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As strong as gentle

August 25, 2016

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Sam Martinez arrived in Scotland in 1945 – having been born in British Honduras (which is now Belize) He hoped to contribute to the war effort by getting a job as a tree feller.

This proved more difficult than he had thought and he spent a long time jobless. He would fill in his time walking around Edinburgh, getting to know his new home city.

One evening, he walked past a long queue of people down in Leith and wondered what was happening. He was a sociable man and felt keenly the loneliness of the immigrant, so, although a black man might never be sure of his welcome in those days, he was eager to stop and ask what was happening.
He was told:
“It’s a football match – the Hibs.”
“What colours do they play in?”
“Green and white.”
“My favourite colours.”
“Why don’t you join us and watch the match?”
“I have no money…”

One of the fans gave him a ticket and he got to go in and sit in the main stand behind the dug out and watch the Famous Five. The group who had invited him in chatted to him about his own country and his plans – and agreed to meet him again at the next home game.

He became a lifelong Hibs supporter – and never forgot the welcome he got as a lonely man in a foreign country. “Hibs brought me friends and a sense of belonging, ” he said. “They have always been special to me, it’s family,”

He had attended 11 Finals but never seen them win the Scottish Cup.

Mind you, as was pointed out on social media today, he had seen Hibs win the League – and the League Cup, three times each; seen the club reach the European Cup semi final, and watched as they beat Barcelona and Real Madrid. He had also followed the team through the days of the Famous Five.

In May this year, when he was aged 106 – Hibs oldest fan – the club and his carer took him through to Hampden for the Scottish Cup Final – and we all know what happened.

A few weeks later, at Easter Rd, he got to hold the Scottish Cup.

If for no other reason than that I’m so pleased Hibs won the Cup – and rewarded Sam for 75 years of support.

We invest far too much emotion in football in Scotland and it perhaps inhabits spaces which could be better filled.

But.

At its best, football can bring us together, bring solace to the sorrowful and a sense of purpose to the feckless. It can give meaning to emptiness and roots to the wanderer.

So, as I give thanks tonight for Sam’s long and remarkable life, and as I rejoice in the fact that he saw the Hibs lift the Scottish Cup, I’m inspired to focus on the positives of Scottish football

I remark on the manner in which it runs threads through families, sparks memories between relations – whether they are supporters or not – the bunnet granddad always wore to the match, the dinners ruined after an unexpected cup win was relived in the pub, the first match for ‘the boy’, the companionship between brothers and fathers and sons, and sisters and mothers – on frosty, freezing terraces – when the cold caught your throat when you tried to cheer, and the clack of the rattles was sharp in thin and icy air.

The players loved, and the goals remembered, the favourite spot and the chosen half time drink, sweet tea, pipe and cigarette smoke, stamping your feet to keep warm, match day routines, and the thrill of the lights in the sky on a midweek night; the banter, the hope, the disappointment, and the occasional glory. The sheer joy of being there – part of it all, thousands focusing on that green oblong, willing the distant figures to be in the right place at the right time; the reflection after 90 minutes, rationalising your irrational love for the team, always talking of “we” not “they”, the hours shared and the memories created.

Sam understood that; he understood football is not a matter of life and death, that it has to have its place, and not become a raison d’etre, an excuse for emotional absence, or a vainglorious substitute for real empathy and social responsibility.

But he also recognised its humanity, its capacity for joining people together, building bonds between very different folk, and celebrating a craft and artistry which is so tangential to the important things of life that it brings us the pure inconsequential joy of the truly unimportant.

Football gives us a direct route back to the simplicity of childhood, the happiness of instant excitement, a dim recollection of Christmas Eves from long ago – when we just knew that something magical could happen.

The best way to celebrate Sam’s life would be to keep hold of that perspective, to stop pretending to “hate” the “enemy” to show how deep is our love for our own team; to rid the game of men-children posturing and offering violence as proof of their “superiority”.

To remember that we have far more in common with the guy who goes to football each week like we do – no matter who he supports – than we have with those who are not interested in the game, or who watch from their couches.

As a Hibee, I believe I show my support by being big enough to acknowledge the respect the Hearts fans have for their heroes at Contalmaison, or Rangers supporters’ pride in the Ulster Division, that many Celtic fans have an attachment to Ireland, or the campaigns mounted by fans of Motherwell, Airdrie or Livingston to ensure their club survives. Whether they’re Jambos, Teddy Bears, Bhoys or Dons – I hope I’m big enough to respect them, regardless of whether I agree with them; I hope I can understand that, like me, they get excited by 11 men in their chosen colours seeking to gain a victory.

It’s only football – but it’s glorious in its lack of real importance. So glorious, it doesn’t need to stand for something else – a tribe, an aspiration, or a symbol of superiority – we should enjoy it for what it is.

It’s an intriguing, exciting and engaging sport – which 75 years ago inspired a group of Leithers to welcome a foreigner into their spiritual home and gave him a lifetime of memories, comradeship, and belonging.

If you’re going to the game this Saturday, give a thought to Sam Martinez – one of football’s heroes, whose strength was in his gentleness.

RIP Sam – you’ll be having a great time telling Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly and co how you saw the Hibs bring the Cup home to Leith – and they didnae.
Legend.

Sitting on the Wall

August 4, 2016

I know I have a few followers on here who watch my Blog because of its KILKEE content, so I thought I would announce on here, as well as elsewhere on social media, that today sees the publication of my memoir of Kilkee holidays in the 60s – “Sitting on the Wall”.

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If you are from Kilkee, or have happy memories of the place, I hope this book will do justice to the joyous times we all had there.

Today is the 50th anniversary, to the day, of the first time I set eyes on Kilkee, so it seems like a good time to launch the book, which is very much a personal memoir, detailing how I fell in love with the town and talking about some of the many characters I met there.

I wanted to write it partly to acknowledge folk in Kilkee where I’ve had so many happy times, but also because, having searched the net, it seemed there was little written about what it was like to have a seaside holiday in the west coast of Ireland in the mid twentieth century – and the only mention of those times in Kilkee I could find where in Homan Potterton’s memoir “Rathcormick” which refers to Kilkee holidays in the fifties.

It seemed to me if I wrote this book then future social historians would at least have one eye witness account of what those days were like. So, if “Sitting on the Wall” ends up as a researchers’ resource in the Clare County Library, I will be perfectly happy.

It felt like a responsibility to write the memoir as I wanted to do justice to the town and its people – I hope I have done.

Maybe – when clouds are grey and the rain hits the windows in far off places, people who love Kilkee will be able to read a few pages of this – and remember better days!

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The Groundsman’s Story

July 25, 2016

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I’m sitting on a chair on a sloping area; it’s a grassy mound now – at one time it was terraced tarmac.

Behind me is the scorebox, still the same outward shape, but electrified since my time. There were two things you had to remember here in the 1960s when you had ambitions of being a scorer: the screws on the right hand winding mechanism were loose, so the handles were very difficult to turn, and, whatever you did, you should never put up 13 for A.D. Bunting – leave it at 12 and then move on to 14 – otherwise, if he was out, he was liable to come charging round the boundary to remonstrate.

You had to climb a rickety ladder to the number winding area; below you was the scorer’s seat in front of the big open windows, at a sloping wooden desk the style of which would have been familiar to Bob Cratchit.

Eventually I made it to scorer for the Sunday X1, fascinated by the dots, the crosses, and the responsibility, and the chance to be part of it all, not to mention the two shillings and the free tea.

It’s a great view from here at third man, especially since I’ve graduated from sitting on the grass at the boundary, to a spot half way up the slope. I’m surrounded by (mostly) men of a certain age, in a selection of sports and casual wear, with rucksacks and holdalls, battered by years of use, containing receptacles for sandwiches, cans of beer, cameras, spectacles, sunglasses, floppy hats, outmoded transistor radios, mobile phones, and notes from their better halves imploring them: “Don’t forget to….”

The talk is easy and desultory – about cricket, politics, family life and the old days. Like me, most of these guys sat next to these same folk fifty years ago at school. A contented air floats over the rows of seats.

The field looks great – lush from a rainy summer, and for all their modern, polyestered, numbered styles, the whites of the players against the green of the surface is restful on the eye.

I love this place.

From here I can watch my childhood.

The pavilion on the far side is long and low: I was at its opening in 1965, a young boy, hovering at the edge of the membership, as I did for most of my time here, impressed by the bar, the snooker room, the committee room, and the changing rooms. The old pavilion had been wooden and 19th century, but this was a modern marvel. I would eventually change in those dressing rooms and sit on the balcony, seeking nonchalance before going out to bat – but I’d never look as relaxed as the many Test stars who would eventually change there, not when I think of Rohan Kanhai fast asleep before going out to face Statham, Lever and Higgs.

Just to the right is where, at my first ever cricket match, Geoff Pullar smilingly signed his autograph and set me off on a lifetime of devotion to the game. In the bar was the spot where I approached Ted Dexter for an autograph, only to be shooed away by the Club Chairman, and recalled by Lord Ted, who signed happily. And there’s the beer taps where they poured pints of the best cold shandy after net practice – never bettered anywhere.

Away to the right is what used to be the Ladies Pavilion – with big hats and mysterious cocktails, and then the indoor cricket school which used to be the tea room. I was pulled up by the local police one Friday night when running to winter nets in the snow. When I told them I was “going to play cricket” they nearly arrested me.

The tea room, and the groundsman’s hut behind, were the site of my cricket education.

As an eleven year old I met the groundsman, Peter Dury. He was a lovely man, and patiently put up with a few of us haunting the ground every day in the school holidays, winter and summer, following him around, and asking questions. We got to “assist” him, carrying around his apparatus; we got rides on the heavy roller and helped him mow the square. We got to know Brian Robertson, his assistant, as well. At 11 o’clock we would all go and have a cup of tea with Peter in the tearoom kitchen, and, sitting round the old battered table, he’d share his sandwiches and cricket knowledge, and, without realising it, we would all be drawn into that hinterland of knowledge and tradition which makes cricket such a wonderful game.

Sometimes we played French cricket, with local rules, on the concrete hardstanding in front of his hut: if the ball went into the shed – with its wonderful aroma of grass cuttings, creosote and diesel – it was out, as was a hit into the upturned seat of the motor mower.

Peter had been on the books at Notts CCC and often played on Sundays. He got a century against Jabisco (Jacobs Biscuits Factory team) one week, and we cheered ourselves silly when he came out between innings to brush the wicket!

Great success came his way – as head of Playing Fields at Nottingham, and as an advisor for many football clubs and the ECB. Though devoted to his grass pitches, he was also instrumental in the development of Astroturf to performance level. He was a good guy who reached the top of his profession.

He had integrity, expertise, and knowledge – but most importantly for we youngsters, his love of cricket set us up for a life of engagement and enjoyment of the summer game. He was a kindly and wise, an inspirational figure in his own way, with no side to him, and a willingness to withstand our childish inquisitiveness and persistence.

Nowadays, of course, health and safety and child protection regulations would make such an introduction to the game well nigh impossible. I’m just glad I was lucky enough to spend time with him and develop an understanding of the game and a lifelong respect for groundsmen. I owe him that love of cricket

So, last weekend, sitting on that slope, at Southport and Birkdale CC, with my childhood memories before me, my school pals next to me, and Lancashire playing Durham out on the ground, I was in cricket paradise, remembering 1962, and thinking of Peter Dury.

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Horrible rotten objects.

June 30, 2016

Twenty years ago, we were on holiday at a campsite in French Catalonia, a few miles east of Perpignan. Our son was 8 years old, and the site was to become our summer “home from home” for most of his childhood.

The site was well run, family friendly, and in an attractive situation near the beach. However, its major attraction was that it was multinational. We used to leave as soon as the school holidays started and were usually there by the end of June. That meant we shared the site with the French, Germans, Irish, Dutch, Danes and Belgians.

Despite the relaxed nature of the place, there was a kind of routine to the day – especially once folk left the swimming pool around 4pm.

You were liable to be invited to join others for an aperitif between 5 and 6pm. This involved much attempted deployment of language skills, and a bewildering and intoxicating, selection of drinks. We would take whisky, the French pastis or kir, the Germans Schnapps, and so on. They could prove a heady mix after a day in the sun!

In the hour before that, the dads, boys, and a few girls, got into the habit of congregating in a large field at the edge of the site to play football. In later years, the camp site built a more than respectable five a side pitch with Astroturf, but I always thought these games with unlimited numbers on each side, children and dads pitched against each other, on the long grass of the meadow, were somehow perfect.

Sometimes we managed to chat, pidgin-wise, as few of us were fluent; mostly, the international language of football took over. As I drove down through France, I always looked forward to these games and to the friends from around Europe whom we would meet each year.

This particular year, on the second evening of our stay, the game was especially enjoyable. A cooling breeze was sneaking down from the Pyrenees, the grass was not long cut and still gave off that amazing summer smell. The aroma of cooking floated over from the tents and mobile homes, the sky was steely blue, butterflies sought to avoid our trampling feet, there was birdsong in the surrounding trees, and swifts swooping overhead.

Of course, for a dad, there’s nothing quite like playing football with your son, or daughter, and there were many happy faces around me. I took my turn in goal and looked about to take in the scene. It was the kind of game where you really want to win, but the pure joy comes from just being part of it. Dads slid into ill advised tackles, six year olds nutmegged fifteen year olds, ten year old girls played with a determination to better their brothers.

The sounds were of laughter, cheerful and urgent shouting, and in a mix of languages.

I suddenly realised the date – it was July 1st.

Eighty years before, on this day, had been the start of the Battle of the Somme. By this time in the afternoon, over 20,000 lay dead – and they came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, from Germany, Canada and many other countries, many of them were no more than ten years older than the children playing here, and the others were Dads or brothers, like the rest of our gang, or had left behind sisters, like our determined female footballers.

The thought was like a splash of cold water on my hot cheeks. It was hard to think of such carnage in such a beautiful setting, but then, before the Great War, the Somme had been simply a river meandering through bucolic countryside for most of its length.

There was a shiver, as if a cloud had passed over the sun, even though the sky was perfectly blue – but then I was alerted to an attack, and had to look sharp to save a goal. When my son said, “Well saved, Dad,” it felt, somehow, extra special.

I looked at our German friends – Berndt and Nico, at Alain and his boys Sylvain and Romain, from near Rouen, at the shy Belgians who had arrived that day, at the Danish family, and the two skilful Dutch boys, and I felt an immense relief that my birthdate meant we were playing football together, enjoying each others’ company, exchanging drinks and half strangling our languages, rather than facing each other across No Man’s Land.

It was the lottery of chronology.

I don’t know if anyone else paused to reflect on the date, and it didn’t seem right to mention it, but I did feel an extra joy in our session later, as we sat around, exhausted, with our aperitifs, and tried to tell our wives how brilliant we had been.

It felt so good to be part of this gathering – where our different nationalities were a cause for interest, an exchange of ideas, some new empathies. I couldn’t help reflect on how lucky I was, how lucky we all were, to live in times of neighbourliness, cooperation, and mutual respect and understanding.

Of course we were different, and had varying attitudes, but, in a sense, at national and individual level, that made for a more interesting and rewarding friendship, a chance, in the relaxation of holiday time, to look behind the stereotypes, to put names to faces, give voices to strangers.

On that July day in Argeles sur Mer, it felt like our diversity was our strength, our countries were our admission to this international gathering, the future saved from the foolishness of aggression and war.

In the cool of the evening, it seemed unthinkable we would ever return to the politics of envy and greed, to be faced with unscrupulous politicians quite prepared to lie openly in pursuit of their ambitions, and to a society where people were abused in the street because they appeared in some way “different”. Looking around my European friends, I took comfort from the fact that, rationally, we had learned from two wars, and we were moving forward as a continent, together and as partners.

I have also been to the Somme.

It is peaceful now, at least in appearance. In many areas, farmers’ barns replace pill boxes and redoubts. There are rebuilt villages, and small towns, with half familiar trading estates on their approaches – all corrugated plastic and high visibility signage. In places, new autoroutes make their unnatural way across the landscape.

But I’ve also stood in the fields around Gommecourt, where, on July 1st 1916, practically the whole strength of the London Rifle Brigade was wiped out before noon – in what they would never know was merely a “diversionary” attack. Two weeks later, my uncle would arrive in France, and be transferred into the Brigade, with large numbers of his Post Office Rifles colleagues – because there were hardly any left from  the original battalion.

I have driven the long straight country roads through flat fields, where the dark shadows of the trenches can still be seen through the crops if you know where to look, and where it seems that milestones are replaced by the stark white tablets in row upon row in military cemeteries.

In the evenings, you will hear birdsong – though, in the distance it may be confused with the reversing beeps of a small town refuse lorry. You may breathe in the scent of the cooling air in the sun setting over the earth – though it will never quite overwhelm the smell of fear from thousands of young men – whose grandchildren would never exist to share the desks in your classroom.

And, when your emotions get the better of you, that thumping in your heart, as you well up at the thought of all those life stories lost, will never quite manage to drown out the thunder of the great guns as they hurled youth into oblivion from distant ridges.

At the foot of each concrete telephone pole are small piles of metal – these are the Great War shells, still uncovered in the fields by farmers on a daily basis, and left here for collection. The army comes around each morning to take them away to be detonated.

A young soldier says, in perfect English:

“You think this war ended in 1918 – but it didn’t. It still goes on for us every day – as long as these horrible, rotten objects emerge from under the ground“

And then I think of the Leave Campaign. I think of all those politicians who see proof of national “greatness” in battle, who tell us we were “at our best” in wartime, who sell weaponry and stir conflict in an attempt to gain some kind of international status, who use their limited intellect to encourage abuse of anyone or anything “different”, who scrape for votes in the soulless lives of those whose world they have systematically destroyed in the pursuit of profit.

And I think of how, playing football with families of many nations in that field below the Pyrenees, I was naïve enough to believe my son would be able to spend his life in the exciting potential of a friendly and cooperative Europe, in a state which welcomed the enrichment which is brought by the diversity provided by immigration.

And I think of all those young men who never left these fields, a hundred years ago: and I could weep.

In fact, I often do.

Two blue flags

June 24, 2016

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Woke up after 4 hours sleep. Hesitated to switch on phone, dreading the worst. Tears rolling down my cheeks. Sadness? Yes. Anger? Certainly.

The people who told lies to keep Scotland in the UK have told lies to get the UK out of EU. Every week since the IndyRef vote, another decision has proved Yes right and No wrong. This is the biggest proof – but it’s impossible to take any pleasure from that.

There will be thousands of No voters feeling foolish this morning, those who support an Independent Scotland should not be adding to their misery. The people have spoken loud and clear. Democracy has ceased to exist in a UK State. Scotland is European from top to bottom, on left and right.

There is huge responsibility on our First Minister to negotiate Scotland’s place in Europe. But this is far far beyond petty party politics. She also needs the political bravery of the other party leaders so the EU can hear a united Scottish voice, from all parties, saying:

WE DON’T WANT THIS. OUR PEOPLE DIDN’T VOTE FOR IT. WE’RE NOT HAVING IT. WE ARE STAYING IN.

No party point scoring, no recriminations, no backsliding on positions. Simply a set of politicians of all parties with the guts to say. “We hear the people and we will act on their wishes”. And a media to support that line – whatever their owners say.
We need to save democracy and we need to do that under two blue flags.

Still high, still reflecting.

May 27, 2016

(I’d like to respectfully dedicate this piece to John Doolan, and his late Dad,  – members of the Hibs Family.)

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It was four days since Hibs’ historic Cup win – and I was still high!

No, really, I was!

Liberton’s Mount Vernon cemetery is one of the highest points in the city and boasts a wonderful panoramic view down to Arthur’s Seat and the city’s Southside. Wednesday was my Dad’s anniversary and that of my Uncle Joe. It was also, coincidentally, the birthday of the late, great Gordon Smith

Uncle Joe died on May 25th 1923, never having fully recovered from being a wounded Prisoner of War in 1918; my dad died on this day in 1957, when I was five, but not before he and my Uncle James, who played for Hibs in the 1920s. had taken me to my first Hibs game – the only time I ever saw “The Gay Gordon” playing. When my Mum died in 2004, the family couldn’t help but note how happy she would have been that her death notice in the Evening News was in the same column as that of Gordon Smith.

The family lived as part of the Edinburgh Irish community on the Southside, my granddad running a grocer’s shop in Buccleuch St.

Such are the connections – in family, history, and geography – that come effortlessly to mind on a visit to Mount Vernon.

I’ve never found this cemetery depressing or sorrowful, and I have been coming here as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s to do with belief in the afterlife or having a faith, but, while I mourn and miss those friends and relatives who are here, the place also brings a deep awareness of history, continuity, and context.

My parents are here, my grandparents, and my great grandmother; uncles and close family, and schoolfriends of them all. Having taught in an Edinburgh school for nearly two decades, I recognise families, parents I supported, and, sometimes and sadly, pupils I taught.

There’s Isobell, the woman who introduced my mum and dad – so I guess she’s the reason I am here at all; there’s Mary Angela, the wife of a pal, there’s Charlie – one time Hibs Director and a footballing mate; there’s Monica whom I taught alongside; Harry and Nellie, and their daughter Joyce – the same age as me but died so young – a family whose connections with mine go back to Gifford Park on the Southside in the 1900s.

When I go to my mum and dad’s grave I can recall the many times my Mum and I were here through the forty odd years between his death and hers, and, at my grandad’s, I can know that my dad and his brothers will have spent time here through the years, and that I am literally walking in their footsteps.

Grandad and Grandma’s family’s grave tells some of the story – from Drumkeerin, Co Leitrim, and Uncle James – a Hibs player and then a Franciscan priest. Ten yards away, unmarked, and only recently discovered, is Biddy, my great grandmother, who came over to Edinburgh when widowed. She is buried with one of her sons, Thomas, who died at 35, and one of his sons who succumbed to the flu aged only 18. It’s a reminder of the hard lives our ancestors sometimes had to endure.

Not so far away is Michael Whelahan – Hibs founder and first captain – ancestor of more modern hero Pat Stanton. There are various names I pass who have loomed large in family folklore, even though I could never have known them – tales and catchphrases that even now I pass on to my son – these memories of people who lived long before he can remember.

We joke that going to Mount Vernon with me is like going on some kind of guided tour – with a reference there, a memory here, anecdotes from another century, the words of people long gone – given voice again.

I suppose it’s about establishing who we are, where we come from, and celebrating our existence. One day this may be where we are as well – but we’ll be in good company, having travelled a familiar road.

Some people find cemeteries debilitating – a morbid reminder of our own mortality, or of the pain of bereavement and loss. It is true that these big issues affect people in different ways, and you would see a fair number of haunted faces and grief stricken families at Mount Vernon, particularly at graves whose inscriptions tell of folk taken tragically young.

So, I would not claim to be “cheerful” in this cemetery, a better word would be “affirmed” – it helps me know who I am, and, of course, I always seek to be respectful to people for whom the visit is a burden or a trial. The fact remains that visiting Mount Vernon is, for me at any rate, a practical and physical equivalent to genealogical studies or local history research.

To read the gravestones is to understand human diversity: the inscriptions range from tragic to comic, poetic to prosaic. There are those who have lived to see their children’s children’s children, and those who have been taken inexplicably and heartbreakingly young. The surnames originate in Scotland, England, Ireland, Poland, Italy, and further afield. There are those who have died in battle, and those whose lives were lost in some irrationally instigated accident. All are here together and I am always tempted to think – in the midst of death, here are we in life.

Which raises the question – is this blog about life, death, history, family or Hibs? The answer is: I don’t really know. That in itself gives a clue.

An event like Hibs’ Cup win – 114 years in the making – focuses on what is important to people.

Polemicist Gerry Hassan has written a piece this week asking: “Why does football matter so much in Scotland?” He covers well worn areas such as the economic and political context, the history of immigration, tribalism, and the post industrial gloom of west central Scotland. He suggests, quite rightly, that to label the Old Firm rivalry as nothing more than “sectarianism” is to miss the complexities of the situation.

I think, for some people, football is far too important in their lives – it fills an emotional and spiritual vacuum which should be ameliorated by far healthier, outward looking, and empathetic approaches to the world in which we find ourselves.

A certain version of the stereotypical west of Scotland male can only demonstrate open emotion towards his football team, rather than his loved ones, is delusional to the point that he thinks his team is favoured by Pope or Queen, and has a low level of self esteem, displayed by his lifestyle and health regime. He is often reduced to proving his worth by abusing or attacking others. That is a stereotype, but not an unfamiliar story to those who live with the consequences of such displacement. And for many, football is central to such behaviour.

So, yes, football is far too important in Scotland. It is a game, nothing more. It should never be used as an excuse to inflict violence – physical or mental, nor should it come to be the whole definition of an individual, nor should it label whole sections of the community.

However, that is not to say football is not important, or that it cannot be a positive force in society.

Up at Mount Vernon on Wednesday, there were gravestones with Hibs scarves tied around them. Over the past few days we have heard tales of drams of whisky being poured on to graves in celebration of the Cup coming home to Easter Rd. I’m not ashamed to admit that, in the aftermath of the post match party on Saturday night, I found myself shouting over the wall of the Eastern cemetery, in the general direction of the grave of Dan McMichael, the Irishman who last managed Hibs to a Cup victory: “We’ve done it at last, Dan – we’ve won it again!”

For many, like me up at the cemetery, in Hampden Park itself, or in their own homes, Hibs’ victory will have brought to mind thousands of happy memories – of times spent with loved ones, of conversations and dreams shared, of inhabiting the same space – mental and physical – as long loved and lost fathers, grandfathers, brothers, sisters and parents, neighbours and friends.

When communication was difficult, it might have been the shared love of Hibs, the joint understanding of what it meant to each other when the boys in green and white achieved a famous victory, that maintained the relationship. Folk are not always aware of the traits passed on from generation to generation – but often they can see it in the colour of a scarf, or feel it in the warmth of an embrace after a vital goal, or hear it in the oft repeated Saturday night conversations.

Well over a hundred thousand people were on the streets of Edinburgh on Sunday to see the team bring home the Cup. I wonder if there has been such a general outpouring of community spirit in Leith since it was annexed by Edinburgh? In the windows of the tenements of Leith Walk were faces of all ages and backgrounds. The pride in their local team reflecting their feeling of community, and, in many cases, their personal histories.

There were old women in their eighties hearing the faint echo of their Dad arriving home with the Pink News on a Saturday night in the forties and fifties, couples reminiscing on how a result from the football disrupted their wedding reception long ago, decades of family history often lit up by the glare of floodlights in the sky over the stadium, the players whose names became household regulars, the times when a hero was met, the joy of a youngster when the team had won, and the need for consolation when the result had gone the wrong way.

Your football team has a habit of finding its way into the minutiae of every day family life; like a poker on the hearth: it may not have been the most important thing in the room, but it was always there, and it appears in every memory.

It was an absolute privilege to have the opportunity on Saturday night to thank the players and coaching staff who made history. It was a joy to see how they were starting to realise the impact of what they had achieved on so many people, for so many reasons.

In some ways, it is no more than victory in a sporting fixture; in other ways, it is an affirmation of family history, a rejuvenation of community, a reminder that, at its best, football can generate a joy which, even if temporarily, can transcend many of the heartaches of every day life.

My family and Hibs?

In Edinburgh, we go back 120 years, and I’m proud of them both.

But never more so than on Saturday May 21st 2016.

From all the McPartlins through the years, thank you, Hibs!

Putting a name on it

April 5, 2016

Hello! My name is Seán – and I was a “named person” for nearly forty years.

It shouldn’t feel like it, but some of the ill-informed reaction to the Scottish Government’s proposal for a “named person” to safeguard young people seems to suggest that anyone favouring the idea should admit to that position only apologetically.

However, I have no intention of contributing to the frequent and depressing aggression which can characterise Scottish political discussion online, but I would like to offer information from experience which might clarify how such a programme can work in reality.

The assumption of those who seem alarmed by the prospect appears to suggest that a “named person” will be, de facto, a “state snooper”, eyeing young people and their families with suspicion at every turn, seeking to uncover family secrets.

This is a familiar fear to me.

When I stated that I was a “named person” for nearly forty years, I was referring, initially to my career as a guidance teacher, which commenced in 1976, just eight years after the far seeing Scottish Education Department paper which proposed a guidance system was issued in 1968.

My introduction to guidance, then, came after approximately a school generation of pupils had been part of such a system. Colleagues reported that, at the start of the guidance structure, the cry from some parents and outsiders was that this was unwarranted interference in family affairs and an insult to the integrity of the family unit.

However, by the time I was in post, when parents and schools had had some time to experience the scheme in action, the reaction was rather different. The record showed that the best of Guidance in Scottish schools provided a support to children and families when they most needed it – whether it be related to academic progress, or the elements outside of school life which can hugely affect a young person’s development and well being.

In my career as a guidance teacher, my pupil caseload varied from 60 to 200 – and eventually, as a depute head in charge of guidance throughout the school, I had ultimate responsibility for the wellbeing of around 1200 pupils

With the numbers of pupils for which guidance teachers had responsibility, the notion of “spying” or “snooping” was laughable. The original guidance remit was defined as the need for every pupil to know “there is one teacher who knows them well”. In practice, this eventually meant guidance staff receiving extra training so that they could be alert to anything which might suggest a child’s wellbeing was being compromised in some way – and this could refer to academic progress or to health, social or emotional concerns.

Realistically, with over a hundred pupils to support, this generally meant that the signs had to be quite blatant: situations where staff would not need to go ‘snooping” to have cause for concern.

It is also worth noting that, in my first register class of 28 pupils, only three came from single parent families. In my final years of teaching, it was not uncommon for more than half the pupils in any group to come from single parent or “remodelled” families.

As the child of a widow who lost my father when I was 5 years old, I was always well aware of the added sense of responsibility felt by a parent bringing up a child alone or in changed or challenging circumstances, and their appreciation of support or affirmation from neutral sources outwith the family. This is not a prejudgement of single parent families but rather an appreciation that the logisitics of safeguarding a child where there is only one carer, or where new family arrangements are in place, are sometimes, though not always, more challenging than in a nuclear family.

Good guidance staff had the trust of pupils, colleagues, and parents, and would therefore be in a position to assess the situation and offer whatever support was appropriate. It was a question of working together in the best interests of the child. “Guidance” was not something which was “done” to a child or family, it was a structure of support when needed – and accepted.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned by a guidance teacher – and this will also apply to “named persons” – is to listen to the young person. I sometimes worked with children whose home circumstances suggested a level of intervention by appropriate agencies would be helpful and positive. Not infrequently, these pupils let me know, in various ways, but very clearly, that as far as they were concerned, my operating in their “best interests” would be to treat them “like every other pupil”. In other words, their only chance of any “normality” was in school – and over zealous or hasty intervention might take that way from them, no matter how well intentioned or seemingly “necessary”. Safeguarding a child can very often mean “being aware” rather than “taking action”.

In mid-career, I was trained in the use of Child Protection Guidelines, and I then became a trainer myself. Although I am recalling the early 1990s, it is not hard to remember some of the initial reaction when we suggested up to one in ten children might have been exposed to emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Many found themselves unable or unwilling to believe this possibility – which, as we now know in hindsight – gave abusers the strongest possible cover for their activities.

For those of us who had worked in Guidance for over a decade, this new training and awareness, provided us with an image of pupils and families, going back to the start of our careers, whom we now realised had been asking for help, but in times when we had neither the understanding nor knowledge to respond. We learned how abusers target the vulnerable, those with least ability to reject them or report them. Often this was in obvious situations: for many years, children who communicated using sign language would, quite literally, have no means of telling of their abuse, leading to perpetrators targeting work in such settings as a means of access to victims. Less obviously, many young people – through lack of vocabulary or articulacy, or through embarrassment, as well as out of fear of the perpetrator, found it impossible to share what was happening to them.

When “named persons” for child protection were appointed in schools, when Personal and Social Education programmes made it clear to staff, parents and pupils who these people were, and where trust had been established through a professional and caring approach to pupil support, it became easier to share concerns – for all members of the school community. It was understood that there was a member of staff who would not be “shocked” by a disclosure of abuse, and who would be trained in how to deal with it; the awful feeling of isolation from which victims often suffered was eased by the knowledge that others must have undergone similar experiences.

This, in turn, led to pupils being more comfortable in speaking to staff, staff finding it easier to consult with the “named person”, and expertise and training being used appropriately to assess the situation and plan joint action if it was needed.

Being “named person” for child protection was easily the most stressful part of my long career as a teacher and management team member in schools. It was an area of the job where one was aware one had to get it right. I always appreciated the care, support and concern of colleagues in school and in in other agencies, and I always felt the responsibility was well worth carrying if it was in the best interest of the pupils and if it took some of the burden off my colleagues. It was also an area of working and caring which multiplied my already high respect for the strength of families and their mutual love and resilience. As with all education, as a teacher, you were working best when you were also learning.

For those whose concern overt the Named Person Bill can be reduced to “Quis custodiet, ipsos custodes?”, I think it is crucial that joint working between agencies in support of the structure, as is intended, acts as a double check on all decisions and actions. The opinion of one named person alone may be enough to instigate initial inquiries, but the opinion of one person should never be final in determining onward decisions.

As report after report shows us, unless agencies work together, in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust, children will be failed. My own experience suggested that, irrespective of political and management declarations, establishing effective joint working called for huge commitment, teamworking and endeavour from all the professionals on the frontline – and this, too, will be needed from all those who are named persons. The fact that this has been sometimes difficult to achieve in the past cannot be used as an excuse to leave our most vulnerable young people open to abuse of any kind. As the Children Scotland Act reminded us – professionals at all times must act “in the best interests of the child” – this is not an aspiration, this is a contractual requirement.

So I have suggested that named persons will not be “snoopers”, but they will be people who know the children well enough to be “aware” if they, or their families, need additional support.

However, in a sense, this is replying to an agenda set by those who oppose the Bill. My own reaction to the proposals, when first I heard them, came from a diametrically opposed direction.

The most angry and combative group of parents I worked with as a teacher, guidance teacher, and school manager, were those who had children with additional needs. Often their approach to the school would be aggressive from the start and, at first, I would wonder why this was. When we gained their trust and they saw that we were focused on supporting their child to full potential, they would often share their frustrations. They tended to approach the authorities in an aggressive frame of mind because, often since the child’s birth, experience had taught them how hard it was to access even their child’s basic rights, never mind the additional support that could make such a positive difference. Their default position had become: “if we don’t fight for this, we won’t get it.”

Often they had been worn down by being passed from agency to agency, from official to official – and these were the folk who were more or less “bureaucracy-savvy”.

I’m not sure that those who have not experienced the struggle for support can recognise how monolithic and impenetrable “authority” can seem to those without self confidence or articulacy in their armour. Sadly, many simply “give up”, defeated by years of not knowing who to talk to or how to talk to them to make progress in support of their child.

So my prime understanding of the Named Persons Bill is to give a voice to those folk – those in need of support or access to power, those too shy or embarrassed or frightened to speak to a family member, those who need to share a concern or a problem with somebody outwith their immediate circle.

It is a chance for everybody – and none of us can predict when support might be needed – to know that if they have a concern or a worry, if they want to share something or ask for help, there is somebody who is tasked with being there for them, somebody, if you like, who can be held to account for the state’s duty to all its citizens, somebody who knows how the system works and is in a position to make it work for the person who most needs its support.

In short, it is the government saying: if we are not carrying out our duty of protection – through this person you can hold us to account.

There are, of course, those, and you’ll find it a common view in the USA, who think state accountability for its citizens is pernicious, an unwarranted interference, a sign of “the nanny state”. They are unlikely to accept this Bill and will continue to insist that we are all responsible for our own wellbeing. That is their right, but I prefer a model where we take responsibility for each others’ wellbeing, where the common good er trumps the desire for personal advancement.

Thankfully, in Scotland, despite the social challenges we face, the chances are that the vast majority of young people will not have cause to contact their `named person’ – it will just be a name on an official form.

However, as part of that majority, I think it is our duty to care for the minority who need our support.

That is my view, based on nearly 40 years of working with young people, and having responsibility for many of the most vulnerable.

And I will be perfectly happy to have somebody “named” who is accountable for ensuring the support of the many who can, is given to the few who cannot.

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