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The Observer, Dec. 6

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Scotland is the Arkansas of Britain, The Observer has decided. T.O. happened to be in Edinburgh the week that the Scottish national soccer team was playing a big match against the heavily favored Italian team. Before the match, which was part of a European tournament, the local newspapers were filled with stories about the coming confrontation; the people were as “up” for the game as Razorback fans always were when we played Texas every year.

And the Scots' big game went the way so many Arkansas-Texas games went. The underdog Scots fought bravely; the game was tied; at the last minute the more powerful Italians scored a goal that gave them a 2-1 victory. The next day, the papers were filled with condemnation of the referee.

To make matters worse, while Scotland was being eliminated from the tournament, the hated English were advancing to the next round, not because of a win on the field, but because of the outcome of a game between two other European teams. A newspaper columnist wrote of the events:

“As re-invigorating as a hard slap in the face. Nation-forming, identity-reinforcing and mythology-making. England, the successful grabbers of tiny, jammy chances or Scotland the (unsuccessful) Brave? Drama by the barrowload. And a consistent point of distinction with the English. They win badly. We lose gloriously.”

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For all the staggering similarities between Arkansas and Scotland, The Observer found differences too. They don't know what real football is, for one thing, and for another, they're well ahead of us in castles. The Observer toured a bunch of these, marveling at each. Here is the very room, he thought at one point, where treacherous noblemen burst in and stabbed John Carradine, in front of a horrified Katherine Hepburn.

There's more history in Scotland, and ? though The Observer doesn't like admitting this ? Mary Queen of Scots and William Wallace are more interesting than Hattie Caraway and Albert Pike. Wallace was the 13th-century patriot and warrior played by Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart.” There's a big monument to him. And nearby, our guide noted scornfully, there's a smaller and newer statue, supposedly representing “the spirit of Wallace,” but with the face of Mel Gibson. A tourism official thought it was a good idea, probably. The locals do not. The life-size statue has to be enclosed at night to protect it from vandals. A patriot herself, and a fierce bus driver, our guide said historians have determined that Wallace was 6 feet, 6 inches tall, at least. Mel Gibson is 5 feet 6, she said. She said Scots call the statue “Wee Mel.”

On the way back to the hotel, after darkness had settled, the guide engaged the history feverishly, lecturing over her shoulder as she barreled down narrow country roads. “They cut off his privates and burned them in front of his eyes! They cut out his entrails and burned them in front of his eyes! And still he wouldn't acknowledge the English king!” (This is Wallace she's referring to, not Mel Gibson.) She talked of Mary Stuart and why she spelled her name that way, and the Battle of Culloden, and Robert the Bruce, and, more than once, English perfidy. Eventually, passengers stopped listening and started conversing among themselves, all but one. The Observer was spellbound.

The Observer fell back into our own ancient history over the weekend, with a couple of schoolmates we hadn't seen in 30 years or so. They had documentary evidence to prove we had once been young — photographs, scrapbooks, yearbooks. We'd inscribed all kinds of fulsome tributes to one another in the yearbooks, wrote about how we'd never forget this or that ... but of course, we had to work pretty hard to excavate those unforgettable moments from our brains' cold storage. Wine helped.

The yearbooks, however, dredged up a few things best left forgotten. Like the Young Americans for Freedom club formed at Hall High, its members pictured bolding waving the Confederate flag. And what really looks like, though we tried to come up with all kinds of ways we could be wrong, a performer in blackface at an assembly. Real black faces were few and far between on the pages. Stuff more appropriate to 1869, not 1969. Fortunately, it didn't feel like yesterday. Not at all.

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