Monday, July 09, 2007

Preaching to the Converted

Canadian and British newspapers were brimming with articles this past weekend appraising the proud, Scots-talking, working class ethics of "Weegies".

From the Guardian: More than his actions, Smeaton's words symbolise Glaswegian pride - Basically the author argues that despite being a shithole and full of gruff alcoholics, Glaswegians are proud folk. A very London point-of-view.

From the Observer: They've Al-Qaeda. We've 'a'll -have ye - An article praising the fiesty nature of Weegies but below the surface runs a darker and hostile tendency of sectarian tension.

And from the Canadian national paper, The Globe and Mail: You'de be a Numpty to mess about with the Weegies - A Canadian perspective of Weegies, which is quite traditional and stereotypical of the angry Weegie, pushed to his limits, who becomes the reluctant hero. The article itself, however, is viewable only to those that pay for a subscription (which I do not) but because I am an Internet genius, I have bypassed the login and copy the article below:

LONDON -- Before you attack a country, it's probably best to scan their cultural history. Did the two men who drove a blazing Jeep into Glasgow airport last week know nothing about Scotland's past? Had they never seen Braveheart? Had they never read Rob Roy? Didn't they know that it is always a bad idea to mess with an angry Scot, especially one from Glasgow? Ye'll get a wee skelp and nae doot aboot it.

These prospective setters-alight-of-innocent-travellers had perhaps been too busy stockpiling propane canisters to read Robbie Burns on the subject of protecting the homeland: "Wha for Scotland's king and law/freedom's sword will strongly draw?" Okay, so freedom's sword wasn't quite as essential to saving holiday-goers' lives as the brawny arm of a baggage handler out for a smoke break, but still.

That baggage handler, John Smeaton, has received the laurel wreath of the 21st century: overnight Internet fame. His offhand comment to a television reporter - "That's just Glasgow. We'll set aboot ye" - has become the catchphrase of the moment, a defiant challenge delivered in an accent as thick as the coating on a deep-fried Mars bar.

There was Smeaton last Saturday, a handsome 31-year-old in coveralls and a neon-yellow safety vest, "having a fag" during his shift when he heard shouting and saw a car in flames jammed into the airport. He noticed a man getting out of the car and attacking a policeman, so he and some other onlookers rushed to help subdue the assailant.

Wait, that's so bland. I'd never make Internet stardom with a description that banal. Here's the way Smeaton put it, in one of several interviews he gave that day: "Me and other folk were trying to get the boot in and some other guy banjoed him." You don't have to be a student of Scottish argot to figure that one out. The hero baggage-handler also memorably compared the explosion from the burning Jeep to the sound a deodorant can make when it's thrown on a fire (and yes, it seemed he was speaking from personal experience.)

Now you can buy t-shirts that say "What would John Smeaton do?" and even pledge to stand him a pint at the Holiday Inn near the city's airport (more than a thousand people have already done so, which means there should soon be a Glasgow episode of that fine TV show, Booze Britain.)

Scottish newspapers are campaigning to get an award - or "gong," in British - for Smeaton and his fellow bravehearts. All over the Web, images of Smeaton have cropped up in various martial guises: He's Rocky, he's Superman, he's a Jedi knight wielding a light sabre above the legend, "Not on my shift!" Osama bin Laden is pictured next to the words, "I thought John Smeaton had Saturday off."

So why did Smeaton achieve this level of delirious approval while his fellow hero citizens are largely anonymous? Michael Kerr, who was returning from a family holiday, lost teeth and hurt his leg in the scuffle. Cab driver Alex McIlveen literally did get the boot in, leading to what is now my favourite headline ever, from Wednesday's Scottish Record: "Hero cabbie: I kicked burning terrorist so hard in balls that I tore a tendon in my foot."

For one thing, Smeaton has an unaffected gift of the gab, and the square-shouldered appeal of the working man - you can bet he wouldn't have disciples if his name was Peregrine Pip-Fawcett. For another, he was speaking the slang in which his country (and particularly his city) is absurdly rich. Many of the posts on sites such as are from fellow Weegies, and written in dialect that reads as proud, defiant code. You may need an interpreter to understand them, but you'd be a right numpty not to love how they say it.

Smeaton fits in perfectly with the Scottish cultural tradition of the reluctant, rag-tag hero who can be pushed so far before he snaps: there's William Wallace and Rob Roy and the guy out for a smoke who decides that he's "got tae get this sorted!" There are the warriors led by Robert the Bruce, the brawlers imagined by Irvine Welsh, and now the hard men who sling the Samsonite down the carousels.

To his credit, Smeaton seems even more reluctant than most, professing to a Scottish newspaper that he didn't know what to make of all the fuss. "It's been mad," he said. His mother said all the hype was depressing her son.

That may be, but he's provided a focus for the vaunted British sense of humour, which is flourishing in its most entrepreneurial way just as it did in the aftermath of the July 7 bombings two years ago. Then, a website called We Are Not Afraid sprang up, which featured photos with many pert variations on that saying (an alarming number featured cats, but then the world is infinitely perfectible.)

Now it's up to satirical web sites like Scotland's Daily Mash to put things right. "Glasgow airport returns to drunk-filled normality," it announced. "Now it's only dangerous if you look at someone the wrong way."

It can't be that dangerous - John Smeaton's soon returning to work. Don't make him set aboot ye.

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