Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Scots on the box

"Here come the Tattie Howkers", BBC 2 Scotland, Monday 20th April, 2009.

(cue the music from the Hovis ad)

"Eeeh, when I were naught but a lad, (unaccountably speaking in a Yorkshire accent despite being raised in working-class Central Scotland), in our house we looked forward to the year's first new potatoes. Ayrshires they were. I remember the yellowish tinge to the flesh and how you could rub away the fragmented papery skin with just your finger. And oh, the taste. Our Mam used to say "Eeeh, our kid, thou dunt need salt on these beauties soft lad, these are grown in salty soil above Girvan beach!" And we'd say, "Mum, why are you talking like that, have you had a stroke?""
And so on, and so forth.

Yes, Ayrshire Earlies, the mainstay of many an early summer dinner in our house and likewise throughout Scotland and beyond because of the railways as it happens. Wide scale potato production in the Girvan area was predicated on a comprehensive (a station every four miles) and intensive (early trains for the markets) railway system.

Beyond the 1840s, (famous for other awful reasons across the water), Irish tattie howkers became a seasonal fixture as potato production in Ayrshire and West Lothian expanded to feed the towns and cities.
"Here Come" catalogued the experiences of an older generation of almost an exclusively Irish picking class while giving brief mention to the modern class of howkers mainly recruited from Eastern Europe.

At root here (sorry) the programme was centred on the bumpy, uneven path taken by economic development in history.

Frank, who made his first trip over from Donegal in 1953 remembers an Ireland of poverty and large families. It fell to Frank at 14 to work the season in Scotland, sending £2 a week home.

Maggie, lovely luminous Maggie, from Achill Island, had come over in 1935 because :"there was no work over there, so you just had to go somewhere else to get money."
Later in the show an unnamed Lithuanian worker echoes Maggie's cold-eyed realism perfectly when she says : "we work here (in Scotland) because we need money." Different eras, different trajectories, from different areas of Europe but driven by the same impeller - economic necessity.

And of course there's more to this picture of uneven economic development than comparisons between countries. A farmer recalls that in his grandfather's day, 500 workers were needed to bring in the crop. They worked in pairs, taking turns to dig and pick, loading horse and carts with hundredweights measured in a staved barrel.
Today, 15 workers bring in the same quantity, sitting sorting on the back of a tractor-trailer. But the "old ways" lasted longer than you might think. An Irish priest, ministering to a flock that had stayed and grown over the years reported on poor accommodation, overcrowding and the widespread use of under-age labour - in 1971, just prior to the introduction of mechanisation to the process of digging up tatties.

And while there are useful and thoughtful parallels to be drawn between the experiences of different generations and nationalities of workers, it was implicit in the programme's narrative that these new workers are unlikely to leave much of a collective mark on Scotland. The (relatively speaking) large scale influx of Irish Labour resulted in some staying this side of the water, Frank and Maggie to name two. So few are the Eastern European numbers that it seems unlikely that they will ever be much noticed in the wider society.

Back in Ireland, one cohort of workers will never be forgotten. Ten boys from Achill Island burned to death in 1937 when a bothie in Kirkintilloch caught fire. The farmer subsquently claimed that he had always locked the barn door; it was just bad luck, that was all.

On the island, a monument lists the ten names below a marble cross. It looks for all the world like a war memorial erected for sons lost overseas.

Elsewhere on planet media this week I think you'd have to be deaf and dumb not to hear or see the Susan Boyle bandwagon as it gathers pace. The Scotsman reported that in Susan's home town, Blackburn, the council have hurried up the process of replacing a fence ootside Susan's hoose.
Unfortunately, Susan needs this extra bit of security because according to other press reports, local neds think it highly amusing to harass a woman with developmental problems by shouting "Simple Susan" at her. Charming.

I really hope things go well for Susan who could teach us all something about trying against the odds. I especially look forward to the day when Susan is moving to her new mansion, in her gold Rolls Royce, when she rolls down her window and shouts to the neds watching on: "Aye, so whose simple noo ye fannies?"

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