I dropped into the pub on the Roman Road, E3. It was a dingy, ill lit affair, certainly one of the old guard of boozers that had resisted heartily against the encroachment of Home Counties wankers wearing beanies in summer.
Ostensibly my reason for being here was two-fold. The first being I love alcohol and the second was that Scotland were playing Georgia in a qualifier for the European Championships in France. The landlord wasn’t in either the first flush of youth, or health for that matter as he reached greasy finger into a jar of cockles, which was perched on the top of the bar. It was a far cry from a pulled pork sandwich for £11.95 in the Lord Tredegar around the corner. He lowered his hands, stuffed with lukewarm seafood into his gob and chewed loudly. Some anonymous goo rolled through his beard which he wiped off with a polishing cloth. Seeing me, he acknowledged my presence and tilted the jar of cockles in my direction.
“Fresh mate. On you go son.”
Pricks on gap years, hanging out with Bantu tribes in various sub-Saharan states are probably faced by this feeling a fair few times. Bruce Parry makes a career out of it. You feel that by refusing you will deeply insult the host, but by eating you could imperil your health to a fairly deep degree. I felt neither. My diet being as it was, any foodstuff that wasn’t lager was fair game, and I plunged my hand into the briney glory and hands festooned with cockles, dropped the lot into my gullet. They were fucking fantastic. The bar lit up after this. For the price of a jar of processed bivalves this institution was a bastion against gentrification.
“What you for son?” He asked.
“Guinness, please” He poured the Guinness in one, eschewing the urban myth that Guinness must be tapped in two distinct time-consuming stages. A little known fact being that this was a marketing tactic bythe Guinness Corporation (currently Diageo) to set their beer apart from other similar ales. Ales settle regardless of how many times you pour them. Anyone who complains about not having 1.1/4 inches of foam can basically fuck off.
Black beer in hand I noted the TV and hazarded the question.
“Can you put the Scotland game on mate?”
He looked at me, not with menace but rather with mischievous misunderstanding.
“What the fuck d’you wanna watch the Jocks for eh? They’re crap”
Being Scottish I have been privy to a never-ending stream of abuse about the sporting prowess of the Scottish nation, especially from our Saxon neighbours. The abuse is more galling due to the fact that it has a fairly justifiable background. There is no comeback, no tangible examples to suggest to the contrary that Scotland are not “crap” at sport.
“Can I watch it then?”
“Dunno mate, Strictly’s on the tele and frankly nobody gives a fuck about the football.”
By this he means the Scotland game, not football in general.
I figured I was probably fucked. Time to down the Guinness and find another pub covered in St. George’s Crosses that would offer a more accepting form of genial mistreatment. As I tanned the pint, a shaded figure arose from the end of the bar and shuffled towards me.
“Ho Frank,” he gestured to the landlord. “Ah gie a fuck, aye gonnae put the game oan the telly.”
He stood up, clad in ripped denim and leather, deep in the heart of a rapidly changing East London but with an accent straight from Clydeside. He was absolutely steaming.
“Fuckin hell, you jocks get fuckin everywhere don’t ya?” The landlord smiled as he changed the channel. “NO commentary mind, the stream’s illegal anyway.”
Delightful. I ordered another pint. He took my glass and refilled it, no question of a new one.
“Cheers man” I said to my new friend. “Do you think we can qualify this time?”
My new friend looked me up and down and then laughed.
“Ah dinnae ken mate, honestly ah couldnae gie a flyin fuck aboot fitba’, only innit fae the wind up eh. Enjoy the game”
With that he was gone. Back to a well worn barstool in the heart of E3.
Go into any boozer in London and there is usually one. A sort of Caledonian accessory to any of the old drinking establishments. One of the few constants in London’s rapidly changing face. Scottish migration southwards is confined heavily to city workers, attracted by the lure of wages unattainable in Edinburgh and Glasgow. This is nothing new, we have been doing the same since 1707, but the old guard still remains. Integrated into the psyche of British life, the pub.
Scotland, away to the behemoth of Georgia, were making tough work of a country more famous for ecclesiastical architecture than footballing ability, trailing the ex Soviet Republic 1-0 at the break. The old familiar feeling was back. I went back to get more booze. The Scot was still there, thumbing through a Racing Post. I sat down. He looked at the screen and the insulting scoreline.
“Fuckin’ hell.” He chuckled.
“Aye”. One syllable about covered the range of emotions I was feeling. Silence resumed for about a minute before he came and sat next to me.
“Whit dae ye make o this vote eh? All the SNP and that. Ken the dyke whit run things up there. Whit’s she all aboot.”
Feeling under-qualified to comment on Nicola Sturgeon’s sexual orientation or the machinations of the devolved government, I offered the only response that seemed appropriate.
“I don’t have a fucking clue pal.”
He went back to his copy of the Post but I could here the motor whirring away in his lager-addled brain. After a minute the discourse began again.
“See ah reckon they have the wrong idea like, what with them wanting to be free fae England and that.”
“Aye, all this talk of getting the English oot doesn’t help anyone, Scotland’s goat bigger problems.”
He was right of course. Scotland did have bigger problems. A depressingly low life expectancy, terrible weather and a fallout from the decline of industry that has left some areas in the worst states of poverty in Western Europe. Apart from the weather (which is part and parcel of Caledonian existence) Scotland had grave issues that did need addressing. I admired his resolve. Then he moved to speak.
“The problems no with the UK though” he finished off the dregs of his pint. “It’s wi’ the Pakis and the Blacks. We should get them oot first.”
And with that went any semblance of a constructive chat.
I suppose the unreasonable and fairly unfounded claim that Scotland would benefit from the expulsion of all ethnic minorities, would be from someone who has not recently visited the country. For those that have, or still do frequent the northern most part of the British Isles will be the first to tell you that Scotland has the ethnic diversity of the Smurf’s village. Thus any kind of ethnic expulsion would be futile, though logistically simple as Scotland’s entire ethnic populace could probably be conveniently accommodated in a transit van.
I was in the process of going home when I realised that this blind bigotry was not atypical of the situation. Short of the strange racism purveyed by my legless compatriot, the Scottish people are fucking hard to please. A failed referendum and a strange resurgence in the ultimate political oxymoron, the Scottish Conservative party, all point to one main thing. Scotland doesn’t know what it wants. Never to be deprived of a potential opportunity, we often play the impetuous brother, unwilling to miss out on a slice of the UK cake, despite the fact that there never was any cake to begin with.
A unique nation with a strong sense of cultural identity, it was never going to be easy to gel everyone into thinking they are doing the same thing and, short of another war, it seems deeply unlikely that anything will change in Scotland’s political identity, certainly in the near future. With that in mind it is the time for Scots to consider what is best for them. Over my shoulder my new best mate tried to get up and go to the bog. Drunk as only Scots can be, he tripped over the stool and fell to the floor, cock peeking out of his open flies. He gurgled something before the barman told him in no uncertain terms to vacate the establishment. Scratching up what decorum he had left he proudly left the bar, shooting me a knowing glance. What’s best for Scots? The question is as open ended as a fish supper wrapper, but at three pounds a pint I sat down on the newly vacated bar stool and ordered, knowing full well what was best for me. Lager.
Cover image “Glasgow Highs” courtesy of <p&p> via Flickr
Read Laurence’s experiences in Scottish nightclubs here