If I Haver

My last mammoth contribution to a Popular thread was scarcely about the single in question at all. A Scottish commenter tossed in a snipe at another band I like (who happen to be Scottish), I posted a stout defence in reply, and it turned into a long back-and-forth about accents, authenticity, cartoon versions of our home countries, and cultural cringes. The comments below are edited from almost twice as many words of mine alone, and the joins aren’t seamless, but I hope they make some sort of sense. I wanted to hang onto them here, anyway, and as they’re already several weeks old I’d better post them now.


While “Belfast Child” was number one in Britain, the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” was number one in Australia for four weeks—and I helped it get there, the very last time I ever helped a single get to number one. Sunshine on Leith soundtracked my weeks and weeks of repainting our weatherboard home that southern summer, and I still hold it in much affection today.

I loved This is the Story, too, although its bonus band version of “Letter from America” always felt a bit tacked-on. Their third album lost my interest a little, and I largely forgot about them in the ’90s, but I moved to Edinburgh right when they started releasing albums again in 2001. I’ve found things to love in each of those, none more than in Born Innocent, my equal favourite with their first two; its closing song “There’s No Doubt” is possibly their finest four minutes, and one of the songs I’ll forever associate with my thirties.

Their excursions into a country-tinged sound would go down well with a certain branch of Scottish musical taste (Australian, too), and it’s not always to mine, but at their best they’re highly evocative, particularly of this city I’ve ended up in. No matter how “simple-minded” some of their fans might be, their lyrics are often very clever, whether it’s their early forays into Scottish nationalism, their more recent anti-war sentiments, or the way they trace from album to album the commonalities of life and aging. It’s not all novelty jauntiness by a long shot. But maybe it depends whether you can stomach novelty jauntiness in any measure; as a fan of Ben Folds and the like, I can.

Actually, saying they’re a novelty band sells them completely short. Ben Folds isn’t a novelty act, and Frank Zappa wasn’t, but cherry-pick their hits and you could just as easily typecast them that way too. Should the Proclaimers be damned forever for their use of Scottish slang in songs they wrote in the late 1980s, before they were any kind of beloved-of-the-local-press institution? Should they have pretended they were English? As a resident non-Scot, I have an ambivalent attitude towards Scottish nationalism, but that doesn’t mean I can’t empathise with the desire to take pleasure in the local, to see your own words written and performed and passed on. You can use words like “haver” without it being jingoistic. Which is not to say that there isn’t a political point behind the Proclaimers doing it—a serious one, not a “novelty”. (I wish there were more Proclaimers tracks on YouTube to reinforce this “not novelty” point, but “There’s No Doubt” wasn’t even a single, let alone a hit.)

Australians beat themselves up about this kind of thing all the time too, and it gives me the irrits, to use some Aussie slang purely for the pleasure of it. We sang in foreign accents for years when we first took to rock and roll, and it was the 1970s and 1980s before we had bands that didn’t. One of those, Midnight Oil, hit it big internationally—you’ll never hear a more Sydneysider accent on record than Peter Garrett’s—but because their lyrics were always deadly serious they never got tarred with the “local accents so there’s an uncomfortable hint of novelty” brush. But other Aussie-accented bands of the era did: the Radiators, the Uncanny X-Men, Spy vs Spy, to name a few. None of them really deserved it, any more than the Proclaimers, but if you called yourself a Radiators fan nowadays (for example), a certain kind of Australian would look down their nose at you.

So while I understand the urge to promote and celebrate the local in the face of external neglect/ignorance/mockery, I find the local resentments that go with it really unproductive, both the resentment of the “other” that can drive it, and the resentment from fellow locals aimed at those who make the attempt. “They make us look stupid!”—no, they really don’t. If people outside Britain think of the Proclaimers nowadays, it’s with nostalgic fondness for one or two songs from the 1980s; they aren’t reading whatever is being spouted about them in the Evening News.


A lot of Australians are ambivalent (or downright snooty) about “Aussier-than-Aussie” performers like Paul Hogan and Steve Irwin, and would say similar things about their “exaggerated, unnatural” accents—but they are (or were) their own accents, how they sounded all the time. And there are actually many others in public life who sound just as exaggerated, but we don’t notice because we slot them into a different mental category: politicians, TV personalities. When you hear them out of context, as expats more easily can (occasionally you’ll hear an Australian politician interviewed on Radio 4), they sound just as unnatural. Australian accents never sound more grating to an expat than when you land in the international airport of Melbourne or Sydney after a few years away: the PA announcements, the customs officers, the taxi drivers, exaggerated and unnatural, every one. Except they’re not, they’re just being themselves. And yes, it can feel uncomfortable to realise that you sound that way too, to others, and your mates do, and your family does. And then the feeling passes.

Not every Edinburgher or Fifer sounds like the Reids, but a lot do. It’s a very different accent to the ones on a Bis or Franz Ferdinand album, because it comes from a different place.


“Haver” isn’t a word you hear outwith Scotland (like “outwith”), which is why its use was so striking to non-Scots in “500 Miles”. But just because a term seems dated or cartoonish to some locals doesn’t mean others don’t or won’t use it. I’ve worked with people here, within the last decade, who say “och, aye” unselfconsciously. I know that’s not the norm, at least not in my circles, but clearly it isn’t unheard of.

And it doesn’t mean you can’t reclaim a term and reinvent it. I do that with some dated Australian slang, using it and keeping it alive, because it reminds me of older Australians I used to know when I was a kid, not least my grandparents. I’m actually perfectly happy with Barry McKenzie’s slang, because it’s a great time-capsule of its era, the late ’60s and early ’70s, and a testament to his creator, Barry Humphries, who actually invented a lot of it out of whole cloth, and brought to wider attention what previously had been very localized terms, some of which have since passed into the national language (like “chunder”). I wouldn’t myself go around calling women “sheilas”, because that’s very dated—but I know people who do, even today. There are regional and class factors at work in how any particular term is used and perceived; just as there could well be regional and class factors at work in responses to some Scottish terms. Glasgow isn’t Edinburgh.

So the Reids could easily have had more complicated reasons for using it than just playing to populist sentiment. They used it on the lead single from their second album, the one after they’d already had a number 3 hit single and been feted down south. They knew they had a sizable audience who wouldn’t know the word. And they knew that the people who would know the word would also have known that it was old-fashioned or regional within Scotland (its first recorded use in the OED was by an Edinburgh councillor in 1721), and consciously using such a word can mean all sorts of things. And what does the word actually mean? To talk nonsense. Talk about an in-joke.

So we’ve got to sort out the “cartoon Scotlands” here, and how the Proclaimers relate to them. There’s the cartoon Scotland that the rest of the world knows: tartan on everything, Nessie, “och aye the noo”, all the tourist crap they sell on the Mile. The Proclaimers have nothing to do with that; they didn’t and don’t sing about it, they don’t pander to it, their music didn’t code that way to the Australian audience (and presumably Americans, but I’ll keep it to the audience I know). The “exaggerated, unnatural” accents, just sounded Scottish to us, and words like “haver” were just meaningless colour, but intriguing because of it. So we looked past those things and related to the music, the singing, the lyrics, and liked what we heard. That’s why I’m saying they don’t make the Scots look stupid to non-Scots; and if they make you look stupid to yourselves, and if your perception of how stupid they look depends on what part of the country you’re from (Edinburgh/Fife vs. anywhere else) and/or what class you come from, then we’re in classic cultural-cringe territory.

Back in Oz, musicians and writers and comedians and cartoonists play with the cultural cringe all the time. They toy with it and make fun of it and explore it as a way of reclaiming old identities and creating new ones, pointing out that there’s a there there, not just a few leftovers of our former colonial masters. And those cultural games don’t have much to do with other countries’ “cartoon Australia”, with its walking upside-down and corks on hats (both the invention of English cartoonists), although every now and then something breaks out and gains an international audience and adds to that bigger cartoon. Sometimes that’s accidental, but sometimes there’s a clever mind behind it, someone who plays off the national cartoon and translates it for an international audience—like Barry Humphries.

So I’m not embarrassed by Barry McKenzie. Of course it’s a cartoon: it started as one, and was written for a non-Australian audience, but in a way that nodded and winked to Aussies as well. Which annoyed some Australians at the time, too: the conservative government of the day banned a book compiling the original Private Eye strips on the grounds of indecency. If your jokes have any edge to them at all, there’ll always be someone who won’t like ’em.


I don’t mean to suggest that I’m allowed my cultural cringe and others aren’t, or that mine is minimal. My life has been a succession of cultural cringes and coming to terms with them—son of white-collar commuters growing up in a depressed rural town, Tasmanian living on the mainland, Australian living in Britain—and at various points along the way I would have said things about particular Australian artists that sound every bit like what some Scottish critics say about the Proclaimers. I might even say the same things about some of them today. But my attitudes towards others have changed over time, as I reassess what they were doing or really do signify, in light of my experience as an expat or just having a few more miles under my belt. It’s a constant process of evaluation and reevaluation, which I don’t ever want to end, really. That’s what draws me to projects like Popular, which gives us license to reexamine our old thoughts about the music of our youth (those of us who were there, that is) and bring them up-to-date.


Visit the original thread for further context, and for a few of my comments on Simple Minds, Oasis, and the town of Grong Grong.

30 September 2010 · Music

Actually, I think I’ll post my comments on Grong Grong here too:

“If I came across a town in England called ‘Boofhead’ or ‘Drongo’, too right I’d take my photo next to it. In Australia I once made a 100km detour on a long and boring drive home to see a flyspeck of a settlement called Grong Grong, just because it was called Grong Grong. Which doesn’t mean anything in particular, but come on, GRONG GRONG.”

I was wrong: it does mean something in particular. It means “bad camping ground”. Now I love it even more.

Added by Rory on 30 September 2010.