Reflecting and Reviewing

Edinburgh’s Mount Vernon Cemetery lies high above the  south east of the capital, with views to Arthur’s Seat and beyond. My dad having died when I was five, it’s a place I have visited regularly for most of my life. Both parents and  my grandparents are there, uncles, and even my great grandmother who followed her sons from a hillside in Leitrim in the west of Ireland and now lies on a hillside in Scotland – the lot of the emigrant: to be buried in a land not of their birth. As a result, a visit to Mount Vernon, is regularly referred to as ‘going to see the family’.

But it’s more than that.

A walk along the paths of the cemetery is to pass by familiar references from many parts of my life: there’s the woman who introduced my parents, the wife of a pal, Hibs first captain, Michael Whelaghan, a guy with whom  I played cricket, a priest I admired, my dad’s best friend. There are so many family names, often Italian or Irish, to whom I am linked through my long career as a teacher – faces remembered from parents’ nights, and sadly, a few former pupils too. On the regular route I follow around the place, there are gravestones now familiar, of people I never knew – phrases stuck in the subconscious: ‘A native of Donegal’, ‘Poet’, ‘Pilot Officer, aged 21’, the engraving of a footballer, a celtic cross, those who have become neighbours here in this place whom my family never knew in life.

For all these reasons, I have always found my visits to be more uplifting than depressing, an affirmation, if you like, of our place in the continuum of life and history.

And this, of course, applies in cemeteries where there is no personal connection, The Dean Cemetery, for instance, provides a clear insight into the social history of the emergent middle classes in Edinburgh during the 19th century, the deaths of infants, the twenty year olds felled in far flung reaches of the Empire, the importance given to titles, and there you  may also come across the architect of the Tay Bridge, a Confederate General, Flora Stevenson, Elsie Inglis, David Octavius Hill, and Sydney Goodsir Smith. The same is true, of course, of other notable cemeteries in the city.

So when I realised Peter Ross was writing about graveyards in his newly released “A Tomb with a View”, I was curious to know if his take on these places would align with mine. He is a ‘twitter pal’ rather than a friend, but I enjoy his writing – which is always notable for its evocation of the people he meets. How would this translate to the realm of the departed?

Often when we make an acquaintance, we discover unforeseen connections, which are perhaps inevitable given the attraction of similar personalities, so I found elements of Peter’s book that fulfilled this function. He interviewed an actor, Robert Lloyd Parry who performs ghost stories from the pen of M.R. James, and it turned out he lived in Southport, where I stayed in my teenage years; there  is mention of Great Blasket Island off the coast of Kerry, one of my favourite places, and of familiar and fascinating destinations in Ireland – Belfast’s Milltown and City  Cemeteries, Dublin’s Glasnevin, and the crypt of St Michan’s, near the River Liffey, as well as oft visited Edinburgh sites.

But Peter’s craft with people is what brings humanity to this tome of tombs – he gives voices to the dead, and memories to the living, in his account of the folks he meets – the couple who marry in a London graveyard, the family who built a memorial to their son with a unique finishing touch, differing funeral rites – from Muslim to Christian to humanist. Marx at Highgate gets a mention, as do John Knox and Greyfriars’ Bobby, but often the sharpest and most haunting comments are related to the unknown and the unknowable – the piled up skulls in ossuaries, or the eighteenth century stones of faded inscriptions that once conjured up family traditions.

In Belfast, there’s musing about the British acceptance of death in the service of Queen and Empire, an underground wall to divide the dead of different persuasions, and, in London, Muslims talk about the cultural imperative for a swift interment, and we discover a man who has built a memorial for his young son, where, as well as family, visitors can sit and reflect.

We meet the American who fell in love with Edinburgh’s Warriston cemetery and like many others in these pages, devotes his time and organisational skills to clearing the overgrown pathways to enable visitors to access the past more easily.

From the islands to Hythe, from Dublin to Flanders, and from medieval times to the present, Peter fuses the dignity of the dead with the lives of the living, and we begin to understand that there are many reasons for going through the gates of a a graveyard.

There is a journalistic style known as ‘The Gravedigger angle’. When young journalist, Jimmy Breslin, was told by the New York Herald Tribune to get ‘something new’ on the funeral of slain President John F Kennedy, he hit on the idea of interviewing the man who dug the grave – and thus instituted a whole new angle on reporting.

In ‘Tomb with a View’, Peter has the opportunity to follow this code literally, as well as metaphorically, and his account of the family histories, and the philosophy, of those most important, but often ignored, contributors to the graveyard tradition are an extremely readable combination of the profound and the practical, the uplifting and the reflective,  from those who wield the spades.

There are darker sections in these chapters, of course, but also a comforting realisation –for those above and below ground – that we are not alone.

Recalling the doyen of Cemetery tour guides, Shane MacThomáis of Glasnevin, his boss remembered: “He said the secret of a good tour guide was make them laugh, make them cry, tell them something they know, tell them something they don’t.”

That’s what Peter accomplishes in this engrossing and engaging reflection on final resting places. Through tales and interviews, inscriptions and traditions, ivy and trimmed lawns, he blurs the distinction between those of us still here and those  who have gone before, which is perhaps as it should be.

Indeed, he’s a bit of a resurrectionist – you could say he puts flesh on the bones.

‘A Tomb with a View” Headline Publishing – Peter A Ross.


          A few words in tribute to my brother in law, Steve, who died earlier this week.


It was lying on Inch Strand, at the high water mark, in turn covered and revealed by an ebbing tide. Its tape was peeling, its wood battered with the marks of a hundred contests down the field. Fallen off a boat, flung away in disgust after too many wides? Who could tell?

“What’s this?” asked Steve – always of an inquring mind – as he picked it up.

“It’s a hurley,” I said – they hit the sliotar with it in hurling.

Three years ago, for their Golden Wedding, we had treated Steve and Marie to a short break on the Dingle Penninsula– one of our favourite places to relax, and they had already sampled the comfort, the food, and the welcome at the Skellig Hotel, enjoyed a visit to the Dingle Distillery, a pint in Dick Mack’s, and that remarkable tour out through Corca Dhuibhne to Ceann Trá, Coumeenoule, Cé Dún Chaoin, Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhór – with its tales of the islanders (and lovely soup), the Mulcahy Pottery Centre, (and its cakes), Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, and Gallarus Oratory.

I’ve been going to this area since 1970 and loved it at first sight, so Steve and Marie got the whole touristic commentary – about Ryan’s Daughter, Charlie Haughey and Inishvickalane , Funghi the Dolphin, the fishing industry, Páidi Ó Sé, David Lean’s corner table in the Skellig dining room, Bob Mitchum’s carrying on at Millbank House, education in the Gaeltacht – they all were faithfully reported. Even I was aware that my passion for the place might be slightly over the top, but Steve was clearly fascinated – to the extent of asking about various words in Irish, the geology, and cultural history of the area, the language, and so on.

This was not entirely unexpected – Steve, amongst many other things, was an electrical engineer – he always sought to find out how things worked, how they could be fixed, how they could help people – an early cot baby monitor was typically one of his major projects. He had a great and abiding curiosity.

However, he was a long way from home in Dingle.

In one of my last conversations with him, he pointed out that, despite his family’s associations with Wales, he was 100% English.

And he was – in the best of all possible ways.

Inch Strand is a vast expanse of beach in Co Kerry, stretching for miles by the Atlantic, as westerly as you can get in Europe. It is majestic in every kind of weather, but on the day of our visit there was what might be euphemistically termed ‘a stiff breeze’, which was whipping up a mini sandstorm around our ankles.

The walk was bracing and, of course, we had found the hurley. Steve took it and chased Marie with it for a while. He was no DJ Carey, but accurate enough to make Marie shriek. It was a lovely shared moment with favourite people in a favourite place.

We eventually got back to the car and I looked for the hurley. I’d formed a daft plan to try and take it home as a memory of a happy time.

We didn’t have it.
“Oh,” said Steve, “I didn’t know you wanted it.”

This was fair enough – a daft idea like mine would never have occurrred to a practical and sensible man like Steve.

“No bother, “ I said. “I would never have got it through airport security anyway.”
We stood there for a time, shaking sand out of our hair and clothes, getting ready to leave.

When I turned round, there was Steve, trudging up from the windswept beach, the breeze whipping around his jacket. In his hand he carried the hurley.

He had doubled back around 200 yards simply to find the hurley and bring it back for me.

He knew it wasn’t that important to me, he knew it would likely fail to get through security, he wasn’t a hurling fan. But he had stilll gone back through the sandstorm, dark clouds scudding, the temperature dropping, cold as he was, so I could pursue my daft idea of taking the hurley home.

“You never know,” he said.

He was right too. Strapped to my case, it somehow got through the airport and arrived home with me – a beautiful souvenir.

It was the kindness of Steve personified.

It was what he did.

I never knew anyone who helped people as constantly as Steve – family, neighbours, friends, workmates, those he mentored – even strangers whom he recognised could do with a helping hand. And he had so many skills allied to this kindness that he invariably performed a task for you at the highest level possible – fitting bathrooms, kitchens, rewiring, decorating, car mechanics, house repairs, toy making, gardening, cookery – all of these things he would do for you out of the goodness of his heart, and always more effectively than the ‘experts’. He offered help because he was kind by instinct, but he also ensured that the help he gave would be what you needed – if he was unsure how to do something, he would research it to make sure that he helped you perfectly.

As someone who is, by nature, ‘handless’, I was in awe of his wide ranging craft and skills, but it was his natural instinct to help others which really touched my soul.

The measure of the man was how he was regarded by young children – they had an instinct for his goodness, they trusted him, and they were never disappointed. He never patronised them, but he gave them a perfect example, and he challenged them to be the best they could be, to treat others with respect and understanding, as he treated them, and they inevitably responded by loving him.

So he was, in truth, 100% the best of English – kind, helpful, enquiring and inspiring; a friend to all who needed him, a support for all who needed his skills.

Not long ago he completed a piece of trading on E-Bay, or some such online facility. On these sites, there is always a request for feedback. Having completed the business with Steve, the buyer wrote simply:

“He was the nicest man I’ve ever met.”

And he was.



What about the Boy?

In the past two decades, there has been a general recognition that the two major wars of the twentieth century have passed into history, most who took part in them, or lived through them, are no longer alive. Put another way, other than their recorded testaments, we no longer can listen  to eyewitness accounts of those events, and we have lost the possibility  of asking questions of those who were there.

Today, as we commemorate VE Day, we need to ask about the effect of time passing on our view of these events – how we interpret them, and even how we manipulate them for our own ends in the 21st century.

For someone who can remember the 1950s, it is instructional to review the changes over time in attitude towards the two world wars, and to come to the realisation that “the hand of history”, to coin an unfortunate phrase, lies now upon those of us who received reminiscences of the wars at first hand.

In my childhood I remember seeing many old men with missing limbs or other disabilities, often on crutches or in wheelchairs. Because the war was seldom referenced, the source of their injuries never occurred to me. Like my peers, I read the stories of World War 2 in our comics, or saw war films, and we frequently drew aerial dog fights in the margins of our jotters – but none of this seemed much attached to real life – any more than did our games of cowboys and indians – they were just labels for  our play.

It was many years later that I realised that around 70% of our teachers at school had fought in the war, a couple of them were members of The Few in the Battle of Britain – it was never mentioned.

Because my dad died when I was five, it fell to my mother  to pass on details about his Great War involvement,  in which he served on the home front because of polio as a child. Tasked with escorting German  PoWs from Stob Camp near Hawick to Edinburgh or Stirling Castle or to work on the construction of Beecraigs Loch, he would detour to his own stair on Edinburgh’s Southside, so the prisoners could sample his mother’s Irish Stew.

Dad only joined up because his big brother, whom he idolised, had done so. The family, from the west of Ireland, were strong supporters of Irish Independence, and went along with the notion that if they fought for the rights of small countries, Ireland’s freedom would be assured after the Peace Treaties.

On then other hand, my mum’s uncle, who died in the last month of the Great War, had been a policeman in Liverpool and felt it was his duty to fight.  Her dad, a postal supervisor in Liverpool’s main post office,  was a Gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery. When he was visiting us in Edinburgh in the 1950s, he would still dive for the pavement if he was in Princes St when the One o’clock Gun went off.  His references to the War were limited to asking my mother to go over to Paschendaele in the 1930s and find the farmer whose family  had provided his billet, so she could thank them. The first years of my mum’s life were spent travelling about England – from Portsea to Shoeburyness and other RGA outposts so her mum and dad could meet.

It was a reminder that there was no blanket reason espoused by those who fought – from patriotism, to peer pressure, out of boredom, economic need, or political belief, there were many impulses that built the BEF in the Great War.

In the second war, the need to defeat fascism was a much clearer motivational force, but we need to remind ourselves that again we are talking about thousands of individuals rather than an homogenous khaki mass.

So my first hand accounts of World War 2 came from  my mother – who could speak with some authority, having lived through the May Blitz in Liverpool in 1941 and the extended bombing of the city for over two years.

As a keen student of history, I have since studied the story of Liverpool’s war, in which the figures, though horrifying, scarcely do justice to the renting of the fabric of the city. During the first   eight days of May 1941, Merseyside was bombed on a nighty basis: 1900 people were killed, 1450 seriously injured and 70.000 made homeless.

Bit when I asked my mum to “tell me about the olden days”, I was asking about her own youth, and the tales she told me I just accepted as memories from when she was young. It took many years for me to seriously appreciate the reality of what she would describe to me in the most matter of fact fashion. And it seems to me that the best tribute I can pay – to her and to all who lived through that war  – is to record what she told me in the same tone as she did.

For her, personally, the war’s effect was felt long before the official declaration of hostilities commencing.

She would be 21 in September 1938 and in those days a 21st was a cause for a formal dance and celebration. Such was the fear of war by the end of 1937 that there were serious discussions about whether they would be able to organise a 21st party for her, and would they not be better to cancel it until the position was clearer. It is a reminder of the strain under which folk lived well before September 1939 with air raid shelters  being dug and blackouts prepared.  However, that information always reminds me that my mum lost most of her twenties to the war, leaving, without doubt, a significant impact on her psyche.

She had been on holiday in Howth in August 1939 in the weeks leading up to the commencement of hostilities and had actually been given the choice whether to remain in neutral Ireland “for the duration” or return to Liverpool. I imagine there must have been times in the years ahead when she questioned her decision to come home to be with her parents, if only momentarily.

The priest at 11am Mass at Sacred Heart Church on September 3rd announced to the congregation that Britain was now at war, and Mum long remembered the gasps and tears of those around her.

She hurried home to find her mum and dad standing in the doorway. Grim faced they said to her: “God help you and your sister, having to face this disaster.” My  mum’s sister had only been married a month at this stage.

Mum’s first question was how long would it last and their honest answer was that they had no idea: “We’re an island, we could be invaded and occupied and that would be it – under German occupation.”

The words stuck with her for the rest of her life – as did her mother’s mention of her little brother who had died nineteen years before aged only 11 months. He would have been in the earliest drafts for conscription. “Thank God he has been spared the horror of war, at least we know he is safe.”  My mother reckoned it was at that point that they finally accepted the wee boy’s death.

Her tales of the war were so incredibly matter of fact that their horror only resonated with me much later when I could set them in context.

Rationing meant she would not see her favourite fruit – bananas – for six years, she had to feel her way home from work in the blackout, learning to recognise walls, doorways, and drainpipes as way markers on her route home.

A brick air raid shelter measuring  eight feet square was built in their back yard. There was no lighting, and no light when torch batteries became unavailable, and they slept there each night that the Air Raid sirens sounded. Her mother was terrified and never put down her rosary beads, her dad was of little comfort when he said, as the bombs rained down, with his Gunner’s experience: ‘Don’t worry, love, you won’t hear the one that’s for you!”

He operated as an Air Raid Precautions Warden, so most nights he was not with them; he would return at 6am and report on all the damage in the area. For mum and my gran, each night raid was compounded by the terror of hearing bombs exploding nearby and not knowing where it was, what had been hit, or if grandad had been in the vicinity.

Mum remembered individual raids, quite clearly, forty years later: the night all the windows and doors were blown in but happily the budgie and the goldfish survived; the night when Prescot Street, a five minute walk away, near their church, was bombed and hundreds killed.  She recounted the horror of the Saturday night bombing of an ammunition train in the Clubmoor sidings near Anfield. The damage was devastating and all next day at church, and afterwards, they could hear ammunition exploding sending shrapnel into nearby houses and buildings.

She remembered leaving home to go to work one morning and seeing, in a neighbouring terraced street, a house completely flattened – with only a canary singing in a cage remaining above street level, and the houses on either side undamaged apart from smashed windows. This became her normal.

Another time they were evacuated for a few days to her sister’s house in suburban Childwall because of an unexploded bomb at the top of their street.

She talked about “the May Blitz”, but never in detail – she said it was too terrifying to recall fully, but she remembered that the light of the fires in the sky was bright enough to enable her to read.

From time to time she would mention a friend or acquaintance and say simply: “He was killed in the war.” I think she carried a lot of memories of smiling young boys from parish dances whose lives were taken from them in the height of their youth.

She would remark on the friendliness of the Liverpool people during the war, adding “but they had always been like that” and she knew that crime figures almost doubled, that looting was rife even in the midst of the air raids, that many made fortunes from the Black Market, and others took advantage of the chaos for their own ends.

Her mother had prayed continuously that she would live long enough to witness the end of air raid sirens and all clears. Her prayers were answered – but she died, only 59, of a cerebral haemorrhage three months later. Mum was convinced it was her terror through the war years that eventually hastened her death.

Of the end of the war `Mum said simply: “We had eventually VE and VJ Days.”

The older I get and the more I reflect, the greater is my awe at what she and her peers lived through.

It is easy, in a way, to fill up emotionally, looking at those pictures of brylcreemed twenty year olds racing across the grass towards fighter planes, or be stunned by the unalloyed bravery of the bomber crews who made their nightly journeys into anti-aircraft  fire over Germany.

These are iconic reminders of what courage looks like, but VE Day should remind us of another kind of bravery and resilience – the fortitude of those who put up with it all because they had no choice, the child seeking his parents in a heap of rubble, the man returning home to find his house disappeared, the flinching of women in corrugated iron air raid shelters as they wondered at the chances of surviving the night. Certainty and familiarity gone, the future impossible to contemplate, the past too awful to remember; the everyday smells of home replaced by fire and burning and smoke and dust, the empty chair by the fire, the relation nobody can bear to mention, the guilt at letting gran go  into the house to make the tea  just before the landmine landed on the roof, all the regrets, and the lost chances, the bombed out cinemas and disappeared streets, slates tumbling and bricks crumbled to red dust, the fear – always the fear – of bombs and landmines, and the awful question that began: “Have you seen……?”

My mother was never one to describe the war as our “Finest Hour” or “Us against the rest.”  Nobody living in the north of England could doubt the role played by the Americans, Canadians and Poles amongst others  in helping the Allies to a close run victory – but then, by May 1945, the people who had lived through the war were not using words like “triumph” and “victory”. They were certainly glad not to have lost the war, and there was a pride in the contribution of all who had made it possible, but the major emotion was one of relief, and an amount of disbelief that it could all be over.

The cartoon version of VE Day, with everyone partying wildly in the streets was a little like the current depiction of the 60s as being filled with hippies getting stoned – yes there were some, but for the most part people were just getting on with their ordinary lives.

There was a reason why those who lived through the war were reluctant to talk about it. To them it didn’t feel like their  greatest moment – no matter how politicians might  attempt to paint it that way. It is no coincidence that the fewer who are alive to remember the war in reality, the more there are who are willing to repaint it in its brightest colours.

For every one at a party on this night 75 years ago, there were tens of thousands who weren’t.

They were sitting in the house, holding on desperately to  whatever remained of what they had loved. They were remembering the before, bewildered by the now, and confused by the future. Their relief was calm and their memories painful. They couldn’t face a party because they couldn’t face the empty spaces at the table and the aching hole blasted  into their future plans.

They would have been incredulous if they could have seen future politicians, devoid of empathy or emotional intelligence, hijacking their grief as a sign of Great Britishness. Their most fervent hope would have been that their descendants could be spared a world in which political and economic capital is made out of the propensity to kill.

But then, they knew what they were talking about. They knew War.

My mum always referred to her little brother as “The Boy”, and always recalled her parents’ relief that at least his premature death meant he would be spared “the horror of war”.

There will be no bunting on my house, no Vera Lynn records, or 1940s fashions, no marketing of a generation’s grief.

I’ll be thinking of “The Boy” and all the other boys – and girls – who would not see the decade in which I was born – and their families, who would be hard pressed to think of 1939-45 as “Our Finest Hour.”

Whatever it was – it does not belong to us, it belongs to them – and we should stop trying to steal it and bring it into our world.

Our best tribute to them all is to create the world for which they died fighting, rather than envying them their opportunity to die.





Goodbye Mr McKenzie – and thank you!


In nearly forty years as a teacher, I was fortunate enough to work with many colleagues who inspired, motivated, and encouraged me, and, unwittingly or otherwise, guided the direction my career would take. I was also blessed with many pupils who, for various reasons, were similarly inspiring.

In addition, there were  folk outside of school who shone lights I was privileged to follow: Brian Boyd, Professor of Education at Strathclyde, Bill Rogers, an Australian educationalist, Alan McLean, Chief Educational Psychologist in Glasgow, Geoff Hannan, consultant in gender in Education, and Gwynned Lloyd of the Education Department at Edinburgh University.

These folk helped me form a lifelong philosophy and approach to teaching and learning, as did the practical experience I gained working alongside dedicated staff from education, social work, and community education, at places like the Canongate Youth Project, Panmure House, Theatre Workshop, and the Theatre Arts Centre at Davie St on Edinburgh’s Southside.

However, it’s strange to relate that one of the biggest influences was a man whom I never actually met, and when I heard of his death today I was reminded of the power for good that he generated in Edinburgh during the first half of my career.

Hugh McKenzie, as headteacher of Craigroyston Community High School in the north of the capital, was a byword for progressive education and thoughtful, effective initiatives. It was really only when I read his memoir “Craigroyston Days” that I recognised how much of my thinking on education, and, perhaps, my approach to putting it into practice, had been influenced by Hugh’s impressive tenure as Craigroyston’s Heidie.

In more hallowed halls of academe, it is fashionable to describe education as “opening doors to opportunity” – and so it is, but it’s also about convincing those learners who are most sceptical that they have a right to go through those doors, and the ability to achieve their potential – despite what they may have been told, or think that they know.

Hugh didn’t push doors open tentatively and politely invite his students to enquire within. He would frequently blast the doors off their hinges, gather up his pupils, and lead them screaming with laughter and enjoyment into the hitherto unsuspected joys of learning for its own sake, and their potential for being unstoppable.

In any setting, this would have been a remarkable educational tour de force, but, against the background of poverty and disadvantage in the community which his school served so well, it was, quite truly, a life force.

He was not an airy fairy idealist – he dealt in the reality of the pupils he saw before him each day in the school and, as those with experience know, supporting pupils to the hilt often means matching genuine affection with hard nosed and challenging  action, and promoting high expectations.

I was lucky in that the schools in which I taught were fully comprehensive: a city centre school having a catchment area which ran from the south of the city to its northern boundaries on the Forth, the other taking in half of West Lothian – from former mining villages to new town housing to  Edinburgh commuters. In demographic terms, they both hit the national average in socio-economic statistics.

On one occasion, I had a class containing the offspring of the highest ranking officer at Edinburgh Castle, a relation of a High Court Judge, a child whose mother had been murdered by his father, and another who lived in a Women’s Aid Refuge. Such an experience informs you that successful teaching and learning has to have an understanding of each child’s needs, and it needs a staff who can trust their management team, and parents who trust the teachers.

Most of all, the pupils, whatever their background, need the evidence that their teachers care for them, and that, whatever role models, positive or negative,  they may have experienced in their lives, they can aim for the future they want, and that they will be supported in their endeavours.

And that was Hugh McKenzie’s starting point: these kids deserve the best and these kids can achieve the best. It was not a point of view that the great and the good always accepted, and feathers were often ruffled to a great degree, but more folk were made to stop, and reflect, and revise their opinions on education, Craigroyston, and the pupils it served.

Adjusted curricula, residentials, European visits, the Arts, parental engagement, celebrity visits, excellence in sports – that reads like the prospectus for a well endowed private institution – but it was what Hugh Mckenzie ensured was available to his pupils at Craigie. The only point he was trying to make was that his pupils, no less than any pupils anywhere, were worth the best, and could achieve the best. Or, to put it another way, he felt the school’s community was every bit as deserving of a top school as was any community anywhere.

He brought phenomenal energy to the school – as he did to his veteran rugby exploits – and it was powered by belief – a belief that his students were able to take away and use to kick start their futures.

Often footballers Gordon Strachan and Sheila Begbie are referenced as successful former pupils, but I have met so many in other spheres of life as nurses, teachers, actors, musicians and social workers who are a  living and caring testament to the sense of belief and ambition that Hugh and his staff put into that school community.

North Edinburgh was certainly well served at that time, with the redoubtable Councillor Elizabeth McGinness as Education Chair on Edinburgh Council, promoting the principles of her Youth Strategy – that young people should have every chance to remain within their home, family, school and community – a practical expression of what were once Labour values in action. Schools, Social Work, Community Education, Police, and Medical professionals all worked together to maximise young people’s wellbeing and security and their opportunities for advancement and self belief.

Times and trends change, of course, but I’m pleased that I was able to maintain my position, based on Hugh’s approach, throughout my career, and especially as a Depute Head with responsibility for guidance and pupil support.

I had learned that education is about support for pupils, parents, and staff. When trust and belief is there – whether in reference to exam results or personal development – everything else is just noise. I was prepared to fight for pupils, parents and staff, my door was always open to them – anyone else had to wait their turn, I’m afraid – and I learned that approach  from Hugh’s principles in action. As so many of his former pupils have told me – “He changed my life, he really made a difference”.

What better epitaph can a teacher earn?

Taking advantage of an Edinburgh band name, I’ve headed this piece: “Goodbye, Mr McKenzie – and thank you!”

It’s not really accurate – because I never heard him called anything but “Hugh McKenzie”.

In fact, in the staffroom across Edinburgh during the 70s and 80s, the reference would go like this:

“Did you hear about Hugh McKenzie?”

“Oh God – what’s he done now?”

I think that’s a brilliant way for a heidie to be remembered.

Whatever it was he had done – it was for his pupils and staff.

As it should be.

Meeting our needs

I haven’t blogged about politics for some time, but the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath seems like an appropriate occasion to reflect on my reasons for supporting independence.

Basically, I haven’t blogged because I have been tired – tired of the way that, particularly on social media,  the constitutional issue has been turned into a football match – that side good, that side bad, in a “debate” devoid of nuance or listening skills. Even within the independence movement and the SNP, we have factions stirring their own particular agenda, and unionist politicians have abandoned all pretence at policies other than  denying a second referendum and calling for the SNP to get on with the day job, thus weakening their case by suggesting they haven’t noticed the results of “the day job” over the past decade.

We are robbed of  balanced account in the media – partly because in Scotland we don’t have a national broadcaster fit for the purpose of accurately covering Scottish news, and because the reluctantly offered and underfunded BBC Scotland channel, which still manages to produce some excellent current affairs and documentaries, is largely boycotted by those who called for it, apparently based on a dislike for the Kaye Adams phone in on Radio Scotland and some individual reporters.

When people are faced with television news bulletins which for the majority of the time focus on news which is at best tangential to what is going on around them, it is not surprising that they turn away from them. Those who cried “parochial” at the call for a Scottish Six should consider this: would people in  Warwickshire or Sussex stand for a news bulletin which led on items about Highers, Procurators Fiscal, snow gates, shinty or Motherwell FC?  Quite rightly, they would not. That’s not what they are paying for. And the argument that you need to focus on the 60 million rather than the 5 million simply makes the point.

Meanwhile print and online journalists, often with an agenda which clearly fails to reflect the views of around half the Scottish population, are reduced to an “SNP Bad” mode to garner internet hits, and which they know will engender a shit storm of ill informed reaction from the cybernats, who fall for it time and time again. The problem with this is that the best of Scots journalism tends to be ignored as “biased” when often it is the last refuge of ethical calling to account of the Government – which is the journalists’ job.

In an era when  the Fourth Estate are struggling as never before, it shouldn’t take genius to understand that “Long lasting government still doing ok” is not a ratings winner. Furthermore, in terms of longevity and popular support, the SNP are in unknown territory. Just like any political party in that position, we are starting to see the occasional lack of self awareness, and perhaps the beginnings of a sense of entitlement in some, which is not an attractive look – just ask Scottish Labour. If I have tired of reading about all of this, I wonder how it must feel to be living in the centre of it.

So, to borrow a phrase with unfortunate connotations, we should maybe get back to basics and ask why Scotland, like England,  needs independence.

I always think that my background explains my commitment to the idea of independence. Born into an Irish family in  Edinburgh, lived in the north of England from the age of five to eighteen, and then returned to Scotland. Holder of an Irish passport, and with a family history on my maternal grandfather’s side that can be traced back to mill workers in Lancaster and Ottley, and through my other grandfather to tenant farming in the west of Ireland. I owe my allegiance to all of these ancestors and the lives they led, rather than a flag or legal identity. Anyone wanting to accuse me of “blood and soil” nationalism had better engage some spectacular forensic science!

I will turn out for an AUOB march with my saltire – not as a sign of triumphalism or “national glory”, but because I know if the numbers fall on these marches the media will translate that as a dimunition of support for independence, and also to support those who feel they should be doing something to press their case for independence.

My childhood and adolescence in the north of England was overwhelmingly happy and positive, but it taught me a lot about Scotland, and how it is viewed south of the Border. This is from a north of England perspective but I suspect it applies in the south also.

The basic standpoint is one of ignorance – and I mean that in the strictest sense not as a pejorative description. Scotland is largely absent from the English media and education system, so people know little about it, beyond a holiday destination, tartan  stereotypes, and the occasional sports related news. Though I found friends and neighbours were largely very positive towards Scotland and Scots, most folk in England do not know that Scotland has its own legal and education systems, different school holidays,  and even less of its history, aside from Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary, Queen of Scots in the most cartoon of fashions.

As an illustration of this, decades of viewing of ‘University Challenge’ will make the point. Whilst Scots students invariably have some knowledge of English history and geography, it is seldom that an English contestant will have similar knowledge of Scotland – even to the level of which coast Aberdeen is on, or the positions of Orkney and Shetland. This is not their fault, merely a reflection of the way the two education systems operate. This is not a criticism, merely an illustration of what happens when a country of 5 million is governed from a country of 60 million. There is a similar ignorance about the north of Ireland and Wales.

Does this matter?

Of course it does – because when people in these islands outside of England look into the constitutional mirror, they don’t see a recognisable image of themselves, the people they know, or the land they live in, and so they lose engagement with governance and see it as remote and irrelevant. This happens too within countries – and is one of the reasons behind the recent Brexit vote in areas like the north east of England – (and also makes a strong point for  meaningful regional autonomy for the Highlands and Islands within an independent Scotland.)

Without any sense of irony, unionists will frequently complain that the Scottish Government is “trying to prove that Scotland is different” – whilst, of course, they themselves are seeking to prove that Scotland is just the same as England.

As one who has lived in both countries, I can attest to the fact that the countries are different in many ways. This is not a specious claim for some kind of superiority or exceptionalism, merely a reflection of fact. Neither is it some kind of dangerous viewpoint. Everyone can see the differences between countries in Scandinavia or in the Benelux states, and everyone can see the similarities, as indeed we can between England and Scotland. Nobody can sensibly claim that the only justification for independence is some kind of massive difference between two countries. The real justification has to be based on the needs of that country and how those needs can best be served by their governance.

Geographically, politically and economically there are many areas in which the needs and priorities of Scotland and England differ, and while the Labour party mantra of “solidarity across borders” makes for a good leaflet heading, nobody really believes that a future Labour government would prioritise Scottish needs over those in England – and neither should they have to – “for the few not the many”?

Furthermore, against the clear vote of the Scottish electorate, Scotland now finds its ability to have solidarity across European borders severely limited, because of the UK state. The country finds itself taken out of a union in which, as an independent nation it would have had full representation, and stuck within a union in which it struggles to reach even the 8% of influence which its population merits.

We live in an interdependent world, as the current crisis has shown more clearly than ever, and yet, without independence, Scotland cannot exercise that interdependence with Europe which its citizens so clearly value, and which, in terms of “new Scots”, it so obviously needs economically.

As a teacher, I very quickly learned that children all have individual learning needs and learning styles. Sometimes these could be subsumed within a whole class approach, but you could only be ultimately successful in promoting learning by paying attention to those differences. Pupils could be “different”  without being superior or inferior – they just had differing needs – but if you sought to ignore those needs and employed a “one size fits all” approach, you very soon lost their confidence and engagement – but, worse than that, you were not doing your job.

This is the problem for London government, for whom the needs of Scottish fishing, agriculture, and tourism, for example,  are far removed from what they see as the more pressing problems they need to tackle in the various regions of England. Nobody is claiming Scotland is somehow more important than England, but neither should there be any reason for its being be less important.

I want Scotland to have a progressive government which reflects the desires of its voters and plays its role in the world. I want people to have confidence in a government they have elected to meet the needs of the people who live here – and if that government turns out to be Labour, Green, Liberal or, yes, even Tory, I will accept that the people have spoken and they have been listened to, democracy has given them what they voted for, not what a vast majority of people in another country voted for.

The ten per cent or so who were the difference in the independence referendum had many reasons for rejecting independence. Some voted out of self interest because they are doing well out of the current system, others out of fear of change, and others out of a deep rooted historical British nationalism.

There will always be those for whom self interest trumps all, and they will continue to exist in an independent Scotland. Those who fear change should look to the experience of the Republic of Ireland where it would be fair to say that full independence came incrementally over two or three generations, and as and when the people were ready for each step. And for those who cling to a notion of British identity, it might be as well to consider how much of that remains, when its most potent selling point is a referral back to appalling wars of a century ago, and the Imperial adventure which pre-dated them.

The idea that independence is ‘separation’ is a lazy politicial notion. After independence, my relatives in England would be no more “separated’ from me than those in France, America or Viet Nam are just now, and how can you be more “separated” from the world than having no independent voice in the EU, UN or any other international forum? I always felt that the line that “your granny in Newcastle will be a foreigner”, apart from being knowingly wrong, was also an unconscious reflection of an inner xenophobia.

The Declaration of Arbroath made it clear that in Scotland we are citizens not subjects, and we partner with the world not solely our southern neighbour. I believe that is still an aspiration that is for the good of all who live here.

It all comes down to partnership and communication.

More than ever, with my own life experience, I believe that an independent, progressive Scotland would be good news for England. It would have a new neighbour with a shared history as an example of what can be achieved by small nations who have thrown off the smothering weight of global aspirations.

Both nations would be free to share resources on a basis that was advantageous to each of them, to their mutual benefit. And folk in England might take the opportunity to recapture the inspiring country of the Levellers and other proud radicals – freed to look to the good of their own citizens rather than stymied by always having to stand in front of the mirror of international opinion and status, trying to catch sight of something long gone. As is the case in similar countries across Europe, the ability to go our own way would strengthen an equal relationship with our bigger neighbour.

If a man locks his wife in the cellar, he can tell everyone that they share a house, she is fine and safe, they never argue, and she’s happy for him to speak for her. But surely a better model for a strong, progressive, flourishing and acceptable relationship might be for her not to be behind a locked door, to be free to speak her mind, and make her own decisions, and exchange views with him and the neighbours.  Unless he suffers from a hideous level of insecurity, he should welcome such a relationship and accept it for the normal equal partnership that it would and should be.

That way grows understanding and respect.


Fielding in the Deep

As elite cricket hurtles its way towards a soulless cashfest of English Premier League proportions, there are still to be found reminders that cricket, at its best, is about far more than professional sport and corporate backing.

One such reassurance is found in Jake Perry’s excellent new book “The Secret Game – Tales of Scottish Cricket”. ( The title reflects the oddity that while there are 150 cricket clubs in Scotland and over 17000 active participants, the media tends to overlook the popularity of the sport, so that Scotland’s recent victory over the Auld Enemy came as something of a shock to many.

Though, as the title suggests, this is a conglomeration of cricket tales, as much as  a chronological history, Jake takes us back to the origins of the game north of the border,` and acquaints us with the progress of the sport and its reflection of social behaviour from the eighteenth century onwards.

Some of the stereotypes about the game have some substance in truth, so you will find appearances from the toffs and landed gentry, public schools and Anglo-Scots. And those club cricketers who have ever had cause to shout out: “Bowler’s name?” will delight in such characters as Ducky Diver, Fuller Pilch and  Viscount Dupplin. We meet Leslie Balfour-Melville – a champion at rugby, billiards, lawn tennis, golf, skating, curling and athletics – more than a match for the more famous English polymath, CB Fry.

However, the perceived exclusivity of the summer game is effectively debunked as we tour from Kelso to Aberdeenshire, from Paisley to Perth, to Lanarkshire, Aberfeldy, and Lasswade, as well as round the leafier suburbs of Glasgow  and  the Capital.

And it is a delight  to report that this account is  in no way parochial – with such famous cricketing names as Lillywhite, Grace, Bradman and Jardine being paraded for our delight, and Australia and New Zealand amongst far flung countries included. Any book mentioning Andy Goram and Misbah-ul-Haq in the same paragraph has to be congratulated for its scope and vision!

There are many small town heroes – not least the Drummonds of Meigle,  and a very welcome chapter detailing how Scottish women’s cricket has developed so inspiringly, due to the hard work of folk as disparate as Clarence Parfitt, Kari Carswell, and Abbi Aitken-Drummond, amongst many.

This lovingly researched work pays tribute to cricket in Scotland – to its history, its records and victories, its tribulations and struggles – but most of all, it acknowledges that the sport owes its allure to the fact that it engages so many spheres of our humanity.

The book is ultimately about people.

In 2000, I was fortunate enough to be part of a Holy Cross Academicals touring side which became, we were told, the first Scottish side ever to play at Broadhalfpenny Down, the cradle of cricket.  It was one of those events in life where you are aware, even as it is happening, that you will never forget it, and it went perfectly.

Mindful of our skills quotient, we were playing Hambledon’s “Sunday” side – The Bat and.Ball X1, which was, of course, in time honoured fashion, led by the publican of the eponymous public house. He greeted us warily, as bemused by our name as by the discovery that Scots played cricket. To mark the occasion, we presented them with an inscribed quaich, which is still displayed in the pub trophy cabinet today.

Just walking on the ground, pleasingly rough and undulating to reflect its 250 year history, was awe inspiring. To think we were about to play here, shadowed by the ghosts of cricketing history, quite frankly, made us nervous.

Although we were faced with a team containing a couple of former 2nd X1 county players, we represented Scotland well when we batted, certainly well enough to make a game of it. Still in awe of our surroundings, we managed to field and bowl effectively.

Our leg break bowler, hampered by a shoulder injury, elected to bowl underarm spin, with the opposition’s agreement. The local statistician told us this was the first time such an action had been seen on the ground for over 130 years.

Modesty forbids I repeat the figures for my three wickets including a blinding caught and bowled, (Has anyone in Scotland not heard them already? Ed) but all contributed to an unforgettable experience.

Around six o’clock, the clouds began to gather, the light dimmed, and inevitably we were headed for an early finish and an honourable draw.

Fielding at long off, I took a moment to look around me: the rolling field, the unique pavilion, the often painted Bat and Ball pub beyond the midwicket boundary, my team mates playing on this hallowed ground, as had so many others  over the centuries.

As the gloaming gathered, I looked down over the rolling Hampshire Downs, falling away below us in the twilight. The rain threatened, and then started to softly fall. I could see the headlights of tractors and combines, stretching away into the far distance, the crops being gathered, the farmers working, as they always had. Though the methods were modern, the scene was redolent of the past. I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Hardy and how he put humanity into a rural landscape.

And I do believe that cricket, with its history, its mixture of the physical and the cerebral, and its arcane traditions, performs a similar function.

So we can be thankful to Jake for tapping into this humanity, with the people he brings to us in their cricketing context – from David Christie, of Freuchie’s epic win at Lords, to the prodigiously talented Archie Jackson, born in Rutherglen, raised in Sydney, taken by tuberculosis at only 23.

Like our team mates from the past, and the heroes we have watched, the folk who figure in these Tales of Scottish Cricket will be forever part of our emotional history; we will carry them with us for life.

This book, like the sport it so effectively portrays, is food for the soul.


Finding the Words


It is not unusual, when a cricket fanatic is asked to explain his devotion to the game, that he or she becomes stuck for words. For many, their attachment to the summer game is so visceral, so much a part of who they are, that they can no more explain it than they could explain breathing or eating. It’s a game that can get into your soul.

However, when I heard the sad news that Hugh Kilpatrick had died, it occurred to me that, in all that he was, in his character and personality, he would make a fine explanation of the myriad elements of  a love of cricket.

Hugh played for many years for Holy Cross Academicals in the East of Scotland league, and was known throughout the game in central Scotland. One of the earliest club members, playing from 1951, after Holy Cross was founded in 1950, he embodied the links with the old school and its alumni in many ways, and was fundamental in developing a club which was rightly famed for its diverse and universal recruitment policy, decades before such attitudes became recognised as the correct way to proceed.

When I joined the club in 1974, he was club captain, and though my links with Holy Cross were through my father and his siblings many years before, I was welcomed as a long lost friend. It was important to a new player that the Captain, like other  senior players, took the time to acknowledge a newcomer, and along with Roddy Regan, Alan Reid, the Balfours and others, he was responsible for the difficult task of preserving both the “FP” element of the club, and merging it with a recruitment policy that welcomed players from all over the world and from many different backgrounds.

To introduce more etymology, as a cricketer and as a man, he epitomised the word “dapper”. His cricket gear was always immaculate, as was his strokeplay, his bowling, and, in particular, his fielding. I never played with a more complete or effective fielder, and I recently learned that he scored the club’s first ever century in a match against Greyhounds in 1968. His leg break bowling was, unsurprisingly, accurate and teasing.

He was a player who was “neat” and correct in every part of his game, and one of the easiest coaching instructions in my early days at Cross was “Just watch Hugh Kilpatrick.”

Off the field he was equally smart and always well presented, and it was a common sight, in the years after he retired from playing, to see him circling the boundary at each of the Holy Cross fixtures,  raincoat open despite the weather, a cloud of tobacco smoke following his progress. Players of all generations welcomed his presence – for his inevitable encouragement, his willingness to listen and advise, but also as that tangible link with the founding of the club and all the players who had come and gone since.

He wore his considerable intellect lightly, though his daily commitment to crossword puzzles, as well as a very funny, dry, often acerbic, but always accurate, wit, revealed how sharp he could be. His quietly spoken asides, made all the more emphatic by  a generally reserved demeanour, were the stuff of club legend, and suggested that, whilst he seldom drew attention to himself, not much happened at the club of which he was not aware.

I was lucky enough to teach  three  of his children, and so knew them, and Sheila, his wife. Each in their own way, they reflected the values which Hugh demonstrated so well: fools not suffered gladly but friends given enduring loyalty, a sensitivity to others matched by a strong sense of self, and a quick wit that seldom missed the mark. I suppose it is one measure of a man that his family can forge their own individual identities whilst retaining all that was most admirable about their parents.

Hugh’s approach to the game – meticulously fair but always open to humour – endeared him not only to his team mates but also to opponents, and throughout his career, it was not unusual on arriving at the ground to hear a member of the opposition enquire: “Is Hugh Kilpatrick playing for you today?”

The years he played, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, were, in many ways, the halcyon days of club cricket in eastern Scotland. The game was played by a merry band of guys who reflected all the positives and negatives, qualities and idiosyncrasies, of the general population – enlarged  – by the sporting struggle of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and the post match socialising which followed in the evening. Stories for a lifetime, and legends forever.

He was one of those characters who made the day better whenever you met him; in his company you raised your game – on and off the pitch. I wish him flat wickets, good team mates, and  quality kit, in that most eternal of cricket grounds where he is now walking out to take his guard.

Like the cricket which he loved, Hugh is difficult to summarise in mere words. I guess you had to know him. But, given his love and understanding of words used accurately, I know he would not take it as faint praise if I write:

Hugh Kilpatrick was a decent man.

When I was 17…..


It’s easy to be cynical about the sixties in retrospect. The explosion of “youth culture” was largely manipulated by scions of the Establishment freed from the need to do National Service. They made the money, and the creators took the fame, often to their detriment.

But that’s not the whole story.

I was a teenager between 1965 and 1971. It was almost perfect timing.

David Hepworth, the rock music writer, recently said that the Beatles’ music brought us “happiness”. And he was right. Its energy, its innovation, its redolent lyrics and its upbeat enthusiasm – listen to the full on intros of ‘She loves you’, ‘All my loving’, ‘It won’t be long’ or ‘I wanna hold your hand’ – they all brought a fluttering to our stomach and a happiness to our hearts.

Naturally, there was marketing involved – but comparing Brian Epstein to today’s “media influencers” is like comparing a bowling club WhatsApp group to Facebook.

Of course, other things were happening.

It has often been suggested that what we now think of as “The Sixties” really only lasted from early in 1964 to late in 1968. Before that, we were fighting off the greyness of the fifties, and after that, after losing the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and seeing the Chicago and Paris riots, we became far too self aware (or in some cases, drugged up) to continue to buy the “generation of change” descriptions.

In that dawning of the age of self knowledge we were replicating our parents’ generation, who fairly quickly had come to realise that a Coronation, an ascent of Everest, and a Festival of Britain did not equate to an age of the “New Elizabethans”, as they had been told.

But context is everything – and one area of hope and wonder remained: the Apollo Moon voyages.

Lots of clever people will tell you that they were an obscene waste of money, given earth’s problems, and were driven by the western capitalists’ desperation to prove themselves over the hated eastern communists.  I can’t argue against that – but I can suggest that maybe that view is not the whole story.

Secondary education in the sixties split very early between the “Arts” and “Sciences”. I was an Arts man and had little or no understanding of, or interest in, the sciences. Machinery and technology were not on my list of interests, and astronomy was a closed book to me.

And yet.

Like millions of others, I was fascinated beyond belief by NASA’s Moon programme, knew the names of all the astronauts way back to the Mercury days, and followed every launch and mission with total concentration.

How could this epitome of scientific effort be so engaging to such an arts biased teenager?

The answer to that question reflects Apollo’s broad appeal as a human mission of exploration. Of course, to scientists and engineers, it was a remarkable project, a brilliant coming together of so many disciplines in ways and processes which had never been previously attempted.

To the rest of us, who were probably only vaguely aware of the depth of scientific knowledge necessary just  to get the giant Saturn rocket off the ground, never mind the remaining intricacies of the mission, it had an air of nobility.

NASA, of course, played into this – being acutely aware that they needed public interest and support to maintain Congress’s level of funding. So, in contrast to the dirty grey and brown industrial appearance of Soviet spaceware, the Apollos were shiningly and dazzlingly white as they stood on the launch pad, and every launch was a premier production for television cameras, complete with commentary, count down, and crews’ voices. The crew themselves had the practised nonchalant tones of thoroughbred adventurers. It would be the later Apollo 13 mission which would give the world its universal phrase for understatement when Jack Swigert reported: “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Not only were they heroes, they were presented as such. But you would not have to be a “space freak” to be hit emotionally by the powerful image of those Saturn rockets blasting off from that Florida swamp land, all fire and steam and smoke and roar, to head, quite literally, into the wide blue yonder.

We all understood that these were brave men, taking risks at the very edge of technical capacities. At the time, we were not aware just how many risks were being taken, and how close to disaster they rode, though the loss of Grissom, Chaffee, and White, in the launch tower conflagration had been a sharp reminder of the perils they faced.

What we knew was, like all explorers, these men were going where nobody had been before, they were the visible embodiment of mankind’s species-maintaining curiosity. They were going on our behalf.

We still found ourselves, in those times, innocent enough to allow for the admiration of heroes, the thrill of exploration. As Kennedy had said in launching the moon missions: We do these things…..not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In our youthful naivety, we still had the strength to aspire to great things rather than list our fears of failure.

We had seen earthrise from Apollo 8 for the first time and become acutely aware of the tiny insignificance of our planet. It felt like we had become children of the Universe, rather than merely earthlings. Earthbound international differences in politics, economic systems, or cultures could be seen as relatively unimportant when viewed against the backdrop of space.

Apollo 11 played a part in bringing us all together in many ways. In 1969 we were only five years on from the first live transatlantic television pictures. Now, not only would we see men walking on the  Moon but we would be watching as part of a world wide audience numbering some 600 million – the biggest concentration of humans focused on the same event in history. In some ways, that was as stunning as the astronauts’ 249,000 mile mission. We were a generation who had grown up hearing our parents book phone calls to Australia a week in advance, now we could watch live as man walked on the Moon. It was impossible not to feel a thrill of excitement and achievement.

We could not record television programmes in those days, so if you wanted to watch something  you needed to be watching as it happened and was broadcast. Therefore we had the “added excitement” of getting up in the middle of the night to watch man step out on to the lunar surface. Even in the sixties, “a good night’s sleep” had almost moral overtones – so such a break with routine was of itself remarkable.

So on July 20th 1969 I sat in our living room at 2.30 am ready to watch the most unusual piece of television I could ever have imagined. Being in such “normal” surroundings, of course, only made the experience even more surreal.

I was 17 but totally unable to maintain the accepted teenage attitude of “mild disinterest” in everything. Nails were bitten, hands clasped and unclasped, feet tapping. My mother, naturally, had produced a cup of tea and a biscuit, another routine domestic process to highlight the abnormality of what was happening. Our elderly Red Setter lay at my feet, puzzled no doubt by this odd human behaviour, but with one eye half open in case of falling biscuit crumbs.

My mother was housekeeper to a priest. He was also there, intent on the screen, occasionally shaking his head. Earlier, when we had watched the LEM land on the Moon, just around the point when Aldrin and Armstrong realised they were perilously short of fuel, he had muttered: “They won’t do it, they are going to crash.”

It was unusual for him to show such open emotion and I was taken aback for a moment, but then, in one of many learning moments brought about by the moon landings, I saw a snapshot of his life. Born in the 1890s, he had been brought up in an Irish family in a pub on Liverpool’s Dock Road. He had known old men and sailors who remembered the slave trade; he remembered horses and carts lined up outside the docks waiting for the gates to open so the ships – some steam, some sail-powered still –  could be loaded and unloaded. On the eve of the Great War, part of a class at a at a seminary in the north east of England, he had wrecked his knee in a hurdles race and been unfit for service, while his classmates joined up. In 1918, only six came back to finish their studies, out of a class of 20, thanks to the decimation of the Durham Light Infantry. In the second war, he had been chaplain to a huge rest and recreation camp for the US military in central Lancashire. He developed a great tenderness towards the young damaged soldiers to whom he ministered, but could never talk about the distress and fear that he encountered among those war shocked heroes. Now he was seeing man on the moon, and, no doubt, his prediction of a crash was a kind of secular prayer that it would not happen.

My mother had been born in 1917 while her father was fighting at Paschendaele, she had endured Liverpool’s May Blitz during the second war, spending much of her twenties in an air raid shelter, and had been widowed at 39 and left with a five year old son. She would live on into the 21st century as she had always aimed to do, with the better part of a century of life experience behind her.

And there was I – a child of the post war fifties, a 60s teenager, with a life ahead of me which would encompass revolution in communications, travel, and social affairs, some of the advances, at least in part, coming as a result of the event we were sitting down to witness.

In that room was a man whose parents had been born in the 1860s and a teenager whose life would extend in to the second decade of the twenty first century, another take on “living history”.

We each brought ourselves to the moment of Armstrong’s first foot on the lunar surface – our individual histories, personalities, and beliefs. It was one of those few moments in our lives when we realise, as something is happening, that we will always remember the moment. And if it was thus for the three of us, it was the same for the 650 million other humans who were watching together. The memories this weekend will not just be of three heroes, or of spacecraft, or technicians, or of television commentators, but they will be of those with whom we shared the moment and what they meant to us. Apollo 11 – still  bringing people together, fifty years after the event.

Later that day, last thing at night, I followed the usual routine of letting the dog out into the garden. Normally, I would wait at the door till he came back in and I could lock up.

On that night in July 1969 I went out into the garden myself, and looked up at that pale yellow globe, hanging high above the trees and roof tops around me.

I looked at the moon more intently than I ever had before. And I thought: “There are two men up there, on the moon, as I look at it!” It was a moment of pure wonderment, a minute or two when it would be safe to say I was literally overawed. There was a feeling of affection towards them, with elements of protectiveness, and I said a quiet prayer that they would return safely.

I turned to follow the dog back into the house, and feeling only slightly foolish, gave a small wave to the men in the moon.

One of the most intense examples in my lifetime of the mundane touching the fantastical, and the essence of that moment in history.













P stands for Paddy, I suppose.

Driving through the pretty village of Coldingham yesterday, I found myself thinking of one of its former residents, the late journalist, Ian Bell. This in turn led me  to remembering a friend’s comment: “You write so well about dead people!” It was meant (I hope) as a compliment, and it is true that the words flow more easily when they come directly from the heart in praising someone lost who has been loved or respected.

However,  I thought today I would write about a pal who is still very much alive, but who has just  retired from his position as lecturer in journalism at Fife College. It’s surely better, or at least more rewarding, to share affection while the recipient is still in a state to accept it!

I’ve known Pat Joyce since I was eighteen when I returned to my hometown of Edinburgh to start university.

Having lived in England for a dozen years, it was perhaps symptomatic of my naivity that I was surprised to be a little overwhelmed when I arrived back in the Capital. “My” city was obviously not the one I remembered from when I was six, and the university place, which school had guided us unthinkingly towards for six years, was proving a little more complicated than I had ever considered.

In addition, I had lived in a prosperous seaside resort in the north west of England which had the highest rate of university students in the country. Though my mother was a housekeeper, rather than one of the wealthy residents of the town, it was fair to say that my upbringing had been pretty sheltered.

Take skinheads.

They did exist in Southport – but we all knew what to do if you saw one: run!

So, settled in the post hippy trendiness of the university’s Pollock Halls of Residence, it came as a huge shock to spot a couple of lads in the corridor who exhibited all the warning signs to instigate a rapid retreat.

Pat Joyce and his pal, Tom, stood out very obviously, and were, to me, threatening figures: from their big boots, their short jeans,  their Ben Sherman shirts, and all the way up to the suede tops of their heads. The corridors in Fraser House were long, narrow, and dark – but, luckily, had exits at both ends. Tom’s room, where they were most often to be spotted, was to the right, so I quickly developed a habit of turning left whenever I left my room.

Just in case.

Retrospection provides some kind of cover for our innocence, I suppose.

What I saw in my limited view as ‘threatening’, was, in fact, two working class Dundee lads making a statement which said: “This is who we are, and we’re not going to change to suit this effete student establishment!” A sentence which could well serve as Pat’s motto to this day.

To be fair to myself, by  second year I was not so  blinkered in my judgements.

At the opposite end of the basement corridor where I was now staying, was a student who was almost a complete opposite to me in political views, but we had discovered a mutual love of Irish folk music, and become good friends.

One night, a music event had been organised and we were playing a few songs at it.

All of a sudden, Pat Joyce loomed up out of the audience and joined us on stage. He was now more Mod in appearance than skinhead, but I still had a couple of moments of doubt.

It was the beginning of a life long connection.

What we quickly discovered were the unspoken similarities which come from a shared background – working class Irish immigrants, Catholic Faith, love of sport, music, politics, and literature. It felt as if we had known each other all our lives – despite the many obvious differences between the city of Jam, Jute and Journalism and the home of the Royal Birkdale Golf Club!

Pat had been studying Law originally – and would have made an iconic member of that profession, but his talents and proclivities were far too wide to be tied down by such a discipline. When he graduated, he became an actor: I remember spotting him as a ‘troubled youth’ in ‘Sutherland’s Law’, starring the redoubtable Iain Cuthbertson, and then later he gained a regular role in STV’s serial, “Garnock Way”. One of my last sightings of him as a thespian was when he sported a tee shirt with the slogan “Save Garnock Way – Act Now!”

(Incidentally, as a side note, the cast list for that series is redolent of the huge amount of acting talent we produced in Scotland in the late twentieth century: Eileen McCallum, Bill Armour, John Stahl, Bill Henderson, Terri Cavers, Dorothy Paul, Gerald Slevin, Harriet Buchan, Jackie Farrell, Jan Wilson)

His love for Dundee Utd was a friendly counterpart to my devotion to Hibernian and whereas I played cricket, he played hockey. We both loved the Who, Fairport Convention and Irish folk rockers, Horslips.

As happens, we lost contact for a number of years due to family, career, and the business of getting on with it, but Facebook provided the source of a renewed connection some years ago.

It was great to recognise that nothing had changed, we still connected on all levels, still described ourselves as Socialist Republicans for Independence, and whilst I had clung on grimly to my Faith, he had managed to retain the message while no longer acknowledging the institution.

I was now a depute head in a secondary school, promoting guidance and pupil support; Pat was lecturing in journalism in Further Education. I knew he would be good at that because his natural demeanour lends itself to communication and engagement – but it wasn’t long till there was independent confirmation of this, as I kept on coming across excellent journalists who had all been taught  by Pat.

They say you can judge a teacher by his pupils. All of these graduates of the “Joyce school” of journalism had “Pat Joyce” written through them as if they were sticks of rock. The words were ‘integrity, professionalism, empathy, curiosity, persistence and flair’.

You would never come out of a Pat Joyce session believing  that anything less than three double checked sources were sufficient, or that ‘cut and paste’ was ever something of which to be proud. You would, however, have come to understand, that your job was to ask awkward questions, refuse to be fobbed off, and write pieces which were clear, accurate, well written and engaging. And if that bar wasn’t set high enough, he’d be expecting a judicious use of mischievous humour where appropriate.

As an English graduate, and teacher, words, reading, and writing are staple parts of my existence. Many of my university pals became journalists or writers. I had always wanted to teach, and by the end of my degree course I thankfully had the self awareness to understand that I had neither the brass neck, nor the forensic attention to detail, to apply myself to journalism. Indeed, though I dabbled in poetry and song writing in my twenties, it would take a couple of  decades before I gained the confidence to really launch myself at writing, with short story writing and a column in the Times Ed.

What I have always possessed, however, is an admiration and a respect for good journalism and its purveyors. My entire education in writing, politics and current affairs came from constant reading of the work of  top class journalists like Neal Ascherson, Hugh McIlvanney, Keith Waterhouse, Cyril Connolly, (‘Better write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self’ ‘Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.’) And later, Tom Nairn, Ian Bell, Clive James and now Dani Garavelli and Peter Ross.

Good writing and journalism roots itself in your brain and soul, and becomes a life companion. So I wander through life continually carrying the memory of Peter Ross on the murmurations of starlings, or the family whose job was to pick dead bodies from the Clyde; Ian Bell’s piece on the place of railways in our growing up is summoned every time I hear a train pass, Clive James’ peerless television critiques still resonate (‘like a man in the latter stages of the hully gully’),  and Dani Garavelli’s ability to convert her fury at injustice into measured, effective, and sharply balanced writing, shadows every feature I read.

Everybody knows the current state of the media, but to blame journalists for this is akin to blaming a waiter for an undercooked piece of meat. Journalists can only deliver what they are resourced to deliver, they can only write on topics or angles which the marketing department, far away in every sense,  have calibrated in terms of online hits. The best of writers, like, for instance, Marina Hyde, often have the clout to overcome this approach, but for most working journalists they work on thin gruel, with the means to finding stories, researching them adequately, and  presenting them in full, severely limited by financial considerations and changing media trends.

It is surely no coincidence that the current parlous state of politics and democracy has coincided with the demeaning of the fourth estate by those moguls and politicians with most to gain from an ill informed public.

That’s why the work that Pat, and others, have done, in continuing to educate tomorrow’s journalists in the ethics and public service elements of their craft, is invaluable, and it’s one of the many reasons I continue to be proud of our friendship.

Our generation were brought up to believe that  it was important, in whatever way you were able, to make a difference, to care for others – particularly the most vulnerable, and to enjoy and promote the good things around us – be it nature, family, music, sport,  literature, history, or integrity.

I’ve always tried to do that in teaching, and Pat in journalism.

Hopefully we have both done it in a manner that was kind to others and was prepared to listen. Most importantly, I don’t think  it has caused either of us to take ourselves too seriously.

The proof of that particular pudding, of course, is in the eating. But I’m pretty sure that once he has read this, Pat will accept my affectionate take on his approach to journalism and life, and respond succinctly and with a twinkle in his eye, using a short word starting in P and ending in H, with an ‘i’ and an ‘s’ in the middle.

We wouldn’t have it any other way!

On ye go, chum!



Shanahan, McNamara, and Mary McGrath

I first became aware of Doonbeg in west Clare as a fourteen year old when I spent the summer in the nearby town of Kilkee.

We did not have a car, so we relied on a local taxi driver, PJ King, to take us around the area. On one day of glorious sunshine, when Kilkee was full to overflowing, he suggested going to the White Strand.

In the years since, White Strands and Tránna bána have become a mainstay of my travelling

However, in the mid sixties,  the White Strand at Killard near Doonbeg, was my first experience of such a soothing and beautiful scene, and I found it quite enchanting in the real sense of the word.

We were the only people there and across the bay, we could see an equally deserted stretch of pristine sand edged with the white froth of surfing waves, which we were told was Doughmore strand.

We stopped at the local pub and got a sense of a small community, still based largely on farming, a challenging  way of life, then, as now. My first impressions of Doonbeg, then, were extremely positive.

Each year we returned to Kilkee and I found out a little more about west Clare in general. I met a girl named Mary McGrath who was working in our hotel. She was the life and soul of the place, hailed from Doonbeg, and was a font of local knowledge. Mary and the   number of folk from Doonbeg I met over the years came to represent the town and its values to me.

One of my hobbies is the study of history and I soon uncovered the  tale from the War of Independence  which related to a Residential Magistrate in Clare called Lendrum.

After he had been killed in IRA operation, the local Crown forces were determined to apprehend the perpetrators of the attack – and by all accounts were none too mindful about the process of law.

Some time later, the Captain of the Doonbeg Company of the IRA, Mikey McNamara and the Chief of the local IRA Police, Wille Shanahan, were captured by the Black and Tans, and eventually tortured and murdered. Once I had discovered their graves in the Republican Plot at Doonbeg Graveyard, I made it a routine to stop and pay my respects each time I passed through the village.

Shanahan was from Doughmore and McNamara from close by in Mountrivers. They were Doonbeg men and are still remembered with pride by many locally. To me, they represent the historical values of Doonbeg and west Clare – where community and neighbours were put before all else.

However, should you Google “Doonbeg Republicans” these days, you will come across a long list of  articles pertaining to Donald Trump and the property he owns at Doughmore. The golf course, club and hotel complex backs on to that long strand and has brought fame and notoriety in equal parts to Doonbeg.

And, to me, that seems a shame.

By all accounts, the project itself reflects the Trump house style in its overblown tastelessness and there have been recent conflicts over his desire to build a wall (no really) between the strand and his property to offset the effects of erosion, from the Global Warming  he professes does not exist.

Over more than fifty years  I have grown to have affection and admiration for the folk of west Clare. It is a beautiful place to live, but not the easiest location in which to thrive.

So when local folk put out the bunting for Trump’s visit this week, it’s easy to understand the dollar signs in their eyes. There are all sorts of  estimates for how much the Trump project brings in to the village. Some are wildly overestimated, others fail to take note of how much of that cash remains in the local economy.

It’s also true to say that, as a mere visitor, albeit with an interest in the area, it’s really none of my business – but I’m not sure that precludes me from having my say, whether or not local folk agree with me – and , clearly, many do not.

So maybe it’s better to widen out the discussion.

Ultimately, it’s not about Trump and Doonbeg, it’s about the west of Ireland, the Irish government and economy, and people’s choices.

But before I leave Trump, can I share some of the experiences we have had here in Scotland when it comes to his “investment” in an area.

Up at Menie, in the north of Scotland, building a similar complex, he made all manner of grandiloquent promises about jobs, the scale of the project, and the amount he would invest. In addition, he verbally attacked local people who would not sell out their land to him, and built a huge earthen wall (there we go again) around their property to cut them off from his land.

Like Doonbeg, and his other property at Turnberry in Scotland, the investment has been minimal compared to what was promised, and huge losses are being incurred. It’s what Trump does: promises big and then goes into administration when losses are insurmountable. Atlantic City in the USA is still trying to recover from the collapse of his casinos.

The business people of Doonbeg may be happy to grab the additional income while they can, but they should be doing so  with one eye to developing a more sustainable business model against the day when Trump and his projects are no more.

Of course, there is nothing new about US President’s linking to Ireland – 22 of them have claimed connections, and since John F Kennedy’s visit to Wexford in the sixties, we have seen Reagan visit Co Tipperary and Obama’s link to Co Offaly amongst others.

Trump has no such connection. His background is German and Scots – though there is little likelihood of his visiting his mother’s homeplace on Lewis, as locals have suggested they would run him out of the place such is the disgrace they feel he has brought to it.

So, while we could accuse former Presidents of cultivating the Irish American vote by visiting their “Roots”, there is no such agenda for Trump – a man so careless of family heritage that he frequently claims his American born father was born in Germany. He will visit Doonbeg on the same basis as he visited Troon in Scotland and his weekend golfing jaunts in America – to promote the Trump name and business, and to add more taxpayers’ money into his depleted coffers. He cares not a jot for local people or their history or their business.

But we really should be looking at the reasons behind local folks’ determination to welcome Trump and take his money. Many have said this week that they deplore his politics and values but are “separating the man from his policies”. This may appear to be a Jesuitical level of sophistry, but I would suggest that anyone who grew up in west Clare over the past fifty or sixty years would perfectly understand their thinking.

Put simply, there is no other option. This is an area that has been grossly underfunded and overlooked by successive Irish governments literally from the foundation of the State. You would have to go back to the long diminished Shannon Free Trade Area and the Ard-na-Crusha power station well over fifty years ago to see any notable governmental attempt to regenerate the area.

My background is in Leitrim – a county which has suffered similarly. If you feel my statement is overly harsh, examine the increasingly desperate letters written to DeValera by Blasket Islanders in the late 1940s, asking initially for something as simple as effective radio communications with the mainland and ultimately, after a young man’s death from appendicitis, begging for evacuation. And this was to a President who claimed to believe the “soul” of Ireland was to be found in the West.

As recently elected Councillor, Cillian Murphy, of Kilkee, has pointed out, in north Clare, the Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions, yet the majority of tourists are bussed there from Dublin and spend very little time or money in the local area. What Clare gets from this “tourist boom” is crowded roads and a disinclination from some tourists to vist the area because of how overcrowded certain areas become.

In Kilkee itself, the ill fated property boom led to a huge number of houses being built in and around the town, but these are largely holiday homes and the current year round occupation of Kilkee property hovers around 30%. How is a town to survive long term on such a model? Until recently in this holiday resort, not one of its  major hotels were open for business.

Times change and God forbid we should be looking for the west of Ireland to become some kind of heritage theme park. Indeed, it is organic change which offers the best hope for these areas, a change built on local people and their talents, adapting to contemporary conditions.

A national economic plan which depends on low Corporation Tax and similar incentives,  will, by its nature, attract the multinational conglomerates who roam the world looking for such opportunities. When better conditions are offered elsewhere, they up and leave with no thought to the local economy they are leaving behind.

Unfortunately, this can work politically and economically in the short term – as in boosting a party’s chances in the next election – but provides no sustainable model for the workforce or locality. What we have seen in Ireland is a steady growth of the economy around Dublin and an increasing struggle in other areas. Sadly, the current government, and to be fair its predecessors, either have no desire or no idea how to decentralise wealth and power, or how to redistribute it in a fairer and more sustainable manner.

This explains how folk in Doonbeg are only too ready to welcome the odious Trump to their place – he is, almost literally, the only show in town.

However, with support and vision, there are other possibilities.

For most of the twenty or so years I visited Kilkee regularly, from the sixties onwards, the only place to eat, apart from the hotels, would have been Manuel Di Lucia’s Savoy Cafe which was a chipper, hamburgers from the Central Stores, or the odd sandwich in a pub. Now there are a number of local restaurants with well cooked local produce and varied fare, producing high quality menus.

The trip out to Loop Head was once  a lesson in depopulation and hard times, but now local businesses are starting to  blossom in places like Carrigaholt and Kilbaha, again with local folk and skills being utilised and showcased.

Focus, cooperative working, vision, and ethically sourced investment can help these areas grow and proper, keeping young people in the area, or tempting graduates and others to return to their homeplace. It requires leadership and hard work and a willingness to  keep on approaching government and other sources for the kind of start up funds and support that make the difference between ideas and practical progress.

Rural areas in particular have been badly let down by  governments for whom the ideals of the Republic seem to have been replaced by the dictats of self interest.

I think the people of Doonbeg and hundreds of similar  communities deserve better than to become prey to any passing venture capitalist.

It’s about time that folk no longer needed to perform the difficult task of holding their nose while opening the till to bank the income forged on the back of dodgy businesses run by degenerates like Trump. It’s maybe too late for this generation – but surely we owe it to the next.

Doonbeg, like Ireland, is not about business or even land or locality. It is about people, and people who deserve to be able to make a good living out of local resources without having to prostitute their values.

This area and its coastline has so much to offer and has the people to manage that, if they are given the support.

It should be built on the values and commitment of folk like Shanahan and McNamara, Mary McGrath and all the other Doonbeg families who have put so much into the community through the generations and deserve to be so much more than the backdrop to an international privateer’s fantasies.

The folk in Doonbeg cannnot be blamed for grabbing the profit while it’s on offer, there’s little alternative, but it’s the knowledge that  one day, they or their children will pay the price for such short term economic planning that makes this week’s activities so depressing.

The blame is not with the people of west Clare, nor even with Trump, whose extremely limited view of the world prevents him from operating in any other way – it lies 200 miles to the east and has existed really from the foundation of the State.

Res publica – about the people.

Something has been lost in translation.