First published by Common Weal
Two things always collide for me at this time of year. The first is a particularly acute reminder of my deep commitment to cultural diversity and difference. The second is the awareness that I’m gradually getting old and so will have an increasing propensity to fret that ‘it’s not like it used to be’. Which of these two truths is the determining factor I leave to you to decide.
The first of these is something I noticed increasingly from the late 1990s onwards. When I was younger, had a well-paid job and didn’t have kids, the thing I most enjoyed spending my money on was travel, and particularly European city breaks. What I noted greatly saddened me.
Because over those two decades of travelling (and another with my parents before that) I became more and more aware of the homogenisation of culture. I can remember the joy of travelling to other countries and instantly feeling their difference. Yes there is the weather, the architecture, the smell. But there was more than that.
When you went to other countries it was the endless small things that were different that stood out for me. People eat different snacks. They had different kinds of street food and fast food. Not only where their popular clothes shops different, you got quite distinctively different kinds of clothes in them.
Fashions were different, music trends were different, attitudes were different. The fonts on the street signs, the shape of the traffic lights, the sirens of emergency vehicles, the price tickets in different currencies, the different hand gestures used by the population.
Gradually I noted some of this changing. Increasingly the fast food converged. More and more the high street chains started to look identical to back home. Far from finding a popular clothes shop which had something that was quirky or unusual to our tastes you’d find the same chains with precisely the same lines of clothes you could buy at home.
Everything became ‘cosmopolitan’ – the sushi or tapas bars of one city would merge in the memory with those of the last city. The music converged towards a kind of transatlantic conformity. Everyone was watching the same US-produced television shows. The pleasure of hunting around in old markets or food shops for unusual ingredients to bring home (a favourite diversion of mine) seems kind of futile when you can just go home and buy it all on the internet anyway.
But must the endlessly repeated brand names on US television really be the gateway to more corporate homogenisation? I spent quite a period in my life wondering what an Oreo actually was, and then, without knowing exactly when, they were everywhere. Now I spend recurring moments trying to work out why Americans talk about them so much. It’s patently not because they’re good.
The reason that all of this is always on my mind at this time of the year is because ’tis the season of Trick or Treating when children dress up as Disney Superheroes and carve pumpkins.
But hold on, what now? Trick or Treat? It is very specifically known as Guising. We Celts invented it, they nicked it and rebranded it and now we’re just going along with it? This is All Hallows Eve, the night when the dead return to their homes and the recently dead make their way to the afterlife, opening up the risk of evil spirits sneaking out.
To protect themselves people wore the masks of these spirits – witches, hobgoblins, fairies, and demons. Not bloody Captain America. “Evil stalks the land on the night of spirits and ghosts, so grab me the corporate merchandise of some bland Holywood content-filler would you?”. Not on my watch.
My childhood was marked by the blisters and the scars of the god-forsaken task of trying to hollow out a root veg which is as tough as a cannonball using only a spoon
And then there are pumpkins. Don’t get me wrong, I recognise the convenience factor. They’re big, they’re hollow and they’re a doddle to carve a face into to make a lamp. But what they are decidedly not are, well, tumshies.
My childhood was marked by the blisters and the scars of the god-forsaken task of trying to hollow out a root veg which is as tough as a cannonball using only a spoon or, if you were lucky, an ice cream scoop. Once you’d managed that (overtaking Sisyphus and his daft big ball on the way), you had somehow to cut coherent shapes into the remaining brick wall of thick turnip skin.
The result was smaller, less flashy, heavier, possibly a little less scary (though perhaps not). But when you put the string through it, lit the candle inside and put the lid back on, what you were carrying around in your ghostly hand was a little ball of sheer determination and unmitigated achievement. The Tumshie Lantern was like a test of your Scottishness. (“See if you can do this, you’ll cope just fine with the horizontal rain.”)
You dressed up as something scary, not a princess or Mario or Luigi. You traipsed around in the dark and often the rain. You learned a poem you had to recite to endless adults you barely knew. And you did all of this for… a handful of monkey nuts (though down to the Minister’s house first in our village ‘cos his wife did toffee apples).
So here’s my question, one to which I haven’t found an answer, one to which I’m sure there is no answer. Is the death of tradition, the lost of cultural specificity, the strange alien ways of the next generation – is any of this worth the fighting over? Should I really keep insisting that my children learn poems when all the others just do a joke?
I know every generation goes through this. It is the nature of tradition to alter and change and leave behind people for whom the ‘old ways’ are woven into their memory. It is very easy indeed to mock those who are being left behind – get with the programme, gramps!
It’s equally easy to mock the younger generations and their latest foibles. I often look at my kids and think ‘well if there’s a zombie apocalypse and you need to make it to a government safe zone with only an old spoon and an ice cream scoop to protect you, youse are zombie dinner’.
But let’s be honest; the oldies get the entire nation’s housing stock and good insurance quotes yet the young people win all the culture wars (largely because they just wait us out). Counting the Oreos in your Trick or Treat bag is probably our inevitable future.
That doesn’t mean we should welcome it though. My kids didn’t choose Oreos (which for those who don’t know are just soggy Bourbons biscuits but with while stuff rather than brown stuff in the middle, and they’re round). My kids were sold Oreos through saturation advertising and product placement. They don’t even really know who Captain America is, they are just marketing-bombed with the pyjamas from about age three.
My personal answer on how much of your culture to cede to corporations is ‘not much, not willingly anyway’
I am conscious of the risks of nostalgia. This week we bought remainder-bin bread for the ducks and it was a traditional Scottish plain loaf. When I was a child that was all the bread my gran ever had – what we now think of as cheap sliced white was a ‘pan loaf’, so aspirational that ‘she’s a bit pan loaf’ was the expression my gran would use for a social climber.
I couldn’t resist toasting a slice of the plain loaf with its dark brown crust and dense, slightly saw-dusty texture, a bit of marmalade and a cup of tea. And I have no way of telling if it is actually any good or not because from the first bite I was back sitting in my gran’s kitchen again aged seven.
But I am acutely aware of the risks of letting your culture die. If holding to the tradition of a tumshie lantern is no longer worth it, when are we going to stop claiming Glasgow should host Eurovision because of its gallus personality? Isn’t it just another city with another series of glass office blocks and identikit retail units selling the same Chinese-produced crap as any other city?
I campaigned against globalisation because of its devastating economic and environmental consequences. But unlike some who were protesting with me, I also despised its soul-crushing cultural conformity, the commercial homogeneity of a world designed to a lowest common denominator by corporate focus groups.
I know that you need something deeply thrawn in your soul to see a dense, unyielding turnip and think ‘hmmm, that would make a cracking lantern’. And yet a rubicon has now been crossed. Cultural erosion has pushed me too far. Dear god the Burns Centre is celebrating ‘trick or treat’.
So this year my kids aren’t getting anywhere near a pumpkin until they’ve successfully tackled a tumshie – we bought them yesterday. It may be the final straw in my kids deciding that old Scots people need their heads seen to, but they’ll need to thole the blisters nonetheless.
There is no right answer to the question ‘how much of our culture can we let go of before we’re something else altogether?’. My partner is Mexican and we do Dias de los Muertos every year because that too is part of our children’s culture and I don’t ever want them to lose it.
My personal answer on how much of your culture to cede to corporations is ‘not much, not willingly anyway’. The joy of humanity comes as much from its differences as from its similarities, so the tumshie decision is made. Now if only I could persuade them that if they dinnae pit oan warm breeks they’ll huv tae shove their haunds up their jukes ‘cos its dreich oot there. Without having to translate.