The Loneliest Boy in the World – The last child of the Great Blasket
By Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin with Patricia Ahern. Collins Press.
The Blasket Islands, off the coast of Kerry in the extreme west of Ireland, have a habit of getting under your skin. Once discovered, they are not easily forgotten.
This is partly due to their history – an isolated Gaelic community, fighting against the odds, until what seemed an inevitable evacuation in 1953; and partly due to their position ‘on the edge of the world’, so near but so far from the jetty at Dun Chaoin on the mainland. Today the ruined village clings to the island slopes above an tráigh bháin – the stunningly white beach – as grassy tracks lead between the still clearly defined fields.
Sitting by ‘the American Well’, where day by day the islanders gathered and talked of those who had emigrated to the ‘next Parish west’, it’s difficult not to hear those voices, and impossible not to seek to capture the lives of those who were once here.
Luckily – and this is another reason for the island’s haunting presence – those voices speak clearly to us through the island’s literary tradition. It is a tradition encouraged and promoted early by visiting scholars, and follows on from the original highly acclaimed works from Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Peig Sayers, and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.
Many books by islanders have been published, adding to the writings of scholars such as JM Synge, Brian Ó Ceallaigh, Ray Stagles, and Robin Flower, and the body of work is often referred to as the “Blasket Library”. All add to our knowledge of Great Blasket and its surrounding islands, all are told from different points of view.
Last year we had a memoir from Michael Carney, the oldest living islander, and now comes the story of Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin – the only child on the island at the time of the evacuation – and the last survivor of that group.
Written with Patricia Ahern, this is a new and fresh angle on the story of the Blaskets. Only 6 when he left the island, Gearóid’s description of his early life, and the people who inhabited it, is based on a child’s view and is sharp and observant in a way that adults may not always replicate. He saw the islanders as being the same as him – not knowing any other children, he saw no distinction between adult and child. The islanders, in their turn, treated him as a full member of the community, and even in his brief years there, he learned the daily routines, the working practices, the survival skills necessary to these folk on the edge of the world
If you’ve ever sat amongst the ruins on Great Blasket and wondered about the ordinary lives of these people: meals, sleeping, working, and enjoying themselves, this book gives you answers in a typically understated island style.
On Chritmas Eve, 1948, journalist Liam Robinson, and photographer Donal MacMonagle, visited the Blaskets and a piece was produced on Gearóid’s singular life. A wily subeditor headlined it “The Loneliest Boy in the World” and it was syndicated across the globe.
Gearóid is still at pains to point out that he was not lonely in any sense, and laughs at the suggestion that his ‘only friends were the seagulls’, but he is honest enough to agree that he enjoyed the amazing reaction to the article. Good wishes, toys, clothes, and offers came from the five continents. An American rancher offered to adopt him, others offered land and a home to his parents and family, he gained penpals in other countries. The Blasketers were used to international attention in later generations – but the story of Gearóid Cheaist Ó Catháin seems to have struck a nerve internationally.
It is symptomatic of the islanders’ phlegmatic approach that they took the fuss in their stride, and Gearóid details in a quite matter of fact style how his life was changed – but not to any great extent. However, two highly affecting moments in his writing refer to his later meeting with Robinson in 1988, and to the atmosphere on the island on Christmas Eve, when there was a lighted candle in the window of every house and the full moon made glisten the frost on the tarred felt roofs.
Another attraction of this book is that we learn in some detail of life on the mainland for the islanders after the evacuation – and local characters around Dun Chaoin, such as the larger than life publican, ‘Kruger’, fairly walk off the pages in the later parts of the story.
Anyone who has read the Blasket names on the gravestones in the new cemetery near Dun Chaoin, overlooking the island, must have wondered how they made a new life on the mainland. Earlier books by Cole Moreton, and last year’s offering from Michael Carney, paint a picture of the American emigrants; Gearóid does the same for those who stayed closer to the island – as well as detailing his educational experiences – his first meetings with other children in the national school at Dun Chaoin, his boarding school experiences in Kilkenny, and his eventual education in Dingle’s more familiar surroundings.
The tales of his adult life, and the gradual loss of his parents and their generation from the island, fill in more gaps in our knowledge, and there is a sense, as there must be, of some things coming to an end.
An old tale, then, from a new angle, but what endures – as it seems to in all the books in the Blasket Library – is a sense of a remarkable people, far removed from the sentimentality we may be tempted to show towards a lost way of life, accepting of what needed to be done, proud of their past, embracing their present, and facing their future with a strong Faith and self awareness.
It’s difficult to better the famous lines of Tomás Ó Criomhthain, and indeed Gearóid repeats them more than once:
“Ní bheidh ár leithéidí arís ann”
The like of us will never be again.
“I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and
I don’t have time to go round and round and round”
The Dixie Chicks familiar lyric boomed out from Margo’s playlist as we entered the Assembly Hall for her Memorial Service – a tongue in cheek reminder that this most engaging of women was also a doughty political operator and a fierce fighter for her many causes.
For someone of my generation, this gathering felt a bit like my life flashing before my eyes. Everybody was familiar, many I knew, and others looked like I should know them. Next to us, is a youth worker from central Edinburgh who’s been supporting vulnerable kids and families as long as I’ve been a teacher, and I first worked with him forty years ago; down there; former Lord Provost Eric Milligan and George Foulkes of the Jambo persuasion, seated just yards away from Rod Petrie, Tom Farmer and the Board of Margo’s beloved Hibs. Jack McConnell, Robin Harper, David Mundell, Jim Wallace, George Reid, Jackie Baillie, Tricia Marwick, Christine Grahame, David and Judy Steel, and, in a very welcome and classy gesture, Alistair Darling, his affection for Margo winning over her description of him as “The Abominable No Man”. In addition, the current party leaders: Alex Salmond and Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Johann Lamont, Patrick Harvie, Willie Rennie – and with a flash of unaccustomed bling in tribute to Margo, Ruth Davidson.
There were many, many more familiar political faces who have haunted my lifetime. These are people I’ve stuffed envelopes for, driven around Scotland, engaged in arguments about, shouted at, admired, disagreed with, challenged and supported. They’ve brought me happiness, grief, understanding, puzzlement, frustration and inspiration. I’d walk on glass for some of them, and cross the road to avoid others.
The speakers were perfect – Alex Neil all passion and remembrance, Elaine C Smith by turn funny and emotional, ending with a wonderful excerpt from Brian Patten’s “How long does a woman live?”, and Jim Sillars, emotional with pride at his lost love: “The brightest star in Scotland’s political sky”, in turn, funny and impassioned, already shaping Margo’s considerable legacy. His voice was cracking – with grief, possibly, but just as likely as a result of the punishing round of campaign meetings he has pursued in the last few months – Margo witholding her permission for him to miss any events, even in her final illness. Family members Craig and Charlie Reid delivered the finale of ‘Sunshine on Leith’ as if it had been written for Margo – as indeed it could have been.
Yet, here’s a funny thing. Looking down on this chamber, once briefly the Scottish Parliament, and long a central focus of a large part of Scottish opinion, I realised my major emotion was one of pride. Alongside the ordinary folk – who meant so much to Margo and to whom she meant so much, this was the political establishment of Scotland. With very few exceptions, their demeanour was cordial, friendly and familiar. There was no security at the entrances, no particular attempt to paint them as an elite, they knew each other well and some were here despite being greatly opposed to the tenor of many of Margo’s beliefs. It felt like – in paying tribute to Margo, they had all grown a little. It was as if the Edinburgh haar had suddenly and briefly lifted, giving us a glimpse of the possibilities of a post independence Scotland, feuds forgotten, small enough and close enough to the people to see their needs and react to their desires, escaped from the London pursuit of illusory ‘world power status’, and re-focused on the nation, its people and their welfare.
These politicians could do that – of that I’m sure, and they only need the voters to give them permission on September 18th – those fifteen hours, as Jim Sillars said, when we hold a country’s sovereignty in our hands.
“Kind but strong” was repeated time and again in tribute to Margo; the notion that this was our chance to make a difference for ordinary people was central to her beliefs; the need to work together – with each other, and for each other, hung over all her rallying cries.
We heard the story from Govan, on the night before Jim Sillar’s victory there, when he was bidding goodnight to his campaign workers: “Go home to yer beds!” he said to them. “It’s ok for you – I’m going home to a public meeting!”
Today’s memorial was a meeting of Scotland’s public – and its politicians were part of that. I left convinced that Margo’s legacy can be a country which is not just independent, but kind; not just self confident but outward looking; and not just argumentative but inspiring and inspired.
Small enough to care, big enough to make nice.
Don’t need to write her second name, and she doesn’t need the likes of me to pay her tribute. I can’t think of a politician in my lifetime who has been so respected. Or so loved. And, when it came to integrity, she was in a class of her own.
However, I did meet her a number of times and her impact was such that I would like to record it – though many, many people in Scotland will have had similar experiences thanks to her energy and dynamism.
I first met her in the early eighties. She was guest speaker at the foundation of the SNP’s Marchmont Branch – it was my task to meet her at the airport and get her to the venue.
I was twenty something, and greeting the London flight I had all the nerves you would expect from someone about to meet a hero.
While I waited, as you do, I rehearsed my greeting: “Hallo, Margo, I’m from Marchmont SNP.” “Hello, I’m Sean. From Marchmont SNP.” Hi! The car’s outside….”. The more I tried to prepare, the worse I got.
Suddenly, the familiar figure was coming down the steps. Before I could open my mouth, she came towards me:
“Sean? Hallo! Thanks for coming – I’ve no luggage but I’m dying to stretch my legs.”
I think she talked all the way into town – it was as if she’d known me all her life. Later we all came to know that that was just Margo – but for me just then, it was a revelation.
After the hugely successful meeting, she asked if I could give her a lift to Dean Village. There followed more chat – about the Branch and the possibilities in the future. By the time I dropped her off, I felt totally comfortable in her company. But, as I reversed the car, there was a knock on the window. As I wound it down she was pointing to the back seat – “I forgot my poly bag,” she said. It’s my nightie – I’m staying with a friend!” – and with a big wink she grabbed the bag and gave a wave. I could have had a political scoop that night – but for a combination of naivity and discretion!
Over the years I would invite her to speak in the various schools in which I taught. Along with Neil McCormack and Jim Sillars, she had the most impact of any of the political figures whom I invited over the years – and that included former Cabinet Ministers and folk from all parties. With Neil it was his intellect and his ability to put over the message simply, with Jim it was his passion, but with Margo it was, above all else, her humanity – and the way in which it connected with people.
Latterly, I would introduce her as the only politician I had ever voted for who had actually won, but she seldom talked direct politics to the pupils – even when it was part of a political forum. She talked about having opinions, getting involved, making a difference, being confident in your beliefs. But, in amongst the grand ideas would be clothes and make up, Hibs, her children and grandchildren, girls’ sport and the pleasure of being part of ‘the awkward squad’. Even in later years, when the travelling was difficult, she never let us down, always had us laughing and thinking in equal parts. She charmed the boys, of course, but she energized and motivated the girls, most of whom had never met or listened to a female politician who could connect with them so directly, in such every day language, and with such lack of pretension. I used to think as I listened to her that she must have been one helluva great PE teacher.
How she blossomed in those ‘Independent’ years as MSP for the Lothians. Freed from the kind of Party constraints which had never meant that much to her anyway, she became the conscience of the Parliament and, in many ways, of the nation. Her advice was freely given to all comers and was seldom ignored, as it was usually right. She didn’t suffer fools easily, but neither did she condemn them. Her husband’s twitter handle may be @NaeFear, but hers could well have been @NaeBitter.
She was a shining light in the frequent murk of politics; she brought respect to every cause she championed and hope to those she supported, and to those to whom she listened. To see and hear Margo in action was to realise that there is a better way, that politics can serve the people, and that ego and complexity don’t have to be part of the political package. She listened, she learned, and she fought. Oh how she fought.
It’s cruel to think we have lost her so close to the vote for which she worked all her political life, but her voice was never one which depended on her physical presence, it was always there, even in her absence, like commonsense. Her influence will remain, and she will be tapping on shoulders and asking uncomfortable questions of many as they head into the voting booths on September 18th. On that day, we have the opportunity to give her the only memorial she would ever have wanted.
For Jim – her partner in so many ways, for her girls and their families, and for all who knew and loved her, the world will be a little quieter, a little more predictable, and a lot less fun. The term ‘Blonde Bombshell’ will never be quite so redolent or relevant. We can only hope that their loss is made more bearable by the knowledge that she was loved without reservation across the country – and often in the most surprising places, a fact she enjoyed immensely.
The words on the Mace at the front of the Scottish Parliament read: “Wisdom, Integrity, Compassion, Justice”. They could have saved themselves the cost of the engraving. They only had to look over to the now empty chair in the back left corner of the chamber. All those values – and more, were personified by the woman from Hamilton, via Govan, and Edinburgh.
Maybe they should just leave that chair empty – who could fill it?
Thank you, Margo. Rest easy at last.
I was sad to hear today of the passing of one of my former teachers, Vic McLellan. He had the unenviable task of trying to improve both my Latin and my cricket whilst I was at school, and managed to attempt both with a fair amount of humour, sharp though it usually was.
I am currently writing a book on education, based on my own experiences, both at school and as a teacher for 37 years, ending up as a Deputy Head. Inevitably, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on bygone days and the impact that teachers have on their pupils. I’ve discovered that what we remember, what remains important to us, and the effect of teachers on pupils, is not as straightforward as one might think.
Vic was not the most influential of my teachers. Latin was a chore to me and, for all his efforts, I was never going to reward his cricket coaching with anything but middle of the road ability. However, he had a habit of turning up wherever I was, and, I have to admit, I found that quite comforting.
I actually knew of him before he ever taught me.
At my school, St Mary’s Crosby, on Merseyside, there was a long corridor in the science department; along its walls were placed photographs of distinguished former pupils. This being the early sixties, and a boys school, the black frames housed pictures of earnest 18 year olds, in university blazers and ties, staring boldly at the camera – equally embarrassed and proud of their academic success. To our 60s eyes, they all looked as if they were in their forties! Amongst them was Victor McLellan, proud winner of a scholarship to London University in 1954 looking practically identical to the Latin and cricket teacher who now walked these very corridors. It’s not cool now to admit it and it would have been peer suicide to have mentioned it then, but reviewing the corridor of success, this pupil, at least, used to wonder if he would ever emulate them one day.
Eventually, he became my Latin teacher. Those were very different times for teaching and education. Formality ruled the classroom, surnames rather than Christian names were the norm and most teachers employed a kind of sarcastic wit to ‘engage’ with their pupils – at least in our school. Vic was a master of this – indeed, all my life when struggling to define the term ‘acerbic’, Vic’s comments and ripostes have come to mind.
However, whilst some staff gave the impression they employed such an approach to belittle pupils and bully them, with Vic, I always had the impression that it was a disguise for a kind of robust affection. Later when I came to know him as an adult, I suspected I had been right. For all that, you wouldn’t want to forget your homework or become distracted in his classes and while he could be hugely humorous, he also had the ability to be cutting, especially when he felt we were not adhering to his high standards.
By the time I was in my later teens, I would bump into him at my local cricket club, Southport and Birkdale, and he would be relaxed enough to use my school nickname, ‘Jock’ when chatting to me; it felt a bit like praise.
When I returned to my hometown of Edinburgh to attend university, Vic had made a similar move and was assistant head at St Augustine’s High School in the west of the city. Despite being a long held ambition, returning to my birthplace at 18, twelve years after I had left, was not as easy as I had hoped. There were two of us from St Mary’s starting at Edinburgh. The other guy was not a particular friend of mine and was socially rather awkward. However, Vic made a point of inviting us out to his house for a meal shortly after we had arrived in Edinburgh.
It must have been a strange evening. In those days, pupils had no inkling of their teacher’s private lives outside of school, and given the formality of the classroom, relationships were quite minimal. Vic and his wife, Annette, were lovely hosts – she was quite stunning, as well as friendly, and Vic in relaxed mode was hugely amusing.
I chattered away non-stop and my fellow pupil sat quietly saying very little. Eventually, I made noises about leaving and Vic said he would give us a run back to Halls of Residence. I demurred, saying we would be happy to get a bus. This received a classic Vic response:
“No you won’t. It’s half past one in the morning, the last bus went two hours ago!” This was delivered with a twinkle in the eye and a rattling of car keys.
It was typical that Vic would think to invite us out to his house for a meal and then be a charming host till that hour in the morning – especially in times so different to these.
When I finished at university, four years later, I immediately joined a local cricket club: Holy Cross Academicals. I remember turning up for my first net practice, only to find a familiar figure bowling at speed with his familiar slingy action.
“Hallo, Jock – hope you’ve improved since your school days!”
Again, his presence helped me settle, and it was good to start forging a friendship based on a shared pastime.
I then went to Moray House College, and, as it happened, my first school for teaching practice placement a year later was St Augustine’s High – and I wondered if I might see Vic again. Having to negotiate buses from the far side of the city, I was a few minutes late. Flustered, I ran in to the secretary’s office and she indicated the door through which I should go for the welcome meeting.
I burst into the room to find half a dozen students gathered round a desk at which Vic was sitting. Hardly breaking his flow he looked up, raised an eyebrow, said “Good morning, Jock. Glad you could make it.” He turned back to the puzzled students and said: “I already know this one,” and carried on his welcome.
In a strange way it was very settling!
Thereafter, my connections with Vic lessened as he eventually moved back to the Liverpool area where he had a successful career in education – including being headteacher in a number of schools. He continued to be a forceful character – one of the last mentions I saw of him in the press was a fairly spirited defence of corporal punishment, – but I would occasionally see him at Southport and Birkdale when Lancashire played there regularly. It was always pleasant to bump into him on the boundary and chat. Inevitably there would be laughter and reminiscence – and the odd dig or two, and then a pat on the arm: “Good to see you, Jock – take care!”
I contacted him some time ago through one of those ‘old school sites’. He had retired and been through a serious operation. With a classic McLellanism, he described it thus: “Now all my plumbing is on the outside – like the Pompideau Building!”
It’s a strange thing to say, but I found the power of the human spirit over adversity contained in that remark to be quite inspiring – and a sign that the original Vic was still very much alive and kicking. How wonderful for a teacher to be still inspiring his pupils in such circumstances and after so many years.
Vic was a great Quiz man, and I have pals in Southport who, over the years, have confirmed when meeting him, the humour was the same, the gruff affection and the sharpness. It’s fitting that the only picture I found of him on the internet, used at the head of this blog, was from last year, with a Quiz Trophy – I find that very comforting.
So, while I am sad to hear of his passing, I can’t help but feel proud to have known him, and grateful for his impact on my life. He was an intelligent, thoughtful and committed teacher, a man who was never afraid to show his Faith, and an individual who never did things by halves. Despite the differences in our approaches to the profession and the times in which we taught, he was a role model and I hope I lived up to his standards.
Coincidentally, in the Blog I write for Cricket Scotland, I make reference to a ‘Vic moment’ at the end of its current edition. I had been writing tongue in cheek last week about coaching, and finished the piece with something which happened when Holy Cross were on tour and played against Southport and Birkdale in the 1980s. I was bowling badly and being carted all over the ground. At the end of a particularly horrendous over, Vic, who was umpiring, gave me my cap with a ‘Dear me!’ and a shake of his head. I should really have known better – but I replied with a bit of a pout:
“Well – it was you who taught me how to bowl!”
“Yes, ” he said with a world weary sigh. “But I didn’t tell you to do it with your eyes closed!”
All teachers want to make a difference. Vic McLellan certainly did.
I will miss him, and his humour, his energy, and his commitment. I’ve always expected him to turn up somewhere with that crooked smile and witty comment.
A bit of a hero, really. God bless him.
Some heroes loom large, full sized posters on the bedroom walls of your life; others exist more subtly, to be uncovered during infrequent fumblings through half forgotten drawers, and attic boxes.
Pete Seeger, who died today, exists, for me, in the latter area. He was always there, a voice in the background, the reason for so much.
It’s a Saturday morning in the early sixties. I’m lying comfortably in bed, sun shining through the window, a whiff of breakfast from downstairs, and a whole, long, ten year old’s weekend ahead of me. Reaching out to my Dansette radio, I click the switch and hear the reassuring sound of “Uncle Mac” on “Children’s Favourites”.
Before the Pirate ships, there was only “The Light Programme” on the BBC. It was my sole intake of recorded music for the week, and its playlists remain clear a lifetime later.
Although some ‘Top Ten Hits” were played, largely the requests we heard were familiar favourites: “The Railway runs through the middle of the house” by Alma Cogan, “Sparky’s magic piano”, Danny Kaye and “The Ugly Duckling”, Michael Holliday’s “The Story of my life”, Stan Freeberg’s “Bannana Boat Song” and Pinky and Perky’s take on just about anything.
However, amongst this light entertainment confectionery, were some songs which were, clearly, too subtle for the BBC’s still Reithian censorship department.
The first was Pete Seeger singing “Little Boxes”. It’s a song which seems like it’s always been in my head. I remember asking my mother – what’s that about? And she explained it was about people living in houses which were all the same and could make their lives seem all the same.
It was an early understanding that songs could make a point about people and life as well as sounding good. It shaped how I thought about music. “Boxes” was written by Seeger’s friend, Malvina Reynolds, but, for me, as it is for millions, it’s Pete’s voice singing it which echoes down through the years.
There were other Saturday morning regulars: Trini Lopez singing “If I had a hammer”, “Where have all the flowers gone?” from The Kingston Trio. Both from Seeger. Songs to make you think about the world, to express anger, and hope, and solidarity. Seeger’s influence was there even when I didn’t realize it – and it would continue:
The Byrds singing “Turn Turn Turn”, “Guantanamera” for the Cuban people, numerous demonstrations singing “We shall Overcome”, appreciating and loving Woody Guthrie and Tom Paxton, my own guitar, my own songs, Springsteen, the understanding or belief that if music was not part of your life it was nothing, and vice versa.
All started with those “Little Boxes on the hillside, all made out of ticky tack”.
I never got to see Pete live – though decades later I had the privilege of seeing his half sister Peggy, with another songwriting political hero, Ewan MacColl, in the unlikely setting of Portobello Town Hall. When I listen to “Free World”, by another much loved singer, Ewan’s daughter, Kirsty, I hear the echoes of Seeger and what he started, popularized, and brought to greatness – the idea of the people’s music to change the world.
“I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”
Rest easy, Pete, one day, we shall overcome.
Hearing of the death of Ronnie Biggs sent me into a reflective mood: not just about the Train Robbery, but also about news journalism in those far off days of the early 60s.
When the cleverly planned heist was imperfectly executed at Sears Crossing near Bridego Bridge at Mentmore in Buckinghamshire, I was just 11 years old. Already I was fascinated by newspapers and news, and it strikes me, as I write this, that many of my memories of contemporary news are actually templated by the front page of the Daily Express – the paper of choice in mine and maybe the majority of households at the time.
“Kennedy assassinated”, “Marilyn found dead” and many others, in huge headline print on a full sized, black, white and grey broadsheet page are like icons for the relevant bits of my memory folders, and, though old buffers such as myself, are never slow to rant about the iniquities of rolling news, sound bite broadcasting, and shallow writing, it’s actually quite an effort to recall how different news coverage was in those days.
This was only a generation after the BBC Radio News had solemnly intoned one morning: “There is no news – as the world has been asleep for the last 12 hours”; television newsreaders had only appeared on screen in 1955 – before that the news had been read by a disembodied voice over a series of still pictures and graphics.
When I first flew into Ha Noi a decade ago, I realized that, despite nightly news coverage throughout the 60s, my only true image of the city was its name printed in black on a grey map of north Viet Nam.
It sounds like a strange claim but there was less news in those days. That applies obviously to the number of bulletins available on radio or television, but also to the accessibility of information and sources. Much that was reported came from government sources and was often intoned by elderly men in sensible suits. If they were outside they would be wearing hats or possibly getting in and out of cars with a wave. To report a major news event, a film crew needed to be dispatched, the film returned, processed, edited and included in the news coverage. For anywhere outside of the greater London area this all might take so long that the local Evening paper – or sometimes the following day’s Daily, would have ‘got the scoop’.
Well into the 60s, the best way of seeing good quality, colour footage of major events was probably the cinema’s newsreels. The news was up to two weeks ‘old’, but at least you could see what had happened.
The rapid development over the next few years of landline and then satellite communications technology changed all that, of course, and soon ‘live from the scene’ became a commonplace on the television news, albeit requiring the use of heavy and bulky equipment. My first clear memory of extended live coverage of a news event was of the Aberfan disaster in October 1966, and, tragically, that was only made possible by the length of time it took to clear the sludge and slurry and uncover the school building. It was another first in that I think it was the first time news had been broadcast specially during day time rather than in the evening.
So news access was limited in the early 60s and you had the feeling that state of affairs was very satisfactory to the Establishment (See Lucan ). It was an attitude which perhaps explains the government’s almost total failure to deal with the Profumo affair once the press had started to report it in depth.
If you take a news agenda which was heavily political, limited in live coverage, controlled by the establishment, and with little connection with local people, it’s not surprising that an event like the Train Robbery – with an equivalent of £40 million stolen – got big treatment from the media. The fact that it happened on August 8th – prime silly season territory – only added to its allure, for the newspapers especially.
In a sense, it was the story that kept on giving for newshounds, and conveniently placed for Fleet Street. There was the robbery, the search for the robbers, their capture, their trials, their sentencing, their escapes, the worldwide searches, the recaptures, their ‘afterlives’ and now their demise. Throw in the mixture of “The Mail Train”, nicknames for both cops and robbers, and a cheeky chappy like Ronald Biggs, and it was an editor’s dream of an event.
This explains partly why it has remained so visible in the public’s eye. The media promoted it, many of the Robbers eventually caught on to the possibility of legitimate gains from their ‘stories’, which they told with varying amounts of honesty or accuracy, and, for the public, it became one of those events symbolic of the pre-Beatles Sixties, all black and white, strange cars, and men in hats and raincoats.
There’s another reason as well, of course. In a society as repressed and repressive as the fifties and sixties were in Britain, there was always the temptation to celebrate the cocking of a snook at authority, especially if it could be done vicariously. The response: “Good on yer, lads” reflects this, as well as a bizarre sentimentality about crime, which perisists when folk talk about that particular era, as being peopled by those who were ‘good to their mums’ and wouldn’t hurt a fly if they could help it. It doesn’t sit well with the brutal activities of the Krays and their colleagues in ‘the Smoke’, but the Train Robbers were low enough in the food chain to be dissociated with that brand of violence; even the coshing of driver Mills seems to have been a result of panic rather than intent – when the gang discovered ‘Biggsy’ had provided an engine driver unfamiliar with the model being used on the Mail Train.
Perhaps Bruce Reynolds and co merely benefited from that strange British choice of underworld heroes ranging from Robin Hood through Dick Turpin to Rob Roy – all seemingly portrayed at one time or other by David Niven!
And what of the Train Robbers? Do they deserve their position in 20th Century folklore? I suppose they do, albeit tongue in cheek. It was an audacious raid which took advantage of almost incredible laxness of security on behalf of the GPO; it was relatively well planned by the standards of the time, despite some glaring errors and mistakes, and the various escapes and manhunts entertained the public in some grey times. As one of the policemen commented on Ronnie Biggs: “At least he brought some comedy to the grim world of crime.”
I think it’s possible to let the Robbers raise a wry smile without necessarily glorifying what they did. It’s not even clear whether their story supports the tenet that crime doesn’t pay, or not. Certainly those of my political persuasion would suggest far more money was robbed from the Post Office more recently.
A lot of families found their lives ruined by what happened at Sears Crossing and later on – from the partners and children of the Robbers themselves, to the obsessed amongst the police investigators, to the two who were on the footplate of the engine. Driver Mills, despite persistent myth, died from leukaemia around 7 years later, not the effects of his injuries during the robbery, though he never worked again, and his fireman that day, David Whitby, died in 1972 at the young age of 34, from a heart attack. This is not to defend the use of violence, but it does reflect the level of misinformation grown up around the whole event.
Were the Robbers the clever masterminds they were made out to be in some parts of the media? Not really – their crime was ingenious in part but, had they been as clever as they thought, they would have been earning an honest living – and they wouldn’t have been caught. It’s tempting to suggest that these days they would have been working in the City – for far higher takings.
From a news point of view, it was the right crime in the right place at the right time; it was about the last time in their lives that the Robbers’ timing was that fortunate.