Questions of identity - starting with Leith

This is my article which was published in The Leither Magazine in September 2017

When asked by the editor of this fine publication to join the ranks of its illustrious columnists, I pondered at length what themes I could explore. In a way, it seemed self-evident: as most people who know me are well aware, I can wax lyrical on the subject of Leith until my audience starts looking shiftily at their watches. Oft cited topics are: our history, our Persevere coat of arms and, of course, our border.

Ah, the famous border, which in 1920, at the time of Edinburgh colonisation, cut through the tenements at the Easter Road end of Albert Street. Tony Benn’s father - the MP for Leith at the time – argued against amalgamation with these words: 
“In the Great War I knew of times when men slept with their heads in Africa and their feet in Asia. But I know of no one who would make that a case for amalgamating Africa with Asia”.

I love borders. Maps with borders and the shapes they make that become so familiar: the boot of Italy, or France’s ’Hexagone’. I know intimately where the line went to define Leith from Edinburgh nearly 100 years ago. I am not, however, a real Leither, being born and brought up on the Southside of the Great Satan on the hill. I am a convert, and we all know that converts are the worst. The major despots of the last three centuries of European history - Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler - all grew up in countries other than those whose nationalisms they came to represent: Corsica (part of Genoa at the time of Napoleon’s birth), Georgia and Austria respectively.  

I love Leith, in the same way as I love Scotland. I also feel pride as I observe the multiple stunning views in our capital city that cause many a tourist’s jaw to drop; I’m full of admiration for Glasgow with its banter and sheer style, but my affinities extend beyond my native Caledonia. I have a bond with Yorkshire from living there at length in my early adulthood. Leith and Scotland, however, represent something more for me: I embrace everything about them both. And their borders define them both. We know where they begin and end. They decide who is in or out. 

There is of course, no such thing as Leith nationalism. Being a nationalist implies there being a nation. There is no nation of Leith; more’s the pity. There is clearly a civic identity, which obviously includes the Sikhs, the Poles, the English, even those from Edinburgh – so long as they live here. In fact surely the Proclaimers are Leithers even though they live somewhere near Morningside, for heaven’s sake. 

And there I’ve done it – using the ‘I’ word – ‘identity’. Those two words: identity and borders, make up much of our daily news intake these days. And wrapping around them like a shroud, is that other word – Nationalism; increasingly a difficult word to use without a qualification.  Even our Nicola confessed during a Book Festival event that she would rather the SNP didn’t have the word ‘national’ in its title – making supporters of the SNP into ‘nationalists’. Tommy Sheppard, our neighbouring SNP MP, said in a recent speech that he is not a nationalist but, if he had to choose a label, it would be, “a republican social democrat”. He went on to claim that the 2014 referendum was “concerned with empowerment, not identity”. Is Identity becoming a dirty word too? Surely not. 

I grew up with a positive, unequivocal view of the benign nature of nationalism . For example, our own variety wants more immigrants, not fewer. In the sixties, when I signed up, it was the time of the Collapse of Empire. Nasser, Nkrumah and Nehru were all nationalists. They were the good guys in my romantic youth. So too were the Irish nationalists. Maybe it’s because later in my adult life I started to become interested in trying to understand the Loyalist cause in Northern Ireland (resulting in my feeling that they have at least a view that deserves a voice) that I started to take stock. Or maybe it’s because I witnessed, via the television screen, the horrors of nationalism let loose in the Former Yugoslavia, that I began to question whether nationalism can be benign. 

So for me Identity was, and is, a good fall back. I hear the term Leith Identity all the time and because Leith is not a nation, it can only be a civic identity. That is what Nicola and Tommy claim for the Scottish variety too – and good luck to them, genuinely. But after all this meandering over the ideas of borders, identity and nationalism, I reluctantly come to the conclusion that we should be wary of the term ‘nationalism’. If the neo-Nazis and KKK of Charlottesville can be described in the international media as ‘white nationalists’, then we know we have a problem with the N word. 

The trouble with teens

It was in my teenage years when it all became more difficult. So much going on. Feelings I had never known before exploding inside. Multiple external pressures demanding that I change and adapt to new rules I didn't understand. School was now serious. Choosing subjects that would affect the rest of my life. Deadline make-or-break exams looming. And as for the other teenagers..... old friends were suddenly un-cool; new leaders of the pack emerged, their status determined by different skills. Yes, the ability to exert violent domination remained constant, but now there were girls in the mix. A new hierarchy based on the arrival of puberty determined all. And then there was home: fighting the claustrophobic micro management of my mum and the estrangement of my dad. Plus, with my being an only child, I had no allies in the home with whom to find escape routes or conspiratorial solace.

But most of all was my realisation that my sexual identity was different. If only I were gay. At least that would provide an explanation. I'd heard of Oscar Wilde - but that was about all. There wasn't even a word for what I felt, until Monty Python's Lumberjack song unveiled the word 'transvestite' upon my teenage sensibilities. My secret shame began to consolidate. Perhaps when puberty passed, so too would this. 'Just a passing phase' was what the adults would say about other behaviours. There was hope, but in the meantime I would have to keep it buried and embark on the most important imperative of adolescence - fitting in and finding my place as high up this new re-drawn hierarchy as I could. 

And all the time the clock was ticking. This was adolescence. A temporary state, during which time everything would have to be decided for the adult future ahead, with its all-encompassing threat of 'responsibility'. "The best years of your life". Well if this is as good as it gets, then I sure as hell wasn't looking forward to the rest. 

I look back all these decades later and realise that what I was told wasn't true at all. I didn't do that well at school. My mum's academic dreams for me were thwarted, deliberately, by me. I left at 17 and headed for the bright lights of - Yorkshire (Well it was away from mum and school). I found work: many different jobs. I found my feet in the adult world of strangers and laboured hard on shift work and in the open air - and I didn't sit another exam again. Yes, it was the 70's and jobs were aplenty, but the key thing is, I learned a set of skills that no classroom or exams would have exposed me to. 

There were many others like me. Apprenticeships were available without the exam passes demanded of the young of today. Mentors existed in the workplace without the need for approved teaching or youth work qualifications. Teenage life, as tough as it always is, was easier for my generation. Spare a thought for the young of today with their virtual social media bullying, the grade inflation and pressure of the chase for ultimate attainment, and their meagre hopes of getting the job of their dreams that they were promised ever since that first scribble was stuck on the fridge door when they were told they were so special and gifted. What on earth are we doing to our young people? Stress and actual mental illness is going through the roof for adolescents. It's as if we older ones with our mortgage driven professions are unable to remember what it was like to be 16 or 17 years of age. 

All this is despite what we have learned about the development of the teenage brain in the last 15 years. We know that the plasticity of the brain in those years is such that academia and classroom can't work with some young people. We know that early puberty will result inevitably in early risky behaviour. We know that the executive function of the brain - the pre-frontal cortex bit that makes sensible decisions - doesn't properly develop until the early 20s. So why, oh why, do we expect them to behave seamlessly like well behaved swots from primary school onwards? There really isn't any excuse. 

We, in the older generations, need to take a hard look at ourselves. We have professionalised and codified teaching, caring and guidance to such an extent that normal human compassion for the young from ordinary working adults is a minefield. 'It takes a village to teach a child' the old mantra used to go. What makes us think that a solitary secondary school teacher, straight out of teacher training, buckling under the pressure of results and ratings - can individually be responsible for sparking a love of learning with 30 odd disenchanted 16 year olds, many of whom struggle to stay in their seats and detach their attention from their mobiles?

All this, plus the very vivid memories of when I was that age, and all my deep confusions, led me to set up my charity WorkingRite. People say to me that our charity is different and original. No it's not. In my dad's time we wouldn't have been necessary. Learning whilst doing, alongside an older mentor in the workplace was just how things were done. There will always be a place for universities, exams and qualifications. But a teenager is not a failure if they don't follow that route. It takes longer for some young people to find the right path, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Far from it. Taking longer is probably the best decision they could make. So we as a society should embrace this. Otherwise this race for maximum attainment for all, above all else, will condemn huge numbers of our young who simply can't, and won't, achieve it during the allotted time slot in the curriculum, to a sense of failure, and a hatred of education, for the rest of their days.