andrews University, enjoyed a day & evening there with them (a tour of the town and the Cathedral grounds, a meal in the campus canteen, a Christian Union 'small group' meeting which I think took place in a flat overlooking the famous golf course, and then what I think was this Ken Russell horror movie at the town's famous small cinema). I slept on somebody's floor that night, and had an early start the next morning to get a bus across the Tay to Dundee. The interview in Dundee went really well, the college was great, and whilst I can't find the letter just now I remember that they did offer me a place. It's the city of my childhood cartoon strip heroes Desperate Dan and The Broons, and to be an aspiring illustrator/designer there was a pretty exciting prospect. A couple of days later and the same happened in Edinburgh - a positive interview and a place offered. Not sure which journey this bus ticket is from, but it's dated 24 April 1991.

So Scotland was looking really good, three very appealing options on the table, lots of positive reasons to go.

But what I didn't reckon on was a friend who was already at a university over there, telling me very directly, in person, during those few days of travelling, as we were saying goodbye before I headed off on the next leg of my journey, to absolutely not come to Scotland to study – "don't come here...".

It was quite the bombshell. Perhaps there was a good reason, a well-intended reason – or maybe not. Whatever it was, there was no time to get to the bottom of the issue – again, with just letters and landlines there was no way to communicate quickly. I was in a race against time. 

• Staying in Belfast
So, more than a little baffled by that, I left Edinburgh on the 15:26 from Waverley Station, via Glasgow Central and Ayr, to board the last ferry out of Stranraer at 21:45 on 25 April 1991. I landed back in Belfast just after midnight on Friday 26 April, which was the day that I needed to confirm with Glasgow, in writing, which required the near-impossible task of finding a fax machine somewhere near home. A week later on Friday 3 May 1991 I had a written offer from Belfast. So with all of this swirling around I decided to stay in Belfast, there just wasn't time to do anything else or to figure out what those "don't come here" remarks had all been about. They had seemingly derailed my hopes, but Scotland just wasn't meant to be. There were bigger plans than mine.

So I got stuck back in and completed the Foundation course in Belfast, got the grades I needed to start the degree course, and then headed off to France in July for a three week church team thing in Marseille – still in a bit of a daze from all the art college stuff, but now knowing that my next 3 years were committed to being in Belfast. On our way back home from Marseille we stopped in London and Windsor for a couple of days, and visited here:

Yes that's me at a very primitive Stamford Bridge. I spent most of that August helping to re-slate the roof of a huge old local farmhouse, and then started the degree course back in familiar Belfast in September 1991.

• Things do work out
What I didn't know was that, hundreds of miles away in the south of England, pretty close to the Windsor we had stopped off at on our way home from France, a super-smart girl of Scottish and Ulster-Scots ancestry had decided to scrap the plan to follow her parents' footsteps to study at Oxford or Cambridge – but to take a year out to do charitable voluntary work in Africa and India, after which to pursue her craft skills via a Fine Craft Design degree at an art college. Lo and behold the best courses for that back in those days were at Glasgow School of Art and University of Ulster Belfast. She applied to them both and had an offer from both. She chose Belfast, and arrived in late September 1992.

I first spotted her at the annual beginning of term fire drill, on the morning of 30 September 1992, thanks to her red cardigan. Eventually we got to know each other, and we started spending time together in February & March 1993 (two years exactly after my ill-fated jaunt around Scotland).

Almost exactly five years later, on 26 September 1997, we were married – meaning that this year we'll be 25 years married, our 'silver' anniversary. Her mum spent her childhood at Comiston Drive in Edinburgh; her dad's ancestry is from Pitmilly just outside St Andrews, via Portaferry. Over the years we have spent a fair amount of time in Scotland, with our three now adult children. We have the red cardigan in a box frame on the wall at home.

I am certain we were destined to meet at an art college, whether in Glasgow or Belfast. Back in 1991 I would have really liked to spend three years in Scotland. But things work out as they are meant to. 

"... Oh and I have moved and I've kept on moving
Proved the points that I needed proving
Lost the friends that I needed losing
Found others on the way

Oh and I have tried and kept on trying
Stolen dreams yes there's no denying
I have traveled far with conscience flying
Somewhere with the wind

Oh, but let me tell you that I love you
That I think about you all the time
Caledonia you're calling me
And now I'm going home..."

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Ranting v Relating

I used to think that ideology governed behaviour, eg "everyone in that group, all think X, and all behave the same way". Later I came to understand that it's far more the case that individual personality governs behaviour. All 'groups' have a variety of individual personality types within. Not everyone complies with the 'head office' policy of the 'group' they are imagined to belong to. Each individual doesn't belong just to one group, but to dozens, scores, maybe hundreds. 

It tends to be the loud and controversial ones within a group who shape the wider perceptions of that group. Their loudness and controversy attracts further attention, which can become media coverage, and suddenly that entire group is framed by the behaviour of the adversarial few.

Social media is still a very new phenomenon as a human experience. Again, I have come to see that, even though groups and tribes appear to form online along ideological lines, it's the personality that governs the behaviour of the individual.

I have met people who are fairly adversarial online – but paradoxically very quiet, conflict-averse, almost introverted, offline. This reminds me of some preachers I knew when I was a boy, who were comfortable when ranting at their listeners from the distance of the pulpit – or, in the open air setting, occasionally haranguing strangers who were passing by – but who were terrible at a normal, relational, one-to-one conversation. Unable to explain, unwilling to listen. Inclined towards pronouncements and denouncements.

I've been lit on a few times online over the years (for pretty innocuous posts, which to my surprise riled others) by people from right across the spectrum – theologically from the traditional to the liberal, politically from the conservative to the progressive. Sitting back to reflect on those mild attacks, even though their ideologies were poles apart, their behaviour and personalities were all very similar. A bit superior, fairly authoritarian, certain of their rightness and happy to disrupt relationships.

My late mother always said 'tak folk as you fin them', ie treat everyone as an individual and respond to how they behave. Personality, and how you behave, is more important than ideology.


In the early 2000s I did some collaborative work with a huge design consultancy group in London. Over dinner one evening their MD told me that when they were recruiting into any senior executive staff position (which London was full of applicants for), the firm's main interest wasn't experience or talent – when they shortlisted down to the last few candidates what clinched the deal was psychometric testing. They needed to find out what sort of person they were potentially about to bring into the organisation. 

• Galatians 5 v 22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law."

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Where's the 3D thinking?

A while ago I took part in a one-hour community event not far from where I live, giving a presentation about two centuries of published Ulster-Scots flavoured poetry and songs from our own locality – some quite 'dense' and some quite 'light' – aimed at a very general audience and all just intended to be a good evening's crack and to show how rich local tradition actually is.

At the end of the night a man in his late 60s came over, confused-looking, and asked "But isn't this all just political?". I have no idea who he is. Evidently his body was in the room for the duration, but his head was seemingly in a different room entirely – or else it was functionally unable to process the presentation, which showed a non-political local cultural richness. The shock of the bright daylight realisation that politics isn't the only way to perceive our local world had forced him to retreat back as fast as he could into that familiar, yet dark, shell. 

The constant diet of two-dimensional adversarial politics reinforced and institutionalised across all of Northern Ireland society has, for the last 50 years, irreparably forged a mindset beyond which many people are unable to think. I have been shocked to see seasoned academics online in the past few days peddling two-tribes adversarial nonsense. Dismissing the cultural prism. 2D political thinking, not 3D cultural thinking. But maybe for some people their careers have been forged on the 2D and their salary relies upon it.

What is exciting though is that that narrative is not the full picture. There are at least three cultural traditions here. And there is a new generation growing up who are unshackled by local parochialisms, not immersing themselves in the type of current affairs journalism which perpetuates that binary. The younger people aren't so obsessed with the old divisions, they live in more interesting and truer Ulster, and with a far bigger, connected, diverse and open world within their reach.  

May they think in three dimensions.