An English man in Scotland thinks about The Rugby

I attended a state comprehensive in East Yorkshire (then Humberside) which was unusual for a school like that in taking Rugby Union very seriously. Our team travelled around the surrounding area trouncing other schools by 60 points or more (I have no idea whether we played any schools outside the state system, I rather suspect not given that we never seemed to lose). I say we because on a number of occasions (my guess would be 2 or 3) I was part of this triumphant and unstoppable company, playing at prop forward. These victories were announced at our weekly assemblies and the rugby team formed a cohesive social elite within the student body.

This sport, the one that mattered at Cottingham High School, was also the only one for which I ever displayed any aptitude, this aptitude being limited, really, to being relatively large and willing to apply brutal competitive aggression when annoyed. The games teachers were determined that I should play my part in the school team, picking me despite my evasive refusal to attend any training sessions (“Oh! I forgot my kit again, Sir”). After a term or two of this in my third year (I would imagine, although at the time it seemed longer) they gave up and I was able to ignore rugby for the rest of my school career.

I hated the game. I hated playing it, I would never have dreamed of watching it, I was only vaguely acquainted with its rules, and most of all I despised the rugby team with (what I then saw as) their arrogance, their stupidity, their brutish indifference to everything I cared about as one who lived for and in books.

At a later date I will have more to say about sport and masculinity, when I’ve thought more about its implications for ministry, today I’m more interested in nationality. I have paid almost no attention to the Rugby World Cup, for reasons that flow from what I’ve said above, but the fact that England played Scotland and I’m English and live in Scotland made it hard to ignore yesterday. I was reminded again of the different ways in which we (the English) and the Scots experience and perceive the relationship between the two countries.

Before I came back to live in Scotland in 1998 I would never have wanted England to win at anything. When I was first here in 1990 I bet on Germany to win the World Cup and when they played England in the semi-final I was absolutely delighted to see “my” boys win, although I was astonished to see so many German shirts worn on the streets if Edinburgh, Like the rest of England I had cheered Ali’s Army on in 1978, finding them, as a child of New Left parents, much easier to support than England. I didn’t realise until I lived in Scotland that the English attitude that the Scots as our neighbours were the next best thing to our own team (or in my case substantially a better thing) was as far from being mutual as is possible.

During my exile from Scottish exile in the mid ’90s my anti-English (football) attitude remained undisturbed. I watched the 1996 rematch against Germany in a pub in the City of London with a group of my former colleagues at NatWest and two of us (she was from a Scottish family and my family claimed to be Irish) found we were both enthusiastic Germans for the evening. On the tube afterwards another of my friends was sure I was going to get us lynched with my persistent chanting of the name of German left back Christian Ziege.

Since moving here more permanently, though, I have come to resent and resist the Scottish antipathy to England. There are lots of things wrong with my home country but their treatment of the Scots since 1707 is not one of them. I know, of course, that this small country, big country thing is not specific to Scotland, and that other countries allow their national identities to be determined and distorted by their resentment of larger and richer neighbours. But really!! We let them share our empire, and are they grateful?

I love Scotland (I really do) and I love my Scottish wife and my Scottish children but to live as an Englishman in Scotland is far from easy. So much of the Scottishness of so many (not, I know, nearly all) Scots is bound up with the idea that they are oppressed by the English, so much of the relationship between the two countries is so marred by the spikiness of the Scots that it gets really tiring. I can’t in all honesty react to it by pretending to agree but I know that it isn’t right to provoke by pretending not to understand that it’s annoying when the English appropriate Britishness to themselves or fail to be sensitive to differences of context that don’t look significant from England.

All this is even more wearing when one belongs to an institution (the URC) that crosses the Anglo/Scottish border. On occasion I’ve even heard myself asking that the Scottish context be more prominently acknowledged (after all even some of the English components of the URC originate with Scots in exile in England preserving their Scottish Presbyterian identities).

I seems probably that next autumn we will be moving (back) to England, since the vast majority of the URC’s vacancies are there and I can’t help feeling that this will be one problem less for me to deal with since I can’t find a way to relate comfortably to Scottish attitudes to the English. Maybe then I can go back to not supporting England perhaps I can even support Scotland again.

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