Wednesday, 28 November 2012

A View From Over the Water: Interview with Scottish author Steven Porter

Steven Porter is a writer from Scotland who now lives in the Basque Country, which I'll say is in Spain, though the locals might not thank me for that.

Porter is a perceptive and sensitive writer whose novel 'Countries of the World' was released at the end of 2011. A treasure trove of period detail from the Scotland of the 1970s and 80s, the book (reviewed HERE), uses football as a vessel to reflect on matters as wide ranging as the Falklands War, Poles who support Rangers and childhood bereavement.

A sensitive meditation on growing up in Scotland, there are hints of a gentle Scottish Nationalism in the pages here. This is no tartan call to arms for a proud Jacobite Fianna to march south though. In contrast, Porter's nationalism is so gentle that you have to look twice to make sure it's there.

I spoke to Porter about his views on Scotland, Scottish football and other things, and found him as engaging in his answers as his work would suggest.

My first question to him regarded the term '90 minute patriots', a phrase coined in frustration by a member of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) at how many Scots seemed to be fierce patriots while the national football team was playing, and then not really care after the final whistle had gone.

A twist on the term came with '90 minute bigots', a phrase used to describe the sectarian elements which plague aspects of Scottish football.

"Was it Jim Sillars who first mentioned ‘90 minute patriots’?" Porter asked, rhetorically.

"It has been used as a rallying cry by some within the SNP although I haven’t heard it for a while. Sense of national identity, whether in Scotland or elsewhere, is obviously more complicated than that. 

"I think that most Scots think of themselves as Scottish first and foremost, whether or not they also feel British. But speaking for myself, I don’t think of myself as a patriot, even though I’m very open to the possibility of Scotland becoming an independent country again. 

"If you are for the status quo, does it make you a patriot or nationalist of the British variety? That’s the alternative, isn’t it? Seems to me that it comes down to you would like a defined area to be governed, whether it’s Scotland, UK or Europe we are talking about. 

"But national issues include things like defence and how taxes are spent and I think people do care about these things. And there are a lot of other aspects of national identity that go beyond political administration or constitutions. 

"Regarding the 90 minute bigots, I suppose you’re hinting at sectarianism which seems to go hand in hand with the word ‘bigotry’ in Scotland, although it should by no means be seen to have a monopoly on it. It’s interesting nowadays, because I feel things have gone almost full circle, where some fans of certain clubs (Celtic and Rangers especially) play up to the bigoted role. They are taking religious and political small-mindedness, which grew out of the society in the first place, and recycling it. 

"I’m not sure they would be so vocal or rabid in their prejudices if it didn’t suit their fan identity. That’s something I try to explore in 'Countries of the World':  football, politics and society frequently mix and there is no getting away from that, no matter how much one wants to see football as an innocent game.

"In reality, the view that football is just 22 players running around after a pig’s bladder or whatever is usually put forward by people who have no understanding or interest in the game, its widespread appeal and how it affects and mirrors society as a whole. Often, they have never even stepped inside a stadium to see the mechanism at work. 

"Although it’s fine not to like football or to fail to see the attraction, they are only saying that it doesn’t mean anything to them and are missing the point about the many outside factors surrounding the game."

Porter himself follows Hibernian, a club which was founded by Irish immigrants to Edinburgh. Unlike many football fans, but like more people than the game itself would care to admit, he has no born and bred allegiance to any particular team.  


"I was 20 when I started following Hibs, shortly after moving to Edinburgh," Porter explains.

"I’m lucky I didn’t become a Jambo (imagine!) as there had been a few Heart of Midlothian supporters on my Mum’s side of the family. I wasn’t sure which team to watch but I had a few mates who lived near Easter Road and we went along to a pretty forgettable game there.  I was still wavering about whether to watch Hibs or Hearts the next time, but opted for Easter Road in the end and a 5-0 Scottish Cup gubbing of East Fife. 

"The bug took hold and the rest is history. Of course I would never describe myself as a dyed-in-the-wool Hibby. 

"For the first couple of years I still felt a bit of a fraud, even though I was attending most home games. When Hibs won the League Cup in 1991 I felt part of it, but was aware that it meant much more to folk who’d been watching Hibs all their days. But was I any less of a fan at that point than those who only rarely go, except for cup finals and the like? 

"This was the club’s first trophy of note since 1972. I remember a guy encouraging people to sing and saying, 'Come on, it might be another 20 years before we’re in this position again'.. He wasn’t far off. 

"When I saw Hibs lift the 2007 League Cup, I felt more part of it, having endured some highs and many lows on the Easter Road terracing throughout the 90’s. I grew up watching Highland League Football and only saw big games or highlights from down south on the telly. My local team, Forres Mechanics, might have won the Highland League this year and narrowly lost out to Rangers in the Scottish Cup, but I’d be lying if I said their result has always been the first one I’ve looked out for on a Saturday. 

"So this view is reflected by the COTW narrator when he says: 'Clubs come and go in my life; the national team remains constant...'

"I’ve moved around a lot over the last 15 years and am lucky if I can attend a Hibs game once a season. Therefore the Scotland national team is the only way in which I can relate to being a born and bred fan. But I rarely attend their games either."

Hibernian are an interesting club. Formed before their fellow Irishmen Celtic FC, they never  acquired the huge and overtly Irish Catholic support of their Glasgow rivals. Celtic have become a focus of support for the worldwide Irish diaspora, yet Hibs remain very much more an Edinburgh, or even a Leith, team.
"Well, I have a couple of theories," Porter explains, when asked why this might have happened.

"When Celtic formed in 1888, they took a number of Hibs’ best players through from Edinburgh. The Hibees had just beaten English club Preston North End in a match billed as the ‘Championship of the World’ but went downhill from there. 

"Within a few years they actually went out of existence altogether for a time. Hibernian had to start life again in the newly formed Scottish Second Division. It was debatable if they were even the biggest or best club in the local community at this point because their league place had been taken by Leith Athletic. 

"When Hibs reformed, it was not as an exclusively Irish Catholic club. They had lost ground to Celtic and took a few years to work their way back towards the top of the Scottish game. 

"Edinburgh had a significant Irish community, but it would not have been on the same scale as the one in the Glasgow area. But in the years after WW2, there was no gulf between Celtic and Hibs. The Edinburgh side won the championship three times and finished runners up three times between 1947-53, as well as attracting over 65,000 to Easter Road for a new year’s derby against Hearts in 1950. 

"Celtic were in the doldrums by their standards at that time, but pulled away again after poaching Jock Stein away from Easter Road in the mid-60’s. Of course, the European Cup success and nine consecutive championships followed and they’ve been the more successful club pretty much ever since." 

Moving away from football, I was interested in what Porter had to say about his living in exile in Spain. Moving away from Scotland is a thing many Scots seem to have done over the years, often out of choice rather than any economic necessity, at least in recent times. Yet they tend to never quite shake the attachment to the homeland, and often pass it on to the next generation of their family who might be born elsewhere.

 I wondered how living away from Scotland had affected Porter's writing, and whether he feels differently about the country when he does return for visits.

"It’s a good time to ask that as I’ve been in Scotland for about a month," he said.

"I always get the same feeling now. I’ve been living in Spain so long that moving back to Scotland seems like starting from scratch, even though life here is still very familiar.

"I’ve said a few times recently that I couldn’t envisage myself moving back but I’ve ended up here for a while and didn’t expect it, so you never know what’s round the corner. 

"Does it change my writing? I just see it as part of life. Hopefully my writing evolves anyway."

Some of Porter's work is written in Scots, the Germanic language of much of Scotland (as opposed to Gaelic), which some state is a language in its own right, while others assert it is a dialect of English. Porter would be open to the possibility of writing a whole novel in what he considers his mother tongue.

"I wouldn’t rule it out," he said.

"One of the most important things is to write in a voice that I feel comfortable with and that sounds convincing. I did it for instance with Unlovable Jambo, which appears in Blurred Girl and Other Suggestive Stories. 

"So I don’t see why not if it felt right and I had the inspiration and desire to try something much longer. Probably it would have to be a first person voice. The voices are more important than the language of the narrative."

Lastly, I wondered if Porter would prefer to have played for Hibernian or to enjoy the success of a bestselling book.

 "Even hypothetically speaking I’m a bit old to play for Hibs now!" he joked.

"In my early 20’s I still dreamed of being a footballer but there is much more to it than technical ability (which I was often told I didn’t lack). 

"You need a lot of physical and mental strength as well and I probably wasn’t aggressive or competitive enough. I could have done with putting on a couple of stone and might have needed a different personality as well.

"In terms of a bestselling book, I think I’d need to make a lot of concessions to the market in order to have any hope of achieving that. I can’t see that happening, but selling more books, earning some decent money and getting acclaim out of it would be nice.

"I don’t know if I’d be happier even as a professional author making inevitable compromises. I come at things from an artistic perspective, not a commercial one."

Steven Porter's novel 'Countries of the World' is available from Amazon and other retailers.

He was talking to Zack Wilson, the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

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