Laughter in the North (of London)

There was the other day a small but, it seems, significant shift in the way our most avowedly left of centre broadsheet, The Guardian, has been handling the Scottish independence debate. I don’t mean Martin Kettle’s opinion piece, which was a legitimate argument about the significance of the currency issue.

I happen to disagree with him, and with the slant he puts on Westminster ganging together over the issue, because I simply don’t believe anything George Osborne says to be a competent assessment of the facts or, more importantly, true. But I’m nonetheless interested in Kettle’s opinion, not least because it tells me how certain aspects of the London media think on this issue (by infantilising the Nats).

I certainly don’t mean Steve Bell’s depiction of Salmond – I particularly enjoyed the one where Eck dances a fling as he ascends upon the flatulence emitted by McKraken Brown. I’m thinking rather of Stuart Jeffries’ comic apology, which runs to 76 items (79 would at least have taken us up to Devolution, but perhaps he’s no interest in numerology).

I’m interested in this precisely because it was a ‘light’ G2-ish item, meant to amuse, and because, rather than the mild-to-wicked smiles caused by Pass notes or Lost in Showbiz, I found myself feeling hurt and upset by the piece.

I should say now that I’m not a straightforward Yes-voting Nationalist, nor someone interested in Scottish identity in much more than the existential sense of it forming a great deal of my life experience. And, yes, in that sense it does mean a great deal to me, it’s a key subject in my writing, but, apart from that, my politics and sense of identity veer too immediately away from any party line for me just to toe it in this case.

But I found myself wondering at the degree to which I was upset. I didn’t mind at all the old faithful hits at diet, accent, sentimentality – Jock-osity, as London persists in seeing it. But apology number 4, which used the term ethnic cleansing to describe the Clearances – how was I meant to take that in the light of Barroso’s comparison of Scotland with Kosovo? Who’s the Serbs here? Who’s the Albanians?

Apology 65, where a graphic account of a hanging drawing and quartering is followed by the suggestion it should only have been a ‘ticking off’ sounds weirdly affectless, like it’s forgotten it has just been talking about a person being tortured to death because that person was William Wallace, and Mel Gibson’s depiction of him is so emotionally manipulative.

And 29-32, where the topics are massacre, cultural suppression and deracination – are they the ‘sincere’ ones? They’re preceded and followed by comments about Scots in Westminster and Prince Charles in Scotland: complex issues of power and identity, and these are clearly jokes. But, again, I end up not knowing how to take the detailed accounts of people being slaughtered.

It seems to me the tone of this piece loses its way when it starts to discuss historical events, and it was probably an error of judgement to include them. It can’t really be OK to joke or even appear to joke about a massacre in the same way as you do about a Mars bar, can it? I’m not suggesting you can’t joke about difficult subjects, but this doesn’t feel like it’s got the angle right at all.

I’m thinking it’s principally a rhetorical problem – it just can’t carry the reader/audience across its shifts in subject by maintaining much the same tone throughout. A mock-serious apology about a national stereotype is a different kind of thing from a mock-serious apology about people being killed, even if they were killed in culturally complex circumstances a couple of hundred years ago.

It could shift gear at such points into a full on bad taste mode in which our expectations are challenged – we’re outraged, but we betray ourselves by laughter. For instance, a satirist might have presented the idea of brutal execution as a ticking off, thus transferring that hint of psychopathy to the period’s concept of justice, or take ‘Butcher’ Cumberland’s nickname to a Swiftian conclusion – Sawney Bean conveniently crops up in apologies 37 and 38.

But it doesn’t attempt to do that (perhaps it shouldn’t have been so ready to dismiss Frankie Boyle in apology 72, since he’s based a career on this deft challenging of liberal expectations). Instead we’re simply left assessing the sincerity of one section compared to another.

Of course the trouble here is about pronouns like ‘we’ – the piece purports to address all Scots on behalf of all English, though its more probable audience is a particular subset of readers who identify with the apologist. So its addressees are being subdivided at the outset – ‘real’ Guardian readers, it supposes, Scots or English, already find these matters ridiculous – then excluded as we read if we can’t see that the kilt and the Clearances are equally funny.

It’s because I’m sure Stuart Jeffries doesn’t actually believe this, that it feels like something has gone wrong at a rhetorical level. Why that’s happened, of course, and how it feeds back into Martin Kettle’s assumption that we must take Gideon seriously because Ed Balls says so too, is another matter entirely.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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