This story hit my inbox at the right time: lunchtime on a Friday. So I could devote unnecessary amounts of time to it. A colleague who had lived in Montreal for a time passed me the BBC report that Tony Badger of Brit Foods in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan had been told to remove an assortment of British food products from his shelves, including Scots soda Irn-Bru.
I took to Twitter, and I am not the only one. Responses ranged from the comical
to the earnest and opportunistic
to the brilliantly absurd
(I could have grabbed more of @UpTheWorkers’s tweets on the subject; he was on a tear).
I will confess, I’m not a great lover of Irn-Bru. I would not go to war for it, and even here, in Scotland, where it is in plentiful supply at the chippie round the corner from my flat, I seldom imbibe. Too sweet for my liking. When my wife was here as an undergraduate, a fellow scholar at a party was mixing his with an unlikely whisky called Northern Scot, complete with pipe-playing Highlander on the label. “It’s the only way I can drink the stuff,” he told her. Which, she asked – the whisky or the Irn Bru?
But I like the fact of it. I like the idea of an indigenous soda that keeps its thumbs-out cultural space in a time when such particularity is washed away in global marketing and the cultivation of imported desires. Scots may go trick-or-treating in increasing numbers, but at least Irn-Bru remains.
My first sip of this incongruous soda came from a Scots friend living in Canada. We and another friend had just finished a workshop in Bolton, Ontario, and, looking for dinner, descended upon the Bolton Inn. Fish and chips all around, no question, but they had Scottish bevvies of several descriptions. The other Canuck and I went for pints of Younger’s Tartan Special – absolutely hideous in its marketing. Victoria would have approved. Our Scots emigre friend was having none of this and opted instead for Irn-Bru, which he was delighted to see. We, of course, had no idea, and the combination of its lurid colour and synthetic taste offered yet another chance for this friend to act out a hyperbolic education through his enthusiasm of the wonders of home. (He had previously introduced me to Daleks and tried to convince me that Glasgow was the city of dreaming spires, which I have since learned is attributed to Oxford.)
In truth, it’s the only time I’ve seen Irn-Bru in Canada. I don’t know if the Bolton Inn even exists any more, or if they’re selling this contraband. I’m trying to imagine the circumstances by which one might ask for it – the kind of code that made Chicago speakeasies cool in Prohibition times. But instead of going for cool, I think the following ad shows Irn-Bru’s respectable side. Just look at the chap in the photo: a Harper man through and through. With a campaign like this, the soda is sure to win back the government’s heart.
Irn-Bru has many ads on their site – worth checking out. Both the ones they ran and the ones they didn’t. But what I am looking for and haven’t found is a magazine ad from 2002 or 2003 featuring two babies with boxing gloves. One’s got his gloves up and a gleeful expression on his face, the other has removed his and is sitting, crying and rubbing his face. The caption reads, “Right – who else was looking at my Irn-Bru?” I clipped it from the Big Issue, and it stayed on our kitchen wall the rest of the year that we lived in St Andrews. If anyone finds it, do pop a version of it my way. One more good message to send the Canadian government.