Monday, March 13, 2006

RIP Wee Jinky, Your Rowboat to Paradise Awaits: Jimmy Johnstone 1944-2006


In more innocent days, when I was of the age to get jumped, abused in the street and kicked in, I used to wear a Celtic scarf. I had done it since infancy, and saw no reason to rethink the practice when I accidentally moved to Aberdeen. The Granite City was cold; a scarf was necessary. Then, one day, as I wandered past the Art Gallery after a trip to One Up in search of unlistenable records by Cabaret Voltaire, I found myself standing on a kerbside. A white van drew up, the windows rolled down, and the inhabitants proceeded to abuse me in a manner which tested the boundaries of their joint vocabularies. The basis of their verbal jousting was, I think, loosely ecumenical.
Well, that was the last time I wore the hooped scarf. I lost interest in the football for a while there, too, preferring to spend my time watching art students in baggy jumpers pretending they knew how to play a musical instrument. The timing of my footballing disaffection could not, I now realise, have been worse. At this point, unlikely as it seems, Aberdeen were a great side. On those clear, bright European nights, as the floodlights burned holes in the sky, I could hear the cheers echoing as I settled down in my student cell to watch Coronation Street.
In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t been on that kerbside wearing that scarf on that day. I wish I had been sanguine enough to realise that the violence of young men will find a cause, and it might just as easily have been my electric pink trousers. After all, I did not abandon music just because I received a kicking after my first night out in Aberdeen, at a concert by the Adverts (though I did walk home in the dark more quickly, and with a nagging fear of shadows).
Indeed, the musical equivalent of the abusive football van occurred a few years later. I was walking over the bridge towards the harbour, dodging the frozen fish on the pavement and inhaling the famous Torry pong, when a malevolent Transit pulled up. The graffiti on the van told me that it carried the half-famous, quarter-talented, psychobilly band, The Meteors, though I could have guessed as much from their dayglo Mohican haircuts. They were looking for Valhalla, a discotheque where Odin’s Shield-Maidens - virgins with golden hair and snowy arms - served meat and everlasting mead to the heroic clientele. (Well, they sold beer, and there was occasional dancing.) I supplied directions - travel away from the smell, follow the fish, turn right when you see the rusty trawler - and was surprised when the band thanked me for my assistance by calling me a cunt and a poof.
Gradually, the football returned, though mostly from the comfort of an armchair. Contrary to popular myth, this is not a soft option. Since my Airfix 18" narrowscreen set was wired to receive extra-terrestrial signals, it has been possible to watch football on most nights of the week, and if there isn’t football there is usually a studio full of men with square heads and furrowed brows discussing groin strains and imaginary transfer deals. Sometimes, when I abandon all pretence of having a life, there is a programme which has Jimmy Hill’s name in the title, and Jimmy Hill in the studio, pretending to drink coffee while a man with a square head chairs a discussion about the sports pages of the Sunday papers. It is bit like watching five blind tailors arguing over a thimble.
Over the years, I have often found myself forced to defend the fact that as a non-Catholic boy from the East Coast, I grew up supporting Celtic. The question is a loaded one, as it implies that football is a matter of geographical coincidence rather than free will: you should support your local team. Well, that argument might have worked in the days before television and public transportation, but I’m not sure how relevant it is now. I chose to support Celtic because, to an innocent mind, they seemed to embody a sense of possibility. They played with energy, skill and invention and they won everything. And, in the diminutive Jimmy Johnstone, the team had a genius. Not a genius like Pele or Eusebio, whose talents seemed to come from another planet, but a freckled, red-haired boy of a man whose skill was matched only by his cheek.
So there I was the other night, in Paradise, as the Lisbon Lions trooped out with the European Cup. It was a strange moment to witness, since the Lions no longer resemble athletes. They looked like a bowls team out for a stroll on the rough turf, these silver-haired gents in green blazers. Were Billy McNeill’s legs always that bandy? Did Tommy Gemmell always carry a paunch? And look, now: who is the boy in the outsize blazer, wandering towards the edge of the centre circle, as if in search of a ball?
In honour of Jinky, I bought another scarf.
From the Scotsman, 24/01/03