Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Glasgow-Atlanta, 3.8.01: Scottish Smiles and Egg Custard

In Atlanta airport, after the long purgatorial flight from London. Our flight to Little Rock is in two hours. Purgatory increased by magno homine loquente pleno voce beside me, into a cell phone. I’m always absolutely amazed by people who do this, so casually extending themselves and their own space out, out, to consume the space of others. As if we’re not there, or are intently interested in their conversation, or what?

Disparate impressions of Scotland: I noticed more than once a strange habit people have, of smiling full and then suddenly suppressing the smile. Kate at the b and b did this—smiled big, then when I returned the smile, snapped her mouth shut, looking suspicious. This also happened to me with some other folks.

The Irish don’t seem to be afraid to smile and to return a smile. With the Scots, I get the impression that smiles come naturally (and can also be put on quickly in a commercial situation), but they’re also afraid of what might enter through the smile, if it’s not closely guarded.

Perhaps that split personality of which the novel I’m reading—James Robertson’s The Fanatic­—speaks. Hospitality and suspicion, friendliness and caution, intermingled. The Celtic soul overlaid with British strictures, imprisoned by formalities alien to it.

The impression one has assaulted someone by returning his or her smile is made even stronger by the fact that a certain type of Scot has a foxy face: the mouth drops open in a grin that seems predatory, even when it may not be.

Probably not a profound insight, but seems to be one essential difference between the Irish and the Scottish character, is that the latter have been more successfully colonialized—to the very marrow—by the English. Though the former still suffer immensely from what centuries of colonization have done to them, they’re self-consciously aware of their need to fight and continue fighting the oppression.

For the Scots, not so. Their identity is distinct, and they know this, but it’s everywhere encumbered by English laws, English polity, the English rubric through which they read their identity and access their cultural uniqueness. This has to chafe and tire and wear tremendously, after centuries of it.

It also has to produce a hopelessness that the Irish appear to have, but don’t, essentially. They did, after all, free themselves from the yoke. And even under it, they seem to have remained aware of who they were, apart from the English. Even their ability to laugh and excuse asserts their distinctiveness, and I think they know it.

I certainly don’t say all this lightly or with a lack of awareness of the inferiority complex against which the Irish continue to struggle, as they compare themselves to the English. But even when that sense of self-scrutiny is bitterest and most caustic, there’s still a sense of self being scrutinized. I believe the Scots have lost that sense of essential self, and suffer from the crippling malaise that such a loss brings with it.


I keep thinking of various turns of phrase I read or heard in Scotland. In a store, I saw egg custard tarts for sale—so labeled. Exactly the usage of the American South. I’ve always wondered why egg custard. Isn’t the egg implied in the custard?

In the Scottish novel I’ve just read, Robertson’s The Fanatic, the verb “stay” is used for “live, dwell”: i.e., I stay at 519 Ridgeway. Do African Americans get this usage from Scotland? Or is it an earlier English usage now generally gone?

13. 8.01

And that novel also uses the phrase “the spitting image” of. Doesn’t Shakespeare say “the very spit and image of”?

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