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Three Photographs and a plug of tobacco

November 11, 2018

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They look out from  the faded picture with 100 year old stares. They look towards the camera but not at it. Really they are straining to see  the future.

My dad is just 18 and he has joined the Scottish Rifles, the Cameronians. He looks scared, not so much for himself, perhaps, as for his idolised big brother standing next to him.

Joe is a Sergeant, leading   a Lewis Gun Platoon, in D Company of the London Rifle Brigade. He joined up in the Post Office Rifles in 1915, when he was 18 and was  sent to France in June 1916, two weeks before the First Day on the Somme. He missed the slaughter of that bloodbath but was one of many to be transferred into the London Rifle Brigade after the battle, to replace their horrendous losses.

The picture was taken around Hogmanay 1917/18. Both are on home leave.

Less than three months later, on March 28th, Joe will be wounded and taken prisoner at Oppy near Arras. For weeks the family only know he is missing after an attack which decimated his battalion. Eventually, via the Red Cross, they discover he is in a PoW Camp at Friedrichsfeld am Wessel in Germany. He won’t return home until 1919, and, weakened by his wartime experiences, he succumbs to TB and dies in 1923, aged 26. At least his family had him back from the war for a time.

In March of this year, one hundred years to the day, I went to Oppy and stood on the spot where he was wounded and captured. In an exposed field just south of the village, with driving rain on my face and up to  my ankles in cloying mud, I tried, hopelessly, to capture some of his experience that Maundy Thursday in 1918. Of course, I failed, but, looking down, I saw a piece of wood: the charred remains of the handle off a stretcher. Strange how something so small and unremarkable could represent the horror of a century ago.

My dad, having suffered polio as a 12 year old, will be passed fit only for home service, perhaps a relief to his parents and siblings. He’ll be stationed in St Andrews and then transferred to the Royal Defence Corps, where, from Stobs Camp near Hawick, he escorts German PoWs on working parties to places such as Beecraigs Loch near Linlithgow, where, coincidentally, I have spent many happy times.

Perhaps mindful of his brother’s situation, whenever he is passing his home on escort duty, he takes his prisoners up the stairs of the family tenement, on Edinburgh’s Southside, where his mother gives them some Leitrim Irish hospitality, soup, and tea.

He will die in 1957 when I am only five, and so, what I know about his war experiences are from official records and family hearsay, rather than from his own lips.

I look at the picture, as I have done for years, and think about the two of them: my frightened 18 year old dad, and twenty year old Joe, looking at least twice as old,  after eighteen months on the front line.

Here’s another photograph, another studio portrait.

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A young woman sits with three young children on her knee, beside her widowed mother who’s in black. Behind them stands a young man.

The young man is my grandfather, Tom Duckett. In this August 1914 picture he is still a post office supervisor in Liverpool, in two years time he will be Gunner Duckett of the Royal Garrison Artillery. The two women are his mother and his sister.

The member of the household missing is the children’s father, Jim Donovan, husband of  Gertie in the front row. A Liverpool City policeman, he has already joined the RGA and is on training. The note on the back of the card reads: “Dear Dada, We have come all this way to wish you luck and to show you how well we all are…”

Here is another picture – from the early 1920s. The two women and the children feature again, the children are older, and there is an addition to the family. All are in black.

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Jim carried the first picture with him on active service. He won a Military Medal for bravery, and was killed in action in October 1918. This Spring, I visited his grave at Tincourt near Peronne. He is buried with an Australian soldier from near Townsville, New South Wales – a reminder of the random nature of war.

Of course I am remembering Joe and great Uncle Jim as the centenary of the Armistice approaches. They are never far away from my thoughts, these men I never knew. But I am suddenly reminded of the gravedigger at Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC – Clifton Pollard.

After the death of John F Kennedy in 1963, reporter Jimmy Breslin – to become the outstanding journalist of his generation – was tasked by the New York Herald Tribune to find an original  angle on the assassination. He chose to write about  the man who would dig JFK’s grave, and thus inspired a thousand journalists to “look for the gravedigger angle.”

And, as we are surrounded by poppy displays and memories of those who perished in the War, I begin to wonder if there is another angle on remembering the tragedy of warfare.

Looking at those photographs, I wonder about the men who took them.

Back in the early twentieth century, photography was largely in the hands of professionals, a recording of an event, rather than the social media diary of minutiae we know today. People talked of “having a photo taken”.

They went in their thousands to have pictures taken like these.

And I consider the photographers.

In wartime, they would largely have been men too old to serve – but of an age to have sons. Their assistants would likely have been  too  young to serve but with the prospect of fighting still to come.

How did they cope with this procession of young men, proudly posed in army uniform, knowing this might well be the picture that defined them for generations to come, frozen for ever in a formal likeness that was more a resemblance than a true image?

Did they think of those in their  own families in uniform, or about  all the young men they had photographed who never came back, or the family portraits sent to the front to be destroyed in mud and blood?

Was there emotional comfort in that they were providing some connection between loved ones separated by war, a tangible token of love and affection? Did it help, as the years went by to realise that, for hundreds of thousands, the picture they had taken – positioned on a press or sideboard, or taken from a drawer each November, was the only knowledge future generations would have of a great grandad, an uncle, a father?

But at the time, as young men filed in dutifully to have their portrait captured, the knowledge that for many it would be their last picture must have weighed heavily on those photographers. If a picture does indeed paint a thousand words, they must have felt like they were inscribing premature obituaries.

And then I think of my grandfather. Like many immigrants, he worked long hours as a grocer – a “Provisions Merchant”  – in his shop on Buccleuch St in Edinburgh’s Southside, selling all sorts to local folk, including diary produce sent from “home” – Drumkeerin, in Co Leitrim.

Buccleuch St, running from near the University’s Bristo area to the edge of the Meadows, is no more than 300 yards long and today is still lined mostly by late 19th century typical Edinburgh tenements.

In four years, those tenements lost 29 men to the Great War. You might want to think of that as a man – a father, son, husband or brother – every ten yards. Of course, it was not as measured as that.

The McPartlins lived at 120 Buccleuch St when Joe went to war. From that stair, three died, including the Campbell brothers. At the end of the war, the family stayed at 33 Buccleuch St – a stair that lost three men, including the Douglases – father and son. Opposite them, at number 20, six men never returned, again including brothers.

In the close knit community of a tenement stair, the weeping must have been heard from roof to cellar.

Grief and bereavement must have flickered in those tenement stairwells like the light from the old gas mantles – coming and going, but always there.

How the tolling of the street door bell must have sounded through the landings above as each person in the building wondered whose  bell it was that  the telegram boy had pulled to bring them the news.

And how did grandfather cope? His own son at war, missing, or captured? How did he – how could he – greet the mothers, fathers, children and parents of those who would never again come in to the shop? Lads who had grown with his lads, played football with them on the Meadows, neighbours who were part of his every day life. Each familiar face a portrait of loss or worry or acceptance.

To those home on leave in uniform, what comfort could he offer? How could he resist asking about the Front? But how could he bear to do so?

Was the best he could offer to a soldier on embarkation leave a plug of tobacco “No charge”? Or a box of provisions to take back to the platoon: “You can pay me when you come home”. The awkward silence, formed after that pious hope, broken only by army boots on the wooden floor and, as the door is opened, the tinkle of the shop bell, like the harness rattling on the horses towing the gun carriages.

When teaching war poetry, I endeavoured to encourage my pupils to try and imagine the reality of warfare. I passed round handfuls of shrapnel balls brought back from Flanders, tried to describe the trenches – the horrors that went beyond being hit by a shell or bullet. But I found the most effective approach was to point to the empty desks in the classroom and wonder how many would have been filled by the descendants of men who did not live long enough to become fathers.

The idea dawned  that the Armistice may have ended the War for the soldiers in the field, but for millions of others it was just the beginning of a long life shadowed by loved ones remembered and missed, the memories of the young men photographed, the men served in the shop, the familiar sound of the lad from 120/3 running down the common stair.

When I was young I saw men on crutches and with eye patches and missing limbs, or selling matches in the street. There were old women who always dressed in black. I thought this was just what happened to the old, I made no connection to the Great War which seemed to me to be ancient history. I had no concept of the extent to which it still spread its influence over the world in which I lived.

The truth is that a life lost in war is always and forever a life lost, a change in the direction of family, street, or neighbourhood, part of a wholescale slaughtering of potential.

My dad and two of his surviving brothers all died before I was eight years old, but I do have happy memories of the three of them gathered at our house, making me laugh, showing me their love.

It should have been four.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A rich seam, a community team.

November 4, 2018

Nestled between the primary school and main street, and overlooking parkland and modern bungalows, “New Central Park”, as its name suggests, is in the middle of the Fife town of Kelty. It’s the home of Kelty Hearts, currently top of the Lowland League, and we’re here today because two of our lads in the Hibernian Development Squad are playing on loan for visitors, Gala Fairydean Rovers.

Until fifty years ago, this village, whose population once reached 9000, was, like its Fife neighbours in Hill of Beath,  Lochore, Blairadam, and Cowdenbeath, surrounded by coal mines. The Lindsay and Aitken pits were most closely associated with Kelty, but all of this area, including the lost village of Lassodie, was  literally built on coal.

Where they still remain, you can spot the former pit villages: straight streets, an Insititute or Miners’ Welfare building – converted to other uses,  a Co-op, a primary school, a few rows of NCB “four in a block” houses, a few pubs, and a couple of churches. Nearby there is usually a cemetery, with at least a clutch of gravestones with the words “Pit disaster”.

In places where the mines survived as late as Thatcher, there are often the signs of “urban renewal” – unexpected areas of green, with thin saplings recently planted, seeming to point to their man made origins. Not far below the grass in these areas you can find the detritus of decades of mining – coal dust, bits of shale and dross, the crumbled brick of an engine house or pit head baths. They have tried to cover up the signs of men’s industrial endeavour, but, as is the case with the folk who live here still, the past is still present, it’s too deeply engrained to vanish completely.

However, woe betide anyone who seeks to sentimentalise coal mining. Above villages like Kelty, like the spoil heaps which used to make the landscape mountainous,  the dark clouds of the industry contain words and phrases like “firedamp”, “pneumoconiosis”, “seam collapse”, “Mines Rescue”and  “redundancy”. Coal mining was never less than hard and demanding, was often a career choice forced on local men in the absence of any other, and it was dangerous and risk ridden. As an employee you knew it was  central to all aspects of life in these villages, so when a pit closed, the implications for individuals and communities was cataclysmic.

Walking up to New Central Park in a chill wind, it’s not difficult to imagine the place football has had in Kelty’s history, despite the current club only dating back to 1975. Everyone knows the history of Scottish football and mining communities – Glenbuck and Bill Shankly, Bellshill and Jock Stein, Jim Baxter at Hill of Beath and the legend of shouting down a mine shaft to find a centre half.

As it was true of footballing legends, it was true of the ordinary miners who worked a hard physical week and then sought release in playing or watching the football. There must have been many a hard battle: man against man replacing man against coal seam, for at least a couple of hours a week in the blessed fresh air.

The sign welcomes us to Kelty Hearts. For we Hibees, there’s a tad too much maroon about the place, but the welcome is warm. The gateman asks my son: “On your own today? We can supply a friend if you like!” It brings a laugh but in a sense it’s true.

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There are those who patronise local football teams and their grounds, dropping in to marvel at the quaint ways of the lower leagues, like the aristocracy praising the skills of the village blacksmith. It’s an ironic approach, because, in many ways, these are the arenas which are still most in touch with football in a real sense.

My position is a long way from patronising. In the sixties, I lived in the north of England and first fell in love with “going to the match” by following my local side, Southport FC, in the old Fourth Division. Within an hour of my house, Best, Law and Charlton were plying their trade at Old Trafford and, in the middle of the decade, a silky Everton side were champions of England, but it never occurred to me to be anywhere than at the neat Haig Avenue ground with the other 4000 supporters. I still travel down there often, and still recognise that sense of connection which is just as palpable here at Kelty, as we head for the refreshment stall.

We walk past the dressing rooms and queue for our pies next to the compact social club: “Room for 100”. I’ve noticed we passed a Bayne’s baker’s in the town and I’m not disappointed when one of their excellent steak pies is handed over, in a thoughtfully provided paper bag. The guy next to me in the queue starts chatting. Noticing my jacket he reminisces about Pat Stanton. He’s a Dundee Utd fan himself, but often comes to Kelty. His team are nearby at East End Park today, so he must really enjoy his visits to Central Park.

The ground is tidy. With two new standing enclosures on one side and a small but neat seated enclosure opposite. As we approach it, we see the sign stating it is for season ticket holders and life members, though a  £1 transfer seems available. “Just walking past, lads?” a steward enquires, and waves us through.

At the far end we stand behind the goal. The council and club committee have invested effectively in the facilities, the 4G pitch looks in good fettle and there is a buzz around the place.   This is the first game as manager for ex Ranger, Barry Ferguson. “Look , Dad, the media are here!” says a young lad passing by,  as three cameramen cluster round the dug out to capture Ferguson’s entrance.

The game is not spectacular. Kelty are a big and strong side, well drilled and already looking a good bet for at least the play offs. Gala are not so physical, and their midfield struggle to influence the play, and eventually the Borders outfit lose by two first half goals.

However, there is more to our day out than the quality of football. Applause, individual comments, and the murmur of conversations provide the aural backdrop, rather than terracing chants and insults. You would find it difficult to play or officiate here without knowing exactly what the crowd thought of you – but it’s pretty routine football banter – good humoured and without rancour.

There’s an exit door in the wall near by, and a steady stream of folk entering and leaving. One man comes in carrying a bar stool which he sets up by a barrier to give himself a comfortable vantage point.  There’s a guy with two dogs who stands behind the goals and then transfers under cover when the rain starts. The dogs look like season ticket holders – they know their place and look alternatively mildly interested and fascinated by what’s happening on the pitch. At times they turn their back on the game entirely – as  all regular match goers feel like doing from time to time. Other dog owners appear and there’s a brief catch up between owners and between dogs.

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There are many youngsters here – some fixed on the game, others just pleased to be out and about. One youngster kicks a ball about in a corner of the ground with his dad, others shout encouragement to the team or catch up on school gossip. There is a sense that this is a crowd of people who know each other, families who have maybe connected through generations. The Saturday game is a point of contact. Many of the lads on the pitch are familiar, some local. There’s Stephen Husband in the maroon of Kelty, after a career at Cowdenbeath, Livingston, Hearts, Forfar, Blackpool, Stockport County  and Dunfermline.

The position of the ground adds to this sense of connection. Primary school pupils grow up seeing the ground over the wall from their playground, folk hanging out washing in the gardens of the douce bungalows nearby can hear the shouts on match days and on training nights and register “That’s our lads” – whether  they follow football or not.

Every week dozens of local boys and girls take part in Kelty Hearts Community initiatives – social involvement that works in both directions.

Put simply, football here is a part of the community, and a vehicle for cohesion, for belonging, and for pride in each others’ achievements. This club deserves success and promotion, but I’d be willing to bet they will not move far from their foundations – however high they rise.

Sadly, the events of the past week have lent an edge to this description of grassroots football. Leicester City’s owner was seeking to re-connect, albeit with a 21st century model, and it was ironic that  his death  and that of his colleagues came about in  such an iconic corporate manner.

The moronic nonsense at Tynecastle, and some of the witless reactions to the events, remind us that there are those in our society who will use football for their own selfish ends. Young men at football matches metaphorically beating their chests in macho posturing suggests a major deficit in their lives, and all of us need to consider that. In addition to that, the almost ritualised blaming of  victims for being targeted is, of course, a major part of  ongoing problems we have in Scotland.

One disaster in Kelty’s Lindsay pit was caused when an illicitly lit cigarette ignited underground gases – a reminder, perhaps, that young men will always take risks and act inappropriately, but, in a  genuinely caring society, perhaps we should be finding ways of safeguarding them, and us, from rash decisions and impulsive actions. Older and wiser heads, parents, teachers  or those in authority, have a major responsibility.

I loved our visit to Kelty. It was a reminder that football, at its best, like all sport, is a part of our shared humanity, about coming together to celebrate, interact, and form memories and relationships.

Without that basic humanity, football is pointless.

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The News where they are.

September 27, 2018

In 1922, when Westminster imposed a border in Ireland, they were attempting to put that country’s strife on the back burner. The proposal was accepted by all sides because they were tired of conflict and wished to end it in some way. Like every fudge, it worked because, in its vagueness, it was possible for all sides to claim a “victory”.

The Unionists believed they had a guarantee of a permanent majority in “their” part of the island – a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people” as James Craig had it. The Republicans accepted it because, with a promise of a “renegotiated” border within a decade or so, they believed a smaller statelet would prove unsustainable, and unity would follow.

Westminster were able to say that they had solved the conflict between these “crazy irish people” and focus their attention elsewhere.

Having drawn a border that had no historical or economic logic, and meandered bewilderingly across 500 kilometres of countryside, they  retreated and focused on other matters.

They called it “The Irish Border”.

When the Troubles erupted in the late 1960s, they took most in Westminster by surprise. The British public had virtually no knowledge of the six counties, and for the government, for decades, it had been “out of political sight, out of political mind”. A statelet which prided itself on being, in a  later phrase, “as British as Finchley”, was, in actuality, about as different to Britain as was possible. Elections were gerrymandered, public services were provided on a sectarian basis, the “forces of law and order”, primarily the RUC and their auxiliary force, the B Specials, were run on sectarian grounds and contained bigotry on a large scale. In much the same way as blacks in America’s southern states, the minority community were kept in their place and deprived of opportunities for advancement, economically and socially.

When resistance and then violence forced the six counties on to the political agenda, there was little understanding in Westminster of what had ignited the fuse. Ignorance had indeed been bliss. The Unionists presented it as “an IRA uprising” and, not having the knowledge to dismiss this claim, Westminster attempted to quell the problem by involving the military, a move which, ironically, quickly converted a civil rights movement into a Republican insurrection. London eventually learned that, while the six counties were very different to Britain, they were also not amenable to the kind of  “end of Empire” army policing which had been employed in Malaya, Aden, Yemen and other colonised states.

After a generation of violence, a point was reached when all sides were looking for an excuse to stop. The Good Friday Agreement was another masterpiece of fudge, again appearing to give all sides a reason to claim victory. The Unionists saw the removal of the Republic’s constitutional claim to the six counties as a copper fastening of their position “within the Union”; Republicans saw shared government, alongside the clear demographic growth of the “minority community”, as a route to re-unification; Dublin saw the economic benefits of peace on the island and a relaxation of their claimed responsibility for a part of the island that they no longer actively sought. In London, there was a sigh of relief, and delight at another chance to take the six counties off the political agenda.

The British called this a solution to “The Irish Conflict”.

True to form, once Westminster re-focused away from Ireland, they lost any chance of understanding the processes that had been set in flow by the Good Friday Agreement. Whilst wilful ignorance after 1922 had allowed a sectarian statelet to become entrenched, rather the reverse had happened after 1998.

Despite political leanings, in every day life, folk will generally be led by what is convenient. In unionist gatherings, there will often be references to “Derry”, rather than “Londonderry” because it’s easier, especially when none of the “other community” are present and a political point does not have to be made. Republicans, equally, will avail themselves of “British” culture in terms of entertainment and sport from “across the water” despite public avowals of it being “foreign”. It’s just the way people are.

The Good Friday Agreement in its many clauses  facilitated this smoothing out of differences. Without checkpoints and the threat of violence, it became easy to live in one jurisdiction and work in another; similarly with medical treatment – folk from Letterkenny receiving treatment in Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital, for example. Most meat processing for the six counties was undertaken in the Republic, much of the Republic’s agricultural product found its way north. The natural hinterlands which applied before the imposition of the Border and were made unworkable during much of  the Troubles, were reinstated. On the ground, in trade, social life and day to day events, the Border virtually disappeared. Its “legal” continuation continued as a comfort for those who desired it, but the truth was that everybody -– whatever their political beliefs, benefited and took advantage of its “disappearance”.  That was the real “peace dividend”: people could operate in their everyday lives without the hindrance of an imposed division.

Ultimately, folk from all communities appreciated this easing of routine and the convenience. Friends and relatives in the area of north Leitrim, from where my family hails, had retail choices again. Depending on time of year, shopping needs, or time available, they could shop in  Enniskillen, 30 miles away, Sligo 20 miles away, or Carrick 18 miles away. Belfast, Derry and Armagh, though further, were all possibilities, irrespective of which jurisdiction they occupied.  The same, of course, applied to social and cultural events or family visits. “Normalisation” meant only the “usual” considerations of time, expense and choice were involved in deciding the destination, not the thought of checkpoints, delays, and forced diversions..

Much of this, of course, was invisible to Westminster. As par for the course, they had presumed the “problem” solved, and turned away to other things. The difficulty is, like cosmetics or fraud, a political fudge has to be nurtured carefully to keep up the pretence of a solution.

Such was the desire for peace amongst folk in the six counties and around the Border regions that even the prolonged dissolution of the Stormont Parliament failed to rock its foundation. Even in the  face of some spectacular ignorance from Westminster Parliamentarians, the people in the statelet decided to keep on rubbing along together, albeit with increasingly bitter rhetoric.  Preserving the everyday “normality” was seen as a priority, and the fudge had enabled both communities, and those who would consider themselves “neutral”, to live in a social atmosphere which supplied most of what they desired – politically, and from day to day.  The RCI scandal and the stand off over  Irish Language legislation raised the temperature – leading to that suspension of the Parliament, but, though frustrated, most folk could live with that – as long as their everyday life was mostly unaffected.

Then came Brexit, followed by the May 2017 election.

Much of the UK Government’s economic  “peace dividend”, gained from the demilitarisation of the six counties, was diverted back to gain DUP support, and  the Tories proved themselves, not for the first time, woefully ignorant on Irish affairs. They spoke of preserving the UK, whilst supporting a party which promulgated policies in the six counties which made the statelet very different to Britain – a familiar story.

In turn they first denied there was a difficulty with the Border, then claimed to have solved it, and finally tried to diminish the size of the problem. Throughout all of this, the 27 EU states have supported the Republic solidly – there could be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. It seems everybody except the Brexiteers has an understanding of the chaos and conflict which will be caused by a return to a visible  border.

Pragmatism being particularly embedded in the northern Irish psyche, many hitherto “loyal British citizens” have hastened to preserve their European status by claiming Irish passports. Never mind border checkpoints, the need for their protection, the delay to trade, and the almighty paperwork, post-Brexit, the six counties will be a statelet of people who may be Irish and EU citizens or British and non-EU citizens, and some who will no doubt keep a foot in both camps. The implications for the interaction of government and people are enormous.

At Westminster, they call this “The Irish problem”.

As they say, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat their mistakes. Virtually all I have written about here has been caused by the presence of the British in Ireland and yet they continually delude themselves that it is an “Irish” problem.

This refusal to take responsibility infects all their decisions. Their cry before the Independence Referendum in Scotland was that, as “equal partners” in the Union, we should “lead not leave”, that our contribution was valued. Even before the result was offcially announced, David Cameron had made it plain that this was nonsense, and this position has been further stated by a refusal to give the Scots Parliament a voice in Brexit despite 62% of the country voting to remain in Europe and a disproportionate weight of fall out from Brexit landing on our country – especially in agriculture and fisheries.

Lest this should be seen as a “nationalist” issue, I’m sure folk in the north of England would concur with my view. George Osbourne promised they would be “the powerhouse of the North” and then the government turned away, satisfied that the problems of the north of England could be settled by a phrase.

Talking of phrases, few have been better satirised than in James Robertsons’s take on BBC News, where they introduce a ten minute news programme, for what they quaintly describe as the “nations and regions”, at the end of “the main news”, by announcing: “And now the news where YOU are,” as opposed, of course, to they news where THEY are – which is the important stuff. This, from the Establishment broadcaster, is a perfect representation of a UK/London centred view of the world. It not only diminishes the other countries of these islands, but it limits the ability of folk in England to establish their own identity – outside of Spitfires and roast beef.

The demand for independence in Scotland is largely fuelled by increasing realisation that London sees everything through a particular prism. Of late that has more and more been an isolationist view of the world and a quite bizarre harking back to war time as the “best of times” when, apparently, Britain “stood alone”.

To progress and move forward, a country needs to be open to all influences and learn from a wide range of approaches. Whether this involves a welcome to immigrants, an adoption of international approaches to solving problems, or a realistic perception of its place in the world, all of this is necessary if its citizens are to have the best future. Diversity brings strength.

Scotland is stymied currently by only having political access to other countries and ideas through the prism of the UK; just as Ireland faces suffering from the ignorance, wilful or otherwise, of politicians, when it comes to Brexit and a hard border. Basically, if something is not in the interests of the south east of England, then it is not deemed worthwhile, irrespective of its impact on other parts of these islands. It is laughable that the UK Government, having announced its intention to leave the EU, should then demand a negotiated exit on favourable terms for one country out of 28.

If politics is not seen as being about ordinary people and their every day lives, then we are back in the days of  gunboat diplomacy and international sabre rattling.

A government unable to say: “This will damage our people, we are not doing it” – particularly when that stance is influenced by internal political party wrangling, is not fit to govern.

And a system which allows that to happen, which ignores the will of the Scottish voters and their Parliament, which diminishes the Good Friday Agreement by taking sides in the six counties, and which promotes to leadership such a narrow elite, is clearly broken.

It’s time to fix it.

 

An American Tune

July 13, 2018

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The opening bars of Paul Simon’s “America” echo across the bowl of Glasgow’s Hydro concert hall by the Clyde. Along with 12000 others I’m humming the notes I first heard over 50 years ago. The diminutive figure steps up to the microphone: “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together….” He’s singing to long gone English girlfriend, Kathy Chitty, but there’s little doubt that the words equally describe the part he has played in the lives of so many of a certain age in this audience.

His songs, music and lyrics have been emotional way stations in our lives over half a century. The words he wrote reached out to us. They were the progression – for him and for us – from the pop simplicity of the Brill Building music factory, where he toiled with Goffin, King, Sedaka, Mann, Weill, Greenwich, Barry, Diamond and more, to a more lyrical, intense, creative style of expression. For those of us in our mid teens then, his songs provided the bridge from the immediate accessibility of pop singles to the deeper sensitivities of the singer songwriters and the classical literature with which we had struggled to come to terms.

How many of us first understood the meaning of “mediocrity” from its use in “Homeward Bound” or awoke to the possibilities of poetic description with the phrase “I turn my collar to the cold and damp” in “Sound of Silence”?  How often do we notice graffiti – even now – and find ourselves thinking: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls”. Looking round at our 21st century world of marketing and celebrity aren’t we reminded of the prescience of “to the neon god they made”?

The connections are many and sometimes random. Sitting in the middle of the night, trying to sleep, on Wigan railway station in 1977, heading home after seeing Scotland beat Wales in Liverpool in World Cup Qualifying, I couldn’t help but think of “Homeward Bound”, written on the very similar Widnes station, only fifteen miles away. And now there are poems from local poets written on the waiting room windows of Wigan Wallgate railway station. Somebody else made a similar connection, perhaps.

The first time I ever wept at concert was the first time I heard Paul Simon sing “Sound of Silence” live. I was quite taken aback by the strength of the emotion and wondered if it was purely a sentimental recall of my childhood. Perhaps it was, but it was also a strong reminder of how deeply some of the music and lyrics of those years are embedded in our psyche. It’s also true of the Beatles and others, of course, but the intensity of Simon’s lyricism seems somehow to cut deeper – it’s about how he is saying it as much as what he is saying.

I remember a night when I was seventeen. Our senior school social club had a folk night and one of my classmates – a music prodigy called Steve Dunachie – performed “Scarborough Fair” in a complete version of the Martin Carthy arrangement used by Simon and Garfunkel. His guitar playing was immaculate and I wondered if I kept practising  would I ever become as competent – and the answer has been “No”! However, for ever, the opening strains of that song have taken me back to a classmate I haven’t seen since I left school, and a poorly lit school dining room in 1969. It is chastening and, I have to admit, a little thrilling, to recapture how serious and intense we were about our music then – without the distractions of computer games, videos, Spotify or MTV and its ilk.

Around the same time, with my closest school friend, who remains   my oldest friend, I was  discussing the song “America” and the filmic qualities of its lyric. We discovered  we had both had the exact same dream about the circumstances of the song. Perhaps not surprising,  but it seemed almost mystical way back then.

Ten years later, when I started to travel around the American mid-west, the song was never far from my thoughts, and, with a family history that goes back to Brooklyn in the 1880s, I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of trying to capture the “reality” of the USA, and haunted, as well,  by that line: “’Kathy, I’m lost’, I said, though I knew she was sleeping” as a perfect evocation of loneliness.

Perhaps part of Simon’s success is the way in which his art kept on developing, seeming to match the progress of our lives. From the south American and Hispanic influences of “El Condor Pasa”  and “Me and Julio” through the reggae of  “Mother and Child Reunion” he always seemed to open to finding new ways to enhance and broaden his musical vision; a new Simon album was rarely predictable.

He matched the mood perfectly, despite initial controversy, when he was brave enough to cross Apartheid barriers to promote and popularise African music with the “Graceland” album. Those who feared he might lend legitimacy to the South African regime quickly accepted that he was, in fact, opening the doors and windows for the rest of the world to acknowledge the talent and joie de vivre  which was being half smothered by the status quo in South Africa.

It was “You can call me Al”, always  remembered through the iconic Chevy Chase video, which brought the Hydro to its feet dancing this week, but has there ever been a more uplifting intro or a more evocative opening line than in “Graceland”: “The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar” over that galloping bass beat?

But, ultimately, Paul Simon has always made my generation reflect. From the student angst of “I am a Rock” – where we sat silently and empathetically alone  in our bedrooms, as the orange CBS label spun round on our Dansette record players, through the busy production of “Mrs Robinson” with its spray of American icons, echoing Dustin Hoffman’s twitchy awakenings with Anne Bancroft in “The Graduate”. We listened and we learned, I suppose.

The use of language became something to which we could aspire, and we lost our self consciousness when it came to enjoying, or attempting to produce, lyrical imagery. Words were on our side now, we slowly forgot to fear their complexities, and started to celebrate their power. We enabled our more creative thoughts and found ways of sharing them. Of course, Simon was not single handedly responsible for our growing maturity when it came to language, but he certainly opened many doors and guided us in many directions.

And his influence was felt in the most unusual aspects of pop culture.  In many respects, television’s “Top of the Pops” has not aged well, and perhaps the most embarrassing reminder of a certain era in our lives, beyond the retrospective disclosures of the activities of some of its DJs, was the weekly performance  of the resident dance troupe “Pan’s People”. However, Simon’s influence even assuaged the dubious taste of that regular  routine. Probably the only “Pan’s People” appearance that anyone can clearly recall after more than four decades would be the video filmed to accompany “Bridge over Troubled Water”. Away from the normal “bump and grind” presentation, this featured only the group’s leader, Flick Colby, in a balletic interpretation of the atmospheric song. Filmed almost in monochrome, the “different” nature of the clip, the fluidity of the interpretation in her dance, allied to the soaring beauty of Garfunkel’s vocals, fixed it in the collective memory – almost a paradigm for Simon’s abilities to promote different art forms and encourage a more eclectic approach to popular culture.

Of course, it’s a personal and individual thing: different songs and different memories for each of us, but the connection can’t be denied. When he sang “The Boxer” in Glasgow, it was inevitable that a thousand voices in syncopation would supply the “whipcrack” effect at the end of the line “Lie de Lie “ – it was a Pavlovian reaction, born out of decades of internalising the song.  For us, “Kodachrome”, played at the funeral of my much loved brother-in-law, a photographer, was particularly moving, but we were dancing through our tears.

He started with “America” and ended with “Sound of Silence”, and, in between played just about every song we could remember, backed by an epic band, and displaying his wit, communication skills and seemingly undiminished enthusiasm, despite it being a “Farewell Tour”.

But ultimately, Paul Simon has become embedded in the part of our psyche which thinks – about life, people, and the whole damn thing. He is representative of a whole generation and class of American whom the world admired, who challenged those  “people talking without speaking, people hearing without listening”. So it was timely that he was singing to us as the current American President was heading towards  these shores.

Long before Trump’s appalling election, Simon’s “American Tune” was pondering the state of America, consciously evoking the sense of pessimism generated when the values and ideals of the founding fathers are compared to the realities of today. Neither he, not his supporters, could have dreamt that the song would be so completely relevant in these times.

As a child of an emigrant family, as a supporter of an inclusive and welcoming policy towards refugees, I still find that Paul Simon’s lyrics are relevant, thought provoking, and, sometimes,  ultimately heart breaking.

“And high up above my eyes could clearly see

The Statue of Liberty

Sailing away to sea…

 

We came on the ship they called the Mayflower

We came on the ship that sailed the Moon

We come in the age’s most uncertain hour

And sing an American Tune.”

I’m just glad that tune was sung in my lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It makes you think.

June 11, 2018

IMGP2206Cricket is a  game which promotes reflection.

The authorities’ attempts to shoehorn it into television schedules with shortened “100 ball” versions completely misses the point about all that makes cricket so special: it is a “long” game – in every sense – and that is its unique selling point.

Yesterday I found myself in one of my favourite reflective positions – on the top of the Grange club’s venerable pavilion.

There is much upon which to reflect – not least the day’s game versus the “auld enemy” and the fifteen years or more  I have been perched up here in every conceivable variation of weather conditions.

Just in front of me are the assembled media. There is Paul Hoffman –  an exciting fast bowler and prodigious hitter of the ball, whom I  loved watching play for Scotland. Then Dougie Brown arrives – who for so long flew the flag for Scottish cricket south of the border. Further along is Jimmy Anderson – who once perched next to me in the members enclosure at Lancashire – 17 years old, the drinks carrier for the first team, and a butt of their jokes – and now the epitome of cricketing success. Next to him a younger man, James Taylor, also with a precocious talent – sadly unfulfilled because of the the discovery of a heart ailment.

Later, David Sole will drop by, interviewed no doubt about his own career as a winning Scottish captain at rugby,  and the national recognition for two sons at cricket and a daughter at netball.

You could easily maintain that all human life is here – or at least, every aspect of cricket  – its highs and lows, its joy and despair: the life-reflecting elements which make it such a great game – a sport that hooks people as children and never leaves them.

So even before something remarkable begins to unfold, I am in reflective mode.

As the openers made their way to the middle I think of all that Kyle Coetzer has done to keep Scotland in the forefront of associate cricket. If it’s a game of reflection, it also needs its inspiration, and the skipper unfailingly provides that in word and deed. I think of all the excitement Matty Cross has provided in his keeping and batting, and as the score mounts, I think of the style of Richie Berrington and the reliability of George Munsey, and the times they have rescued Scotland or pulled us to victory. And I sit there, like all at the ground, transfixed by the mastery of Calum MacLeod, and the joy of seeing  a Gaidhlig speaker powering past his century against England.

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Calum’s career has been a roller coaster and he deserves every moment of success. How his  photographer dad, Donald, covers the team’s performances with no discernible signs of camera shake is beyond me!

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But it is a perfect wicket, reduced boundaries, and against the world No 1s. Even as we pass 350, I keep my confidence well in check. Then Michael Leask arrives for a cameo, and is no sooner at the crease than a trade mark 6 fairly hurtles over the ropes.

And then I start to believe.

I remember Grant Bradburn saying that “holding our own” is not good enough for Scotland, that we need to “look into our opponents’ eyes and show them we believe we can beat them” – and that’s what Leasky did with that six.

More reflection inspired by Jonny Bairstow’s quickfire century: thinking of watching his dad playing, back in the day, a presence I’m sure is never far away from the son. Then – not for the only time on this sunny Sunday – a mixture of emotions. England are powering after the total with all the verve and élan to be expected from the world leaders in this form of the game – is the ‘natural order’ to be emphasised? But a wee answering internal voice tells me that this Scotland squad don’t do surrender, they have the mental strength, the collective approach, to overcome big partnerships, batsmen who appear well set, or statistics which suggest the balance has turned.

The fielding is excellent –reflecting years of drills, fitness and commitment, the bowling refuses to wilt before the English batsmen’s dominance, and the feeling round  the ground is that something could be on here, the lads are playing at top level, there is a belief about them – could we even say a swagger?

Stockbridge, not normally seen as a hotbed of nationalist fervour, echoes to the sound of ‘Flower of Scotland’. The crowd alternate between bated breath and roars of encouragement and appreciation. You can see the team taking strength from the atmosphere – it’s as it should be: players and supporters as one.

Mark Watt is probing intelligently, Ali Evans and Richie Berrington are all energy and invention, Safy Sharif continues on his one man mission to exemplify Coach Bradburn’s philosophy of Kaizen – steady, continuous improvement.

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The England players are looking less certain now – an unnecessary run out sees the back of Root. The run rate is still comfortable, but then two  wickets in two balls – the skipper and Hales are gone – but surely Moeen Ali will produce one of ‘those innings’ and see them home? Then a typical Munsey catch off Watt puts an end to that notion.

Two phrases hover over the ground  in the pauses between overs: “Can we do this?” “Don’t put the mouth on it!” – everyone willing their neighbour not to say anything rash about a Scottish victory! Luckily the players are much more focussed than the crowd!

While I sit on my perch atop the pavilion, chewing my lip, fiddling with my camera, trying not to think of the impossible, they go about their business professionally, as we have come to expect.

When Rashid is run out, a roar escapes from the stands – even the hospitality guests, and the normally impeccably behaved  pavilion patrons, are jumping about like school kids.

Finally, silently,  I channel Barack Obama – YES WE CAN!

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Come on, Safy – you deserve a wicket – you’ve worked so hard over the past few years.

Thump…..pause…..appeal……finger goes up…….oh my goodness!!!!!!

Reflection on hold for a moment, I’m roaring, jumping, shouting, hugging, and punching the air with joy. Here on these seats where I’ve spent so many hours huddled in meteorological and cricketing gloom, the sun is warm, I’m basking in the bright light of victory, and Scotland have beaten England at the Grange! I let that sentence echo round my brain for a few seconds – it’s like the first sip of beer on  a hot day: my, that feels good!

And as the pipes play and the crowd cheer and the players dance a jig of delight, I manage to calm down enough to reflect – of course I do.

I think of these players and their predecessors and all that you have to sacrifice to play cricket for Scotland; I think of their families – the support they’ve given, the pride they must feel, and I think of all the Cricket Scotland folk – the ones I know, the ones I half know, and the ones I vaguely recognise.

I think of Grant Bradburn who refused to be deflated by the many challenges faced by a Scotland coach, and quietly went about making us winners; I think of the backroom staff – all great contributors to the cause in so many ways – former skippers, Gordon Drummond, Preston Mommsen, and Craig Wright; and Kari Carswell, Abbi Aitken and Kat Heathcote  and many more – who have progressed the women’s game so well  that the men must have felt bound to respond; Simon Smith and Toby Bailey who put in the hard yards away from the spotlight, Ramsay Allan in the office, Malcolm Cannon who came, and saw, and made it happen.

And I think of Ben Fox, the Comms Man, who has so often been the Messenger of bad news but has somehow avoided getting shot, and now can proclaim the Good News!

All that hard work, commitment and dedication – and for all of them,  in different ways, alongside the hundreds of volunteers across Scotland, cricket has been life changing.

Right now, in the evening Summer sunshine of Stockbridge, there are thousands of people as happy as they have ever been – because of all those folk who believed in Cricket Scotland and brought us to this point.

And suddenly I don’t know whether to laugh or cry – a daft old bugger on top of the world.

It’s only a game, but it makes you think – and the view from the heights of this old pavilion has never been better!

 

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Jeremy, Cyril, and a hovercraft

June 7, 2018

It’s Summer 1974 and during the university holidays I’m working as a car park attendant and deck chair boy on the sea front at the west Lancashire resort of Southport.

My beat is on the Sea Wall – which is a dyke, as you might find in Holland, topped with a road and car parking space stretching for about a mile. My job is to walk or cycle along its length, selling parking tickets to families who have come from east Lancashire or Merseyside for a day at the beach.

Behind me on the sea wall is the man-made Marine Lake where the local yacht club sail, in front of  me lie miles and miles of sand, for the sea has been retreating from this coast for over five centuries. By the mid seventies, the incoming tide only actually reaches the town on a few occasions each year.

This is not entirely bad news.

One of the first ever air mail flights landed on these sands, there is still at this point a beach aerodrome from where a rickety bi-plane gives pleasure flights, Henry Seagrave once set a landspeed record of 152mph here in the 1920s, and there is room for a thousand cars to park at the height of summer.

It does have its negatives  though.

Children tend to be upset when they find that “seaside” is a bit of a misnomer, though the fun fair and amusements do provide a distraction. The town’s lifeguards maintain a fleet of brightly liveried red and yellow World War 2 amphibious DUKWs to patrol the vast spaces – for fear they, or the swimmer in difficulty, would be exhausted and past help, long before they could reach them on foot.  The town’s Victorian Pier has a slightly embarrassed air about it, due to the fact that, most of the time, it stretches out over sand and not sea.

It’s a good holiday job though:  out in the sun most days, but huddled in the creosoted atmosphere of the staff hut in bad weather – and the bad weather can be brutal.

With a strong westerly wind, sandstorms and even mini-tornadoes, or “spouts” as they’re called, come barrelling in across the beach and make life very unpleasant. On these days, the long strip of car park is inhabited only  by the occasional salesman, parked up to record his figures in his sales book. The Head of Publicity and Attractions pays a visit in such weather and is not happy that we leave these guys to their own devices, and don’t ticket them. We point out it’s almost impossible to stand up outside  in these weather conditions.

He returns the following day and gives each of us a bright yellow full length oilskin mac, a sou’wester, and a pair of goggles: “Do yer job”, he says.

We try our best, but, dressed like that, when we suddenly loom up out of the sandstorm, and tap on the car windows, looking like rejects from Rommel’s Afrika Corps in the desert, we nearly give the drivers a heart attack.

This particular day is quiet. The sea is a silver line just below the distant horizon, it’s  cloudy and there are  only a few tourists. We sit by the hut, students in our late teens chatting to the regular attendants – mostly elderly guys with disability pensions – an interesting collision of ideas.

One of the old guys stands up and looks out to sea, hand shading his eyes against the light.

“What the bloody hell is that?” he asks.

We all have a look.

In the distance, across the sands, over the marshes by the Ribble estuary, we can see the phallic symbol of Blackpool’s Tower pointing heavenwards – but Jimmy Booth has his eyes on something nearer.

There is a spot of movement at the edge of the faraway tide; it seems to be coming  towards us in an erratic zig zag. Gradually, we realise there is a noise  associated with it – like  a gang of motorcyclists revving through town streets.

Eventually it reveals itself as a hovercraft, all orange livery and roaring propellors – though it is difficult to see it clearly because of the smoke it belches out and the sand and gravel it is sucking up from the beach.

Having only seen hovercrafts on television, I had always taken them to be smoothly gliding creatures, displaying a majestic disdain for the laws of gravity. This presents itself as more like a roads lorry bumping from pothole to pothole.

Even at a hundred yards distance, the reek of the fuel is overwhelming, and then, suddenly, with no warning, it gives up. The engine cuts out, and, with what I swear sounds like a sigh, the whole machine flops on to the wet sand.

Without the roaring of the engines, it feels like a deathly quiet has come over the beach. The craft hiccoughs a few times as if trying to raise itself up again, but finally slumps, defeated, back on to the beach

There are no visitors around, but eventually two men in suits start making their way out to the stricken beast. By the time they reach it they are struggling across rippled sand and there is splashing sea water around their ankles. Obviously the sea had made it that far at some point in the past twenty four hours.

A door opens outward in the craft and a figure appears. He jumps down on to the sand rather gingerly and walks towards the two men, who shake his hand. They turn and watch the vessel’s doorway.

The hovercraft lists quite badly to one side and a huge figure appears in the doorway and stops, apparently stuck. Perhaps as a result of a shove from inside the cabin, it drops down on to the sands and there is an audible splash. Waddling now,  it approaches the other group of men and they tiptoe their way towards the sea wall.

We are transfixed by this display for which we have been quite unprepared. As the figures come closer there is a distinct whiff of Laurel and Hardy about the performance – indeed, one of the old lads starts whistling their theme tune.

A car has pulled up just by the pier and they head towards it. Only at this stage do we realise that the two intrepid hovercraft passengers are Liberal Leader Jeremy Thorpe and Rochdale MP, Cyril Smith. This makes the whole performance even more surreal.

Thorpe wears his familiar garb of brown coat and trilby hat – one hand keeps the hat on his head, the other grasps a briefcase, he walks like a man on sheet ice. Smith follows behind, familiar dark suit, the jacket blowing wide open, his gait is more like a man treading through a snow drift.

The party get into the car and it drives slowly away. There has been no welcoming committee, no voters to wave at, or babies to kiss, not even, as far as we can see, any press photographers to record the momentous event.

The hovercraft remains deflated on the sands, its pilot walking round its skirt, doing the equivalent of a lorry driver kicking the tyres. Next morning it will be gone – taken by the tide, or under its own steam, or on the back of a truck, we never find out.

It turns out that the Liberals have been touring the coastal towns of the south west and north west in a hovercraft – partly to cause a stir, partly as proof of British engineering, and partly to underline their contemporary image as “something different in politics.”

Unfortunately, the craft has proved unreliable, the timetable haphazard, and the public attention strictly limited. The rumour in the north west is that the 29 stone of Cyril Smith has been a payload for which the hovercraft is not able.

Whatever the truth, the hovercraft assault on the beaches will not work in Southport – a 9% swing to the Liberals here  in the February election – part of a country wide surge which gave  hopes, yet again, of a Liberal revival, will be  replaced in October by a 4% swing against them, and the local Tory retains his seat comfortably.

Many times over the years I have thought of that afternoon, and occasionally wondered if I dreamt it all – but, even a fevered imagination could not conceive of a sight like Thorpe and Smith emerging from that hovercraft.

If anything, it now seems like a metaphor for the direction of English politics over the forty years or so since. The great hovercraft of Britain, desperate to exemplify its international stature, has signally failed to maintain enough wind beneath its skirts, and bumps along the sandy beach, a largely forgotten symbol.

Our current knowledge of the two men who emerged from it suggest that politicians who have plenty of “show” also tend to be deflecting from darker realities.

There was a lot of smoke and noise from that hovercraft on Southport beach in 1974, but ultimately it flopped on the sand and went nowhere.

You just couldn’t rely on the vessel – or its passengers.

Remembering Joe

March 22, 2018

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When I was growing up in Scotland and then England, whenever I thought of Sag Harbor on Long Island I could only imagine  a blue aerogramme letter on the mantelpiece, the address almost indecipherable in the hurried scrawl. The writing was no better inside the letter – could someone’s address really be “My Blue Heaven, Garden St”?

My Uncle Frank wrote to his brother, my dad, Paul, every week – so there were lots of letters – but, back in the fifties, far fewer pictures. However, when pictures came, they usually featured my cousins – two pretty girls, with undeniable Irish American good looks, and their  brother – a sharp suited business type, who looked to me every inch an American. I suppose today’s generation might want to envisage the style of TV’s “Mad Men”.

I had actually met Marie when I was very young, and Eileen in the sixties when I was a teenager, when they had come on European tours – but their brother Joe’s European business had been with the military in post war Germany,  and I had only ever seen him through these pictures sent by his proud father.

So Joe was a cousin kind of “removed” to me as I grew up, partly because I had never met him, and partly because of his  movement round the US – taking him from “Repo Man” to Vice President at General Motors.

As I got older I eventually got to see Sag Harbor for myself and stay with Uncle Frank at Garden St and meet all the folks. Inevitably, I fell head over heels in love with the place, as well as the extended family and their friends.

But, because it’s the way that lives go, it wasn’t until Joe had retired back to Sag Harbor and after he’d lost both his son, Stephen, and his beloved wife, Claudia, that we finally got to meet.

I have a fairly limited family circle,  and my three American cousins have always been very important to me, so flying the Atlantic to meet Joe for the first time was kind of a big deal. In addition, Rosie and Patrick would be meeting that part of the family for the first time. It’s fair to say I had some nerves as we flew the Atlantic at Easter 2001.

Joe was to meet us at JFK, and we exited the Arrivals area looking for the sharp suited cousin I thought I knew well from decades of photographs. We never found him – instead, we found Joe McPartlin, about to become, for real, my “Cuz”.

We had been delayed in the baggage hall and only one guy was waiting. We looked at each other:

“John?”

“Joe?”

Before me was a very fit looking man dressed for going out on his boat, or playing golf, or clearing the yard! In an instant I realised I was meeting the real Joe rather than the corporate version.

We talked easily all the way out to Sag Harbor, a warmth was established immediately. As our dads had been so close, maybe this was something that had been handed down.

In many ways, we were different. For me, a beach is somewhere to walk thoughtfully or sit and read a book, for Joe it was a venue for sports and challenge. My house is overloaded with books, Joe’s garage is overloaded with adventure equipment. In retirement, I am quite happy to follow the route the day might take, Joe was an organiser and planner.

The beauty was – and all who loved him must have found this – because he made things happen, you inevitably enjoyed every minute in his company. The twinkle was never far from his eye – when he threw some corn at me before  a meal on his deck and attempted to show me how to “shuck”; when Patrick and I reduced him to tears of laughter as we attempted to throw an American football on the beach, and the great day when we went clamming – and Joe plucked the shells out of the water with the air of a magician, while we struggled to find a solitary sample.

Equally, to go out in the bay on his boat, his thoughtfulness in letting Patrick steer, the joy he showed out on the water, the ease of our conversation – all of this stored love and memories.

Family meals at his house were particularly special. He was a brilliant host, even taking care to ask in advance – what would you like to eat? The hospitality was easy and genuine and it was not difficult  to see it as descended from big family meals shared by our grandparents and our fathers in Buccleuch St in Edinburgh. This was the closest we would ever get to that, and I loved every minute sitting at the McPartlin table.

Inevitably at such occasions, our other great “difference” would be discussed. Politically, Joe and I were apparently miles apart. However, being Joe, for all his “liberal baiting” when we were around – a sport greatly employed against his niece, Kathleen, who also delighted in setting the hare running, behind Joe’s politics was a “need to know and understand”. He didn’t condemn my politics, he asked me to explain them – and though he was often mystified by my left leaning views, he never sought to dismiss them outright. As in so much, his question was always: “Why?” He saw politics as a means of making people’s lives better, and when that failed to happen, he wondered. Often, latterly, our chats would end with him shaking his head and musing: “Well, what are we gonna do?”

One epic meal at Tredwell Lane included a discussion on the USSR which Rosie had previously visited. The two of them got on well, Joe appreciating Rosie’s forthright views, and the discussion was good humoured but seeking insight  and information, and totally without  rancour – which displayed the affection between us all.

At the end, with a broad grin, Joe proudly displayed the campaign acknowledgement letter he had received from John McCain. As we left, he hugged Rosie and twinkled: “Thank you for your input, Rosemary!”

It was a typical Joe McPartlin moment, reducing us all to laughter. We treasure it, and still use the phrase at the end of every hard fought discussion!

I think it’s the measure of a man when he can differ from your views but still value your opinion – one of Joe’s many rare qualities.

In his Faith he was uncompromising – a trait passed from our grandfather through his own father, and his mother. Inevitably, being Joe, his Faith was translated into action – with his counting the money each week at St Andrew’s and fundraising for the church refurbishment – showing all the persistence gained in his first employment as a “Repo man”! But, in reality, his Faith in action was in his love of humanity, his devotion to his family, and his care for them and pride in all their exploits.

To know Joe was to love him – it’s a trite phrase but it carries the truth of simplicity. The expectation of his company brought a lightening of the spirit.

My favourite memories of him are simple and quietly demonstrative. We would be sitting in the yard at  Marie and Al’s in Joel’s Lane, enjoying breakfast and family conversation. A couple of times it was a Monday morning and we would be leaving for home later that day. The side gate would open and in would come Joe, coffee cup in hand, “just passing”, having been at the church.

There would be a few minutes chat, before a brief goodbye – but we would all recognise the affection in Joe’s calling in to greet us. He proved you can convey love without being overly demonstrative, another measure of the style and quality of the man.

Of course we will miss him dreadfully – though I cannot begin to imagine the size of the love-shaped hole his passing will leave in the daily lives of his beloved family – Marie and Al, Pat, his children, and his grandchildren.

We try to console ourselves with the knowledge that we had time together, we shared our love, and we got to know this very special man.

On hearing he had lost his final battle, I shared the news on social media for friends and family. The words I wrote were my first reaction and I cannot better them now:

I’m quite heartbroken to share with family and friends that my cousin Joe McPartlin, of Sag Harbor, New York, has finally lost his last and bravest battle.
Joe and I waited fifty years to meet for the first time but I like to think we’ve made up for it since.
It was an instant connect and I loved him dearly. He, in turn, as all who knew him would expect, returned that love to me and Patrick and Rosie. His hospitality, joie de vivre, concern for others, and, above all, love of family, was legendary, and I am so proud to have been part of it.
He was an inspiration to many, a family patriarch like no other, strong in Faith, high on humour, driven by integrity and honesty, most of all he was a good man who loved life.
He is irreplaceable and my heart goes out tonight to his beloved family – his “troops” – for whom holidays will never be quite the same again but who will hopefully gain comfort from a million wonderful memories of his love, and to Pat – a soul mate if ever there was one.
There will never be another Joe McPartlin – I’m just so glad we were able to know and love him.
How typical he would arrive in Heaven between the feast of St Patrick and his own feast day of St Joseph. He welcomed so many so well to Tredwell Lane – now it’s his turn to be welcomed.
Go well, Cuz. We love you.