Tuesday, 2 January 2018

'Beach Bums' (August 2017 piece from 'The Scottish Review')

I may well qualify as what one tweeter called 'a snobby bastard', after being more disgusted than delighted by teenage drunken excesses on Troon beach last month; but where else is there to go? The lovely towns of the Ayrshire coast are long inured to summer invasions; but this one surely set a new low. What happened at Troon places that genteel resort reluctantly alongside assorted Mediterranean venues, which regularly suffer young Brits' alcohol-fuelled stag/hen/'party' culture.

One-off? Hardly. This was simply a concentrated, summer day, steroid-fuelled version of what constitutes many young people's leisure time in our towns and cities. Hardly the Decameron, but nor is it a version of enjoyment recognisable to earlier generations who had less disposable income and less free time. And, without being unduly po-faced, I would suggest that perhaps we should avoid the usual benign neglect of the situation. For this is very much a situation: and it's about working-class culture.

To be honest, there's way too much hushed, over-respectful lipservice paid to working-class culture. Even in recent days, it's there in the embarrassed tolerance of sectarian banners at football, and of Orange Walks: provocative acts which go unchallenged, apart from the odd tentative muttering, as if the perpetrators' lives are oppressed, and they should 'express their cultural identity' in our relativist 21st-century Britain. It's there, too, in the reactions to the several BBC Scots who appear to have 'got above themselves', and now find inverted commas around the label 'talent'. 

And it's there in the head-shaking disapproval of Billy Connolly's knighthood. 'Oh, he's forgotten his roots,' is a consensual view glibly trotted out by Tam Cowan the other day on Radio Scotland. The narrative here runs that Connolly, though he's had his tough times, has emerged 'neither an alcoholic nor a disappointed man,' and is therefore somehow not fitting the mould, unaccountably preferring to live with no evident misery. Living in several luxurious homes, rather than doing the decent thing and languishing in an early grave, or drowning his nostalgia for life up a close, in inconsolable malt whisky, Connolly thus daily betrays his roots.

The likes of Gerry Hassan and Ian Jack have explored the complex nature of Scottishness, with remarkably persistent self-identification as 'working-class' even by those who appear to have long since moved away from that world. It seems as if admitting you're middle class is felt to be a betrayal, like announcing you're a Tory, or you club seals in your spare time.

So that may be to some extent why specific riotous behaviour may be seen as regrettable, but the dismal resort to angry hedonism as a cultural norm is not condemned. Because to condemn would be akin to admitting you yourself are 'a snob'. What we should do, over and above the specific, is to try and address the underlying disaffections. Inconclusive and inadequate democratic arrangements; the onward march of persuasive but deeply unsatisfying consumerism; and a Britain ill-at-ease with an age of more fluid and complex identities – how can our society help the pathetic drunks on Troon beach, let alone everyone else? 

There must be hope. If our summer of Corbyn teaches us anything, it surely is that our aspirations do matter. It is in some ways immaterial how easily these may be achieved. But they matter: aspiring to a society offering affordable, decent housing; offering well-resourced education, leading to respect and fulfilment; offering the prospect of decent, secure jobs; and offering more solidarity than division in our relations. In times like these, we need such hope. And, for the floundering figures at Troon, we need both pity and scorn.

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