Scotland the brave?

Some years ago I was in Glasgow and took my hotel up on their offer of a free transfer to the airport. I was the only passenger in the 12-seater minibus in this cross-city journey and struck up a conversation with the driver. I can’t recall how we got there, but somehow I established he didn’t vote. He seemed to be of the ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ tendency.

This was years before the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, but the driver wasn’t fixated on Westminster as the source of all evil; he appeared to hate all politicians, local and national, as a breed. It was a classic case of working class political despair and disengagement – understandable in many ways, but still depressing.

As I write, Scots are on the eve of a momentous decision: whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom. I have no vote in the referendum, living in England, but I do have a great interest in it, both by virtue of being British and also being a quarter Scot. My grandfather, proud of his roots in Edinburgh and Aberdeen, used to make great play of extravagantly rolling his ‘r’s, half in self-parody, and then lapsed back into his southern English accent. He’d come to London decades before.

What can I add to the acres of comment poured out over the last 18 months of this protracted campaign? Well, a heartfelt hope that, whatever the collective decision, that there will be reconciliation between the people that get their wish, and the many thousands – millions? – who will be disappointed. Oh, and here’s my shock prediction: Scotland will be a cool nation whether it stays in the union or not.

But for all the duplication in the referendum commentary, not nearly enough has been said about the precedent of Ireland. The Irish Free State, formed in 1922, refused to pay land annuities to Britain, and this led to the latter’s levying of high trade tariffs on its imports from Ireland. This in turn gave rise to severe austerity in the new state and, I believe, disproportionate power being given to the Catholic Church. I can’t help feeling this imbalance led to classic abuses of power, and it’s arguable that you can draw a direct line from Britain’s punitive approach to Ireland’s breaking away and the tragic abuse of people supposedly in the church’s care.

I am not – repeat, not – saying that any of this is liable to happen if Scotland votes yes this Thursday. These are very different times, and Scotland is a very different country. But there have been some pretty mean-spirited attitudes voiced on both sides of the debate at various times, and the Guardian’s Martin Kettle has written convincingly – and worryingly –about possible punishment by England of the upstart nation that dared to think about going it alone, whether or not it actually does so. Try his columns here and here.

Whichever way the vote goes there will be an elite in Scotland, in politics, media and so on. The elite can look after themselves; they always do. My concern is for those who currently feel disenfranchised. I find myself thinking about that minibus driver. I trust he’s alive and well, and my hunch is that this is one vote he won’t want to miss. But my fear is that if he doesn’t feel his quality of life improves as a result of the referendum, it might be the last vote he casts.



Comedians on the radio – no laughing matter?

It seems hard to recall now, but it was once a novel idea to put comedians on the radio as presenters. It must have seemed a win-win: the radio station believed they were buying into guaranteed laughs – and with them, they hoped, audiences – while the comedian got guaranteed work, often daily, at least until the end of their contract. Both parties should be laughing all the way to the bank.

I can’t blame a comic for wanting to swap a punishing life on the road (or an equally punishing wait for the phone to ring) for an air-conditioned studio. Add to that the liberation from sweaty (or non-existent) dressing rooms, and from the reliance on a ‘good door’ or anxieties about a hostile house. Forget heckling – the worst you’re likely to get is a dead bat from the travel reporter.

Likewise, you can’t gainsay a station manager for thinking they’ve bought into a master (or mistress) ad-libber who can fly by the seat of their pants and turn the trivial into comedy gold. Plus, a lot of comedians come with a built-in fanbase, and concomitant public profile. Why wouldn’t it work?

Except that often, it seems to me, it doesn’t.

As with many things, there’s greater complexity than first appears to be the case, but if it can be reduced it to one main reason, I believe it’s that the template in the performer’s head is wrong. Comics are hard-wired to play to a crowd in the room and to go for every laugh, but laughs are rarer when listening alone. The stage isn’t a loudspeaker. And a merry group (or boozy rabble) isn’t the same as a solitary listener, or even a small ensemble listening in a car.

Successful standup Phill Jupitus is very insightful and refreshingly unegotistical about why he isn’t still a radio presenter in his book Good Morning Nantwich. He swapped living out of a suitcase for being live on BBC Radio 6 Music each weekday morn. In his book Jupitus makes a passing mention of having someone else in the studio and playing to them because, to paraphrase, ‘that’s what you do’. I’m not sure he realises the significance of this; it’s the mike, and by extension the listener you really need to address. Listeners are jealous creatures and demand attention. Heaven help the perfidious presenter!

There’s nothing that says a comedian must make a great radio presenter. But there’s nothing that says they can’t either. For me the difference is a respect for the medium of radio as radio, and not as a supposed soft career option. Remember that and you’re laughing.