Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Walking the Matt in Aberdeen

‘Walking the Mat’ In Aberdeen
By: Ken La Rive

Scotland is an ambiguous place, full of social contradictions, and Aberdeen, in the north east corner of the country, is no exception. The people can be warm and friendly, and also prickly and suspicious. Not really unusual anyplace on earth, but with my capacity as a traveling oil field worker, I have the opportunity to study many different cultures. I have picked up some insights into the thinking of the local people here in Aberdeen, and I see this: They are changing very quickly.

It seems that the oil industry, (which has been such a boon to the overall economic prosperity of the town), is also deeply resented, by some, for ‘ruining oor toon’, as one colleague remarked to me while in conversation on a North Sea oil rig. Even though the industry has brought prosperity to a large number of people, it has also changed the underlying character of the town, and its citizens.

Not so very long ago Aberdeen was a small town, with a small town nature. Deeply entrenched, it had a highly developed sense of community. There were only a few industries in the town, with fishing and paper making being the main employers. The locals fondly reminisce of ‘walking the mat’ on the main avenue, Union Street. It is only about a half mile in length, and on a Saturday night, all the young lads and lassies would put on their ‘finery’, and stroll its length socializing and ‘chatting each other up.’ Even young people from the surrounding areas would catch a bus into Aberdeen, to ‘walk the mat’. Those with a bit of money might drop into one of the various pubs on the street now and again for a wee dram to ‘pluck up courage’, but even those without money could have an enjoyable time (with possibly more success in courting, being sober!). It was a happy and cheerful way to meet people, and the tradition was known to be responsible for a large number of marriages in the town, and the surrounding areas as well!

The coming of the mighty oil industry, with its influx of brash Texans (every American was a Texan as far as the locals were concerned), caused a basic change in the social structure of the town. Suddenly, locals who ‘went oot to the oil’ came home with pockets full of cash, and it was a case of either joining up, or be left behind while the ‘local’ oilmen bought fancy houses in the posh west end. Because of this, and because cars became much more common, walking the mat withered on the vine, while fancy nightclubs, and fast food restaurants took over. Also the local council became obsessed with the idea of being a ‘boom town’, and grandiose moneymaking schemes and dreams suddenly seemed possible. As with all nouveau-capitalistic societies, there has also been corruption, as money falls like manna from heaven through the city’s council chambers.

In Aberdeen, as in the other larger towns of Scotland, the Labor party has dominated local politics since the Second World War. As with most situations where a single party dominates politics, corruption becomes endemic. The influx of money made it even more prevalent. It is indeed an irony, that, because of the way history has developed in Scotland, the socialist tradition is very strong, - possibly as strong as any in Eastern Europe. The socialist Labor party was the only means by which the power of the dominating and oppressive establishment could be curbed by the common man. There is a powerful tradition here in Scotland, of the working men ‘standing together’ by voting Labor. Since the class war has been pretty much won in modern Scotland, there is no longer an ‘enemy’ to fight. Still, because of the people’s inability to see these changes, they still vote Labor. Old habits are hard to change.

However, get into a conversation with most working class people and they will express views that are indistinguishable from anyone on the right of the Republican party – pro capital punishment, pro freedom of the individual, pro low taxation, pro ‘small’ government, etc. They don’t seem to see any irony that, while voting for a socialist party, they hold views far to the right of most Republicans, and never mind the democrats! The Scots are a fiercely independent people, whose history has been one of endless struggle not only against the elements, but ‘absentee’ English (and Scottish) landlords, and the need to bring up families against the odds. Because of this, Scotland has produced some of the greatest radical thinkers, soldiers, engineers and financiers that the world has seen. Would, for example, Adam Smith (the founder of modern economic theory), Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander Fleming (the discoverer of penicillin), James Watt (inventor of the steam engine), Andrew Carnegie, and many more, have been the successes they were if they hadn’t had a strong sense of their own Scottish heritage? In the UK’s last election, three of the four great government offices of state government, Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Foreign Secretary, were all Scots.

Then again, as Aberdeen drifted into the twilight of the oil boom, people have started to waken to the fact that the money that has glutted the town has also had an impoverishing effect on the social structure. Gone are the fishing communities around the fish market (now closed). Gone is that ‘cozy’ atmosphere in the local pubs where in the Northern suburbs, in the old days, ninety percent of the customers worked in the paper mills, and knew each other intimately. Nowadays, you are lucky if you know anyone, such has been the influx of new people, and the exodus of ex-mill workers (now oil men). Most of the pubs have been ‘modernized,’ replacing time-polished wood with chrome and glass, and swapping cozy ‘fugginess,’ for the cold of modern ‘efficiency’. The comforting sounds of clicking dominoes and thud of darts have been replaced with annoying mid-Atlantic ‘musak’, designed to maximize the intake of beer, but also has the effect of minimizing the atmosphere, and traditional ambiance as well.

As for ‘walking the mat’, the young people of today would gasp in astonishment if you were to suggest such an unsophisticated activity for a Saturday night. Some might say that one would more likely get a mugging than a kiss from a bonny lassie. Yes, the oil industry has made the people monetarily richer, but has also taken something away as well.

In closing, a local Aberdeen joke: A visiting Texan, stopped to talk to a farmer who was leaning on a gate looking at his sheep. “Sheep hugh?” he ventured. “Aye” replied the farmer. “In Texas, we don’t allow sheep, we only got cattle” said the Texan. “Right enough?” said the farmer. “How much land you got here?” queried the Texan. “Nae that it’s ony of your business, - but I’ve got twa hundred acres” he replied proudly. “Waal,” said the Texan, “ back home, it takes me two days to drive across my spread!” “Aye” sighed the farmer, “I used tae hae a car like that!”

I had more then a lot of help writing this by my Scottish partner, (who, by the way, wishes to remain anonymous). I’m sure his reason is sound, but I speculate that a man’s opinion here is not so readily accepted, as might be possible in our own ‘free thinking’ America. Aye! What a shame. It is indeed a waste of spirit…

No comments: