Slaying the Dragon
As a boy I lived a few hundred yards from Ibrox Stadium in the aptly named ‘Wine Alley’ part of Govan. There were a lot of Celtic families around the ‘Winey’ and we got on well with our neighbours regardless of which team they followed. There was a distinctive working class solidarity, a common understanding that the hard lives many of us lived made it necessary for us to get on and be a real community. Neighbours helped out when required with a few slices of bread, a cup of sugar or ‘ten bob till I get paid.’ There was an understanding too among most that when the ‘Walk’ was out or someone came home blootered singing what we called ‘Party songs’ it’d be quickly forgotten. Such things floated under the radar, out of sight and mostly out of mind.
As boys, my two brothers and I would often head for Ibrox at around 4.30 on a match day. We were absolutely solid in our love of Celtic but as cash strapped ‘Winey’ boys there was money to be made there. We’d take old jute sacks and wait until the big exit doors were opened near the end of the game. We’d head in among the crowds and collect beer or ‘ginger’ bottles which lay here and there on the terraces. Once our sacks were full we’d head for the nearby shops to cash in our booty and enjoy a few sweets. In that context I was inside Ibrox on scores of occasions and even as a wee boy I still got a powerful impression of what things were like on the big Copeland Road terracing of those days.
The amount of drink being consumed on the terraces was huge as was the ubiquitous smell of urine as those too drunk or unconcerned simply pissed where they stood. It was an uncouth and uncultured setting and to be fair Celtic Park was little better in those days as in the prevailing culture, Football and alcohol often went hand in hand. I used to sit on the low wall at the front of the terrace and look at the crowd, sullen in defeat, loud and exultant in victory and always an undercurrent of aggression. The songs were in retrospect pretty grim fare. The ‘Billy Boys’ was a regular as was a quaint version of Derry’s Walls sung to the tune of Amazing Grace. The Sash and the Green Grassy Slopes of the Boyne, got an airing too. As a boy you didn’t question why such songs were sung, it was merely the way things were and we assumed the way they always would be.
As we grew up we could see more clearly the corrosive effects of the prevailing ‘culture’ at Ibrox and indeed the social deprivation which helped it thrive. Not just on the intended targets of much of the vitriol, Glasgow’s Irish-Catholic community but also on the people who stood week in week out on the terraces and were steeped in that rather warped world view. I knew a few Rangers supporting boys from the Wine Alley and we played together regularly in the streets around Ibrox and there is no doubt they were good guys. I met one recently and we shared a few anecdotes and laughs about our childhood days. He loved his team, I loved mine and we coexisted on that basis just fine. The bonds with friends and neighbours from all walks of life wouldn’t be broken by exposure to the more shrill attitudes embraced by some at football. Therein lies one of the main problems for those espousing a racist or sectarian world view: knowing people personally makes it impossible to stereotype them. That’s why some talk of disliking certain groups but not the individuals from that group they know personally. They’re somehow ‘different’ as they don’t match the stereotype. It is of course all patent nonsense, we are all individuals and to hold a prejudice about a whole section of society is, frankly, stupid. Those who attempt to justify such attitudes are usually, with a few exceptions, not the sharpest tools in the box.
The fallout from the Scottish Cup Final continues unabated and it was with no little irony that the Twitter account of a staunch Rangers Pub, tweeted that the ‘Dehumanisation of Rangers fans has to stop.’ This a few days after thousands of their fellow fans sang at Hampden tired old dirges about being up to their knees in others blood. They did not tweet about that. It is this selective mode of taking offence which undermines their argument. In Harper Lee’s brilliant exploration of racism in small town America, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ she writes…
‘People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.’
That remains true for many of us and each of us has to decide where the line is in terms of the often cutting verbal sparring which comes with all sporting rivalry and the darker more offensive utterances rooted in more visceral prejudice. For many who follow the Ibrox side there has been a rude awakening over the past few years as many openly challenge and mock the rather outdated attitudes of some of their followers. What’s required though to finally slay the dragon of intolerance at Ibrox is for the seemingly silent majority of Rangers supporters who hate the stench of bigotry which hangs around their club like a bad smell to say ‘that’s enough, it’s time to move on.’ Currently those decent supporters seem a little intimidated by the more vocal and aggressive types who exist in all groups.
Nor should Celtic supporters or indeed the fans of any club smugly rest on their laurels. Every group in society will have its share of less enlightened individuals and the group culture must remain hostile to those who would foster hatred. Thankfully I see in the Celtic support, in the Fanzines and Blogs many who would not be slow to challenge anyone who attempted to do this. It’s now almost 30 years since a few of our own supporters behaved in a despicable manner towards Rangers player Mark Walters but even back then Fanzine’s such as ‘Not the View’ rounded on what it called ‘Racist arseholes.’ They were called out for the morons they were and reminded of the founding principles of our club and its’ own experience of prejudice. The Celtic support is not perfect but it does contain many who love the club enough to challenge the attitudes of some of our own and that is good and healthy as it fosters a continuing and often heated debate about what is acceptable.
There has been a huge change in Scottish society since my brothers and I collected ginger bottles on the Ibrox terraces. What was once tolerated and even excused by some is now seen in the harsh light of day as unacceptable intolerance. Indeed one of the first voices raised against the sectarianism at Ibrox in the 1970s came from the Church of Scotland Magazine ‘The Bush’ which had the courage of its convictions and spoke out. It was a lone voice in the wilderness for some considerable time. The powers that be at Ibrox once offered tacit approval to the toxic attitudes of the terraces via their unwritten policy of not signing Catholic players. That has thankfully changed even if a significant minority of their supporters have still to join the 21st century.
Each human being has to decide for themselves what their attitude to others in our society will be. Most of us have enough empathy in us to realise the folly of stereotyping others or allowing sporting rivalries to go too far. Harper Lee reminded us in her excellent book of the importance of empathy when her character Atticus says…
‘You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’
If we did that we’d all be slower to castigate others. I’m not excusing bigotry or racism for a moment but the people who practice it were once children, once blank pages waiting to be written on. Someone taught them to hate and allowed a culture to develop where it flourished. It’s the job of all of us to ensure that culture diminishes and dies. As another of Harper Lee’s characters says in her novel… ‘I think there’s just one kind of folks: folks.’
She was right.