The cricket ground at Arboretum Road has seen many notable Sunday fixtures over the decades, including a double century from future Aussie captain, Kim Hughes, when playing for Greyhounds against Holy Cross, but seldom has a game been as stirring as Sunday’s memorial game for Holy Cross stalwart, Colin McGill, who died last year after over four decades of service to the club.

Through the years, Colin had performed heroically on and off the pitch – fulfilling the less desirable roles of fixture secretary, mid week skipper, umpire, and even groundsman, when others were less willing or able to step forward.

He had a love hate relationship with the club’s original and venerable motor roller, and a similar effect on countless wives and partners across the Lothians, who could be heard shouting through the house after answering a late night Thursday phone call: “It’s that man again!” in a kind of weird tribute to the war time radio comedy show. But he never let us down.

On the pitch, as he would frequently tell you himself, he was the epitome of an all rounder, whose idea of a bowling change was often to stop bowling his medium pacers and switch to his spinners, and he would have bowled from both ends if the rules had permitted.

But his talent for self proclamation could not hide the fact that he was a fine cricketer, who could indeed bowl swing, slow, and spin and with his heavyweight bats  could smote even decent bowling to the four corners of the field. He saved games and won games for all the club’s teams repeatedly through the years, and he was absolutely cricket mad.

When he was eventually forced to assume umpiring duties, he added to his lustre with a constant stream of comments – helpful and otherwise – issuing forth from under the perpetual cloud of cigarette smoke, the rattle of matches often denoting the end of an over.

He liked his fags did Colin, and there were times when the cricket seemed to be merely an interlude between cigarettes rather than the other way round. Snootier opponents who did not know Colin would occasionally raise the eyebrows or even make comments about “smoking in the field”. It was not a mistake they made twice.

Colin starred on the pitch, prepared the pitch, and was a star off the pitch, for he came into his own, again, in the clubhouse.

With his excellent recall of detail and statistics he would have made a first class cricket commentator – with the proviso that his subject should always be Colin McGill! Over the years we became skilled at avoiding mention of locations or matches which would unleash the awesome power of Colin in full anecdotal flow. He knew this, of course, and was well capable of manufacturing specious connections so as to enable the repeating of a well loved tale.

“Did I ever tell you about my five for at…” he would mumble, drink in hand, fag well alight.

“I probably have, but it bears telling again. Anyway……”

Mostly it did bear re-telling, for he had forty years or more of tales to tell – all featuring his own exploits, and many of them singular in their content. What made it bearable – for a time, at least, was that Colin told the tales – even of his successes, in the most self deprecatory way, even while boasting of his performance. He was not a braggard, he was just proud of his achievements. I don’t think anybody else could have said: “They said it was the best spin bowling they’d ever seen at the ground” without sounding  vain – but Colin managed it – and there was always that knowing twinkle in his eye which betrayed the fact that he knew what he was doing, and was at least a wicket’s length away from being totally serious  in his accounts.

He was gold dust in the bar after a game.

Always friendly off the pitch, despite his muttered epithets towards the opposition during play, he would always reach out to the opposition  – many of whom had only intended to “stay for one”.

Whilst, as team mates, we had long worked out escape strategies to avoid yet another telling of the great moments of Colin’s career, the opposition were generally not so well prepared.

At some point in the evening, glancing around them in mid McGill tale, they would realise that, rather like the musicians in Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, the home team had gradually, one by one, sneaked out of the bar, and they were left stranded with the ongoing memoirs.

But all who played and attended today, I know, would give anything to be trapped by Colin’s tales of grandeur just one more time. Simple truth is, we loved him for them, and across the Grade leagues and beyond there was a fondness and respect for this most friendly and knowledgeable of competitors. He is greatly mourned, a centrepiece now missing  in the fabric of our club.

It was brilliant to meet up with team mates from long ago and to reminisce of days gone by and Colin’s solid part at the heart of it all for so long. The affection for our team mate and club legend was palpable.

There was no pall of cigarette smoke over square leg, but umpire Chris Kerr was brought a pint to aid his concentration,  in a nice reflection of the idiosyncrasy that makes Holy Cross such a loveable institution.

Beyond all doubt,  Arboretum – on the pitch and in the bar – is where Colin would want to be remembered – and he will be as long as Holy Cross stories are told.

It is not hard to imagine some celestial pavilion where those who have gone to their eternal reward are sitting in a circle round McGill, as, cigarette in one hand, pint in the other, he fixes them with his famous look and says:

“Did I ever tell you the story of the day they had a memorial match for me at Arboretum……?”

A Decent Bloke

They should have written a novel about him.

Brian Palmer, who died last week, was my cricketing team mate at Holy Cross Academicals for over two decades and was, in so many ways, a unique character.

For those who played against him he was instantly unforgettable – battered panama hat, baggy Aran sweater almost to his knees, and a joyful RP accent which would ring out delightfully in places as diverse as Myreside and Armadale, Fauldhouse and Falkland.

When he first came to play for Cross, his appearance – the result  of long hair and  some Chinese heritage, allied to our well known eclectic recruitment approach – led to some puzzlement: “Have you lot got an Eskimo playing for you now?”

But – and these are strange times to make such a reference – he was one of a breed of slightly dishevelled, witty, and intellectually sharp, English public schoolboys who tend to inspire affection rather than disdain, because their style is underpinned by a basic kindness, tolerance and empathy. He was, in the language he would have used himself, a decent bloke, and you could not help but value his company and enjoy his wisdom.

In one game, he was fielding at short midwicket, when a  full blooded pull shot went over his shoulder, whistling past his ear. He never flinched – indeed never showed any indication that he was aware of the ball’s passage. It was only when he became slowly aware of the verbally expessed disappointment of bowler and team mates that he stirred himself.

“Sorry, Skip – I was thinking about life!” 

His batting betrayed some solid coaching – probably at Cheltenham School, and as a bowler, always with shirt sleeves remaining buttoned, he gave little away. However, the energy  required for athletic fielding was largely beyond him.

As a captain, he was tactically aware and a good man manager – up to a point. His philosophical approach to the game often led to a period of reflection and self absorption after he was out, especially if it was a cheap dismissal, which he often referred to as “like losing the love of a good woman”. While we may have been waiting for some strategic advice, he would amble away to a distant spot on the boundary where he would remain for  a time, hunched over in thought, puffs of smoke rising from the inevitable roll up, as he considered the vagaries of fate. Our resident voluble Yorkshireman would berate him “We wanted your instructions but you were away in Eeyore’s Gloomy Place”. The reply to this would be a tolerant smile.

This interplay between Yorkshire and Hampshire revealed all of Brian’s noble patience. Often wincing at the volume and  crass nature  of the remarks which issued forth, Brian would occasionally mutter a quiet “Oh, really!” with raised eyes, but more often enjoy a quiet chortle at the wit employed.

After our playing days were over, half a dozen of us instituted a regular dinner date. We originally entitled ourselves the “Old Farts”, but Brian re-named us the “Old Bores” – typically more tasteful but just as accurate.

Brian would organise menu and drinks for those meals  which were hugely enjoyable, involving reminiscence, wit and friendship, all of which Brian, quiet by nature,  greatly appreciated, even though they became more raucous as the night went on. He would sit there, eyes twinkling, quietly enthused by the comradeship he had engendered.

And, against the odds, often these get togethers took on a more reflective tone – celebrating our years together, remembering those we had lost, and sometimes developing more serious themes. Brian’s account of the VC his father won, in the Great War at Courcellette on the Somme, held the table in awe – his wonderment at his dad’s bravery demonstrating his ongoing affection for the father he lost when he was very young.

Like cricket itself, those meals were a heady coming together of celebrations – of friendship, memories, life choices, the profane and the emotional, the funny and the sad. Part of Brian’s talent was that he had the skill and humility to be a gentle enabler  of such an all encompassing  mixture – of people and subjects.

Brian was a writer as well as a university lecturer, and his writing mirrored his character – moving, witty, articulate and insightful – all skills which were verbally mirrored perfectly in his tour de force after dinner speeches. We would often swap pieces we had written and his comments would  be kind, positive, accurate and inevitably helpful. On and off the cricket field he was not a man to flatter, but his praise carried the weight of intelligence and integrity.

But I suppose my main reason for writing this tribute comes from my appreciation of his kindness – and in particular one such incident that brought me great joy.

Like most of our generation, we were romantic about the game of cricket, its traditions and its lore.  I had often talked with him about the game’s origins at Broadhalfpenny Down at Hambledon in Hampshire – Brian’s home turf as it were. Having relations in the area I had actually visited the ground once and been awed by its untamed position on the edge of the downs, the Bat and Ball pub still overlooking the field. “Imagine playing there in the steps of all those early pioneers!” we used to muse through the years.

Well, with his local connections, Brian eventually organised a tour of Hampshire and the south west for Holy Cross, and though I could not make the entire week, he made sure I would play at Hambledon.

It was a surreal experience – to step out on to the rough turf where the game I loved had been played for centuries. In the dressing room before the game, Brian and I caught each other’s eye. “Oh God,” he said, “I’ve never been this nervous before a game in my life.” I was feeling exactly the same and it was a lovely moment to be treasured. We both knew!

The Bat and Ball X1 captain seemed rather nonplussed to be playing this motley crew of cricketers – the first Scottish team to play at Broadhalfpenny, and with a name like Holy Cross Academicals!We were desperate not to let our country down and, despite an acute awareness of the occasion, gave a decent account of ourselves.

With two balls left in our innings we lost a wicket. I was next in – I was going to bat at Broadhalfpenny Down!

As I headed from the pavilion, the home captain exploded: “Oh for God’s sake, there’s only one ball left, what’s the point!”

Brian as skipper stood up and shouted: “Oh let him have his bat!”. In other circumstances it may have sounded patronising, in Brian’s case it was kindness. He knew!

Having survived my only ball at Hambledon, I was absolutely delighted to capture the opposition captain’s wicket with my best ever caught and bowled during the home side’s innings. I dedicated that to Brian!

In another quintessential Palmer move, he called on his great friend, Chris Kerr, to bowl an over or so of his leg breaks. Having a shoulder injury, Chris would have to bowl underarm – bringing much excitement to the local stratistician who opined that it was the first time underarm bowling had been seen at Hambledon in almost two hundred years – another magical moment.

Others will  have many more tales of Brian from the wider elements of his highly  accomplished life – but that kindess, tolerance and understanding  has always resonated for me in the limited areas in which our lives overlapped.

At Broadhalfpenny, the clouds gathered and evening rain swept in across the downs, ensuring an honour satisfying drawn game. Leaving the field, I paused to take in the moment – a life highlight made possible by Brian’s kindness.

Far below as the Hampshire Downs swept away from us, in the gathering gloaming, there were the lights of many tractors as they hurried to try and save the hay before the rain ruined their chances.

It was positively Hardy-esque, a goosebumps moment.

And it occurs to me, if that novel about Brian had ever been written, Thomas Hardy would have been the man to do it, featuring this unique man rooted in a solid landscape to which he remained honest and true – his father’s  son, his own man, but a friend to so many.

I am so glad I knew this most decent of blokes – and, with affection, I will miss his wisdom, wit, and kindness.

Dreams destroyed, memories mangled

I rarely write television reviews, though as a teacher of English, I theoretically have the ability. However, as Clive James demonstrated so long ago in the Observer, and as Aidan Smith shows in his contemporary pieces in The Scotsman, there is a particular skill to deconstructing a television programme while writing about it in an accessible and readable  style.

Now and then, though,  a programme speaks so vividly and resonantly to matters close to home that you feel the need to comment.

Though we’ve all been grateful for the fluffier areas of television in this past year, Reith’s original intent that the medium should “inform and educate” remains a creditable aspiration. It’s hard to take pleasure in the sweetness of the icing if the cake below is without solid foundation.

The three episodes of “Football’s Darkest Secret” on BBC1 this week, in their measured and unsensationalised approach to the topic of historic sexual abuse in football clubs, demanded some kind of reaction.

I should admit to some personal reference points.

One of its executive producers is my oldest friend, with an award winning history of well crafted programmes which have “made a difference” and hit home with the viewers. My own background as a teacher, working for two decades with a Child Protection remit, and now operating in education and welfare with a top football club, means that the subject matter is both familiar and visceral to me, and a reminder of some of the most challenging moments of my school career.

The criteria for success for such a programme lies in its ability  to balance the horror of its content  with an accessibility that guarantees it will be widely viewed. The top level technical and creative skills required to adopt  such an approach should not be underestimated, especially if its essential message is to have the powerful impact to which the victims and their families  are entitled.

Technically, the three episodes, divided into the historical abuse cases, the struggle for them to be addressed, and the eventual deployment of justice, were excellent. From the voice behind a blank screen at the very start, to the use of archive footage and interviews, and to achingy beautiful establishing shots of Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Winchester and elsewhere, the production team accomplished what might seem impossible – they made the most heart rending of stories eminently watchable, with never  the slightest hint of sensationalism or diminishment of the crimes at the heart of the investigation.

Throughout, footage of young lads lost in the joy of football – back in the eighties or in more recent times, set the whole affair in context.

But, as is only right, the story of this series is one of humanity –the contrast  between  the scarred and troubled victims and their families, and the dysfunctional psyches  of the perpetrators, seemingly devoid of empathy or remorse. It is a level of tragedy and evil that few since Shakespeare have managed to capture dramatically, but this is not drama but reality. The power of these programmes was that  the strength and resilience of the victims was allowed to speak for itself in the superbly edited interview sections –  contemporary pieces to camera, police interviews, and archive footage harking back to Deborah Davies’ work on “Disclosure” back in 1997, and the Victoria Derbyshire show’s original response to Andy Woodward’s initial revelations in 2016.

The skills and empathy involved in enabling the victims to speak on camera about their experiences can never be underestimated – surely no more difficult task can be imagined by a broadcaster, or, of course, their interviewee.

As viewers, we inevitably struggled to understand fully the impact and damage caused by the  abuses detailed by these brave men, but they were faciliated to the highest level possible, and each allowed to reach their individual levels of articulation. Some, notably Ian Ackley and Dean Radford, spoke with a riveting fluency, no less painful for its eloquent recall; others, like David White and  Paul Stewart struggled to contain their emotions and find their words, in a poignant contrast to their ease of movement on the football field.

The families, and particularly the mothers of men now in middle age, struggled to come to terms with their sons’ pain and distress, only revealed to them in later life. In their faces could be seen the awful reality of one of the abusers’ strongest levers – that the closer the victims are to their parents, the harder it is for them to disclose what has happened to them. “I should have known” was the refrain that highlighted the ripples of despair that spin out from each of these cases and wreak their havoc for whole lifetimes.

The football authorities, the clubs, and the justice system were all called to account by these programmes, and have been for years. They were part of a time in society when it was somehow possible to avoid halting or even  challenging abusive behaviour which was carried out in plain sight and seemingly known to many. All of these institutions have had no choice but to change their ways to prioritise safeguarding and to restore trust.

There were no heroes in this series, because, in the end, nobody won a victory, only the strangely ambivalent “result” of due process being followed, and some perpetrators being called to account for some of their crimes.

There was plenty to admire, however, and it was well represented by the programme makers. We saw the  initial bravery of Andy Woodward whose decision to speak out, in public, and foregoing anonymity, brought realisation to hundreds of victims that they were not alone in their agony.  There were the other victims who joined him, despite half a lifetime of trying not to focus on what had happened, determined to protect others from the same fate, whatever the cost to themselves. We seldom talk of nobility these days, but surely these men embodied it.

And, let it be noted, there were the women – police officers and journalists – who fought for some kind of justice, who let the men know they were being heard, who took up the fight against all those odds lying buried under years of silence and tactical avoidance. Their strength, empathy, and commitment, perhaps inadvertently, pointed out the dangers of organisations which exist in an exclusive aura of toxic masculinity – and, sadly,  we have been there before in recent years.

I recently published a book about my introduction to football spectating  as a child in the 1960s. Like all memoirs, I thought of it as a kind of vanity project. We all like to believe our experiences are unique to us, but will prove fascinating to others. Mostly, of course, we are wrong.

But, I was staggered by the response I received to the book – from folk who shared those years at that club, and were enchanted by the opportunity to relive those childhood memories, share their own recollections, and enjoy a brief reconnection with the children and young people they had been, at the start of their journey to now.

The word most often used was “joy”.

And I thought as I watched these three programmes this week that, apart from the physical, psychological, and emotional pain imposed on those victims of abuse at football clubs, they had been left with the long term damage of memories destroyed, whole areas and times of life which are no longer reachable in any kind of positive recall for the victims. The possibility of that joy has been forever shattered. The dreams they had of a football career, or even just the pleasure of their technical and physical skills with the ball, have been destroyed forever.

The best of television leaves us with scenes or words echoing in our ears, and sometimes, for better or worse, imprinted in our hearts.

Two sentences will not leave me after this week’s programmes:

“I am only ever 80% happy – the other 20% is always sad.”

“I try to handle it, but it’s your stuff, isn’t it? You have to carry it around with you.”

Paul Stewart, Ian Ackley, David White, Dean Bamford, Billy Seymour and the others involved in this programme struggled to describe their emotions after those who abused them were found guilty and  imprisoned. There does not seem to be an adequate word to elucidate what they have suffered and the journey on which they have been forced to travel.

Their faces reflected lifelong bewilderment  and a resigned acceptance of ongoing struggle,  as they spoke of their desire  that, if nothing else, their bravery in speaking out would provide some hope and protection for the other victims out there.

As viewers, I know we were all echoing these aspirations.

A television programme’s impact is always limited, but, if nothing else, “Football’s Darkest Secret” taught us the importance of listening and hearing, believing and  understanding, acknowledging and  supporting.

It served the men and their families well, and it did so by employing  the powers of creativity, technical expertise, and journalism at the highest level. It was a credit to the empathy and perseverance of the entire production team.

Football is not a matter of life or death, but protecting the vulnerable often can be.

No Ordinary Man

Father Hugh Purcell, who has died, started his working career as a technician in the Edinburgh Blood Transfusion Centre. It was an apposite position, because, when he later  became a priest, he would provide life saving transfusions of Faith for many who were in danger of losing their beliefs.

I first became aware of Hugh when he formed part of the  parish team at St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh alongside his best pal, Fr Davie Gemmell.

Anyone who came across this pair, whether Catholic or atheist, would attest to their dynamism and love for their fellow men. Each was also an excellent foil for the other, though both came from strong mining communities.

Davie was impassioned and inclined to be idealistic about the human condition, Hugh, who had come through some rough periods in his own life, was perhaps more realistic about people and their frailties.

Either way, they personified the open and welcoming nature of true Christianity – and I always thought that Hugh was in his element at the Christmas Midnight Mass.

He would be well aware, as were we all, that a good proportion of the congregation would not be regular church goers, some may not have had any Faith at all, and a number would have arrived well refreshed from Christmas Eve celebrations.

It was what entertainers would call a ‘difficult audience’ – but Hugh engaged with them because, to an extent, they were his people. He knew, and had lived, that sense of disengagement, not belonging, feeling outside of something. He had taken on that battle and, despite hard times, he had won it.

The microphone would be taken up and he would leave the altar and rush down the aisle through the people, wandering up and down as he spoke, a cabaret styled bringer of the Good News. A small man, Hugh gave the impression of rushing whenever he moved, a sense of urgency, even perhaps some impatience to get things done. I guess only when engaged in his beloved fly fishing, or contemplating the Scriptures, was he  ever truly still.

Behind him on the altar, the clergy would watch – the Cardinal somewhat nervously, wondering how challenging Hugh’s sermon would be, Davie Gemmell eagerly, looking forward to his pal’s words of encouragement and enlightenment.

The rest of us would settle in our seats, heads up and alert – Bisto kids anticipating a rare spiritual feast.

What would follow would be idiosyncratic, thought provoking, frequently funny, often sorrowful but always challenging. I always thought that Hugh used his  own earlier struggles with alcoholism to empathise with those who felt marginalised by the formal Church – the disaffected, the agnostic, the divorced, the gay, the poor and the confused. And he recognised utterly that Christ’s message was one of welcome not rejection. God knows, literally, how many folk on listening to Hugh, found a Faith they thought was long gone from them or barred to them.

There are those for whom Catholicism, or any form of Faith, is based on a rule book, and they see their mission in life as to call out all who they suspect are ‘breaking the rules’ – a bizarre perversion of Christ’s actual message of ‘Come to me’.

For Hugh and Davie, the role model was Christ and his treatment of Mary Magdalene, and they followed to the letter the founding precept of Christianity ‘Judge not lest ye be judged!’

But neither priest was anywhere near ‘Father Trendy’ with some kind of ‘hippy translation’ of Catholicism. Part of the strength of Hugh’s message was that he was a highly qualified Canon Lawyer, having studied in Rome, and when right wing Catholics challenged him on sermons or views he may have pronounced,  or ‘reported him to Rome’, he was more than able to prove them wrong, and like Christ with the money lenders in the Temple, often capable of showing real anger at their lack of real Christian compassion for those less fortunate than themselves.

Both priests lived the definition of the Aramaic phrase ‘Maranatha’ – “ Come, O Lord!” in that they believed that people needed to be open to Faith and that it would find them if they let it.

I read a tribute to Davie Gemmell in which the writer confessed she had once said to him that she had doubts: “Sometimes I’m not sure if God is there, Father!”  The Oakley born priest had taken her hands in his and replied: “Don’t worry, darlin’, He knows you’re there!”

And that is how Hugh Purcell made you feel, as well – a living  definition of Faith which blew away the confusion and put people, love and compassion at the centre of the message.  Having been in the pit himself, he knew well how to help other folk out of it, and he could never patronise or pull clerical rank. He never preached at you, he took you along with him, a fellow traveller on a rocky road with a certain destination.

Many years ago, when we tragically lost a member of the Senior School for whom I was responsible as Depute Head, it was Hugh I called upon to try and comfort staff and students alike. It was perhaps an unfair burden to place upon him, but I knew of nobody more able to catch the moment, the pupils’ feelings and the need for some  kind of desperate hope, after their heartbreak.

The Mass he said, the words he used, the Faith he inspired, the love and peace of which he spoke, were all invaluable in our grieving process – he just knew what was in our hearts and without  any cant or false promise, he soothed our fears and bewilderment.

He had the knack of bringing great Faith into everyday life, he bore his scholarship lightly, and was a good listener, if occasionally impatient with those he felt were missing the point. He may have misheard the injunction ‘Blessed are the meek’ for ‘Blessed are the cheeky’ for there was always a glint in his eye and a willingness to challenge authority – any authority – if he felt they were not acting in the best interests of the common man.

Faith should not be a box in which people are incarcerated and restricted, but an opportunity for them to fly and enrich their lives – and Hugh provided that opportunity – in love, compassion, laughter and devilment. If one part of a priest’s remit is to bring you closer to Christ, then he fulfilled that requirement in so many rewarding ways.

He was not in the best of health these past few years but we were pleased that his move to the Borders meant he was in excellent fishing country, and, on a visit to his church  for Easter Mass, it was heartwarming to see the love of his parishioners, and how he connected with both the local Laird and the rest of hs flock in exactly the same manner.

As well as fishing and music, his other great love was Celtic FC, but, when stationed at St Ninian’s, Restalrig, he carried out his role as ‘Parish Priest’ to Hibernian FC with great commitment and regular attendance at Easter Rd as well.

Outside the Cathedral in his time there hung the banner with the quotation from Micah: ‘

Act Justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with your God.’ If ever a man embodied those aspirations, it was Hugh Purcell – though, I have to say, I cannot budge the vision in my head today of Hugh bustling through the Heavenly Gates, his finger wagging at some perceived injustice, while Davie Gemmell puts a restraining arm round his shoulder, muttering, “Not now, Hugh.

When thinking of Hugh, it’s tempting to  quote the Christy Moore  lyric: “Just an Ordinary Man, nothing special, nothing grand” – and that was certainly how he saw himself, but he was very special to those of us who loved him.

Thank you and go well, Hugh, and God love you, the way you loved Him.

Reflecting and Reviewing

Edinburgh’s Mount Vernon Cemetery lies high above the  south east of the capital, with views to Arthur’s Seat and beyond. My dad having died when I was five, it’s a place I have visited regularly for most of my life. Both parents and  my grandparents are there, uncles, and even my great grandmother who followed her sons from a hillside in Leitrim in the west of Ireland and now lies on a hillside in Scotland – the lot of the emigrant: to be buried in a land not of their birth. As a result, a visit to Mount Vernon, is regularly referred to as ‘going to see the family’.

But it’s more than that.

A walk along the paths of the cemetery is to pass by familiar references from many parts of my life: there’s the woman who introduced my parents, the wife of a pal, Hibs first captain, Michael Whelaghan, a guy with whom  I played cricket, a priest I admired, my dad’s best friend. There are so many family names, often Italian or Irish, to whom I am linked through my long career as a teacher – faces remembered from parents’ nights, and sadly, a few former pupils too. On the regular route I follow around the place, there are gravestones now familiar, of people I never knew – phrases stuck in the subconscious: ‘A native of Donegal’, ‘Poet’, ‘Pilot Officer, aged 21’, the engraving of a footballer, a celtic cross, those who have become neighbours here in this place whom my family never knew in life.

For all these reasons, I have always found my visits to be more uplifting than depressing, an affirmation, if you like, of our place in the continuum of life and history.

And this, of course, applies in cemeteries where there is no personal connection, The Dean Cemetery, for instance, provides a clear insight into the social history of the emergent middle classes in Edinburgh during the 19th century, the deaths of infants, the twenty year olds felled in far flung reaches of the Empire, the importance given to titles, and there you  may also come across the architect of the Tay Bridge, a Confederate General, Flora Stevenson, Elsie Inglis, David Octavius Hill, and Sydney Goodsir Smith. The same is true, of course, of other notable cemeteries in the city.

So when I realised Peter Ross was writing about graveyards in his newly released “A Tomb with a View”, I was curious to know if his take on these places would align with mine. He is a ‘twitter pal’ rather than a friend, but I enjoy his writing – which is always notable for its evocation of the people he meets. How would this translate to the realm of the departed?

Often when we make an acquaintance, we discover unforeseen connections, which are perhaps inevitable given the attraction of similar personalities, so I found elements of Peter’s book that fulfilled this function. He interviewed an actor, Robert Lloyd Parry who performs ghost stories from the pen of M.R. James, and it turned out he lived in Southport, where I stayed in my teenage years; there  is mention of Great Blasket Island off the coast of Kerry, one of my favourite places, and of familiar and fascinating destinations in Ireland – Belfast’s Milltown and City  Cemeteries, Dublin’s Glasnevin, and the crypt of St Michan’s, near the River Liffey, as well as oft visited Edinburgh sites.

But Peter’s craft with people is what brings humanity to this tome of tombs – he gives voices to the dead, and memories to the living, in his account of the folks he meets – the couple who marry in a London graveyard, the family who built a memorial to their son with a unique finishing touch, differing funeral rites – from Muslim to Christian to humanist. Marx at Highgate gets a mention, as do John Knox and Greyfriars’ Bobby, but often the sharpest and most haunting comments are related to the unknown and the unknowable – the piled up skulls in ossuaries, or the eighteenth century stones of faded inscriptions that once conjured up family traditions.

In Belfast, there’s musing about the British acceptance of death in the service of Queen and Empire, an underground wall to divide the dead of different persuasions, and, in London, Muslims talk about the cultural imperative for a swift interment, and we discover a man who has built a memorial for his young son, where, as well as family, visitors can sit and reflect.

We meet the American who fell in love with Edinburgh’s Warriston cemetery and like many others in these pages, devotes his time and organisational skills to clearing the overgrown pathways to enable visitors to access the past more easily.

From the islands to Hythe, from Dublin to Flanders, and from medieval times to the present, Peter fuses the dignity of the dead with the lives of the living, and we begin to understand that there are many reasons for going through the gates of a a graveyard.

There is a journalistic style known as ‘The Gravedigger angle’. When young journalist, Jimmy Breslin, was told by the New York Herald Tribune to get ‘something new’ on the funeral of slain President John F Kennedy, he hit on the idea of interviewing the man who dug the grave – and thus instituted a whole new angle on reporting.

In ‘Tomb with a View’, Peter has the opportunity to follow this code literally, as well as metaphorically, and his account of the family histories, and the philosophy, of those most important, but often ignored, contributors to the graveyard tradition are an extremely readable combination of the profound and the practical, the uplifting and the reflective,  from those who wield the spades.

There are darker sections in these chapters, of course, but also a comforting realisation –for those above and below ground – that we are not alone.

Recalling the doyen of Cemetery tour guides, Shane MacThomáis of Glasnevin, his boss remembered: “He said the secret of a good tour guide was make them laugh, make them cry, tell them something they know, tell them something they don’t.”

That’s what Peter accomplishes in this engrossing and engaging reflection on final resting places. Through tales and interviews, inscriptions and traditions, ivy and trimmed lawns, he blurs the distinction between those of us still here and those  who have gone before, which is perhaps as it should be.

Indeed, he’s a bit of a resurrectionist – you could say he puts flesh on the bones.

‘A Tomb with a View” Headline Publishing – Peter A Ross.


          A few words in tribute to my brother in law, Steve, who died earlier this week.


It was lying on Inch Strand, at the high water mark, in turn covered and revealed by an ebbing tide. Its tape was peeling, its wood battered with the marks of a hundred contests down the field. Fallen off a boat, flung away in disgust after too many wides? Who could tell?

“What’s this?” asked Steve – always of an inquring mind – as he picked it up.

“It’s a hurley,” I said – they hit the sliotar with it in hurling.

Three years ago, for their Golden Wedding, we had treated Steve and Marie to a short break on the Dingle Penninsula– one of our favourite places to relax, and they had already sampled the comfort, the food, and the welcome at the Skellig Hotel, enjoyed a visit to the Dingle Distillery, a pint in Dick Mack’s, and that remarkable tour out through Corca Dhuibhne to Ceann Trá, Coumeenoule, Cé Dún Chaoin, Ionad an Bhlascaoid Mhór – with its tales of the islanders (and lovely soup), the Mulcahy Pottery Centre, (and its cakes), Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, and Gallarus Oratory.

I’ve been going to this area since 1970 and loved it at first sight, so Steve and Marie got the whole touristic commentary – about Ryan’s Daughter, Charlie Haughey and Inishvickalane , Funghi the Dolphin, the fishing industry, Páidi Ó Sé, David Lean’s corner table in the Skellig dining room, Bob Mitchum’s carrying on at Millbank House, education in the Gaeltacht – they all were faithfully reported. Even I was aware that my passion for the place might be slightly over the top, but Steve was clearly fascinated – to the extent of asking about various words in Irish, the geology, and cultural history of the area, the language, and so on.

This was not entirely unexpected – Steve, amongst many other things, was an electrical engineer – he always sought to find out how things worked, how they could be fixed, how they could help people – an early cot baby monitor was typically one of his major projects. He had a great and abiding curiosity.

However, he was a long way from home in Dingle.

In one of my last conversations with him, he pointed out that, despite his family’s associations with Wales, he was 100% English.

And he was – in the best of all possible ways.

Inch Strand is a vast expanse of beach in Co Kerry, stretching for miles by the Atlantic, as westerly as you can get in Europe. It is majestic in every kind of weather, but on the day of our visit there was what might be euphemistically termed ‘a stiff breeze’, which was whipping up a mini sandstorm around our ankles.

The walk was bracing and, of course, we had found the hurley. Steve took it and chased Marie with it for a while. He was no DJ Carey, but accurate enough to make Marie shriek. It was a lovely shared moment with favourite people in a favourite place.

We eventually got back to the car and I looked for the hurley. I’d formed a daft plan to try and take it home as a memory of a happy time.

We didn’t have it.
“Oh,” said Steve, “I didn’t know you wanted it.”

This was fair enough – a daft idea like mine would never have occurrred to a practical and sensible man like Steve.

“No bother, “ I said. “I would never have got it through airport security anyway.”
We stood there for a time, shaking sand out of our hair and clothes, getting ready to leave.

When I turned round, there was Steve, trudging up from the windswept beach, the breeze whipping around his jacket. In his hand he carried the hurley.

He had doubled back around 200 yards simply to find the hurley and bring it back for me.

He knew it wasn’t that important to me, he knew it would likely fail to get through security, he wasn’t a hurling fan. But he had stilll gone back through the sandstorm, dark clouds scudding, the temperature dropping, cold as he was, so I could pursue my daft idea of taking the hurley home.

“You never know,” he said.

He was right too. Strapped to my case, it somehow got through the airport and arrived home with me – a beautiful souvenir.

It was the kindness of Steve personified.

It was what he did.

I never knew anyone who helped people as constantly as Steve – family, neighbours, friends, workmates, those he mentored – even strangers whom he recognised could do with a helping hand. And he had so many skills allied to this kindness that he invariably performed a task for you at the highest level possible – fitting bathrooms, kitchens, rewiring, decorating, car mechanics, house repairs, toy making, gardening, cookery – all of these things he would do for you out of the goodness of his heart, and always more effectively than the ‘experts’. He offered help because he was kind by instinct, but he also ensured that the help he gave would be what you needed – if he was unsure how to do something, he would research it to make sure that he helped you perfectly.

As someone who is, by nature, ‘handless’, I was in awe of his wide ranging craft and skills, but it was his natural instinct to help others which really touched my soul.

The measure of the man was how he was regarded by young children – they had an instinct for his goodness, they trusted him, and they were never disappointed. He never patronised them, but he gave them a perfect example, and he challenged them to be the best they could be, to treat others with respect and understanding, as he treated them, and they inevitably responded by loving him.

So he was, in truth, 100% the best of English – kind, helpful, enquiring and inspiring; a friend to all who needed him, a support for all who needed his skills.

Not long ago he completed a piece of trading on E-Bay, or some such online facility. On these sites, there is always a request for feedback. Having completed the business with Steve, the buyer wrote simply:

“He was the nicest man I’ve ever met.”

And he was.



What about the Boy?

In the past two decades, there has been a general recognition that the two major wars of the twentieth century have passed into history, most who took part in them, or lived through them, are no longer alive. Put another way, other than their recorded testaments, we no longer can listen  to eyewitness accounts of those events, and we have lost the possibility  of asking questions of those who were there.

Today, as we commemorate VE Day, we need to ask about the effect of time passing on our view of these events – how we interpret them, and even how we manipulate them for our own ends in the 21st century.

For someone who can remember the 1950s, it is instructional to review the changes over time in attitude towards the two world wars, and to come to the realisation that “the hand of history”, to coin an unfortunate phrase, lies now upon those of us who received reminiscences of the wars at first hand.

In my childhood I remember seeing many old men with missing limbs or other disabilities, often on crutches or in wheelchairs. Because the war was seldom referenced, the source of their injuries never occurred to me. Like my peers, I read the stories of World War 2 in our comics, or saw war films, and we frequently drew aerial dog fights in the margins of our jotters – but none of this seemed much attached to real life – any more than did our games of cowboys and indians – they were just labels for  our play.

It was many years later that I realised that around 70% of our teachers at school had fought in the war, a couple of them were members of The Few in the Battle of Britain – it was never mentioned.

Because my dad died when I was five, it fell to my mother  to pass on details about his Great War involvement,  in which he served on the home front because of polio as a child. Tasked with escorting German  PoWs from Stob Camp near Hawick to Edinburgh or Stirling Castle or to work on the construction of Beecraigs Loch, he would detour to his own stair on Edinburgh’s Southside, so the prisoners could sample his mother’s Irish Stew.

Dad only joined up because his big brother, whom he idolised, had done so. The family, from the west of Ireland, were strong supporters of Irish Independence, and went along with the notion that if they fought for the rights of small countries, Ireland’s freedom would be assured after the Peace Treaties.

On then other hand, my mum’s uncle, who died in the last month of the Great War, had been a policeman in Liverpool and felt it was his duty to fight.  Her dad, a postal supervisor in Liverpool’s main post office,  was a Gunner with the Royal Garrison Artillery. When he was visiting us in Edinburgh in the 1950s, he would still dive for the pavement if he was in Princes St when the One o’clock Gun went off.  His references to the War were limited to asking my mother to go over to Paschendaele in the 1930s and find the farmer whose family  had provided his billet, so she could thank them. The first years of my mum’s life were spent travelling about England – from Portsea to Shoeburyness and other RGA outposts so her mum and dad could meet.

It was a reminder that there was no blanket reason espoused by those who fought – from patriotism, to peer pressure, out of boredom, economic need, or political belief, there were many impulses that built the BEF in the Great War.

In the second war, the need to defeat fascism was a much clearer motivational force, but we need to remind ourselves that again we are talking about thousands of individuals rather than an homogenous khaki mass.

So my first hand accounts of World War 2 came from  my mother – who could speak with some authority, having lived through the May Blitz in Liverpool in 1941 and the extended bombing of the city for over two years.

As a keen student of history, I have since studied the story of Liverpool’s war, in which the figures, though horrifying, scarcely do justice to the renting of the fabric of the city. During the first   eight days of May 1941, Merseyside was bombed on a nighty basis: 1900 people were killed, 1450 seriously injured and 70.000 made homeless.

Bit when I asked my mum to “tell me about the olden days”, I was asking about her own youth, and the tales she told me I just accepted as memories from when she was young. It took many years for me to seriously appreciate the reality of what she would describe to me in the most matter of fact fashion. And it seems to me that the best tribute I can pay – to her and to all who lived through that war  – is to record what she told me in the same tone as she did.

For her, personally, the war’s effect was felt long before the official declaration of hostilities commencing.

She would be 21 in September 1938 and in those days a 21st was a cause for a formal dance and celebration. Such was the fear of war by the end of 1937 that there were serious discussions about whether they would be able to organise a 21st party for her, and would they not be better to cancel it until the position was clearer. It is a reminder of the strain under which folk lived well before September 1939 with air raid shelters  being dug and blackouts prepared.  However, that information always reminds me that my mum lost most of her twenties to the war, leaving, without doubt, a significant impact on her psyche.

She had been on holiday in Howth in August 1939 in the weeks leading up to the commencement of hostilities and had actually been given the choice whether to remain in neutral Ireland “for the duration” or return to Liverpool. I imagine there must have been times in the years ahead when she questioned her decision to come home to be with her parents, if only momentarily.

The priest at 11am Mass at Sacred Heart Church on September 3rd announced to the congregation that Britain was now at war, and Mum long remembered the gasps and tears of those around her.

She hurried home to find her mum and dad standing in the doorway. Grim faced they said to her: “God help you and your sister, having to face this disaster.” My  mum’s sister had only been married a month at this stage.

Mum’s first question was how long would it last and their honest answer was that they had no idea: “We’re an island, we could be invaded and occupied and that would be it – under German occupation.”

The words stuck with her for the rest of her life – as did her mother’s mention of her little brother who had died nineteen years before aged only 11 months. He would have been in the earliest drafts for conscription. “Thank God he has been spared the horror of war, at least we know he is safe.”  My mother reckoned it was at that point that they finally accepted the wee boy’s death.

Her tales of the war were so incredibly matter of fact that their horror only resonated with me much later when I could set them in context.

Rationing meant she would not see her favourite fruit – bananas – for six years, she had to feel her way home from work in the blackout, learning to recognise walls, doorways, and drainpipes as way markers on her route home.

A brick air raid shelter measuring  eight feet square was built in their back yard. There was no lighting, and no light when torch batteries became unavailable, and they slept there each night that the Air Raid sirens sounded. Her mother was terrified and never put down her rosary beads, her dad was of little comfort when he said, as the bombs rained down, with his Gunner’s experience: ‘Don’t worry, love, you won’t hear the one that’s for you!”

He operated as an Air Raid Precautions Warden, so most nights he was not with them; he would return at 6am and report on all the damage in the area. For mum and my gran, each night raid was compounded by the terror of hearing bombs exploding nearby and not knowing where it was, what had been hit, or if grandad had been in the vicinity.

Mum remembered individual raids, quite clearly, forty years later: the night all the windows and doors were blown in but happily the budgie and the goldfish survived; the night when Prescot Street, a five minute walk away, near their church, was bombed and hundreds killed.  She recounted the horror of the Saturday night bombing of an ammunition train in the Clubmoor sidings near Anfield. The damage was devastating and all next day at church, and afterwards, they could hear ammunition exploding sending shrapnel into nearby houses and buildings.

She remembered leaving home to go to work one morning and seeing, in a neighbouring terraced street, a house completely flattened – with only a canary singing in a cage remaining above street level, and the houses on either side undamaged apart from smashed windows. This became her normal.

Another time they were evacuated for a few days to her sister’s house in suburban Childwall because of an unexploded bomb at the top of their street.

She talked about “the May Blitz”, but never in detail – she said it was too terrifying to recall fully, but she remembered that the light of the fires in the sky was bright enough to enable her to read.

From time to time she would mention a friend or acquaintance and say simply: “He was killed in the war.” I think she carried a lot of memories of smiling young boys from parish dances whose lives were taken from them in the height of their youth.

She would remark on the friendliness of the Liverpool people during the war, adding “but they had always been like that” and she knew that crime figures almost doubled, that looting was rife even in the midst of the air raids, that many made fortunes from the Black Market, and others took advantage of the chaos for their own ends.

Her mother had prayed continuously that she would live long enough to witness the end of air raid sirens and all clears. Her prayers were answered – but she died, only 59, of a cerebral haemorrhage three months later. Mum was convinced it was her terror through the war years that eventually hastened her death.

Of the end of the war `Mum said simply: “We had eventually VE and VJ Days.”

The older I get and the more I reflect, the greater is my awe at what she and her peers lived through.

It is easy, in a way, to fill up emotionally, looking at those pictures of brylcreemed twenty year olds racing across the grass towards fighter planes, or be stunned by the unalloyed bravery of the bomber crews who made their nightly journeys into anti-aircraft  fire over Germany.

These are iconic reminders of what courage looks like, but VE Day should remind us of another kind of bravery and resilience – the fortitude of those who put up with it all because they had no choice, the child seeking his parents in a heap of rubble, the man returning home to find his house disappeared, the flinching of women in corrugated iron air raid shelters as they wondered at the chances of surviving the night. Certainty and familiarity gone, the future impossible to contemplate, the past too awful to remember; the everyday smells of home replaced by fire and burning and smoke and dust, the empty chair by the fire, the relation nobody can bear to mention, the guilt at letting gran go  into the house to make the tea  just before the landmine landed on the roof, all the regrets, and the lost chances, the bombed out cinemas and disappeared streets, slates tumbling and bricks crumbled to red dust, the fear – always the fear – of bombs and landmines, and the awful question that began: “Have you seen……?”

My mother was never one to describe the war as our “Finest Hour” or “Us against the rest.”  Nobody living in the north of England could doubt the role played by the Americans, Canadians and Poles amongst others  in helping the Allies to a close run victory – but then, by May 1945, the people who had lived through the war were not using words like “triumph” and “victory”. They were certainly glad not to have lost the war, and there was a pride in the contribution of all who had made it possible, but the major emotion was one of relief, and an amount of disbelief that it could all be over.

The cartoon version of VE Day, with everyone partying wildly in the streets was a little like the current depiction of the 60s as being filled with hippies getting stoned – yes there were some, but for the most part people were just getting on with their ordinary lives.

There was a reason why those who lived through the war were reluctant to talk about it. To them it didn’t feel like their  greatest moment – no matter how politicians might  attempt to paint it that way. It is no coincidence that the fewer who are alive to remember the war in reality, the more there are who are willing to repaint it in its brightest colours.

For every one at a party on this night 75 years ago, there were tens of thousands who weren’t.

They were sitting in the house, holding on desperately to  whatever remained of what they had loved. They were remembering the before, bewildered by the now, and confused by the future. Their relief was calm and their memories painful. They couldn’t face a party because they couldn’t face the empty spaces at the table and the aching hole blasted  into their future plans.

They would have been incredulous if they could have seen future politicians, devoid of empathy or emotional intelligence, hijacking their grief as a sign of Great Britishness. Their most fervent hope would have been that their descendants could be spared a world in which political and economic capital is made out of the propensity to kill.

But then, they knew what they were talking about. They knew War.

My mum always referred to her little brother as “The Boy”, and always recalled her parents’ relief that at least his premature death meant he would be spared “the horror of war”.

There will be no bunting on my house, no Vera Lynn records, or 1940s fashions, no marketing of a generation’s grief.

I’ll be thinking of “The Boy” and all the other boys – and girls – who would not see the decade in which I was born – and their families, who would be hard pressed to think of 1939-45 as “Our Finest Hour.”

Whatever it was – it does not belong to us, it belongs to them – and we should stop trying to steal it and bring it into our world.

Our best tribute to them all is to create the world for which they died fighting, rather than envying them their opportunity to die.





Goodbye Mr McKenzie – and thank you!


In nearly forty years as a teacher, I was fortunate enough to work with many colleagues who inspired, motivated, and encouraged me, and, unwittingly or otherwise, guided the direction my career would take. I was also blessed with many pupils who, for various reasons, were similarly inspiring.

In addition, there were  folk outside of school who shone lights I was privileged to follow: Brian Boyd, Professor of Education at Strathclyde, Bill Rogers, an Australian educationalist, Alan McLean, Chief Educational Psychologist in Glasgow, Geoff Hannan, consultant in gender in Education, and Gwynned Lloyd of the Education Department at Edinburgh University.

These folk helped me form a lifelong philosophy and approach to teaching and learning, as did the practical experience I gained working alongside dedicated staff from education, social work, and community education, at places like the Canongate Youth Project, Panmure House, Theatre Workshop, and the Theatre Arts Centre at Davie St on Edinburgh’s Southside.

However, it’s strange to relate that one of the biggest influences was a man whom I never actually met, and when I heard of his death today I was reminded of the power for good that he generated in Edinburgh during the first half of my career.

Hugh McKenzie, as headteacher of Craigroyston Community High School in the north of the capital, was a byword for progressive education and thoughtful, effective initiatives. It was really only when I read his memoir “Craigroyston Days” that I recognised how much of my thinking on education, and, perhaps, my approach to putting it into practice, had been influenced by Hugh’s impressive tenure as Craigroyston’s Heidie.

In more hallowed halls of academe, it is fashionable to describe education as “opening doors to opportunity” – and so it is, but it’s also about convincing those learners who are most sceptical that they have a right to go through those doors, and the ability to achieve their potential – despite what they may have been told, or think that they know.

Hugh didn’t push doors open tentatively and politely invite his students to enquire within. He would frequently blast the doors off their hinges, gather up his pupils, and lead them screaming with laughter and enjoyment into the hitherto unsuspected joys of learning for its own sake, and their potential for being unstoppable.

In any setting, this would have been a remarkable educational tour de force, but, against the background of poverty and disadvantage in the community which his school served so well, it was, quite truly, a life force.

He was not an airy fairy idealist – he dealt in the reality of the pupils he saw before him each day in the school and, as those with experience know, supporting pupils to the hilt often means matching genuine affection with hard nosed and challenging  action, and promoting high expectations.

I was lucky in that the schools in which I taught were fully comprehensive: a city centre school having a catchment area which ran from the south of the city to its northern boundaries on the Forth, the other taking in half of West Lothian – from former mining villages to new town housing to  Edinburgh commuters. In demographic terms, they both hit the national average in socio-economic statistics.

On one occasion, I had a class containing the offspring of the highest ranking officer at Edinburgh Castle, a relation of a High Court Judge, a child whose mother had been murdered by his father, and another who lived in a Women’s Aid Refuge. Such an experience informs you that successful teaching and learning has to have an understanding of each child’s needs, and it needs a staff who can trust their management team, and parents who trust the teachers.

Most of all, the pupils, whatever their background, need the evidence that their teachers care for them, and that, whatever role models, positive or negative,  they may have experienced in their lives, they can aim for the future they want, and that they will be supported in their endeavours.

And that was Hugh McKenzie’s starting point: these kids deserve the best and these kids can achieve the best. It was not a point of view that the great and the good always accepted, and feathers were often ruffled to a great degree, but more folk were made to stop, and reflect, and revise their opinions on education, Craigroyston, and the pupils it served.

Adjusted curricula, residentials, European visits, the Arts, parental engagement, celebrity visits, excellence in sports – that reads like the prospectus for a well endowed private institution – but it was what Hugh Mckenzie ensured was available to his pupils at Craigie. The only point he was trying to make was that his pupils, no less than any pupils anywhere, were worth the best, and could achieve the best. Or, to put it another way, he felt the school’s community was every bit as deserving of a top school as was any community anywhere.

He brought phenomenal energy to the school – as he did to his veteran rugby exploits – and it was powered by belief – a belief that his students were able to take away and use to kick start their futures.

Often footballers Gordon Strachan and Sheila Begbie are referenced as successful former pupils, but I have met so many in other spheres of life as nurses, teachers, actors, musicians and social workers who are a  living and caring testament to the sense of belief and ambition that Hugh and his staff put into that school community.

North Edinburgh was certainly well served at that time, with the redoubtable Councillor Elizabeth McGinness as Education Chair on Edinburgh Council, promoting the principles of her Youth Strategy – that young people should have every chance to remain within their home, family, school and community – a practical expression of what were once Labour values in action. Schools, Social Work, Community Education, Police, and Medical professionals all worked together to maximise young people’s wellbeing and security and their opportunities for advancement and self belief.

Times and trends change, of course, but I’m pleased that I was able to maintain my position, based on Hugh’s approach, throughout my career, and especially as a Depute Head with responsibility for guidance and pupil support.

I had learned that education is about support for pupils, parents, and staff. When trust and belief is there – whether in reference to exam results or personal development – everything else is just noise. I was prepared to fight for pupils, parents and staff, my door was always open to them – anyone else had to wait their turn, I’m afraid – and I learned that approach  from Hugh’s principles in action. As so many of his former pupils have told me – “He changed my life, he really made a difference”.

What better epitaph can a teacher earn?

Taking advantage of an Edinburgh band name, I’ve headed this piece: “Goodbye, Mr McKenzie – and thank you!”

It’s not really accurate – because I never heard him called anything but “Hugh McKenzie”.

In fact, in the staffroom across Edinburgh during the 70s and 80s, the reference would go like this:

“Did you hear about Hugh McKenzie?”

“Oh God – what’s he done now?”

I think that’s a brilliant way for a heidie to be remembered.

Whatever it was he had done – it was for his pupils and staff.

As it should be.

Meeting our needs

I haven’t blogged about politics for some time, but the anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath seems like an appropriate occasion to reflect on my reasons for supporting independence.

Basically, I haven’t blogged because I have been tired – tired of the way that, particularly on social media,  the constitutional issue has been turned into a football match – that side good, that side bad, in a “debate” devoid of nuance or listening skills. Even within the independence movement and the SNP, we have factions stirring their own particular agenda, and unionist politicians have abandoned all pretence at policies other than  denying a second referendum and calling for the SNP to get on with the day job, thus weakening their case by suggesting they haven’t noticed the results of “the day job” over the past decade.

We are robbed of  balanced account in the media – partly because in Scotland we don’t have a national broadcaster fit for the purpose of accurately covering Scottish news, and because the reluctantly offered and underfunded BBC Scotland channel, which still manages to produce some excellent current affairs and documentaries, is largely boycotted by those who called for it, apparently based on a dislike for the Kaye Adams phone in on Radio Scotland and some individual reporters.

When people are faced with television news bulletins which for the majority of the time focus on news which is at best tangential to what is going on around them, it is not surprising that they turn away from them. Those who cried “parochial” at the call for a Scottish Six should consider this: would people in  Warwickshire or Sussex stand for a news bulletin which led on items about Highers, Procurators Fiscal, snow gates, shinty or Motherwell FC?  Quite rightly, they would not. That’s not what they are paying for. And the argument that you need to focus on the 60 million rather than the 5 million simply makes the point.

Meanwhile print and online journalists, often with an agenda which clearly fails to reflect the views of around half the Scottish population, are reduced to an “SNP Bad” mode to garner internet hits, and which they know will engender a shit storm of ill informed reaction from the cybernats, who fall for it time and time again. The problem with this is that the best of Scots journalism tends to be ignored as “biased” when often it is the last refuge of ethical calling to account of the Government – which is the journalists’ job.

In an era when  the Fourth Estate are struggling as never before, it shouldn’t take genius to understand that “Long lasting government still doing ok” is not a ratings winner. Furthermore, in terms of longevity and popular support, the SNP are in unknown territory. Just like any political party in that position, we are starting to see the occasional lack of self awareness, and perhaps the beginnings of a sense of entitlement in some, which is not an attractive look – just ask Scottish Labour. If I have tired of reading about all of this, I wonder how it must feel to be living in the centre of it.

So, to borrow a phrase with unfortunate connotations, we should maybe get back to basics and ask why Scotland, like England,  needs independence.

I always think that my background explains my commitment to the idea of independence. Born into an Irish family in  Edinburgh, lived in the north of England from the age of five to eighteen, and then returned to Scotland. Holder of an Irish passport, and with a family history on my maternal grandfather’s side that can be traced back to mill workers in Lancaster and Ottley, and through my other grandfather to tenant farming in the west of Ireland. I owe my allegiance to all of these ancestors and the lives they led, rather than a flag or legal identity. Anyone wanting to accuse me of “blood and soil” nationalism had better engage some spectacular forensic science!

I will turn out for an AUOB march with my saltire – not as a sign of triumphalism or “national glory”, but because I know if the numbers fall on these marches the media will translate that as a dimunition of support for independence, and also to support those who feel they should be doing something to press their case for independence.

My childhood and adolescence in the north of England was overwhelmingly happy and positive, but it taught me a lot about Scotland, and how it is viewed south of the Border. This is from a north of England perspective but I suspect it applies in the south also.

The basic standpoint is one of ignorance – and I mean that in the strictest sense not as a pejorative description. Scotland is largely absent from the English media and education system, so people know little about it, beyond a holiday destination, tartan  stereotypes, and the occasional sports related news. Though I found friends and neighbours were largely very positive towards Scotland and Scots, most folk in England do not know that Scotland has its own legal and education systems, different school holidays,  and even less of its history, aside from Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary, Queen of Scots in the most cartoon of fashions.

As an illustration of this, decades of viewing of ‘University Challenge’ will make the point. Whilst Scots students invariably have some knowledge of English history and geography, it is seldom that an English contestant will have similar knowledge of Scotland – even to the level of which coast Aberdeen is on, or the positions of Orkney and Shetland. This is not their fault, merely a reflection of the way the two education systems operate. This is not a criticism, merely an illustration of what happens when a country of 5 million is governed from a country of 60 million. There is a similar ignorance about the north of Ireland and Wales.

Does this matter?

Of course it does – because when people in these islands outside of England look into the constitutional mirror, they don’t see a recognisable image of themselves, the people they know, or the land they live in, and so they lose engagement with governance and see it as remote and irrelevant. This happens too within countries – and is one of the reasons behind the recent Brexit vote in areas like the north east of England – (and also makes a strong point for  meaningful regional autonomy for the Highlands and Islands within an independent Scotland.)

Without any sense of irony, unionists will frequently complain that the Scottish Government is “trying to prove that Scotland is different” – whilst, of course, they themselves are seeking to prove that Scotland is just the same as England.

As one who has lived in both countries, I can attest to the fact that the countries are different in many ways. This is not a specious claim for some kind of superiority or exceptionalism, merely a reflection of fact. Neither is it some kind of dangerous viewpoint. Everyone can see the differences between countries in Scandinavia or in the Benelux states, and everyone can see the similarities, as indeed we can between England and Scotland. Nobody can sensibly claim that the only justification for independence is some kind of massive difference between two countries. The real justification has to be based on the needs of that country and how those needs can best be served by their governance.

Geographically, politically and economically there are many areas in which the needs and priorities of Scotland and England differ, and while the Labour party mantra of “solidarity across borders” makes for a good leaflet heading, nobody really believes that a future Labour government would prioritise Scottish needs over those in England – and neither should they have to – “for the few not the many”?

Furthermore, against the clear vote of the Scottish electorate, Scotland now finds its ability to have solidarity across European borders severely limited, because of the UK state. The country finds itself taken out of a union in which, as an independent nation it would have had full representation, and stuck within a union in which it struggles to reach even the 8% of influence which its population merits.

We live in an interdependent world, as the current crisis has shown more clearly than ever, and yet, without independence, Scotland cannot exercise that interdependence with Europe which its citizens so clearly value, and which, in terms of “new Scots”, it so obviously needs economically.

As a teacher, I very quickly learned that children all have individual learning needs and learning styles. Sometimes these could be subsumed within a whole class approach, but you could only be ultimately successful in promoting learning by paying attention to those differences. Pupils could be “different”  without being superior or inferior – they just had differing needs – but if you sought to ignore those needs and employed a “one size fits all” approach, you very soon lost their confidence and engagement – but, worse than that, you were not doing your job.

This is the problem for London government, for whom the needs of Scottish fishing, agriculture, and tourism, for example,  are far removed from what they see as the more pressing problems they need to tackle in the various regions of England. Nobody is claiming Scotland is somehow more important than England, but neither should there be any reason for its being be less important.

I want Scotland to have a progressive government which reflects the desires of its voters and plays its role in the world. I want people to have confidence in a government they have elected to meet the needs of the people who live here – and if that government turns out to be Labour, Green, Liberal or, yes, even Tory, I will accept that the people have spoken and they have been listened to, democracy has given them what they voted for, not what a vast majority of people in another country voted for.

The ten per cent or so who were the difference in the independence referendum had many reasons for rejecting independence. Some voted out of self interest because they are doing well out of the current system, others out of fear of change, and others out of a deep rooted historical British nationalism.

There will always be those for whom self interest trumps all, and they will continue to exist in an independent Scotland. Those who fear change should look to the experience of the Republic of Ireland where it would be fair to say that full independence came incrementally over two or three generations, and as and when the people were ready for each step. And for those who cling to a notion of British identity, it might be as well to consider how much of that remains, when its most potent selling point is a referral back to appalling wars of a century ago, and the Imperial adventure which pre-dated them.

The idea that independence is ‘separation’ is a lazy politicial notion. After independence, my relatives in England would be no more “separated’ from me than those in France, America or Viet Nam are just now, and how can you be more “separated” from the world than having no independent voice in the EU, UN or any other international forum? I always felt that the line that “your granny in Newcastle will be a foreigner”, apart from being knowingly wrong, was also an unconscious reflection of an inner xenophobia.

The Declaration of Arbroath made it clear that in Scotland we are citizens not subjects, and we partner with the world not solely our southern neighbour. I believe that is still an aspiration that is for the good of all who live here.

It all comes down to partnership and communication.

More than ever, with my own life experience, I believe that an independent, progressive Scotland would be good news for England. It would have a new neighbour with a shared history as an example of what can be achieved by small nations who have thrown off the smothering weight of global aspirations.

Both nations would be free to share resources on a basis that was advantageous to each of them, to their mutual benefit. And folk in England might take the opportunity to recapture the inspiring country of the Levellers and other proud radicals – freed to look to the good of their own citizens rather than stymied by always having to stand in front of the mirror of international opinion and status, trying to catch sight of something long gone. As is the case in similar countries across Europe, the ability to go our own way would strengthen an equal relationship with our bigger neighbour.

If a man locks his wife in the cellar, he can tell everyone that they share a house, she is fine and safe, they never argue, and she’s happy for him to speak for her. But surely a better model for a strong, progressive, flourishing and acceptable relationship might be for her not to be behind a locked door, to be free to speak her mind, and make her own decisions, and exchange views with him and the neighbours.  Unless he suffers from a hideous level of insecurity, he should welcome such a relationship and accept it for the normal equal partnership that it would and should be.

That way grows understanding and respect.


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.