Graeme Archer is a statistician and a former winner of the Orwell Prize for Political Blogging.
Let me tell you something new, about my home and about Scotland. But first, An Editor Calls:
“I thought of Brighton, and wondered if you’d want to write about that, after Matthew’s column on Clacton and our exchange of open letters. Without drawing you into the row, of course.”
Of course! Matthew Parris’s description of Clacton – all Lycra and tattooed flesh – isn’t for me to comment on (since I’m averse, frankly, to neither.) Nor does this site’s editorial policy particularly bother me (though I don’t agree in any shape that Ukip is David Cameron’s fault.) I’ve already been sacked once this year. Why rock the boat?
Which is a fancy way of saying, one week until the Scottish vote, that all my mind is filled with the potential horror of what Michael Ignatieff labelled the “moral sin of separatism“. I’m on the verge of being made into a foreigner, against my will, and can think of nothing else, certainly not Brighton or Clacton.
Forgive me, you’ve heard my fears before. So (where we came in) let me tell you something new. Just in case the vote is Yes, and Scotland leaves. Just in case this is my last chance. Let me tell you about my home, and see if it sounds foreign to you.
My hometown is Ardrossan, on the coast, about thirty miles from Glasgow. The sea-side. Turn your feet towards the sea. Matthew’s views notwithstanding, those whose toes are aimed seawards from birth are the opposite, I’d say, of “little Britishers.” The entire point of this island is what happened when we discovered its ocean-bound perimeter, and decided it wouldn’t determine our limits, and built boats and then sailing ships and then warships, and set out to map the world.
Why do you think the British built so many piers? Why can’t you see one, without wanting to walk to its limit?
(And by the way, those who find tattoos offensive: from what culture do you imagine such body-art derives? Canary Wharf’s glassy, ugly, foreign-owned skyscrapers? Edinburgh’s genteel New Town? The irony is that earthiness comes from the sea. Real earthiness requires salt.)
Like any town within commuting distance of the country’s industrial centre, my home suffers and gains from that proximity. Suffers, because the centre of political gravity is always elsewhere. Gains, at least in the first half of the last century, because increasing prosperity and an expanding rail network led workers to dare to follow – in their tens of thousands – where once only the gentrified middle-class could tread. Upon a beach. On holiday. Not at work. With spare cash to spend.
Those glory days are gone, but a shabby grandeur remains in the sea-front villas (mostly flats, now) and the gulls fighting over chip wrappers. No, that’s wrong. Shabbiness does not imply a lack of glory, and it’s cheap to suggest otherwise. Do we all want to live in Morningside?
The glory’s still there, in every peeling slab of stucco, in every Italian-ate ice-cream. In every child, too young to feel embarrassed, who squeals with delight at the chance of pushing two boab in the puggies (translation: at playing the games in the amusement arcades) or of making themselves sick with candy-floss.
It’s true that fishing is now mainly for pleasure, rather than to maintain a coastal fleet. It’s true that many of the guest houses now provide refuge to the temporarily homeless, rather than to the “respectable” working classes on their two-week “fair”. It’s true that alcoholism and family breakdown and joblessness blight too many coastal lives.
It used to be a Tory stronghold, my home; that feels a long time ago. Yet there are still sparks of rebelliousness in the political atmosphere, and the Tory revival, when it comes – the real modernisation – will be forged in the towns such as mine.
My home-town is Ardrossan, on the coast, about thirty miles from Glasgow. But everything I’ve written here was, in fact, about Brighton. On the coast, about fifty miles away from London. And also my home, my town. I said to you: “Let me tell you about my home, and see if it sounds foreign to you.” Does either?
I played a trick on you, a trick which is no trick at all, because Ardrossan and Brighton are the same. Matthew Parris is wrong to prefer the city to the coast. Clacton is wrong to prefer Farage to Cameron.
But most of all: Salmond is wrong to prefer two states to one. Ardrossan and Brighton are the same, two sea-side towns close to mass urban centres, struggling to reinvent themselves in a post-Thomson’s age. They (and Blackpool and Largs and Scarborough and Wemyss Bay) are, for the best of reasons, in the same state. In what demented philosophy could it be argued that either Ardrossan or Brighton would benefit by being rendered foreign to the other?
The sea marks our territory, not Hadrian, not Salmond. Please God, the sea.