Finding the Words


It is not unusual, when a cricket fanatic is asked to explain his devotion to the game, that he or she becomes stuck for words. For many, their attachment to the summer game is so visceral, so much a part of who they are, that they can no more explain it than they could explain breathing or eating. It’s a game that can get into your soul.

However, when I heard the sad news that Hugh Kilpatrick had died, it occurred to me that, in all that he was, in his character and personality, he would make a fine explanation of the myriad elements of  a love of cricket.

Hugh played for many years for Holy Cross Academicals in the East of Scotland league, and was known throughout the game in central Scotland. One of the earliest club members, playing from 1951, after Holy Cross was founded in 1950, he embodied the links with the old school and its alumni in many ways, and was fundamental in developing a club which was rightly famed for its diverse and universal recruitment policy, decades before such attitudes became recognised as the correct way to proceed.

When I joined the club in 1974, he was club captain, and though my links with Holy Cross were through my father and his siblings many years before, I was welcomed as a long lost friend. It was important to a new player that the Captain, like other  senior players, took the time to acknowledge a newcomer, and along with Roddy Regan, Alan Reid, the Balfours and others, he was responsible for the difficult task of preserving both the “FP” element of the club, and merging it with a recruitment policy that welcomed players from all over the world and from many different backgrounds.

To introduce more etymology, as a cricketer and as a man, he epitomised the word “dapper”. His cricket gear was always immaculate, as was his strokeplay, his bowling, and, in particular, his fielding. I never played with a more complete or effective fielder, and I recently learned that he scored the club’s first ever century in a match against Greyhounds in 1968. His leg break bowling was, unsurprisingly, accurate and teasing.

He was a player who was “neat” and correct in every part of his game, and one of the easiest coaching instructions in my early days at Cross was “Just watch Hugh Kilpatrick.”

Off the field he was equally smart and always well presented, and it was a common sight, in the years after he retired from playing, to see him circling the boundary at each of the Holy Cross fixtures,  raincoat open despite the weather, a cloud of tobacco smoke following his progress. Players of all generations welcomed his presence – for his inevitable encouragement, his willingness to listen and advise, but also as that tangible link with the founding of the club and all the players who had come and gone since.

He wore his considerable intellect lightly, though his daily commitment to crossword puzzles, as well as a very funny, dry, often acerbic, but always accurate, wit, revealed how sharp he could be. His quietly spoken asides, made all the more emphatic by  a generally reserved demeanour, were the stuff of club legend, and suggested that, whilst he seldom drew attention to himself, not much happened at the club of which he was not aware.

I was lucky enough to teach  three  of his children, and so knew them, and Sheila, his wife. Each in their own way, they reflected the values which Hugh demonstrated so well: fools not suffered gladly but friends given enduring loyalty, a sensitivity to others matched by a strong sense of self, and a quick wit that seldom missed the mark. I suppose it is one measure of a man that his family can forge their own individual identities whilst retaining all that was most admirable about their parents.

Hugh’s approach to the game – meticulously fair but always open to humour – endeared him not only to his team mates but also to opponents, and throughout his career, it was not unusual on arriving at the ground to hear a member of the opposition enquire: “Is Hugh Kilpatrick playing for you today?”

The years he played, spanning the second half of the twentieth century, were, in many ways, the halcyon days of club cricket in eastern Scotland. The game was played by a merry band of guys who reflected all the positives and negatives, qualities and idiosyncrasies, of the general population – enlarged  – by the sporting struggle of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and the post match socialising which followed in the evening. Stories for a lifetime, and legends forever.

He was one of those characters who made the day better whenever you met him; in his company you raised your game – on and off the pitch. I wish him flat wickets, good team mates, and  quality kit, in that most eternal of cricket grounds where he is now walking out to take his guard.

Like the cricket which he loved, Hugh is difficult to summarise in mere words. I guess you had to know him. But, given his love and understanding of words used accurately, I know he would not take it as faint praise if I write:

Hugh Kilpatrick was a decent man.

Fielding in the Deep

As elite cricket hurtles its way towards a soulless cashfest of English Premier League proportions, there are still to be found reminders that cricket, at its best, is about far more than professional sport and corporate backing.

One such reassurance is found in Jake Perry’s excellent new book “The Secret Game – Tales of Scottish Cricket”. (www.checkeredflagpublishing.com) The title reflects the oddity that while there are 150 cricket clubs in Scotland and over 17000 active participants, the media tends to overlook the popularity of the sport, so that Scotland’s recent victory over the Auld Enemy came as something of a shock to many.

Though, as the title suggests, this is a conglomeration of cricket tales, as much as  a chronological history, Jake takes us back to the origins of the game north of the border,` and acquaints us with the progress of the sport and its reflection of social behaviour from the eighteenth century onwards.

Some of the stereotypes about the game have some substance in truth, so you will find appearances from the toffs and landed gentry, public schools and Anglo-Scots. And those club cricketers who have ever had cause to shout out: “Bowler’s name?” will delight in such characters as Ducky Diver, Fuller Pilch and  Viscount Dupplin. We meet Leslie Balfour-Melville – a champion at rugby, billiards, lawn tennis, golf, skating, curling and athletics – more than a match for the more famous English polymath, CB Fry.

However, the perceived exclusivity of the summer game is effectively debunked as we tour from Kelso to Aberdeenshire, from Paisley to Perth, to Lanarkshire, Aberfeldy, and Lasswade, as well as round the leafier suburbs of Glasgow  and  the Capital.

And it is a delight  to report that this account is  in no way parochial – with such famous cricketing names as Lillywhite, Grace, Bradman and Jardine being paraded for our delight, and Australia and New Zealand amongst far flung countries included. Any book mentioning Andy Goram and Misbah-ul-Haq in the same paragraph has to be congratulated for its scope and vision!

There are many small town heroes – not least the Drummonds of Meigle,  and a very welcome chapter detailing how Scottish women’s cricket has developed so inspiringly, due to the hard work of folk as disparate as Clarence Parfitt, Kari Carswell, and Abbi Aitken-Drummond, amongst many.

This lovingly researched work pays tribute to cricket in Scotland – to its history, its records and victories, its tribulations and struggles – but most of all, it acknowledges that the sport owes its allure to the fact that it engages so many spheres of our humanity.

The book is ultimately about people.

In 2000, I was fortunate enough to be part of a Holy Cross Academicals touring side which became, we were told, the first Scottish side ever to play at Broadhalfpenny Down, the cradle of cricket.  It was one of those events in life where you are aware, even as it is happening, that you will never forget it, and it went perfectly.

Mindful of our skills quotient, we were playing Hambledon’s “Sunday” side – The Bat and.Ball X1, which was, of course, in time honoured fashion, led by the publican of the eponymous public house. He greeted us warily, as bemused by our name as by the discovery that Scots played cricket. To mark the occasion, we presented them with an inscribed quaich, which is still displayed in the pub trophy cabinet today.

Just walking on the ground, pleasingly rough and undulating to reflect its 250 year history, was awe inspiring. To think we were about to play here, shadowed by the ghosts of cricketing history, quite frankly, made us nervous.

Although we were faced with a team containing a couple of former 2nd X1 county players, we represented Scotland well when we batted, certainly well enough to make a game of it. Still in awe of our surroundings, we managed to field and bowl effectively.

Our leg break bowler, hampered by a shoulder injury, elected to bowl underarm spin, with the opposition’s agreement. The local statistician told us this was the first time such an action had been seen on the ground for over 130 years.

Modesty forbids I repeat the figures for my three wickets including a blinding caught and bowled, (Has anyone in Scotland not heard them already? Ed) but all contributed to an unforgettable experience.

Around six o’clock, the clouds began to gather, the light dimmed, and inevitably we were headed for an early finish and an honourable draw.

Fielding at long off, I took a moment to look around me: the rolling field, the unique pavilion, the often painted Bat and Ball pub beyond the midwicket boundary, my team mates playing on this hallowed ground, as had so many others  over the centuries.

As the gloaming gathered, I looked down over the rolling Hampshire Downs, falling away below us in the twilight. The rain threatened, and then started to softly fall. I could see the headlights of tractors and combines, stretching away into the far distance, the crops being gathered, the farmers working, as they always had. Though the methods were modern, the scene was redolent of the past. I couldn’t help but think of Thomas Hardy and how he put humanity into a rural landscape.

And I do believe that cricket, with its history, its mixture of the physical and the cerebral, and its arcane traditions, performs a similar function.

So we can be thankful to Jake for tapping into this humanity, with the people he brings to us in their cricketing context – from David Christie, of Freuchie’s epic win at Lords, to the prodigiously talented Archie Jackson, born in Rutherglen, raised in Sydney, taken by tuberculosis at only 23.

Like our team mates from the past, and the heroes we have watched, the folk who figure in these Tales of Scottish Cricket will be forever part of our emotional history; we will carry them with us for life.

This book, like the sport it so effectively portrays, is food for the soul.


When I was 17…..


It’s easy to be cynical about the sixties in retrospect. The explosion of “youth culture” was largely manipulated by scions of the Establishment freed from the need to do National Service. They made the money, and the creators took the fame, often to their detriment.

But that’s not the whole story.

I was a teenager between 1965 and 1971. It was almost perfect timing.

David Hepworth, the rock music writer, recently said that the Beatles’ music brought us “happiness”. And he was right. Its energy, its innovation, its redolent lyrics and its upbeat enthusiasm – listen to the full on intros of ‘She loves you’, ‘All my loving’, ‘It won’t be long’ or ‘I wanna hold your hand’ – they all brought a fluttering to our stomach and a happiness to our hearts.

Naturally, there was marketing involved – but comparing Brian Epstein to today’s “media influencers” is like comparing a bowling club WhatsApp group to Facebook.

Of course, other things were happening.

It has often been suggested that what we now think of as “The Sixties” really only lasted from early in 1964 to late in 1968. Before that, we were fighting off the greyness of the fifties, and after that, after losing the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, and seeing the Chicago and Paris riots, we became far too self aware (or in some cases, drugged up) to continue to buy the “generation of change” descriptions.

In that dawning of the age of self knowledge we were replicating our parents’ generation, who fairly quickly had come to realise that a Coronation, an ascent of Everest, and a Festival of Britain did not equate to an age of the “New Elizabethans”, as they had been told.

But context is everything – and one area of hope and wonder remained: the Apollo Moon voyages.

Lots of clever people will tell you that they were an obscene waste of money, given earth’s problems, and were driven by the western capitalists’ desperation to prove themselves over the hated eastern communists.  I can’t argue against that – but I can suggest that maybe that view is not the whole story.

Secondary education in the sixties split very early between the “Arts” and “Sciences”. I was an Arts man and had little or no understanding of, or interest in, the sciences. Machinery and technology were not on my list of interests, and astronomy was a closed book to me.

And yet.

Like millions of others, I was fascinated beyond belief by NASA’s Moon programme, knew the names of all the astronauts way back to the Mercury days, and followed every launch and mission with total concentration.

How could this epitome of scientific effort be so engaging to such an arts biased teenager?

The answer to that question reflects Apollo’s broad appeal as a human mission of exploration. Of course, to scientists and engineers, it was a remarkable project, a brilliant coming together of so many disciplines in ways and processes which had never been previously attempted.

To the rest of us, who were probably only vaguely aware of the depth of scientific knowledge necessary just  to get the giant Saturn rocket off the ground, never mind the remaining intricacies of the mission, it had an air of nobility.

NASA, of course, played into this – being acutely aware that they needed public interest and support to maintain Congress’s level of funding. So, in contrast to the dirty grey and brown industrial appearance of Soviet spaceware, the Apollos were shiningly and dazzlingly white as they stood on the launch pad, and every launch was a premier production for television cameras, complete with commentary, count down, and crews’ voices. The crew themselves had the practised nonchalant tones of thoroughbred adventurers. It would be the later Apollo 13 mission which would give the world its universal phrase for understatement when Jack Swigert reported: “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”

Not only were they heroes, they were presented as such. But you would not have to be a “space freak” to be hit emotionally by the powerful image of those Saturn rockets blasting off from that Florida swamp land, all fire and steam and smoke and roar, to head, quite literally, into the wide blue yonder.

We all understood that these were brave men, taking risks at the very edge of technical capacities. At the time, we were not aware just how many risks were being taken, and how close to disaster they rode, though the loss of Grissom, Chaffee, and White, in the launch tower conflagration had been a sharp reminder of the perils they faced.

What we knew was, like all explorers, these men were going where nobody had been before, they were the visible embodiment of mankind’s species-maintaining curiosity. They were going on our behalf.

We still found ourselves, in those times, innocent enough to allow for the admiration of heroes, the thrill of exploration. As Kennedy had said in launching the moon missions: We do these things…..not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” In our youthful naivety, we still had the strength to aspire to great things rather than list our fears of failure.

We had seen earthrise from Apollo 8 for the first time and become acutely aware of the tiny insignificance of our planet. It felt like we had become children of the Universe, rather than merely earthlings. Earthbound international differences in politics, economic systems, or cultures could be seen as relatively unimportant when viewed against the backdrop of space.

Apollo 11 played a part in bringing us all together in many ways. In 1969 we were only five years on from the first live transatlantic television pictures. Now, not only would we see men walking on the  Moon but we would be watching as part of a world wide audience numbering some 600 million – the biggest concentration of humans focused on the same event in history. In some ways, that was as stunning as the astronauts’ 249,000 mile mission. We were a generation who had grown up hearing our parents book phone calls to Australia a week in advance, now we could watch live as man walked on the Moon. It was impossible not to feel a thrill of excitement and achievement.

We could not record television programmes in those days, so if you wanted to watch something  you needed to be watching as it happened and was broadcast. Therefore we had the “added excitement” of getting up in the middle of the night to watch man step out on to the lunar surface. Even in the sixties, “a good night’s sleep” had almost moral overtones – so such a break with routine was of itself remarkable.

So on July 20th 1969 I sat in our living room at 2.30 am ready to watch the most unusual piece of television I could ever have imagined. Being in such “normal” surroundings, of course, only made the experience even more surreal.

I was 17 but totally unable to maintain the accepted teenage attitude of “mild disinterest” in everything. Nails were bitten, hands clasped and unclasped, feet tapping. My mother, naturally, had produced a cup of tea and a biscuit, another routine domestic process to highlight the abnormality of what was happening. Our elderly Red Setter lay at my feet, puzzled no doubt by this odd human behaviour, but with one eye half open in case of falling biscuit crumbs.

My mother was housekeeper to a priest. He was also there, intent on the screen, occasionally shaking his head. Earlier, when we had watched the LEM land on the Moon, just around the point when Aldrin and Armstrong realised they were perilously short of fuel, he had muttered: “They won’t do it, they are going to crash.”

It was unusual for him to show such open emotion and I was taken aback for a moment, but then, in one of many learning moments brought about by the moon landings, I saw a snapshot of his life. Born in the 1890s, he had been brought up in an Irish family in a pub on Liverpool’s Dock Road. He had known old men and sailors who remembered the slave trade; he remembered horses and carts lined up outside the docks waiting for the gates to open so the ships – some steam, some sail-powered still –  could be loaded and unloaded. On the eve of the Great War, part of a class at a at a seminary in the north east of England, he had wrecked his knee in a hurdles race and been unfit for service, while his classmates joined up. In 1918, only six came back to finish their studies, out of a class of 20, thanks to the decimation of the Durham Light Infantry. In the second war, he had been chaplain to a huge rest and recreation camp for the US military in central Lancashire. He developed a great tenderness towards the young damaged soldiers to whom he ministered, but could never talk about the distress and fear that he encountered among those war shocked heroes. Now he was seeing man on the moon, and, no doubt, his prediction of a crash was a kind of secular prayer that it would not happen.

My mother had been born in 1917 while her father was fighting at Paschendaele, she had endured Liverpool’s May Blitz during the second war, spending much of her twenties in an air raid shelter, and had been widowed at 39 and left with a five year old son. She would live on into the 21st century as she had always aimed to do, with the better part of a century of life experience behind her.

And there was I – a child of the post war fifties, a 60s teenager, with a life ahead of me which would encompass revolution in communications, travel, and social affairs, some of the advances, at least in part, coming as a result of the event we were sitting down to witness.

In that room was a man whose parents had been born in the 1860s and a teenager whose life would extend in to the second decade of the twenty first century, another take on “living history”.

We each brought ourselves to the moment of Armstrong’s first foot on the lunar surface – our individual histories, personalities, and beliefs. It was one of those few moments in our lives when we realise, as something is happening, that we will always remember the moment. And if it was thus for the three of us, it was the same for the 650 million other humans who were watching together. The memories this weekend will not just be of three heroes, or of spacecraft, or technicians, or of television commentators, but they will be of those with whom we shared the moment and what they meant to us. Apollo 11 – still  bringing people together, fifty years after the event.

Later that day, last thing at night, I followed the usual routine of letting the dog out into the garden. Normally, I would wait at the door till he came back in and I could lock up.

On that night in July 1969 I went out into the garden myself, and looked up at that pale yellow globe, hanging high above the trees and roof tops around me.

I looked at the moon more intently than I ever had before. And I thought: “There are two men up there, on the moon, as I look at it!” It was a moment of pure wonderment, a minute or two when it would be safe to say I was literally overawed. There was a feeling of affection towards them, with elements of protectiveness, and I said a quiet prayer that they would return safely.

I turned to follow the dog back into the house, and feeling only slightly foolish, gave a small wave to the men in the moon.

One of the most intense examples in my lifetime of the mundane touching the fantastical, and the essence of that moment in history.













P stands for Paddy, I suppose.

Driving through the pretty village of Coldingham yesterday, I found myself thinking of one of its former residents, the late journalist, Ian Bell. This in turn led me  to remembering a friend’s comment: “You write so well about dead people!” It was meant (I hope) as a compliment, and it is true that the words flow more easily when they come directly from the heart in praising someone lost who has been loved or respected.

However,  I thought today I would write about a pal who is still very much alive, but who has just  retired from his position as lecturer in journalism at Fife College. It’s surely better, or at least more rewarding, to share affection while the recipient is still in a state to accept it!

I’ve known Pat Joyce since I was eighteen when I returned to my hometown of Edinburgh to start university.

Having lived in England for a dozen years, it was perhaps symptomatic of my naivity that I was surprised to be a little overwhelmed when I arrived back in the Capital. “My” city was obviously not the one I remembered from when I was six, and the university place, which school had guided us unthinkingly towards for six years, was proving a little more complicated than I had ever considered.

In addition, I had lived in a prosperous seaside resort in the north west of England which had the highest rate of university students in the country. Though my mother was a housekeeper, rather than one of the wealthy residents of the town, it was fair to say that my upbringing had been pretty sheltered.

Take skinheads.

They did exist in Southport – but we all knew what to do if you saw one: run!

So, settled in the post hippy trendiness of the university’s Pollock Halls of Residence, it came as a huge shock to spot a couple of lads in the corridor who exhibited all the warning signs to instigate a rapid retreat.

Pat Joyce and his pal, Tom, stood out very obviously, and were, to me, threatening figures: from their big boots, their short jeans,  their Ben Sherman shirts, and all the way up to the suede tops of their heads. The corridors in Fraser House were long, narrow, and dark – but, luckily, had exits at both ends. Tom’s room, where they were most often to be spotted, was to the right, so I quickly developed a habit of turning left whenever I left my room.

Just in case.

Retrospection provides some kind of cover for our innocence, I suppose.

What I saw in my limited view as ‘threatening’, was, in fact, two working class Dundee lads making a statement which said: “This is who we are, and we’re not going to change to suit this effete student establishment!” A sentence which could well serve as Pat’s motto to this day.

To be fair to myself, by  second year I was not so  blinkered in my judgements.

At the opposite end of the basement corridor where I was now staying, was a student who was almost a complete opposite to me in political views, but we had discovered a mutual love of Irish folk music, and become good friends.

One night, a music event had been organised and we were playing a few songs at it.

All of a sudden, Pat Joyce loomed up out of the audience and joined us on stage. He was now more Mod in appearance than skinhead, but I still had a couple of moments of doubt.

It was the beginning of a life long connection.

What we quickly discovered were the unspoken similarities which come from a shared background – working class Irish immigrants, Catholic Faith, love of sport, music, politics, and literature. It felt as if we had known each other all our lives – despite the many obvious differences between the city of Jam, Jute and Journalism and the home of the Royal Birkdale Golf Club!

Pat had been studying Law originally – and would have made an iconic member of that profession, but his talents and proclivities were far too wide to be tied down by such a discipline. When he graduated, he became an actor: I remember spotting him as a ‘troubled youth’ in ‘Sutherland’s Law’, starring the redoubtable Iain Cuthbertson, and then later he gained a regular role in STV’s serial, “Garnock Way”. One of my last sightings of him as a thespian was when he sported a tee shirt with the slogan “Save Garnock Way – Act Now!”

(Incidentally, as a side note, the cast list for that series is redolent of the huge amount of acting talent we produced in Scotland in the late twentieth century: Eileen McCallum, Bill Armour, John Stahl, Bill Henderson, Terri Cavers, Dorothy Paul, Gerald Slevin, Harriet Buchan, Jackie Farrell, Jan Wilson)

His love for Dundee Utd was a friendly counterpart to my devotion to Hibernian and whereas I played cricket, he played hockey. We both loved the Who, Fairport Convention and Irish folk rockers, Horslips.

As happens, we lost contact for a number of years due to family, career, and the business of getting on with it, but Facebook provided the source of a renewed connection some years ago.

It was great to recognise that nothing had changed, we still connected on all levels, still described ourselves as Socialist Republicans for Independence, and whilst I had clung on grimly to my Faith, he had managed to retain the message while no longer acknowledging the institution.

I was now a depute head in a secondary school, promoting guidance and pupil support; Pat was lecturing in journalism in Further Education. I knew he would be good at that because his natural demeanour lends itself to communication and engagement – but it wasn’t long till there was independent confirmation of this, as I kept on coming across excellent journalists who had all been taught  by Pat.

They say you can judge a teacher by his pupils. All of these graduates of the “Joyce school” of journalism had “Pat Joyce” written through them as if they were sticks of rock. The words were ‘integrity, professionalism, empathy, curiosity, persistence and flair’.

You would never come out of a Pat Joyce session believing  that anything less than three double checked sources were sufficient, or that ‘cut and paste’ was ever something of which to be proud. You would, however, have come to understand, that your job was to ask awkward questions, refuse to be fobbed off, and write pieces which were clear, accurate, well written and engaging. And if that bar wasn’t set high enough, he’d be expecting a judicious use of mischievous humour where appropriate.

As an English graduate, and teacher, words, reading, and writing are staple parts of my existence. Many of my university pals became journalists or writers. I had always wanted to teach, and by the end of my degree course I thankfully had the self awareness to understand that I had neither the brass neck, nor the forensic attention to detail, to apply myself to journalism. Indeed, though I dabbled in poetry and song writing in my twenties, it would take a couple of  decades before I gained the confidence to really launch myself at writing, with short story writing and a column in the Times Ed.

What I have always possessed, however, is an admiration and a respect for good journalism and its purveyors. My entire education in writing, politics and current affairs came from constant reading of the work of  top class journalists like Neal Ascherson, Hugh McIlvanney, Keith Waterhouse, Cyril Connolly, (‘Better write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self’ ‘Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.’) And later, Tom Nairn, Ian Bell, Clive James and now Dani Garavelli and Peter Ross.

Good writing and journalism roots itself in your brain and soul, and becomes a life companion. So I wander through life continually carrying the memory of Peter Ross on the murmurations of starlings, or the family whose job was to pick dead bodies from the Clyde; Ian Bell’s piece on the place of railways in our growing up is summoned every time I hear a train pass, Clive James’ peerless television critiques still resonate (‘like a man in the latter stages of the hully gully’),  and Dani Garavelli’s ability to convert her fury at injustice into measured, effective, and sharply balanced writing, shadows every feature I read.

Everybody knows the current state of the media, but to blame journalists for this is akin to blaming a waiter for an undercooked piece of meat. Journalists can only deliver what they are resourced to deliver, they can only write on topics or angles which the marketing department, far away in every sense,  have calibrated in terms of online hits. The best of writers, like, for instance, Marina Hyde, often have the clout to overcome this approach, but for most working journalists they work on thin gruel, with the means to finding stories, researching them adequately, and  presenting them in full, severely limited by financial considerations and changing media trends.

It is surely no coincidence that the current parlous state of politics and democracy has coincided with the demeaning of the fourth estate by those moguls and politicians with most to gain from an ill informed public.

That’s why the work that Pat, and others, have done, in continuing to educate tomorrow’s journalists in the ethics and public service elements of their craft, is invaluable, and it’s one of the many reasons I continue to be proud of our friendship.

Our generation were brought up to believe that  it was important, in whatever way you were able, to make a difference, to care for others – particularly the most vulnerable, and to enjoy and promote the good things around us – be it nature, family, music, sport,  literature, history, or integrity.

I’ve always tried to do that in teaching, and Pat in journalism.

Hopefully we have both done it in a manner that was kind to others and was prepared to listen. Most importantly, I don’t think  it has caused either of us to take ourselves too seriously.

The proof of that particular pudding, of course, is in the eating. But I’m pretty sure that once he has read this, Pat will accept my affectionate take on his approach to journalism and life, and respond succinctly and with a twinkle in his eye, using a short word starting in P and ending in H, with an ‘i’ and an ‘s’ in the middle.

We wouldn’t have it any other way!

On ye go, chum!



Shanahan, McNamara, and Mary McGrath

I first became aware of Doonbeg in west Clare as a fourteen year old when I spent the summer in the nearby town of Kilkee.

We did not have a car, so we relied on a local taxi driver, PJ King, to take us around the area. On one day of glorious sunshine, when Kilkee was full to overflowing, he suggested going to the White Strand.

In the years since, White Strands and Tránna bána have become a mainstay of my travelling

However, in the mid sixties,  the White Strand at Killard near Doonbeg, was my first experience of such a soothing and beautiful scene, and I found it quite enchanting in the real sense of the word.

We were the only people there and across the bay, we could see an equally deserted stretch of pristine sand edged with the white froth of surfing waves, which we were told was Doughmore strand.

We stopped at the local pub and got a sense of a small community, still based largely on farming, a challenging  way of life, then, as now. My first impressions of Doonbeg, then, were extremely positive.

Each year we returned to Kilkee and I found out a little more about west Clare in general. I met a girl named Mary McGrath who was working in our hotel. She was the life and soul of the place, hailed from Doonbeg, and was a font of local knowledge. Mary and the   number of folk from Doonbeg I met over the years came to represent the town and its values to me.

One of my hobbies is the study of history and I soon uncovered the  tale from the War of Independence  which related to a Residential Magistrate in Clare called Lendrum.

After he had been killed in IRA operation, the local Crown forces were determined to apprehend the perpetrators of the attack – and by all accounts were none too mindful about the process of law.

Some time later, the Captain of the Doonbeg Company of the IRA, Mikey McNamara and the Chief of the local IRA Police, Wille Shanahan, were captured by the Black and Tans, and eventually tortured and murdered. Once I had discovered their graves in the Republican Plot at Doonbeg Graveyard, I made it a routine to stop and pay my respects each time I passed through the village.

Shanahan was from Doughmore and McNamara from close by in Mountrivers. They were Doonbeg men and are still remembered with pride by many locally. To me, they represent the historical values of Doonbeg and west Clare – where community and neighbours were put before all else.

However, should you Google “Doonbeg Republicans” these days, you will come across a long list of  articles pertaining to Donald Trump and the property he owns at Doughmore. The golf course, club and hotel complex backs on to that long strand and has brought fame and notoriety in equal parts to Doonbeg.

And, to me, that seems a shame.

By all accounts, the project itself reflects the Trump house style in its overblown tastelessness and there have been recent conflicts over his desire to build a wall (no really) between the strand and his property to offset the effects of erosion, from the Global Warming  he professes does not exist.

Over more than fifty years  I have grown to have affection and admiration for the folk of west Clare. It is a beautiful place to live, but not the easiest location in which to thrive.

So when local folk put out the bunting for Trump’s visit this week, it’s easy to understand the dollar signs in their eyes. There are all sorts of  estimates for how much the Trump project brings in to the village. Some are wildly overestimated, others fail to take note of how much of that cash remains in the local economy.

It’s also true to say that, as a mere visitor, albeit with an interest in the area, it’s really none of my business – but I’m not sure that precludes me from having my say, whether or not local folk agree with me – and , clearly, many do not.

So maybe it’s better to widen out the discussion.

Ultimately, it’s not about Trump and Doonbeg, it’s about the west of Ireland, the Irish government and economy, and people’s choices.

But before I leave Trump, can I share some of the experiences we have had here in Scotland when it comes to his “investment” in an area.

Up at Menie, in the north of Scotland, building a similar complex, he made all manner of grandiloquent promises about jobs, the scale of the project, and the amount he would invest. In addition, he verbally attacked local people who would not sell out their land to him, and built a huge earthen wall (there we go again) around their property to cut them off from his land.

Like Doonbeg, and his other property at Turnberry in Scotland, the investment has been minimal compared to what was promised, and huge losses are being incurred. It’s what Trump does: promises big and then goes into administration when losses are insurmountable. Atlantic City in the USA is still trying to recover from the collapse of his casinos.

The business people of Doonbeg may be happy to grab the additional income while they can, but they should be doing so  with one eye to developing a more sustainable business model against the day when Trump and his projects are no more.

Of course, there is nothing new about US President’s linking to Ireland – 22 of them have claimed connections, and since John F Kennedy’s visit to Wexford in the sixties, we have seen Reagan visit Co Tipperary and Obama’s link to Co Offaly amongst others.

Trump has no such connection. His background is German and Scots – though there is little likelihood of his visiting his mother’s homeplace on Lewis, as locals have suggested they would run him out of the place such is the disgrace they feel he has brought to it.

So, while we could accuse former Presidents of cultivating the Irish American vote by visiting their “Roots”, there is no such agenda for Trump – a man so careless of family heritage that he frequently claims his American born father was born in Germany. He will visit Doonbeg on the same basis as he visited Troon in Scotland and his weekend golfing jaunts in America – to promote the Trump name and business, and to add more taxpayers’ money into his depleted coffers. He cares not a jot for local people or their history or their business.

But we really should be looking at the reasons behind local folks’ determination to welcome Trump and take his money. Many have said this week that they deplore his politics and values but are “separating the man from his policies”. This may appear to be a Jesuitical level of sophistry, but I would suggest that anyone who grew up in west Clare over the past fifty or sixty years would perfectly understand their thinking.

Put simply, there is no other option. This is an area that has been grossly underfunded and overlooked by successive Irish governments literally from the foundation of the State. You would have to go back to the long diminished Shannon Free Trade Area and the Ard-na-Crusha power station well over fifty years ago to see any notable governmental attempt to regenerate the area.

My background is in Leitrim – a county which has suffered similarly. If you feel my statement is overly harsh, examine the increasingly desperate letters written to DeValera by Blasket Islanders in the late 1940s, asking initially for something as simple as effective radio communications with the mainland and ultimately, after a young man’s death from appendicitis, begging for evacuation. And this was to a President who claimed to believe the “soul” of Ireland was to be found in the West.

As recently elected Councillor, Cillian Murphy, of Kilkee, has pointed out, in north Clare, the Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s biggest tourist attractions, yet the majority of tourists are bussed there from Dublin and spend very little time or money in the local area. What Clare gets from this “tourist boom” is crowded roads and a disinclination from some tourists to vist the area because of how overcrowded certain areas become.

In Kilkee itself, the ill fated property boom led to a huge number of houses being built in and around the town, but these are largely holiday homes and the current year round occupation of Kilkee property hovers around 30%. How is a town to survive long term on such a model? Until recently in this holiday resort, not one of its  major hotels were open for business.

Times change and God forbid we should be looking for the west of Ireland to become some kind of heritage theme park. Indeed, it is organic change which offers the best hope for these areas, a change built on local people and their talents, adapting to contemporary conditions.

A national economic plan which depends on low Corporation Tax and similar incentives,  will, by its nature, attract the multinational conglomerates who roam the world looking for such opportunities. When better conditions are offered elsewhere, they up and leave with no thought to the local economy they are leaving behind.

Unfortunately, this can work politically and economically in the short term – as in boosting a party’s chances in the next election – but provides no sustainable model for the workforce or locality. What we have seen in Ireland is a steady growth of the economy around Dublin and an increasing struggle in other areas. Sadly, the current government, and to be fair its predecessors, either have no desire or no idea how to decentralise wealth and power, or how to redistribute it in a fairer and more sustainable manner.

This explains how folk in Doonbeg are only too ready to welcome the odious Trump to their place – he is, almost literally, the only show in town.

However, with support and vision, there are other possibilities.

For most of the twenty or so years I visited Kilkee regularly, from the sixties onwards, the only place to eat, apart from the hotels, would have been Manuel Di Lucia’s Savoy Cafe which was a chipper, hamburgers from the Central Stores, or the odd sandwich in a pub. Now there are a number of local restaurants with well cooked local produce and varied fare, producing high quality menus.

The trip out to Loop Head was once  a lesson in depopulation and hard times, but now local businesses are starting to  blossom in places like Carrigaholt and Kilbaha, again with local folk and skills being utilised and showcased.

Focus, cooperative working, vision, and ethically sourced investment can help these areas grow and proper, keeping young people in the area, or tempting graduates and others to return to their homeplace. It requires leadership and hard work and a willingness to  keep on approaching government and other sources for the kind of start up funds and support that make the difference between ideas and practical progress.

Rural areas in particular have been badly let down by  governments for whom the ideals of the Republic seem to have been replaced by the dictats of self interest.

I think the people of Doonbeg and hundreds of similar  communities deserve better than to become prey to any passing venture capitalist.

It’s about time that folk no longer needed to perform the difficult task of holding their nose while opening the till to bank the income forged on the back of dodgy businesses run by degenerates like Trump. It’s maybe too late for this generation – but surely we owe it to the next.

Doonbeg, like Ireland, is not about business or even land or locality. It is about people, and people who deserve to be able to make a good living out of local resources without having to prostitute their values.

This area and its coastline has so much to offer and has the people to manage that, if they are given the support.

It should be built on the values and commitment of folk like Shanahan and McNamara, Mary McGrath and all the other Doonbeg families who have put so much into the community through the generations and deserve to be so much more than the backdrop to an international privateer’s fantasies.

The folk in Doonbeg cannnot be blamed for grabbing the profit while it’s on offer, there’s little alternative, but it’s the knowledge that  one day, they or their children will pay the price for such short term economic planning that makes this week’s activities so depressing.

The blame is not with the people of west Clare, nor even with Trump, whose extremely limited view of the world prevents him from operating in any other way – it lies 200 miles to the east and has existed really from the foundation of the State.

Res publica – about the people.

Something has been lost in translation.





Two documentaries – a life apart.

On Tuesday July 18th 1967, as a fifteen year old,  excited at the start of school summer holidays, I sat down to watch a BBC documentary on Dickie Rock, lead singer with Dublin’s Miami Showband.

I had a special interest in this film because  the year before, on my first “teenage holiday”  to Ireland, I had fallen in love with the glamour and energy of the showband scene, the dancing, the live music, the emotional completeness of it all  especially for a fairly sheltered teenager.

Each night, in the Hydro Hotel Ballroom in Kilkee, Co Clare, I would hover by the stage – alternately watching the powerful bands in action,  their brass sections, their Binatone echo chambers, the  stage craft of their performance, or dancing nervously, and in a horribly gauche way, with any girl I felt would  not turn me down.

During the day, if I heard the band were rehearsing, beach and sun would be ignored, and I’d be there in the empty ballroom, asking questions, singing along, wrapped in the music and the rehearsal process.

For all this was “the swinging sixties”, this was as close as I would ever get to “the happening scene”. Most of the attraction came from the accessibility of the lads in the bands: they would chat to you, show you chords, share lyrics. For a shy teenager, it was a brilliant experience.

The scene was invisible across the Irish Sea, outside of Irish communities, and I laboured manfully to explain to my progressive music mates at home that the showbands provided much more than just a set of top ten cover versions.

So, watching the BBC documentary, I was delighted to see the phenomenon getting a proper airing in the UK. The angle taken was that the Miami were “Ireland’s answer to the Beatles”. This was the usual description for any highly popular band of the time, but, in this case, there was some justification – in the screaming crowds, their reaction, and the band’s position on the country’s music scene.

Less than three weeks later, Sunday August 6th, back in Kilkee again, we were sitting chatting to other guests in the hotel lounge at the Hydro, when the subject of the Miami came up. I enthused about the programme I had watched three weeks before, and one of the other guests said, “Would you like to see them?”

It was the sort of tease adults would often offer to youngsters in those days, and I laughed knowingly as I said: “Oh yeah!” like you might agree to the offer of dinner with Paul McCartney.

However, I wasn’t as clever as I thought.

To cut a long story short, the man speaking was Dr Carney from Dublin, and he was Dickie Rock’s GP. In addition, the Miami were actually playing in Kilkee that night, about three hundred yards from where we sat. This was all news to me.

We got in the doctor’s car and he drove around the bay.

There was a huge Marquee set up in a field on the edge of the town – it is actually the GAA pitch now – there were cars and bicycles parked haphazardly everywhere, and the tent glowed like a space ship landing on an alien planet.

People were surrounding the marquee, trying to find a way in under the canvas flaps. A fair bit of drink would have been taken, but not to the obsessive amount you would tend to find these days.

The music from within floated upwards and was hard to catch, but the sense of excitement  would almost flatten you. The Miami were in town; this was a big occasion.

The gig was clearly sold out, but Dr Carney approached the guys at the entrance, said a few words, and then turned and ushered us in.

In a lifetime we retain some memories in a vivid and intractable manner. They are not always the major moments – they are sometimes rather recollections of  events which have resonated to lasting effect. So it was with the Miami in Kilkee.

My reaction was no doubt a reflection of the time in my life, the start of a much anticipated holiday, and a love of music and live performance. In addition it was my first time at a marquee dance.

We were hit by a wave of noise, heat, and movement.

There are wellness treatments you can get now  based on sensory deprivation – you float weightless, blindfolded, and deaf,  in a tub in darkness, and luxuriate in the calm caused by the muting of your senses. That night in the Kilkee marquee was the exact opposite of  that.

Had it been a cartoon, my eyes and mouth would have been wide open, my hair standing on end.

The tent was a breathing mass of people. The band were playing a slow dance – Anita Harris’ popular hit “Just Loving You”-  so the crowd was swaying rhythmically as the couples  tried to find space to slow dance to the music. The lads on stage were luminous in the lights, moving in harmony, delivering the sound.

Dickie Rock spotted the Doc and nodded to him.

As the set ended we followed the flow to the side of the tent and headed nearer to the stage. Dickie bent over and said a few words to Dr Carney who obviously explained who we were. The singer looked up and waved to us. I self consciously gave a thumbs up. So soon was this after my viewing of the television documentary, it almost felt as if I’d stepped into the screen. I wasn’t sure it was actually happening. After all, half an hour ago, the thought that I’d ever see the Miami would never have entered my head, now I was sheepishly smiling at their lead vocalist.

Band leader Paul Ashford gave the sign and they commenced the next set with a full on version of their current Number One hit – “Baby, I’m your Man.”

It’s not the greatest song ever written, but it starts with a  wall of brass  that is exhilarating, and that got the crowd up and dancing before the first couple of bars were completed.

Back in those days, there were probably few better experiences than seeing a band play their current number one song live.

The sound level almost took me off my feet. I’ve seen The Who live half a dozen times or more since then, and I presume, in terms of wattage there were times when they were much more powerful than the Miami in Kilkee – but in my head it has never felt like it.

The crowd, which had been a swaying mass when we entered, was changed into a rolling surge. Dances being alcohol free in those days, the danger of an accident was limited – it felt exciting rather than dangerous. We moved to the side out of the way of the dancing throng.

My eyes were transfixed by the sight and sound of a band at the top of their game in full flow. Then I realised the whole wooden floor was moving. Up and down it went in time with the beat, and, on the edge of the tent, we were bouncing, pushed up off our feet without making any effort.

If ever I saw a band and a crowd at one – musically, physically and emotionally, it was that night. If you said: “I went to a dance and saw the Miami” you wouldn’t even be capturing one per cent of the experience.

Eventually, with a wave to the singer, Doc Carney led us out into the night. I don’t think it is hindsight to suggest that, even at that second, in the mud of the field and with my ears ringing, I realised it was a moment I would never lose.

Of course, time moves on. Along with the fashion,  and my age, my musical tastes changed – but I retained a love of live performance and attend concerts still, as I have done all my life.

What I didn’t know that night was that this was the apotheosis of the Miami in many ways. The Showband Scene was at its height and there were lots of agents and promoters looking to make as much as possible while it lasted. A month later three of the band left to form the Sands Showband and the iconic Miami line up which we had seen was no more.

The showbands themselves went into decline as discos and rock bands started to attract the young and the showband crowd grew older. It is the way of popular music, and though thousands were sad, it was really  the loss of their youth that affected them rather than the bands themselves. For the musicians and promoters, cabaret, country and western, Las Vegas or “real life” beckoned. Ireland moved a little more shakily into the later 20th century.

The Miami, however, carried on, now more a group than a classic showband, and with a few further changes in personnel, but still beloved to thousands.

I was always glad I’d watched that documentary on the band, and got to see them live. One of the great joys of life is being in the right place at the right time.

On July 31st 1975, I was spending my final Summer at home, and  had enjoyed my last “family” holiday in Kilkee. Degree and teacher training completed, I would start my teaching career in two weeks time.

I could see the upset on my mother’s face as she woke me up.

“It’s the Miami  – they’ve been blown up!”

She had been with us in the marquee that night, I could see the tears in her eyes.

We were getting sadly accustomed to being woken with sad news from  the Six Counties, but, even so, this was a piece of information that stunned me. It was unheard of for entertainers to become embroiled in the Troubles in this way. And, of course, the Miami still inhabited that special place in my head – slightly apart from my mainstream musical interests, more a visceral reminder of what it was like to be fifteen and on holiday and buzzing for the future.

As was always the case, there were statements produced from hither and yon, the “facts” of the case were relatively quickly revealed – the bomb being planted, the explosion, the shooting of Steven,Tony, Fran, and Brian. Nothing seemed to make sense about the whole vile incident, but folk were too shocked initially to question what was being reported.

As it happened, none of the lads in that minibus had been on the bandstand that night in Kilkee, but that hardly mattered. I had still followed their music, admired Fran’s voice, Des’s writing, Tony’s guitar playing, Brian’s brass section. It didn’t seem possible that three of them  were gone – and in such a way.

Because I had no idea what else to do, I wrote a poem: “Good night, God Bless, and Safe Home”, the traditional Showband farewell. The line I remember, over forty years later, is a reminder of the awkwardness of my emotions: “When the Banbridge devils made the banshee scream”  It remains a clumsy collection of words, but I still can’t find better.

Last night, I watched another documentary on the Miami Showband.

This Netflix production, based on Stephen Travers’ brave and long commitment to his band mates in finding out exactly who was behind the atrocity and why it was planned, was a clear and concise explanation of the events of July 1975 – with telling involvement from the two  band members who were there and survived, and from those involved in the conflict on all sides.

The bass player’s willingness to reach out to the different elements who were involved – and the agreement of  some of them to take part  – is inspirational and gives a scent of hope. Having followed the story over the decades, I learned no new facts during the documentary – but it will, however, be eye opening to those less aware of the situation during the Troubles. However, I was given cause to reflect again on the aftermath of the event, and the ripples of misery it spread out, far beyond the immediate grief and trauma of those directly involved, their friends and loved ones.

We know, of course, that those who take up arms for a cause are frequently blinded to all that exists beyond that cause – and maybe that demonstrates how three innocent musicians could have been slaughtered, without a thought for the thousands of memories tarnished or the music muted.

As the documentary pointed out, even at the height of the Troubles, music was a release for those who went to dances or concerts or sessions. Physically and emotionally, it was a reminder of the positive beauty that could come from human creativity and skill, and a chance to live in the moment – for the beat, the lyric, the  moves. And if this was true for folk in the Six Counties, it was also true, albeit on a less frantic level, for folk elsewhere.

When Fran and Brian and Tony  were killed, and Stephen and Des injured, that escape route through music – whether from the strain of the Troubles, or, for the rest of us, from the mundane worries of everyday life, was compromised. The sheen on the glitter was dulled, and, with it, so were the memories we had.

For eight years after the gig in the Kilkee marquee, whenever I played a record by the Miami, or even heard their name mentioned, I could be, however briefly, that starry eyed fifteen year old in the marquee, enveloped in a new sort of magic of the band’s making – eager for what life would bring, still looking on the world as a place of hope.

After July 1975, just two weeks before the start of a happy teaching career, any mention of the Miami no longer took me to the pulsating joy of a tent in a field on the edge of Kilkee, but to a lay by on Buskills Rd a few miles north of Newry, with a shattered minibus, and the poignant echo of “Safe Home” in a  hedgerow as charred and ripped as the band photos scattered on the scorched earth.

I had celebrated that Miami gig in 1967 as my being in the right place at the right time, and now I was left with the lifelong realisation that life also delivers the tragedy of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You could call that growing up – but only in the sense that half drowning is learning to swim.

I understand and admire Stephen Travers; for his need to get to the truth rather than blame, for his hard work to try and achieve a revelation of the truth of what really happened that night – and why it could have happened.

I hope he is successful: he deserves to be, and his bandmates, alive and dead, will benefit from his brave commitment, his love, and ongoing determination. I cannot begin to imagine the pain he and Des and  drummer Ray Miller, and the band’s  loved ones, have endured through the years.

But the impact of those murders resonated far beyond that lay by and those most involved. For me, and thousands of others of my generation, who were touched and enlivened by the music of a band called the Miami, the future was changed and the colours of our lives would never be quite so bright again.

Things Fall Apart: British self delusion, Yeats and Chinua Achebe

Born 5 days before the death of George V1 you could say my life coincides more or less exactly with what was originally hailed as “the new Elizabethan Age”

And right there is an indication of the endemic self delusion from which “Great Britain” has suffered throughout my life time.

This is not an attack, per se, on “Britain”, nor do I fail to acknowledge the good things that have come to pass through its more positive elements.

But the fact is, even looking at the name, it is an entity which insists on seeing the world from its own narrow perspective and as it would like it to be, rather than as it actually is.

It’s not often featured as a pub quiz question, but how many folk know that the “Great” in GB is not qualitative but comparative. “Grande Bretagne”was originally named to differentiate from its smaller neighbour in north western France: “Bretagne”.

So even the title which seemingly proclaims greatness is a delusion.

In the years of my early childhood, one would have thought that the debacle of Suez would have provided the clearest antidote to self delusion and, to be fair, there was a kind of dawning of realisation at the time, but this was eventually replaced by the kind of frantic revisionism which saw the second world war hailed as “Britain’s Finest Hour” and “when we stood alone”.

Whilst it’s beyond question that that both world wars brought extraordinary heroism and determination in action, this kind of rewriting of history is a huge insult to the memory of millions of American and Empire troops who tipped the balance from defeat to victory.

For all that, this imagined memory was wheeled out by the union side in the Scottish Independence referendum and by UKIP, the ERG and their allies in the current Brexit omnishambles.

It’s probably no coincidence that “world war as self justification” has come to the fore as the generations who actually remember it are dying out.

Certainly, I never heard my mother, who lived through Liverpool’s May Blitz, refer to those times as halcyon days. She was fiercely proud of the way the ordinary folk got through it all, but scarcely remembered it as “our finest hour”.

Grand rhetoric can boost morale in war time, and she always appreciated the speeches of Churchill after nights of listening to Lord Haw Haw, but such semantic bluster is no foundation for a country in peacetime.

For most of the fifties and sixties, Britain made an appalling mess of exiting from an Empire which she still insisted loved her, despite decades of oppression and cultural and economic devastation. The Monarchy, always a major tool of the self delusionists, proved helpful here. The newly named “Commonwealth” countries may have been launching attacks on her occupying military, but they “loved the Queen”, apparently.

Throughout the world, territories formerly coloured pink on the map have suffered from the aftermath of colonial exploitation and the favoured British tactic of “divide and rule”. Not many of these lands have escaped post colonial war, internecine strife, corruption and economic hardship. The self delusion of “Mother England” is seldom given credence in these places.

In Aden, Cyprus, Yemen, Malaya and elsewhere, Britain’s attempts to quell the “restless natives” led to a regime of torture and oppression which would provide the likes of Frank Kitson with a template for their later, almost cartoon attempts, to deal with what they insisted on referring to as “the Irish Question”.

For all this, the British Army was continually referred to as “the best in the world”. Even with its dirty tricks department in full mode it could not defeat a small band of rebels over a thirty year period and put this down to the government “tying their hands behind their back”.

Later political “adventures” in the Falklands and Iraq brought to light the fact that, in reality, the army was under resourced, under trained, and guided by a Ministry whose financial mismanagement over decades was legendary. And, as ever, whilst the promoters of self delusion benefited from the tales they spun, it was working class lads from areas of high unemployment who usually paid the price.

Perhaps the greatest delusion of all – that the British Government was proud of its troops – has always been easily disproved by the way they are treated – during and after their service – and the need for veterans to be supported by charities.

One of the ironies is that Britain clings on to its UN Security Council position by dint of a Trident missile which can only be used with US permission and costs so much that our welfare system is left unfit for purpose

And so we come to Brexit – the latest and clearest exposition of the damage done by decades of self delusion.

“The EU needs us more than we need them” “We are being told what to do by unelected foreigners” (often directed a members of the, erm, elected European Parliament) “We did alright before the EU” “ Other countries will be queuing up for trade deals”. “We give them billions and get nothing back”.

All these statements can be easily disproved with the level of research available to a third year Modern Studies or Business Education pupil.

The delusion is almost paper thin when it comes to arguments against independence for Scotland. A widely held belief that our country is subsidised by England – as if we paid no taxes, and the refusal to acknowledge that, along with Iraq, Britain is one of only two states to have discovered oil and not set up an oil fund for the country’s future prosperity. Decades of using oil revenues for short term fixes to disguise balance of trade problems and massage figures in election campaigns are now embarrassingly revealed.

But the self delusion remains. Demands for Scottish independence are translated as if they are built on hatred for the English – as if everything needs to be about them. A desire by Scots to join the world community in their own right instead of through a “British filter” is seen as parochial, from a state which fails to learn languages and claims an independent Scotland would be “foreign”.

In 2014 they said: “Oh, but we’ve been through so much together. We really respect you. We are equals.” But, like the abusive partner script those phrases so clearly echo, before the result was even officially declared, Cameron’s comments were made out of disdain – an attitude which has persisted through Brexit, where the government which represents Scotland – and its 62% remain majority, is ignored.

The fact is that Britain is seen in Europe as a state which never really wanted to join the EU, failed to embrace its successes, while highlighting its failures, and is making use of an unexpected Brexit vote to solve party political infighting and assuage its doubts about “foreigners”.

Like its Houses of Parliament, it deludes itself that tradition trumps efficacy, and self belief can overcome reality – a not surprising world view given the percentage of public school educated politicians.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that there is no need for all this self delusion. If Britain, in particular England, could accept the reality of where it is and what it is now, it would be regarded as a small country which has given much to to the world and can continue to do so – in culture, the arts, science and innovation. It is only in clinging desperately to a sinking raft, somewhere off Midsomer and Downton Abbey, with a fly past from Douglas Bader and Guy Gibson, that it makes itself a laughing stock and lacks the insight to recognise the fact.

Ironically, a reborn, dare we say, re-constituted, England, freed from the need to be convincing itself of its “world power” status, could actually recapture some of the much missed and positive elements of its history – radicalism, tolerance, civility among them.

WB Yeats and then Chinua Achebe both used the phrase: “Things Fall Apart, the Centre cannot hold.”

They had the clear sighted advantage, as an Irishman and a Nigerian, of having seen the British state at close quarters but from the outside, and perhaps that contributed to their description of chaos.

Would that the woman who berated the UK Parliament from the podium last week had anything like that clarity of vision.

Hughie – you’re immortal!


In  the summer of 2015 I was waiting outside the Assembly Rooms on Edinburgh’s George St to attend “Graham Spiers ….in conversation with Hugh McIlvanney.” It was an unmissable event really – one of our best current sports journalists interviewing a man invariably described as ‘the finest ever sports writer’.

I leaned against one of the pillars of the entrance portico, surveying the endlessly fascinating parade of Fringe goers, and realised that McIlvanney himself was also waiting, standing a few feet away, in conversation with a couple  of friends. The small boy inside me marvelled that such a great figure could be treading the same pavements as the rest of us.

While I was thinking these thoughts I spotted another well kent face approaching the group. Unheralded and largely unnoticed, Hughie’s brother, Willie, came up and tapped him on the shoulder.

The two brothers embraced, and it felt like a kind of privilege to see that family moment. As someone whose life, professionally and personally, owes a huge debt to words and writing and literature, to see two of Scotland’s greatest ever wordsmiths in that quiet and  emotional greeting was a little overwhelming.

Willie, dapper as ever, looked to be failing. He died later that year, and this was the last time I  saw either of the brothers. I am so glad that I witnessed them together in that way, because, as Hughie would elaborate in the conversation to follow, family and upbringing was the bedrock of their writing.

Both brothers were doubly blessed in that their superb craft with the written word was matched by their skill as raconteurs, in that marvellously idiosyncratic Ayrshire accent. So it was no surprise that this event was spell binding, Spiers managing the difficult task of reigning in his obvious admiration of his guest to an extent where an eager audience found themselves comfortably at home, witnessing what purported to be a chat between two sports hacks.

It was, of course, much more than that. Graham is more than a run of the mill journo, but Hughie, it could be said, pioneered a level of sports journalism which otherwise may not have survived as it has,  into an era of sound bites, click bait, and PR releases.

My generation were lucky, in that with a smaller and narrower experience of media, there was space to tell the story accurately and with some style, even an aspiration to literary standards. In the spoken word, for us, the voices of David Coleman, Kenneth Wolstenholme, Harry Carpenter or John Arlott are almost indistinguishable from the sporting moments they described to us.

Hughie, too, was memorable in his interviews and pieces on radio, but he had that additional gift of writing sublimely, capturing the moment and the emotion in ways that were grand but seldom overblown, that paid due deference to the importance of a sporting moment in the lives of millions, without ever losing the perspective that it was, after all, sport.

Perhaps that was one of his greatest skills – and there were many. He understood the importance of sport “in the moment”, and, better than anyone else, he could capture that moment, its resonance and, most of all, its impact on the spectators and participants. While never diminishing the sportsperson’s power,  skill, or glory, he could also place that moment in context.

So, when we think about Ali, Best, Busby, or poor Johnny Owen, we tend to think of McIlvanney as well. He never tried to share their glory, rather he burnished it and humanised it with his wordcraft. As many have written today, he was so accomplished, so engaging, so rivetingly good, that you found yourself reading his pieces about sports in which you had absolutely no interest. It was all in the flow of his words and his erudition.

Some would say that the pure and instant emotion which comes with sporting victory – a goal scored, a wicket taken, a penalty saved or a record broken – is too explosive to be captured by the written word. McIlvanney proved otherwise. His words somehow enabled the moment to live on, fixed in our memory, clarified by his prose.

I’ve heard both Willie and Hughie talk about their home life as children, their mother’s love of books, their father’s principles, their own years sharing the same bed and  their fantastical hopes, dreams, and stories – the breeding ground for the magic they would both later cast on generations of readers. That hug I witnessed in George St had deep foundations.

We can only  wonder at the impact of  of Hughie’s loss on his extended family and feel for them all, including nephew, Liam, who continues the family’s mission with words: giving a voice to the unheard, a detailed picture of landscapes often overlooked. How fitting  to be writing about this son of Ayrshire on January 25th.

Willie once said: “Writing is a way of sharing our humanity”. It was never truer than in the work he produced, and, in the same way, Hughie’s writing  placed humanity at the heart of sport – a position  in which it can be  increasingly difficult  to detect these days.

Whenever I think of another magnificent Scottish writer, Ian Bell,  I find it impossible to believe he is no longer with us. His words are still  so redolent, his insights so telling, his passion so clearly transmitted.

And so it is with Hughie McIlvanney. As long as we are fascinated by sport, by its performers and by those who write about it, his words will ensure he lives on.

I’m tempted to reference two of his great contemporaries from a similar background, and about whom he wrote so well: Jock Stein and Bill Shankly.

To paraphrase the words of Shanks to Stein in the Lisbon dressing room after Celtic’s European Cup win, reported by Hughie at the time:


“Hughie – you’re immortal.”


Physician heal thyself

The partition of Ireland was a temporary measure – a sticking plaster over the wound of Rebellion and Civil War, employed by Britain because they could find no other way of squaring the circle of Unionists and Republicans. However, instead of regularly changing the dressing and cleaning the wound, they walked away and convinced themselves that, as there was no obvious bleeding from where they stood, everything was fine.

The wound began to heal slowly, but, as is always the case, without proper procedures to keep the dressing and the wound clean, infection slowly built up again and by the late 1960’s it was festering and highly toxic.

At this point, the plaster fell off and the British tried many different techniques to try and stem the bleeding – from packing the wound by force to suturing the edges in the hopes that this would lead to healing.

Eventually, with the help of some additional American remedies of neutral discussion, a new Good Friday plaster was found which could stem the worst of the infection and let the wound breathe – in the hopes that eventually, with the right amount of ongoing attention, there would be a resolution to the illness, and the wound would slowly heal..

Some believed that the cause of the wound should be treated so as to prevent any further outbreaks of infection, but others said that as long as it wasn’t bleeding, that was all anyone could hope for, and, anyway, there were a number who liked there being a plaster there because it reminded people that there was a wound and it was good to suffer. They had only agreed to a plaster in the first place because they believed it was always going to be there.

Some disagreed and said that the whole body would only be fully fit again when there was no more need for the plaster and the various germs and microbes which caused the wound had been changed into positive anti-bodies.

A lot of money was spent ensuring the wound was kept clean and  the Good Friday plaster was kept in place. A breathing plaster helped the wound heal – to the extent that, despite some itching round the edge and the occasional temptation to pick at the plaster, many people forgot there had ever been a wound at all. Because they couldn’t see it and it wasn’t bleeding, they thought it had healed – and a small group of folk believed that the patient was a malingerer and just liked the attention gained by being ill.

The British consultant, who had other patients who were more demanding, was struggling with funding and, as a result of infighting in the hospital, decided to focus on other treatments elsewhere.

The local doctors, who had been treating the wound on a regular basis, warned that this would end up with the plaster falling off, and, with no replacement, this would inevitably lead to re-infection and an opening up of the wound.

The British doctors, supported by a small group of “wound deny-ers”,  ignored this warning and made preparations to remove the plaster, and became very  annoyed when European medics supported the local doctors and prepared to put in place some emergency dressings to maintain the healing process.

The British medics started to blame the patient for the wound – even though it was they who had made the original incision and had failed to maintain focus on treating the wound and curing its cause.

Meanwhile, the patient started to suffer from anxiety, and worried at what might become of the wound and the chance of further infection.

And the English medics continued to fight amongst themselves – even ignoring the Scottish doctors who had a history of medical invention and common sense treatment. Some of the most influential English doctors, who had not even seen the wound, or studied its pathology, opined that it would continue to heal without intervention, despite the previous regressions.

And the moral of the story is that bandaging with wishful thinking is a Victorian style of medicine; it was ineffective then, and it’s plain dangerous now

Hitting the spot

49938217_10156959501777603_6618914077697638400_nIt seems like everybody is writing about Andy Murray.

That in itself is a guide to his impact and influence. And the words they are using testify to the love and respect in which he is held by so many – in the world of tennis and sport – but far beyond that.

He is that rarest of 21st century sporting icons in that he is exactly how you would want him to be – an example to youngsters, an inspiration to aspirant sportspeople, and a credit to family, hometown and country.

His pride in his hometown and in Scotland has always been perfectly pitched. No gallus “Wha’s like us” for this son of Dunblane, not the usual Scots representative: not the hard man midfielder who runs around kicking folk, nor the celebrity who feels he should belittle the people and institutions he has “left behind”, no need for this guy to utter that saddest of sentences “I’m a proud Scot, but….”

Maybe this is the impact of surviving tragedy, or of spending time furth of the country in his adolescence. He certainly has a sound perspective – and for that I’m inclined to credit, among others, his mother, Judy.

What a rock she has been for him. The predictable “pushy mother” sneers have been taken in her stride. If she could be called “pushy” it’s in her unstinting efforts for young people all over Scotland in tennis, sport, and general health and fitness. That she has had the time to support Andy while providing inspiration to so many is quite remarkable.

Credit also to the rest of his family. No doubt the tabloids would have loved a battle between his mother and father but both have been the soul of public discretion while Jamie, no tennis slouch himself, has been hugely supportive of his wee brother.

I guess the story of Andy Murray is one of roots, family, common sense, and talent – honed with sheer hard graft and the capacity to accept direction and advice. All of which makes him a perfect role model for Hibs’ youngsters Fraser Murray and Ryan Porteous – and any other future talents he may mentor.

When Andy won his first grand slam title – the US Open in September 2012 – I was actually staying around 80 miles away from Flushing Meadow with cousins in the East End of Long Island. So close but so far.

As his game began we were with extended family in a sports cafe in Southampton. It was actually the last time I would be with my three American cousins – two have since died.

The fun was raucous and the cafe was busy. However, in a back bar, I could see tennis on the tv. None of the family were into tennis and were oblivious to the drama that was playing out in the flickering distance.

There followed a meal of rather divided attention during which keeping track of the score was almost impossible.

However, on the way out, I managed to spot that Andy was still fighting. Arriving home to my cousin’s house, I thought the final set might still be playing out.

There was an anguished request that we might switch on the tv for the end of the match. Luckily, being a lovely person, my cousin spotted the urgency in my voice and maybe understood some of my babbling about Scotland, Dunblane, Hibs etc

We were left in front of the tv to experience that familiar Murray-watching churning stomach – thousands of miles from home but a 70 minute drive from where it was all happening.

When it finished, the family had gone to bed so they didn’t see us laughing and crying on the sofa. It was a good feeling to be near the scene of victory and made better by being in the home of our own family as we celebrated for the Murray family.

I thought of Andy’s grandparents, Ex Hibs player, Roy Erskine and his wife, I thought of the families of Dunblane who so deserved a new reason for acknowledgement, and I thought of the roads and miles his mum and dad, brother and wife had covered on the journey to success.

When I think of Andy Murray, now and, I suspect for always, I think of family – and all it means, and sport – and all it can be.