It was with some level of expectation that I set off on Saturday morning. I was heading for a place I had not been to in several decades: Creamery Park Bathgate. My team, West Calder Utd, were flying high in Division Three of the East of Scotland and we were hopeful of a result against a team which not that long ago were Scottish Junior Cup Winners.
I boarded the train at Haymarket, making my way through the Hibs fans headed for an away day at St Mirren, one of whom I recognised. We agreed that where I was heading was more likely to produce a favourable result. Arriving in West Calder, I was picked up by my brother John and chauffeured the few miles to the game.
Bathgate is a place that holds a few memories for me growing up. It was the big town, prior to Livingston appearing with its multitude of roundabouts and soulless architecture. Bathgate was the go-to place if our village local Co-op was unable to fulfil your consumer needs. For a young adolescent, it had a proper swimming pool along with a fantastic chip shop adjacent to where buses heading east were located. It was the destination I was taken to by my mother as a very young boy when particularly special purchases were to be made. It also housed the venue where the NHS practiced a form of eugenics on me in my early school years.
My mother had a technique which she used to lull me into a false sense of security, whereby she would inform me that I did not have to go to school on a certain day that week and instead we would be going on a nice bus trip to Bathgate. However, the final destination of our trip stayed unrevealed. I was being taken to the schools optometrist, who would be examining the turn or, as they called it back then in abandoning pretence of subtlety, the squint in my eye. I already hated the round NHS wee laddie glasses I was forced to wear, in what I understand was an attempt to straighten said defect. In retrospect, they should have known that it did not work.
The trouble was the glasses were only a part of the problem and though a permanent fixture, were nothing compared to the other primitive methods they employed in trying to turn the turn. I dreaded those days as each time, with little to no improvement being noted, I was sent packing with either a patch over my 'good eye' or drops in said eye, both of which would render me almost blind as I was invariably returned to school to face a mixture of insults and enquiries as to my predicament.
One of the special purchases which required to be made in the big town was the kitting out of my first school uniform. It was ordered from Hardy's The Tailor, through the travelling salesman who used to come around every so often, collecting the staged payments for previous buys along with orders for new requirements. A few days before I was due to start at St Mary's Primary School, the kit arrived. Our school colours were blue and white and the blazer, with the school badge along with grey shirt, grey shorts, finished off with striped blue tie and grey school socks, looked fantastic according to all who were given a sneak peek.
All in all a perfect outcome. Or was it? Turns out we had a bit of an emperor's new clothes scenario going on and though I am not sure which of my siblings nervously broke the news, they did. Turns out the uniform they had provided was for St Mary's Primary School Bathgate. Similar, but again miles apart in its detail and, yes, they would be able change it but not soon enough for my start day. I had to suffer the indignity of my first day at school dressed in the wrong school's uniform.
The more I think about it, Bathgate does not hold particularly fond memories for me – and we got beat.
'Will the grown-ups please step forward?' If this were a stage direction, uttered in the wings of a venue where political theatre was in production, there would be no response. No stars. No cast. With apologies to Samuel Beckett, this would be another play in which nothing happens.
Elsewhere, however, a different performance may be observed. Honeyed sounds at a podium, from a protagonist flanked by a cast only noticeable from the medals and the glazed looks. In the background, very large flags. Out front, seating is permitted for the serried ranks of shouties, restive and excited, scrambling to be favoured with a glance from the podium and blessed with the privilege of asking a question, in the full expectation that a prepared answer will be offered, recorded, transmitted and available for comment. Job done.
And the content? Pass.
At this point, it is well to remember exchanges in the primary school playground, along the lines of 'I'm not coming to your party cos you wouldn't let me see your train set / knickers / new tennis ball...'. Fill in the blanks as appropriate. Boys can join in with their own versions. Talking of boys, granny's saying is well remembered: 'Men are jist big bairns in lang troosers'.
Cue. Rewind to the podium, where he of the prepared speech performs with all the appearance of being in control, in charge of the agenda, the plan, and the swiftly-moving events – of which little may be divulged. Security forbids. (No mention here of anyone's knickers or train sets. The matter at hand is 'our' careful, reasoned response to an outrageous act of provocation by that lot beyond the sea, beyond recall, out of reach of any sensible stage direction.) The invitation has been postponed.
It is possible, surely, to draw some parallels between the examples, illustrated here, of the playground and the podium? In the room with the podium, the flags and medals, the shouties and the cameras, it may be referred to as diplomacy. In the playground, it comes in for less favourable descriptions and may be subject to reprimand by a teacher if caught. Is it not the same kind of exchange?
The difference, though, is that for seven-year-olds the consequences are borne only by the participants, for a few minutes, and there is time yet to learn how bad behaviour may be moderated, improved, etc. Winners and losers are separated, sanctioned – sometimes by their own mates – and made to feel embarrassed for drawing attention to themselves.
By contrast, all attention is deliberately and by design focused on the bairn at the podium delivering messages of great importance, involving an escalation of tensions, a deterioration of otherwise productive and positive international relations, visits subject to rescheduling provided always that the other lot apologise, admit the truth and behave more like us. Whatever the issue, the problem, or the incident, there is the ever-present temptation to make heavy weather of it by being solemn and adopting a measured tone, if only to reinforce the notion that being a big bairn in lang troosers is an important and serious business.
Knickers! Of course it is serious and important. So, in their own way and in the right place, are farce and the theatre of the absurd.
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