When I was a child in Glasgow, a clout was something I was regularly threatened with, and often received. Never from my parent or relatives, but often from teachers, the polis and sundry friends, enemies and the occasional gang member. A cloutie was a cloth, especially the one used to warp the wonderful cloutie dumplings that were a feature of Christmas, stuffed with silver threepennies and sixpences wrapped in greaseproof paper. We pronounced the slap around the heid as clowt, and the dumpling version as clootie, effortlessly and unknowingly distinguishing between the ancient origins of the word – the Old English clut and and Old Norman or Frisian klut. The word was also used in archery in archaic form as a piece of cloth stretched over a frame, and in joinery to describe a large, flat-headed nail.
But for fifty years now it has increasingly come to mean influence, power of effective action, especially political - Concise Oxford Dictionary.
This usage is now dominant, but was never used, to my knowledge, before the late 1950s. So where did it originate? Well, as far as I can determine, it was a Chicago word, describing the power of gangsters over politicians and police, and of the power of the politicos themselves, some of whom were also gangsters. It was probably confined to Chicago throughout the Capone era, which ended with Capone’s imprisonment on tax charges in the early 1930s. Capone, after his release, lived well into the post-war period and died a rich man, at home, in his bed, just as I was going to St. Mungo’s Academy in Glasgow.
But the first recorded example in print seems to have been an article in the Chicago Tribune in early 1960, as part of a four-page spread on corruption and crime in Chicago, in an article by Wayne Thomas – MOB WIELDS CLOUT THROUGH POLITICIANS, prompted by the murder of Roger ‘The Terrible’ Touhy by gunmen in broad daylight in front of witnesses in a Chicago Street.
Since then, the word increasingly entered the vocabulary of the British chattering classes, ever anxious to be up-to-date with American political jargon, without the faintest idea of where the word or phrase had come from, e.g. step up to the plate, what’s your take on this issue, the Commander-in-Chief, etc.
The UK’s web of corruption is of course much more subtle, of course, as befits an ancient empire that has been exploiting the people for centuries, and the commissioners of violence usually carry a title, or have a few letters after their names that almost always include BE – or they wear the ermine. They are distanced at several levels from those who carry out the killings, and unlike the brash gangsters of old, rarely kill each other, but target the innocent, the vulnerable, usually in another country, ideally of another race and religion. When they kill someone at home, it is usually someone outspoken who has got too close to the truth, and they are too fastidious to have them gunned down in broad daylight – the intelligence services have long experience of doing these things quietly, with minimum fuss. The UK has exploitation of booze as a nice little earner on the side – witness The Beerage – but the main honeypot is the military/industrial complex and political, Eisenhower’s nightmare forecast come true.
And now for something completely different …
THE NEO-SCOTTISH UNIONISTS
An interesting day in our two national dailies, The Herald and The Scotsman.
The Letters page of both newspapers are often a better sample of the true mood of Scotland than the news, comment and editorial comment, especially in The Herald Letters page. But the Scotsman increasingly, and I hope not reluctantly, gives a platform to a wider range of views than Blackett Place, New Cutt Rigg or sundry nimby’s and landowners fulminating against wind farms from the remote airts and pairts, and today we have Ruth Marr, a regular and mordant contributor to The Herald, but more rarely appearing in The Scotsman.
I hope Ruth and The Scotsman will forgive me for picking quotes, but -
On the Labour and Tory name changes -
“I’d always thought changing your name was something you did when you were fleeing from justice …”
On the newly-discovered Scottishness of the Tories and Labour -
“Are we witnessing expressions of sincere patriotism or political expediency?”
Gaun yersel’ Ruth …
Joyce McMillan always has something relevant to say, Ultimate Westminster bubble boy e.g. this paragraph -
“The decline of the Labour Party as a grass-roots movement, the old Blairite obsession with severing trade union links, the growing separation of the leadership from the nuts-and-bolts organisation on the ground, and (sic) makes true radicalism possible; all of this has produced a generation of young would-be leaders with only a vague focus-group image of the society they would lead, and often no knowledge at all of its rich pattern of popular and local culture, and of how those cultures interact with the task of political organisation”
The above paragraph is worth more than the Collected ‘What Labour Must Do’ Essays of John McTernan to Labour, but they cannot confront the Blair Portrait in the Attic – it’s too horrible to contemplate.
Ewan Crawford offers a challenging piece SNP show the way when it gets down to business that includes this telling sentence in his closing paragraph -
“Since the SNP’s election victory, a curious phenomenon has taken place: the government and Alex Salmond have been assailed on a range of issues, but the SNP’s poll ratings have hit record highs.”
Ewan also refers to the blatant misrepresentation of John Swinney’s budget, and the notorious CPPR £850m figure, seized upon by The Scotsman among others with an agenda, although Ewan is too polite to say so. This hasn’t stopped The Scotsman and other continuing to trot the figure out, including today. A good lie is worth too much to let it die quietly. The CPPR didn’t lie of course – they were misunderstood and misquoted, poor dears. Aye, right then …
The Great British Public think Ed Miliband is ‘weird’, rather as they thought John Redwood, a rising Tory star was weird, especially after his rendition of the Welsh national anthem. I can’t think what gives people these ideas. John Redwood at least had the popular kudos of looking liking a Vulcan whose starship was about to be vapourised by Captain Kirk. Ed Miliband? The closest I can come is a young Raymond Burr, in his nascent phase as a sinister villain, before he lost his power of movement and became Ironside.
But let me close on an optimistic note – American movies at the close of the Capone era, the beginning of the talkies, and in the early stages of the Great Depression that followed the Wall Street Crash. Will movies – and our society, ever recover this vitality, this visual flair, this great music? In this era, when pop musicians are stressed if the vocal range leaves the diatonic scale and spans an octave, if more than four primitive harmonic changes are quite impossible, and where a key change or a modulation in unthinkable, indeed literally inconceivable, it seems unlikely.
No, we must be content with the soft porn and relentless sniggering sexual innuendo of Strictly Come Dancing and, God help us all, The X-Factor. But surely if the people must have bread and circuses, we could give them quality instead of this pap to divert them from the economic horrors that await if we stay in the UK.