29 February 2012


Paul Anderson,  Tribune column, 24 February 2012

My dad was not a demonstrative man. A working-class Edinburgh boy, he became part of the white-collar middle class thanks to night school and second-world-war military service.

He kept the story of his war experiences in a notebook that no one saw until after he died – 20 years ago next week – and was shifty about having voted Liberal in elections in the 1970s. That was partly because my mum was Labour, but mainly because he was a Scottish nationalist. There was never an SNP candidate in Ipswich, and the Liberal was a miserable next-best option.

On one thing, though, he was vocal: porridge. He’d been eating it for breakfast all his life. He knew it was good for you. And when we were kids he made it made it every day, at least in winter.

But it wasn’t shop porridge, as he called it. He insisted that the porridge oats available at every supermarket and corner store weren’t the real thing. They were rolled oatmeal, and what you needed to make proper Scottish porridge was pinhead oats. They’re the oats in an early, pre-rolling, stage of processing, cut into bits by a mill – and they make porridge a lot crunchier and tastier than rolled oatmeal.

In Scotland in the 1970s, getting the proper oats might have been a matter of nipping down the corner store: I don’t know. In Suffolk, where we lived, it meant a 30-minute cycle ride down to Barnard’s, an old-fashioned miller’s retail shop, which I did once a fortnight. They specialised in birdseed -- but also supplied the yeast with which we made bread when the power went off during Ted Heath’s three-day week.

These days in Suffolk, you need to do your homework to get pinhead oats. The old independent retailers have gone – and the big supermarkets don’t carry pinhead oats, just as they don’t carry once-cheap cuts of meat (offal particularly) or any white fish apart from haddock and cod. As far as I know, the only shop that sells pinhead oats is a pricey semi-deli chi-chi greengrocer in the centre of town that is also the only obvious place to get herbs in volume or sweet potatoes.

My old man’s other injunction, of course, was that porridge should be eaten salted, possibly with milk or cream, but never contaminated with sugar or jam. The idea of adding fruit or yoghurt was in the future, but would have appalled him, I know. And as for deep-fried Mars Bars ...

Whatever, I shudder to think of what he would have made of the visit to Scotland last week by David Cameron to persuade the Scots that they should not vote for independence in the forthcoming referendum.

Cameron started his trip with a photo-opportunity at the PepsiCo factory in Cupar, Fife, where the giant American multinational produces variants of what my dad called shop porridge, most of it branded as Quaker or Scott’s, the latter recognisable to consumers all over the world for the strapping shot-putter in vest and kilt that adorns its packaging. PepsiCo has just announced a big expansion plan – and, declared the PM in front of a poster of the shot-putter, it wouldn’t have happened had Scotland been independent.

He developed the theme in a big speech later the same day – “the union makes us strong”, as one Scots wag put it to me – after an unfriendly and inconclusive meeting with Alex Salmond, the SNP first minister.

Cameron's performance was fake, big-time, and every Scot who watched it knew it, whatever their views on porridge. What the Scots haven't twigged yet, at least most of them, is that Salmond is as big a fraud as Cameron, if not a bigger one.

Yes, it's true that Scotland had an independent existence before the union.

Yes, it has a legal system of its own and a political culture that's different from England's, its own poets and novelists and all the rest.

Yes, the Scots want a more egalitarian society than they will ever get from a Tory-dominated England.

But the defining difference between England and Scotland is trivial: it's football. The Scots don't care about independence: they want the home championship back, and the chance for Law, Baxter and Dalglish to knock in a few goals against the old enemy. Salmond has nothing under his kilt but the flimsiest of tartan panties.

It has been a long time since we last saw a game. Instead, we've got months of arguments about Scottish independence before the big vote – competing with fractious debate about whether Harry Redknapp can make anything of the overpaid thickos in the England football team.

I'm not afraid of an independent Scotland. It could be great – social democracy, Rab C Nesbit, Billy Connolly, Neil Oliver – but it could be dire – Braveheart nationalism, Burns Night haggis suppers (White Heather Club style), tartan trinkets ad nauseam. But actually I don't think it matters that much whether Scotland is independent or not. As Rosa Luxemburg said, the class struggle transcends national boundaries. And Rosa knew a bit about porridge.

23 February 2012


Anna Chen has posted an extract from her Steam Punk Opium Wars show at the National Maritime Museum last week, in which I was privileged to appear. I'm wearing a top hat, stage left.