What a difference three years makes. Peter Ross’s previous book, Daundlerust: Dispatches From Unreported Scotland was published in the Spring of 2014, a time when, in the run up to the Scottish Independence Referendum in September, there was a widespread sense of optimism for the future among those who saw Scottish independence as the opportunity of a lifetime, and who tended to be more vocal about it than those who did not. There was something stirring in Scotland and the stories in Daunderlust, although gathered over the years, reflected this feeling. Most of them told of people thriving and surviving, often against the odds. It celebrated individual and collective lives as the smaller yet still vital part of a larger whole. If you thought you knew what it meant to be Scottish then Peter Ross made you think again.
Cut to 2017 and the country and the people have been through a lot. It’s been emotional. The Referendum divided the nation, often friends and family, and those scars still cut deep. It’s an interesting and apposite time for Ross’s follow-up to Daunderlust, The Passion Of Harry Bingo: Further Dispatches From Unreported Scotland, to arrive. It’s a more measured book, perhaps as a result of this change in the Scottish psyche. The opening chapter, ‘After The Referendum’, would suggest this is on Ross’s mind. It’s a look back at the day and the aftermath of the result and it sets the tone for the book, but only in that it accepts the importance of the vote and all that went with it, digests and attempts to comprehend what it meant and means, then moves on. And so should we, for the moment.
As with Daunderlust, The Passion Of Harry Bingo celebrates survivors. Those who keep their traditions and passions alive. The title track, so to speak, is a great example of this as Ross gets to know the titular Harry Bingo, Partick Thistle’s oldest, and perhaps greatest, supporter. Ross want to understand the nature of the fan, particularly the football fan, so he spends time with Harry and others to try to uncover why support for their team is not just an important thing in their life, but perhaps the defining one. In doing so Ross travels home and away, but it is in the stops he makes along the way where the really interesting stories are to be found, and that goes for the book as a whole.
Ross has always been allowed entry to places and events where others would be refused. That’s because people trust him, both those he interviews and his readers, and he never abuses that trust or takes it for granted. His innate curiosity draws him to unexpected places and people, and which more often than not finds him out of his comfort zone, something he clearly revels in. You can tell that in his writing which reflects the content perfectly. Ross loves language and how it is used, both that of the people he speaks to, and how his own appears on the page. It wouldn’t surprise me if he wrote a piece on ‘The World Crazy Golf Championship’ just so he could use the sentence, “They have, all the time, windmills on their mind.”.
Other chapters look at ‘A Grouse Shoot’, ‘The Drag Queen Ball’, ‘The Sex Shop’, ‘Barrowlands’, ‘A Car-Boot Sale’, ‘The Wall Of Death’ and introduces us to ‘The Burryman’, ‘Herring Queens’ ‘The Biscuiteers’ and ‘The Clavie King’. He even spends ‘A Night With The Naked Rambler’. You may know a little, or even a lot, about some of those subjects, but I’ll guarantee you don’t know it all.
Some chapters leave more of a lasting impression than others. They are the ones which lend the book if not exactly a melancholy tone, then certainly a pensive one. There is the sadness and loss in ‘The Storm’ where Ross recounts the terrible human cost of the storm of January 2005 to the Hebridean islands, The Uists, and how such events and the memories of them are arguably more keenly felt in a small community than elsewhere. Small town life is celebrated, but with a tinge of sadness, ‘In Praise Of Small Towns’ – those places where a lot of the older customs and beliefs of Scotland are maintained, but in increasingly difficult circumstances as money goes to, and remains in, the cities, and local industries continue to suffer.
Then there are those urban areas which are similarly afflicted. ‘Nihil Sine Labore’ celebrates the Glasgow burghs of Govan and Scotstoun while accepting that both are still reeling from the closure of shipyards which had previously offered guaranteed employment to their citizens. There is never a sense that this is poverty porn – more an observance of a glorious past married to a defiant present and an uncertain future. ‘The Band Who Gave Glasgow Hope’ looks at the aftermath of the Clutha Vaults Bar disaster through the forbearance of Esparanza, the band on stage when the fateful helicopter crash happened. By focusing on individual experiences Ross manages to say more than any straightforward reportage could manage, looking beyond clichés and stereotypes where others use them too readily to score easy points.
The final chapter, ‘After Angelika’, is one of the oldest stories in the collection, dating back to 2007, and Ross admits in his ‘Introduction’ that it is one which is important to him. It looks at the aftermath of the 2006 murder of Polish student Angelika Kluk in Glasgow’s Anderston and the effect it had on a community. It’s a moving piece of writing, dealing with a terrible and complex subject with great delicacy yet managing to capture the enduring spirit, obvious sadness, and the positive aspect of a shared faith which were all in evidence as people tried to make sense and move on. Faith, hope and understanding. These are the common threads which run through The Passion Of Harry Bingo.
Talking of which, let’s go back to the very beginning. In ‘After The Referendum’ the pain and sense of betrayal felt by those who voted Yes is palpable even from a three-year distance. However, Ross ends the chapter positively, comparing the energy and enthusiasm for the vote on both sides with the apparent apathy in Scotland towards the Scottish Devolution Referendum of 1979 and suggesting that such social and political engagement can only be positive. It is edifying that he finds hope in the darkest of days, yet unsurprising to those who know his work. Peter Ross revels in the complexities of individual stories but also in the shared experience, believing that while we may do great things on our own, we could do even greater things if we only understood each other better, and reading his stories it is impossible to disagree.