It’s a long way from the parish of Kilbeacanty, near Gort in Co Galway, to Rondebosch in the suburbs of Cape Town, but they are linked, sadly, as the homeplaces of Galway county Hurler, Niall Donoghue, and England Test Cricketer, Jonathan Trott.
Donoghue took his own life in October, just days before his 23rd birthday, to the shock and pain of the whole GAA Community in Ireland; Trott, like a number of cricketers before him, admitted to stress issues before pulling out of cricket and flying home from England’s current English Ashes Tour.
Such events inevitably give rise to comment and reaction, but, equally predictably, the news agenda moves on, until the next time.
At first sight, there is little to connect inter-county hurling and Test Match cricket. One is proudly amateur and linked to the community right down to parish and townland level, the other is part of the multi-billion pound business that international sport and television coverage has become; one player lived in constant contact with his home community, the other in the bubble of top level sporting achievement. Yet both felt personal pressure and isolation; in both cases their mental health suffered.
The connection, of course, is that you cannot generalize about mental health; by definition it is personal to each of us and can be affected in ways which vary from pressure to succeed, traumatic family events, to chemical imbalance. One’s private, hidden, reaction to incidents which may be of no account at all to those around us – even our closest family and friends, is often the crucial element in depression. In isolating the sufferer in this way, it is at its most pernicious.
Young men, in particular, often face challenging mental health issues – and at a time in their life where they may feel pressure to forge a career, shine amongst friends, establish successful relationships and, in general, live up to the template provided for the young by marketing and media around the world.
Wherever he went in his homeplace, Niall was recognized and known: he was the star in the local club who had made it to county level, he had played in an all Ireland
Final at Croke Park: youngsters wanted to be him, parents wanted him as a son, everyone told him how proud they were. This in itself is pressure, of course, but when such admiration is contrasted with an inner feeling of unworthiness or inability to live up to expectations – or even a fear of not being able to maintain current levels of success – it can become, for some young men, unbearable. The feeling is: I can’t be what they think I am, or what they want me to be, I can’t bear to let them down. It feels like a loss of control over your own development, your own abilities, maybe even your own private aspirations. You start off wanting to be successful at your sport, your job, your studies and you end up carrying the hopes and expectations of everyone you meet in your day to day life,
Like all high level international sports stars, Jonathan Trott is at the other extreme of this pressure. To an extent, he is cocooned from the fans and supporters and their expectations, he lives in an expensive bubble, a repetition of training, travel, playing and analyzing. He is surrounded not by admiring friends and neighbours, but by team mates on the same treadmill – all of whom appear to him to be coping, and by an inquisitive and often overbearing press, who want quotable quotes and controversial predictions. They expect him to have inspiration when it’s all going right and explanations when the wheels fall off. The joys of sporting success – mastery of your craft, the highs of victory – can be lost in the need to move on, maintain the levels, seek improvement, and meet the requirements of team, media and sponsors. Those closest to you in family and friends can be physically distant for much of the time, and you may find yourself unhappily emotionally distant when they are physically present.
Of course, many sports stars flourish in such an atmosphere, they relish constant pressure and challenge – it’s part of what has brought them to their position of excellence. For others, it’s an unwelcome and unexpected part of success or talent, an uninvited guest at what was supposed to be a celebratory party.
When depression hits, it can be impossible to share the feelings. You may feel ungrateful – you are successful and popular, how can you tell people you’re unhappy? Friends have bigger and more obvious troubles than you, it would be selfish to share your feelings. And then, of course, there is the seemingly unbreakable link between being a sports star and exhibiting machismo.
As a teacher for nearly 40 years, I became aware of mental health issues in young people – particularly males; on more than one occasion my career was touched by tragic suicides.
What did I learn? Did I become an expert?
Of course not.
I discovered that expecting to be able to detect depression was a mistake. No matter how vigilant, you can’t always expect to detect ‘the signs’; there is not a ‘type’ who may succumb to depression, nor are the trigger points necessarily obvious. For all these reasons ‘treatment’ of mental illness is not an obvious solution; it may be managed or assuaged but not necessarily ‘cured’.
What I did see in many, though not all, of those with mental health issues, (and they were mainly, but not exclusively male), was anger. Like the illness, the anger could be directed inwardly or towards others, it could be specific or generalized. Often it led to challenging behaviour, frequently it scared the perpetrator as much, if not more, than the victim. It was anger born from a thousand different frustrations, incomprehension, a feeling of ignorance or powerlessness, the suspicion that everyone else had it sorted, or an inability to understand where this blackness came from.
Family, peers, activities, lifestyle or personal history could be responsible. Sometimes it was a physical, chemical imbalance, sometimes it seemed to be, at least to inexpert observers, almost completely unattributable. There are many reasons for anger amongst young males in Scotland and Ireland – social and economic, all linking with the psychological impulse to self hate, to struggle in confusion, or to choose isolation, often disguised by apparent social easiness. In the absence of any other release, self harm – emotional and physical, violence, nihilism and substance misuse all play their part in promoting this unhappiness, and impacting on those around the victim.
You would expect trouble when all of these impulses are combined with the competitive masculinity of sporting contest – whether it’s team based or individual. When performed in good mental health, sport can be an ideal release for emotions and ambition; when it mixes with personal challenges, it can be an awful mixture.
It should be noted, though, that academic competitiveness, dedication to the arts, peer popularity and many other spheres which are important in young people’s lives can be as much of a trigger as sport.
The danger is that forceful aggression is being seen somehow as a means of demonstrating strength and confidence, when, in reality it is a sign of weakness. The language and messages to be seen on teenagers’ social media sites often display a horrifying lack of awarenesss of impact.
Sportsmen, being in the public eye, tend to attract high level attention when their mental health problems are known, but really they are only the visible tip of a lethal iceberg. All of us can be affected by mental health issues, one in three or four of us will be. Sport, however, occupies a prominence in our psyche which sometimes borders on the unhealthy but could therefore be used, perhaps, as a means of promoting better mental health. Certainly regular exercise is helpful, but, the manner in which the media leads us in our reactions to sportsmen’s troubles could be crucial. And the media have played their part in the situation we have today.
Sport sells, and sponsors underwrite sporting success. In a sense, sports stars have become the moving advertising hoardings for a variety of products; the pressure is on the broadcasters, in particular, to provide thrilling and controversial ‘do not miss’ coverage. It’s in the nature of sport that it cannot always be riveting, so other ways need to be found to attract the viewer, even when the game is lacking in incident or atmosphere. Increasingly, fouls, altercations, sledging, and rule breaking receive as much playback, if not more, as moments of skill or individual ability.
Any young person watching coverage of “The Battle for the Ashes” could be forgiven for believing that the ability to stand up to foul mouthed abuse and physical threats was at least as important as technical ability with bat or ball. And it takes two to tango. Those who sledge will only do so if they gain a response. At times we see professional sportsmen acting like primary school children, facing up to each other, offering threats, calling names. The effect of this can be seen at any children’s sports event as kids mimic their heroes.
If this was merely grown men acting embarrassingly, it could be tholed, albeit with some regret. However, it promotes a faux macho sheen to sport which adds to the pressure on those who take part, and on those who emulate them. Furthermore, by highlighting such scenes, the media fuels the belief that you have to be ‘tough’ to succeed. What a stupid comment is the almost universal “It’s a man’s sport!” – seldom accurate and frequently unhelpful. We need to escape from using sport as a substitute for our emotions and see it as a release for them.
Nobody is denying the strength of purpose and commitment needed to attain success at the highest sporting level, but it should be remembered that sport has been played for centuries without the need for personal abuse or denigration being an accepted part of the approach. Not so long ago, accepting victory or defeat with good grace, and respecting one’s opponents was an integral part of most sports. It was seen as a mark of maturity. But, of course, there was far less money at stake then.
Cricket has a reputation for being linked with depression. David Frith has written on suicides in the game and there have been several high profile casualties in recent years. It may be that the game attracts a certain type of personality; it may be to do with its particular combination of team and individual, social and reflective involvement. Thankfully, various organizations seem to be taking this on board.
Ultimately, however, whether depression is sports related or not, it is an increasing danger, particularly to our young people, and the question is what can be done to minimize its effects.
As I said, there is no sure ‘cure’ but there is much that can be done to encourage an end to the isolation of those who are affected in this way. They must be encouraged to share their feelings, and examples of sharing and talking are crucial. In the aftermath of Niall Donoghue’s death, a number of Irish sports stars talked of their struggles with stress and depression as part of general concern and shock at what had happened. The cricket world has also spoken up in the wake of Trott’s revelations.
Making discussion of mental wellbeing a ‘normal’ part of young people’s dialogue is crucial. Schools have their part to play and so do sporting organizations – so do the sports stars who are role models and so do the media who choose how to promote their ‘product’.
What a huge boost the nation’s mental health consciousness would receive if sport stations, instead of highlighting unpleasantness and macho posturing between players, pulled their cameras away and promoted organizations like SAMH or made points about mental health and the need to talk.
The sledging received by Jonathan Trott in the current Ashes series was not responsible for his current problems which pre-dated it by months of not years; it did, however, promote an unhealthy atmosphere of threat and aggression above and beyond the cricketing competition. Sportsmen will always seek a competitive edge but the promotion of non-sport related aggression as part of our games is surely not the way to go.
We need to get the message to our young people, whether involved in sport or not, that the real bravery lies in sharing not sledging.
I have a theory that, when people ask of my generation: “Can you remember what you were doing when Kennedy was shot?”, the inquiry is about far more than it appears on the surface. (And, by the way, you won’t find mention of ‘theory’ or, indeed, ‘conspiracy’ again in this piece.)
I think that, inevitably, for anyone who lived through the twentieth century, their times were split between ‘before’ and ‘after’ Dallas. However, it’s entirely fanciful to talk of ‘the loss of innocence’ in respect of Kennedy’s assassination, and quite an insult to our elders who had already lived through the carnage of first and second world wars. Evil wasn’t invented on November 22nd 1963, but it did pay a fairly forceful visit to the minds of those of us who were pre-teen at the time. For my generation it was the first time we had even heard the word ‘assassination’. Those who ask if we can remember where we were when we heard of his death are really seeking to understand his impact and why his memory still resonates.
Two elements come to mind.
First, for post war babies, we were blessed to avoid war and even national service. If you were lucky, violence was associated with Teddy Boys wrecking cinemas, occasional front page murder headlines or the westerns and police procedurals we saw on television or in the cinema. In short, it happened somewhere else and to other people. And it didn’t seem quite real, even when it was. The idea of a political leader being killed, though it was happening around the world, was not one which we associated with the USA or the ‘familiar’ western world, at that point.
Secondly, we need to consider the impact of John F Kennedy on the world of the early 60s. Nearly everywhere, political leaders were men born in the 19th Century. They seemed ideally suited to the black and white television newsreels of the time – grey, drab and indistinguishable. They wore hats and overcoats, mumbled when they talked, and were, generally, boosted by wartime exploits which took place long before we were born and meant little to us in our childhood.
Enter John Kennedy: young, hatless, usually without a coat, with a glamorous wife and two young photogenic children. And in my household: Catholic – check, Irish – check. When he gave speeches, he inspired, when he told jokes they were funny, when he produced an aside it seemed to come from natural wit rather than a speechwriter’s pen. He valued the arts and sought advice from the brightest brains – be they political or not.
He captured the world’s attention because he was different, and because he brought vitality to a near moribund political scene. He entered a world which still had to glorify youth as opposed to age and experience; perhaps trailblazing in advance of the beat music explosion. He was often described as the first world leader to be born in the twentieth century. He was certainly the first to maximize the effects of new possibilities in communication.
In short, it was near impossible to imagine anything happening to him. Although Jackie Kennedy coined the idea of ‘Camelot’ after his death, the image he presented was one of hope and enthusiasm; it was certainly potent enough to suggest to folk of my age, just starting secondary school, that politics might be a possible agent for change, that it might be a good thing to aspire to a career of service.
Those who, retrospectively, point to his unfulfilled promise, his hidden failings, his manipulation of the media, are missing the point. Kennedy’s impact was to fuel an interest in politics, set a generation towards a new way of considering public service, aspiring to find words that would inspire. The future, especially after the Cuban crisis, became something to welcome, to grab, to shape. That was the feeling at the time, a feeling which directed many of our lives politically speaking.
It matters not if today’s generation, cynical in their political attitudes, ridicule the effect the young New Englander had on the world of his contemporaries. Those who lived through those times never again had political leadership and inspiration like that which was provided by JFK, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King. The times which followed their deaths, and the politicians who replaced them, militated against such hope and idealism. His death, sudden, awful, and totally unexpected, seemed to be a warning that reaching too high could only end in failure. The trauma of his death was exacerbated hugely by its shock, its unexpectedness, and the strength and influence of his presence in our world.
That is why, when I came downstairs on Friday November 22nd 1963, having completed my geography homework, the news of John Kennedy’s death felt like the start of my growing up.
Like many of my generation, I had been left with the hope and the idealism, but had lost the energy and charm of the man who seemed to make it all possible.
Tomorrow will be the 50th Annniversary of the day I started attending live football – and every other weekend since – and frequently more often, attendance at a football ground has been my norm.
I must have seen thousands of players and games, and, inevitably, a lot of the action merges into a blur. However, there are individuals and teams who stand out – perhaps for a particular goal, a save, a passage of play, or even a bit of madness.
One of the teams who stand out are the Hibs’ side who were the legendary Turnbull’s Tornadoes. Across the football world they are recognized as one of Scotland’s greatest sides. Each of the players was distinctive, and in Pat Stanton, the team was led by a man who could only be referred to as “Mr Hibs”.
However, one player in that side, not the most talented, but certainly the most committed, has a story which is truly unique.
Consider that team’s left back: Erich Schaedler. Born in the Scottish Borders to a father who had been a German PoW, he went on to win his only cap for Scotland against West Germany. In an age when most players’ post training routine was a steak pie supper and a couple of pints, he was fanatical about fitness, fascinated by physiotherapy, and highly aware of the physiological elements of sport. His tackling was fierce but his approach was fair. He was a joker who could be intense, a loner who was loved by all who knew him, a near teetotaller who ran two pubs, and a much admired hero who died alone, at Christmas, apparently by his own hand, and at the painfully young age of 36, whilst still a professional footballer
Football biographies are not easy to write: they can easily stray into the land of self justifying anecdotes and tedious lists of games and results. Erich Schaedler deserved better than that, and, thankfully he has received it in Colin Leslie’s fine tribute to him: Shades: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Erich Schaedler from Black and White Publishing.
The details of his early career in the Borders, his short spell with Stirling Albion, his long love affair with Hibs, his success with Dundee and his final stop at Dumbarton are all well covered, but always in a manner which tells us more about the man himself and his complex relationship with the game he loved.
As Colin suggests, there were more than enough rumours flying about Edinburgh after his demise, to engender a sensationalist potboiler of the worst kind. However, while stating his wish that he wanted to find out, at least for Erich’s family, more facts about his death and the reasons behind it, the author is principled enough to avoid tabloid speculation, and honest enough to admit that the mystery still remains.
“Shades” is a good read – but it’s more than that. It’s a reminder to sports fans that their heroes are human and composed of more than their public image. In times when depression in sportmen is beginning to gain more consideration, Colin’s approach to whatever demons Erich may have had, and the wise words of his former team mate and SPFA leader, Tony Higgins, on the support that is needed for professionals, particularly at the end of their careers, lend this biography a gravity which extends far beyond the story of this one player and one life.
Inevitably, there is a melancholy hanging over Schaedler’s story – but there is much to raise a smile: his weakness for fast cars, his pranks with fellow players, his kindness to fans at every club, the respect of his fellow pros, the dive from the tour hotel balcony into the swimming pool, his determination to be first up Arthur’s Seat on training runs and, I suppose, his defining moment, his crunching tackle on Dave Clunie in the lead up to Hibs 7th goal in “The Greatest Game ever played” in January 1973.
Everyone who knew him was shocked at the manner of his death, and clearly – among all of his family, team mates, and supporters, there is a sharp appreciation of what might have been, and a collective guilt that they might have done more to change his life. However, if the honesty in this book helps others to be more alert to a loved one’s despair, or encourages even more awareness of the issues sportsmen can face, then Erich Schadler, nearly three decades after his death, will still be doing what he did in life – helping others and inspiring them.
Colin Leslie may have been apprehensive that he might not do Erich Schaedler justice. He needn’t have worried. Erich was no run of the mill footballer, and this is no run of the mill biography.
It is respectful without being hagiography, brings insight without intrusion, and, like the much mourned Erich himself, is effective, sensitive and to the point.
So, as Pat Fenlon leaves and Terry Butcher is welcomed to Easter Rd, where stand the Hibs now?
Well, first to assess Pat’s reign at Hibernian FC. Success or failure?
Always a tricky question that but there are many who would claim quite simply that he failed and it was time for him to go. I might agree with the second part of that assessment, but not the first.
It’s clear that Fenlon inherited a situation which was almost terminal for the club. Squad morale and discipline was as poor as it could be, there was no direction and little structure at the club. There was a squad of players with no concern for Hibernian, of limited talent, and with even less application to their career. The infrastructure to correct all these failings had also been allowed to atrophy.
Fenlon’s job was to address all of that, whilst, firstly preventing the financially disastrous slide into relegation, and then moving the club on to top 4 or 5 respectability. It was a big ask and it was also a task which was 80% or more to be accomplished out of sight of the fans.
His next task then was to translate a new solidity in the club to results in the league.
Arguably he achieved all of this except for the results bit. It’s fair enough to say that the results are what really count for a football club, but, as always, it’s much more complex than that. I don’t think anyone claims that you judge a school, for instance, solely by its exam results. Any sensible assessment would look at ethos, organization and concern for the individual – all elements which are difficult to explain or identify, especially when compared to the bare statistics of results. That’s not to say a school’s aim is not to achieve good results to its pupils, of course it is, but the way in which it achieves those results is just as important.
For many fans, only the points total counts. A common thread on the message boards is: “I don’t care what he does off the pitch as long as he scores goals” – as if a sportsman’s lifestyle has no connection with his on field prowess. There is a culture in Scotland which prizes maverick, if fleeting and unrealized, talent above the rigours of hard work and dedication. Jim Baxter will always be more admired than Lionel Messi by some people. It explains much of the malaise in our sports achievements over the past decades since the rest of the world wised up to the need for a professional approach.
Pat Fenlon’s problem was that his best work was done out of sight. He made the club ‘respectable’, if you like, brought it players whose attitude was professional, ensured that the organization behind the scenes was as it should be for a club of Hibs’ magnitude
Even the media, who, for whatever reason, often seem to glory in Hibs’ lack of achievement, admit that the talent and approach of the squad he has assembled is far superior to that which he inherited. However, consistency was missing on the pitch and the big games never seemed to go the right way. As the comic Tony Hancock wrote before his own departure from the scene: “It all seemed to go wrong too many times.”
Fenlon’s style of play has come in for criticism, and you would have to admit that at times it was eye bleedingly slow and cautious. I think he wanted Hibs to be hard to beat and I think he also felt he played a system suited to the players at his disposal. The multitude of similarly defensive central midfielders didn’t help his case but then, unlike some fans, I don’t claim to know why a pacey winger or a creative midfielder couldn’t be signed. Everyone, including Pat, knew that was what was needed, but it’s not Football Manager, the players you want or need can’t always be signed. Had Alex Harris not been injured, had Wolves not appointed a new manager who fancied trying Leigh Griffiths, had Tim Clancy’s injury not proved so obdurate, things may have been different. But as Franck Sauzee used to say, zat’s football.
True to his word, Pat left when he felt he wasn’t being successful with the next part of his plan – whatever the reasons for that. The word in Dublin is also that he had had enough of the bad mouthing and negativity. He’d achieved most of what he set out to do with Hibs, and with a business and family in Dublin, and a good chance of a top job in the League of Ireland before too long, he didn’t need the hassle.
Did that make him soft?
I don’t think so. Most folk in Ireland who have known him through his career as player and manager would tell you that Nutsy was always a hard wee man. I’m not sure though that Inchicore intensity translated too well to the peculiar world of Scottish football. Certainly, and oddly, given Hibs’ origins, he was faced with an unusually high level of disdain because of where he had come from, despite his accomplishments in the League of Ireland, and in Europe.
He was honest, hard working, and open, but I’m not sure a lot of the support had appreciation for those traits. He happened to be in a position that, when the negativity of the fans became overwhelming, he could walk away. Certainly it must have been frustrating to hear manager after manager telling his players: “Stifle Hibs for the first fifteen minutes and we’ll win, because the fans will get on their backs.” As I listen to the abuse from the fans week after week, it always amazes me that they think that somehow that will improve the situation. I liked Fenlon as a guy and I loved Hibs having a manager who didn’t make me cringe whenever he opened his mouth. I think he achieved all he could and left at the right time.
I suppose it depends why you go to the games. This Saturday will mark 50 years to the day since I started attending football every other weekend or even more regularly. That doesn’t make me an expert, but it gives me a frighteningly long perspective.
I have learned that no team can win all the time, that performances will frequently disappoint, and that players and managers will often make decisions which are completely baffling to the support. The press are fickle and not to be trusted a lot of the time, and television money has made the game a bit of a joke. I’ve also learned that walking into a football stadium is one of the best feelings you can experience, and I’ve loved being a live football supporter all my life. When the result is right and the performance dazzling, it’s brilliant – but when it’s defeat and gloom and rainy and cold – it’s still memories and mates and the thrill of the live experience and routine.
And as for Hibs?
Well – as a third generation supporter, they are quite simply my team. Not going to watch and support Hibs never enters my head. I’m lucky to be able to afford the time and money to follow them week in, week out, but I acknowledge if you have to make sacrifices to afford to go to the game, poor results and unsatisfying style must be very annoying. All I can say is that I want Hibs to be successful – but winning and playing with style – though desirable, are not conditions for my support, because I am a Hibee. What else would I do, where would I go?
I perceive them as a big club – partly because of their position relative to others in Scotland, mostly because of their history, heritage and tradition. The ‘first British club in Europe does not lose that position, no matter what follows. But in terms of sustained success?
Football tells us that no teams have any right to be constantly in the sun. Notts County, Wolves, Sheffield Wednesday, Dundee and Dunfermline all had periods when they dazzled, but have spent longer in the doldrums. Chelsea went 50 years or so without winning anything; Tottenham are a pale shadow of the famous Double winning side. Success ebbs and flows. Few teams win anything, even fewer can expect consistent success. In England, currently, outside of three or four teams, all the other Premiership sides are playing to get into Europe or avoid relegation, a league championship isn’t going to happen for them.
If we are honest, Hibs have been ‘underachievers’ always. Even the Famous Five side failed to reach all the heights it might have done, and all agree Turnbull’s Tornadoes should have achieved more. The second half of Mowbray’s tenure was poor and Collins was gone before he had started. Teams with a reputation for flair – often do just that – they flare up and then subside – and there is more darkness than light.
The stats tell us that Hibs historically are a middling side – with occasional flashes of success. That’s not to say it always has to be so, but it is the story so far.
Can Terry Butcher change that?
Well – change leading to success is often incremental and I think it’s worth looking at Fenlon and Butcher in that respect. Fenlon has laid the groundwork, Tel may well be the man who can build on that. He has said that he believes he has the ‘blocks in place’ upon which he can build. It’s also interesting that no matter how many players and managers praise Hibs excellent training centre, there are still fans who perceive it as ‘wasted money’. There is a big gap between fans’ perceptions and the realities of running a football club, just like there is a big gap between having everything in place and attaining success on the pitch. It is surely the unknown, the unpredictable and the element of luck which makes sport so endlessly fascinating?
So, there are no guarantees with any managerial appointment, just as there is no equation necessarily between the amount of money spent and the fulfillment of ambitions. All a club can do is to act sensibly, within its means, and with a view to ambition. When the chemistry is right – and that often happens by accident, success will follow
Terry Butcher seems to me to be a shrewd guy, who has learned from mistakes and carries a certain aura with him. Maybe that aura, added to the tactical nowse of Maurice Malpas and the talent spotting of Steve Marsella, will be what finally enables Hibs’ boat to come in. It will be fun finding out!
When the Hibs were founded in 1875, the major entertainment for the players’ countrymen back home in Ireland would have been dancing at the crossroads.
It seems to me that Hibernian have been dancing at the crossroads for far too long. It’s time to hit the road running and head in a positive direction.
Go on yersel, Tel!
Walking down the hill from Craiglockhart to Slateford today, it seemed to me that I have often walked in the footsteps of war poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action just before dawn 95 years ago today.
Of course, when he was at Craiglockhart War Hospital – the site of his fortunate and influential meeting with fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon – this busy suburban road would have been no more than a country lane. I like to imagine him walking through the leafy shadows, suitcase in hand, up and down to Slateford station. Maybe he even used this route, perhaps on a bicycle, to go to the old Tynecastle School, where, for a while, he taught English. He had operated as a tutor both in England and France, and I wonder if he dared imagine a teaching career after the War to facilitate his desperate desire to become a published poet.
Apart from the link with the place of my birth, and my career as a teacher of English, Owen also spent time in Southport in Lancashire, where I spent a decade as a child; he was gunnery officer on two occasions at the local firing ranges.
In addition, his schooling was at the Institute in Birkenhead on the Wirral, a school I knew well from many sporting fixtures against them when I was a teenager.
As I’ve written before, the discovery of Owen’s poetry, sublimely taught by an English teacher called Ernie Spencer, was the genesis of my love of poetry and English in general and, without doubt, led me to my teaching career.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, on this beautiful, autumnal blue skied, thrill of an afternoon, I chose to walk along the towpath of the Union Canal. It wasn’t a consciously made choice, but, of course, Owen fell in action while leading his men on the banks of the Sambre-Oise Canal near Ors in northern France, and it was difficult not to reflect on that fact as a setting sun set fire to the deep blue water.
I’ve followed in Owen’s footsteps on the battlefields too, winding up in Ors, walking the muddy towpath, gazing in to the murk of the drainage ditch beside it, wondering at the ability and bravery to attempt a crossing with machine gun fire coming from the opposite bank only thirty yards away.
There was a lot of determination displayed that morning; a VC was won and there were many individual acts of courage – though Owen’s own self deprecating brand of bravery involved going around his men, patting each on the back, muttering: “Well done, my man, you’re doing very well!” while helping shift duck boards into position on the slippy canal bank. When his service pistol from that morning was uncovered in his mother’s garden shed, years later, it was still loaded, it hadn’t been fired.
Many of us who feel their lives touched by Owen visit Ors. It is a tiny village, with a church and Mairie, and a café which is sometimes open and sometimes not. The houses are neat and well kept and on the bridge over the canal, by a lock station, is a plaque commemorating the young Poet who died along the canal bank.
The stretch of canal where Owen died is not remarkable; it curves gently in a slow bend, behind is a drainage ditch and low fields stretching back to the village; across the other side of the water, flat dairy fields and a couple of farm cottages, much the same as the scene which would have loomed intermittently out of the mist and above the spatter of machine gun fire in that early dawn in November 1918.
Further across the fields behind the town is the Forester’s Cottage where Owen spent his last night, having written a letter to his mother in its dank cellar on October 31st, in which he opined ‘of this you can be sure, I could not be surrounded by a better group of friends than I am here’. After years of neglect, the house has now become a modern and interactive museum to Owen – the cellar left as it was, the house still ironically surrounded by the barbed wire and security of a local military base. It’s a tangible reminder of the villagers’ consciousness of the young man who died nearby; they never fail to acknowledge the visitors when they pass them in the square or in the lanes; his memory is known locally.
I always wonder about Owen’s death; 25 years is such a short life, yet his comrade, Sassoon, who lived on till 1966, often seemed to envy Owen’s early death in a melancholy way. We can’t know how Owen would have developed as a man or as a poet.
Before the war he had been a great admirer of Keats and in awe of those poets and writers he met through Sassoon, like Robbie Ross, friend of Oscar Wilde. The feeling is that he was in love with the idea of being A Poet. Of course, the reality of war, and Sassoon’s own unexpected advice: “Sweat your guts out writing poetry” changed Owen’s perceptions and approaches to the poetic arts completely. From being a backward looking Romantic, he wrote poetry, inspired by ‘the Pity’, which was extremely ‘modern’. The poetry world he aspired to before the War was one of many casualties of the conflict, it was outmoded, partly by the poetry produced by Owen and his fellow poets in the trenches.
For all his ‘modern’ approach to his writing, I do wonder how Owen would have adapted to peace time, what subjects he would have found for his writing, whether he would have felt, as Sassoon appeared to, suffocated by his reputation as a ‘War Poet’.
One could never be positive about his tragically premature death, but there is a feeling, which Owen himself, as a Keatsian, would have appreciated, that to die young embellishes the reputation of a writer taken at the height of his first blooming of talent.
Having walked in Owen’s final footsteps on the canal bank, it was inevitable that I would visit his final resting place.
And it’s now that I start to realize the real appeal of Wilfred Owen.
He is buried not in one of the tragic but grand ‘white cities’ of death which litter the battlefields with row upon row of those ‘known unto God’. He lies in the village cemetery at Ors, in a small enclave of war graves, at the back of all the angels and crucifixes belonging to farmers and shopkeepers and carpenters.
The cemetery is in a lane which ends at the railway station. Not fifty yards from Owen’s grave is the classically French stationmaster’s house, a pleasing reminder of Owen’s father’s occupation. Like the canal where he fell, it’s an echo of his childhood. As a boy in Oswestry, he grew up in a town proscribed by two canals – the Llangollen and the Montgomery. Towpaths, like stations, were familiar to Owen.
At the end, we find him in restrained surroundings – no Menin Gate or Thiepval Monument; he is even overshadowed by the VC of Lt Col James Marshall, also killed at dawn on the canal, buried in the same row of neat whitestone graves.
I believe that, as his writing was changed by his experience of life, so were Owen’s expectations as a poet. Humanity overcame the need for artistic acclaim, communication outshone style, he was a poet who had found a message rather than a lifestyle.
I can imagine his shy smile, as the hundreds come to this small communal cemetery, seeking him out because of the pity in his poetry, enthralled by his talent, made thoughtful by the pictures he painted with his words. A young death, and a fame which lasted – particularly through the enthusiasm of pupils discovering the power of poetry through his lines. I think he would have liked that; I think he may have seen it as a poetic heroism to match his military bravery. I don’t think he would have wanted a fuss.
I suggest we all react to the humanity of this hero whom Sassoon remembered on their first meeting as ‘an interesting little chap”.
Going back up the hill to Craiglockhart today, the sky is a deep, cloud flecked, flaming sunset red.
Now Owen could have made something of that!
J J McPartlin, Scotland, Harlequins, Barbarians, captain of Oxford University, teacher and raconteur, has died in Folkstone, aged 75.
Joe was also my cousin – well to be precise, my second cousin, and, though I met him only once – and even that is a dim memory and maybe false, he was one of my heroes.
His grandfather and mine were brothers who emigrated from Co Leitrim. Eventually, my granddad settled in Edinburgh, and his in Glasgow. The families kept in close contact through the next generation. As cousins, Joe’s dad and mine were very friendly, and I have good memories of my Uncle George staying with us when I was a child.
All things move on, however, and with the passage of time and the vagaries of geography, my generation of the family is more distanced. For all that, Joe has long figured in my thoughts.
In my first year at secondary school, I suffered from an overbearing English teacher. I liked English, but this guy terrified me. It didn’t help that he was a burly rugby player at county level – and he knew my one game of schools rugby had converted me to cross country running! However, one morning my mother gave me a clipping from the paper. It was a paragraph stating that Oxford Blue, JJ McPartlin, had been selected to play for Scotland v France at Murrayfield.
“That’s your cousin,” she said, “show your English teacher. He might be interested.”
It was an inspired piece of mum psychology and my relationship with the teacher was transformed. Over the years, as Joe played for Harlequins and the Barbarians, my teacher and I would have wee chats about his progress. The teacher was also a centre, and so was particularly interested. I, on the other hand, had no idea what he was talking about, but nodded often and made reference to games I had noted in which Joe was playing. Though strictly speaking he was my second cousin, I was more than proud to claim him as merely ‘cousin’.
Many years later, playing cricket for Holy Cross in Edinburgh, a relatively new player was chatting about education. Noting my name, he said, out of the blue:
“ McPartlin? You related to Joe McPartlin, the rugby player.?”
I was delighted to point out the connection, whilst admitting we weren’t in touch.
“Well”, he said. “He was an inspirational teacher and I’ll never forget the time I had with him in the classroom and on the playing fields. A great man!”
I know, as a teacher myself, how hard won, yet sincere, such statements are, and here was another reason to be proud of ‘Cousin Joe’.
Though not a rugby fan at all, living almost in the shadow of Murrayfield, it’s impossible not to pick up some of the buzz on international weekends. I became aware of Joe’s other fame as a commentator on the game, an after dinner speaker, and a man with a rare turn of phrase. Folk who knew the connection commented on his skill as a centre – The Scotsman’s Norman Mair wrote: he was ‘the complete centre-three-quarter; master of the half-break and the perfectly timed pass.’ His bons mots were widely quoted: a conversion was described as ‘the greatest conversion since St Paul”, his coruscating take on those who played after him for Oxford University: “I’ve seen better centres in a box of Black Magic”.
Coincidentally, about a decade ago, my brother-in-law and his wife went to live near Oxford. The route along the Woodstock Rd to their village from the town centre passes an impressive school set in extremely well appointed playing fields. I never pass the place, as a teacher myself, without commenting on how good it must be to work in a school with such great facilities. I have now discovered that, unknown to me, that school, St Edward’s, was where Joe taught for his whole career – another link uncovered!
When my son enquired about applying for a place at Oxford University, it was St Edmund’s Hall, Joe’s old college, that he approached. I have often walked in its quad and wondered if I could sense my cousin’s presence there. To be honest, though, I had a keener sense of him when I visited the Iffley Rd sports complex, where Roger Bannister ran the first 4 minute mile and where the university rugby club are based!
Although we weren’t in contact, Joe was present in many areas of my life – teaching, sport, my attempts at after dinner speaking. Without his ‘influence’ over my English teacher and the upturn in our classroom relationship, I may not have ended up taking an English degree – who knows!
In a final, comforting, connection, it happened to be my son, now an online journalist, who received the news of Joe’s passing and put up the first words about his life on the net. A bitter sweet moment.
Joe McPartlin was a larger than life character – whose influence – as a sportsman, teacher and raconteur – touched many lives. I am proud to be his relation and will continue to be inspired by his achievements and accomplishments.
Like all such characters, he had his faults, I’m sure, but, arriving at the Pearly Gates, I know he has the quickness of both word and feet to sell St Peter a dummy, and go sailing through. I only hope he can get his dad off the celestial golf course and into the 19th Hole.
Reprinted from my Herald Blog of two weeks ago in support of striking PSAs in Glasgow today.
I watched them discreetly from a distance: the distressed pupil and the Pupil Support Assistant.
He had a number of challenges, mental and physical, which made his place in mainstream education difficult to maintain but one of the few points of light in an otherwise uncertain future.
His behaviour could be totally unpredictable – from uncontrollable sobbing to jumping out of windows – yet the joy he evinced when school went well, and the hope it brought to his family, was invaluable. Many pupils provided support and acceptance for him; teachers taught him, understood him, and kept him as safe as possible.
However, when the rage and fear descended, we had to hope he would retain enough self-awareness to leave the class and be away from other pupils. In addition, he needed to know there was someone there for him – physically and supportively – at all times.
Through hard work and commitment, and a bit of luck, three of us had gained the knack of calming him, or at least helping him feel less threatened. However, two of us – a depute head and a guidance teacher – could not always be available when the message came that he had left the class and was upset. The third member of that supporting team – the pupil support assistant – could be more easily available to watch out for him.
It was a challenging and worrying task; emotionally it was difficult. When he was upset, walls might be punched, there could be tears, expletives, and unpredictable actions. Through her concern for him, his pupil support assistant learned how to support him at these times. In turn, either the guidance teacher or myself would follow at a distance, looking out for both of them.
She would follow him round the school – close enough so he knew she was there, but at a non-threatening distance. Eventually, he would find a spot where he felt safe and she would know she could approach him. One of the most heartening vignettes of school life would be the sight of the two of them sitting together, quietly talking, listening and nodding. Eventually – after as long as it took, she would return with him, with a nod to indicate things were better. Sometimes it was back to class, sometimes a call home was needed. Either way her work was impressive and moving. Her talent, her caring, and her skill changed the boy’s life.
There are teacher assistants like her in many schools, and many families have cause to be grateful for their abilities. Sometimes their contribution is startling, at other times it’s merely a quiet word to give confidence to a child struggling with literacy or numeracy. Very often they reach the pupils, parents, and families that others cannot – they have the advantages of concern without the obstacles of authority.
One of the greatest threats to teacher professionalism is the arrogance to believe we have all the answers or that others do not have a part to play. Never was it better demonstrated, as in the words of the old African proverb, that it takes a village to educate a child.
For all that pupil support assistants receive ridiculously low salaries, they are still often in the front line when it comes to cuts, and, currently south of the Border, there seems to be a move towards removing them altogether.
We need to remember that effective education profits from a group dynamic.