My Saturday column in The National (online edition), June 19th, 2015. All comments/shares welcome.
What my father ‘s sacrifice of a historic football trip says about aspiration...and austerity
I RESENT the way “aspiration” has become a weasel word. In recent debates about the UK Labour Party’s future, it signifies a necessary post-General Election move to the right of the policy spectrum. I’ve spent a large chunk of my life “aspiring” to an independent Scotland – which would be, I expect, solidly left-of-centre. So my objection is, initially, a very loud snort.
But it’s also much more intimate and personal than that. It would be hard to describe my family, or the community of my background, in any other way than as aspirational.
I was jolted into this realisation by a clip from a show (which I’d forgotten I’d done) on STV Glasgow this week, called My Life In Ten Pictures. The one the programme-makers chose as a social-media promo was me talking about my father, John Kane, and his momentous decision of 1967.
By that year, despite being burdened with a destructive banshee of a three-year-old boy, Dad had saved up a couple of hundred pounds (my father was, er, careful with money) – a princely sum at the time. He had intended to spend at least some of it on a trip to Lisbon, to see Celtic play in the European Cup Final that year.
A few months before, however, my mother – Mary Kane (nee Brady), an unstoppable district midwife, working her home territory of Coatbridge and Airdrie – had espied a house on a hill for sale (we were living in a council house in Langloan at the time). I obviously have no memory of their discussions.
But whenever the family legend surfaced at parties and celebrations, I always remember my late Dad’s saintly, long-suffering expression, as Mum told the story.
Which was, as you might have already guessed, that my father abandoned his historic trip to Lisbon, in favour of putting down a deposit on a red sandstone house in Blairhill, Coatbridge. My mother delighted in the fact that the living room already had “a very big book shelf”, which the Church of Scotland Minister selling it installed. The shelf remains there today, filled with Encyclopaedia Britannica yearbooks. The series begins in the early 1950s, and are still delivered in my father’s name, every year.
So: “aspirational”. A railway wage clerk and an NHS midwife as the advance shock-troops of Thatcher’s “property-owning democracy” in Scotland – and way before the curve too? That’s one way to look at it. Though to console those Blairites in the leadership race, my late father was Labour-loyal to the end, and my mother went indy and SNP only in the last few years. But the Britannica volumes – my inheritance, I have been pointedly told –are an indication that the aspiring urges in our family go way down.
While recovering from a chest scare in hospital recently, Mum fell into a rich conversation (this is not a rare occurrence) with an equally elderly patient at the next bed. The subject was elocution lessons: it turned out that this lady and my mother had gone to the same tutor in Coatbridge. My mother tells me if it wasn’t for her aqua-training to compete in the butterfly stroke for the Scottish Commonwealth team, she’d have taken her elocution teaching certificates.
She didn’t make the Scotland cut, incidentally (and her ears blew out from the water pressure anyway). But you may be getting the picture: this is a working-class background of incessant, relentless striving. The engines of this are obvious. My Mum’s own background involved some tough periods as a child in social care, and then an upbringing in the “Paddysland” Irish-Catholic ghetto of Coatbridge. She had a class and ethnic status to defy; a steady accumulation of nurses’ qualifications were the clearest refutation.
But her will was forged in a context that already looked to the heights. Her own father – a labourer who worked on the sea defences at Scapa Flow in Orkney – was a sight-reading piano player. On his trips home from the war effort, Granda Brady would immediately book tickets for him and his eldest daughter to see classical concerts in Glasgow. My mum thrilled to the sight of the passionate, whirling conductors; when I spoiled her on a trip to the Royal Opera House in London a few years ago, she was a grand dame indeed.
“All I ever wanted was three lawyers,” my father used to say, looking at his three flakily creative sons with a too-straight face. “All I ended up with was three goldfish.” This is, of course, one of the twists in the political story of reconnecting with the masses via aspiration.
Your society provides reliable, family-stabilising work (my parents were both public-sector workers). It facilitates your children’s development (we had a good local comprehensive school, and a free-and-grant-aided university education). What do your progeny go off and do with all that? Well, they “aspire” to different endpoints, whether occupational or professional, than their bureaucratised, respectability-obsessed parents. As the psychologists say: the more secure your life is, the more unique and self-fulfilling the path you wish to follow.
THOUGH it’s worth noting that you don’t have to end up as an expressive artist. Both me and my brother Gregory were set fair for occupational paths by university – me heading for English teacher-dom, Greg for energy engineering. We were both caught up in the creative energy of the post-punk-and-after music scene, and the rest is history.
But the point is that a well-designed, left-of-centre society raises the height of the launchpad, and gives you the best possible rocket to help you take off and fashion your life – no matter how useful (or useless) that life may seem to others. Do any of the “aspiring” UK Labour leadership candidates stop to think how maintaining “austerity” in their budgets lowers the launchpads and disables the rockets that propels mass aspiration?
Nicola Sturgeon’s political resonance is obvious to all. But surely in the Scottish context, some of it comes from a fierce belief, based on experience, that good, accessible collective structures (whether in housing or education) truly make a culture of aspiration possible. Yes, it’s the job of a healthy democracy to ensure parties and their leaders live up to their stated belief. There’s nothing more fragile (but if defensible, more valuable) than proclaiming your ability to “keep your promises”.
But I don’t think the “aspiration” narrative in Scotland implies a purely materialistic end-point. My own history seems to show aspiration may just be one’s idiosyncratic path through the wider framework of a basically hopeful society. A well-founded and tangible hope, not some mass irrationalism. The trick of Scottish nationalism supplanting a Labour identity, as many smarter heads than me have noted, is that it has made “a more self-governing Scotland” equate to “a more hopeful society” in the popular imagination.
Yet however well we fashion the better Scotland, the point is not conformity, but a near-infinite blossoming of hitherto under-developed human potential. And though the vision is inclusive, let’s be humane enough to let the paths towards a realised life be as quirky as they are. To quote the old Langholm volcano, yet again: “I never set een on a lad or lass/But I wonder gin he or she/Wi’ a word or a deed’ll suddenly dae/An’ impossibility.” Let’s aspire to that.
Pat Kane is a musician and writer (www.patkane.today).