Last summer I travelled to Dundee for the launch of the Dundee New Writers prize. Travelling across Scotland while trying to catch the England v Slovenia World Cup game was an interesting experience. I wrote a few lines about it and had a brief explore of the city………
The St George flag is everywhere, it seems. It flutters from terrace windows in Crewe and car sunroofs in Wigan. It’s plastered to wheelie bins in Preston and daubed in whitewash on shop fronts in Carlisle. In the Lakes, a battered white van is transformed into a huge flag with a band of red tape. England must beat Slovenia this afternoon to stay in the World Cup and chance has dictated that I’m heading north into Scotland. Gunmetal clouds gather above the Solway. It could be an omen. Carlisle is the last outpost of English optimism; Dances with Wolves in Cumbria, you might say. We rattle through Gretna and suddenly St George is no more. One nation clings to past glories, while its smaller neighbour expects to revel in the joys of Schadenfreude before the day is out.
It’s a rare, still day in Edinburgh. The Saltire flaps from the battlements and the skirl of pipes drifts from Princes Street as I climb the steps out of Waverley station. I have an hour or so before heading to Dundee and weigh up where I’m going to watch the match. I have nothing to identify myself as English and have already developed a Scots burr. I’m a desperate outsider, like Gordon Jackson and Richard Attenborough on the run in The Great Escape. I dash through the National Gallery, pausing to stare, chin cradled in hand, at a famous reverend skating. I grab a burger and head for Waverley.
The Forth Rail Bridge is truly a wonder. There are fantastic black and white shots of men walking the girders. The river is dizzyingly far beneath, so the naval destroyers of Rosyth and cargo ships entering Leith look like toys in a bath. The men wear no harnesses and flat caps instead of hard hats. You could strap a Health & Safety man to a chair and torture him with these images. Fife passes in a blur of farm fields and former mining villages. Dundee clings to the north banks of the Tay. The estuary is huge, for here is a river which expels more water than the Thames and Severn combined. Dundee is slate-grey and oatmeal. Tower blocks and floodlights rise from the city’s silhouette. Crossing the Tay it is hard not to be drawn to the dark, surging waters beneath. On a calm day in June the Tay is rippled and streaked with foam, so it is difficult to imagine the horror that led to so many lives being lost at Christmas, 1879 It was a wild, stormy night. The signalman on duty was told a train was coming through, but minutes later it had still not arrived. He made his way out onto the bridge with a lamp and followed the tracks on his hands and knees. To his horror, he saw the rails were broken and there was nothing but surging water beneath. The bridge had collapsed and its supports still lie in the Tay as a reminder of the terrible tragedy.
Dundee’s architecture is striking. The city was famously founded on three J’s: jute, jam and journalism and this wealth endowed the city with great buildings a cut above the usual British provincial ambition. This means Dundee boasts many buildings comparable, if not grander in some cases, than cities such as Manchester and Birmingham. The Discovery is moored within minutes of the city centre and there is much to learn about Dundee’s whaling heritage, where hardened men left home for months or years to brave the perils of the South Seas. A satellite V&A Museum will open here soon and Dundee Contemporary Arts is well worth a visit. DC Thomson, publisher of the Beano and Dandy and Sunday Post is based here and there is a terrific statue of Desperate Dan. It made me smile – I’d like to see more statues of cartoon characters.
A man in a kilt roars at the television screen. It is ten minutes till kick off. At the next pub the drinkers are dressed like extras in Braveheart. David Beckham appears on screen and the crowd swears and spits. I head back to the neutral venue of Dundee train station, order a pint, and pretend to show passing interest in the game. Defoe scores and I swallow gassy beer, suppressing a grin behind the foamy pint glass. A diminutive Scot with a greasy comb-over throws a punch at the screen. His wife shouts:
‘Will you no stop it, Brian?’ and tugs at his arm.
She wears thick blue eye shadow. I want to ask them: Why do you hate us, so much? We gave you Shakespeare and Elgar. The whistle blows and I step out onto the quayside. It’s sticky and close as I make my way to the launch of Dundee New Writers 5. A group listens, rapt, as extracts are read from short stories and wine is knocked back. It’s a beautiful day and Dundee’s star is rising once more.