Robert McNeil: Spartan self-discipline…and Scottish football’s most surreal chant

SELF-DISCIPLINE: that would be great. If only you could buy or download it. With me, you might think it’s more like elf-discipline, spending all day contemplating nature, breaking only occasionally to strum lightly on a harp or Stratocaster. But you do me a disservice, madam.

I do OK, when I put my mind to it. That’s the first requirement: you must make the decision to plug away at something or get into an improving habit.

Work helps, I guess. You must be organised and self-disciplined as a freelance. Nobody does it for you. Right enough, in this game or lark, with daily deadlines, you haven’t much choice. I don’t know how I’d manage as a freelance strategic consultant or interface facilitator. I don’t think I’d ever get up.

But it’s organising your leisure time – your actual life, not work – that’s the challenge, unless you just want to slob around, which is fine. I admire devil-may-care idleness. I’m just too uptight to practise it.

READ MORE: Robert McNeil on Keir Hardie – The Labour Party founder who gave his heart and soul to the workers’ cause

In leisure time, self-discipline is mostly required for exercise or study. I used to train three times a week in hard physical classes and went to the gym as well. Now, I don’t do nearly so much – but I still do something: 15 minutes of breathing exercises and vague “meditation” first thing; two minutes of Chinese exercises out the back while waiting for my porridge to ping in the microwave; gym twice a week for 50-55 minutes.

Occasionally, when soused of an evening, I go out out the back and try to remember old routines, but usually end up collapsing on the grass shouting: “Please, Lord, I’m done! Just strike me with lightning now!” But He never does, the sadist.

The trick is not to overdo any session – because your lazy brain will dissuade you from it next time. The brain is the enemy. It doesn’t want you to exercise or study. It makes excuses. First tactic for self-discipline: tell your brain to shut up.

Exercise or study can be boring. But boring is good. It’s excitement that causes the world’s problems. Routine, too, is good. And it can be fun. After the gym, I eat egg and cress sandwiches and a packet of plain crisps in my favourite restaurant – the car. I tell myself the crisps replace the salt lost in sweat.

Learning requires self-discipline. I’m entering the fifth year of an Open University degree course in Uselessness Studies. The biggest challenge is that I start studying at 5pm, which is also when the nurse brings the first of my aperitifs. I usually give up when the words start jumpin’ aboot.

Personal writing projects require self-discipline, but I’ve lost the motivation for that. Once, inspired by Dorothea Brande’s book Becoming A Writer (about hitching your subconscious mind to your consciousness, ken?), I dropped whatever I was doing and wrote at a pre-determined time on five successive days. Once, that was in the middle of the night. Another time, it was while helping my tree surgeon mate on a job.

I wish I could get up early. It’s the best time to get stuff done, including writing, but I just can’t manage it. Still, no need to beat ourselves up over this, nor to think self-discipline necessarily heroic. Search online for self-discipline books, and invariably you’ll find a Spartan on the cover.

But sometimes, just bringing up kids or keeping going through bereavement, ill-health or poverty, is self-discipline enough and to be applauded. There’s no need to add new demands from the “Lifestyle” (boak) sections of newspapers. Saving is a form of self-discipline.

Ultimately, self-discipline just means being organised. And doing something. Failing that, you can just slob about on the sofa. It is, in some ways, far more heroic.

Cowdenbeath’s coo

LAST week, I wrote a bombshell-ish column for the Herald on Sunday about the famously terrible Scots poet, William McGonagall. One thing that disappointed me, during several minutes of research, was that I could find no confirmed authorship by McG of my favourite poem ever. It’s a poem that’s distinctly Scottish Zen:

“There was a coo/On yonder hill/It’s no’ there noo/It must have shifted.”

I could contemplate that for hours. It’s often attributed “apocryphally” to McGonagall, but has not, as far as I’m aware, appeared in any published collections of his “gems”. I couldn’t even find it among unpublished lists. Possibly, it was too good for publication.

But its authorship remains unclear. I suspect it was that great versifier, Anon. One thing I was delighted to discover was that it’s the club song of Cowdenbeath football fans, perhaps because of the old covered section of their ground being called The Cow Shed.

Just imagine it. Your team is drawing 1-1 with 10 minutes go. You can win this. So, let’s get right behind the team, lads. All together now (to the tune of When The Saints Go Marching In): “There was a coo/On yonder hill/There was a coo on yonder hill/It’s no’ there noo/It must have shifted/There was a coo on yonder hill.”


Losing Lewis

HOW intriguing to learn, in a newspaper extract from a new book (Family Business by Victoria Glendinning), that the original founder of John Lewis was a horrible man who treated his staff abominably. He was like an old-fashioned capitalist in children’s books such as Mary Poppins or Das Kapital. People forget what ghastly swine many pioneering entrepreneurs were.

It was Lewis’s son Spedan who, deploring his father’s “insane greed”, created the famous worker-friendly environment. Alas, it’s unravelling now, but it’s been coming for some time. I worked there for three hours, and found it chaotic, dowdy and unwelcoming behind the scenes. It was also over-staffed.

I’d particularly noticed this, as a customer, more recently in the now closed Aberdeen store. Maybe I didn’t help by only ever buying one thing (notepaper). But I also earmarked stuff to buy when I’d a proper house of my own again. And I regularly enjoyed afternoon tea and cake in the cafe.

I loved John Lewis’s beige lighting. I even liked the signage. I applaud any store that has a haberdashery, just because of the word. It’s all such a shame.

Knowing humour

AS a fan of Arthur Lowe, who played heroically unwise Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, I was delighted to discover an ancient radio series called Parsley Sidings. Set in a sleepy railway station, it features Ian Lavender and Arthur out of Dad’s Army, plus Kenneth Connor from the Carry On films, and screen love of my life Liz Fraser.

It’s one of those old comedies invariably described as “innocent” where, in truth, every second line is a double entendre. I preferred the line taken by stationmaster Lowe when trying to avoid discussing sex: “I shall retire to the bedroom with my railway timetable.”

I mention all this because another particular line made me laugh out loud, and I wondered if that was just me. It’s daft, and I’m improvising slightly for context but, anyway, high-jackers are planning an attack against a foreign VIP on a train:

Stationmaster (Lowe) “Are they likely to stop at the station?”

Secret serviceman (Connor): “No, we know them too well for that.”

Stationmaster: “Who are they?”

Secret serviceman: “We don’t know.”

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The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992