Calvin Decline

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A meditation on the rise of the Scottish detective and the fall of Scottish football

(Author’s note: as this piece was written by someone who is not Scottish, a detective or a footballer and, as will become clear not a writer either, any offence to the Scottish people through racial or cultural stereotyping is purely accidental and the result of careless ignorance emanating from a vacuous mind singularly unencumbered by original thought.)

As we hurtle past Burns night and towards a vital Wednesday night collision with Birmingham now managed by Alex McLeish, the living embodiment of Horatio Caine (CSI Miami – played by David Caruso), it’s hard not to start thinking about two significant Caledonian trends in the last 40 years. The rise of the Scottish detective and the decline of the Scottish footballer.

Scanning my bookshelves I note several Rebus novels (by Ian Rankin) and a couple featuring Jack Laidlaw (by William McIlvanney), sterling illustrations of the genre now referred to in some parts as ‘Tartan Noir’. There are plenty more examples known, I’m sure, to those better read in these matters than myself.

Now this development has not been without its critics within the Scottish arts community but what I think they have failed to grasp is that this was the only sure outlet whereby their society could emotionally manage its reaction to the vertiginous decline in the production of quality professional footballers relative to the size of its population.

Indeed the rise of detective fiction itself was not enough and the pressing need for deep self examination bled over into mainstream television with the likes of the eponymous Taggart (Mark McManus), DCI Walker (David Hayman) in Trial and Retribution, DCI Red Metcalf (Ken Stott) in Messiah and DCI Chappell (Ken Stott and we’re not finished with him yet) in The Vice. Not all of the programmes were based north of the Border, but all shared the same grey urban backdrop with a creased, hard bitten, tough smoking, snarl drinking Scotsman questioning, investigating and searching evermore desperately for answers in a barely concealed metaphor for Scotland’s vain hunt for its once great footballing prowess.

A lot of crime fiction covers the same ground but Scottish detective fiction has its own particular thematic focus. Some would highlight the influence of Calvinism in Scottish culture giving rise to a constant philosophic debate over the nature of sin and predestination, ever-present guilt, certainty of the presence of evil. Others may see an inbuilt Gaelic pessimism about the struggle against a malign fate.

Many outsiders may just put it all down to the dark winter days and the shed loads of rain. After all, is our growing appetite for Swedish crime fiction following the success of Wallander, not a natural progression to somewhere with even darker winters where we maintain the same watch over a man’s struggle, not only with the incipient evil that lurks below our supposed western liberal society, but with his own private demons? Of course they’re now Lutherans and handle the bad weather rather better, but these are mere details.

For this is a long way from the gentle Scottish village whimsy of “Brigadoon”, “Local Hero”, “Monarch of the Glen” and “Balamory”. There is certainly no place for Hamish Macbeth in this gallery of tough minded existentialists. Indeed we’d all have been better off if Hamish had suffered the same fate as his fellow copper Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man. A good example of what happens when pastoral whimsy turns bad in remote places.

Looking at all those detectives with tired, furrowed brows, faces exhausted with confronting the beast of evil and smelling its fetid breath in their every pore, it is not difficult to imagine Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith, or Jim Jeffries edging down a railway embankment in the morning drizzle, ducking under the tape and nodding to a kneeling constable who pulls back the poly sheeting to reveal another mutilated corpse before exhaling “Jesus Christ, she was only a kid” and turning away with disgust, but not surprise, at the depth of human depravity.

And they follow in the finest traditions of Scottish football management because let’s face it Bill Shankly, Jock Stein and Tommy Docherty all looked very capable of barging into to a room full of detectives and shouting ‘Now it’s a murrdurr an’ this time we’re ganna nail the wee shite!” or giving an unsavoury type from the backstreets of Glasgow a swift knee in the unmentionables to encourage co-operation.

So where has it all gone wrong? There are no easy answers I’m afraid. But you can be sure that every time a Scottish copper gazed with barely concealed despair at another bloodied corpse or picked through the detritus of another brutal butchering, we were witnessing a nation combing the scene for a clue to what had been done to its footballing soul. Somewhere out there in the dark, urban Gothic cityscape lay a clue to the disappearance of a once great tradition.

And just as Laidlaw or Taggart fought to hold back the rising tide of human destruction, so it is that Ferguson, Smith and their compatriots have fought to keep alive a belief in their footballing culture against ever mounting odds. But like many a Scottish detective, they are now more often outside their homeland than within it.

As on the streets, so on the pitch. The existential exhaustion so evident in the detective is mirrored in a nation’s footballers. Was it cause or effect? We don’t yet know. Deep in the male Scot’s psyche did something finally give way and refuse to fight, to follow the painful Calvinist path to certainty, leaving Fergie and his peers as the last great generation.

For there was a change. Perhaps the last legion of truly, great footballers to emerge were the generation of Dalgleish, Souness, Strachan. And while they exhibited all the old grit and skill on the pitch, they now look like men whose greatest existential angst comes with their choice of suit for the studio and the prospect of talking to Richard Keys. The signs were there, even if unread at the time, that those coming after might lack the necessary backbone to take the struggle forward.

As managers they look more like deskmen, bureaucrats, the sort of Police Chief who’s only interested in his stats and PR. What happens out in the glowering, concrete wastes can all be reduced to numbers. Whatever was changing out on the streets to throttle the supply of tough, skilled practitioners of the footballing arts was not their concern. They merely log it and accept it.

Of today’s troop, while Levein, Moyes, Burley are all fine in their way, none of them looks like the sort of man who’s ready for the mean streets. Indeed Moyes’ unnerving stare makes him more like someone DCI Chappell would have been chasing down in Messiah. But they still have some vestige of those bygone generations, while sadly the young players of today suggest that the gene that gave us the Lisbon Lions has somehow been bred out of the race.

To demonstrate what I mean, you only have to look at what happened when they brought Rebus to TV. In the first series he was played by John Hannah. Now, his expression when confronted by the depths of human degradation were similar to those of an office worker returning to find the photocopier had jammed halfway through a document run.

They soon realised the error of their ways and hauled in the fabulously rumpled Ken Stott for the later series. Now they were cooking. Now we were examining in depth the frailties of the human condition and, all too clearly the frailties of modern Scottish football. (By the way Stott is a Hearts fan and said that playing Rebus, a Hibs fan, was more difficult than playing Hitler.)

But even the Calvinist has hope (I think). On Saturday lunchtime on ITV we were treated to Billy Davis, currently managing Forest acting as a pundit for our game against Preston. He has the look of a man who could watch an autopsy and then eat a fry up without pausing. And returning to Alex Mcleish, while he does have a touch of the Horatio Caine about him there is unmistakably a growing air of the Scottish detective in there. Not for him the sunshine and science of Miami, but rainy days and cracking heads in Sauchiehall Street.

So perhaps some few still carry the DNA and with the march of science, who knows, a new generation of footballing giants may be bred. But that tips us into the shiny antiseptic world of science and away from the grimy, diseased streets home to our beloved Scottish detective. What then of them in the bright and shining future? What does Scotland want more?