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And the blackbird sang

April 17, 2017

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You could say that St Patrick’s church in Edinburgh’s Cowgate is a place with a sense of atmosphere. It is surrounded by the capital city’s “Old Town” and, since its construction in the  1770s has continually evolved to stand at the heart of its local community.

Originally, the Cowgate was the “Back of the Canongate” – the foot of gardens which swept down from the merchant’s houses on the High St and, as such, an area where the Episcopalian religion might be expected to flourish, explaining St Patrick’s origins as a church of that faith. With the building of the New Town, the old town lost many of its wealthier residents, and the United Presbyterians took over the building in 1818. However, by the mid-19th century, the area had declined and become “Little Ireland” – an Irish ghetto for the thousands of post Famine refugees who flooded the city. At that point, the church became St Patrick’s to serve the Catholic community.

So, in its very history, it stands testament to a scarcely suspected Ecumenism over two and a half centuries.

It has a personal resonance as well.

My grandfather and his family first worshipped there in the 1890s, as immigrants from Ireland, and Hibernian Football Club had already been founded in the Parish in 1875. Parish Priest, Canon Hannan, from Ballingarry, Co Limerick, had agreed with the leader of the Catholic Young Men’s Society – Michael Whelahan, from Kilglass, Co Roscommon, that the youth of the parish would be better employed playing football in their spare time than carousing and fighting in the closes off the Cowgate.

Fifty yards from the church is the old St Anne’s school building, where James Connolly’s education began and ended – at least in a formal sense, and the church is  now the last resting place of trade unionist and nun, Margaret Sinclair, who is on the road to sainthood, in recognition  of her selfless life, lived for others. Both, in different ways, epitomised the basic Christian values of brotherhood and common cause.

So, attending Mass there – particularly at a time of the year like Easter, is an evocative and reflective experience which suggests the idea of “Faith” is about much more than rules and regulations and tribal adherence to a  particular label. It always seems a place where the spiritual and the human are entwined to a degree which makes a kind of sense  of both.

The Easter Service involves the creating of new fire – a ceremony which dates back to pagan times and perhaps even further – as a sign of hope. It’s performed in the courtyard of the church which is nowadays overlooked by the bedrooms of two budget hotels. In keeping with the church’s history, it didn’t seem out of place against the backdrop of revellers passing along the Cowgate and hotel guests coming and going. As it’s always done, the church was fulfilling its function, cheek by jowl with the life of the people and community it serves.

One of  the pleasures of attending St Pat’s, along with a keen sense of its history, is the feeling of walking alongside my family and their friends from days gone by: a shared experience which is scarcely possible in any other setting. Faith is about belief, but it also evokes continuity – an experience just as sensual as the tang of incense in one’s nostrils.

And continuity is important to many. The many arguments and hostilities towards religion tend to base themselves on theology, philosophy, and the perceived hypocrisies of those who claim Faith. The sense of comfort and belonging which comes from that sense of continuity is maybe undervalued in a fast and furious, interactive and instant world.

For many, their spirituality is a simple, more positive part of their humanity – its complexities best left to academics, and to those who find themselves offended by the apparent impossibilities of Faith.

There are many ways of reaching St Pat’s – spiritually, historically,  and physically.

On Saturday evening, we  took an Old Town route, involving closes and stairways which held much Edinburgh history.

As we waited to cross the road to the church, the traffic lessened, and the only sound came from birdsong. It was from a blackbird, boldly atop a tree, singing with the volume, beauty, and conviction that only a blackbird can muster  in the twilight of a Spring evening. It was, to coin a phrase, heavenly.

As it happened, the tree was in the grounds of the city Mortuary – the imponderables of life and death, beauty and decay, presented to us side by side, as we prepared for a ceremony of hope and new life, in a place where those who came before me had experienced the same feelings..

It seemed somehow appropriate – and, if my Faith means anything, it tells me while death shall have its dominion,  the blackbird will always sing.

Last day at school

March 11, 2017

“17” is a production  currently at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, which focuses on the last day at school for a group of seventeen year  olds. The dramatic twist is provided by the fact that the teenagers are played by actors in their 60s and 70s: the words of those embarking on life spoken by those nearer to leaving  it.  It caused me to reflect, some 47 years later, on my own  last day at school. 

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Late May 1970. This is my last day at school. There’s no fanfare, no Senior Proms or leavers’ ceremonies. As far as the school is concerned, as long as we’ve returned all our books, we ceased to be pupils when we walked out of our final exam last week.

It’s in keeping with the curiously and emotionally barren approach to education at the time. We expect nothing else.

We are called by our surnames, we are “lazy” if we make poor progress, we are “encouraged to learn”  by daily use of corporal punishment,  and we are there to pass the exams which will turn our predominantly working class cohort into university qualified members of the middle class.

It is what our parents want, and, because we know no better, it is, mostly, what we want.

As “grammar school pupils” we are told regularly that we comprise “the top 2% of the population” but no thought is ever given to building our personal self confidence. Indeed, individuality or celebration of success – other than for “the school” – is actively discouraged.

In my final year, through some kind of kink in the 60s  inspired, minimal “democracy” that’s crept into the place, a head boy is elected who is something of a rebel.

On our grand “Speech Day” at Liverpool’s illustrious Philharmonic Hall, where we sing “Jerusalem” and “Drake’s Drum”, there is the undignified spectacle of the headteacher shepherding the honoured guest through a maze of backstage passages, like a scene out of a Marx Brothers’ film, to ensure there will be no meeting between rebellious Head Boy and Establishment’s Honoured Guest.

I’ve been part of this school, primary and secondary, for ten years. Most days I have been frightened – by the threat of the belt, by the unpredictable sarcasm of some of the teachers, by the spectre  of failure, by the subjects I don’t understand and with which I receive minimal help.

But, and here’s the rub, I love this place. I enjoy school, I’m proud to be a pupil, love captaining the cricket and cross country teams, I’m going to miss it all – the comfort of companionship, the solace of routine, the good teachers – the ones I got on with, who appeared to see me as an individual.

I’ve called  in to see them, to thank them – much to their surprise I suspect. Out of my group of friends there might only be two or three of us who feel like this – the others detest the place.

Phone calls have been made and perhaps a dozen of us have agreed to be in school this morning, and we bump into each other as we tour the corridors for the last time, passing the locations of highs and lows, the daft and the portentous, the wayposts through an education which would lead us mostly to university, and to degrees and careers which would give us the comfortable lives which met our parents’ aspirations for us.

We don’t  know what to do, and neither do the school. There are no formal goodbyes or emotional hugs, no invitations to visit again in the future, just a kind of silence of embarrassment.

I walk past the classrooms in which I have spent my teenage years, the same voices teaching the same lessons, half afraid a door will  open and I’ll be punished for being somewhere I have no right to be.

When I next pass along these corridors, some thirty years later, I wilI feel I might meet my teenage self round every corner. The familiar scratch on the locker that had been mine, the pervasive smell of floor polish, the way the light falls on a certain staircase, the echo of my feet on a stone floor  – they will  all seem near to me and resonant. But on the day I leave school I am far too close to it all to have such feelings.

I can have no idea that my ten years here will remain so large in my memory, so vivid in my thoughts.

In May 1970, I know nothing but this time and place  – and I have no clear idea of where I am going.

This is true factually, as I have to wait for exam results to see if I will be going to Edinburgh University, but it is also true in a far wider sense.

There has been no preparation  at all for the next stage in our lives, other than an expectation that we will  “go to university” For all  the post facto media view of the sixties, most of us are compliant, and never question this.

Our music and our politics is radical, but our schooling is repressive and conservative. When our inspirational English teacher, Ernie Spencer, tells us we can  bring in “LPs” so we can discuss the lyrics in poetry classes, it is seen as apocalyptically progressive by some staff.

I have applied to Edinburgh to read English because I want to return to my birthplace. I have chosen to read English because, latterly, Ernie has introduced me to the idea that literature can  be inspiring. I know nothing about the course or, indeed, what university education entails. When I told our peripatetic “careers teacher” of my ambition to go to Edinburgh, she snorted with derision and left it at that.

We are mostly first generation university applicants so our parents know as little as we do.

So the future is  somewhat blank and I think the overwhelming  sensation this  May morning  is one of tiredness. I have done a minimum of two hours homework, five nights a week, for ten years. I have coped with the emotional stress of a fairly inhumane regime and the personal pressure not to let down my family.

In addition, I have sung in the choir, played the cello, and represented the school at cricket and cross country most weekends.

School has taken up 70% of my waking hours.

I have run my entire academic race for other people and their expectations – and now I am  shattered. Too tired, certainly, to look beyond the long summer holidays – at my ambitions and hopes for the future.

It seems a pity, rather a diminishment of the proper aims of an education.

My school has failed to give me a sense of who I am or what I can accomplish. It has highlighted our failings without praising our abilities. It is the way of the times, but even in our ignorance we are somehow aware of this.

Yes, we have had the best of this type of Education; we will make it to universities, gain our degrees and step on to the rungs of  the professional ladder  -but it will take us much longer to know who we are and what we are worth.

Gradually we drift to the area in front of the school outside of the Headteacher’s office. He must see us there, but there is no response. He must know a dozen of his senior pupils are gathering in school for the last time, but he fails to make any gesture of recognition.

We look at each other and then, quite bizarrely, we begin to sing the current England World Cup song. ” Back home- they’ll be thinking about us when we are far away…”.

We are not rowdy, we sing in tune and quite solemnly. It’s nothing to do with football – I don’t even support England, it’s an attempt to fill a vacuum – in a faux amused,  half defiant, manner.

It’s carried out with typical teenage brio and swagger, but, as I will later reflect, it’s a very sad way to end your schooldays. It’s like an abused child telling desperate jokes in an attempt to show their bravery and make their abuser smile.

Then we go our separate ways,  still  unacknowledged.

I will go on to be a teacher and eventually a Depute Head.   I’ll commit my career to guidance and pupil support. My consistent theme over nearly forty years will be that each child is precious and unique and deserves the best possible chance in life. I will not be embarrassed to tell the pupils that to their faces, and I will foster relationships with their families.

I will love my job and the pupils I teach. I will have similar affection for the colleagues I lead.

It seems my school taught me this by omission. In my own teaching,  I will try to supply all that was missing in my own education.

Our school taught us how to succeed academically, but not who we were. The idea that learning could be joyful and empowering was completely absent. They gave us examination passes and emotional failures. Our sense of self, for the most part, was ignored.

Still, I have to thank it for my academic success and the road upon which it set me – to a fulfilling career and a happy life.

That’s why, despite all I have written, I still look back with great fondness on my schooldays, the friends I made, the sports I learned to play, and the knowledge with which I was imbued. My love of school clearly led to my ambition to become a teacher.

But when I think of those gangly youths boldly singing an irrelevant song – because they had not been taught, or offered, any better means of leaving school, I really do wonder at those who promote the grammar school system.

Yes it can be successful in its way for a minority — but what of all the others? Why should the few be pushed to success at the expense of the many left behind?

And who will support those whose exam results  have been achieved at the cost  of their own emotional intelligence – qualified for external success, whilst prone to internal failure?

Thomas Paine suggested those who believe in a cruel God make  a cruel world.

You could say the same for an education system.

A nod, a smile, and a wink

February 20, 2017

I was once asked to give a presentation to a group of aspirant teachers, sharing what I had learned about the qualities needed to become an effective member of a senior management team in a pupil centred school.

When I sat down to prepare for the meeting, I realised I had to look no further than John Dames, who has died this week, after a typically courageous and uncomplaining battle against illness.

In the late 70s, I was a second year probationer teacher at St Thomas of Aquin’s High  in Edinburgh, when we heard we were getting a new Depute Headteacher. It was unsettling news for youngsters who were just beginning to feel comfortable in the profession. What would he be like? Would things change? Would we get along with him?

Then he arrived and was introduced to us. He seemed very young – to us a good thing – and resembled a cross between Jimmy Carter and Robert Redford, which gave him an immediate presence.

All we really knew was that he had come from a school in Dumfries, and the scarcity of informaton, of course, fed our curiosity. Over staffroom coffee, the chatter was consistent: “Have you met him? What was he like? Will he be ok as Depute?”

Quickly he became visible around the school – always crucial for a successful manager, and the reports developed a pattern: “I saw the new guy, he nodded at me, and smiled,  then he winked.”

At the time, and even written on the page just now, that seems like a strange introduction. However, as we were later to realise, it was a typical “Damesy” way of being friendly, and as his initial introduction to most of us, it was highly effective. When we came to deal with him more formally on school business we felt comfortable in his presence, and this was reflected also in his presentations to staff meetings, where we first became aware of his dry and self deprecating wit. Almost subliminally, I suppose, I started to understand a model of authority which came from calmness, shared concerns, and genuine care for colleagues and pupils.

What became very obvious, very quickly, about John Dames, was that he loved his job and he loved being around young folk – staff or pupils. He was full of energy and ideas, but never overpoweringly so, because he was a good listener and a man with a great capacity to seek consensus and advice. I always thought his authority came from the confidence of operating from the most positive of motives – concern for  others and the determination to do as good a job as possible. John used no complicated strategies as a school manager, he expected high standards and strong commitment from those around him, and led by his own example.

He very soon gained the staff’s trust and became one of us, whilst retaining his detached position as Depute. I know from my own experience that such an approach brings extra demands, but also great rewards, if it’s successful. Because he was always honest and we knew he was operating in our interests, it was not difficult to move between the friend we laughed with in the pub after work, and the depute who might need to address a concern with us more formally in school.

He joined in with our staff social life and became a mainstay of the staff football team. He was a talented sportsman and played a variety of  sports with the skill and dogged determination which reflected an earlier  successful time as an amateur boxer. As a footballer, he showed skill, guile, intelligence and strength as a pacy overlapping full back with a full box of tricks.

When the headteacher who had brought him to St Thomas’s (Jimmy Barbour,  a tribute to whom, sadly, I had to write earlier this week) announced his retirement, the staff were unanimous that we wanted John to get the job. This was not just a case of familiarity, it was a recognition that he knew what we were trying to build as a staff, and he had contributed hugely to the project.

There was a morning interview for the post, after which John returned to work, and, at the end of the day, he joined in a game of staff v pupils football on the Meadows at the bottom of the street. After  repeated attempts to reach him, a secretary had to run down to the Meadows and shout that he was wanted on the phone by the Director of Education. Staff and patients at the Royal Infirmary opposite the school were then treated to the sight of a middle aged man trotting up the road in full Celtic kit to receive the phone call which would tell him he was the new Headteacher of St Thomas’s. Naturally, he returned to the Meadows, told us the good news, and finished the game. In the manner of his becoming a headteacher, he demonstrated how he would pursue the tasks the post demanded.

There were initial challenges for the new headteacher. The school roll, at around 600, was considered small for a city school. Pupils, staff and parents recognised this was an ideal size, especially as the school, with a catchment that ran from north to south of the Capital through the city centre, was truly comprehensive. However, local authority economics suggested the school should be closed. We felt this was unthinkable, given the education it provided to its pupils.

It was typical of John’s energy and vision that we would  meet the situation proactively. We considered ourselves a community school in all but name, and we would “walk the walk”. In a series of innovative and sector leading moves we welcomed adults into our classes, offered evening and night classes, and instituted the city’s  first complete 4th Year work experience programme with the support of our local and parental community. We made the point over and over that St Tam’s meant too much to Edinburgh to be lost.

So successful was the campaign that not only did we stay open but required an annexe at the former Jimmy Clark’s school overlooking Holyrood Park,  to accommodate growing pupil numbers.

For me, it was an early lesson in what can be achieved by a school leader with total commitment and the trust and respect of his staff.

I saw it again with John’s promotion of Outdoor Education.  All  first year pupils would have a residential week away – an invaluable experience for both staff and pupils.  Originally it was at Kinharvie House near New Abbey on the Solway coast. We all learned to share John’s love of the area and its heritage, and former pupils still talk to me about their times there nearly forty years later. The same is true of our second Residential base at Craigower Lodge in Newtonmore, where pupils and staff discovered the beauty of Speyside and the Cairngorms – and formed life long associations with the area.

Alongside this came steady improvement in academic results till St Thomas’s became one of the top  schools in Edinburgh in this respect.

Invariably with John, his actions matched his words, and his total commitment to the school was reflected in the fact that his children attended the school and Mary, his wife, also worked there, showing that same caring approach, as a feisty and much loved advocate for the Learning Support department, which she led with predictable energy.

But it would be wrong to suggest it was all worthy intentions and hard graft. It was also a joy to work alongside John Dames. One Friday night in the pub ended with over a dozen staff crammed into his much loved beach cabin at Southerness on the Solway coast, and his children were accustomed to being woken late in the evening at home by various of their teachers arriving back from staff celebratory occasions. After one particular Burns Supper, the residents of this douce Morningside street  must have been amazed to see three male teachers dressed as nuns emerge from the Dames minibus with flutes and a big drum! Don’t ask!

It was a beautiful home, made special by the strong family love it contained, but also by John and Mary’s long term project to restore its interior. None of us knew where they found the time or energy, but for  a good few years we reckoned you could tell the Heidie was approaching by the distinctive whiff of Nitromors paint stripper in the air!

Though always and indisputably an East End of Glasgow man, John adapted well to life in the capital and clearly loved Edinburgh. Soon after his arrival at St Tams, pupils interviewed him for the school magazine and asked how he was finding life in his new abode. Typically, he pointed out that the school was in Edinburgh’s Tollcross, near the city centre, and he came from Glasgow’s Tollcross, in a similar position, so he already felt at home. His interests and learning covered far more than the world of education, and he could be fascinating when he shared his knowledge and discoveries, being always open to new experiences.

Like many men of his generation and background, he wouldn’t  find it easy to talk openly of emotions, but his many personal and discreet kindnesses to staff members at hard times in their personal lives were a measure of the man’s fundamental goodness – and I write from my own experience.

Laughter was a mainstay of  all John Dames activities – as was football. On one occasion he damaged his leg in a staff match. Typically he played on till the end, had his shower and drove home. It must have been very painful overnight, but he was at his desk on time next morning.

By break time we had convinced him to go across the road to Casualty to have it checked out. He returned at lunch time with his broken leg in a full stookie – and never missed a day at school. He had been away for around 3 hours, but in the retelling of the tale through the years, that was eventually refined to “no more than twenty minutes”!  Such was his commitment to the school, many folk found that easy to believe.

He was a member of the  idiosyncratic “Morningside Celtic Supporters Club” and an enthusiastic attender at their annual “Tommy Burns Supper”. The Celtic legend and John Dames had much in common – in their Faith, goodness towards others, and work ethic. We were delighted to arrange a letter from Tommy to John on one of his “big” birthdays, recognising his lifelong support of Celtic and his contribution to education.

Outside of school and family, one of John’s long term commitments was to our Thursday night five a side games which were played for over twenty years on pitches down by the beach in Portobello. Most of us who played were teachers or lecturers, and, though we would never have stated the fact, those games, and the pint in the bar afterwards, became  crucial to our mental as well as physical well being. We would chat about a wide range of topics, often seriously, but frequently with underlying humour, and there we got to know John well. It was a situation in which he shone, being a natural raconteur, and employing his dry wit, often leaving us crying with laughter.

When  we discovered that he had served part of his RAF service on Lewis, this was always referred to as “the time when he saved Europe single handedly,  through his vigilance on the western seaboard, as one of the Brylcream boys.” He was often the only Celtic supporter in a group of Hibees, but, much as he had taken to Edinburgh despite his Glasgow roots, he avoided patronising us about our support for “the first to wear the green”, and developed an affection for the Edinburgh side. Often he would listen patiently to our Hibs centred discussion, before interjecting to steer us on to another subject. I remember his comment one night: “That’s fascinating, boys, but could we move on to something more interesting, please – maybe discuss how we do the ironing, for instance?”

Thursdays were sacrosanct, and future historians will marvel how, over more than two decades, there never seemed to be a St Tam’s school event on a Thursday night. Even when an event was arranged outwith his control, I recall, for instance a reception at the Civic Chambers, he would make his excuses and leave, determined to arrive at the pitches for our 9pm start.

It seems right to paraphrase St Thomas Aquinas, who memorably suggested: “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.” In our case the alleviation came through “a good game, a shower, and a pint of beer”.

In his retirement, he worked still for young people – on Rotary scholarships, and with the council pupil placement committee. He and Mary travelled widely in their trusty camper van, frequently to trouble torn areas on charity relief missions, where he would listen and learn, often reporting back to us on Thursdays after the football. There were romantic City Breaks as well, though these often seemed to be arranged in the vicinity of Celtic’s European ties.

Being a father and a grandfather was always central to his life, and, of course, the Thursday football continued. He played on into his 70s, still able to find a killer pass, or confuse an opponent with the drop of a shoulder. He added an additional skill to compensate for his advancing years. He would subtly handle the ball and play on straight faced. When we shouted for a foul, he would stop, turn with a look of complete innocence, spread his arms and ask: “What?” So polished was this performance that, in the end, we changed the rules, and “Damesy’s hand ball” became an accepted part of our game. We couldn’t resist the twinkle in his eye.

And now, it’s small moments I will remember.

In the 80s I ran school discos, and often the crates of singles would be left by the staffroom door. On one occasion, Mary looked down and noted the top single was Robert Palmer’s hit: “Johnny and Mary”. It was made even more relevant by the opening line: “Johnny’s always running around…” I think of him whenever I hear the track.

Late in life he and Mary moved to a flatnear the Meadows. I asked how he was settling in after so long in his other house. His answer reflected his lifelong commitment to education: “It’s nice to be opposite a school and hear the bells during the day and the pupils out playing.”

All who knew him will miss him greatly. All who  have spoken to me about him in the last couple of days have used the same, accurate, phrase: “He was a good man.”

He was a man of huge integrity and a deep and abiding Faith, about which he was never ostentatious.

When he reached the gates of Heaven, I have no doubt they will have been opened to him, and I am certain he will have been welcomed in with a nod,  a smile, and a wink.

See you, Jimmy.

February 14, 2017

The man opposite looked up from my CV and said:

“Hmm. Celtic history, I see. So you’re a Celtic supporter?”

Twenty three years old and innocent, and being interviewed for my first teaching post, I replied bright eyed:

“No, no – it’s Keltic with a hard C. Actually, I’m a Hibs supporter!”

He put the paper down and looked at me.

“Really? I’m afraid I don’t have that pleasure….”

My heart sank – I really thought I’d blown my chances.

Luckily, Jimmy Barbour was much much bigger than that, he was winding me up, had I known it, I got the job, and when I heard of his death today, one day short of his 90th birthday, I thought how appropriate it was that a man so full of heart should die on Valentine’s Day.

For the first five years of my teaching career, Jimmy was my Headteacher. His influence on my career was enormous and yet he was a man of the most understated nature in his approach to school leadership.

It was he who identified me as a possible guidance teacher, encouraged me to apply for  a post, and set  me on my way to a successful and very happy career in that area of teaching. He saw qualities in me of which I was totally ignorant, gave me confidence I didn’t realise I had, and certainly recognised how to get the best out of me.

Headteachers bring a personality to a school. Some are brash and highly  focused, and consistently at the centre of everything; you would never be in any doubt as to whose school it was. This can be a successful approach, if the heidie listens to his staff and takes them with him – the Iron Duke galloping along at the head of his troops. Of course, it can also be an ego trip of a disaster, causing resentment and anger, with pupils and staff left far behind as he (or she)  trail their clouds of glory.

Jimmy was the complete opposite of such a model. Like many who have high skills, he operated almost invisibly. People would go in to his room upset about something, make the point forcefully, and emerge having agreed to do what had  originally been upsetting them – and feeling as if they had won a victory.

I remember my first year probationer review – a big “state of the union” moment for any young teacher. He had moved his office from the entrance of the school to a nondescript room off one of the interior corridors. I thought it a weird decision at the time, though later, as a Depute, I could well understand the merits of being stationed in the midst of school life, rather than at a distance.

He bumped into me outside the door one day and asked me in for a chat. There was some banter about football and he commented on how well I had settled in, my work in the English classroom, what I was contributing to extra-curricular activities, and my enthusiasm. Strangely, he mentioned no date for my probation interview, but I left feeling confident it would go well.

A couple of days later, in my staffroom pigeonhole, was a fully signed and dated probationer Review – it had been painless and effective, a typically “Jimmy Barbour operation.”  As I taught both his daughter and his son at various times, I was relieved that the message seemed to have gone home that I was  “ok”!

At the beginning of my second year in teaching, after a Parents’ Night,  the staff were in Bennets’s bar in Tollcross, a favourite watering hole near the school. I turned from the bar with a couple of drinks to find Jimmy standing there:

“Have you ever thought about being a guidance teacher?” he asked, taking a pint from me.

“Er..not really.”

“Well, you should – there’s a post available.”

By the time I  sat down I had agreed to apply. I was successful, was a Principal Teacher of Guidance by the age of  26 and ended up as a Depute leading a guidance team. It was a career I loved, focusing on an area for which I obviously had an aptitude – which Jimmy had seen and I had not. I had him to thank for guiding me with a gentle hand.

He operated with a sense of humour and a kindness which myself and my colleagues, as probationers,  didn’t always spot. If there was a way of gaining benefits for the staff or pupils, he would make sure they were accessed, but he would seldom reveal that they had occurred through his intent. He had many managerial skills, but he deployed them subtly and positively. It was always about the school, not about Jimmy.

In the late seventies, there were a series of teacher strike actions – largely about conditions and resources rather than pay. It was a difficult time. Our school, St Thomas’s, was a caring and close community, we had good links with parents, and operated in a child centred fashion. Despite that, or more probably, because of that, we were a militant staff, committed to fighting for the best for pupils, and so we became one of the schools chosen for “unofficial strike action” on a rolling basis.

In terms of school management, this meant that each of us who were striking, because it was “unofficial”, had to see the Headteacher personally, and inform him that we would be taking action. He then had to inform the local authority, who would place a disciplinary letter in our files noting the fact.

Jimmy did this very professionally, and copies of our letters duly appeared in our pigeonholes.

On the Wednesday afternoon, we left school and gathered in the East End of Edinburgh for a teachers’ march along Princes St.

As we passed what was still then the GPO, one of my colleagues nudged me. There on the steps, his reactolite glasses dark in the sun, head held high, was Jimmy, proudly watching his staff march by – for all the world like a leader reviewing his troops.

It was a moment which had a huge impact on me, and on my colleagues. What a gesture of absolute support, executed with minimal fuss, never mentioned again, simply a headteacher sending a message of how much he valued his staff. When I became a Depute over a decade later, Jimmy on the steps of the GPO was one of the images I carried with me –  I tried to remember always that I was a teacher first and a manager second, and that the wellbeing of pupils and staff should always be my priority.

Jimmy was a great man for the football – for years he signed on as an O Grade English night class student at Telford College, to ensure he and his mates could play indoor football in their gym each Thursday evening. Celtic  FC remained a passion but he had a general interest in the game as well.

When Scotland played Wales in the  World Cup qualifier at Anfield in 1978, I managed to get two tickets. It would mean missing a couple of classes in the afternoon, but if we travelled home through the night after the game, we would be available for the next day. Jimmy weighed up the amount of extracurricular work myself and my pal put into the school and decided it was a just reward that we should be allowed to go: the type of kindness he showed in different ways to many staff at the school – it wasn’t strictly within the rules, but then like a lot of mavericks in those days, Jimmy could be comfortable bending the rules if he felt it was in the interests of school, pupils or staff.

I think he was quite calculating in presenting an image that undercut his skills and experience. Folk who underestimated him, especially in the local authority, often found he had bested them both expertly and invisibly. He had been a leading councillor down in Ayrshire and was justifiably proud of a civic sewage scheme which he had piloted and seen through to completion. However, he gave the appearance sometimes of being a little overwhelmed by his role, but it was a deception – he knew what he wanted to do and he generally got his way. The welcoming and caring  atmosphere in the school, and the success in all areas of its pupils, was a testament to his leadership – as were the subsequent careers of his staff.

In later years, I never addressed a staff meeting without remembering Jimmy at his mystifying best. There was an unpopular change that had to be made – possibly to the timetable – and it fell to Jimmy to impose it. He stood up in front of a fairly fractious staff meeting and began:

“You have decided……well, we have decided….ahem……it has been decided that…….oh, alright, I have decided that…..”

By the time we stopped laughing, the change had been agreed.

The year I started teaching was the year that St Thomas’s became a co-educational school – previously it had been a girls’ school – originally run by nuns. It was a difficult transition – especially as it coincided with the Raising of the School Leaving Age, and was to be implemented year by year – that is with boys starting in the first year, so it would take six years for the school to become fully mixed.

I was unaware at the time that, with these changes in mind, Jimmy had started on a  recruitment campaign to lower the age and mix the gender of the staff cohort – hence the reason why I was a favoured candidate as a 23  year old male. It was typical that Jimmy would plan ahead in that manner. The staff he put together were highly skilled, enthusiastic, energetic, caring, and talented young folk, and together we supported each other into the best start you could possibly wish to your career, friends as well as colleagues, committed to education, innovation  and progress, and to our pupils. It was a time when anything seemed possible. Jimmy chose well.

So when he announced his early retirement – he was only in his mid-fifties – it came as a shock to the staff. In fact, at first, we were incredulous. However, he explained that the way education was going, he could see he would have less and less control as a headteacher, particularly in the area of choosing staff, and, as he felt that was his only major talent, he thought the time was right for him to go. It was a typically self deprecating exit, and time and events probably proved his fears were well founded.

I bumped into him regularly thereafter.

One time, as we left a funeral together, he complimented me on my promotion to Depute. Then he added:

“I always thought you’d be headteacher of St Thomas’s one day.”

I had never had an ambition to be a Head, but it was comforting to hear Jimmy, thirty five years or so after that chat in Bennet’s Bar, still finding a way of encouraging me to be the best I could be.

Later still, I discovered he had a talent and an enjoyment for writing cowboy novels. They were very good, and, somehow, typical of a hobby which Jimmy would pursue.

When I retired from teaching I wrote a book about my education experiences – from my first day at school to the end of my teaching career. Naturally, Jimmy’s influence  on my teaching career featured, and I was glad to get the chance to acknowledge his effect on my career by sending him a copy of the book.

I arrived home some time later to a message on the answer phone from Jimmy, thanking me for the book and saying he had no idea of the impact he had had, and wishing me well. It was typically Jimmy: to the point, brief, and understated. It meant a lot to me.

He was a talented and complicated man, thoughtful and gentle in his approach,  who made a huge difference to the lives of the staff and pupils for whom he worked – I could not have hoped for a better introduction to a a career in education.

Looking for a final representative image of Jimmy, I find myself back in my first year in teaching.

With the innocence and daring  of youth, and having noticed a few of our staff bore a passing resemblance to the  Broons of Glebe St, I wrote a staff Christmas pantomime based on the famous family.

Nearly everyone was in it, but we wanted a cameo role for Jimmy. Obviously, he would have to be the family patriarch, Grandpaw.

Fair enough – he sportingly agreed, and we wrote the play along the lines of the family being worried about Grandpaw, and whether he would make it for the Bells.

Right on cue, Jimmy appeared at the end.

The idea was that he would burst through the door to huge applause and then, as part of our curtain call, he would thank everyone for coming, and wish them a happy Christmas.

The big night arrived, Jimmy was primed, and his costume was perfect – bunnet, dark suit, waistcoat, and big beard (though for some reason he had made it yellow rather than white).

When he entered through the door, the audience, made up of pupils and parents, went wild. These were the early days of staff pantos; the reaction had  steadily risen in excitement as each member of staff came on and was recognised. They had noted that the Heidie was one of the few staff still not on stage, and so when he arrived, they raised the rafters.

Jimmy moved to the front of the stage and, in the midst of the applause, pulled down his beard, and said: “It’s me!”

He was worried he might not have been recognised – a typically understated reaction.

Of course, his action provoked even more laughter and a brilliant finale to the show.

That was Jimmy Barbour, a great leader who made a huge impact with the smallest of gestures.

I owe him  a lot.

Rising above the provincial

January 25, 2017

 

 

 

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Picture from The Scotsman

A friend once described me as “The man who is always somewhere else.”

I grew up in Edinburgh for my first six years, then lived in the north of England for over a decade, and returned to Scotland for good, as an eighteen year old. My family is largely Irish, and, as a result, in England I felt Scots, and in Scotland I feel Irish.

Such are the effects of a mobile upbringing and a mixed heritage.

I loved my time in England, am delighted to be from Edinburgh, and am hugely proud of my Irish passport. So, when people suggest my support for Independence is in some way parochial or based on anti-English feeling, they could not be further from the truth – actually it stems from the perspective of having viewed the country from inside and out.

Living in a country, particularly in your childhood, gives you a deep seated, almost intuitive, understanding of its culture – an understanding which is fuelled as much by the small things as the obvious benchmarks.

Though, as a child, I visited Scotland regularly and kept in touch with family, when I returned to the country in 1970, I quickly became aware of many threads in Scottish life which were unknown to me – even though I had been living less than two hundred miles from the Border.

Burns had never been mentioned in my education, I didn’t even know about January 25th. My university pals with the same taste in music as I had were raving about The Humblebums. Billy Connolly and Gerry Rafferty? Never heard of them. The same for carry outs, haggis suppers, tenement life (a distant memory for me), Fergusson, Sunset Song,  the General Assembly of the Kirk, Hamish Imlach, Sportscene, climbing Munros, clootie dumplings and cullen skink, any amount of Scots words, going the messages, even “Oor Wullie” and “The Broons” – though sent down to England each Christmas, occupied a different place in the psyche in Scotland – for this displaced eighteen year old with a Lancashire accent.

I learned quickly – my new pals were welcoming, and only faintly mocking, though I was glad to note my Irish heritage as another reason for being slightly “different”.

Formally, university study of Scottish History and Literature filled in many of the gaps caused by my  totally Anglocentric education, and my social life helped with the every day moments – the difference between a steak pie and a mince pie, square sausage and links, heavy and seventy shilling,  a  pan loaf and a half loaf, the back green and the New Town “area”.

So I found it amusing during the independence Referendum when unionist commentators tried to make the case for a “British” culture, and accused those who pointed out any differences between us and our southern neighbour as “Scottish Exceptionalism”.

Of course there are shared elements of culture – as there would be in Scandinavia, northern Europe, or the Americas – but it is the small everyday differences that give us a sense of where we are and who is around us; celebrating our distinctive culture helps us join the international community rather than isolating us, tells us who we are, gives us that vital sense of perspective, for which we need to be part of the world, not separated from it.

And so, during the seventies, my decade of return to Scotland, I had great cause to thank “The Scotsman”.

During those years it was a superb reflection of many areas of Scottish life. It combined some excellent writing with a wide and deep coverage of the political and cultural scene and a commitment to report international news – from England and far beyond – at a standard one would expect from a national newspaper.

The writing was frequently inspirational – in that decade and for many years later – Neal Ascherson, Tom Nairn, Ian Bell, John Rafferty, Joyce McMillan, Ian Wood, Lesley Riddoch, Ludo Kennedy, Fred Bridgland, Neil McCormack, Magnus Magnusson, and many more. However, its strongest point – and what made it invaluable to me as a “returnee” seeking to grasp what was “going on” in Scotland – was, and here’s that word again – its perspective.

The “old” Scotsman is often described as having had a “Liberal”,  slightly left of centre,  approach to its coverage of Scottish life. That’s probably a fair comment, from a political angle, but I think it was about far more than that.

I am minded of the words Muriel Spark gave to Jean Brodie:

“You must always remember, you are citizens of Edinburgh, city of Hume and Boswell. You are Europeans, not dowdy provincials.”

The “old” Scotsman, as I suspect it had done for over a century, had the measure of Scotland. Especially in the post war years, there existed a kind of “non-progressive pride” in the country. The “North Britain” days were long gone, but the “British war effort” still echoed loud and clear. As the polls showed, there was little popular demand for political  independence, but there was a burgeoning pride in what it meant to be Scottish – and distinctive – within the UK – and beyond. The foundation of the Edinburgh Festival was attached to that kind of sentiment, I suppose.

It was a “safe” political environment – the Tories had a majority of votes in the 1959 election – and so promoting Scotland was a non-threatening position; it was kind of like being a fervent nationalist for eighty minutes at Murrayfield and then going out to vote against independence the next day – a position many still find tenable.

In this atmosphere, The Scotsman steered a course which reflected the mood of the time but also was brave enough to push rather more progressive ideas about the country and the views of  different classes rather than just the elite or the political.

Pre internet and Scottish Parliament, along with the Kirk, newspapers provided one of the main opportunities for a national discourse, a mirror showing  who we were, a chance to reflect, perhaps, on who we wanted to be, where we wanted to go.

For many years, The Scotsman, performed this role with aplomb, style and not a little edginess. If you were interested in Scotland, you would want to read The Scotsman; if you were interested in a bellweather of opinion in certain strata of society, again, the paper was your informant.

Its position in the late 70s supported a Scottish Parliament. It was an invaluable outlet for discussion, disputation and, on occasions, dissonance. Great thinkers wrote for the paper and put their points of view; their articles promoted conversation rather than abusive disagreement, and, crucially, there was a measured editorial line based on an equable view of the situation, rather than a rigid political angle. It was a voice for progress.

It was, in short, an education: leading out the national spirit, giving pause for thought, at the centre of a certain kind of Scottishness and nationality, informing and elucidating.

But education is tricky – it relies upon, and exists within, its context, the society it serves, the expectations of its providers and users. It has to reflect and lead, mirror and inspire. Its resources will affect its impact, its practitioners its efficacy. Matching the expectations of its consumers is always difficult.

So it has proved to be with The Scotsman. It has had the misfortune to find itself broadly out of step with general Scottish opinion at the same time as print newspapers have been losing their role. Editorial decisions in the nineties did not help the paper’s case and it is now a sad shadow of its former self.

Ironically, Scottish opinion currently is probably as much in line with the “old” Scotsman position as it has ever been – a minority considering Independence. with an easy majority looking to a kind of DevoMax  – perhaps leaving foreign affairs and defence to the UK. This is not my position – but it is a thoughtful staging post on the way to full  independence, and one which the “old” Scotsman would have had little difficulty in supporting, I suspect.

Instead, the paper is nowadays perceived by many as being irredeemably unionist in outlook with a particular mission to attack the SNP. Lack of resources from its parent company, and a position in the portfolio marked ‘regional press’ has inevitably led to a deterioration of reporting standards and a narrowing of news coverage. In this, of course, they are not alone amongst daily papers, but perhaps its decline is met with more disappointment than most when its former glories are recalled.

One of the unfortunate by products of referendum politics has been the emergence of paint brush opinions amongst a minority. In much the same way as Scottish Labour are often painted as “SNP Bad”, so elements of the press are frequently portrayed as “anti-Scottish”.

Whether accurate or not, it is an approach which serves no useful purpose, and hardly convinces those who read, or write, the pieces concerned,  to change their views.

I should confess a bias. As someone who studied English, inevitably, I count many journalists amongst friends, and a fair few have worked at The Scotsman. There is also a family connection. I don’t think any of this has blinded me to the paper’s faults, but it has also given me an understanding, over three or four decades, of how newspapers and journalism work. As I have said, many things dictate what appears in a newspaper apart from an editorial line: resources, market share,  targeted audience, and the circumstances of the day – politically, economically, geographically, and intellectually.

It is strange to me that a nation’s leading newspaper would decide to divorce itself from its established audience, and seek to promote an alternative view, but any proprietor has the right to take that direction, whether for economic, political or journalistic reasons.

Like many others, I no longer buy a print version of The Scotsman. Where once the pages were news filled, international with a Scottish content, and produced to a high standard, they now seem very thin on all counts. Where once informed reportage was backed by opinion pieces, now we are served a diet which is largely political opinion dressed up as news.

For all that, there are still some fine writers and journalists involved with the paper, whose work I avidly read online.  I am not prepared to boycott any paper because it disagrees with my political views, I would rather make a decision based on individual pieces and journalists. The paper as a whole I find hard to take because many of the columnists it employs, by and large, write about a Scotland I neither know nor recognise, a Scotland in which I would be horrified to live. I find their refusal to countenance progressive change for Scotland deeply depressing.

I am, then, sorry to see the state of The Scotsman today, but that won’t prevent me from wishing it a very happy 200th Birthday. In many ways, the jobs with which its journalists are tasked are harder than they have ever been before, in conditions that are insecure and under threat. Like most folk in most jobs, they do what they have to do and do it to the best of their abilities, in the manner  in which they are allowed to do it. The remarkable thing is that they still manage to produce a paper and occasionally hit the journalistic heights.

It is no longer my paper of choice but it would be crass to deny the place it has played in Scottish life over most of its two hundred years. It has made a huge contribution to civic Scotland and most would agree that the present state of political affairs – with an ever more confident country bidding to take its place on the world stage, sooner or later, would not have come about without the inspired writing, the encouragement to discourse,  the canny observation of Scottish life, and the exhortation to rise above “dowdy provincialism”  which was its keynote approach in its best years.

To ignore its bicentennial birthday would be like refusing to admit your grandfather into the house because you don’t like the shoes he is wearing. There’s a lot more to him than that!

Mark Twain said: “If you don’t read the newspaper your uninformed, if you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed,” and H.L. Mencken opined that “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant, and the crazy crazier.”

However, I would prefer to take Alain de Botton’s line: “To look at the paper is to raise a seashell to one’s ear and to be overwhelmed by the roar of humanity.”

I wish a happy birthday to The Scotsman on this two hundredth anniversary of its first appearance. I wish success and happiness to those who work there, plying their craft in the most difficult of circumstances, and I thank all those who, for most of its two centuries, informed Scottish life, gave us a clear idea of who we were, and, most importantly, encouraged all in Scotland to have vision,  and to plan for a better future.

I hope somehow we can enjoy such brilliance again, I hope The Scotsman can find its way back to echoing the roar of humanity from a Scottish and international perspective.

Annie and Ellen

January 19, 2017

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Picture copyright – Brooklyn Public Museum

Genealogy is a capricious beast.

My grandfather and four of his five siblings emigrated from Co Leitrim to Brooklyn in the late 19th century. After a few years, grandad and his brother re-crossed the Atlantic and joined  their other brother in Edinburgh.

The three girls never returned, and, having married, and taken new surnames, were difficult to trace, though I had tried since I was in my twenties.

Then, suddenly, and by chance, last week, I discovered two of them, and their life stories. And, after years of searching and wondering, they became real to me, in only a couple of days.

Their stories were not totally joyful. Both endured widowhood, one of them twice. There were infant deaths and enough hints at poverty and ill health to give pause for sombre  reflection.

Phrases like “no education” “destitute” “aged and infirm” “day labourer” and “servant” provide a background which takes on vivid hues when applied to relatives, real people, named persons. Folk from whom I have maybe inherited a way of smiling, a nervous cough, a look around the eyes, some small movement that people say is  a “McPartland trait”.

Equally, the understanding that my folk were not specially chosen for hard and challenging lives, but were just individuals amongst thousands in an overwhelming cacophony of desperate living and crushed hopes,  brings home the  conditions in Brooklyn towards the end of the 19th century.

Given the nature of society, it seems almost predictable that my grandad and his brother (one  a trolley conductor, the other a labourer)  made their money and their decision, and came to Scotland after a few years, while the women, soon married, did not have that choice.

By coincidence, both my grandmothers also spent time in Brooklyn in their early twenties, but remained single, and young enough to flee from what both reported as the “oppressive” heat, noise, and atmosphere.

Not so my grand aunts.

They stayed, and were at different times, housewives, housekeepers, grocers, servants and seamstresses according to the various, hurriedly scrawled, census returns. Even allowing for the rapid urbanisation and mechanisation of the last hundred years, it is hard to imagine the reality of Brooklyn at the end of the 19th century

Like the medieval peasants who lived in shacks beneath the walls of the castles, seeking protection and a means of earning a living, these immigrants were in the centre of a vast mushroom cloud of economic growth – but they were not part of it. They made the wealth, but never had a share in it.

They turned the machines,unloaded the ships, loaded the carts, brushed the discarded wood shavings from the floors of wealth creation, served in the houses of the rich, drove the trams for their fellow workers,  and fought to keep a roof over their families, and bread on their tables. They kept their heads down and their minds busy, because stopping to wonder if emigration had been the right choice brought thoughts as haunting  as any ghost from their childhoods.

The industrial revolution created huge cities at a frantic rate, the need for transport of people and goods kept pace with this growth. If New York grew unimaginably towards the end of the 19th century, Brooklyn was the powerhouse of that development. 

Reflecting the millennium’s position between the old and the  new, they came on sailing boats and steam ships, wooden vessels and iron monsters. The boats struggled for space at the  piers, just as the people jostled for a tenement room or an outhouse floor.

The snap of the sails and the wail of ships’ sirens was drowned out by the noise of hard working, desperately striving, humanity. And it came in many languages – Irish, Scottish and English accents fought for a hearing over Italian, German, Norwegian,Yiddish, and a dozen Eastern European tongues. Brooklyn was a place were foreigners found home – the New Americans had arrived.

Many of them came from basic huts in remote country areas – they had no means of ever imagining the noise, the dirt, the crowds and the bustle to which they were headed. Even those used to town or city life had never seen anything like this twenty four hour, nonstop show, of work and commerce, buying, selling, making and dealing.

They came, and tried to survive, for many reasons. Some were fuelled by ambition, driven to test out “the American Dream”, but most were there because they had no choice. They were leaving lives that were so poverty stricken, hopeless, dangerous,  or insupportable,  that they had more faith in the unknown than the familiar. It had to be better.

For some it was an improvement, a chance at a new start, but for many came the realisation  that it can be hard to outrun poverty, illness, or despair.

They were there in their millions – the flotsam and jetsam of an economic system which needed their labour but was unwilling to fairly reward them.

Brooklyn was a paradigm of the world in those years: a coming together of nations and cultures, a last hurrah perhaps for the intrinsic strength of family and community life, made more precious by the absence of loved ones and familiar places.  In the years my family were most numerous in Brooklyn, the Borough grew three times over, well on its way to  becoming what would be the fourth “city” of the USA in population.

The noise, the dirt, the overwhelming sense of busy-ness must have been almost beyond understanding to many of the new Americans. Some, who had the opportunity, must have returned to their old countries, as did my grandmothers. Many, likewise, must have been trapped in a maelstrom of desperate poverty, the future made dark by a lack of hope, just as the streets were put in shadow by the ever growing tenements.

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My grand aunt Annie had born seven children by the time she was 34 – only one survived, and, cruelly, that survivor, Mae, died when she was 19. In the end she was still working as a housekeeper in her 70s whilst her husband ended up destitute in the “Home for the Aged and Infirm”. Her sister, Ellen, lost one child after seven days, and then her husband when she was only 34. By the time she was fifty, she had been widowed again.

These statistics are hurtful when they refer to your own flesh and blood, but the real impact is in the understanding that these two women are just representatives of Brooklyn life at the turn of the millennium. It is tempting to recall that famous phrase used of the Hindenburg disaster across the river in New Jersey in 1937: “Oh the humanity!”

And, inevitably, conflict produced energy. The strength of the fight challenged folk to great levels of achievement – for some that was  mere survival, but for others it was the discovery of strengths and talents  hitherto unsuspected.

The next generations of Brooklynites were special. Lights shining out of dark cellars.  It was as if the struggle faced by their parents and grandparents made them grasp at every opportunity for advancement – and often it came through creativity and the arts. George Gershwin, Arthur Miller, Barbra Streisand, Woody Allan, Mel Brooks, Danny Kaye, Carl Sagan, the Brill Building’s Carole King, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Barry Mann, Gerry Goffin and many more. The success of the children is often the reward for emigration.

However, immigration and poverty go hand in hand: the work comes and goes, the successful move on, and those who cannot move face deterioration of neighbourhoods and facilities. When my relatives went to Brooklyn, less than one per cent of the population were African Americans, now the figure would be around  40%, along with 20% Hispanic. Immigration comes in waves, driven by economics rather than by choice. The Borough, like the rest of New York, went through harrowing times, but the rate of immigration has doubled since the 1970s, areas like Williamsburg are being gentrified. In neighbourhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, there is grinding poverty, but you will also find magnificent examples of community action, and dynamic school leadership, as there always have been. The immigrant community roller coaster continues to rise and fall – bringing with it the screams of excitement and the gravitational pull of the downward slope.

In the end, through death and poverty, the first generation of Brooklyn McPartlands failed to make it. The reason I had trouble tracing their descendants was that  very few survived or made their life there. But the story of immigration, like the people it involves, is one of perseverance and legacy. A number of the following generation, having heard the family tales of New York, were not put off, and tried their luck in the New World – my Uncle Frank brilliantly timing  his arrival to coincide with the Wall Street Crash!

Despite that, their descendants flourish – in the East End of Long Island, and in Massachusetts, across in  Michigan, and over in California. In Queens, in Jackson Heights,  the most diverse community in the country, my cousin’s daughter, married to a Spaniard, raises their children among a dozen cultures – what better way to learn and grow and understand our world?

And so the story of a family illuminates the history of a Borough, the progress of a Borough informs the development of a city, and a city’s growth parallels that of a nation, and, at the heart of all this, are emigrants who bring their rich diversity to lend old world strength to new world insecurities.

If you seek to keep out this new blood, your communities will stagnate, they will fall prey to the greedy exploitation of those who are desperate to control and profiteer, and there will arise a self serving myth of “superiority” which will become “truth” in the absence of anyone to challenge it. It is the foundation of bigotry and prejudice.

I’ve struggled to write in reaction to Trump’s election since November, but my grand aunts – Annie and Ellen – and the lives they led, the strengths they showed, their transference of tenant farmer hard graft from Co Leitrim to the lodging  houses and rented apartments of Summit St, 8th St, Bergen St, Lewis Ave, Henry St, 8th Ave, Luquer St, Chauncey St, 14th St, 5th St, 9th St, and all the other places they called home in their new country – these two formidable women  have made the point eloquently and by example.

The disaster of Trump’s election does not lie in his clear incompetence, his knowledge of  the price of everything  and the value of nothing, his lack of any kind of intellectual or humane hinterland – though all these things are terrifying.

The horror lies in his ability to blind millions of Americans to the strengths of their nation: the power of diversity, the refreshing optimism of those who come to its shores and choose to become new Americans; the fact that the true “American Dream” is not about  making a lot of money, but rather the opportunity to fuse the old world with the new, to take the best of “then” and use it to make a better “now”. In simple language, it is, still, a young country which can offer opportunities – not to become rich, but to become happy, confident, comfortable with your own history, and that of your neighbours.

Of course, this is an aspiration. There are many examples of how, despite three centuries of trying, in the USA  many of the dreams of its founding fathers are not yet accomplished. However, the point, surely, is that it must remain a country, not only founded on those aspirations, but driven by them.

In this respect, Washington DC is, to me, a wonderful city.

Yes, I know, it is filled with self seekers and those for whom power is an end in itself, and, yes, you might struggle to find too many residents who are there for philanthropic or selfless reasons – but it was built as a symbol – a symbol for democracy, the people’s power, and the coming together of states and nations, cultures and  traditions.

It’s got a way to go to represent all of  that successfully, and the country of which it is the capital also struggles to live up to its constitution, but, when I walk its streets and view its buildings, it tends to be the vision I see rather than the reality – the city built in the swamp needs to be the city standing on the hill. Many Americans, irrespective of political leanings, come to DC, bring their children, point to the White House, the Capitol, The Library of Congress, and describe with awe what they represent.

Now, you can laugh at that as delusion, or you can use it as inspiration.

America needs people who are inspired by the dreams of their ancestors, not those who are well versed on how to rip people off so that they can make a quick buck.

Many times I have had my perfect breakfast, sitting in Lafayette Square, across from the White House, with a coffee and a pastry, reflecting on the symbolism of that mansion designed by an Irishman and built by slaves.

The USA can be a power for good or evil. I’ve followed her politics since 1960, and, while I don’t believe I have ever agreed with her foreign policies, I’ve taken plenty of inspiration from her greatest leaders, I’ve respected the aims on which their constitution is founded, I’ve cherished that naive aspiration that it is possible to have government of the people by the people and for the people; a living Republic.

That bench in Lafayette Square will not be graced by my presence in the next four years, that’s for sure. There are times when the strongest vision, the greatest symbol, can be obliterated by crass stupidity, greed, and a basic lack of humanity.

When the Soviets built a wall across Berlin, they said they were building it to keep out the westerners. Everybody knew it was to keep in the easterners, and try and isolate them from fresh and innovative thinking.

How ironic, then, that Trump talks of building a wall to keep out Mexicans, when his true building project is to isolate Americans from the very diverse influences which have made them great.

Constructing walls is easier than building bridges, and, traditionally, people cross bridges but knock walls down.

Progress cannot be stopped, history teaches the way forward, greed has a short shelf life, and, in the end, politics is about people, not politicians.

I remain optimistic that the dance they call America will waltz around Trump, and return the country to its true values.

That’s the future which is deserved by the story of Annie and Ellen McPartland, and so many millions of others.

A rude awakening

December 27, 2016

There was a time when bad news which occurred overnight was not transmitted by your radio alarm, or your first bleary glance at Twitter on an iPhone.

When I was a child, thank God, there were only a few incidents of my being woken by bad news, and none of them involved the family or people to whom I was close.

However, that didn’t mean they lacked impact, and probably the biggest moment came fifty years ago today in December 1966 – when my mother woke me to tell me that the grandstand at the local football club had burnt down.

My family, from Edinburgh, were long time football supporters, our team being Hibs, but when I was five, my dad died and we ended up in Southport, twenty miles north of my Everton supporting mother’s hometown, Liverpool.

By the time I was eleven I had started watching Southport FC in the old Fourth Division, and I seldom missed a game at the compact but atmospheric Haig Avenue ground.

In 1966, most football grounds, at all levels, were little changed since the war years. In the late 40s attendances had been sky high, but the local businessmen who owned and ran most clubs raked in the money without much thought of spectator comforts.

Given its position in the footballing food chain, and its perennial struggle to compete with the nearby giants in Liverpool and Manchester, Southport’s ground was relatively well appointed.

There was covered terracing behind one goal and all along the “popular side”, an open cinder and earth banking behind the other goal, and a 2000 seater grandstand along the other touchline. So, with three sides fully covered and a capacity of around 20,000, it was one of the better lower division grounds.

The “Grandstand” was probably the least impressive part of the ground. Long and low, wooden, and with tarred felt over its roof, it betrayed its origins as a showground stand which had been purchased and brought to Haig Avenue in the early years of the century – with additions and extensions made later.

Cramped dressing rooms, offices, a tiny gym and cupboard space were huddled beneath sloping wooden ceilings. Supporters sat on wooden bench seats – although Directors in the central area had individual seating. In front of the structure, there was standing space, known as “The Paddock.”

Though when it is viewed now it almost seems Victorian in its simplicity, there were a good few similar structures around in the football league in the mid sixties – and Southport’s stand would have attracted little adverse attention.

The team’s fortunes had long fluctuated, but I would be lucky in that my ten years spent in Southport would be the best decade in their history, and in 1966 they were on a bit of a high.

Billy Bingham, ex Everton and Northern Ireland, had been appointed as a young and ambitious manager in June 1965. It’s fair to say he had galvanised the club and raised high interest in a town which was traditionally quite ambivalent towards its football team. In his first year, he had taken the club on a cup run, with victories over Division 2’s Cardiff and Ipswich before bowing out in the fifth round at Hull City in front of a crowd of almost 39,000 in March 1966.

Now, in the 66-67 season, the team had their eyes firmly set on promotion from the fourth division for the first time. By Christmas, they were solidly in the top four, fighting it out with Stockport County, Barrow and Tranmere Rovers in a northern battle, though Southend and Wrexham were not far behind.

Because of that, there was a bigger crowd than usual in the ground for a tough game v Wrexham on Boxing Day 1966; victory was imperative and “Bingham’s Boys” were expected to do the business. So some 8,307 attended the game that day, around 3000 more than the average attendance – swelled, no doubt, by holiday visitors, and travelling support from Wrexham.

It was a dour game which Southport deservedly won by 1-0. Strangely, I can clearly remember thinking how packed the main stand and paddock looked that day – even more so than for the Cardiff game months previously, when over 14,000 were packed into the ground. It was just an innocent thought, not a foreshadowing of disaster.

old-standPictured during Southport’s 1966 Cup game with Cardiff City – the dimensions of the old stand can be seen – as well as the nature of crowding.

Delighted by the result, I headed home for a family meal. As is always the case around Christmas, what with the food and excitement, I slept well that night.

So I struggled a little next morning when I realised my mother was at the door of my bedroom and saying something. This was not unusual during school term time, when occasionally cold water from a face cloth had to be flicked at me to get me to come to consciousness, but normally in holiday time, I was left to rise at my own discretion.

She was saying something about Southport. WHAT?

“Southport’s stand has burned down.:”

Far removed from the modern trend of ‘citizen journalism”, there was no hope of “live video” or rolling news coverage; at that point, apart from the ship based pirate  stations, there was little that could be called local radio. It had been a two line item on the “national” radio news – no details, no explanation.

It was one of those moments which, in retrospect, highlights the innocence of youth. As we grow, we learn from experience, and when something extraordinary happens, we eventually have a library of emotional reactions from which to pick our response. At 14, I had never been faced with such news, my father’s death coming at an age when I was too young to fully react. Distant disasters happened – JFK being shot, my favourite footballer, John White, had been struck by lightning two years before – but I was detached from these events, they happened to other people, and elsewhere.

This had the alarming content of being close to home – geographically and emotionally. I had sat in that stand, I was at the ground every week, I had been looking at it only hours previously – how could this happen? What had happened? When did it burn down? All questions which twitter would answer in a flash today, but, in 1966, these thoughts were buzzing like wasps round my head as I got dressed and went downstairs.

There were no more answers, and so I acted on the most human of impulses, got on my bike, and cycled the couple of miles to the ground. I had to see what had happened to understand it.

As I pushed the pedals along familiar streets, following my Saturday route to the game, I tried to make sense of it. It should be remembered that disasters and mishaps at football stadia were not as pronounced in the fans’ psyche as they are now. There had been tens of people killed at Ibrox Stadium in 1902 and at Bolton’s Burnden Park in 1946 when walls or terracing collapsed, but I knew nothing of that. It was linking fire and football and my club’s ground that was so difficult – and I had no idea what I would find when I arrived at Haig Avenue – around 11.30, which would be around six or seven hours after the fire had been discovered.

There is a short ITN news film clip which shows the aftermath of the fire. In the foreground there is the 14 year old me, and even though the shot is from behind, it’s possible to identify the stunned nature of my reaction as I stand looking through what would have been the main entrance to the stand but which now allowed a view straight across the pitch to the terracing on the far side. I can’t remember the cameras being there, so it was quite a surprise to come across the film clip some forty years later.

at-the-sceneTo the left of the picture, my bike forgotten, as I gaze across the pitch, trying to take in what has happened

Basically, the whole structure was reduced to ash, apart from a handful of charred beams, a few bits of twisted corrugated iron, and an old fashioned metal safe which stood about seven foot tall in the middle of the devastation. Manager Bingham, and Chairman, John Church, were next to it, examining it, no doubt wondering how to access the contents, as the heat of the fire had fused it shut. There was a smell of burning and brokenness; though the day was damp, clouds of ash were raised by any movement; there was a rumour of heat about the place despite the firemen’s damping down of the site. It was scary to see a substantial structure reduced to this, a reminder that appearance is not always everything.

wreckage                               All that was left on the morning of December 27th 1966

Children are resilient. I had an initial fear of what this might mean for the future of the club, but that was very quickly replaced by a consideration of how it would affect our promotion challenge. The idea that the club might be threatened with extinction was too huge to be tolerated for long – at least for this 14 year old supporter. It never occurred to me at that point that everything had been lost – legal papers, kit, boots, training gear, records, and administration details.

I wandered round the scene of devastation for half an hour or so – the kind of access which would be unheard of today – and then cycled home, hopeful of more news about the impact of the disaster.

News trickled through – Chester had donated a full kit for the team to play in, and for one game, white shirts with thin blue stripes replaced the familiar old gold. Other clubs and organisations rallied round. The local school at Meols Cop, a hundred yards from the back of the terracing, would provide changing rooms, and it emerged that the club would be able to fulfil its fixtures. Fund raising events were organised and it was announced that a new stand would be built and that the club would be attempting to raise £70,000 pounds towards its construction – a huge amount of money in those days for a club of such thin resources. Luckily and coincidentally, one of the Directors ran a building firm, who would be responsible for the work. Meantime, two temporary scaffolding stands were erected for the Directors and season ticket holders.

All’s well that ends well they say, and at the end of the season, Southport were promoted in second place amongst scenes of great joy and relief. A cup to recognise their strength and perseverance was presented after the game by comedian Eric Morecambe, a big football follower, who happened to be performing in the town – a bizarre moment on the scaffolding edifice.

Next season, Southport performed well in the Third Division, and had gone from having one of the oldest to the most modern stand in English football – at least for a short time.

inside-ground                                                   A modern stand rose from the ashes

Of course, it is generally in retrospect that such events gain impact.

It was probably only when I saw those horrifying pictures of the similar stand at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground burning fiercely during a game, nineteen years later, that the awful possibilities about the Haig Avenue fire really hit me. 56 died and nearly 300 were injured at Bradford. Given the lack of fire resistant materials in the early 60s and the crowded and constricted nature of Southport’s old stand, the possible casualties at Haig Avenue had the fire started during a game could have been of truly awful dimensions.

It emerged that the old structure at Haig Avenue had been under insured, and, even now, when people complain about the “nanny state” with all its Health and Safety implications, I can’t help wonder how many unregulated football grounds in those days came close to disaster without realising it. Certainly, the ground regulations which have emerged since Bradford and Hillsborough have transformed our grounds and limited the chances of further disasters.

When the Bradford fire was blamed on a dropped cigarette dropped through the wooden boards and on to accumulated rubbish below, many seized on that as a possible cause for the Southport fire – which had never been fully explained. There are, however, various reasons why this seems less likely at Haig Avenue: the construction of the stand, the time it took to smoulder, the ferocity of the fire at some points and not others.

In the end, it is all past history, and, thanks to good fortune, what might have been a defining moment in my life – I can’t imagine any who were at Valley Parade on the day of their disaster can ever get the sights or sounds out of their mind – has become an interesting footnote in my childhood.

For all that, it is still a big memory in the context of my football supporting life, and the promotion which Southport achieved against all the odds that season. Who knows? Perhaps the misfortune hardened their resolve and increased support for the club when they needed it most.

As has been pointed out, it was, in some ways, a fortuitous moment for disaster to strike. The club was on the up and had a positive aura around it; financially it was in a better position than most years. A year or two in either direction and the decision may have been taken to wind the club up as a financial basket case – not something that really occurred to me as a teenager.

Four years later, I was back home in Edinburgh at university and have remained here ever since. Hibs have reclaimed the foreground in my footballing affections, but, in the time honoured phrase, Southport’s result is still the first I look for, I watch them whenever I can, and I still feel very close to that 14 year old on his bike, heading towards Haig Avenue, full of doubts and questions about what had happened overnight. The players I idolised during those seasons are still heroes to me. When I met two of them – Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell – at Haig Avenue a couple of years ago, I was as star struck as I would have been in 1966. As a 14 year old, you are far more wrapped up in your life than during your later, busier, years. Southport FC were a big part of that life.

With perfect recall of that day and its events, it’s hard to credit it’s all of 50 years ago today.

I suppose it was an early lesson in not taking things for granted, and, on reflection, an indicator that there is a thin line between mere bad luck and absolute disaster.

Southport played Wrexham on Boxing Day again this year – although away from home. When they return the visit at the end of this week, I wonder how many of the older Southport supporters will glance at the once modern, now established, main stand, and think of December 1966, and how close we came to a nightmare.

And, because, ultimately, football supporting is a sentimental pursuit, I am sure the echo of those feet banging on the old wooden floorboards of the original stand will be hovering over the ground. As ever, we’ll be wondering – is it approval of the team’s play, or merely a desperate measure to offset the cold?

Enjoy the game, whoever you support!