Here's my latest column for the Caledonian Mercury - inspired by a viewing of Peter Mullan's new, largely autobiographical movie, Neds, and a few congruent encounters with some damaged young souls on Central Belt commuter trains. The sense of wasted potential, and the distance between that and larger frameworks of Scottish progress, is mused upon. All comments welcome.
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Walking down from the train station, Coatbridge on a Sunday night: and out of the depths of your podcast, someone’s finger jabs you in the arm. There’s a nano-second of tension and readiness, until I see the broad, clear-skinned face of a mid-teen girl, tall and warmly dressed. But she’s obviously scared, and already talking as I pull out my earphones.
“… So mister are you going down this hill? I canny walk on ma own, see there’s people I might meet here who are gonnae do me, they’ve said they’re gonnae get me the night if they see me…” I quickly agree. As we walk, I try to sift through her babble.
How’s school? “No at school. Hit a teacher wi’ a chair when I was seven. She shouted right in ma face, there wis spittle coming aff her! So ah gave her an answer!” Are you going back to your mum or dad? “My dad’s in jile for murder. I don’t talk tae ma mum. I’m in care.”
We march along, as she spiels out a tangled skein of boyfriends, territories, intoxicants. I try another note of concern: don’t you think you should be getting away from this bunch? “Oh I canny … but … In two years I’m going down to Derby?” Why? “All my pals from the home went down there”. What are they doing? “Some at college, some working. That’s where I’m off tae, fuckin’ ooty here.” What do you want to be? She turns her shining face to me, deadpan. “I’m trainin’ to be a beauty therapist.”
We get to her safety zone, at the corner of the town’s West End Park, and the aspirant beatifier strides off. You take care now, ok? “Aye, ah’ll dae ma best,” she says cheerily, skipping along like a universal daughter.
It must be a combination of my non-driver’s life on trains, combined with freelance hours that put me in the deadspots and dregs of a day, but I do seem to harvest stories like this. A few months ago, late at night again, a broken wee guy with a red crescent scar on his cheek unstoppably told me his story. “On the methadone, I’m no’ doing too bad… but I’ve gottae stay away from ma brer [brother], he’s bad news, always gets us intae it…”
Suddenly a change of tack. “You gettin’ ready for holidays?” I might do Italy in summer. “Aye I’ve done Italy. Poland, Germany, France too”. That’s busy: how, when? “I used to represent Scotland fur Tai-Kwan-Do. I’ve no goat ma medals now. It was my care worker in the home, he was a trainer, goat me intae it.” Now that I look at him, he’s a wiry guy – though there’s glue poured into his consciousness, a slurring on his lips.
I can’t help asking: so what happened, then? “Aww…” Head down and to the window. “My brer again. He’s a header, pulled me intae it. But it wis me that showed the blade, I wis the one that got done … I can only blame masel’, mucker, it’s ma fuckin’ load.” He rallies again, wanting to present well. “I mean, I got intae a fight the other day cause this guy wouldn’t give’s seat up for an auld doll. I fuckin’ made ‘im … But, ‘er ye go, wrang again.”
I had these two in my head yesterday, as my feet turned me away from another train journey and towards the Glasgow Film Theatre, to watch Peter Mullen’s new movie, Neds. The first thing to say is that Neds shouldn’t be read too sociologically.
The journey depicted – bright dux of his primary school is dragged down by early 70’s gang culture, oppressive father and brutal schooling, and turned into knife-wielding, overcompensatingly-violent street thug – seems to be, going by his interviews, mostly Mullen’s own (with a few symbolic embellishments). The film’s main character ends up a crescent-scarred delinquent bashing out metal in the remedial classes – but even so, he’s reading Jung and Marx under the workbench.
And it’s only someone possessing an innate dramatic talent that could come up with a closing scene as profound asNeds. Two boys, both bent out of shape by their casually violent circumstances, one of whom has already beaten the other into imbecility, tiptoe through a pride of lions in their local safari park (their tour bus has broken down). As the boys pass among the animals, desperately holding onto each others’ hand in their crumpled school uniforms, these natural predators sit with an implacable magnificence: a reproach to every tooled-up tough-guy.
Mullen’s point here is, I think, truly ambiguous. As an academic noted in the Sundays, some current street gangs have been around for nearly a century – cross-generational rites of male teenage passage for school-age youth, in industrial (and now post-industrial) localities.
So do we read the boys shuffling through the lions as a sign of how artificial and consciously willed their human disputes are – and thus, how remediable too, with enough mindfulness and social resources? Or is Mullen saying – along with many recent psychologists – that there are no “good old days” for the potential for gangs and violence at this stage of young male development? That it’s as natural as a lion pride?
If the latter, then reports of current initiatives that aim to woo the neds away from their gangs with alternative exuberances and solidarities – mostly sport, it would seem, and new jobs as “youth workers” – will work. If gangs are a form of play, then most attractive, less destructive play-forms should be promoted.
But games and sports that siphon off excessive energies, or social employment that amounts to a bribe not to fight, are ultimately poor development options here. World history is going to be so much more demanding of these kids than that.
We live under a globalisation where more and more of the Western ex-proletariat will be surplus to economic requirements. Other workshops of the world are making their ascent. Human-substituting automations of all kinds are creeping their way into business strategies.
Our only hope in Scotland is a democratic intellectualism worth the name – a mass cognitive and creative society, in which Scottish skill levels and products/services are practised at a high, non-outsourceable level.
If we don’t get there, we will consign millions of our compatriots to permanent economic redundancy – as Jimmy Reid once explicitly warned – and all the downward spirals of self-esteem which that generates. Do we want community tribalism, or vampiric drugs culture, filling this gap where purposelessness and uselessness lives?
Yes, I’ll allow myself a light bang of the drum for independence, as one way of fomenting general Scottish positivity and can-do spirit, through national control of our structures and resources. But in the phrase of our universal daughter at the beginning of this piece, this country also needs as large a dose of “beauty therapy” as it can take.
However much I enjoyed Neds, when I finished I immediately wanted to see 10, 20, 50 Scottish movies that filled in the gaps between this and, say, the softer elements of Gregory’s Girl. The more powerful stories we can tell about the subtle struggles between conformity and transformation in the everyday life of Scotland, the better.
The very existence of Mullen’s films would seem to be a testament to the fact that a strong sensibility can burn through the most unwelcoming of environments. But perhaps we need more ned filmmakers, not just registered beauticians or refereed combatants – and that’s before we even get to the scientists or engineers.
Perhaps we need more compelling audio-visual narratives about the latent and diverse talents of Scottish life – more than just the occasional art movie, or the simplicities of crime or soap operas: and this is a real challenge to whatever we might mean by a “creative” Scotland. If my regular commutes are anything to go by, it’s not as if the stories aren’t out there.