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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.)


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.

A bar or two of the Hallelujah Chorus.

April 1, 2016

Just to the west of Dublin’s city centre, between Stoneybatter, Smithfield, and the green expanses of the Phoenix Park, is an area known as Arbour Hill.

It is composed largely of narrow streets of terraced houses, and is separated from the Liffey quays to the south by the former Collins military Barracks, which is now part of the National Museum of Ireland.

In a quiet street behind the barracks, dating from mid nineteenth century, are a line of grey stone buildings, composing a former military prison and an ornate church with a round tower. This is now the Irish Defence Forces Chaplaincy Church.

Behind the church, is a cemetery, with weathered gravestones and many indecipherable epitaphs. From the few legible inscriptions, it becomes clear that this was a burial ground for the men and families of the adjacent barracks in Victorian times, under British rule.

As so often the case in cemeteries which are no longer used, there is an air of calm. In fact, it is more like a park than a burial ground, and locals come here to walk their dogs, or read, or have a quick lunch in the peaceful surroundings.

This is despite two unexpected additions to the surroundings.

Alongside the back of the church juts out a high modern wall with a watchtower placed in its angle, some thirty feet above the ground, its creamy concrete and reinforced glass windows a harsh contrast to the uniform grey of the other buildings. It is a severe reminder that beyond the peace of the cemetery lies a still functioning prison.

Beyond this, on a terrace raised up two or three steps above its surroundings, is a long grassy rectangle surrounded by granite sets. This is on the site of the former prison yard; on the sets are written, in English and Irish, the names of the 14 Leaders of 1916 who were buried here, in a mass grave under quicklime, after their executions at Kilmainham Jail. Behind the rectangle a white wall curves round gently, with the words of the 1916 Proclamation – again in Irish and English – inscribed on it. The national flag flutters from a single staff.

Given it’s the burial site of national heroes, it is very understated and, perhaps because of that, seemingly not one of the major tourist destinations in the city. Certainly though the years, when I have visited, there have been few people present, and it seems that visitors only go to Arbour Hill if they want to pay their respects to the leaders of 1916 – which, I would think is as it should be. Most of the men who died in Kilmainham, I would imagine, would prefer to be recognised in an atmosphere of peace rather than grandeur, and by those who respected their contribution to the state, rather than tourists with a checklist.

On Easter Sunday, at the end of the Centennial Parade, I made my way through the streets to Arbour Hill, passing ever smaller groups of people. At the plot itself there were no more than twenty folk and the ambience was respectful and reflective.

The Rising has always been important to me, the more so since a first visit to Kilmainham Jail in the early 1970s, when it was being painstakingly restored by a dedicated group of volunteers – some of whom had been imprisoned in the building in the 1920s. To meet those men, and to start to learn the personal stories of those who were “out” in Easter Week, turned the event from an iconic and historical moment to something much more emotionally human and accessible.

Whenever I am in Dublin, I make a point of going to Arbour Hill and paying my respects. It’s a private thing and I seldom write about it. In Scotland the Rising is a topic mostly reserved for academics who discuss “the sociological effects of Irish immigration on the west of Scotland”, left wingers who wish to promote Connolly’s socialist but not nationalist credentials, and football fans who demean the whole event by using its songs to bait opposition supporters. I try to treat the Rising as being above tribalism and something which, in terms of inspiration and humanity, can belong to all – of any persuasion or background.

I like the fact that my own family history is mirrored at the plot – with Seán Mac Diarmada of Leitrim commemorated next to James Connolly of Edinburgh.

On Sunday, I was lost in my thoughts, as is often the case at this spot, when I suddenly, and distinctly, heard Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus.” It was an extraordinary moment: the church was closed and there were only a handful of people about. Handel’s first performance of this work had been at St Michan’s Church – only a few hundred yards from this spot. I did wonder, for a moment, if I was imagining the music – after all, it was a very emotional day to be in Dublin.

Then I recalled that there was a celebration of choral music scheduled at Collins Barracks across the road. A burst of sustained applause at the end of the Chorus confirmed that I had not completely lost it!

However, it did set me off on a reflective trail, and one linked to the theme of thanksgiving.

For many in Ireland, the Rising is a little like the lost island of Atlantis. Most of the time it is invisible, but every now and then it rises out of the mist and above the waves and cannot be ignored. At that point, folk compete to produce the most accurate description of the mirage, but only succeed in imposing their own likeness on the apparition before them.

One hundred years after the Rising, there are many attempts to make it all things to all men. Everybody – from physical force Republicans to neo-con politicians – claims a connection, irrespective of whether their own views, or their own actions, reveal any similarities at all with the 1916 ideals. It is condemned for being “anti-democratic” – by folk who are incapable of producing a single example of a revolution which was based on a properly constituted democratic mandate. Pearse is denigrated for believing in “blood sacrifice” – with scant reference to the fact that millions were being slaughtered on the Western Front as a result of that same, contemporarily popular concept, and we are told that Ireland would have been better off, or would have achieved independence, “if they had just waited”. That last view merits some very hollow laughter here in Scotland.

Revisionism has become a major industry in Ireland as far as the Rising is concerned, and hindsight is employed with the subtlety of a howitzer cannon. To blame the leaders of 1916 for the subsequent ills of the 26 county state can only make sense if you are following your own, less than balanced, agenda. Again, those who say the Rising only achieved any success through the clumsy over reaction of the British, with their multiple executions, are making a redundant point.

The Rising is what the Rising was. The event and its aftermath cannot be changed. Idle debate on its advisability, or on the motivation of its individual leaders, or its structure and organisation, may pass the time in lecture halls, but cannot change or affect the facts, as far as we know them. Certainly it seems a difficult quest to blame the negative aspects of an independent Ireland on the actions of Leaders of 1916 without equally admitting to their responsibility for the positive aspects of Ireland’s nationhood.

Those involved were of their time – on both sides. They lived in a world where military action had long been seen as a justifiable means of achieving political ends. Wasn’t that what the might of “the most successful Empire in history” had taught them? Wasn’t that the example being set by Haig and Rawlinson, and Hindenburg and Ludendorff?

The IRB in 1916 made a decision based on the information they possessed, the beliefs they held, and the circumstances forced upon them. Had they not acted when they did, there were rumours of a round up of activists, Connolly was threatening to “go it alone”, and a triumphal Germany or Britain, after the War, would have hardly prioritised the freedom of Ireland. This may not justify their action, but it explains it.

The details of the fighting hardly suggest that the Volunteers were irresponsible in their treatment of civilians, and to all accounts the call for the surrender was based on the fear of more local people being killed. MacDiarmada, even in the midst of the retreat, was so affected by the accidental death of two civilians in Moore St that he repeatedly offered to conduct an enquiry, then and there – only to find the grieving family more understanding of the damage of war than later academics appear willing to be.

That the Rising set Ireland on the roads to regained nationhood cannot be denied – though, of course, people have the right to argue whether that is a good or bad thing, and so it was right that the State commemorated its centenary. Colm Toíbin made the good point when he insisted that the State had to take charge of the commemoration for fear of leaving it to others to claim the position.

My experience in Dublin over Easter weekend was that the Irish state superceded the ‘acting government’ and produced a fitting, appropriate, and moving acknowledgement of those men and women – combatants and civilians – who gave their lives in the pursuit of Irish independence. It was, as far as it could be, an occasion above and beyond politics, which drowned out the begrudgers, the naysayers, and those pushing their own agenda. It recognised the bravery, idealism and selflessness of those who fought in Easter Week without mythologizing the brutal realities, or forgetting the casualties. It paid respect to an event which was of its time and place.

There was no glorification of violence, no mass singing of rebel songs, no amnesiac approach to the fact that people died and suffered. The people I mixed with on the streets of Dublin showed sober pride in the country which has made its way through the past century. This was no St Patrick’s Day of drunken revelry, or hubristic celebration of “Sure, aren’t we great???”

The Parade, including the Defence Forces and the Emergency Services, was a reminder that the military can be a positive representation of a country’s ethos. Ireland has made a huge contribution to peacekeeping around the world. It must be good for servicemen to be able to look in the eyes of their families and fellow citizens, and be proud that their work is in defending the country, humanitarian aid, peacekeeping and cooperation with the civil powers. They have joined no campaigns which have caused people far away to hate their country, performed no invasions, bombed no innocents. To see the Air Corps flypast was to be reminded of thousands of medical evacuation flights, to visit the Naval Service ships on the City Quays was to recognise the thousands of migrants they have saved in the Mediterranean, to watch the Army UN detachments marching was to be aware of the major contribution Ireland has made to peacekeeping around the world for decades. The Irish military may have been born in violence, it may have suffered in a brutal civil war, but its professionalism and commitment to peace and support in modern times is perhaps one of the greatest tributes to the ideals of the 1916 Proclamation, as were the numbers of female officers and other ranks throughout the parade.

On Monday, “Reflecting the Rising” brought a different sort of pride. With large parts of Dublin traffic-free and the citizens in holiday mode, it was a joy to be part of the inclusive and inspired celebrations of all elements of Irish culture. With a family atmosphere, there were venues for music, drama, children’s entertainment, historical reenactments and visual arts. Many Dubliners dressed in the clothes of the 1916 era, guides showed people around, Guards helped out with selfies. The space in front of GPO was teeming with people, looking and watching, gazing at the Tricolour and the green and gold flag of the Irish Republic, flying once more above the iconic pillars. It was like a colourful and happier echo of the familiar monochrome picture of sightseers viewing the wrecked Post Office after the Rising had ended.

It was hard not to think that Ireland can still aim for the high aspirations of the Leaders of 1916. And that, just as current failures to “cherish all the children of the Republic equally” still have to be addressed, so a pride in the men and women who first articulated those ideals can be an important part of the motivation to do better.

The gardens in Merrion Square were covered with colourful tents for children’s circus entertainment; the streets around filled with veteran cars, buses and traction engines. Strolling past the elegant Georgian facades, every house had a story to tell – of Wilde, Sheridan, George Russell, O’Connell, Yeats, Schroedinger – reminders of what Ireland has brought to the world.

And it struck me how much the Easter Rising was actually as much about culture as it was about politics. Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”, wrote Pearse: “A land without its language is a land without its soul.” He was referring, of course, to Irish – but it is an observation which can also be related to culture in general, culture being the country’s means of articulation.

The conditions for the Rising, the underlying enthusiasm for the regeneration of “Ireland” as opposed to “West Britain”, were very much created by the cultural revival – in language, drama, literature, the arts and sport, which had been gathering pace since the millennium – and so many of the leaders and influential voices in the Nationalist and Republican movement were culturally involved in the language or the arts. Connolly and Plunkett were, for the times, incredibly well read and, crucially, well travelled,, Plunkett, a poet, had helped found the National Theatre. Connolly was a published writer and orator. They brought a perspective to the enterprise – as did English Literature lecturer and poet Tomás MacDonagh, Ceannt was a musician and Irish scholar, as was O’Hanrahan, who was also a novelist. Pearse is sometimes dismissed as a dreamer, but his ideas on education were advanced for the time, as was his understanding of the power of words and imagery.

Economist David McWilliams has made the point that, economically, Ireland was better off in 1916 than it had been for some time. Like Scotland, it was still reaping the benefits of the mighty British Empire and its resultant world trade. You could make the point that the Rising, the Civil War, and Independence – followed by DeValera’s isolationist policies, did great damage to Ireland economically – but you could also point to the rapid decline of Scotland’s economy and industry in the later 20th century, and suggest that staying with Britain hardly preserved its economic successes.

It may well be that history will suggest that the great service done to Ireland and the world by the Rising and the country’s eventual, if partial, independence, was not in economic or political terms, but in cultural terms. It halted the subjugation of Irish culture into an amorphous “British” mass, it built on what was already there, and enabled the continued flowering of Irish culture through Jack and WB Yeats, Flann O”Brien, O’Faolain, O’Flaherty, O’Connor, Behan, and down to McGahern, O Riada, the Chieftains, Planxty, Gallagher and U2 – a continuing flow of creativity in different fields which helps preserve the diversity of culture in western Europe in the struggle against globalised, homogenous dumbing down of the arts and traditional cultures…

I had the feeling moving round Dublin on Easter Monday that people had a sense of that, a notion that they could be proud of Ireland outside of the tourist paddywhackery, the senseless drinking, the subjugation to the Church, and the record of the failed and cynical political and financial classes. I think there is the sense that a new Ireland is possible – that the words of the Proclamation, so hurriedly composed 100 years ago – of its time and place in so many ways, but visionary and inspiring in others – could still inspire a consensus for a better country, a better treatment of its people. It no longer feels like Ireland is a country which needs to bolster its confidence by declaiming what it is not, nor by constantly delineating its differences from the old enemy and holding on to grudges. If Britain has any influential meaning in the modern Irish state it must be as an example of decline and insupportable attitudes – neither a model to copy nor a standard to try and beat.

Sinn Fein – “ourselves” – need no longer apply only to a political party. I felt on Easter Monday, possibly for the first time, that Ireland’s people were realising they could kick on from a hundred years of establishing their credentials, from the in fighting, the excesses of the Tiger, the pain of the Crash, the kowtowing to Church and politicians, the constant looking across the Irish Sea for comparisons. I felt confidence returning that the citizens of a Republic can work ‘for the people’ – that inequalities can be tackled, injustices righted, bridges built, – and the past used to inform, rather than to suffocate, the future. That’s what a strong culture will do for a country.

I think, now, the Rising can be seen in a different context. At the RDS on Saturday evening, speaking to descendants of those who were out in the Rising, An Uachtarán, Michael D Higgins, mentioned the importance of “family”, that, whatever was gained from the Rising, the losses on all sides were borne by families. He mentioned how, when Tomás MacDonagh had kissed his sleeping daughter, Barbara, just one year old, as he left his home on Easter Sunday night, she had briefly wakened and hugged him. Such human moments remind us that, irrespective of politics, those who pay the price for revolution, on every side, are ultimately sons and daughters, wives and siblings, parents and loved ones. Perhaps that is the way we should remember all who lost their lives in Easter Week 1916.

In Capel St on Sunday afternoon, as I walked towards the memories interred at Arbour Hill, I had a sudden and vivid sense of the new Ireland. This was no longer the Capel St of Little Chandler in Joyce’s “Two Gallants”, it had a cosmopolitan air to it, and folk of many nationalities had hung tricolours from windows to acknowledge the anniversary. In front of me, and behind, were people speaking Arabic, enjoying the day, excited by the commemoration. Crossing the road, I suddenly recognised a familiar, half forgotten, aroma – it was the smell of turf smoke. Turf smoke and Arabic – symbols of a new, inclusive, and expansive Ireland.

I felt I was in the Ireland of which I had gladly become a citizen as a second generation Irishman. With the emotion which I had carried with me all through the day, I recalled the words of brave and fearless Margaret Skinnider – school teacher, Citizen’s Army sniper, and suffragette; like me, born in Scotland, in her case, in Coatbridge:

“Scotland is my home, but Ireland is my country!”

What a difference a day makes?

March 24, 2016

Today was intended to be Scottish Independence Day – though I have to confess, it was a tight timetable, given the negotiations independence would have entailed.

I feel sorry that 55% of the population felt unable to take a leap of faith in their country, and sad that many obviously voted out of self interest. There is an irony in that the winning side in the debate could only muster an argument which, in essence said: “Don’t vote Yes, it might be worse than this.”

In addition, it is difficult to smother a wry smile, when we hear Labour accuse the SNP of “letting in the Tories and austerity” – when such a claim is, numerically speaking, nonsense, and an accusation made by a party which, in Westminster opposition, has been chiefly notable for its absentions in votes against that austerity.

However, overall, my mood today is one of reflection, rather than anger.

I can’t know why a small minority of my friends – who mostly hold the same political ideals as I do – felt they had to vote No. For some it may have been blind loyalty to a Labour party which had long cast off its principles, for others the comfort of a familiar “British” status, and maybe some were just scared by the rabble rousing of Project Fear. Ironically, on jobs, pensions and welfare, the Armageddon with which we were threatened in an Independent Scotland, is coming about in a UK state the majority voted to continue.

I can’t help but cast my mind back to the night before the Referendum.

Outside the Parliament was a spontaneous gathering; it comprised all ages, classes, genders, and, I suspect, political philosophies. It was the strangest atmosphere I have ever experienced: joyful, expectant and comfortable with itself, not a sign of the usual “Wha’s like us?” drunken revelry which so often mars gatherings in Scotland where the flag is flown and the country is praised. I have seldom felt so exulted at a public gathering – and I’ve attended a fair few in my lifetime – it felt like the time had come for a different future.

And, despite the result the following day, that feeling has not left me.

Day by day, the sneering superiority of the Tories at Westminster, the desperate attempts of the Labour party to “oppose” without “losing Middle England”, UK plc’s pathetic attempts to “maintain its position on the world stage” – they all seem increasingly foreign and separate to what is happening and what is important in Scotland and to the people living here.

Unionists become irrationally annoyed when Gadhlíg is promoted, or if the Scottish Government involves itself in cooperation with other countries. Their claim is “You’re just trying to make Scotland seem different!” If they would only look, they would see that Scotland is different– not better or superior, just distinct – in many of its attitudes and needs and priorities.

If anything is aimed at demonstrating the difference between Scotland and rUK, it is the attitudes shown in Westminster, not just towards the SNP MPs, but in a whole range of policies for which Scots voters didn’t vote and with which they don’t agree. The UK Parliament makes the point stridently, and in public school yah boo terms, at every sitting: London’s priorities are not Scotland’s, England’s requirements are not necessarily in our interests.

So there is an understanding, I believe on both sides of the argument, that independence is not lost, but merely delayed. That is demonstrated clearly in the establishment’s fear of a second referendum. What have they to lose if they believe the second result would copper fasten the first?

No anger, then, just anticipation of a new day coming.

In such a mood, I find it easy to contemplate what today, or Independence Day whenever it might have arrived, would have been like. What changes would we see? How would Scotland be different?

Would there be gibbering in the streets as the newly independent Scots adjusted to their “black hole of debt”?

I doubt it.

Since 2005, the UK’s National Debt has increased from 38% of GDP to over 80%. Financially, the UK state is a basket case. An independent Scotland would have negotiated its share of that debt (8% of the £1.5 trillion) but would also be able to adjust and prioritise its spending in terms of its own economic needs. Trident would no longer be a financial drain on the budget, contributions to projects such as High Speed Rail and the London Cross Rail project would not be our responsibility. Taxation could be focused and generated on producing the best income for Scottish needs. Military spending would be angled towards a defence force equipped for home defence and peacekeeping duties – rather than a pretend “world power”. An independent nation could make the best case for its own needs in international forums, be it the EU or elsewhere. It would not always get its way – few countries do, but at least it would be in a position to make the case.

With economic control, and industries like distilling, energy, tourism, creative computing, agriculture, fishing, and oil – with all its fluctuations and imponderables – an independent Scottish government could make decisions which were best for the country’s needs. Even the unionists accepted that an independent Scotland was economically viable. Forecasts of economic disaster for an independent Scotland assume the same economic policies as are currently being pursued by the UK state – and why on earth would an independent Scotland take that route?

Instead of seeing Longannet Power Station closing today, we would see it heading into a new era of carbon capture with support from a Scottish Government committed to sustainable energy, rather than trying to ameliorate the cuts made by Westminster in this vital area of energy development.

The situation would be challenging, but certainly no worse than the mess into which the UK state has blundered over the past couple of years of austerity. The recovery rates of small countries, especially those who bailed out the people rather than the bankers, show that alternatives to austerity are the best way forward. An independent Scotland would be in a position to forge its own paths – in response to the votes of the people who live here and are most affected by its government’s decisions.

So: no panic in the streets we can assume.

In other ways, I suspect the change would not be as dramatic as some would have us believe. History shows us that major financial institutions and commercial concerns – whatever noises they may make in advance of possible change – tend to cope well with the notion of new opportunities and infrastructure. We would still be shopping in the same stores and travelling on the same transport.

The idea that we would be somehow “cut off” from England, culturally and geographically, is, of course, specious nonsense. One only has to have limited experience of travelling between France, Belgium, and Holland to know that those who live near borders coexist and work with each other, irrespective of national boundaries, and there is no reason to expect that travelling from Edinburgh to Newcastle or Glasgow to Carlisle would be an experience any different to the way it is today. The only politician currently talking about “building a wall” is Donald Trump, and I’m not sure even the most rabid unionist would want to line up alongside his particular brand of marketing rant. Even under the current circumstances concerning refugees in Europe, and though an independent Scotland might well be expected to have a different approach to England in such matters, border security and control can be negotiated between neighbours if there is good will – which there assuredly would be between England and Scotland – even if only for reasons of self interest. In trade too, both countries would have an interest in maintaining current cross border markets.

However, I suspect that those who voted No out of fear that things would be “different” were mostly not considering such matters; I think they were wondering what it would “feel like” to not be “British” anymore.

Again, this is a needless concern. Obviously, anyone born “British” would remain “British” if they wished; their identity would not change overnight, they would not “lose” their personal or national history. Pride in war time history, or in antecedents who fought under the union flag, would not be obliterated by political changes. After all, those who fought in the great wars were fighting so that people would be free to choose politically, not to extend the UK state sine die. As it is today, people would be free to consider themselves “Scottish” or “British” or any other nationality to which they were entitled – and many people for various reasons choose the country or state with which they identify – whether through birth, family, heritage or abode. Everybody I know who voted for independence was quite clear that a “Scot” was someone who made his or her home here, irrespective of birthplace or heritage – and the same would apply to those who continued to regard themselves as British – they would have the choice. Of course they would.

Last year I attended a lecture by Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole, in which he covered the speed of “change” after independence – based on Ireland’s experiences over the past 90 years or so. It irked me more than a little during the referendum campaign that Scottish politicians tend to steer clear of “Irish examples” for fear of poking the sectarian bull in the eye, because, as a near neighbour of comparative size, Ireland offered some ideas of how post Independence might look in Scotland.

O’Toole pointed out that, in Ireland, despite a violent conflict between the countries, British influence declined rather slowly after independence. The Irish legal system and civil service continued more or less unchanged for generations, persons from both the 26 and 6 counties are able to enlist in either the Irish or British forces, there remained monetary union until late in the century, and, in a possible echo of the Trident situation, the British retained control of the so called “Treaty Ports” by the Royal Navy until 1938.

In a bid to reassure the “Doctor Who” fans who were startled to be told during the referendum campaign that they might have no access to their favourite programme after a Yes vote, it is the case that, even in pre-digital times, many in Ireland accessed British as well as Irish media, and, ironically, the Irish government pays less to the BBC for such access than the sum amount of Scottish license fees which is handed over without being fully returned in terms of Scottish content.

In terms of the media, it would be nice to predict a Scottish Broadcasting Service which better met the needs of the country. However, unlike many unionists, I wouldn’t claim clairvoyant powers. The media is in such a state of flux just now, it would take bravery or stupidity to foresee how we will be served by the media – independent or otherwise – in three or four years time.

As O’Toole pointed out, a change of governmental system does not enforce a change in the way that people think. There are many in colonial lands who still consider themselves as “British” two or three generations after the union flag was hauled down for the last time. Even in Republican Ireland there is still huge (if, to my mind, inexplicable) interest in the goings on of the British monarchy. As would be the case in an independent Scotland, the historic and close familial and cultural links between the two countries are not expunged by independence. Some will embrace their “Scottishness” more than others, I expect. Just as currently, definition of nationality will matter more to some people than it does to others

So – if I am making the case that changes would not be that obvious from day one of independence, why bother? And what would be different?

The major differences might be be invisible on the street, but crucial, nevertheless.

We would be taking responsibility for the way the country was run, for the way it acted in the international community, for the way it treated its citizens. We could vote, secure in the knowledge, that, whether we agreed with it or not, the government of Scotland would have been voted for by the people of Scotland, and that no longer would we be 8% of a parliament which had neither the need nor the wish to legislate in our interests.

And we could send a delegation to the UN or the EU, or any other forum, mandated to speak for our people in international affairs with a voice which represented what a majority of Scots felt about important issues, rather than as an adjunct to the views of our greater, differently nuanced neighbour.

I believe as well that we would witness a surge of confidence in our capabilities and in the role we could play in Europe and the world. I saw that creeping around the edges of that gathering the night before the referendum vote, I see it every day in young people who refuse to accept the status quo and are looking for better.

The politics of “grievance”,  as the unionists put it, would be no more. We would be standing up to take responsibility for our own people and our own affairs. As any country should.

That would be different. And welcome!

How are things at home, Casper?

March 20, 2016

I must have been teaching for around thirty years when a colleague brought me news that a former pupil of mine was now on the staff at a local primary school. He had been a smashing pupil and I could well imagine he would have become an excellent teacher. My colleague reported back:

“He said he always enjoyed your English classes and hopes you are well. He said to ask if you are still teaching ‘Kes’”

I burst out laughing – nearly three decades later, I was, indeed, “still teaching ‘Kes’”.

You could question my long term commitment to reading a novel with so many succeeding generations of English classes: surely it would be past its sell by date? Would the pupils understand its references so many years later? Written for a different world, would it still be relevant? Was I just being lazy, teaching the same old, same old? And, anyway, why teach a novel so grittily set in the north of England to pupils in the different landscape of central Scotland?

It is, perhaps, a testament to the writing of Barry Hines, who has died today, that none of the answers to these questions suggest I was wrong to continue reading and discussing this novel with pupils well into the 21st century – half a century after it first appeared.

“A kestrel for a knave” is not “classic literature” in the timeless mode of Dickens, Stevenson or Eliot; its greatness does not lie in imposing language or skilful plotting. But what this novel possesses is insight and impact.

As a pupil myself in the sixties, the literature diet we were fed was not inspiring – I still have memories of RM Ballantye’s “The Coral Island”, – and I was given a love of reading by my own Friday evening visits to the local Carnegie Library, from whence I borrowed armfuls of Enid Blyton, Eric Leyland, and Anthony Buckeridge.

This meant, though I was schooled no more than a hundred miles from Barnsley, where the novel is set, I only came across “Kes” for the first time, in its film version, as part of my teacher training course at Moray House in Edinburgh.

The film left a lasting effect. It demonstrated a side to teaching to which I had not been exposed as a pupil myself – the idea of a teacher who “cared” about his pupils, the link between home background and school achievement, the importance of high expectations and the value of treating each pupil as an individual.

In my reflective book on education (School Ties and Lessons Learned”. ( I spend some time describing the role “Kes” played in forming my approach as a teacher – and, in particular, the impact of Colin Welland as “Mr Farthing”, the prototype “guidance teacher”. It may seem simplistic to credit a film and a book with instilling such a philosophy, but, alongside all I learned from colleagues in my first teaching post, “Kes” was far more influential than anything else I was taught at training college.

Part of the power of the film came from the acting of Colin Welland as Mr Farthing, Bob Bowes, as the headteacher, and Brian Glover, as Sugden the PE teacher. Like Hines, the writer, and Ken Loach, the director – all of these had actually worked as teachers, and many of the child actors and extras came from St Helen’s School in Barnsley In addition, cinematographer, Chris Menges, had graduated from the “World in Action” school, of documentary making. All of this brought a “reality” to the film which gave it authority and verisimilitude.

In a similar fashion, Hines’ writing – not just in “A kestrel for a knave” but in “The Blinder”, “Looks and Smiles” and “The Price of Coal” benefited in that it was based on first hand knowledge of education, football, and the coal mining community which had nurtured him, devoid of sentimentality.

All of this meant I was lucky, and probably privileged, to gain an early understanding of something which is vital about education, but which seems singularly invisible to succeeding generations of politicians: you can’t test or assess a child to success if they come from an impoverished background; you can spend millions on a school, but unless you address the social iniquities which lead to educational inequalities, your efforts will largely be in vain; and, while teachers must teach with the highest of expectations if they wish to ameliorate a vulnerable child’s future options, without role models in the home and in local communities, their quest to level the academic playing field is a very tall order.

In “A kestrel for a knave”, when Farthing is chatting to Billy, all of the above is made clear.
“You’ll be leaving school soon, won’t you”
“Are you not looking forward to it?”
“I suppose so…”
“I thought you would be dying to leave, I thought you didn’t like school,.”
“I don’t, but that don’t mean I’ll like work, does it?”

I never lost my passion for the book or its message and I suppose it “worked” with so many pupils over the years because classes respond well to a teacher teaching with passion.

In writing “A kestrel for a knave”, and in creating Billy Casper and Mr Farthing and the rest, Hines had an impact on so many pupils and teachers which was far wider than any he could have hoped to have achieved had he stayed as a teacher.

It was education at its widest and most effective, and was written with the sense of community – with all its faults as well as its supports – which sprung from the Yorkshire coal fields. Those communities have been taken apart, but it would be nice to believe that those still teaching are fighting for the values espoused in the book – protection of the vulnerable, promotion of talent, and recognition of the uniqueness of each and every pupil.

I only failed once, I think, with the novel.

A girl arrived in Edinburgh from Texas and was put in my English class. On the day she arrived, we were starting “Kes”. Having lived for ten years in the north of England, I fancied I could read the novel with a fair northern accent. It proved impenetrable to her American ear, and she never returned.

For the rest of us, however, the message still rings out, loud and clear.

Thank you, Barry!

How do you take your tea?

March 2, 2016


The opening scene of the current series of “Happy Valley”, brainchild of talented, challenging, and creative Sally Wainwright: Two women sit on garden chairs having a drink and chatting. The sun is shining and they could be on holiday.

It’s only when the camera draws back that we realise that they are in the back yard of a Yorkshire terraced house, and one of them is a policewoman, and her tale is an hysterically black comedy of sheep rustled by lads on Acid, her attempt to humanely put down one of the beasts which has been savaged by local dogs, and the eventual discovery of a murder victim. As the series progresses, we realise that, rather than just an entertaining reintroduction to familiar characters, this is the profile for the whole series ahead, distilled into three minutes of conversation and flashbacks.

That the characters are portrayed by two of our finest actors: Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran, adds to the scene immeasurably, but what really makes it work is the quality of conversation, the completely natural cadences of the story telling and the natural timing of the humour in the recounting of an unusual “day at the office”.

The savaged sheep eventually comes to rest in an old woman’s garden. When Lancashire, as police officer, Catherine Cawood, arrives, she is offered a cup of tea. Catherine realises, in the absence of an available vet, that she must put the savaged sheep out of its misery and finds a rock with which to dispatch it.

She is clearly having difficulty in summoning up the willpower to act, but she raises the rock above her head and, amid great tension, is about to smash it down, when the old woman reappears at the doorway:

“Do ye take milk and sugar?”
“Er, no…er Yes, Milk…thank you, and er yeh, go on, sugar, two sugars, er one sugar, thank you….”

The woman looks confused, more so by Catherine’s indecision about how she takes her tea than the fact she is huddled over a dying sheep, holding a rock behind her back.

It’s a great dramatic moment, hovering somewhere between black comedy and mundane reality. It’s a moment that grabs the viewer because of its familiarity, and yet it is part of the opening scene of a gory, scary, and psychologically gripping series.

It’s television writing and acting at its very best – and watching it, I was taken back over fifty years.

Tony Warren, creator and writer of the first dozen episodes of “Coronation St”, who died today, could claim responsibility for introducing this kind of dialogue in television writing – a flow of conversation which rings true; it reflects what people hear around them.

Though Osbourne, Sillitoe, Barstow and Delaney, in the 1950s “kitchen sink” revolution, had pushed aside the “French windows” and “Anyone for Tennis” traditions of English stage and film, their style was tending to melodramatic: effective but overblown compared to what you would hear in the street, the pub, the workplace. Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop was closer to reality, but often their work was overwhelmed by the polemic it contained, and it could never hope to reach an audience as wide as that of commercial television.

When Ena Sharples strode into Florrie Lindley’s corner shop in the first episode of “Coronation Street”, what transpired had the whiff of actual conversation:


“I’m Mrs Sharples!”
“I’m very pleased to meet you”
“I’m a neighbour. Are you a widow woman?”
“Well, yes, I am!”
“I thought so. I’m the caretaker at the Glad Tidings Hall.”
“Oh, I know, that’s just across the street, i’nt it?”
“What’s your place of worship?
“Well, I don’t really do much about it….”
“Oh, I know – C of E…”
“Oh I wouldn’t say…..”
“Like me sister’s husband, ye know. He was made Head of Plumbing where they live – and it give her ideas. She said: “We’re civic dignitaries now, we must head for t’church!” Within a week, they were received, Christened and Confirmed, and within a fortnight, she was sitting up all night, sewing surplices. I’ll take a packet of baking powder.”

Like the opening scene in “Happy Valley”, written and performed over half a century later, this is an exchange which is difficult to categorise. Ena is clearly stating her position, ensuring Florrie has no misconception of her role in the local community. Story telling skill, humour, fixed views, and conflict are all in there, as Florrie struggles to hold her own against this tour de force.

Of course, it was a useful and effective way for a major character to be introduced to the new viewing audience, who were not quite sure what they were going to get in this new “drama serial”. However, its impact was based both on Violet Carson’s delivery and the flow of the language, the timing of the request for baking powder tacked on to the end of the paragraph about her social climbing sister, the power exchange between the street newcomer and the senior denizen.

Two years later, Troy Kennedy Martin and John McGrath brought a similar realism to police procedurals in the ground breaking “Z Cars”, and, again, the way folk spoke to each other often drove the realism of the show.

Some years ago, I saw a fascinating interview with Tony Warren in which he described his upbringing as crucial to his writing. His father was an army Major and away at war and on other duties for a large part of his childhood, and his mother worked from home producing linen goods.. He described spending a lot of time with his grandmother and his aunts, and “sitting under the table as they talked endlessly – picking up the vocabulary and rhythms of the way that northern women spoke.” He reckoned that, as men tended to be more taciturn, this was a lucky opportunity to acquire an understanding of the forms of conversation. Certainly he was able to bring a richness of language to “Coronation Street” which stretched in its range from neo-Music Hall to almost classical – without ever patronising his characters or the background from which they sprung.

In addition, having grown up openly gay in an era when that attracted public hostility, as well as being illegal, he figured that “being an outsider” had put him in a better position to observe and take note of people’s interactions and conversations.

Pat Phoenix’s acting ability may have been Elsie Tanner’s flesh and bones, but her way with words revealed her soul – as was the case with the sharply snobbish Annie Walker, played by Doris Speed,and Ena Sharples, and her buddies in the Rovers’ Return snug – Minnie Caldwell and Martha Longhurst.,

Perhaps Warren was the first to realise, after the first enthusiasm for television, that being equipped with moving pictures should not be an excuse to downgrade words and the sound and rhythm of dialogue. He certainly understood that the conversations of, largely at this stage, “stay at home” women, could produce a richness which gave greater depth to scripts and character creation, and in so doing, I would suggest, paved the way for later writers such as Lynda la Plante, Sally Wainwright and Kay Mellor to produce strong, gritty and realistic lead female characters in television drama. The crackling and totally credible exchanges in Wainwright’s “Scott and Bailey” between Suranne Jones, Lesley Sharp, and Amelia Bullmore are further evidence of the power that top class television drama can produce through female led scripts.

There is a pleasing irony in the fact that Sarah Lancashire’s father, Geoffrey, wrote over 200 episodes of “Coronation Street”, many alongside Tony Warren, providing scripts which foreshadowed the earthy, humorous and memorable lines given to her in “Happy Valley” – or, for that matter, Wainwright’s other hit, “Last Tango in Halifax. Sarah Lancashire herself, of course, memorably combined the vulnerable and the comedic in her “Coronation Street” role as Raquel.

Strong scripts have given us television which has the immediacy of radio, combined with the ability to startle of the televisual medium. Even comedy has benefited from the finely tuned ear of our best dialogue writers. One of the secrets for the success of “Dad’s Army” can be identified when one listens to the perfectly written dialogues between Mainwaring and Sgt Wilson, as opposed to the more cartoonish contributions from Corporal Jones, Fraser, and Pike. Much earlier, Galton and Simpson recognised this strength as well, daring to give Tony Hancock a single hander on one set – “The Bedsitter”, where the importance of words, in this case as soliloquy, was highlighted.

Even in America, Aaron Sorkin has had huge success with “The West Wing” and other shows which intelligently chose dialogue over action to carry plot and characters.

Though “Corrie” has moved some way from its origins, Warren’s invention of a style that combined realism with humour, garrulous behaviour with vulnerability, and high drama with pantomime, instigated a whole new direction for television drama and brought women to the fore, as both characters and writers.

It’s nice to think of that development being generated by a small boy’s experiences, huddled under a kitchen table in 1940s Eccles, imbibing the chatter of conversation from his grandmother and her daughters.

Strong Northern women indeed!

Mockingbirds and Rhododendrons

February 20, 2016

It was perfect.

I was six years old and had just moved to England. Next to our house, in rural Lancashire, was a wood, known as Bank Lane. “Bank” referred not to a financial institution but to the banks of the brook that ran through it. I see from maps that the brook was called Ransnap Brook, but we always knew it as ‘the brook’.

An earthen path made its way through the woods, a good walk where we often took our dog, who would roam about in the undergrowth. The trees may have been two hundred years old, and provided a dense cover in Autumn and Winter, with the patter of rain or the shifting, dappled light of the sun all around us.

At the end of the woodland a stile led on to an open rolling meadow with ancient single oak trees dotted about. Adults would often picnic in their shade, but for the children there were other attractions. Tarzan ropes hung from convenient branches, the ground below made bare and shining from the scuffing of hundreds of dangling shoes; damming the brook, with branches and stones and mud, was always enjoyable, especially with our parents’ dire warnings about “stagnant water” and “typhoid”.

However, the major attraction for us lay close to the entrance of the woods, across on the far side of the brook.

The banking there sloped quite steeply, the earth brown, thick and friable, and at the top was a plantation of rhododendrons.

They were ideal for our games, growing in stands and clumps, which proved good cover and natural dens for our manouevres. You could be hiding within feet of ‘the enemy’ and, assuming you didn’t move, cough or giggle, be completely undetectable.

We spent hours there, lost in our imaginings, as close to nature as we could have got, revelling in childhood – its fantasies, its possibilities and its sense of the immediate.

Best of all: it was “Old Joe’s Land”.

None of us knew who “Old Joe” was, or even, I suppose, if it was really his land. We had never seen him, knew nothing about him, nor had we heard any tales from folk who had come across him. However, of one thing we were certain, if he caught us on his land, it would be a disaster so great that we could not even begin to imagine it.

This ‘knowledge’, of course, made us tingle with excitement every time we crossed the brook. We would scan the bushes with eyes narrowed, commandos about to enter enemy territory, exchanging glances of bravado, seeking cover wherever we could find it.

As we got further into our game, there would be moments of forgetfulness, but, inevitably, sooner or later, someone would whisper-shout: “Old Joe’s coming!”

Panic would ensue as we hurtled out of our branch strewn hiding places, and ran, tripped, rolled, down the earthy slope to the brook, wet feet and socks no object, as we rushed to escape the terror.

Once safe, we would pause on the other side, and look back up the slope, half horrified at what we might see. We would be sure there was a rustling in the leaves, a movement in the branches. “There he is, I saw him!” someone would shout, and we would squeal our way out of the woods, relieved to have survived for another day.

It was the very definition of a secure childhood – where danger was invented and imagined rather than experienced, mock fear in the knowledge that everything would be alright – even though, in the real world, sometimes it would not be.

I remember going into the village Post Office with my mother. There was a man ahead of us at the counter, and, as he turned away after being served, he tipped his cap to my mother and, looking down at me, nodded and winked.

He seemed nice, and as we left the shop I asked who he was. The answer was: “Joe Beardsworth” – a common surname in the area.

I thought no more of it until I heard my mother tell someone we had seen “Old Joe Beardsworth” in the post office!

So this had been the horror lurking in the rhododendron bushes!

Once seen, our make believe was completely demolished for me. Even as recently as 2014, I paid a nostalgic visit to the village, and, noticing Joe’s grave in the churchyard, realised that, when he was “Old Joe”, he was, in fact, younger than I am now.

I thought of Joe and his rhododendrons when I heard of Harper Lee’s death yesterday. There are Mockingbirds in all our childhoods, and, if we are lucky, like Scout, we are cared for by adults who give us the strength to believe the truth rather than the exciting make believe, and to care for those who are seen as “different”. I don’t know if Joe was aware of his cult status amongst the village’s primary school children, but I like to think that his absence from the land when we were playing there suggests that, like Boo Radley, he enjoyed seeing us grow and play in those woods.

When a creative artist dies, tributes normally mix life and oeuvre, seeking to make the connection between the author and the work they created, matching its development to their own personal growth. So private was Nelle Harper Lee, and so minimal her output, that such an approach has not been possible. Indeed it seems we are mourning a book rather than an individual, which is maybe how she would have wanted it.

I must have taught “To kill a Mockingbird” to over twenty classes during my career as an English teacher. Each time I taught it, I gained a new insight – the best teaching involves learning, but it never failed to promote thought, reflection and engagement amongst the pupils.

In some ways, this was remarkable. It was set in a time and place theoretically difficult for them to understand; it is not brilliantly well written. For example, in retrospect, and to the adult mind, the long opening chapters, establishing the Finches in Maycomb County history, do much to explain the respect in which Atticus is held, and which enables him to be his own man. However, they were always a hard read for young people more accustomed to plot action, and increasingly detached from long, close, interlinked family histories.

And yet they stuck with it.

Harper Lee may have written about an unfamiliar place and time as far as my late twentieth century Scottish pupils were concerned – but what she wrote about was instantly recognisable to them. The closed world of the very young becoming slowly wider, the realisation that there is life beyond themselves and what they know, the consideration of evil and the acceptance of responsibility.

Pupils could feel Scout’s horror as, trapped by the ham costume, she heard her brother’s pain; they could clearly understand the injustice of the Robinson trial, and were frequently driven to anger by reading of his demise, and they could see in Atticus the reassurance and moral guidance of a much loved father – whether they had been fortunate enough to experience that for themselves, or not.

Mockingbird’s strength is that it captures the moments of childhood so accurately: the friendships, the sibling rivalry, the inexplicable idiosyncrasies of adults; the unknown fears converted into shadowy houses and twitching curtains, the cold ground in the shadow of the tree. In showing such insight, it leads the reader to trust in the more universal messages of the book, in particular Atticus’s exhortation that we should always walk around in the other person’s shoes, to see the world from all perspectives – surely the root of all positive life philosophies, be they religious or humanist.

Perhaps young people are affected by the book because they read it at a time where the natural optimism of childhood is being eroded by life experience. When Boo rescues Jem, when the Sheriff decides not to pursue the case, when Scout is able to climb on to her father’s lap, the message is given that sad and evil things happen, but there are people in the world who can give us the strength to withstand them. It is both comforting and life affirming, and provides a true rite of passage.

Ironically, particularly in the brouhooha over “Go set a Watchman” last year, Harper Lee eventually became a bit of a Mockingbird herself, talked about by many, known by few. Maybe the tomboy Scout, out of place as a “lady” in the genteel South, was written as a presentiment of Harper Lee’s own future – one who would understand the marginalized because she experienced the same treatment. Maybe it takes an “outsider” to highlight the flaws from which society may suffer.

Whatever the truth of the matter, we owe a debt to Harper Lee, for coming to the rescue of our Mockingbirds, and highlighting the strengths and sensibilities of the young,

No matter how many times I studied “Mockingbird” with classes, I always dreaded the final chapters of the book. It was always a struggle to read the scene where Scout steps on to Boo Radley’s porch and sees her childhood from his angle; tears were never far away, though I realized the pupils would need to live a few more years before they gained the perspective to be so affected themselves.

“Old Joe’s Land” is still there, untouched, and just as inviting, though now, in close proximity, is a newly built primary school.

This means that the cries and shouts of children playing still echo over the dense bushes of rhododendrons, and they echo down the years as well as down the slope and over the brook.

Which is as it should be.



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