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Porty Town Hall, Me, and Ewan MacColl.

January 26, 2015

As is the case with people, there are some places and buildings which seem influential in our lives without necessarily being front and centre in our day to day experiences.

For me, this applies to the Town Hall in Portobello – Edinburgh’s seaside resort. It’s the third Portobello Town Hall, and, interestingly, was built in 1914 – some 18 years after the town was incorporated with Edinburgh City, and lost the need for a town hall. This was achieved as part of the deal to provide a meeting and performing venue (and also a seawater baths) in exchange for a vote in favour of incorporation.

When I started school in Portobello, as a five year old, in 1957, I had to get a bus to and from St John’s Primary in the resort’s Brighton Place. It had to be a number 12 bus because its route meant I wouldn’t need to cross the busy main road.

However, there was a problem.

Most of my new pals lived in ‘downtown’ Portobello, between the High Street and the beach. At the end of school each day, they all charged down Brighton Place, and, often, instead of catching the 12 bus at the school, I went along with them. We fastened our raincoats, cloak like, round our necks with one button and, arms outstretched claimed to be “Superman”. I enjoyed this – though, not being allowed comics yet, I had no idea who or what “Superman” was.

When we reached the High St, they all went their different ways, and I was left to get the bus home – at the 26 bus stop, by Portobello Town Hall. This was daringly dissident of me – to an extent which amazes me all these years later, for the route of the 26 meant I would have to cross the “busy main road” as it was always described. After a couple of minutes basking in revolution, I would spend the last seconds of the journey terrified that, somehow, my parents would see me get off that 26 bus on the ‘busy’ Portobello Rd and illicitly cross over. I have a vague memory of imagining my mother on the roof of our tenement with binoculars, scanning the area.

Compared to these days, the frequency of traffic must have been negligible, and I can’t remember how many times my subterfuge was discovered – though my worry must have been clear to see – but, to this day, whenever I pass the town hall I experience a wee frisson of guilt – especially if there is a 26 bus about.

Shortly after those times, we moved to England, but made annual trips back to visit relatives.

In 1966, on one of these visits, we happened to be in Portobello on a night when SNP Leader, Arthur Donaldson, was speaking in a meeting at the Town Hall. I had linked up with the SNP a year before and proudly wore my party badge in school, to the puzzlement of my north Liverpool schoolmates. That night, as only a teenager can, I muttered and hinted about the meeting, until, eventually, our host agreed to take me along, whilst my mother stayed with the rest of the family in the house.

Donaldson was an inspirational speaker – and this was my first political meeting. Unsurprisingly, I joined in the standing ovation at the end of his speech, while my relative did not. I was vaguely aware of some chatter about ‘embarrassment’ when we got back to the house, but it was decades later I discovered that my genial and obliging host, who had sat stoically through both speech and ovation, was at the time a high ranking Labour Party official. Oops!

A decade later, when I started teaching, I lived in Portobello for a year, but the Town Hall didn’t properly re-enter my life until 1988. I had seen a typically basic flyer announcing that Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger would be in concert at Portobello Town Hall. Everybody knew that MacColl was ailing and there was a sense of urgency about catching him live – so I went along with a friend who was a fellow ‘folky and lefty’.

I would love to be able to say that I became aware of Ewan MacColl through politics – the mass trespass on Kinder Scout, his work with Joan Littlewood in Theatre Workshop, or musically through his work on the Radio Ballads, and with Alan Lomax, Dominic Behan and Bert Lloyd – but, in all honesty, like many I know, I first became aware of him as a song writing credit, when I bought The Dubliners’ ‘Dirty Old Town’ on Major Minor records. It’s difficult to appreciate today the extent to which the establishment controlled access to the arts in the fifties and early sixties. MacColl was certainly not someone whose work and beliefs were easy to find, unless you were old enough to be part of the folk world underground.

Again, like for so many of my generation, my discovery of honest to God ‘folk music’, came about almost circuitously in a Fairport-Steeleye-Planxty-Christy-Gaughan progression, till, eventually, our music reflected our politics and, at every step, MacColl seemed to appear. The Johnstons “Travelling People”, Planxty’s wonderful “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”, Christy Moore’s “Go, Move, Shift”, or “Schooldays’ End” by Dick Gaughan.

At the same time, MacColl’s work in theatre seemed to be reflected in the frequent delight of performances by 7:84 or Wildcat Theatre or plays like “Willie Rough” and “The Bevellers” at the Edinburgh Lyceum.

MacColl and Seeger were hugely affecting that night at the Town Hall. MacColl was as uncompromising as ever, the anger as well as the gentleness in his songs filling the hall as if he were performing in a small folk club. Equally engaging was Seeger’s musicianship, and her concern for him, in her small unobtrusive acts of support as they went through the set.

Apart from the sense that we were watching a music giant for the last time, there was a kind of awe about the evening – something MacColl himself would have deprecated. “In the presence of greatness’ is an awful phrase, but I struggle to find a more fitting description of the atmosphere that night – a greatness which was made even more tangible by the understated presentation of this elderly man in a checked shirt on a bare stage. When you thought of the impact his words and music had had on our lives over decades, when you reflected on people all over the world believing that songs he’d written were actually ‘traditional’, when you considered his lifetime of fighting to present the case for society’s most marginalized – the working class, travellers, fishermen, miners – and the privations he endured because of his political principles, you couldn’t help but be awed.

Throughout that tour, he finished his set with “The Joy of Living”. It was, I suppose, a kind of acknowledgement that his time was drawing to a close and that we would not see him again. Those who categorized MacColl as simply a hard bitten, unreformed, political polemicist would have been surprised to see grown men leaving the hall in tears that night. He was easy to admire, he may have been hard to like at times, but he was also easy to love.

So – my first bout of dissident rebellion, my starting point for a lifetime of political meetings, and a live encounter with the folk laureate whose life’s work chimed with so many of my views and interests – thank you Portobello Town Hall!

Sunday would have been MacColl’s 100th Birthday and it seemed very fitting to be headed through to Celtic Connections for an evening to celebrate his work – on Burns Night. One of the disadvantages of an education in England is missing out on Burns’ poetry at school, and, as a result, I have never been a huge Burns fan – though I recognise his greatness and appreciate Fergusson’s poetry.

However, if anyone could fill that gap in my cultural hinterland, I suspect it is Ewan MacColl, especially given my childhood times in Lancashire. His evocation of Salford in ‘Dirty Old Town”, alongside Shelagh Delaney’s “A Taste of Honey”, and Barstow’s “A Kind of Loving” were hugely formative in my teenage years – and the messages they gave put flesh on the bones of any political credo which has accompanied me through life.

Like MacColl, I found myself growing up a Scot in the north of England, and, like him, my origins – in my case Irish, came to define my viewpoint.

A favourite song in my music collection is a recording of the late Kirsty MacColl dueting with her Dad on “Manchester Rambler”. I’m not sure they managed to share a studio to record the track – MacColl wasn’t the greatest admirer of the world of rock, and Kirsty inherited a lot of his feistiness – but it is a wonderful recognition of the strength of family, music, and politics when brought together.

I had to admire the MacColl clan for their bravery in putting together a tribute evening for their patriarch. Publicly celebrating a family member could bring all manner of pitfalls. I had seen Gerry Rafferty’s clan and friends pull it off magnificently in this same hall at Celtic Connections – could Neil MacColl and company manage the same success?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!”. From the opening bars of MacColl himself singing “A man’s a man for a’ tha’ to the final encore of the massed ranks giving it laldy with “The Manchester Rambler”, this was a tribute which spoke of admiration, love, and respect for the character the family referred to as “The Old Man” or “The old Bugger”.

Neil MacColl pointed out that, though his dad was unimpressed by the ways of fame in the popular music world, he loved it when his songs were taken up and sung by other people – and that was the enriching experience we gained on Sunday night.

Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile gave us “The First Time ever I saw your Face”, Jarvis Cocker and Norma Waterson sang “Dirty Old Town” and then joined with Martin Carthy for the “Moving on Song”, after Martin himself had given us “The Travelling People”. Dick Gaughan, Karine Polwart and Eliza Carthy dazzled in their different ways, whilst the vastly underpublicised philosophy professor and multi instrumentalist, Chaim Tannenbaum, McGarrigle/Wainright alumnus, and musical collaborator to the MacColl’s, contributed to practically every number. A whole raft of MacColls and in-laws took part – with a family set of seas shanties (as promulgated by ‘the old bugger’ in the house while they were growing up) producing the kind of harmonies that only family and practice can achieve.

Neil pointed out that his dad wrote love songs to many things – the worker, the Communist Party, the working classes, the travellers and the marginalized – but he was not beyond penning impossibly beautiful love songs in the traditional sense. ”First Time Ever” is a classic example, but has there ever been a more poignant and affecting tale of lost love than the image strewn “Sweet Thames Flow Softly”? which was performed magnificently in this tribute.

Ewan MacColl had a long life and probably achieved an even greater impact that he could have imagined. Like many of his songs, he will become part of the tradition. For his admirers, his refusal to accept the power of the establishment continues to inspire, for his family, pride in his achievements and the solace of the beautiful heartfelt songs we heard on Sunday – written for his parents, his partners, his children, can reassure them of his humanity and love, not just for causes and countryside, but for those closest to him at home.

For many of us who were there, the abiding memory will be of Norma Waterson, one of the great folk family matriarchs, singing alongside daughter and husband, paying tribute to Sheila Stewart and Rae Fisher, and causing us to reflect, as MacColl would have wanted, that music is about humanity, folk is family, and family is folk.

As others see us.

January 19, 2015

THE PEOPLE’S REFERENDUM:Why Scotland will never be the same again.
Peter Geoghegan. Luath Press


Although he wears them lightly, Peter Geoghegan’s origins in the Irish Midlands, give him great perspective and detachment when reviewing Scotland’s Independence Referendum campaigns. An upbringing in Co Longford tends to equate with a long distance view of national politics happening ‘elsewhere’, so it is unsurprising that he gives us a clear headed and impartial view of events during the last eighteen months or so before the September vote.

For those of us involved. the campaign was a mishmash of the positive and negative, hope and fear, progress and frustration and – on occasions, personal enmity. If we are to reflect on what actually happened, and how it is still impacting on the people of Scotland – and indeed these islands – we need help to stand back and look at people rather than campaigns, communities rather than politics, and the totality rather than our own viewpoint.

What makes Peter’s book so effective in providing this assistance is his breadth of vision – from Coatbridge’s ‘Little Ireland’ to the solemnity of an Orange Hall, from Stornoway, to Easterhouse, to the Borders, and from Catalunya to the Balkan states, he witnesses ‘the stirrings of nationhood’ and talks to people to elicit their feelings and their reactions to what is happening. From the douce inhabitants of sleepy Borders towns, to ‘the last Communist Councillor’ in Fife, Peter brings to life the people who are working in, and affected by, the road to the referendum. What does it mean to “care about your country”? How can neighbours have opposing views? What shapes our ideas about community and politics? Are we more motivated by past experiences or future dreams? What makes an activist – and why are some apathetic or disengaged?

He relates how people in other countries view Scotland, chronicling their hopes or fears for the referendum result and its impact on their own situations. It is a breath of internationalised fresh air after the cartoon like “Scottish or British” rhetoric of the domestic campaign. The UK state has always been inclined to insularity and it was peculiar to note how the ‘No’ campaign emerged, ultimately, as more parochial than the ‘Yessers’, with its emphasis on “British values”, as opposed to the more outward looking perspective of northern Europe and Scandinavia espoused by the independistas. Peter’s travels shine a perceptive light on those parts of Europe where the nation is not the state, and the ‘normality’, or otherwise, of the United Kingdom’s political arrangements.

As well as giving us perspective on the past couple of years, the book refers to our back story and the possibilities for the future, providing a context sometimes overlooked in the heat of campaigning. Like the post campaign political world itself, Peter suggests there are not yet any conclusions.

The book is meticulously researched but not weighed down by extraneous facts. The author is willing to comment, but generally allows the people he met on his travels to speak for themselves. He engagingly transmits his own sense of surprise and discovery to the reader, in a style which is hugely accessible but eschews the facile or the obvious. If you wish to clear your head before reflecting on what happened here in 2013 and 2014, this book makes an excellent starting point.

Whilst understanding the long held reticence about ‘importing Irish politics into Scotland’, I felt the referendum campaign suffered from an unwillingness to learn from Ireland’s path to statehood. It is our nearest neighbour, a small country in north western Europe, and has a shared history as part of these islands. How it has coped with the past century of adopting to self determination, the successes and failures, as opposed to its means of gaining that autonomy, could supply answers to many of the questions raised in the campaign about re-establishing statehood and a place in the international community – especially in those crucial areas of debate – defence and finance.

The author, with his reflective and balanced approach to our political situation, proves to be a fine advertisement – both for Irish neutrality, and for the importance of seeing ourselves as others see us.

Waving to the world

January 11, 2015

We stood, in sleet and biting wind, for two minutes of silence, with pens and pencils held aloft. We had heard read out the names of seventeen victims of last week’s horror in France. Ahead of us, the huge Edinburgh New Town windows of the Consulat Général de France and the neighbouring l’Institut Français d’Ecosse, were almost hidden behind posters declaring “Je suis Charlie”. The tricoleur was at half mast.

At the same time as the millions in Paris, we were gathered – en solidarité, defiance, and support for Scotland’s French community and to declare the right to a free press and free expression.

The silence was followed by a heart wrenching lament of the Skye Boat Song from a solo bagpiper, the notes rolling round the square, on a breeze which flattened them on to the cold grey stone of an Edinburgh winter’s afternoon.

As we gathered, the voices had been predominantly French, calm and studied, but also there were a lot of local and English accents. Eastern European, Scandinavian, and unfamiliar languages whispered around the crowd. There were young and old, people on bikes, and people with babies. Some looked like veterans of many a demonstration, others as if they had stepped out of the background scenes in Downton Abbey. Ian Rankin passed by, then Fiona Hyslop ; there were folk who looked like rock stars and others who looked like university professors. Mahmood, a life long cricketing friend appeared, with his daughter, and we stood close, as if friendship can overcome all. It is unusual to see such a mixture in Edinburgh’s douce and often socially segregated streets.

The piper’s notes died away to echo, and the tears stopped rolling down my cheeks, and I wondered why I was there.

There is a danger for bloggers and tweeters and social media followers that they feel the need to attach themselves in some way to every major news story, whether they have a connection or not. That always seems to me to be a kind of self aggrandisement, and an urge to place themselves at the centre of things – and I have no doubt I have fallen prey to the urge from time to time – but the Paris attacks were different – it felt personal.

Yes, there are connections with France – married to a teacher of French, family in Normandie, holidays there for over a decade – times of sun, discovery, and relaxation, and our son growing and making friends with French children and those from other countries. From the north to the Pyrenees, in the Luberon, and along the Cote d’Azur: a hundred cafes, beaches, forests, and town squares; fireworks at the Hotel de Ville, and long rambling walks through the backstreets of Paris and along the Seine.

So I have enough experience to say I love France but that I don’t know it. How can you categorise it in a phrase or even a paragraph? It is noble and egalitarian, and racist and parochial. Its people are sophisticated and uncomplicated, open to change and hide bound by tradition. The banlieues around the Periphrique in Paris reflect the poverty of post colonial immigration, the farms of Pyrenees Orientales have the scent of Catalunya and summer; the Breton coast could be Ireland, the mountains round Grenoble could be Switzerland. A French woman said on Friday: “In France, we welcome people but we don’t embrace them”

However, I do know that nobody, in any country, far or near, deserves to die for expressing their views, or serving as a police officer, or shopping for their lunch.

And, really, I was at the Rassemblement today, not just to express solidarity with the French community, or with those who lost loved ones, but because words are so important to me.

I am not a physical person, I’ve never had a fight in my life. I have never been remotely convinced that violence solves anything – though there have been times when I have accepted that others had their justifications.

When I want to make a point, when I have an argument to make, or if I want to persuade, I use words, because words, rather than fists or cartoons, are what I use best.

I’m not a professional writer and I have never earned my living with words. I have had, and still do have, the privilege of being able to write because I enjoy it and because I want to, not because I have to. It’s a privilege of which I am keenly aware and which I try hard not to abuse. While I may disagree with the views of others, and attack their methods, I try very hard not to attack them personally. And I hope I defend their right to differ from me, whatever the situation.

I was happy to claim ‘Je suis Charlie” as a token of support and solidarity – but I’m not. I have never read Charlie Hebdo and, frankly, I don’t agree with the mocking of people’s religion. I know, as a person of Faith, that my beliefs have grown with thought and reflection and choice. I am neither an idiot nor a fanatic, and I believe that my faith in God is no more idiosyncratic than the faith in science or humanity or existentialism which sustains others. I don’t understand why some people feel the need to sneer at those who profess a belief, but neither  would I ever attack those who do not. It is a private matter. I remain convinced, as a Muslim friend said to me today at the rally, that all religions at heart preach peace. It seems to me short sighted to blame religions for conflict, when generally the cause is flawed human interpretation of their faith or a deliberate misreading of its demands. I don’t need my faith to be perfect, I just need it to show me a way I can be a better person and contribute positively to the world around me.

So, the brand of satire practiced by Charbo and his colleagues was not always to my liking, but at least they cared enough to attack the pompous and the self inflated with their humour, at least they used pens not guns, at least they sought to make a difference.

Not favouring the way they went about things made it all the more important that I attended today’s rally. To take offence at those from whom we differ is to offer them a victory and to presume our superiority, and anger damages the angry more than its object. If people misuse words or art  to hurt and offend, they should be pitied or ignored, or their motives should be understood. Those at peace with themselves seldom find the time or energy to take offence at others. I believe passionately that words can free us – in so many ways, and that we only learn by allowing all views and beliefs to be openly expressed. Words, and art, are the path to sharing our emotions – and neither should be repressed. Words and art are the magic we are given by our human intelligence – God given, or fluke of the universe, and we have the ability to promote thoughts in others, urge reflection, and open up horizons.

When that opportunity is taken away – whether by governments or self appointed zealots, the world becomes a lesser place, our humanity is diminished.

So I was at today’s rally out of grief and anger for those actions in Paris last week which made us less as a species, which sought to narrow our abilities, and tried to divert us from the open fields of possibility to the backstreets of despair.

In a window at the top of the Consulate building, there were two small children, a girl and a boy, watching the rally. Eventually an adult came and took them away. As they turned to go, the wee girl looked down at the crowd for one last time, and waved. It seemed to me like a symbol of hope, a gesture of innocent and unknowing optimism.

I don’t know who they were, or how the day’s events could be explained to them, but I hope, in years to come, they will have some small memory of the day when Edinburgh said: “Nous sommes tous Charlie – whether we agreed with him or not.”

Time to go.

January 7, 2015

I love it up here.

Ye can see all the way down to the lake – depending on what the Forestry have done during the year – and over to the far side – to Sliabh an Iarainn and the mountains.

And at this time of night in Summer, between sunset and the dark, everything is blue – the air, the water, even the mountain seems more blue than brown or green. It’s like being wrapped in a big blanket, and everything goes quiet – no birds, no cattle sounds, even the land seems to be still.

I wouldn’t say all that to the lads, mind ye, they’d think I’d gone cracked or something.

Still, it’s a grand time of day for thinking.

I’m only up here tonight because my Da asked me to come up and ‘check the ditches’.

A load of nonsense, like – check them for what? It’s just the way he talks to me these days. We never talked much, he was always working, and since we lost Mammy, there’d be no talk at all, if it wasn’t for his “When you’re in town, would ye ever…..” “I think there’s something on the roof of the big shed, would ye look for me?” “If you’re going to the Mart in Dowra, could ye….”.

We can’t talk about politics or religion any more, not these last few years, it just leads to rows; and he won’t mention Mammy, though I know he misses her – of course he does; you’d see him with watery eyes late at night, staring into the range. Me brothers and me sister are off the agenda too – he’s not forgiven them for going.

After a few pints down in Davitt’s of a Friday night, ye’d hear him talking football to his cronies – who’s coming through for the club; the young lads he’s seen down the field, and who’d be good enough for the county panel – but it’s like he’s going through the motions.

I think he’s scared if we had a proper conversation like, he’d have to talk about the future, the farm, how I can earn a living – all the stuff that terrifies him. He’s a grand lad, and I really do respect him, but it’s like trying to shake hands with a ghost when you’re looking to pin him down about anything important. He’s always sending me up the mountain in all weathers on daft jobs; he spends hours out there himself – doing nothing, as far as I can see.

I have to go though, I mean, nothing else makes sense, does it?

I told Mikey Rynne I’d see him for a lift at the top of the town tomorrow about 10. He’s going up to Enniskillen and I can get a train or bus from there to Belfast. Then it’s ferry and train to Glasgow and a new life for me.

Pat McGovern’s been there for three years – big miss to the club like, best goalkeeper we’ve had in ages – but he says there’s lots of clubs over there, he gets a game most weeks. He says if I don’t fancy bar work, the old computer qualifications will come in useful. Everyone has computers over there, but hardly anyone understands them, he says. So I’ll easily get a job in an office or even in a school. Them years at Sligo IT may have been worth it after all.. And I can stay with him as long as it takes; he has a flat near Celtic Park apparently, great pubs too.

I won’t tell the old fella; we’d both be in bits if I tried. I think he kind of knows anyway, ye know.

Better to go, and then maybe phone him before I get on the boat, then he could hear it on the answer phone yoke. I’ll come home at Christmas, maybe before. Sure everybody’s away now, just about. There’s nothing else for it. He knows that.

So I won’t be up here again anytime soon.

It’s the original cabin, ye know – this bit I’m sitting on, just a couple of stones all covered in bog and whins all round – but it’s all that’s left of the house that my grandfather’s grandfather was born in – old Michael Charles Rooney, Mickey Dubh. They must have had a grand view from here in them days – if they ever had the time to notice back in the 1830s.

The old fella’s Dad, my grandfather like, used to tell a grand story about it all – ye’d think he’d been there himself – but, fair play, he had heard the tale from his own grandfather who was there alright!

Start of the year in 1839, the Epiphany, January 6th. When they got up to go down to Mass, there was snow everywhere, thick on the fields it was. All the children played in it through the afternoon, rolling about, snowballs, and snowmen and that. It wouldn’t have been that common, so much snow, like.

But then, through the day, it starts getting warmer – too warm for winter really, especially with the snow about, and by the time they were off to bed it was like a hot summer’s day and as still as could be.

Grandad used to take his pipe out of his mouth at this bit, and narrow his eyes like he could see it all in his mind, and he’d say:
“The old people reported, twas so still at dusk, ye could stand in these fields and hear perfectly well every word that folk were saying over the lake in Corry. Some of them swore it was a sign for the end of the world.”

The children went to bed – they’d be up in the roof in them days.

And then the wind started. They’d feel it coming, through the gaps where the thatch was thin. At first just a bit wild, the way ye would check the sheds, like. Then, howling, with stuff blowing about all over the yard, and by the middle of the night, it was coming over Corry Mountain like a huge herd of mad cattle, roaring and thundering. The pig was blown into the haggard. The wind was completely unstoppable, so.

The roof went, and one of the walls, and most of the belongings – the dresser, the plates and pots all smashed or gone, a couple of old chairs, the table, and a bench. They were finding stuff all over the mountain for weeks. Ye would have no idea where it had come from.

All the houses on the top road were wrecked, one way or the other, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for how they were damaged. It was like a drunk striking out at all about him in a pub fight, whatever got in the way was smashed – and ye couldn’t stay living in any of them. Wasn’t just here, of course. The Big Wind – Oíche na Gaoithe Móire – hit all over the West, but, sure there wouldn’t be many that were more exposed to it than those up here, like.

Some of the landlords were more helpful than others, but mostly the people just got together and started to rebuild – but they made sure to choose more sheltered spots. So the Cullens were down by the side of the river – damp but sheltered, the McPartlands down the road in that dip by the trees, the McHughs down beside us – and then our place that ye can see from here.

My Da always says that they took stones from this house here down the road to build our old house – but I’d say they would have needed fierce muscles or a strong horse to manage that alright.

If ye look – before it gets too dark – ye can see what we call the old house – it’s always been a shed since I remember, like. Ye see it there – with the whitewash and the kind of red corrugated iron roof – that would have been thatch at one time. That’s where my grandfather was born. The Yanks love it when they come home – the small windows, earth floor, a few hens running about. They’d be expecting John Wayne or Pierce Brosnan or someone to come running out.

Then, facing it, across the yard by the big shed, that’s the ‘new house’: two storeys, slate roof, very modern it would have been. The Land Commission helped get it built in the 1920s I think. So that’s where my dad was born, that’d be in 1952, and granddad lived there right till he died. We called it John Michael’s, still do really, even though nobody lives there now.

Then, just along the way, with the fencing round it, that’s the house the old fella built for Mammy when they got married – she was fierce on him to get it finished, the way they could move in straight after the wedding, she always said.

“Ah, Philly!” she’d say to me, “If you and your brothers and sister hadn’t come along, the top floor would still be waiting on being finished – we’d be living in a three roomed shack like his grandparents did. The bog Rooneys they called them.!” My dad would just look up, and smile. I think he liked it when she teased him.

Sometimes I still really miss her, even though I’m grown up, like.

So that’s my house, where I grew up –so I could see two more of our houses and the site here of another from my own bedroom window. I suppose if I’d have stayed and found a girl, there would have been another one some time – though God knows where I’d have found the money for that, trying to work around here.

Or a girl who’d have me, for that matter.

Ye just take it for granted, don’t ye, all the houses, the buildings, like. There was a lad down in the town last year, doing research or something, checking all the ruins of houses: “Stone ancestors” he called them, or something like that. Bought a fair few rounds in the pub, so.

When I’m up here I always know that it’s time to go back down when the lights start appearing over the water there. Ye might see the odd car, the headlights moving about, like, but mostly it’s the houses. There’s McGrains, slightly up the hill there, the Leydens right down by the water, and our cousins’ place just over by Rossbeg; Mary always puts a light on upstairs as well as downstairs; Frank says she thinks she’s living in a lighthouse.

Not many lights on our mountain now. There’s Kate Ryan – well in her eighties and reading the Observer from cover to cover each week so she knows all the news. Ye have to sneak past there or the dog will out and ye’ll have to go in for a cup of tea. The Gallaghers are all gone now; Anne and Martin both said they’d come back through the summer – but they never did. Their Mam’s flower garden’s overgrown, the ditches are wild, and a few slates have slipped already. Then there’s Packy McGuire – all on his own since his brother died below in the Main Street after Mass that time. They do say he’s got even more weird. When I hear him at the front door of our house, I’m out the back like a shot.

And there’s the empty places, some of them families gone so long I don’t know who they were – Da knows though, he has a story for each of them.

I’ve not packed anything.

Well – I don’t want him to know, and, anyway, I don’t really know what to take. A change of clothes should do it, the laptop, the mobile and maybe a Leitrim shirt in case I ever get to watch the lads on the telly or something. In the pub, like.

I can pick up the rest when I’m next home. At Christmas, like. Or before, even.

Time to go.

Ye know it’s a grand feeling walking down that lane in the pitch black and still knowing everything that’s around ye, even though ye can’t see it.

It’s comforting. Like seeing all our old houses, like ye could sense the folk who lived in them. Jeez, I can even feel the old stones underneath me just now, digging right into me through the daub and me jeans.

I wonder if I’ll ever sense that feeling of familiarity in Glasgow.

Aw God , me bones are stiff. It’s hard moving when you’ve been on the ground this long.

Ah – there’s my Da put the light on in the yard – big shadows on the walls of the shed; used to scare me silly when I was a little one.

He’ll be at the door looking for me coming – and then dashing to the table when he hears me in the street, as if he didn’t care.

Maybe I’ll wait till the new year.

That might really be the right time to go…….

Echoes in Grafton Street

January 7, 2015

There are many echoes in Dublin’s Grafton Street, particularly at night, when the footfall is lower, and the wind makes its way from St Stephen’s Green down to Trinity, picking up the day’s detritus and rearranging its importance.

Of course, this is partly a consequence of the street’s architecture and geography – it is long, fairly straight, pedestrianised, and canyon shaped, with high buildings on both sides along its length. However, it is also a consequence of its history and its place in Dublin folklore.

In 1708, like Edinburgh’s Princes St, it was established as a residential boulevard, but by the end of the century a school had been established there which welcomed Thomas Moore, Robert Emmet and the Duke of Wellington amongst its pupils.

Again, like its Edinburgh counterpart, retail took a grip during the 19th century and in the following decades, it became a fashionable shopping street, with department stores such as Brown Thomas and Switzers drawing a well heeled clientele.

Its cafes and restaurants played their part in a fascinating fin de siecle Dublin scene and, from James Joyce to Patrick Kavanagh, poets and writers graced their establishments through the following century.

For visitors and locals alike, it has remained a central part of Dublin life – as much for parading as for shopping.

And the echoes are personal too.

When I first started visiting Dublin in the late sixties, Grafton Street was as much an icon of arrival as the red and white Poolbeg chimneys in Dublin Port were a sign of departure. An overnight ferry from Liverpool would arrive at the North Wall, to be followed by a bleary journey to Bewleys Café in Grafton Street, the very building that housed Whyte’s Academy, where Moore, Emmet and Weelington were schooled.

There I would grab a table near the fire, open my Irish Times, and order a full breakfast. Teapot and milk jug would arrive, followed by orange juice, hot buttered toast, and a breakfast replete with the kind of rashers and sausages that you could only dream about across the sea. It was quite simply a perfect experience, and set me up, time and again, for a bus out to Clondalkin, long before CityWest and ring roads and industrial estates, where I would stick out the thumb and begin to hitch out to Kilkee in Co Clare, or down to Kerry.

Perhaps one of the best ever poems on unrequited love was written by Patrick Kavanagh, a Monaghan man living in Dublin and adopted by the locals. For a time, he worked on Grafton Street and drank in McDaid’s public house on Harry St, which runs off it, and thus the street featured in his famous poem “On Raglan Road”:

“On Grafton Street in November we tripped lightly along the ledge
Of the deep ravine where can be seen the worth of passion’s pledge,
The Queen of Hearts still making tarts and I not making hay –
O I loved too much and by such and such is happiness thrown away.”

I was lucky enough to meet and know Hilda O’Malley, the subject of that poem, and like many others, I suspect, I cannot walk down Grafton Street without thinking of that most remarkable woman.

So, along with hundreds of thousands of others – in Ireland, and across the world, I can claim that Grafton Street, Bewley’s, and I “have history”.

Now a decision has been made by whoever owns Bewley’s that the café will be closed for six months to allow for “refurbishment” and a kind of “downsizing”. I am not entirely sure how that works for a quirky building with much admired stained glass and other period details. The word on the (Grafton) street is that the company are seeking to re-open as a kind of Costa/Starbucks outlet for people to grab coffee and snacks ‘on the go’. Similar plans and ‘refurbishments’ have been mooted before and it has often taken the intervention of An Taisce to rein in the developers after Dublin City Council decisions. I am sure the changes planned will maximize their profit margin, but, if I may make as bold to say so, this decision is symbolic of so much which is wrong with Dublin in these not so rare ould times. The city planners, and their partners in business, still seem motivated by the thrill they got when riding on the back of the Celtic Tiger.

This is not a personal plea for my favourite bits of ‘old Dublin’ to be retained, untouched and frozen in aspic. Cities are living organisms, they must reflect people’s needs and contemporary life. God forbid that Grafton Street or its shops should exist, museum like, as they were when they featured in Joyce’s “Dubliners’. The point remains, though, that cities are made up of people and that those citizens are entitled to live in conurbations which maintain their soul as well as having an eye for profit.

I wouldn’t be the only one to mourn the lost ‘small town’ feeling of a sleepier Dublin in the early sixties, but neither would I forget that, in those days, within a hundred yards of a grander and more imposing O’Connell St, you would find grinding inner city poverty, basically unchanged since the days when O’Casey wrote about tenement life. Throughout most of the past fifty years, these areas have suffered from the effects of crime, violence, drugs and alcohol abuse – those four horsemen of apocalyptic deprivation – and any progress made has largely come from the hard work and commitment of the people themselves rather than Council vision.

Yes, in common with cities across the Europe, the cityscape has changed: an almost completed Financial Centre on the Liffey, a turbocharged retail regeneration of Temple Bar, burgeoning and huge shopping malls, chain stores and brand names imported from the UK and the USA as well as elsewhere – but in the most important aspects it has maybe stayed the same or even regressed.

While houses costing millions of euro are found in Killiney and Howth, and satellite ‘executive housing estates’ spring up on all points of the compass, the providers of the wealth – the workers, the service industry providers, the Dubliners, find their struggle to make ends meet and live in decent housing is as hard as ever. Those who embraced Dublin as a ‘West British’ or European capital seem to have benefited from the economic upswing of the Tiger, but there is less evidence that they are paying their full share of the post slump cost.

As an outsider, I would imagine it is more and more difficult to feel proud of dear old Dublin – as opposed to its people. The section of O’Connell St from the GPO to Parnell Street is a long lasting embarrassment, the Council’s inability to grasp the nettle of preserving the historic legacy of Moore St and its surrounds is emblematic of their small mindedness. It seems the city is being developed for profit rather than for its citizens.

The almost universal ridicule the Government received when it launched its plans to celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising – without mentioning any of its leaders – highlighted an administrative mindset which is devoid of perspective, or breadth of vision.

Ultimately, I suppose, compared to the every day lives of ordinary Dubliners, the survival of Bewley’s Café in all its originality is not that important. Maybe the (coffee) bean counters are right. Maybe we have moved on from a world where people study well written newspapers over a leisurely breakfast, or meet for afternoon tea to reflect on their lives and that of their friends. Maybe conversation has been replaced by social media, interaction by iPod music, and reflection by marketing sound bites. But the old Bewley’s was a place which welcomed the individual character of Dubliners and visitors alike; its atmosphere and demeanour recognised that people have soul as well as hunger, personality as well as thirst, thought as well as image.

I wonder has it occurred to the accountants that maintaining a type of business which receives recognition and sentimental attachment from all age groups in all five continents might actually be a good and successful long term business model; that a familiar oasis, as in my family’s case, visited by three generations over 80 years, might be a winner in commercial terms; or is it too difficult to see past the next balance sheet?

One of many benefits of pedestrianisation for Grafton Street was the growth of street entertainment, particularly buskers, as reflected so well in Glenn Hansard’s excellent film “Once”. On my last visit to the café, I sat upstairs in a bow window, having a fine evening meal, whilst listening to excellent bluesy soul music from the street below. My companions revelled in it – they thought it quite unique – and it was.

These days the buskers carry many of the echoes of Grafton Street, and I wonder how often they think to sing Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”?

“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
They paved Paradise
And put up a parking lot.”

My Grandfather’s Christmas Eve.

December 31, 2014

Drumnafaughnan 1886

He slipped out of the house and walked up the lane. From the top of the haggard, he would be able to look down towards the lake, and if he was lucky make out a few windows with a lighted candle – far fewer than when he was a child.

Mammy was cooking the bits that would go with the goose tomorrow, daddy was in his chair by the range, smoking his pipe and making dark comments about the state of the world. The girls were all down at the McHugh’s – no doubt giggling with them all evening. Michael was fixing a hinge on the barn door, and Thomas was down in the town, having a few glasses with his cronies.

In a couple of hours they would start the walk down the lane for Midnight Mass in St Brigid’s. Daddy would grumble about going out in the night, Mammy would try – and fail – to make him look respectable: “You’re not going out in the fields!” she’d say, pulling at his jacket, hitting his cap off her thigh to try and get the dust out of it.

They’d call in for the McAnancey McPartlands down the lane, then cross the big field to the Pat Byrne’s and catch up with them all, full of noise and laughter.. When they hit the road down through Barragh More, they’d call in for his sisters and the McHughs, and by the time they got down to the main road there would be twenty or thirty of them, the young ones joshing each other, the men talking, and the women discussing how much was still to be done in the house. They would gather Thomas and his pals from outside Wynne’s, the mammy making silent threats with her eyes as to his behaviour during Mass.

Coming back up the road, Christ’s birth celebrated, they would stop at every house, making a long dark journey bearable with the light of hospitality and friendship. There would be much discussion about the Wren on St Stephen’s Day and who would be doing what, and which houses they would call at first.

He leaned on the gate at the end of the lane. He could sense the lake rather than see it far below, and every now and then as a bush moved, in an inconsistent breeze, he’d think he could see a candle or a lamp across the fields, maybe even over the lake.

Thomas and the girls liked company, Michael was happiest when he was working, but, as Mammy always said: “John’s a quiet one like me; ye would never know what was happening in his head, but ye could never deny ’twould be interesting.”

He breathed in the air, let the wind blow over his face. It would be warm in the church, even hot, after an hour’s walk down the road. Everyone he knew in the world would be there – those who were not in America, or Dublin – and he would feel the childlike joy when the hymns were sung, and the Infant was welcomed into the world. Comfort was the word he most associated with Christmas – the security of familiar rituals, the safe surroundings, the people who made his life.

For all that, he loved these quiet moments, loved working a field on his own, crossing the mountain with only the odd group of miners passing him in a morning, loved the safety of the long lane with the ditches on either side, surrounding him with fuschia or blackberries, opening up on to small cabins, or views to the lake and the mountains. The crunch of his boots on the stony earth, the squelch as his legs sunk into the daub: these were his sounds in his place.

Christmas Eve always seemed dead quiet – like the fields themselves were waiting: a drawing in of breath before the celebration of birth, renewal, joy, and relief at another year mastered. The shadows of the whins around him seemed to be still and listening. In the crisp night silence between puffs of breeze, he heard a door creak hundreds of yards away, and knew by the direction that it would be Packie McGinn, out to get some turf for the range, to bank it up before heading off to church.

He turned and walked the lane back to the house; shadows moved behind the curtains, his feet knew the hollows of the path even in the dark. His twenty second Christmas in the house where he was born. Birth, life, survival – the rhythm of all he knew.

He thought that the best of Christmas was Mammy and Daddy, his brothers and sisters in the house, the neighbours across the fields, and the story of a baby’s birth.

He pushed open the door; his father grunted and his Mammy, wiping her hands on her apron, turned from the sink.

“Come on in, John!” she said, “or we’ll be late for church.”

Brooklyn 1892

He walked back to Summit Street from the trolley terminus; he’d been pleased to get the early shift, and finishing at 6 o’clock meant he got a proper Christmas Eve – for the first time in the four years he had been in America.

The streets he followed were familiar – he walked a great length of Hicks St – which was one of his Trolley routes – but the neighbourhood felt different when you walked it – without the responsibility of a car load of passengers, a lever to keep depressed, and a traction pole to keep in place. Coming by Brooklyn Heights the houses were grand, imposing, decorated ornately, and with stepped front stoops as high as some of the houses he remembered back home. He wondered how people got the money to build houses like these, three, four or even five storeys high. The answer, he knew, lay in the warehouses and docks ahead of him on his walk.

He took the roads through Red Hook which were nearest the river, guided by the mast tops of the ships towards the direction of the Atlantic Basin. The warehouses made the streets dark, there was little lighting, and, looking up, the stars were easy to plot.

Muffled noises and shifting light came from some of the huge buildings by the river, but others were silent and cast a cold, unmoving shadow. Occasionally a couple of men or a group would pass him – sailors or longshoremen, collars turned up, caps at an angle, heading for a bar or café. Many spoke unfamiliar languages. John’s part of the area was largely Irish and Italian; nearer the river, the Scandinavians who worked on the big ships from Europe seemed to have settled.

After he had turned down Degraw St and was moving along Van Brunt, he headed for a familiar spot where he could see the river between the long low buildings, and make out the lights of Manhattan across the water.

When he wasn’t a conductor on the trolleys, he was a transfer agent – helping passengers switch between Brooklyn’s cable cars and Manhattan’s electric system. You met a lot of people in a day – from all kinds of backgrounds and with many different attitudes. It was the opposite of Drumnafaughnan – where everybody knew your business, your family, your history. You could be completely invisible here – and sometimes that felt easier, sometimes chosen loneliness was less of a burden than the blinding glare of universally shared familiarity.

The lights on the tall buildings across the river seemed to shiver slightly in their reflections as the currents flowed; somewhere was the throb of a steamship engine, and the braying hoot of a siren. The rattling of ropes on empty masts carried from the Basin, like the cracking of wood in the bonfires they had built as children. He must ask Thomas about that – though he would be in the bar by now, and not likely to be out in time for Midnight Mass. He had thought to stay with his brother would make the city easier, but Thomas went his own ways, and had spent his time in Brooklyn proving just how different could be two boys born in the same year.

He turned and walked up Summit, passing between tenement buildings where people shouted their lives out into the street, their accents and languages merging into a kind of background noise, proclaiming that this was where working people lived, and fought, and loved, and died. He smiled his way along the sidewalk. The busyness of business was attractive to him. He was a quiet man himself, but these days he never minded being surrounded by bustle.

At the intersection with Columbia St he had to stop and wait for a chance to cross. Carts, pulled by horses or pushed by men, were everywhere – a steady stream of goods for sale, possessions, parcels and furniture, seemingly forever moving on Brooklyn’s streets. Brewery wagons, their horses straining with the weight, warehousing carts, making slow but steady progress, the occasional trap, skipping through the slower wagons as if the driver thought he was back home on a country lane. The ding ding of the trolleys, a wave from a colleague, harsh yellow light in every doorway and most of the windows.

Once across the main street, his own part of the street was quieter, just a mumbling coming from the occasional open window, the quick steps across the street of someone in a hurry.

At the stoop, he paused and sat on the top step. You could never take life for granted. This was his 28th Christmas Eve, his fourth in New York. Michael was in Scotland, in Edinburgh, married to a Scottish girl, Elizabeth, working in a provision store, with plans to open his own shop. The girls were all in service in Brooklyn; he sometimes saw Ellen at the Gallaghers, where the Irish congregated on Sunday evenings and told each other how well they were doing and how they didn’t miss home one bit. Anne and Biddy were lost to him; he didn’t like to think about their lives; you heard such tales.

And Thomas.

His big brother, by ten months, was happy working as a ‘labourer’. He picked up work on the docks, in the warehouses, unloading ships, handling horses. For him work was more a case of finding ‘buddies’ as they said here, rather than building a future. When he left their room in the morning, as often as not he didn’t know where he would be working or what he would be doing.

Michael thought they should join him in Scotland – he had grand plans, as always. McPartlin Brothers Provisions would take the city by storm, he said. John was open to the idea. He had saved his money well, he was no drinker or socialiser. He didn’t know how many more of those hot, humid, stifling Brooklyn summers he could take. Sometimes it got so bad he had to climb up to the new Bridge just to get some air from the river below. He should take Thomas back across the ocean, before he got into any trouble here. They could work together, selling produce from Drumnafaughnan in shops in Edinburgh.

As he got up from the cold step, he wondered if that was a crazy Christmas dream, or a sound proposition.

He would take a moment at Midnight Mass and pray for a bit of guidance. He would sit reflecting, surrounded by the Kelly’s and Riley’s, McDonaghs and McTernans. Nodding to McGovern’s, smiling at O’Hara’s and avoiding the gaze of the crazy Ryan girls. At the end, after “Ite, missa est”, he would nod to Father O’Reilly and thank him, he would walk through a crowd of people he hardly knew.

But now it was time for something to eat, a letter home to his parents, change out of his trolley conductor’s uniform, and get ready for the childlike joy of the Mass of the Nativity

In Brooklyn, it only took a minute to walk from his rooms to St Stephen’s on the corner of Summit and Hicks Street, and on the way back, you were unlikely to be detained by neighbours.

Edinburgh 1923

He locked the door of the shop and looked up and down Buccleuch St. It was just before ten and the roadway was deserted. He hoped he had remembered all the orders, and to put the extra butter and potatoes in the boxes for those he knew were having a hard time. Often he would stay open later than this – for you never knew when anyone in the neighbourhood might need something, but on Christmas Eve, time was needed – for reflection, to get ready for Midnight Mass, and to get the family organised.

Pausing half way along the street, he checked the lock on the rented store room. Opposite, lights glowed from chandeliers inside the tall windows of the Archers’ Hall; some grand dinner, he supposed.

It was a cold night and there was a halo round the street lights. He liked this street – busy when it needed to be, but – caught between the green of the Meadows and the rocks of Arthur Seat, he felt it was a good place, a representative place, to have spent the most of his life – a compromise between the far off calm of his childhood and the youthful noise of his Brooklyn years.

His 59th Christmas Eve, and how these last years had changed them all.

His big brother had come back with him to Edinburgh, in 1893, eventually agreeing it was for the best. John had met Katie from Roscommon on the boat across to Liverpool, he knew her vaguely as she had been in service at the Gallaghers. By the time they came ashore they were engaged, and now had been married for 29 years. Thomas had met a woman with a child and they had married, but his health was wrecked and he’d died before the turn of the century.

Then had come the war. Only Joe, their eldest, had been old enough to fight. He had been wounded and captured in 1918 – for a long time they had thought he was dead, but he had come back to them, only to die this year at the age of 26 – hardly old enough to have made any plans, never mind fulfill them. Michael and his wife had died just after the war, within a year of each other. Their family was scattered –some in America, the rest in Glasgow.

He missed Joe – the steady, serious, confident oldest child – good enough to be made a Sergeant, to lead men, and to be promoted in the civil service. Paul was a good man, helpful in the shop, but quiet, John and James were rascals – God knows what they would do with their lives, Frank and Maria were making their way successfully through school. All in all, he was lucky, he knew that, and thanked God every night – but he was glad you couldn’t see where life was taking you.

In the hundred yards or so that he had just walked, he had passed the houses of around 30 Great War casualties. In his own stair alone, as well as Joe, there had been three losses. At home in Ireland, boys had been lost fighting in the War of Independence and now in the Civil War. Death seemed far closer than it had when he was young.

He paused at the door at the foot of his stair. Buccleuch Place stretched away from him across the road, an imposing stretch of Edwardian Edinburgh, lamps reflected in the cobbles, the short steps up to each door casting a pattern of shadows, soft light escaping on to the pavement at irregular intervals.

A neighbour passed by and raised his hat to him: “Good evening, Paddy”. Over a quarter of a century here, and he was still a paddy mac – and Irish Scotsman in the capital city. He was proud of the fact, and always noted the Irish accent asserting itself on his children’s tongues when they returned from a summer in Leitrim. On the 1921 census, under ‘other languages spoken’, he had proudly written “Irish” – and wasn’t McPartlin the Irish version of McPartland anyway!

He turned to climb the stairs to the top floor flat. Katie would be cooking and tidying, Maria and Paul helping her. Frank would be hiding away in the bedroom, and God knows where John and James would be – but there would be wigs on the green if they weren’t back in time for Midnight Mass. They would go to St Columba’s as a family –and walk there and back together – it wasn’t a quarter of the distance he had walked as a child.

He grasped the bannisters and started to climb. He thought that the best of Christmas was himself and Katie, his children in the flat, the customers he was able to serve in the shop , and the story of a baby’s birth.

As he reached the top landing, he heard the street door open and close loudly. Looking over the bannister, he saw the figure of his third son, coat open, scarf flying out behind him as he rushed for the stairs.

“Get a move on up those stairs, John!” he said, “or we’ll be late for church.”

A fair way with words

December 28, 2014


Long before the invention of mobile phones, I suffered from a distraction beside me on the front seat of the car on the way to work each Monday morning.

As I fretted about the week ahead, its challenges and demands, I knew I could be fortified to face all of life’s travails if I could just get a chance to read Ian Wood’s weekly Scotsman column. Sometimes just the headline was enough to bring a wry smile; invariably the content would generate laughter – and, regularly, all manner of reflection. So its presence in the newspaper lying beside me was always a temptation.

For over quarter of a century, I knew that Ian Wood’s words had the power to change my week – for, armed with that dry wit and lugubrious sense of the vicissitudes of fate – be it on the golf course or in supporting Hibs – the world seemed a better place, its misfortunes to be laughed at, or greeted with a knowing smile, rather than anger or misery.

I am not a golf aficionado, but Ian’s writing on golf – whether seriously in reporting on major championships and golfing heroes, or with desperate comedy in his accounts of his own efforts with the clubs, was required reading. Any sportsman – at any level – would recognise the awful comic despair that comes with deluded attempts to match the skills of one’s heroes, or sometimes simply just to play the game to any level of competence.

When he wrote of football, it was often about his beloved Hibs. Like most of us who share that affliction, he was regularly tempted to look back to the hey days of the Famous Five and Turnbull’s Tornadoes – yet he never let his almost weekly disappointments make him bitter; rather he evinced a comical resignation, as if he expected the sporting fates to take the mickey by providing decades of mediocrity to follow brief interludes of genius.

He was once chief speaker at our cricket club dinner. I looked forward to it for weeks, nervously hoping that, in person, he would live up to the twinkling brilliance of his persona on the page. I needn’t have worried. Without any of the after dinner speaker’s normal battery of tricks, he spoke quietly and comically about his world of sport. I laughed so hard I thought I might be sick.

When I approached him afterwards to thank him for the speech and all of his pieces over the years, his reaction, typically, was one of benign bewilderment that I should have read them all and found them funny; as he might have said, he was like a man who had chipped into the hole out of a bunker when he had only been hoping to avoid a sore wrist. His humility matched his genius and was hugely becoming.

Indeed, he wrote about his self effacing nature in a Scotsman piece bemoaning his inability to draw attention to himself:

“I belong to a wimpish strain which can only function behind a screen of complete anonymity. Ian Poulter’s trousers, for instance, fill me with dread. The very thought of pottering on to a tee wearing such trousers brings me out in a cold sweat.”

His style of self deprecating humour and bewildered confusion at the state of the world in general, and sport in particular, was as witty as it was manufactured. He was a great sports editor with a keen understanding of many sports and, indeed, of people and their peculiarities. It was this understanding and empathy, contained in his writing, which made his wit so very effective and memorable. Perhaps, it was a unique combination of passion for sport matched with compassion for those who play and follow it, which made him wildly funny but never cruel – except, perhaps, at his own expense.

As a teacher of English, and an aspirant writer, his use of language, and his ability to find a different take on life and sport, both inspired and cheered me. I don’t think I ever write about sport without seeing him in my mind’s eye, and wishing I could even remotely approach his style and impact.

I have long missed his columns, and now we will miss the man who created them. As a Roger McGough poem once memorably said, in another context: “Words? He could almost make them speak.”

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but how blessed we were to be exposed for so long to the dry wit and knowledgeable, self deprecating, talent of Ian Wood.

He would probably have been expecting to find himself in some celestial bunker, but my betting is he’s already hit the middle of the heavenly green, shaking his head in wry disbelief.

I don’t know if anyone will make me laugh quite as much again.


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