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Feeling the way through the dark

May 11, 2015


When I was growing up, the “Blitz” in Liverpool was well known to me – which is odd, because I was born in Edinburgh, some 200 miles to the north, in 1952 – ten years after the last bombs fell.

However, my mother was born and brought up in Albany Rd, Kensington, a residential area of Liverpool, just to the north east of the city centre, and her reminiscences were scattered not just with local street names: Hall Lane, Empress Rd, Guelph St, Adelaide Rd, Wavertree, Old Swan, Jubilee Drive – but with references to the second world war – the blackout, the shelter, the Blitz.

Of course, when you’re growing up, your parents’ youth seems like the early years of a previous century, and the matter of fact way in which she made the references deflected any chance I had as a child of truly understanding what she had been through.

I suppose I was well in to adulthood before full realisation dawned. Firstly, the events of which she spoke had taken place less than a decade before I was born, and, secondly, from the age of 22 to 28 – theoretically perhaps the most free and exciting years of your life, she had lived through the threat of war. Indeed, even her 21st celebrations, a year previously, in Septemebr 1938 had been under threat just because of the threat of approaching warfare

The generality of that was hard to understand – but it was in the details that the reality really took hold – and her stories were filled with details, because, invariably, when she spoke of the war it was incidental to some other tale she was telling about her younger days. She never made a big deal of the war, though she never hid her memories, and always claimed that her mother, being a gentle soul, died so soon after the war ended because she had been worn out by the terror and the uncertainty.

Without a doubt, war had been unkind to my grandmother. When my grandfather was in the First World War – he was a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, who saw service at Paschendaele – she had moved around England to see him in his various home postings – from Shoeburyness to Gosford and various points around the coast, taking along with her my mum, who was only months old, and her sister only a couple of years older. In the Anderson Shelter during the second war she had been terrified by the bombing, and not helped by her husband, by then an ARP Warden, with Great War phlegm, stating: “Don’t worry, Rose, you won’t hear the one with your name on it!”.

So my mother’s stories related the ‘mundane’ every day realities of living in war time: feeling your way home along the wall in the total darkness of blackout; the move from ‘under the table’ to cellar to ’Anderson shelter’ as the bombing intensified over the months, and the destructive power of the bombs was illustrated on a sometimes daily basis.

One day she came out of the shelter to go to work and saw that a house further down the terraced street on the opposite side to her own had been taken out by a high explosive bomb; houses on either side of it, apart from smashed windows, were apparently untouched; the family, whom she knew well, had all perished in the cellar, the only upstanding thing in the wreckage of bricks and wood was a bird cage on a stand, the canary dead inside.


Civilians, she said, started to talk like soldiers: “Who bought it last night?”

The answers would be general or specific: “The Maloneys on Jubilee Drive” “Blacklers in town” “Jimmy Kelly, crossing Smithdown Rd” “Mr and Mrs Rimmer in Empress Rd – the dog survived” “The Pier Head caught it badly” “The ice rink.”

Of course, the bombing didn’t occur on a nightly basis. The raids started in late August 1940, when 160 bombers attacked for three nights, and over the next three month period were a succession of attacks, some ‘minor’, others involving up to 300 aircraft, leading to incidents like the deaths of 166 people in the Durning Rd air raid shelter. This period ended with the “Christmas Blitz”, when over 360 folk died, mostly in direct hits on public air raid shelters between December 20th and 22nd.


However, it was the uncertainty of where or when the bombers would strike which shredded the nerves. Thirty years later, when an air raid siren was incorporated into the credits of the hit TV show “Dad’s Army”, the BBC had to limit its exposure due to complaints from people who were severely affected by the memories the sound brought back to them.

Civilian bombing depends, inevitably, on demoralising the public by creating a sense of fear and tension. The bombs would often be aimed at docks, factories, and other important installations – but ordinary homes were also targeted. When the sirens sounded, there was no way of knowing whether you would be ‘in for it’ that night.

Sometimes death was arbitrary – a stray bomber dispensing its load as it headed home, a church too close to the docks, a hospital mistaken for a factory. My mother’s sister had married before the war and moved out to the Childwall suburbs. Sometimes mum and her parents would stay out there to avoid the worst of the raids – but even Childwall was hit. Years later I would play in the ‘shed’ half covered by earth in my aunt’s garden with not the remotest idea it was the Anderson shelter where they had spent nights during the war.

But, wherever you were, the horror was inescapable. Mum described tuning in to “Lord Haw Haw” – William Joyce, who would broadcast from Germany on a nightly basis. Obviously, the Germans had detailed street maps and knowledge of Liverpool. Indeed, Hitler had close family in the city and had stayed there pre-war – an irony being that the house which had once been lived in by his relatives was destroyed in an air raid.

As a result, Joyce would read out a list of streets which would be bombed that night. Mum would recount the horror of sitting in the small living room, clustered round the radio, hearing the bizarre tones of Joyce announcing: “Tonight, the Luftwaffe will drop bombs on Kensington, Albany Rd, Saxony Rd, Albert Edward Rd, Empress Rd, Adelaide Rd, Leopold Rd.”

At this distance, it’s impossible to imagine the dread instilled by hearing your own street read out as a target for bombers in a few hours time.

Of course, the point of the broadcast was that you never knew if Joyce was reading out from a list provided by his Air Ministry, or whether it was mere psychological warfare. Similarly, when the siren went off, there was no way of knowing whether an actual raid was incoming – or it was a ‘false alarm’ – that phrase remaining today in our every day speech.

Even the sound of the “All Clear” from the sirens was a mixed blessing: were the raiders really finished? What damage would they emerge to find, what bad and tragic news? Would my grandad, on fire watching and ARP duties, arrive home safely, and, if so, what tales would he have to tell of what he had witnessed? He was a Post Office Supervisor, and one night the head Post Office was hit – how many colleagues did he lose?

Inevitably, life went on as normally as possible – what other choice was there? Mum worked as a book keeper for a furniture store run by the Swifts – a well known Old Swan family who included two young lads who, as Clive and David would go on to become well respected actors. She also volunteered with the Girls Training Corps, and became an officer in that organisation, and supported young girls ‘in trouble’ in various ways, taking them on  residential stays to Llangollen in North Wales, as an escape from the city bound horror.

The Church was important to her, and she worked supporting those in need. As was the way at the time, much of her social life revolved around her church, her parish, and religious organisations, so that the bomb damage to churches, schools, and similar buildings around the city was painful to her, and she knew many who lost their lives or who were badly affected by the bombing and destruction. She very rarely talked about the young men of her own age who were killed on active service.

However, one story symbolises the people’s approach to the times.

She often spoke of a young priest who was a hugely talented pianist and much admired by his parishioners. Returning to the church house after the ‘all clear’ one day, he was putting the key in the door when a stray bomb demolished the presbytery. The door lintel fell on him. smashing his arms to pieces. When he died shortly afterwards, the general feeling was that it was merciful, as to live and be unable to play the piano would have been unbearable for him. I suppose that’s an example of how you cope with unimaginable situations.

Of 4000 people killed in air raids in Liverpool during the war, around 1750 died between May 1st and 7th 1941 – in the “May Blitz” – with the same number seriously injured. For seven nights it involved nearly 700 Luftwaffe bombers, dropping around 2500 bombs. As was the case throughout, death was random – pick the wrong air raid shelter, the wrong time to check on a relative, a different route home – and you might find it fatal – or, for that matter – your choice and timing might be life saving. During this week, a ship in Huskisson Dock – the SS Malakand was set on fire by burning debris from bombed dockland warehouses – and 1000 tons of bombs in its hold were detonated as explosion after explosion decimated the surrounding area.


When Mum spoke of the May Blitz, it was as if everyone knew what it involved – and, of course, if you had lived through it, that would be true. They had no way of telling how long it would go on for, and, when the Germans turned their attention towards the Eastern Front – from 1941 onwards, the people in Liverpool were still listening for sirens, still existing in a darkened world of blackout, shelters, and apprehension. Though they couldn’t know it, the last air raid on the city was in January 1942 – but the fear and alarm continued until VE Day.

In the sixties, we drew cartoons on our jotters of “Jerries’ fighting the ‘RAF’, we passed by or played on open spaces known as ‘bombsites’ without ever relating them to war, death, or destruction; we walked down streets and passed buildings where bombs had rained and death had become commonplace – we were ignorant. And folk like my mum told their stories quietly, possibly without any expectation that we could really understand, but not wanting the memories to be lost in time.

So I am ambivalent these days when anniversaries of the two world wars are marked with various celebrations and ceremonies, and when every military campaign and death is described as ‘defending our freedom’.

And I am worried that, in a very short time, those who have not experienced the actuality of war – at first or second hand – will come to see it as part of the great British ceremonial, with soldiers parading, flags unfurled, Red Arrows flypasts, and stirring speeches. Proud tradition rather than appalling tragedy.

Such an inaccurate, sanitised view merely increases the possibility of it all happening again, and we need to remember, and to honour those who died, in a more appropriate fashion.

For my part, I will recall the second war as a woman hunched over in a corrugated tin burrow, terrified at the wailing of the falling bombs, demented for the safety of her husband and children; a man ‘doing his bit’ for the second time in his adult life, trying to control the shakes as the impact of explosives detonating hurls him back to the mud of Flanders; and a young woman on her way home, feeling her way along the wall made invisible by blackout regulations, preparing for another night in the shelter, wondering what tomorrow’s dawn will reveal.

For the people of Liverpool, merely surviving was a kind of victory; making our lives better was the ultimate justification.

Two meetings, 40 years, and a journey of hope.

May 9, 2015

This is the tale of two meetings – and what happened in between them.

It is October 1974 and I am sitting at a shoogly table in the back room of what was once a plumber’s shop on the Southside of Edinburgh..

When I look round the table, this is what I see: an old man in a kilt and a tweed jacket, a young woman and her brother, recently returned from Australia, an economics lecturer with a London accent, a middle aged man wearing a deerstalker and plus fours, a Norwegian engineer and his Scots wife, a Mechanical Engineering lecturer, who has parked his three wheeled, yellow, Reliant Robin outside, an Irish Politics and History Professor, several “Morningside ladies”, a middle aged woman who runs a painting and decorating shop, and myself – with a passable Lancashire accent after a childhood spent away from my Edinburgh birthplace down south, and my American girlfriend – both of us students.

The names still remain: Dougie Stewart, Roseanna and Chris Cunnigham, Gavin Kennedy, Jim Campbell, Arve and Louise Johannsen, Kerr MacGregor, Owen Dudley Edwards, the Potters, Mairi Stewart, Mairigold Roche.

There were a few others with whom we constituted the activist core of Edinburgh South SNP – but I record their names because they were the folk who welcomed me into the SNP, who gave me a sound political grounding, and, most importantly, who had kept the party’s flag flying through hard times as well as good.

In later years, there would be many more folk I would have cause to thank and to celebrate the fact I had the chance to know and work beside them: Bob Shirley, Allan Lawson, Valli Shirley, Stephen Maxwell, Kenny Macaskill, Greg McAra, Iain Thorburn, Fiona Hyslop, Alison Purser. There were more whom I have forgotten – and many of these, no doubt, will have forgotten me.

The fact was – as that original list suggests, in my earliest days in the party, the SNP was composed of an extraordinary mixture of characters – unlikely and otherwise – and it would be fair to say that this was sometimes reflected in our ‘welcome’ in the streets and on the doorsteps.

A major motivation for my activism – on the doors or behind the keyboard – over the years was the Labour party agent in our constituency at my first “count” in 1974. We were chatting to the Labour candidate when the agent came up and said: “Oh – talking to the kiddies are we?” It was a sneering attitude which many in Scottish Labour still espouse, and played its part in this week’s crushing defeat.

However, in one respect, he was probably not far wide of the mark. Despite the expertise of various individuals, there was an overall political innocence about the party in those days, which, in one sense, could be charming, but, in another, limited our potential to win votes – or, at least, seats. We did the legwork up and down the multistorey flats, but we also shouted at people through poor loudspeakers on top of that Robin Reliant and introduced pipe bands to housing scheme shopping centres at 10 am on Saturday mornings. The party’s image – and probably its major appeal in those days – was related to a vague kind of patriotism, coupled with a desire for more social justice. It was fairly ill-defined and quite similar to the picture unionist parties have sought to paint of the current SNP. But it was forty years ago, and a relatively young and inexperienced organization.

Then came the Garscadden by-election in April 1978. Though the SNP needed a 10% swing to take the seat, the press promoted it as a near certainty to fall to the Nats. When a young Donald Dewar won the seat for Labour, the media suggested the wheels had come off the SNP bandwagon. Certainly, opinion polls suggested our support had fallen from over 30% to under 20% and in the 79 Election 11 MPs became 2 and, with a little help from George Cunningham’s anti-democratic 40% rule, the 79 referendum was ‘lost’.

Times became hard for the SNP. I am still proud of my 79 Group m embership card and of the fact that it led to my expulsion from the party for being ‘too left wing’. But lessons were learned, as they must be if there is to be progress.

Ultimately, the party took the time to rebuild, to listen and to reflect. Building from a low position, it realized that connecting with folk and addressing their concerns was the only way forward for a truly social democratic movement. If you have a cause you believe in, it deserves to be presented in a professional manner and you need to attract the best talent to do that. People – and their persuasion – should never be taken for granted.

The media often portrayed the SNP’s development as “Fundamentalist” v “Gradualist” – but it was more sophisticated than that. Nicola Sturgeon is representative of young folk who joined the party at that time –and she said last year that, for her, independence was important in its own right, but more so because it was a means of bringing social justice to Scotland. It is this point of view which has transformed the party – a point of view brought about by an openness to new ideas and a willingness to let the membership decide issues. The unionist press frequently make disparaging reference to the SNP’s ‘party discipline’ as if it was a repressive machinery. They fail to recognize the difference between organizational discipline – which leads to electoral success, and politically controlling discipline which tends to lead to internal strife and electoral losses.

The burden of the party’s approach was as follows: if you are looking for social justice in Scotland, you are pushing at an open door, because a large percentage of Scots share that aspiration; the only thing blocking that door was the unwillingness of a controlling Westminster parliament to follow such a progressive agenda. Scottish Labour believed that, as part of a UK movement, that equality would come sooner or later. The problem was, post New Labour, that was not the way the London party was operating – winning middle England votes was their alternative agenda, and one which led, inevitably to a sort of ‘Tory-lite’ approach.

The result of the SNP’s slow but thorough re-birth has been a kind of unstated pact between them and the Scottish voters – especially those who had previously voted Labour as an article of faith.

In post industrial Scotland, Labour’s role was less clear than previously, its patronism less pervasive, its effectiveness hindered – especially by the New Labour project. Hubris replaced principles and they continued to view themselves as an immutable working class establishment, secure in their position.

The voters, starting to feel taken for granted, and seeing little benefit in voting for a party which pursued Westminster power before serving its people, and predicated policy on the focus group divined wishes of middle England, they started to ‘test’ the SNP.

In the Scottish Parliament, they gave them five years as a minority government – and liked what they saw enough to vote them in next time as a majority government. This should have been a warning to Labour, who had set up the Scottish parliament in a manner to preclude this eventuality ever happening. However, having viewed the Scottish legislature as a minor institution, most of Scottish Labour’s ‘talent’ were focused on Westminster – and, in Scotland, it showed.

Meanwhile, for many Scottish voters, the SNP were “passing the test”. A support for independence which had hovered around 30% for some time moved towards 45% in the 2014 Referendum – a sign, perhaps, that the voters were now looking for something more than the status quo if not outright autonomy – and when Westminster, and Scottish Labour, failed to divine that movement in aspiration – or at least dismissed it, the scene was set for a further rise in trust of the SNP’s position, and this time in a Westminster setting.

Which brings me to my second meeting.

This was at the Mound, on Edinburgh’s Princes St on Wednesday morning of this week – an eve of poll meeting which Nicola Sturgeon would address.

When I arrived there about 9.30am there was already a large crowd – most were activists, but as time passed and passers by enquired what was happening, the numbers grew exponentially. Eventually, there must have been five or six hundred gathered – not a bad number for a work day morning.

I had time while waiting to look around and reflect.

There was an understated professionalism about the set up which was a long way from Robin Reliants and wee men in kilts. A small stage was set up, and a PA system, protected from the incipient rain by two see through ‘Stronger for Scotland’ umbrellas, while a sound man checked it was working effectively. A couple of security guys protected the space around it. At the back of the crowd a table had been set up to distribute party merchandise. There was a sense of purpose rather than excitement, a confidence rather than any sense of entitlement.

I suspect the location was chosen for its central position but it was also quite redolent. We were next to a couple of famous Scottish institutions: the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. Above us on one side was Edinburgh Castle with its Union Flag reminder flying from the battlements, on the other was the towering presence of the Bank of Scotland headquarters – an icon of what has come to be of priority for the elite in the UK state. Just along from us was the Scott Monument – a gothic pointer to the realisation of how far Scotland has come from the writer’s Bagpipes and Stags version of nationhood.

However, it was the people who most took my eye.

Compared to that back room in Grange Loan forty years before, the demographic was far wider: young and old, prosperous and less so, hipster and staid, folk who looked like business people and many who could be students, tradesmen, tourists or professionals. In short, the gathering reflected modern Scotland; it was beyond pigeon holing. Granted there were a few folk who could have graced the front page of a Sunday Magazine in their glorious idiosyncrasy, but, by and large, there was little remarkable about the people around me – they were representative.

When Nicola Sturgeon arrived – accompanied by husband Peter Murrell , the party’s national organiser, and a couple of assistants, there was no big fanfare – just an appreciative applause. She stopped and spoke to those around her en route to the stage, and after a stock stump speech, she stayed for ages to take the famous selfies, sign autographs and chat to the people who had turned up. It was as unlike a 2015 election event as you could imagine – no minders, no stage managed moments –simply a politician meeting voters – and those, like the tourists, who can’t vote, on the main street of a capital city.

Despite the best attempts of the mainstream media to portray it as otherwise, this is not demagoguery, not an artificially managed media event – those who attended were there to see and hear her, and she was happy to speak and meet with all of them. At one point somebody asked for a picture of her and Murrell together; she borrowed an SNP placard, handed it to her husband and gave the photographer a shot in which he was holding a sign saying #I’mwithNicola. As she satisfied the seemingly endless demand for selfies, she said to me (yes I did get one!) “I’ve First Minister’s Questions in half an hour (in the Scottish Parliament) I don’t think the Presiding Officer would accept ‘I was taking selfies’ as an excuse if I’m late!”

People warm to her because what you see is what you get with this particular leader; they also recognise that she is a conviction politician who cares, and knows, about people and their lives. It is quite a rare phenomenon in modern politics.

As I left the meeting, I felt quite emotional. I’ve stuck with the SNP, in good and bad times, for the policies I support and those with which I’m less enamoured, for a lifetime. I’m proud that it has never veered away from its belief and principle that the good of the people in Scotland is best served by their taking control and responsibility for their own country and playing their full part alongside the nations of the world – and I still anticipate the coming time when it can be a force for good rather than a ‘region’ separated from the world through the decisions of another country’s parliament. It is good to have politicians of whom we can be proud.

Forty eight hours later, coming to terms with an incredible general election result, those two meetings, and all that happened in between, came strongly back to me.

And I thought of a wee man in plus fours and a deerstalker who took the trouble to come all the way up to my student’s residence room on a Saturday morning in December 1973 and give me my branch membership card.
“I just wanted to welcome you to the SNP!” he said.

Thank you to Jim Campbell, to all those folk round the table in that shop backroom, and the thousands of others who have worked tirelessly over the years to maintain the SNP’s message, its principles, and its integrity.

You all made this election result possible.

Now’s the hour!

Making a difference

April 20, 2015


The Edinburgh International Climbing Arena is an imposing sight. Think of a quarry, roofed over, and with additional facilities, and you’ll be close to imagining it accurately.

So it provided an interesting backdrop to the launch of the SNP’s Manifesto for the Westminster Elections of 2015. As I’m sure the event planners calculated, even eschewing all the obvious metaphors involving climbing, reaching the summit, and showing true grit, the sheer scale of the place reflected the new reality for a party with over 109,000 members.

As someone who joined the SNP in the 1970s, such occasions still seem a little surreal –with the memory of similar manifesto launches being performed in pokey upstairs rooms or basements, accompanied by a deafening roar of apathy from even the Scottish media.

Today’s launch was attended by media from all over the UK and elsewhere, and by an attendance of around 1000 SNP members. The presentation was slick, the event well run, and the messages loud and clear.

Looking round the arena, I did wonder if the whole thing might go over the top. However, as Brian Tayor wrote later, this party is too experienced and too canny to make such elementary mistakes. Nicola’s entry was loudly welcomed with applause but there was not a sign of triumphalism or celebration. The mood in the hall was excited but focused; the SNP has got here through hard work and it doesn’t seem that they are prepared to give away their position through sloppiness or premature point scoring. This was not a rally, it was the launch of a manifesto. Those who cried it something else are maybe a little befuddled at viewing such enthusiasm from so many politically motivated folk.

How it was done was impressive, but what was important was what was said.

The SNP now has a coherent range of left of centre policies delivered with some passion and expertise by a leader who clearly and obviously believes in social justice. Indeed, she speaks with more conviction and understanding of what needs to be done to support the most vulnerable than any other politician in Scotland today.

It was a sign of the times that the first five or six questions from the broadcast media were from London based organizations.

Was she a hypocrite to complain when English votes decided on Scottish issues, but to look to seize the chance to influence UK politics from Scotland? As she pointed out: it was the Better Together campaign who begged Scotland to stay – to “lead the Union” not “leave it” – they can hardly complain at the result of just such a democratic vote.

If the SNP were in favour of redistributive policies, why had they not enacted any in their seven years in government? Nicola pointed out that the fact that no such powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament was one of the reasons why independence was needed.

The assembled media have been unused to such extended opportunities to question the party leaders during this campaign, and were clearly enjoying the chance. “Why are the English afraid of you?” brought forth a startled laugh, and a suggestion that Mr Cameron might be, but that her own mail box was filled with folk in England asking how they could vote SNP.

As the mainstream media have pointed out, this manifesto reaches out to northern England in particular – a region which suffers, like Scotland, from the drag of power and resources towards London. Having lived in the north west of England for twelve years, and having family and friends there, I can vouch for the envy they have at the engagement in politics of folk north of the Border, and the feeling engendered by the Referendum campaign that ordinary people can make a difference. They would love to vote for a party like the SNP which can make commitments to the most vulnerable in society without monitoring the reactions of the middle England electorate whose support is required for a Westminster majority.

We saw in the Leaders’ Debate, generally speaking, that the more left leaning voters hear of the SNP’s plans, the more they take to them – right across the UK. Today’s Manifesto launch has attracted major interest from the UK media and will hopefully mark a continuation of a process of understanding – or at least listening to – the SNP’s actual policies, rather than presenting a 1970s picture of Braveheart Nats foaming at the mouth with hatred for the English.

Much has been made of the synchronicity between Labour ideas and the SNP manifesto – and, from some areas, a suggestion that the policies have been “stolen”. The real riposte to that is that the voters have seen time and again since the Blair years the difference between what Labour promises in opposition and delivers in power. Seemingly, they trust the SNP in their commitment to ‘hold the Labour Party’s feet to the fire’ over their left of centre commitments and to pull them away from their Tory-Lite policies. As the First Minister said today: “I didn’t say there was no difference between Miliband and Cameron  – I said they weren’t different enough.”

Labour have long claimed that Scotland supports Labour policies. I think they are right in that. The difference in 2015 is that it’s the SNP the voters trust to put them into action.

And Labour in Scotland would need to look at its own record to understand why that is so.


April 10, 2015


I love cricket, I love words and writing, I love broadcasting. Richie Benaud excelled in each of these disciplines and was utterly unique. He’s been a role model and inspiration for all of my life in those areas. So when I say I’m going to miss him dreadfully, I really mean it.

Like many legends, the secret of his greatness was simplicity. He used to say about commentating: “Put your brain into gear and if you can add to what’s on the screen then do it, otherwise shut up.”

I don’t remember cricket without Richie Benaud. His Test career commenced the year I was born and ended when I was twelve – the perfect span to instil admiration and hero worship. I’ve always thought that the best way to captain is the Richie Benaud way – it’s a default position. It needs to be tough, ruthless, insightful and understated. Strategy is all, calm is crucial, and respect and understanding of the opposition is the vital ingredient.

In my childhood, he was an inspirational Australian captain, wily with his strategy, skillful with his leg breaks, and more than capable with the bat, achieving nine 50s and 3 centuries. He was the first player to take 200 Test wickets and score 2000 runs. He didn’t produce the explosive performances of a Lloyd, a Sobers or a Lara; he simply played cricket consistently well and he played it as it should be played.

When he made the transition to journalism and broadcasting, he took his talent, his understanding of the game, and his no nonsense approach with him. Not for Richie the flowery excesses of the personality broadcaster – though, ironically, in his very simplicity of approach, he became iconic. I’m not sure any one cricketer of my generation ever took a wicket or a catch, fielded a difficult shot, or perfectly timed a drive, without hearing, somewhere in their head, a calmly uttered: “Marvellous!” or “Good cricket!”

Like many gifted folk, I suspect he could be hard on those who fell below his standards. He had no false modesty, and he knew his worth as a commentator and analyst. He never hesitated to give his views on the game he loved and the directions in which it ‘progressed’.

I only encountered him once.

As a commentator, he was an ever present for BBC 2 on Summer Sundays in the late 60s for the International Cavaliers charity games, which presaged the Sunday League in county cricket. Looking back, the array of talent on display seems incredible. The Cavaliers regularly played at Southport and Birkdale CC, my local ground – where I was able to watch veterans like Denis Compton, Cec Pepper, and Godfrey Evans, and Geoff Boycott, Graham Pollock, Fred Trueman, Ted Dexter, Charlie Griffiths, Rohan Kanhai, Gary Sobers, Clive Lloyd and all the Test and county stars of the day.

In those days, the autograph was the equivalent of today’s selfies – and for ‘the small boys’ who gathered round pavilion and boundary, getting the signature in autograph book, scorecard, or scrap of paper was all important. At this distance, with the signatures long lost, it is the memory of being close to legends and heroes that seems more important.

After one of the Cavaliers games, when I had hassled my way to as many player autographs as possible, I was meandering across the ground, head full of cricketing dreams as usual, when my attention was drawn to a group of figures on the other side of the field. It was the commentary team, down from their eerie, making for the pavilion.

One figure was Learie Constantine – a true great of the game – and another was Richie Benaud. I adjusted my direction so I would intersect with them.

Sir Learie would have been a fair age then and I caught up with him first; he very graciously signed my scorecard. Because he was moving more slowly than the others, this meant that Richie and his companion, presumably a producer, were a little ahead of us.

I headed after them, and realised that I was not impolite enough to interrupt an adult conversation for the sake of a signature – so I found myself, quite literally, walking in the footsteps of a legend. This probably made a clearer impression on me than a hurried autograph.

He was immaculately dressed in a cream suit with shining brown shoes. Even after a day in the commentary box, the shirt was crisp, the tie sharply knotted, and that famous hairstyle, silver even then, coiffed within an inch of its life. His tan was glowing. He had a briefcase and was carrying a bunch of papers, one of which he dropped without noticing. It was a fan letter, addressed to “Richie Benaud, BBC”. I wasn’t brave enough to hand it back to him.

He headed into the pavilion, and I went home, content to have seen the great man – and to have walked off the field with him!

I’ve always maintained that what makes cricket great, as much as its attractiveness as a game, is the atmosphere which surrounds it, generated by players and spectators alike – and also, in modern times, by those who write about the game or commentate on it. Richie Benaud was in the unique position of playing the game at the top level and in the right way, and then carrying on to contribute further to that atmosphere by his peerless commentary, and in the wisdom and vision of his many writings.

For generations of cricket lovers, the fabled thwack of leather on willow will always be enhanced and made more vivid by the equally pleasant sound of Arlott’s Hampshire burr and Richie’s Aussie twang. Snicko and Hawkeye have an impossible act to follow. He was the Neville Cardus of the microphone, and is irreplaceable.

I’ll stop there – to fulfil Richie’s dictum of keeping it brief, and letting the silence do the job – but it’s hard to accept that now that quiet pause for reflection will not be broken.

G’night, Richie.


Saving Ryan’s Daughter

March 31, 2015


Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions

The world of film has come a long way in little more than a century. At the start, viewers were amazed to see scratchy depictions of moving monochrome figures, then talkies led a move towards more realism, and now we watch films in which Computer Generated Imagery makes anything appear possible – on screens from multiplex to phone sized.

Somewhere in the middle of that century of ‘development’, if not ‘progress’, there was a brief period, between the studio factory system and the dumbing down of films to compete with television and computer games, when works which could be considered ‘classical’ were produced – by Directors who had more in common with painters than accountants or computer technologists.

Perhaps one of the most accomplished artists in this field was the late David Lean – who had worked his early twentieth century way up from, literally, the cutting room floor, through editing, to directing classics like “Oliver Twist”, Brief Encounter” and “Great Expectations” and then the mid century mega-hits like “Dr Zhivago”, Lawrence of Arabia” and “Bridge over the River Kwai”.

His forte was the vastness of the background against which the plot was projected – deserts, wars, revolutions – matched by the scale of what was visually presented: crowds of thousands, hordes of camels, endless skies and landscapes.

In 1968, he went to Corca Dhuibhne, the Dingle Peninsula, and, in filming what was probably the last of the Great Epics made under mid century conditions, he very nearly put movie giants MGM out of business.

The spend for the film: “Ryan’s Daughter” was around £60 million overall in today’s prices – largely as a result of Lean’s perfectionism – with hundreds of retakes and delays for ‘the right clouds to come’ and his insistence on building a complete set on Carhoo mountain at Ballynahow Commons, as well as the need to retake some shots in South Africa. Over a year on location was prohibitively expensive but the MGM executives had to trust to Lean’s track record and hope he was producing another blockbuster.

The critics were not initially kind to “Ryan’s Daughter” – indeed their reaction put Lean off film making for over a decade – but the public were more willing to take this old fashioned movie to their hearts and, eventually, it covered its costs and is now reviewed more favourably for what it was – the last of the great 20th century epics.

I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of this production on the life of the Dingle Peninsula – economically and socially – and one of the major effects was the surge in tourism which resulted from the film’s panoramic views of west Kerry, produced by Lean’s Oscar award winning cinematographer, Freddie Young.

When tourists are inspired to come to Corca Dhuibhne by the scenery they have enjoyed in “Ryan’s Daughter” – and they still come in great numbers, as the film receives a regeneration on DVD – they also look for locations and signs of the film left behind. On top of Carhoo, they will find the remains of the village street, but none of the buildings – demolished shortly after filming was completed – and if they know where to look they might spot the ‘carved standing stone’ which marked the bus stop at “Killins Cross”, now standing outside the museum in Ballyferriter, in all its polystyrene glory!

However, the most substantial, physical, reminder of the days when Faraway productions and MGM came to Dingle , is the schoolhouse, built at a place called Cill Gobnait, on the clifftop near Dun Chaoin Harbour, and, which, as anyone who has seen the film knows, possesses one of the finest views of the Blaskets.

Unlike the village set, this was not built on commonage, but on land owned by local farmers, the O Sé’s, and there were no disputes over ownership or control. Faraway Productions who made the film, and had built the set, simply walked away and left the building as it had been in the film.


Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions

It was a perfect reconstruction of a style of national (or primary) school built all over Ireland in the later 19th century – one big schoolroom, separate entrances and playgrounds for boys and girls, and basic accommodation for the teacher attached. It was built in traditional manner by local stonemason, Mikey Donoghue, and has remained more or less intact for over forty years. The one concession was a back wall which was ‘hinged’, so it could be lifted up to allow access to the huge film cameras of the day.


Image copyright MGM Films/Faraway Productions

Initially, its position on private land meant tourists were not encouraged to visit the site. To do so required a walk down a private lane past a couple of houses and then a jump over a gate to join the laneway constructed by MGM. Sadly there was a deal of early vandalism of the building, and it may have suited the farmer to remove the back wall and allow access to his cattle. When I first visited the schoolhouse in 1971 it was almost as it had been in the film, two or three years later and the inside was less recognizable.


Eventually, the Ryan family, of Ryanair fame, bought the building and there are now access gates at appropriate points. The path down to the building, which is still instantly recognisable, passes an old holy site of St Gobnait’s Well.

Through the years there has been much talk of renovating the place and making something of it – it has an obvious lure, even after all this time. Nothing has come of this and there was, I suppose, a delicious irony in the fact that this fabricated building from the 6os slowly fell into a state which was not dissimilar to that of hundreds of identical abandoned schools actually built in the 1890s.


However, after a major storm in January 2015, much of the roof fell in and the building has clearly come to a crossroads. Over the next few years, it is likely it will deteriorate more into a heap of stone and eventually, it will become the former site of a “bit of the film” as is the hillside at Ballyhnahow Commons.


There is an argument for saying: “So what?” This schoolhouse is an anacronysm of an anacronysm, a piece of left over make believe from a film which was made too expensively and too late. Surely the whole point of ‘the movie business’ is that it is ephemeral of its nature and should not be confused with reality?

It’s a fair point, but there is another angle. There always is in the world of film.

This simple schoolhouse is a reminder of an event which played an important part in shaping the 20th century of this part of Ireland and the Gaeltacht – for better or worse. Like the movie set village of Kirrary, once it is gone, it is gone forever – and there were some regrets at the destruction of that village set in 1970 almost as soon as the demolition crews had left the mountain.

However, it is more than that.

It is a final reminder of a phase in film making which we will never come again, a physical remnant of former times. As such it can speak volumes to students of ‘how things used to be done’. It is a visual aid to learning and history and has a role to play in the area still, I believe.

There was an excellent report from locally based Seán Mac an tSíthigh on RTE News at the end of January which highlighted the current state of play; it seems the owners are rather disinterested in the site but that there is local support for some action being taken. In the RTE film, Marcas MacDomhnaill of Comharcumann Dhún Chaoin, the local co-operative, expresses interest in some development of the building.

After years of neglect and inaction, perhaps the recent storm has indicated the need for some decisions to be taken.

The basic building is sound but the roof and back wall should be replaced. The surroundings – the playgrounds, walls and the street outside are also in decent condition. In addition, since the days of filming, this site is now close to the Dingle Way and the Wild Atlantic Way, and, of course, a few hundred yards over the hill from the iconic Ionad an Bhlascaoid – The Blasket Centre, so brilliantly run by Dáithí de Mórdha who has done so much to attract folk to the area and keep alive the traditions of the Blaskets.

The building has much potential. Once wind and water tight, its interior could serve as an exhibition space – with memories of “Ryan’s Daughter” and its production, but also of the area as a whole. It could also be a performance area – in summer, imagine traditional music being played in the playground area with the backdrop of the Blaskets and the Atlantic, or lectures and workshops on the area’s language, culture and traditions. Local craftsmen might want to give demonstrations for visitors too. For passing walkers, perhaps the original idea of a simple tearoom and café would be possible.

I would like to think that there could be some link to Ionad an Bhlascaoid – perhaps a route from the car park to the site of the schoolhouse, perhaps covered by a replica 1916 bus to take visitors. Access would certainly have to be carefully considered and controlled. The link to the Blasket Centre comes from the fact that the film undoubtedly introduced millions worldwide to the existence of the islands, and attracted more to visit the Centre and the islands themselves. For those unable to travel out to the islands, a walking or ‘bus’ route to the schoolhouse would give them an additional spectacular view of the Great Blasket in particular.

In addition, the refurbishment of the site would bring work to the area – to builders, to stonemasons and roofers, maybe even to road building – along the lines of the original cobbled boreens constructed for the film.


Vocational students from Dingle and Tralee, and pupils in their Transition Year, could serve apprenticeships and gain work experience on the project, children from nearby national schools could visit this reminder of old time schooling, local businesses could contribute to the rebuilding.

Assuming there is local support for a refurbishment, that the owners of the building are happy to allow it, and that local landowners can have an involvement, the major problem would be funding.

These are hard times everywhere, and though Corca Dhuibhne remains a hugely popular tourist destination, investment in new initiatives is not easy to find. My answer to that problem would be to look to all the many organisations who could benefit from the project – or who have already flourished, directly or indirectly, from David Lean’s adventure in the neighbourhood.

The following is not an exhaustive list – but, in terms of film history, would it be too much to expect a contribution from Bord Scannán na hÉireann, and maybe work for local filmmakers in making a documentary of the project for RTE? Údarás na Gaeltachta might be approached, as well as Fáilte Ireland and Kerry County Council, Dingle Business Chamber, and Dingle Tourism. Local businesses individually might feel they could be part of it all – Benners and the Dingle Skellig Hotels, Louis Mulcahy Pottery, the Dingle Brewing Co, the Dingle Distillery, some of the pubs of Dingle town who were major beneficiaries of the likes of Robert Mitchum and Trevor Howard and their legendary thirsts. If many organisations contribute, their individual contributions need not be unfeasibly large.

The relationship between Corca Dhuibhne and “Ryan’s Daughter” has always been cautious. While acknowledging the huge boost it gave to the local economy, and the benefits of the tourism it created, many are circumspect about its shadow over the area. Recognition of the film has always been understated in the locality, and the situation of the schoolhouse demands that such a development should be in keeping with this historically calm approach.

It would be a pity if this relic of film and local history was to be lost altogether. Even a commitment to make the building wind and watertight, as a first step, would be welcome.

David Lean referred to the film company who made “Ryan’s Daughter” as “The Last of the great traveling circuses” – surely it deserves some kind of permanent memorial?

Over on Great Blasket, in sight of the schoolhouse, Tomás Ó Criomthain, famously wrote of the islanders: “Ní bheidh mo leithéid arís ann” – There will not be our like again.

The same is true of the old time movie “Travelling Circuses” – and wouldn’t that strangely familiar old building on the cliffs at Cill Gobnait be a great place to commemorate the fact?


From a table in the corner

March 9, 2015

Dingle-Skellig-Hotel-and-Peninsula-Spa-6b5f2833-9d5d-4b0d-ad57-ceda49e8629aFor most people, aside from seasoned business travellers, I expect hotels are pretty personal things. They are, or should be, home from home, stress busting venues, and repositories of family holiday history. They offer shelter and, hopefully, hospitality, but they also build dreams and memories.

It’s a tall order for fulfillment – and different hotels around the world attempt to meet expectations in different ways. There is exclusivity, opulence, size, location, staffing, and ‘themed house style’ as well as a variety of other marketing approaches. Perhaps one of the joys of holiday making is for the guest to seek a hotel which seems to meet expectations – in price, atmosphere, and welcome – and, having identified it, discovering it is all he hoped it would be.

Happy the traveller who finds his hopes fulfilled.

I first visited Dingle in west Kerry in 1971. It would be nice to report I was drawn westward – as far west as you can get in Europe – by my love of the Irish language in this Gaeltacht area, its history, its people, and its stunning views – but all that came later, the truth is more prosaic, and a lot more artificial.

As a teenager I holidayed in Kilkee, Co Clare – and when we arrived there in 1970, the town was still abuzz with the news of the previous winter: the hotels had remained open all though the close season – occupied by film crews from MGM who were making a film down in Kerry. A second unit had been sent to Kilkee – to film a ‘storm’, and had waited around for the best part of nine months to get the right shots. The film was being made by the famous David Lean, Trevor Howard and John Mills had been in town – and already it was rumoured there would be Oscars.

I had long fallen in love with the west Clare coast, often thought it should be a location for film making on a grand scale, and, without knowing anything about the film currently in production, was delighted that the area would be seen on the big screen, and filmed by that genius of film making, David Lean.

The other news was that, in typically grand style, Lean had built an entire village on a mountain top in west Kerry as part of the ‘set’ for his epic. We thought this sounded interesting and waited for the film to appear with huge anticipation.

When “Ryan’s Daughter” emerged, later in the year, it garnered a mixed reception from critics – who largely felt the epic nature of its landscape and cinematography overwhelmed the simple tale, based on “Madame Bovary” of a girl’s dreams leading to infidelity and disaster. Forty years later, in context, it is more valued – and certainly treasured by a large number of ‘old fashioned’ movie buffs. When I saw the film for the first time, I was more concerned with the locations. It was brilliant to recognise well loved areas of west Clare on the panoramic screen, but the scenes on the Dingle Peninsula were nothing short of dazzling. If any partnership could bring beauty to the (very) big screen, it was Lean and his cinematographer, Freddie Young – who rightfully won an Oscar for his work on this production.

Returning to Kilkee for my holidays, I noted the impact the production had made on the town and area – financially and in infrastructure. Muddy paths out on to the cliffs were now cobbled, a trip down to the nearby Bridges of Ross uncovered some of the props used in the storm – still being cast up on the rocks and in the inlets of Goleen.

Dunquin, on the Dingle Peninsula, where much of the production was based, would have to be visited.

We hassled local taxi man, PJ King, into taking us down to Dingle and set off with great hopes of what we would find. In those days it was a long and winding journey, but we eventually arrived in Dingle, made enquiries, and set off into Corca Dhuibhne. More directions led us up a steep lane, surprisingly well constructed for a mountain track., with a style of cobble recognisable from the paths constructed in Clare..

Eventually, after a hard climb, we came to the top of the mountain, Carhoo, on Ballynahow Commons. The sight that met us was a cobbled village street, surrounded by the remains of demolition. The village had gone, but the street was identifiably still there – a bizarre sight in such a remote location. Those who have seen the film will testify as to the beauty of the location. Those who love film will understand the satisfaction of matching film fantasy with geographic reality: a strange sensation.

I picked up a fibre glass slate from one of the cottages, and identified each bit of the street: Ryan’s pub, the RIC Barracks, the platform where Moureen Cassidy and her pals hung out. Amazing to think of a year’s filming in this purpose built location; bizarre by the standards of today’s CGI productions.

From the end of the street I first gained a view which still makes my heart leap whenever I see it: the Blasket islands, sitting hunched against the wild Atlantic waves.

PJ, our taxi driver, after checking the suspension of the car, headed back down the mountain and stopped again to ask directions. We parked, and headed up past a couple of houses, over a gate, and crested a hill. In front of us, a strangely familiar view of those islands, and immediately beside us, the Schoolhouse from the film – only this location was intact and exactly as it had been in the film – inside and out. To stand in the schoolroom, or in the rooms where Bob Mitchum and Sarah Miles silenced out their creaking relationship, was another confusing moment – what was real and what was make believe? Sets built in this way – and this was a perfect reproduction of a National School from the 1880s, even to the boys and girls entrances, the cobbled playground, and the mangle in the garden – – play games with your senses. And, from the road in front of the school, there were those islands – hypnotic, and claiming attention and thought.

That was my introduction to west Kerry, and, in time, I would come to learn that the arrival of MGM and Faraway Productions – ‘the last of the travelling circuses’ as Lean termed it, had a life changing effect on Dingle and the surrounding villages. Their isolation was broken, millions of pounds were injected into the local economy, and, in a kind of Faustian moment, some of its Gaeltacht ‘purity’ was lost, but many locals who would have emigrated were enabled to stay, and save Dingle, in particular, from a slow decline. Tourism numbers leapt, as folk like myself saw ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ and wanted to visit its locations. Fishermen became motor mechanics, farmers became guest house hosts, the unemployed became construction workers. Life moved on in this western outpost.

Having been first attracted by the fantasy of film, I remained hooked by everything else that the real Corca Dhuibhne had to offer.

As a student, I visited as often as I could – a journey that started with a ferry from the UK and ended up with hitching out to the guest house in Dún Chaoin run by Kruger Kavanagh – an amazing local character. In his bar, surrounded by some of those who had left the Blasket in 1953, I started to learn Irish phrases, found out about the real locality as opposed to that created by David Lean, and, sometimes. I was served by another local who would become a legend, Paidí Ó Sé.

I discovered more of the film locations: Coumeenoule Strand, the rocky outcrop at Wayland – where still could be seen the rough track laid down to allow the bus to approach “Killins Cross” in the film, and then on to other pieces of scenic magic – Ventry Strand, Clogher Strand with its ever angry breakers, the impossible slope down to Cé Dhún Chaoin, and those trips out to the bewitching Blaskets with the echo of tradition in the tumbling stones of the village, and the near perfection of An Tra Ban. There was the spiritual calm of Gallarus’ Oratory and the experience of Mass in Irish at Ballyferriter – whose pubs were also welcoming – and another opportunity to acquire and practise some more Irish. As a teacher, I was inspired by the successful fight to save St Gobnait’s National School at Dunquin, and delighted to see how it prospers. Dingle itself – from Church to pubs to shops to quirky lanes and avenues was a delight, none more so than the place with a claim to be the best bookshop on earth: An Café Liteartha.

Soon, the road to Ceann Sléibhe became not only familiar but an integral part of my life, travelled regularly in my head when the world to the east proved challenging or stressful, the memory of waves crashing on Coumeenoule Strand, the uneven squares of green fields, carved out of rock, and running down to brown cliffs surrounded by turquoise breakers, providing an antidote to the worst that could be thrown at me in my ‘other world’.

As life progressed, job, family, and other responsibilities, limited my visits – though in my head and heart, I was never far away.

Eventually, it was time to go back, and to make the Corca Dhuibhne experience a family affair.

In the mid 1990s, with my wife and son, I booked for our first stay at the Dingle Skellig Hotel. I had known of it since I first came to these parts, and once, as a student, seeking a pint, had made my way as far as the car park before deciding it was a little too grand for the likes of me and retracing my steps to the town.

I suppose, like Rosy Ryan and the Major, in Lean’s epic, it was a case of love at first sight. The three of us felt immediately welcome, comfortable, and relaxed by all that the Skellig had to offer. From Reception, to Bar, to lounges, bedrooms, and leisure areas, there was an inescapable feeling of being in a ‘home from home’. If you were planning a hotel that you would want to keep returning to, year after year, this would be the one. Nothing is too much trouble for a staff who genuinely seem to wish you as good a stay as possible. Throughout the years, whenever we have returned – and it must be seven or eight visits now – we hear the conversations of staff welcoming back guests, enquiring about family members, pets, life events. Hospitality training and marketing can only go so far – the Skellig staff seem to have a genuine investment in making the hotel welcoming and suitable for all who choose to stay there. The hotel staff from Corca Dhuibhne are rightly proud of where they come from – they’ll give directions, share local knowledge, and greet you out in town. Staff from elsewhere show every sign of being aware of their good fortune in working in such a hotel in such an area.

None will pass without a greeting, nothing is too much trouble to arrange; days are enquired after, plans are supported, joys are shared.

A pint in front of the fire in the residents’ lounge, a meal in the bar, a session in the leisure centre or Spa, the entertainment for kids, or the social dancing for the older folk: all is arranged to engender the memories and inspiration that a hotel should strive to provide. You can sit quietly and reflect – or join in the craic with other residents or staff; you are given the space to shape your contentment.

The Skellig has succeeded through the years in pulling off that most difficult of balancing acts – to provide a top level hotel experience – in accommodation, customer service, and standards – whilst somehow embodying the innate and joyously informal hospitality of the area in which it operates. It’s like going through an open door to find an effusive and genuine welcome, a kettle on the boil, and a pot of stew ready to serve.

I love the Skellig and I love its staff. I used to think we were in a special and exclusive relationship – but, over the years, I’ve realised that there are people all over the world who, when they close their eyes and seek some port from the storms of daily life, are transported to the lounge or bar of the Skellig, or the winding road that heads for Slea Head.

Likewise, the efforts of David Lean, Freddie Young and Faraway productions have drawn thousands to this part of heaven, and still do – where Moureen Cassidy’s laugh echoes on Carhoo mountain, Fr Hugh’s hangover thunders on the rocks of Coumeenoule, the children shout in the Schoolhouse playground at Cill Gobnait, and poor Michael still blows into the horn of the phonograph in the gusting winds of Waymont at Graigue. These days I am quite content that the fantasy of film brought me to the serenity of nature.

One more point about the Skellig.

It first came to my notice when I learned that some of the crew and actors made the hotel their base during the extended, and not always harmonious, shooting schedule. Indeed, their long and high spending stay at the Skellig enabled the hotel to expand in all directions.

The Dining Room, or Coastguard Restaurant, boasts a view, on two sides, out into Dingle Bay – surely one of the finest views from any hotel dining room in the world. There is a corner table in the original dining room area with windows on two sides. This was known as “David Lean’s Table”. Though he had ’company’ for some of the time, he generally dined alone – not choosing to mix with cast or crew outside of working hours. With high end wines and carefully sourced haute cuisine, provided by local chef, John Moriarty, the great Director would sit and eat and think – looking out on that inspirational view, creating scenes for his epic, seeing nature with an editor’s photographic skills, translating emotions into pictures, reality into dreamland.

I love sitting at that table – prosaically, it must be said, for the best full Irish Breakfast available anywhere, but, in more poetic tones, because it is possible to share that same view, to imagine great visions, and be grateful that rather repressed, obsessive and idiosyncratic Englishman made the decisions – artistic, financial, and creative, that brought me to this piece of perfection. This is a table from which you can appreciate humanity and nature, life and art. And Breakfast!

Thank you, David Lean. Thank you Dingle Skellig.

I’ll be back! Beidh mé ais!

Living with Words.

March 1, 2015

I enjoy Willie McIlvanney’s books, but, even more, I love listening to him speak. He has a slow, almost hesitant style which suggests thoughtfulness and reflection. Often, it prepares the way for a happy explosion of language which manages to sound grand but accessible at the same time. He gives conversation a good name.

He should have been the main character in a great Scottish novel, rather than just writing it. His attributes are those we would probably want to claim for “Scottish Man”: hard working class background, liberated by his family’s respect for education, able to inhabit the middle class world of letters without losing any of his credentials, smoking and drinking his way to a long life while cheating the nation’s health statistics. There is some kind of a connection there to a Scotland we all recognise and miss – whether it ever properly existed, or, indeed, if we were ever even remotely close to living in it. In the way his brother, Hugh, uses language to raise sport to an artistic level, Willie’s writing brings a dignity to working class family and community.

Yet there is a melancholy about him which almost brings a reassurance that, no, you can’t have it all: the films that were never made, the novels not written, the fortune that never quite materialised. In interviews you would call him resigned rather than happy, comfortable with his lot rather than victorious. How Scottish is that? “Aye, it was alright, I suppose.” There is an heroic recognition of reality, the freedom of acknowledging fate without ever quite fully accepting it.

And I thought of McIlvanney, and his world, when I read a wonderful piece by Fidelma Cook ( on the loss of her former colleague and Chief Reporter, Gordon Airs, of the Daily Record.

Fidelma – once of the Record and BBC Scotland – now lives in rural France and writes a weekly column which benefits from the perspective of distant geography – in much the same way as McIlvanney reflects from the perspective of advanced age.
From the start of her cross channel move– recorded in a flurry of apprehension and concern – it was clear that her reports from La France Profonde would contain all the feisty honesty you would expect from someone shaped by Ireland, Scotland and Glasgow.

Not from her the bons mots of certainty about a life changing move to a bucolic countryside haven – rather the doubts about the future, the need to confront loneliness, the unhappiness caused by unsettling change. You would not read her prose for travel writing heaven – rather to consider the human condition – and its tendency to follow us round no matter our location.

And, in her piece on Gordon Airs, there is the same commitment to accurate reflection, as she reminisces on the life of a journalist back in the day – around three decades ago.

She is unflinching in both her descriptions and in her conclusions. Much as an elite sportsperson needs a kernel of selfishness to achieve top commitment to be the best they can be, so journalists in those days operated on a level of selfishness and focus which often proved destructive – both to themselves and those they loved and who loved them. They got the story, by hook or by crook, they worked the hours, they polished the prose, and they partied. Collateral damage was legendary and, I suppose, the only unharmed beneficiaries were the reading public.

Nobody writes the journalistic legend better than the journos themselves – from “The Front Page” through to “All the President’s Men”, from belted raincoats and slouch hats through to “Lou Grant” and “The Newsroom” – it is easy to track the telling of tales which make the professions seem glamorous and heroic. Recalling Gordon Airs, Fidelma suggests at times it was indeed as it was portrayed – as we readers like to see it portrayed – but she points out unflinchingly that it all came at a price. Through the perspective of distance shines the truth.

Just as McIlvanney evokes a wistfulness, a feeling that it all could have been better, so her account of the halcyon days of press journalism brings the sadness of loss – in an age when much of the copy in our papers appears to come from PR Agencies – but also a realisation that, as consumers, we demanded high quality journalism without caring too much about the personal cost of that requirement on the writers who provided it.

Nowadays, ultimately, the advertisers demand that the papers cover what the readers will buy, and the accountants focus on the sales demographic. That way lies celebrity coverage, compromised reporting, and the “justification” for hacking and other misdeeds. In all of this, the writing itself, the skills of journalism, and the satisfaction of shining a light on murky places struggle to survive.

Like the guy who runs beside the big parade, I have always been there or thereabouts with journalism and journalists. From an English degree onward, through a career as an English teacher, and a third age attempt at blogging and publishing, I’ve tried to define myself in some small way as a ‘writer’. Like Rod Stewart, attempting to fulfill his dreams by building a pitch in his garden and inviting famous footballers round to play with him, I have associated with journos, praised them, and enjoyed and appreciated their work. I have seen at first hand the downside of destruction to which Fidelma refers, but also shared, vicariously, their triumphs, when truth was uncovered, and injustice was rugby tackled to the ground with a well chosen turn of phrase, after months of painstaking enquiry.

In the excellent BBC Scotland film “Living with Words”, McIlvanney answers a question from a pupil thus: “ People are uncatchable in prose; we are, all of us, too various…(to be completely described)”

In essence, that was, I think, Fidelma’s message about old style jourmalism, and bygone heroes like Gordon Airs – for each description, there would be a qualification, no plus would come unaccompanied by a minus, the final judgement would always be unclear – but the project would always be worth pursuing.

In that film, McIlvanney indicates that those who claim to have “worked it all out” in life are either kidding themselves or have invented solutions. It has always been my belief that the best of journalism is aimed at helping us “work it all out”, well knowing the impossibility of success, but determined to try – and, in pursuing that aim despite that knowledge, there is a nobility and a justification for at least some of the negative moments, personally and professionally.

I don’t have a romantic or idealistic view of journalism, and like many, I have dark days when I wonder how it can survive present trends, but it still seems to me a crucial part of what humanity needs to make progress.

For that reason, I celebrate the words of Fidelma Cook, clear eyed in la France Profonde, caught between her keyboard and César the mad Afghan pup, living with words which call for thought and reflection, and sharing them bravely with those of us who value difficult truths.

And for that reason too, I am embarrassingly, pathologically, proud that my son works as a journalist, shining what light he can.

Words are the brushes for the canvas of our thoughts.


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