Sunday, 19 August 2012

While I was gone

As you may know, I have spent the last three weeks in Italy. Near Lake Trasimeno, between Perugia and Siena.

Now, I'm afraid I've never been one of those who subscribe to the view that "you can't beat Scotland if you could only get the weather."

If I'm going to spend my holidays in the countryside then I don't just need it to be dry, I'd prefer it to be warm as well. And for there to be something to do except look at the scenery. And to be able to eat well. And to do so, if so inclined, after 9 p.m. Indeed, to be able to do anything, except drink, after 9 p.m.

All of this, I am pleased to say, I did this year in spades; visiting old haunts and new; taking in a very special Signorelli exhibition in Perugia which was so good that it caused me, half way through, to cancel a Sunday Lunch reservation by the lake; hearing the Barber of Seville in the open air; even, thanks to our youngest guest, seeing the new Spiderman movie, in Italian, in a similar setting; reading, and listening to music, and sleeping and even having the occasional swim!

And above all, over and over again, eating the most wonderful food, both at table and, thanks overwhelmingly to the key fact that ingredients are everything, when it had to survive my own culinary interventions.

And all the while, other than last Monday, when (during lunch and after seeing for the umpteenth time the Cathedral in Orvieto that the late Norman Buchan described as the ultimate test of conviction for any atheist) there was a brief rain shower, the sun shone out of an azure sky almost unimaginable here.

So you will gather that I had a good time.

But I'm back.

That was and is an odd experience in itself.

For the last several years we have returned on a late flight, meaning that when we reached home there was only the time to have a proper cup of tea (the one area where the Scottish experience remains infinitely superior) and then to go to bed. Somehow that meant that when you woke up the next morning it was easier to accept that you were back among the (Scottish version of) Fifty Shades of Gray.

This year however we had a morning flight, meaning we were back home just after two in the afternoon and I must say I found that a somewhat disorienting experience. For, once you've checked the house and the mail, and started on the long cycle of clothes washing such a return entails, what do you do then? I took myself off to Tesco but even there found myself wondering whether it was here or there we had nearly run out of olive oil, passata and toilet rolls. I even found myself pondering over which bottle of Fanta to buy before recollecting that in the absence of temporarily accomodated ragazzi, wee Mo and I alone had no requirement for Fanta at all.

The one thing I didn't have to do, as was a requirement when I first returned from the same location 24 years ago, was to phone round family and work colleagues to check there was nothing I needed to know had happened while I was away.

For, of course, thanks to the modern wonders of technology, and, perhaps only for for good or ill, you no longer are "away" to that extent.

So I already knew that there had been no major developments in my professional practice during my absence. And that such relatives as I had remain alive and well. But I also knew about Iain Davidson on Newsnicht; and Martin Sime and Willie Rennie; and the bizarre events surrounding Joan McAlpine denouncing the legal conclusions of the Scottish Affairs Select Committee in apparent ignorance of the fact that Eck and his Ministers were, in their Consultation Document, of the same (legal) opinion. (It's a high bar but she must surely be the most ignorant and ill-informed member of the Scottish Parliament to date.)

On any view however the most important thing that happened while I was lotus eating was the London Olympics.

Oddly, I don't mean in the context of the Scottish Constitutional Question. The Olympics don't make it less likely that Scotland will secede from the Union since there was never any prospect of that happening anyway. The only thing that it might have done was highlight the extent to which, in these isles, the sum will always be greater than its parts, That's's only going to drive down the separatist vote further from what was already a hopelessly losing position.

No, the Olympics was much more important than this present Constitutional fandango.

In one of my very first  blogs I observed that the Olympics would prove to be either "an occasion of metropolitan folly or a unique British triumph".              

Who would now argue it was anything but the latter.

The only bit of it I saw in this Country was the opening ceremony but, although I approached that as cynically as anybody,  by the end the only reason I hoped it would ever conclude was because I needed to get up at 5 am  to go on holiday the next day.

From Italy, I relied on twitter and on RAIdue and from the latter you might have thought that the entire Olympics were little more than an extended fencing competition (the Italians being rather good at fencing).

But, for all the earlier and later achievements of our own cyclists, rowers and others, and even the boy who succeeded in being cheered at Parkhead when he appeared on the big screen draped in a Union Jack after his swimming Silver Medal, the two nights that changed this country were Boyle's opening event and the night of Saturday  4th August when after the imperious triumph of Jessica Ennis and the unexpected victory of Greg Rutherford in the high jump, Mo Farah won the 10,000 metres.

I watched that in Italy with the absence of the hysterical commentary that, perhaps understandably, accompanied this event back at home but in that final lap with the illogicality that assumes such a sentiment might carry 1500 miles I found myself shouting at the telly "Come on Mo!" And somewhere in my deep subconscious I knew that across the Home Counties retired Colonels would be expressing similar sentiment; and ladies from the WI in North Yorkshire; and white van men in pubs in the east end of London; and indeed here in Scotland, an awful lot of people who would profess themselves publicly hostile to any English sportsman.

Kathleen Grainger and Chris Hoy and Andy Murray made great contributions to the British Olympic effort but despite Farah's own contemptuous dismissal of the question at the next day's press conference, when I read of the arse who there asked if Farah would not rather be running for Somalia, I found myself wishing for the presence of one other great Scottish archetype, the hard bitten, and hard drinking, Scottish sports journalist who might have got up, crossed the room, and put the heid on the questioner.

For the thing about (surely, shortly) Sir Mo Farah is that he was once a Somalian asylum seeker, and that he has always been a Muslim. But that he has embraced this Country and that, in turn, this Country has embraced him. And that's not so much  an important change as an important recognition on the part of those previously in denial, from the right and the left, about such a thing being possible.

Among the various breakdowns of the origins, regional or "national" affiliations, even gender, of our numerous medallists, nobody has been so indelicate as to comment overtly about their disparate skin colours and it is right that they haven't but it is also right that we should observe, once and for all, that to be British you do not have to be white. And that the sort of Country that can make that acceptance is not a bad place to live.

Now, if only some people would realise that, just as you don't have to be white to appreciate being British, then you don't have to be English either. Then, perhaps, Scottish politics could move on.


  1. You can also be Manx and appreciate being British, as part of Team GB.

    "Now, if only some people would realise that, just as you don't have to be white to appreciate being British, then you don't have to be [part of the UK] either. Then, perhaps, Scottish politics could move on."

  2. Team GB included one athlete from Angiulla. Not even in the British isles.

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