Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Ragged Saltire


There's a ragged saltire flag hanging on a bit of broken brush handle. It waves in the breeze from a bracket attached to the lintel of an upstairs room window. It's been there for years, for as long as I can remember. When a child, I was warned to stay away from the man who lived in that house, he was a nationalist.

When in my young teens, my parents moved us to the next town, work for my father there, and a modern house with central heating and we were in the queue to get a telephone. Occasionally, my mother took me on visits to my aunt who still lived in the street where the ragged saltire flag hung. As time passed the blue faded and the white stained, and the edges frayed, but it still hung on, waving gently in the wind as I passed.

When my aunt died, I saw the man who lived in the house with the saltire for the first time. He didn't speak to me, and probably did not know my name, though he followed the funeral procession with dignity, dressed in tatty black suit and tie, worn heeled shoes, and I noticed as he turned to bow his head as the coffin was taken from the hearse, a small metal badge of a saltire on his lapel.

Later at the wake, he stayed for only a few minutes, passed on his condolences, and left quietly. I overheard my uncle making excuses for him to an acquaintance, the acquaintance turning and nodding in understanding, the man was a nationalist.

When I was old enough to leave school, I started work in the company that employed my father. The day I started work was the same day I joined the union. It was a steelworks, my father worked a crane in the mill and I was a labourer. It was physical work, hot and hard, and at the end of every shift I left exhausted, but exhilarated also, because I was a worker and could hold my head up high.

My father carefully explained the voting process to me when I became old enough to vote, he showed me the correct box to mark was the one alongside the Labour candidate. I did my duty and voted without question. We were a Labour family, in a Labour street, in a Labour town.

My uncle died just before the general election that returned a Conservative government. At his funeral, I saw the man again whose ragged saltire flag still hung, precariously now, by threads from the wooden brush pole attached to the lintel of an upstairs window. He was dressed as before, old black suit and tie, worn down shoes, and the same badge on his lapel. He seemed much older now. He was a nationalist, but I now knew a bit about nationalists, they had opinions, though I still remembered being warned to stay away from him as a child.

I never got a chance to speak to him, though I was curious to do so, for I read the papers and watch the news, and nothing much is said about the nationalists, so I did not know much about them. But I was a Labour man, in a Labour street, in a Labour town, so it did not matter much that I didn't speak with him. He left the wake quietly after passing on his condolences to my uncle's daughter, my cousin, whom my father thought a Liberal, due to her ambition to be a teacher.

Margaret Thatcher didn't just close the steelworks where I was employed, and my father was employed, and half the street in which I live were employed. She also closed the steelworks in the next town along, and the town just past that. The local coal mines closed down, and railway shunting yards became overgrown with weeds, and rusting coal trucks began to decay, like the social structure in the world I breathed in.

I used to walk for miles each day back then. I had nothing else to do, and had grown fed up sitting in the social club, talking of the old days of Labour, and drowning in sorrow and alcohol about all that was lost when the English let the Tories in. Occasionally I would venture into the yard of a workplace that still showed industry, but often was chased out the gate before getting to ask if there was work going for a healthy body with a willing mind.

I happened down the street where I lived as a child, and where my aunt and uncle lived till they died. My cousin, the school teacher lives on in the house of my uncle. She bought it from the council and installed a new door, and her neighbours envy her and hate her. Across the road, I notice the saltire is hanging still, and I wonder how the nationalist is doing, but there's no sign of life, from her side, or his, as I walk on by.

The last time I was drunk was when New Labour got into power with Tony Blair. It was as if fresh life was instilled in the community. For days, everyone had a surprised smile on their face, and a spring in their step. In our street, we were all Labour voters, in a Labour town, in a Labour country, and Labour now had power. We all expected miracles of economic revival and had optimistic future expectations. This we had been promised for years.

I actually found a job when Labour was in power, it lasted two years, and it paid the minimum wage which Labour introduced, so I suppose for at least two years they did more than the Tories did for me in eighteen. My mother was glad that the army I had tried for when younger, rejected me as unfit, for Tony Blair began wars.

It was in a supermarket that I first spoke to the nationalist. Unbeknown to me he was an area manager for the chain, and he interviewed me for a temporary job. A six week training stint called some fancy title that was catchy to the media but meant nothing in reality, to either me, or the supermarket, or the government. I would learn how to stack shelves for six weeks.

The nationalist, whom I was warned to stay away from as a child, and who remained a mystery to me as I grew up, was pleasant to me. I was dismayed at the fact that I never associated the nationalist as a worker. I had believed he was some alien creature who couldn't be trusted because he wasn't Labour. This was what I was led to believe.

My father is dying, he is old and withered, and I would love to ask him about politics, but I know it would upset him that I no longer have any sense of belonging to the Labour party. I am afraid if I upset him, he will have his final seizure. I would rather not be the cause of it, so I keep quiet about politics.

When devolution came to Scotland, I was in London. That was where the work was, and that was where I worked on this and that building site. I helped build the headquarters of big banks and insurance groups and financial trading organisations. Brick by brick exiled Scots and Irish built them up.

I missed my father's funeral because I had succumbed to the greed is good mentality that permeates through London society. I would have lost my job if I had taken the time off. I regret it, but it is in the past now, and I've realised that money is important, but it has no true moral value in any fair society.

I returned to Scotland when my mother died, the week following the SNP winning a majority in the Scottish elections. My mother voted Labour because my father voted Labour. I was surprised to see the nationalist at her funeral. He nodded to me and I nodded back. At the wake he came over and spoke to me. He was as I remembered him when he interviewed me for the position of trainee shelf stacker. He apologised for that, it was company policy. I laughed at my mother's wake at this.

Scotland was different now. It was different because the nationalist wasn't a pariah, or a minority, or extreme, in any regard. He belonged to a growing mass of the population of the country, and the SNP government, despite being constrained by Westminster, was doing popular things that the people in Scotland wanted done.

The Conservatives are in a coalition with the Lib-Dems at Westminster now. The Scottish people don't want either, and they also don't want Labour. I grew up in a Labour family, in a Labour street, in a Labour town. I will never vote Labour again, I have become a nationalist.

One day I walked down the street where I was born. My cousin the school teacher, who lived there, married an architect, sold her house, and both moved to Aberdeen. The nationalist has a new saltire, it is bright, and fresh, and clean, and billows magnificently in the breeze as I approach. He has retired now, he is at the window, and gives me a wave as I pass by. I wave back and smile.

The independence vote is coming soon. I remember when I was a child and was told to shun the nationalist. I am the nationalist now, perhaps I always was. Scotland is different today, there is hope in the air, in the breeze that billows the saltire. People expect more and want society to improve. I don't talk about politics much, but I talk about fairness, and aspirations, and the future, and how optimistic I am. Perhaps I do talk about politics.

*****


The above is a work of fiction, though quite relevant I feel, to the political climate in Scotland at the moment, so I have posted it here.

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