writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: November 2013

The Scots-Irish Conspiracy Theory of Cricket

The story I’m about to lift the lid on is one of the closest kept secrets of the game of cricket; one that ex-players have only dared whisper to each other, late in the bar, long after the umpires have called off play for bad light, lightning strike, or locust infestation, and they can be – fairly – sure their co-conspirator isn’t ‘batting for the other side,’ to use that phrase in its proper, non-sexual, sense.

To be sure, the Black Ops Division of the MCC have their spies everywhere, although there are worse things than being waterboarded in the hidden spaces beneath the Long Room at Lord’s. Just ask anyone who’s been interrogated by the Dandy Bradmans, and has survived with enough wits intact to tell the tale.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First of all, let’s be clear what we’re talking about when we use the phrase ‘Scots-Irish’ and ‘cricket’ in the same sentence.

Cricket is probably the easier definition. For our American friends, we don’t mean the small insect of whom Jiminy is probably the best known spokesperson. No, this is the game of cricket, a game invented, according to George Bernard Shaw, because the English are a people so lacking in spirituality, they needed something to give them an idea of eternity.

So far as the Scots-Irish we’re describing here, we’re not talking about the many Scots and Irish cricketers who have either played for their own countries, or indeed for England. There are a few examples of the latter: amongst the Scots who have played for England, there is Bellshill-born Mike Denness, who captained the Poms 19 times. More infamously, although Douglas Jardine was born in India, he came from Scottish stock, and how much of his infamous Bodlyine tactics of instructing fast bowlers to intimidate the Aussie batsmen with short pitched deliveries on leg stump was dreamed up at his auntie’s in St Andrews we’ll never know.

There are loads, too, of Irish cricketers. The only one I can think of right now is Eoin Morgan, who has played a bit for England in recent years.

Anyway, these are not the subject of this exposé. Instead, it is a tale of a body of cricketers who – given the right economic and, crucially, culinary circumstances, could have made both Scotland and Ireland the equal – or at least half-decent rival – of the English, but were cruelly denied that chance.

Our tale begins with the humble potato, a vegetable which, in its non-fried form, contains particular nutritional qualities. First brought back to Europe by the Spanish conquistadors in the middle of the sixteenth century, it developed into a staple across the continent over the next few centuries. However, it is its particular affinity to the Celtic fringes of the northern and western British Isles that informs our story.

Perhaps surprisingly, given their South American origin, potatoes grow well in Scotland and Ireland under normal conditions.  The prevailing south-westerly winds keep aphids off, avoiding the spread of the viruses which are normally the greatest check to this herbaceous perennial’s progress. Even more surprisingly, the potato’s particular mix of minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals, along with the more obvious carbohydrate, and a small amount of high-quality protein, seem to provide the perfect dietary supplement to those of Celtic origin – at least, in their non-fried form.

This first became apparent during the eighteenth century, as Scots and Irish began to be noted as increasingly imposing physical specimens. Early Jacobite victories such as Killiecrankie were put down to the Highland Charge, where basically the clansmen ran very quickly and scarily at the Government troops before the latter had time to reload their muskets.

Whether pommes de terre á la surprise also acted as a brain food to fuel the Edinburgh Enlightenment is still the subject of much research. However, what is clear is that, by the end of the century, the pacification of the Highlands, and, separately, Ireland, was a major issue for the London authorities. Much is made of General Wade’s road building to places like Fort William and Inverness, the proscription of Gaelic, and the banning of tartan. What is less well-known is Wade’s lieutenant, Twistleton-Smythe, and his own project to Anglicise the natives by teaching the emerging so-called English game of cricket.

Imagine the scene, if you will. A remote Highland glen, a mist providing assistance to outswing. A lone bagpipe droning, far off. The redcoated Twistleton-Smythe, nervously tapping his bat on the crease as, in the distance, a huge Highlander hawks, spits at the end of his run up, adjusts his unfamiliar britches and starts his approach to the wicket, Maris Piper in hand.

It’s true: recently uncovered records show that, in the absence of proper cricket balls, the Highlanders improvised with their favourite foodstuff, the buntáta, passing down recipes for hardening them through the generations to make the most of peat-based wickets that, in rare dry spells, would favour fast bowling.

Twistleton-Smythe’s journal records how, on a subsequent posting to Ireland, he and his fellow officers suffered increasingly humiliating defeats at the hands of a people who, denied their warrior status, were keen to replace it with sporting prowess. ‘Questionable Umpiring, and a Springy wicket, is still no excuse for our being All Out for twenty and three,’ he wrote. ‘When the natives batted, the Reverse Sweep was deployed to Great Effect. Three projectiles lost in the nearby river.’

The century spanning Culloden, the Highland Clearances, and the Great Potato Famine of the late 1840s, are too dark a period in Scots-Irish history to make light of. However, what is now clear is that, by the late nineteenth century, a Celtic diaspora was spread far and wide through the British Empire and beyond – and many of them were playing a game first taught them by their imperial masters.

The evidence of this was at first subtle. Take, for example, the most famous Australia-England cricket match of all – the 1882 match where the Aussies crushed the Poms so utterly that a group of England supporters inserted a mock obituary of England cricket in the Sporting Times and gave birth to the legend of the Ashes itself. It is true that the Aussie team that day contained the obvious Scots-Irish names: Murdoch, Boyle, and McDonnell. What is less well know is that their demon bowler, Spofforth, who took 14 wickets for 90 runs in the match, might have had a Yorkshire-born father, but his mother’s maiden name was also McDonnell.

By the early years of the twentieth century, however, there are some – admittedly sketchy – records of a group of cricketers, deep in the Australian bush, running what amounted to the first rustic version of a cricket academy with young players, inducted as early as eight years old, fed almost exclusively on kangaroo and potatoes. Quite how this shadowy secret society came to be known as the Dandy Bradmans is still shrouded in mystery, as they clearly pre-date the emergence of Australia’s most famous batsman. However, many believe that Donald was not Bradman’s first name originally, but was bestowed on him to remind him of his mysterious, potato-bearing, benefactors.

The Dandy Bradmans might have begun the trend, but by one means or another, the remaining cricketing nations with large Scots-Irish populations came to learn that the Celtic fringes were a rich source of cricketing talent – particularly when exposure to the legends of Twistleton-Smythe and his Redcoat XI, and industrial quantities of tatties, happened from an early age.

How else can one explain, for example, the deadly Nineties paring of Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock for South Africa, and Donald’s most famous hour during the 1998 Trent Bridge Test when he almost literally tried to decapitate Oxford-educated England captain, Mike Atherton? The long line of Aussie fast bowlers such as Jeff Thomson, Craig McDermott, and Glenn McGrath? Even in New Zealand, where the quality of their cricketers has possibly suffered from the less potato-focused mutton diet, the most successful batsman on this year’s tour of England went by the name of Hamish Rutherford.

It is not clear how these underground groups influence official selection panels in Australia and elsewhere: whether by direct means or some form of indirect persuasion. The current Aussies have struggled to build a side as great as Ricky Ponting’s, and one reason might be the relatively light numbers of players with obvious Scots-Irish forebears. However, there are some signs of hope.

One is Nathan Lyon, the spinner, who is the very definition of a wee bauchle. But there is more. Look at the picture below of fast bowler Peter Siddle, likely to make the starting line up for the first Test. Ignore the English-sounding name. If you’ve never seen a face like that next to you at the bar, willing you to spill his pint, you’ve obviously never been drinking in Glasgow at all.

Although apparently he eats bananas rather than tatties….




One thing I plan to do over the next couple of months is lob up the occasional piece of fiction. This piece was written for the Scottish Book Trust’s Treasures anthology, but for some reason didn’t even make the website – I didn’t think it was that bad! Many fine pieces did, including my Dad’s story, which I would recommend to you.

Anyway, it kind of fits the theme of what I’ve been rabbiting on about recently, so here it is.

Two Guitars

My treasure is two guitars.

The first is a copy of a Gibson J-200, made by a long-gone Japanese outfit called Kiso-Suzuki. She’s a big, booming acoustic guitar, blond wood body, abalone inlays on the fretboard and a red pickguard, decorated with a floral motif. Various people from Elvis downwards have played a J-200.

My Mum and Dad gave me it for my 21st birthday. Having made no impression on the world of piano and violin playing, I decided for myself to take up guitar when I was about 17. The J-200 was my reward for four years of hammering away on my brother’s nylon string, shoe-horning muscle memory into my hands.

The J-200 served me well in bands at university, then jamming with others over the years. I swapped my dream of being the next Dylan for being a part-time Hemingway, but she was still there, my main guitar of choice, when I started to combine music with spoken word, first at the Free Fringe, and then the Book Festival.

She’s always been a harsh mistress to play. Even with the action – the gap between strings and fretboard – lowered, you needed a firm hand for barre chords not to buzz like crazy. But she was a beautiful beast, with a great big body, and a pair of lungs to match. She was loud enough acoustically; but fitted with an old Schaller pickup, she was a foil for any electric guitar.

The Suzuki started to fail around the same time Mum died, in 2011. The bridge had cracked along the line of the pegs that hold the strings in place. Brían, my guitar repair guy, shook his head. After thirty-odd years, the string tension was pulling the guitar apart. The Book Festival gig was the J-200’s last.

Dad arranged things so that the family all got some money from Mum’s estate. While it was being wound up, a music shop opened for the first time in town. I haunted it and its acoustic guitars, asking for one, then another, to be taken down, so I could try them.

I told the guys about the J-200, about how it was beyond repair. I even told them about where the money for the replacement was coming from. I think I told them so much because I  thought they’d think I was a tyre-kicker.

The money eventually came through. For reasons I couldn’t quite explain, I wanted it in my account before I bought the new guitar.

My replacement treasure is a LAG T100 ACE. She’s smaller and quieter than the J-200, designed to be finger-picked rather than strummed. She’s an original design, by the French luthier Michel Lag, rather than a copy of an American classic. She’s thick honey gold and warm caramel colour, and that’s a pretty good set of words to describe how she sounds.

She’s not without her quirks, mind. The on-board pick-ups are fussy beasts, and need a proper acoustic amp to bring out the tone properly. I’ve recorded with her now, and played her live. I don’t expect I’ll need to replace her.

The J-200 hangs on the wall of my study now. I’ve left the strings on – there’s something indefinably lost to me about a guitar without strings – but I don’t keep her in tune. She still has a voice though.

The study doubles as a recording studio. Conventional wisdom has you record everything ‘dry,’ that is in a small space without too many hard surfaces that would reflect the sound and give you echo, or ‘reverb.’

But every sound in the study goes into the Suzuki’s body and comes out again, creating the faintest of echoes of whatever is played or said in the room. The J-200 lives on, adding the ghost of reverb to any recording, or ringing out when I raise my voice to answer someone downstairs.

That’s why my treasure is still two guitars.

Duality Tango – the feedback

And so the show’s over. It was a pretty special one for me, in that it pushed me into areas that I hadn’t been in as a writer or performer before now. Although I billed it as all being under a single, unifying theme, the reality was that there were different styles of story and widely different ways of performing them with music. My own personal highlight was the closing two or three numbers with Kelly, Mark and Kenny, but then you’d expect that I’d put what I thought was my strongest stuff at the end.

For me there’ll now be a period of reflection. The last three months have involved a lot of gig promoting, and I’m looking forward to powering down and doing a bit of blogging, maybe uploading another couple of the numbers to Soundcloud (suggestions welcome) and, I hope, playing more guitar with my guitar playing buddies.

To those of it who made it out on a cold November night to the very bowels of the Cowgate, thanks again. Your presence was noted and will be repaid at other gigs, I promise.

Here’s what those of the crowd who filled in the feedback forms thought:

Thanks so much for coming to Duality Tango. It would be really interesting to get your feedback:

What did you enjoy most about the show?

a) the funny stuff x 2

b) the serious stuff x 1

c) the mixture x 6


Any particular highlights?

Gav’s story x4: bloody show-stealer 😉

Nose Flute Players of Utter Ballingristan x 3

The guys with guitars in the second half. Also Higgs Boson Blues

The autobiographical narrative and Hyde’s testament


The personal tale was very moving (sorry, couldn’t read the rest!)

Dickson Telfer


If you could change one thing about the show, what would it be?

More guests x 2

More about the other participants in intro

A programme with notes about the performers with links (even just a folded A4 sheet).

I would tell more people about it ahead of time so you had a bigger audience. Because you deserve it!

I would have liked more folk to have seen it.

It could have been a wee bit longer. Where was the bloody Clown Song? (in joke)

To not trip over the guitar



Why Duality Tango?

I remember once acting for a client who was buying a flat in another part of town without his wife’s knowledge: a bolt hole, he said, for a marriage going wrong. I didn’t stay at the firm long enough to find out whether he quietly sold it a year later, or needed me to act for him in the divorce.

Everyone has dualities, different selves we shuffle for the people we’re with or the place we’re in. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, or Confessions of a Justified Sinner, are just extreme expressions of the double lives we all sometimes lead. Most of us don’t go that far, but have different faces for our work colleagues, our friends, our nearest and dearest; little singularities, copies of ourselves we have to hand, either in the flesh or online. You don’t have to have a safe house in London’s East End, like Henry Jekyll did,  or even a small town flat to escape your wife, to have a duality,.

And sometimes, one self has to dance with another.

I’m not so different, then. Similarly, the last couple of years I’ve been through, with a health scare, a Big Birthday, and losing nearest and dearest, isn’t such an unusual set of life events. What has surprised me is how it’s affected my creative output.

I was learning and listening to music long before I started trying to sell my writing. 30 years on, I’ve got a box of fiction and poetry magazines in the attic, a few anthologies I’ve featured in on my bookshelves, and three unpublished novels in a digital drawer. I also have three guitars, and a keyboard hooked into a digital audio interface. The latter’s down to Gavin Inglis, who got me into music editing and recording the way I imagine a drug dealer gets one into crack cocaine.

This show is the result of all of that, and meeting other musicians, such as my Tribute to Venus Carmichael collaborator, Kelly Brooks, and guitar players Mark Allan and Kenny Mackay. They say music uses a different part of your cerebral cortex altogether, and over the past two years that part has been lighting up more than it has for years: I wake up with tunes, rather than poems, running through my head these days.

Words alone can be powerful; but for me, the right music behind them turbo-charges the emotional impact. A three-chord progression on a Telecaster tends to reach parts of me most poetry never will. What this show’s about, then, is blending my wordy and (ahem) musical selves. A duality of creativity, if you will.

If that sounds all a bit intense, don’t worry – this ain’t no misery memoir. There will be bits of the show that are meant to be moving. But it’s also meant to be funny. Then the second half Kelly and the boys come on to back me, and we aim to knock you right out of your socks.

If you’re ever heard anything of mine at a show and liked it, please come. If I’ve ever done you anything remotely resembling a favour, consider it called in. You know performers need an audience to feed off, right? Honestly, honestly, I think this is my best work so far.

Bring socks.