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April 4, 2014


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.

Teach your children well

April 1, 2014


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.

What does it profit…….

February 17, 2014


As a city, Edinburgh is famous for its nooks and crannies and secret surprises in closes and cobbled lanes, but one of its most interesting sites is anything but hidden away. In fact, you could say that the city’s Dean Cemetery is monumental in its appearance.

From the mid 1840s onwards, this graveyard has gathered to itself the great and the good of Edinburgh society, and in many cases features gravestones, pillars, and stoneware to celebrate their lives on an appropriate scale.


You can find Lord Cockburn here, Playfair, Elsie Inglis, Thomas Bouch whose design for the Tay Bridge contributed so much to McGonigall’s poetic notoriety, David Hill, the photography pioneer, and even a Confederate General.


However, it is away from the famous and illustrious that the true interest of this cemetery lies.

As is the case in all burial grounds, the fascination exists in the fact that those below the ground inevitably reflect contemporary society above ground, and, for that reason, as well as the tombs of the famous, and the variety of monumental architecture, a stroll through the Dean gives a thought provoking glimpse into the second half of the 19th century.

By temperament, politics, and background the Victorian moneyed classes mostly represented here would not be my ideal role models – but sometimes, and hopefully, with humanity, there are times when other concerns take precedence, and when prejudices or preconceptions should be shunted to one side.

A walk through the cemetery, halting to read any gravestones which take the eye – through word or design – is enough to compose an impression of life in Edinburgh’s 19th Century upper classes which is not always as predictable as one might imagine.

This was the class which made the Empire work – the diplomats, soldiers, businessmen, clergy and civil servants, who helped paint the maps pink – but that weight on their familial shoulders wreaked a certain amount of havoc.

These stones tell of men who died before their time – often in distant lands and of strange diseases. Many had married women much younger and had thus left behind 30 or 40 years of widowhood. Many children died in infancy, and almost as many in their late teens or early twenties. Disease, it seems, and surprisingly to me, paid no respect to wealth. Cholera, Dyptheria, influenza and typhoid built a black empire of their own – and it wasn’t class-based.


Another unavoidable theme which runs through these fading inscriptions is the reminder that Empire is based on war and that war takes the young. It’s not unusual to see a father and perhaps two or three sons all killed in action from the Far East to the Balkans, through the Crimea and Africa, to the subcontinent, Ireland, France, Belgium and Germany. There are young men here who died on horseback and those who died in planes and tanks. There are many parents whose children predeceased them not yet in the full bloom of their youth

“Empire” and “exploitation” are words which fit well together. However, walking through The Dean, it always seems to me that the exploitation of those in colonial lands was not the end of the matter.

Undoubtedly, those who ruled the Empire became exceedingly rich and lived comfortable lives – and there are a fair few imposing monuments in this cemetery reflecting their standing and wealth. That wealth was, of course, achieved on the backs of others – workers and indigenous people in colonial lands – and that history has been well documented. However, what is less often remarked upon, but what becomes obvious from even a casual walk through the Dean, is the price paid by those in the middle classes who job it was to manage the Empire, to service and administer it, and to support the rulers.

Without a doubt, the people buried in this cemetery led a comfortable and moneyed existence, but it would be ignorant to overlook the price they also paid for that sense of status and position.

Strangely, given the final and terminal state of those in the graveyard, reading the chiselled inscriptions, one gains a sense of displacement. Places of death and birth are seldom the same – and this in an age when mobility would not be seen as widespread. Clergy die far from their hometowns, civil servants in India, and all parts of Africa, career soldiers in army barracks in all parts of the world; doctors die young trying to subdue various epidemics, and wives and babies die in childbirth far from the land of their family’s origin; many stones carry memoriams of folk interred abroad. The sense is of families torn apart, shifted, at the service of the state, and driven by a sense of something which fell somewhere between service and duty.


This was a class of Edinburgh society who felt required to fulfil expectations – be they military, commercial, medical, religious, governmental or civic. There was not much room for freedom of personal choice, nor, I suspect, favourable conditions for familial affection. This is not to defend the imperial mindset, merely to point out that it came at a price that was paid by more than just the obvious victims.

It seems strange to me that different cemeteries can produce different moods. High over the south of our city is Mount Vernon where a good few of my family are buried. It was opened just a few years later than the Dean,but far more of its graves are from the 20th century. It possesses many immigrant graves – Irish, Polish, Italian and others and, by and large, it seems to celebrate the ‘ordinary’ lives of ‘ordinary’ folk, whose passing is marked by inscriptions of love and respect, of prayer and familiarity. On a clear day, pausing among the graves to look down over south Edinburgh, Arthur’s Seat, and the distant Forth, it is possible to sense a kind of affirmation of kind lives well lived and much valued.

By contrast, behind its high walls, the atmosphere of the Dean is dank and damp, with moss and leaves underfoot. True, there is handsome landscaping and constant birdsong – but there are limited views to be had from this necropolis; the visitor’s eyes are drawn to the obelisks, plaques, vaults and crosses which demand recognition of the duty performed and the service given by the families who lie within.


The names are almost unremittingly Scottish. There are, of course, gravestones of a happier, lighter nature, and in good number.


However, those are not the memorials which colour one’s general impression. Overall, one senses a kind of desperation that their achievements be recorded here and recognized; a consciousness that later there will come by people who will read the inscriptions and marvel at the drive, reach and success of these generations.

Maybe it merely reflects the formalities of the age, the expected means of recording the lives, and respecting their achievements. Perhaps this was the final chance to edge ahead of neighbours or contemporaries in the race to contribute more to the Imperial project. Or perhaps the acknowledgement in Edinburgh was felt necessary as so much of the success had been hidden in distant lands.


Whatever one’s politics or take on history, it’s difficult to walk through the Dean without gaining an almost overwhelming impression of the energy of these people, their dedication to Empire, their sacrifices, and their grandiloquent sense of their own importance.

I’ve always been aware of the commercial and political power that drove the middle classes of the Capital in the 19th Century, but had seldom stopped to consider what price, if any, they paid for helping to paint the map pink. So many of the deaths recorded here are premature, or distant, or unfathomable. The face of the Empire may have been slow to change, but those who kept its wheels rolling seem to have been in a state of constant flux, away from their families and familiar places, facing war and disease, moving around a world they could hardly have understood, meeting premature and unexpected death with a kind of grand phlegmatism.

There are many, many biblical quotations inscribed in the moss and ivy covered stones of this cemetery, but the one I have yet to discover is:
“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world……”

Ticking the Little Boxes

January 28, 2014


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.

Hold the Front Page

December 18, 2013

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.

Sharing not Sledging

November 27, 2013

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.

Making it all possible

November 22, 2013

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.


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