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Only connect

December 11, 2015
Journalist Ian Bell 1986

Ian Bell pictured in 1986, during his time at The Scotsman. Picture: Alan Macdonald

Looking back over my Blogs over the last couple of years, I realise that many are tributes to those we have lost. It is, I suppose, as a result of my age, and of my capacity for admiration of those who possess talents far in excess of mine in areas to which I aspire.

When I wrote earlier this week about Willie McIlvanney, I suggested that I was keeping my piece brief as a reflection of his terse imagery. That wasn’t the entire truth – it was as much a recognition that his words were so sublime that I was miles from possessing the ability to pay adequate tribute.

And now we have lost the inestimable Ian Bell, I find the words even harder to come by.

Integrity, though, is a useful starting point. There is an unfortunate, small but influential subculture in Scottish journalism which seeks to promote a consensus that to hold radical views– about politics, the constitutional position, or well known Scots figures, is somehow immature: “When you’ve seen as much as me, laddie, you’ll come to your senses and accept that the status quo is the best we chance we have.” Sometimes the younger the writer, the more this line is followed, as a kind of attempt at faux maturity.

Understandably, this came to the fore during the Referendum campaign when the “established order of things” was used as a political stick to beat the uppity Yes voters. “Why change now for a future we can’t predict? it’s worked for 300 years,”

Of course, as Ian Bell would have pointed out: that depends on your definition of “worked”.

Such an approach to the national question enjoyed a modicum of success, not least because, just as a parental “Because I say so” tends to elicit a teenaged slamming of doors, there were many Yes supporters whose response was visceral rather than measured.

Ian Bell would have none of this.

He was a socialist, a republican and a Hibs supporter – and you might well have expected the great grand nephew of Edinburgh born Easter Rising leader, James Connolly, to espouse all of these beliefs. However, a look at the lineage of those such as Portillo, Shinwell and, more recently, the subject of Ian’s last column, Benn, suggest that not infrequently the apple can land a good distance away from the tree.

Ian Bell was fiercely proud of his connection to Connolly, and, though he never traded on it, neither was he afraid to mention the relationship – even in times when such a reference could elicit negative response.

However, he was not a republican and socialist, or even a Hibee, as a kind of tribute to his heroic ancestor – and he often showed scant patience with those who misappropriated republicanism for their own ends, without any proper understanding. He was starting to reflect on the marking of the Rising’s centenary next year – in Scotland and in Ireland, and the absence of his wise and thoughtful input to the whole affair will diminish it.

As anyone who ever read his pieces would be well aware, Ian Bell’s convictions came from intelligence, study, reflection and understanding. Where others might shout and wave a flag in your face, Ian’s response would be measured in terms of facts, research and exact interpretation of the position – be it politics, economics, or cultural matters.

He was educated in the best and every sense of the word. He could illuminate an economic strategy, a piece of political chicanery, or a Dylan track in a way which showed knowledge but never showed off. His prose was elegant but accessible, accurate but engaging. Sometimes, reading his Saturday morning piece made sense of an entire week of puzzlement and despair. When the general media consensus was starting to make you question your own sanity, Ian’s words would reassure you that the “norm” was not acceptable, that injustice must be highlighted, and that you were not alone in believing that.

His anger at those who took advantage of the weak and vulnerable was palpable but never deflected from the point he was making, nor gave his detractors any opportunity to attack the writer while avoiding the resonance of the message. His content was solid and based on facts rather than emotion – his feeling for the downtrodden was obvious but controlled.

You could say that he took on the establishment at their own game – and invariably made his point successfully, something which is reflected in tributes today from many who disagreed vehemently with his political standpoint.

When I was given the chance to blog for The Herald a few years ago, I was, of course, delighted to have the opportunity – but the biggest thrill was to see my picture on the same home page as Ian Bell’s – never had so much distance in ability been covered in so small a space on the computer.

Only a few days ago, he wrote of McIlvanney – in typical eloquent style: “The song is outlived by the singing”. That will certainly be the case for Ian Bell, who, like his illustrious forebear, was guided by what was right, rather than what might promote personal success.

I am taken back to a Saturday morning in October 2011. I am, inevitably, sitting in the car in a supermarket car park, waiting for the rattle of the trolley that will spring me out of my seat and into bag loading duties. As usual, I am reading Ian Bell’s column, and to the dismay of passers by, I am sobbing, and tears are running down my cheeks.

He is writing about railways in a piece called “Only Connect”. He is making the political case for a well run, far reaching, nationalised railway system, but, being Ian Bell, alongside the economic facts and figures, are names, family history, childhood memories and the emotional pull of the train. It speaks so much to my own history, to my own sense of things, that I am overwhelmed: by a political column, about transportation, and sitting in a supermarket car park!

That’s what Ian Bell would do to you!

He would make a rational political argument which spoke to your humanity; with him it was people before parties, words not slogans, knowledge not hearsay.

I would recommend everyone to read “Only Connect” – if you can access it. It makes its point but it also nourishes the soul – and there is a delicious irony in a socialist like Bell being locked behind a pay wall.

I am going to miss Ian’s words dreadfully – and I suspect the country will too – and not just on Saturday mornings.

Thank you, Ian, safe home, – and I hope you’re travelling by a good old tank engine.

“As it happens, the trains never stopped where I live. Nor did they ever stop in my dreams. I hear them in the night, when they shout hoarse at the sea. Here and now, where the coast bends, and where the country of Scotland seems always to turn its shoulder to the northern ocean, questions about trains and names seem to sound out. Trains come for people. They bear them off, and bring them home.”

He made us proud

December 5, 2015


I’ll keep this short, because, allied to his marvellous use of language, Willie McIlvanney, who has died today, was a master of the terse phrase and the economic description. He portrayed Scots in a certain time and place as nobody else could, and he did it with grand style, literary zest, and in a manner that never patronised. If the words of Irvine Welsh produce snapshots of Scottish working class life, Willie’s prose gave us craftily and carefully painted pictures.

He portrayed a kind of Scotland which is sometimes romanticised, occasionally glorified, and often mistranslated, but, when Willie wrote, he got it right. I used to think he owed his accuracy to a determination to pay tribute to his patents and all they represented – a kind of life which is gone, based on values which are still needed.

Reading McIlvanney – be it fiction, crime, or short stories – was like getting off a train somewhere in west Central Scotland and being taken on a tour of the town during which all the characters were brought to life with sharp observation and kindly understanding. You felt safe in the writer’s company even though the view he gave you was far from sanitised.

There won’t be another Willie McIlvanney – though many whom he inspired will write great literature about our country and the human condition, and the politics which links the two

He will rightly receive great praise from those far more qualified than I to give it

From me, it’s gratitude for all his inspiration in his words, his knowledge, his understanding, his humour, and his compassion for neighbours and country.

I think he might feel the greatest tribute would be to declare: his country, like his parents, loved him, and was proud of him

If that’s ok………

November 3, 2015


As a fully paid up member of the grumpy old men’s club, one of my recurring rants concerns the power of celebrity these days.

However, it is not always the case that actors, writers, artists and musicians have an influence which is merely banal. Sometimes, when the stars align, in more ways than one, the results can be unexpectedly profound, and remarkably long lasting.

I enjoyed a long, successful, rewarding, and very happy teaching career – and, generally, when asked what inspired me to follow that profession, I can mention a particular teacher who taught me when I was 11, a general liking for school and education, and a kind of vague notion that I wanted to “ contribute to society” and “make a difference”. They are all acceptable and commonplace answers to the question.

But there are alternative responses.

In fact, alongside my much loved primary teacher, Bill McCann, probably the two main motivations at the start of my career were actors.

As I have written previously, Scots actor John Cairney, starring in BBC Scotland’s “This Man Craig” in the mid sixties, portrayed a young teacher who got involved with his pupils, and sometimes their families, in his attempts to help them get the most out of their education. It was a different model of the profession to that with which I was familiar at my Grammar School in the north west of England, but I thought I would quite like to teach, if I could be like that. When I returned to Scotland in 1970, I realised he had been portraying the new approach in Scottish education known as “Guidance” and was further encouraged by the possibilities.

So I had already decided to become a teacher, an English teacher, and was at Moray House College in Edinburgh, when an inspired lecturer decided to show us Ken Loach’s film,”Kes”, based on Barry Hines’ superb novel: “A kestrel for a knave.”

Cairney’s “This Man Craig”, well written as it was, had been midweek drama on the BBC; “Kes”, like the novel on which it was based, was able to be a far more hard hitting and gritty portrayal of the sharpest end of education. And it was in that film, which I had not previously seen, that I met Colin Welland as the English teacher, “Mr Farthing”.

I had come across Welland before – as PC Davy Graham in the iconic “Z Cars”. In a world of almost nightly police procedurals, it is now difficult to explain the impact of “Z Cars” on two channel television in the early sixties – especially to those of us living within a few miles of the fictionalized “Seaport” and “Newtown”. Its characters seemed “real” in a manner not previously achieved in television drama.. One of its early inspirations was John McGrath – who would have further mighty impact on me as the director of the 7:84 Company.

Welland was lucky to join “Z Cars” when he did, for a number of reasons. He replaced the original co-driver of Z Victor 2, Bob Steele, played by Jeremy Kemp, who had been an unpleasant character, revealed to be a wife beater. When Davy Graham arrived, although he could be short of temper, he was a far sunnier character, and his interplay with his co-driver: Bert Lynch, played by the wonderful Jimmy Ellis, became a integral part of the programme’s success.

However, his portrayal of caring English teacher, Mr Farthing, really affected me. He was no “Mr Chips”, he was hard when he needed to be, and had excellent classroom control. However, the scene where he tackles the class bully, and finds the time to listen to the forlorn Billy Casper, is simply magical, as is the actor’s ability to portray the nuances of teacher/pupil relationships.

Casper details his life of woe and Farthing takes the time to listen. He knows about Billy and where he lives, and has assimilated the information as the lad talked in class about his hawk. He asks him where and when he flies the hawk, and when Billy tells him, replies: “I’ll come round then, if it’s ok?”

Billy can hardly respond to this – he is totally unused to the novelty of someone asking for his permission. His conversation with Farthing is quite possibly the longest two way communication he’s ever had. His family, and teachers, and friends normally shout or talk at Billy, not with him or to him – and nobody ever listens.

It’s a brilliant scene – and merits watching again and again.

Its impact comes from the writing and the acting.

Welland, Bob Bowes who played the Head, the wonderful and much missed Brian Glover – the PE teacher, writer Barry Hines, and Director Ken Loach were all former teachers – and it showed. Seldom has the profession been so accurately portrayed on film. Welland would echo this authenticity in his superb TV drama: “Roll on 4 o’clock” in 1970.

The message – which I took with me throughout my career, and shared with countless probationer teachers – is that teachers must know their pupils – and take the time to really listen to them. And that message was ingrained on me from an early age by the power of Colin Welland’s performance.

He was there on other occasions too. His script for “Chariots of Fire” about Edinburgh hero, Eric Liddell, won an Oscar, and one of my pupils had a sizeable part in the film – but it was the voice and demeanour of Mr Farthing which endured.

So much so, that on many occasions when in a “difficult” conversation with a pupil, I realised I was unconsciously echoing Mr Farthing’s words to Billy – or even his body language. That’s how powerful was the effect of his portrayal.

His voice stayed with me. Though born in Leigh and mostly associated with Newton-le-Willows, he was brought up in the same Kensington district of Liverpool as my mother. Maybe that helped the resonance too!

I may well have been a teacher without Colin Welland – but I’m not sure I would have been the same kind of teacher.

I’ll say thank you and God Bless, if that’s ok……..?

Are you talking to me?

October 21, 2015


It’s the lot of a football manager to take the brickbats when the team is doing badly and to be largely invisible if the team is doing the business..

Much the same could be said about the area where he and his assistants are stationed during the game – it largely comes into focus when the supporters want to vent their spleen; when the goals are flowing on the park, it is less noticed.

Even its changing title – from “dug out” to “technical area” – seems to reflect the journey upon which football has embarked in the past century.

Richard Gordon’s latest offering: Tales from the Dug Out: Football at the Sharp End (Black & White Publishing) gathers together tales and reminiscences from many of the big names of Scottish football – all focused on that area which, more than one contributor suggests, can be a bit of a mad house of stress and confusion.

As you would expect, Fergie features, alongside Archie Knox, Jim Duffy, Alex Smith and Gordon Strachan. Terry Butcher, Stuart McCall and Jimmy Calderwood share their memories, and Jim Jeffries and Billy Brown confess to a few moments of irascibility!

If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of pitchside managers’ frantic gesticulations, or how difficult it can be to make a substitution, this is the book which will satisfy your curiosity.

Referees, many of whom supporters will have been trying to forget, give a good insight into their approaches to controlling the technical area and their communications with “Fourth Officials”, and you may even have some sympathy for the likes of Kenny Clark, Willie Young and Hugh Dallas .

Craig Brown provides a lifelong perspective, Jimmy NIcholl is predictably amusing, and a chapter from the ever thoughtful Pat Nevin offers his ideas on technical area etiquette for substitutes and squad members.

Like the beautiful game itself, this book contains the trite, the hilarious, the affecting, and the surprising. It reminds us, as fans, how little we actually know of the world of the footballer and manager, despite our reserving the right to tell them how to do their jobs on a weekly basis.

The dry wit of the much missed Tommy Burns brings reflection, and Chick Young’s description of Martin O’Neil’s touchline devastation at having a championship snatched away from his team in the dying minutes of the season, remind us of the emotional energy which is invested in the game.

On the other hand, the games employed by managers – Dick Advocaat and Nigel Pearson come to mind – remind us that winning football matches is not always solely about the skill of the players on the field.

The oft quoted Bill Shankly line about football and life and death hovers over the stories in this volume – and indeed the great man from Glenbuck Cherrypickers features in the history of the humble dug out.
We learn that the “dug out” was originally just that – a pit dug on the sidelines in the 1930s to enable visionary Aberdeen coach, Donald Colman, get a clearer view of what players were up to on the pitch.

The author tells us that, when the introduction of substitutes, physios and various other staff became common in the 60s, Shanks decided the dug outs at Anfield were no longer fit for purpose.. Knowing that assistant manager, Bob Paisley, had some bricklaying experience, he set forth, along with Paisley and Joe Fagan, the coach, to construct new dug outs at Liverpool which did service for over thirty years. Thus three consecutive Managers were physically responsible for the building of the Anfield technical areas.

A bit of a modern day challenge for Messrs Mourinho, Wenger and Van Gaal one would have thought!

In keeping with his broadcasting persona, Gordon’s book has obviously been written not only by someone who loves football and all its arcane routines and traditions, but who gets on well with its practitioners and revels in the tales and memories which make up its hinterland. The names here may be predictable, but frequently their stories are not.

Football fans will smile at the secrets revealed and the mad moments recalled here, but, if they have a mind to, may well be given cause to reflect on the pressure under which players, managers and referees operate, and the role the supporters play in its generation.

My favourite moment in the book?

Ebbe Skovdahls’ triple substitution – pure fitba’ magic!

It’s comin’ yet

September 18, 2015

I paid a visit to Hugh MacDiarmid’s last home, Brownsbank Cottage, near Biggar, this week. It’s a tiny, dark and very basic farmworker’s cottage. With a year gone since the Referendum, it seemed an appropriate time to visit and to think about the state of the nation.

I recalled that, on MacDiarmid’s death, Norman McCaig suggested, with typical wit, that his passing should be celebrated “with three minutes of pandemonium”, and it seemed a helpful phrase.

For, used in its sense of “a wild uproar”, 12 months of “pandemonium” would be a good description of what has occurred since the “No” vote on September 18th last year.

Before Referendum Day, the general consensus was that a “No” vote would lead to a lull in the political process – where the Yes supporters would retire to lick their wounds, and the unionists would be happy to carry on with “business as usual”.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

As everybody knows, the seeming “winners” from the Better Together Campaign – Labour, Lib Dem and Tory – suffered an apocalyptic defeat at the polls in the May UK Election, whilst the perceived “losers”, the SNP, garnered a level of popular support that was, in the most accurate sense of the word, historical. Political pandemonium indeed!

It is reasonable, after twelve months, to take a stab at understanding what has happened on the political scene as a result of the Referendum, though a detailed and nuanced deconstruction may have to wait much longer.

Initially, I suppose, we need to take a brief look at the headline attitudes of each campaign. As you would expect, the “Yes” campaign focussed on the democratic deficit of Scotland not getting the governments for which it voted, and a demand to play our part in the world without our views and wishes being filtered through the needs of a UK state. Equally predictably, the “No” campaign suggested that Scotland had done well out of the Union and should stay.

Probably a majority of those who thought through the political ramifications were inclined to a “Yes” vote. They eschewed flags and Braveheart and Scotland the Brave and understood that a government responsive to the attitudes and needs of its voters was a better model than the current arrangement. It was a view which was not anti-English, but which recognised whatever the merits of the Union in the past, it was not now working to the advantage of the majority of people in Scotland.

The majority of those who voted “No”, not surprisingly, tended to have had life experiences which suggested the status quo was just fine. Good jobs and income and a high quality of life were personal gains from the Union which they did not fancy putting “at risk”. The appeararance of union flags and “Better Together” posters in the lush countryside of Perthshire and the elegant flats of Edinburgh’s New Town tended to reflect this point of view.

Both these points of view are reasonable, and resistance to change is a formidable human attitude.

Around this bedrock of opinion was liberally scattered any amount of emotional and self interested argument. At times, the “Yes” campaign seemed to suggest that an Independent Scotland would be some kind of Nirvana, that the socio-economic problems of decades could be solved by a change of flag. That is not a difficult argument to counter.

On the other hand, the unionist camp seemed strangely reluctant to detail the much lauded “benefits of Union” and resorted instead to fear mongering: pensions would be at risk, there would be no EU membership, Russia would invade, you would need a passport to see your granny in England. In the cold light of day, these are seen to be ludicrous, but, as we continue to see in the London media reaction to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, scary headlines, no matter how improbable, have an impact.

One leading pro-Labour journalist wrote of how we had all grown up with “British” culture, citing the Beatles as a shared enthusiasm across the Border, and to vote for independence would see us losing all of that, as if art and culture stopped at international borders, and independence would erase history. As someone born in Scotland, brought up in England, with an Irish passport and a love of the Beatles’ American inspired R&B roots, I found it insulting that an experienced journalist would expect his readers to believe such nonsense.

There were other attitudes in both camps. The Yessers had their fair share of Braveheart, Wha’s Like us, bonnie fechters, who treated the campaign as a sports event, while there were No voters from both the Home Counties elite, and the rump of Empire Loyalists’ antiquated view that Britain was “great” and was always right. There were also a decreasing number of “loyal Labour voters” for whom it was “party right or wrong” and who could only see a vote for independence as a vote for the hated SNP.

The expectation at the start of the campaign was that the Yes campaign would do well to accumulate 32% of the vote – which was a kind of average mean of support for independence over the years. Many commentators thought that, when it actually came to a vote, even some of that hard core of support would dematerialise.

My own thought, having been active in nationalist politics for a lifetime, was that we would do well to get more than that 35%. Independence is a huge change, and experience suggests that people approach such change incrementally – rather than in one giant step.

In the end, the Yes vote managed a creditable 45%, having nudged towards a majority in the late campaign, if the polls are to be believed.

So how was support for independence increased? And how has the momentum of the Yes campaign been maintained after what was, on the surface, a defeat?

To a large extent, I think many folk who were interested in politics, but not pro-independence, watched the campaign and began to think clearly about the ramifications, and to realise that an independent Scotland in the 21st century would not be an isolationist state, but a country able to play its part in a north European alliance, in which it shared more needs and attitudes with its Nordic neighbours than it did with England, or, more particularly, with the international ambitions of the UK state. Their conversion to “yes” was based, in other words, on sound political thought, rather than emotion or nationalism. Those with an understanding of geo-politics knew that, as two countries, Scotland and England could be positive and beneficial neighbours, and that Scotland would benefit from being able to play its own self defined role in the world rather than being a region of the UK state. Many also came to accept that an independent Scotland, rather than abandoning English Labour voters to permanent Tory government, could provide a beacon for progressive thought in our southern neighbour. Current events seem to bear that out.

Other “don’t know” voters were swayed to “Yes” by a number of factors: the energy and youth of the “Yes” campaign; the hope of its message over the fear and doom perpetrated by Better Together; and a dislike of the threats and sneers that emanated from the Establishment at the very thought of Scotland being able to pursue a democratic mandate – irrespective of the result.

Some people merely looked at the line up of supporters on the Better Together side and did not recognise themselves as being like that, whilst they felt comfortable with the care workers, trades unionists, teachers and health workers who were increasingly declaring for Yes.

On the No side, many were entrenched in their view by the impossibility of predicting what an independent Scotland would be like. These were mostly folk who had voted for Labour and Tory Governments in the past whose leaders had proved singularly unable to predict what would happen in a 5 year term, but, no matter, they bought the “fear of the unknown” line.

Others were swayed by Gordon Brown’s “Vow” – that a No vote would lead to virtual “Home Rule” and be a win/win for Scots. This ignored the fact that any kind of “Home Rule” would fail to address Scotland’s most important needs fully, but it was a comforting “get out clause” to those who were wavering.

Many of pension age, forbye the scaremongering about pensions, looked back on a lifetime of being “British” and did not want to risk what they were threatened would be “a new identity” at that stage of their lives.

Perhaps the Yes campaign did not do enough on the question of national identity, the retention of British citizenship, or the choices which would still be available to all who lived in an independent Scotland. Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole.spoke very well in Edinburgh this year about the time it takes to assume a “new” national identity, based on Ireland’s experience.

Perhaps understandably, but regrettably, the Yes campaign felt unable to call on Ireland’s experiences in terms of re-establishing itself as a nation, while the No lobby were rudely dismissive of all “small countries” it seemed. The Irish Republic’s disentanglement from the UK, politically, was incremental, despite the apocalyptic start in the Rising and the Civil War. A Republic was only declared more than two decades after the signing of the Treaty, the UK had ports in the Free State until 1938 and probably only with Ireland’s entry into the Euro in 1999 was economic independence achieved. Despite this slow withdrawal of “partnership’, economically and socially, in trade and cultural relations, Ireland and the UK remained closely tied together, despite the former’s independence – and that would undoubtedly be the case with Scotland and England.

The role of Ireland’s Naval Service in the current refugee crisis, and its army’s service with distinction on UN Peacekeeping duties, also provide a very positive alternative to the UK state’s approach to military might, and promote the effectiveness of “small armies”.

In terms of “British” identity and other transformations, Ireland’s experience suggests it would take at least a generation, in an independent Scotland, for any change to be noticeable, and many, of course, would continue to regard themselves as British rather than Scots.

So what has happened in the past year?

From my viewpoint, it seems that more people have understood that a change of government organisation is just that – and that it doesn’t change who you are, or remove the identity with which your are most comfortable. Labour’s message that the Scots Government should “concentrate on policy rather than constitutional change” has led to their downfall, as more and more folk have come to realise that only with constitutional change will the necessary changes in government policy be possible.

The word” incremental” rises again. It seems to me that the Scots people have carefully judged the SNP in stages: as a minority government, as a majority government, and as promoters of independence. Each time they’ve tested them they have liked what they have found and given them more trust.

I think a lot of people woke up on September 19th last year regretting having not trusted their fellow countrymen enough to vote Yes – and now they are willing to go a stage further. The move from the pragmatism of Alex Salmond to the committed social democracy of Nicola Sturgeon has caught the mood of the people – who now are starting to believe they can make a difference and can be heard – whether it’s on independence, fracking, austerity, or Trident. Folk are no longer willing to be taken for granted by the Westminster elite – and this mood in Scotland – forged in hundreds of meetings and local events and thousands of conversations with friends and workmates – is now finding an echo in England – where thousands are preferring the honesty of Corbyn to the marketing of Cameron and the spin of a media largely owned by corporate tax avoiders.

By chance, I visited one of Scotland’s country houses a few days after I had been in MacDiarmid’s humble but and ben. It was a Victorian Gothic pile, with all the wealth and decoration which that implies. There were lots of family pictures around – often involving kilts – but, in nearly all of them were pictures of young children “catching their first salmon” “bagging their first deer” “waving on Her Majesty’s visit.”

It was a way of life entirely foreign to most Scots and as anachronistic as the Union and its supposed benefits. The two houses seemed like useful bookends to my week of reflection.

You could suggest that thirty years ago the cause of Scots independence could have been cartooned as an old guy in a kilt and tweed jacket; today it would be a mid thirty something with a computer bag. Both sides are far wider than that of course, but it is a useful way of measuring how far the drive for independence has travelled – from romantic roaming in the gloaming to a more European view of social democracy and voter participation. The people are leading and fewer and fewer are inclined to “let the politicians get on with it”. They have noticed that change is needed, and they think they have found a means of achieving that change. Independence – once a niche oddity – has become a perfectly feasible ambition, much feared by the Establishment.

The progress made in the last year has been inescapable – but really it’s the climax of a far longer and more deep rooted movement – largely fuelled by the ignorance and disinterest of established politicians in both Tory and Labour parties.

One year on I am more optimistic than ever. There is light at the end of the unionist tunnel, the light of taking responsibility for our own affairs. Scots are not rushing towards it in an emotional pell mell of Braveheartery or anti_Englishness, but rather approaching in a measured way, considering the benefits of change, and noting the disadvantages of the current set up.

When they are ready, they will become independent, on their own terms .

It’s coming yet for a’ tha’.

A Casual Acquaintance

July 15, 2015

We can never know the extent of our impact on those we meet who are casual acquaintances. Perhaps this is just as well, for it would be a huge burden to carry if we were to go through life pondering our effect on the thousands of folk with whom we come into contact. Mostly, I suppose, it is unpredictable – some who affected us greatly may have forgotten us completely, others, whom we felt hardly noticed us, may carry our memory for years. It’s part of the unknowable joy of humanity.

These reflections were prompted when I noticed, belatedly, online, an announcement of the death in March of Maureen Haugh of Kilkee, Co Clare, and Chicago and Fort Lauderdale.

I originally met Maureen on my first visit to Kilkee in 1966.

The only child of a widow, I revelled, like so many others, in the freedom that a Kilkee holiday gave me.

On that first day, released from the Hydro Hotel after a huge breakfast, I made my way tentatively along the sea wall at the West End. At Edmond Point, outside Sykes’s, still ignorant of the disaster which gave the spot its name, I scrambled over the rocks, examined the pools and watched the waves surge and retreat. I made my way along the road to Newfoundout and vowed that there would be no way I would ever dive off those boards (a resolve I have kept!) and headed down the slope to the car park at the end of the road.

There was a weather beaten shop there, more of a shed really, with a lopsided caravan behind it. It was placed in front of what looked to me like a miniature golf course.

I knew nothing of Pitch and Putt, but, living less than a mile from the Royal Birkdale Golf Course in northern England, I was interested in golf, though I had never played it. I wondered if this would be a way to try it out.

Even at 14, I was a shy child, especially with adults, and I am still faintly surprised that I summoned up the nerve to enter the shop.

There was little space, filled with a counter, and behind it shelves of sweets and chocolate bars and soft drinks. A rather forbidding elderly man was to one side, (referred to later by locals as “Old man Haugh”!) but it seemed a younger couple were running the place.

I bought a chocolate bar while I formulated my request to play on the course. As she took my money, the woman said: “Do ye fancy a round on the pitch and putt?” and I nodded gratefully. It was a positive first meeting with Maureen Haugh – and it set the trend for the rest of our encounters.

She took my money and, as I walked towards the back door of the shop, handed me two clubs, a ball, a small scorecard, a couple of plastic tees, and a stubby pencil. I must have looked lost, because, as I went through the door, she said: “Bernie will show you the ropes.”

And that was how I met Bernie and Maureen Haugh and played my first ever round of pitch and putt.

I was hooked from the start. God knows how many strokes it took me that first day, but posting a “record” score became an obsession for me and for the rest of that holiday, and for many years to come, it would be an unusual day if I didn’t play at least two rounds.

I suppose it would be a normal occupation for a child who was fairly solitary, though I made many friends each year in Kilkee, most of whom were press ganged into pitch and putt challenges at the West End. I even played a few times on the pitch and putt course at the Golf Club at the East End of the town, but the attraction of the West End was undoubtedly Bernie and Maureen.

Before long, there was a cheery greeting of “Hiya, John! Gonna beat the record today?” Sometimes my mother would come along and chat to the couple while I hacked my way around the 18 holes, constantly distracted by that view up the coast across past Georges Head and as far as the Aran islands on a clear day. The sun, the sea, the coastal air and the personal challenge of the ‘record’, all combined to make it a kind of heaven for that teenager.

There was an attractiveness about the Haughs – an easy going approach which I suspect came from their time in the USA. Kilkee was a very faraway place in those days – the morning papers arrived on the 6pm bus, and fashions were local rather than international. It had a pace of life removed from the mid Sixties hype and hustle – so the modern clothes and slight American twang of Bernie and Maureen made them stand out a little, I suppose.

Even in that first holiday, I became one of the thousands worldwide who fell deeply in love with Kilkee. It was not just about pitch and putt – it was the beauty of the place, the people who were there – visitors and locals, the excitement of a teenage holiday in the sun. I cried when I left that first year, and whenever I return I have the same reaction as I turn away from the Strandline and head up past the Square and out of town.

We summered in Kilkee every year from 66 to 75 and then, as a student, I would visit the town three or more times every year, in all seasons. This continued until the mid 80s when family responsibilities, and others to be considered, reduced the frequency of my visits.

Every year, I would go down to the West End, and Maureen would greet me with: “Hiya, John, nice to see you back – how’s your mother getting on?” Bernie, it seemed, remained working in America for the summer, but Maureen’s welcome never faltered.

The friendly welcome became as important as the pitch and putt, if I’m honest, and, as the years went by, the chat lengthened and the ‘record’ became less important. I was always amazed that she remembered me – out of the thousands of visitors who must have played the course, and I always looked forward to what became my ‘welcome back’ to the town.

When I started visiting ‘out of season’, the pitch and putt would be closed, but, when Maureen knew I was in town, she would leave a couple of clubs and balls in the front porch of “Dunearn” where she lived in the West End, and I would pick them up and drop them off – “no charge”. Sometimes, if she was around, there would be an invite in for a cup of tea and a chat about the passing years.

I last met Maureen in 1991.

Having won a prize at Listowel Writers’ Week, I escaped the festivities for a day and headed for the Killimer ferry and thence to Kilkee. It was my first visit in a while, and I was both excited and nervous. I invest a lot of love in the town, but I am always aware that my version of Kilkee is partly artificial – a construct of memories and favourite spots. Towns – and people – change, and I was not sure what I would find when I turned down the familiar O’Curry St.

There were changes, of course –some I had known about, and others which were a surprise – but Kilkee has always been more than just buildings, and there was a pleasing continuity about the scene.

I parked by the Hydro – now “Old Moore’s Apartments”, and walked along the road towards the West End, shadowing my first ever walk in Kilkee. I took in the various changes – and the parts that had stayed the same, and then, with a little trepidation, turned the corner by ‘The Dickie Harris house” and looked down the hill.

Nothing seemed to have changed – but there was no guarantee that Maureen would still be behind the counter, or, if she was, that she would remember me after all this time. It felt like an important moment – daft as that may sound – and I did consider walking on to the Diamond Rocks without stopping.

However, as brave as I had been at 14, I pushed at the door and entered a shop which was basically unchanged since 1966.

Behind the counter was Maureen. She looked up and said. “Good afternoon!” When I replied, she said, with no surprise at all, “Well, John – we haven’t seen you for a while – how is your mother doing?”

I don’t have the words to describe the reaction that generated. On one hand, it was a retailer recognising a good customer from former years, there may be dozens of people to whom Maureen showed such kindness and attention, on the other hand, it was a link with my childhood in a place which had brought me so much joy.

Before I could get too emotional, she said – and I swear the American accent had become more noticeable – “We had a guy in a couple of weeks ago used to come round here with you and your mother back in the 60s – can’t remember his name….” It was the perfect introduction to a conversation in which we reminisced and she learned about what I had been doing – and the fact that I had a son and wife who had already visited Kilkee.

I bought a bar of chocolate, for old times sake, and headed off to the Diamond Rocks. As I closed the door she said: “See ya!”

Thanks to the internet, it has been possible to keep up to date with at least some Kilkee news without actually visiting. I saw at some point that Maureen seemed to have moved a couple of houses along from “Dunearn” to “Duggerna” and realised, as time passed, it was unlikely that she would still be running the pitch and putt.

I paid a flying visit to the town about four or five years ago. I knew from my online news that the “Diamond Rocks’ Café had been constructed at the West End, as had the statue of Dickie Harris in racquets pose, so I had no false illusions of what I would find as I drove down to the end of the road. A “danger” sign in Polish served to illustrate the changes through the years – but I was glad that Kilkee seems to prosper thanks to the townspeople’s hard work. The café attracts rave reviews and I occasionally treated myself to a look at the view from their webcam – a view that remains familiar.

It seems the business is still in the family – though Kilkee has so many Haughs you would be hard put to work out relationships! I hope so – because it would be a good continuation of the entrepreneurial spirit shown by Bernie and Maureen.

Until I retired a couple of years ago, I was deputy headteacher of a 1200 pupil secondary school just outside of Edinburgh. It was an enjoyable and rewarding job – but it could be stressful. On my office wall I had pinned a large panoramic view of Moore’s Bay, taken from the garden of the old Hydro Hotel. When I needed to be calm and to reflect, I would take a walk round the bay in my head.

I would walk down from George’s Head, past Burns’s Cove and the derelict “Dutch”, along past the Thomond, where Christian Brothers would sit in holiday mode in the glass fronted lounge, past the Strand –where the craic was always good, the spot where Maggie sold winkles from her barrow, the Esplanade with its peculiar shade of green, the back of the Arcadia, the sun lounge of the Marble Bar where Mrs Egan, Johnny and Ray Russell reigned supreme – with Ted Kavanagh playing the Hammond Organ each night in the middle bar, past Wally’s Amusements, the Vic, Murphy’s Café, the West End Stores, the spot on the wall over the racquets courts where I opened the telegram that told me I had gained the exams to get me into university – the smell of the seaweed as strong and as redolent as ever, past the beach shelter where we sang to the guitars of strangers, the croquet lawns of Clar Ellagh, and past Sykes’s and Newfoundout to “The Billows” and down the hill.

It never failed to relax me and lighten my mood, and at the end of the road would always be Maureen Haugh, behind the counter in that cramped little shop, to say “Hiya, John!”

I couldn’t call Maureen a friend. In reality we knew very little about each other – but what a legacy, to be a casual acquaintance and to make such an impact on a stranger’s life; to be a kind of totem for the effect of humanity, kindness, and friendliness. How many more people, I wonder, were affected so positively by that lovely woman in the West End?

Whatever the reality on the road to the Diamond Rocks, I think she will always be there, waiting with that friendly welcome, that recognition which said, somehow, that you mattered.

It would be nice to think that she has encountered my mother in that part of Heaven which isn’t Kilkee, and I hope they are having a good catch up.

And as for that record, Maureen: I never bettered 38, and I guess I never will.

Rest easy, and thank you.

Brand New Experience!

July 7, 2015

Imagine if FIFA decided to re-work qualification for the World Cup. Indulge me, and envision that tournament being divided into two levels: an international version of the Champions League and Europa League, if you like. Then, anticipate the joy if you were to learn that the second level tournament – for teams world ranked 9-18, was to be held in Scotland and Ireland, and there would be 20 tournament games and 8 warm up matches in Edinburgh and Stirling inside two weeks.

Currently, that would mean the chance to see teams such as Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Rumania, Czech Republic and Italy. And then add Scotland, as home nation, to that list. While you are salivating over that intensive football diet, take in the marketing news that only 6 of those games will be ticketed and the rest will be free entry.

It’s not difficult to imagine the media interest and fan discussion which would be generated by such an event – and yet, in cricketing T20 terms, that is exactly what will be happening in Scotland between the 6 and 18th of July, when Afghanistan, UAE, Netherlands, Scotland, Canada, Kenya, and Oman will be battling it out in Scotland, while Ireland, Nepal, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Namibia, USA and Jersey lock horns over in Dublin. The top 6 sides qualify for the ICC World Twenty20 in India next year, against the major Test playing nations.

It’s a timely tournament for Cricket Scotland – providing a surge of game action in a year when the excitement of the World Cup is receding and the regular action of the County One Day league is still being missed.

It’s also a great opportunity for sports fans in Scotland to take a look at cricket –perhaps for the first time.

Two of the most regular reasons given for a disinclination towards the game are: “I don’t understand it” and “It takes too long”. The T20 format dismisses those excuses easily.. It is basic cricket – “big bash” if you like, with something obviously happening all the time, and a match lasts only 3 hours – hardly more time than you would invest in attending a Saturday afternoon football match.

With settings such as New Williamfield at Stirling, and Grange, Myreside and Goldenacre in Edinburgh– where better to spend a few hours on a summer day watching international sport? Historic castles overlook three of the venues and the sight of Craig House on the hill above Myreside is hardly less dramatic – and for the vast majority of games there is no entry charge. There is also an opportunity to support a Scotland team in international sport at a level of which the football team can only dream.

I suppose, ultimately, if you are not already a cricket fan, whether or not you avail yourself of the opportunity, will depend on what kind of sports fan you are.

There are those for whom sport is almost exclusively about watching the elite at the highest level. Through the wonders of cable television, they can choose a non-stop diet across a range of sports in which they seldom view a team or performer outside of the world top six. They count themselves as connoisseurs and are more familiar with the footballers of Barcelona than Alloa, happier watching the All Blacks than Melrose, and more comfortable with Australia v India than Freuchie v Falkland.
Their chosen point of observation is more likely to be sofa than stand, though they may be inveigled out of the house if there is a tempting Hospitality package, or premium seats are available.

However, their confederates in the world of sports spectating take a wider view. Well able to appreciate the game at the highest level and as susceptible to the skills of superstars as anyone, for this type of supporter, the thrill of the game is completed by “being there”, close to the action, and with the constant possibility of spotting a nascent champion, an unexpected demonstration of talent, or merely to enjoy the thrill of live action a few feet away. Though they can fully appreciate the sublime skills of Messi, Linlithgow Rose v Newtongrange Star on a wet Tuesday evening may hold equal allure, they grew up admiring Shane Warne, but are often to be found watching the lusty hitting number 6 at Fauldhouse. Sport at all levels fascinates them – and each fixture offers promise in differing ways.

There is also the excitement of the unfamiliar.

Watching Afganistan, there is the knowledge of their amazing climb up the world ranking against a background of war and uncertainty; how will the athletes of Kenya adapt to the plush, sea level turf of the Grange, shouldn’t Jersey be playing French cricket, are the Dutch cricketers as technically proficient as their footballing counterparts, will a Canadian batsman drop his bat and head for point after a good shot, how many sweaters will the guys from the UAE and Oman feel the need to wear?

With wall to wall sport on subscription television these days, it sometimes feels like a growing number of viewers are watching a dwindling number of top teams and superstars on an ever more regular basis. The T20 Tournament is a chance to witness something new, which is urgent, important in international terms, and on our doorstep.

It would be nice to think that Scotland – and all these teams visiting our shores – can run out to a good support, a deserved level of interest and media coverage, and a tournament which will leave happy memories of skill, competition, comradeship, and accomplishment.

Three hours in the Scottish sun (!) may prove to be a good investment for sports fans with open minds, and the desire to see a Scottish team qualify for a world finals tournament.

Even as a fully paid up member of the Old Gits club, whose cricket of choice is four day county championship fare, I’ll be traversing Edinburgh this month, supporting our guys, and learning about our guests.

It’s what makes sport important.


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