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Two documentaries – a life apart.

March 26, 2019

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

March 24, 2019

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!

January 25, 2019


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

January 19, 2019

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

January 14, 2019

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.



Three Photographs and a plug of tobacco

November 11, 2018


They look out from  the faded picture with 100 year old stares. They look towards the camera but not at it. Really they are straining to see  the future.

My dad is just 18 and he has joined the Scottish Rifles, the Cameronians. He looks scared, not so much for himself, perhaps, as for his idolised big brother standing next to him.

Joe is a Sergeant, leading   a Lewis Gun Platoon, in D Company of the London Rifle Brigade. He joined up in the Post Office Rifles in 1915, when he was 18 and was  sent to France in June 1916, two weeks before the First Day on the Somme. He missed the slaughter of that bloodbath but was one of many to be transferred into the London Rifle Brigade after the battle, to replace their horrendous losses.

The picture was taken around Hogmanay 1917/18. Both are on home leave.

Less than three months later, on March 28th, Joe will be wounded and taken prisoner at Oppy near Arras. For weeks the family only know he is missing after an attack which decimated his battalion. Eventually, via the Red Cross, they discover he is in a PoW Camp at Friedrichsfeld am Wessel in Germany. He won’t return home until 1919, and, weakened by his wartime experiences, he succumbs to TB and dies in 1923, aged 26. At least his family had him back from the war for a time.

In March of this year, one hundred years to the day, I went to Oppy and stood on the spot where he was wounded and captured. In an exposed field just south of the village, with driving rain on my face and up to  my ankles in cloying mud, I tried, hopelessly, to capture some of his experience that Maundy Thursday in 1918. Of course, I failed, but, looking down, I saw a piece of wood: the charred remains of the handle off a stretcher. Strange how something so small and unremarkable could represent the horror of a century ago.

My dad, having suffered polio as a 12 year old, will be passed fit only for home service, perhaps a relief to his parents and siblings. He’ll be stationed in St Andrews and then transferred to the Royal Defence Corps, where, from Stobs Camp near Hawick, he escorts German PoWs on working parties to places such as Beecraigs Loch near Linlithgow, where, coincidentally, I have spent many happy times.

Perhaps mindful of his brother’s situation, whenever he is passing his home on escort duty, he takes his prisoners up the stairs of the family tenement, on Edinburgh’s Southside, where his mother gives them some Leitrim Irish hospitality, soup, and tea.

He will die in 1957 when I am only five, and so, what I know about his war experiences are from official records and family hearsay, rather than from his own lips.

I look at the picture, as I have done for years, and think about the two of them: my frightened 18 year old dad, and twenty year old Joe, looking at least twice as old,  after eighteen months on the front line.

Here’s another photograph, another studio portrait.


A young woman sits with three young children on her knee, beside her widowed mother who’s in black. Behind them stands a young man.

The young man is my grandfather, Tom Duckett. In this August 1914 picture he is still a post office supervisor in Liverpool, in two years time he will be Gunner Duckett of the Royal Garrison Artillery. The two women are his mother and his sister.

The member of the household missing is the children’s father, Jim Donovan, husband of  Gertie in the front row. A Liverpool City policeman, he has already joined the RGA and is on training. The note on the back of the card reads: “Dear Dada, We have come all this way to wish you luck and to show you how well we all are…”

Here is another picture – from the early 1920s. The two women and the children feature again, the children are older, and there is an addition to the family. All are in black.


Jim carried the first picture with him on active service. He won a Military Medal for bravery, and was killed in action in October 1918. This Spring, I visited his grave at Tincourt near Peronne. He is buried with an Australian soldier from near Townsville, New South Wales – a reminder of the random nature of war.

Of course I am remembering Joe and great Uncle Jim as the centenary of the Armistice approaches. They are never far away from my thoughts, these men I never knew. But I am suddenly reminded of the gravedigger at Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC – Clifton Pollard.

After the death of John F Kennedy in 1963, reporter Jimmy Breslin – to become the outstanding journalist of his generation – was tasked by the New York Herald Tribune to find an original  angle on the assassination. He chose to write about  the man who would dig JFK’s grave, and thus inspired a thousand journalists to “look for the gravedigger angle.”

And, as we are surrounded by poppy displays and memories of those who perished in the War, I begin to wonder if there is another angle on remembering the tragedy of warfare.

Looking at those photographs, I wonder about the men who took them.

Back in the early twentieth century, photography was largely in the hands of professionals, a recording of an event, rather than the social media diary of minutiae we know today. People talked of “having a photo taken”.

They went in their thousands to have pictures taken like these.

And I consider the photographers.

In wartime, they would largely have been men too old to serve – but of an age to have sons. Their assistants would likely have been  too  young to serve but with the prospect of fighting still to come.

How did they cope with this procession of young men, proudly posed in army uniform, knowing this might well be the picture that defined them for generations to come, frozen for ever in a formal likeness that was more a resemblance than a true image?

Did they think of those in their  own families in uniform, or about  all the young men they had photographed who never came back, or the family portraits sent to the front to be destroyed in mud and blood?

Was there emotional comfort in that they were providing some connection between loved ones separated by war, a tangible token of love and affection? Did it help, as the years went by to realise that, for hundreds of thousands, the picture they had taken – positioned on a press or sideboard, or taken from a drawer each November, was the only knowledge future generations would have of a great grandad, an uncle, a father?

But at the time, as young men filed in dutifully to have their portrait captured, the knowledge that for many it would be their last picture must have weighed heavily on those photographers. If a picture does indeed paint a thousand words, they must have felt like they were inscribing premature obituaries.

And then I think of my grandfather. Like many immigrants, he worked long hours as a grocer – a “Provisions Merchant”  – in his shop on Buccleuch St in Edinburgh’s Southside, selling all sorts to local folk, including diary produce sent from “home” – Drumkeerin, in Co Leitrim.

Buccleuch St, running from near the University’s Bristo area to the edge of the Meadows, is no more than 300 yards long and today is still lined mostly by late 19th century typical Edinburgh tenements.

In four years, those tenements lost 29 men to the Great War. You might want to think of that as a man – a father, son, husband or brother – every ten yards. Of course, it was not as measured as that.

The McPartlins lived at 120 Buccleuch St when Joe went to war. From that stair, three died, including the Campbell brothers. At the end of the war, the family stayed at 33 Buccleuch St – a stair that lost three men, including the Douglases – father and son. Opposite them, at number 20, six men never returned, again including brothers.

In the close knit community of a tenement stair, the weeping must have been heard from roof to cellar.

Grief and bereavement must have flickered in those tenement stairwells like the light from the old gas mantles – coming and going, but always there.

How the tolling of the street door bell must have sounded through the landings above as each person in the building wondered whose  bell it was that  the telegram boy had pulled to bring them the news.

And how did grandfather cope? His own son at war, missing, or captured? How did he – how could he – greet the mothers, fathers, children and parents of those who would never again come in to the shop? Lads who had grown with his lads, played football with them on the Meadows, neighbours who were part of his every day life. Each familiar face a portrait of loss or worry or acceptance.

To those home on leave in uniform, what comfort could he offer? How could he resist asking about the Front? But how could he bear to do so?

Was the best he could offer to a soldier on embarkation leave a plug of tobacco “No charge”? Or a box of provisions to take back to the platoon: “You can pay me when you come home”. The awkward silence, formed after that pious hope, broken only by army boots on the wooden floor and, as the door is opened, the tinkle of the shop bell, like the harness rattling on the horses towing the gun carriages.

When teaching war poetry, I endeavoured to encourage my pupils to try and imagine the reality of warfare. I passed round handfuls of shrapnel balls brought back from Flanders, tried to describe the trenches – the horrors that went beyond being hit by a shell or bullet. But I found the most effective approach was to point to the empty desks in the classroom and wonder how many would have been filled by the descendants of men who did not live long enough to become fathers.

The idea dawned  that the Armistice may have ended the War for the soldiers in the field, but for millions of others it was just the beginning of a long life shadowed by loved ones remembered and missed, the memories of the young men photographed, the men served in the shop, the familiar sound of the lad from 120/3 running down the common stair.

When I was young I saw men on crutches and with eye patches and missing limbs, or selling matches in the street. There were old women who always dressed in black. I thought this was just what happened to the old, I made no connection to the Great War which seemed to me to be ancient history. I had no concept of the extent to which it still spread its influence over the world in which I lived.

The truth is that a life lost in war is always and forever a life lost, a change in the direction of family, street, or neighbourhood, part of a wholescale slaughtering of potential.

My dad and two of his surviving brothers all died before I was eight years old, but I do have happy memories of the three of them gathered at our house, making me laugh, showing me their love.

It should have been four.









A rich seam, a community team.

November 4, 2018

Nestled between the primary school and main street, and overlooking parkland and modern bungalows, “New Central Park”, as its name suggests, is in the middle of the Fife town of Kelty. It’s the home of Kelty Hearts, currently top of the Lowland League, and we’re here today because two of our lads in the Hibernian Development Squad are playing on loan for visitors, Gala Fairydean Rovers.

Until fifty years ago, this village, whose population once reached 9000, was, like its Fife neighbours in Hill of Beath,  Lochore, Blairadam, and Cowdenbeath, surrounded by coal mines. The Lindsay and Aitken pits were most closely associated with Kelty, but all of this area, including the lost village of Lassodie, was  literally built on coal.

Where they still remain, you can spot the former pit villages: straight streets, an Insititute or Miners’ Welfare building – converted to other uses,  a Co-op, a primary school, a few rows of NCB “four in a block” houses, a few pubs, and a couple of churches. Nearby there is usually a cemetery, with at least a clutch of gravestones with the words “Pit disaster”.

In places where the mines survived as late as Thatcher, there are often the signs of “urban renewal” – unexpected areas of green, with thin saplings recently planted, seeming to point to their man made origins. Not far below the grass in these areas you can find the detritus of decades of mining – coal dust, bits of shale and dross, the crumbled brick of an engine house or pit head baths. They have tried to cover up the signs of men’s industrial endeavour, but, as is the case with the folk who live here still, the past is still present, it’s too deeply engrained to vanish completely.

However, woe betide anyone who seeks to sentimentalise coal mining. Above villages like Kelty, like the spoil heaps which used to make the landscape mountainous,  the dark clouds of the industry contain words and phrases like “firedamp”, “pneumoconiosis”, “seam collapse”, “Mines Rescue”and  “redundancy”. Coal mining was never less than hard and demanding, was often a career choice forced on local men in the absence of any other, and it was dangerous and risk ridden. As an employee you knew it was  central to all aspects of life in these villages, so when a pit closed, the implications for individuals and communities was cataclysmic.

Walking up to New Central Park in a chill wind, it’s not difficult to imagine the place football has had in Kelty’s history, despite the current club only dating back to 1975. Everyone knows the history of Scottish football and mining communities – Glenbuck and Bill Shankly, Bellshill and Jock Stein, Jim Baxter at Hill of Beath and the legend of shouting down a mine shaft to find a centre half.

As it was true of footballing legends, it was true of the ordinary miners who worked a hard physical week and then sought release in playing or watching the football. There must have been many a hard battle: man against man replacing man against coal seam, for at least a couple of hours a week in the blessed fresh air.

The sign welcomes us to Kelty Hearts. For we Hibees, there’s a tad too much maroon about the place, but the welcome is warm. The gateman asks my son: “On your own today? We can supply a friend if you like!” It brings a laugh but in a sense it’s true.


There are those who patronise local football teams and their grounds, dropping in to marvel at the quaint ways of the lower leagues, like the aristocracy praising the skills of the village blacksmith. It’s an ironic approach, because, in many ways, these are the arenas which are still most in touch with football in a real sense.

My position is a long way from patronising. In the sixties, I lived in the north of England and first fell in love with “going to the match” by following my local side, Southport FC, in the old Fourth Division. Within an hour of my house, Best, Law and Charlton were plying their trade at Old Trafford and, in the middle of the decade, a silky Everton side were champions of England, but it never occurred to me to be anywhere than at the neat Haig Avenue ground with the other 4000 supporters. I still travel down there often, and still recognise that sense of connection which is just as palpable here at Kelty, as we head for the refreshment stall.

We walk past the dressing rooms and queue for our pies next to the compact social club: “Room for 100”. I’ve noticed we passed a Bayne’s baker’s in the town and I’m not disappointed when one of their excellent steak pies is handed over, in a thoughtfully provided paper bag. The guy next to me in the queue starts chatting. Noticing my jacket he reminisces about Pat Stanton. He’s a Dundee Utd fan himself, but often comes to Kelty. His team are nearby at East End Park today, so he must really enjoy his visits to Central Park.

The ground is tidy. With two new standing enclosures on one side and a small but neat seated enclosure opposite. As we approach it, we see the sign stating it is for season ticket holders and life members, though a  £1 transfer seems available. “Just walking past, lads?” a steward enquires, and waves us through.

At the far end we stand behind the goal. The council and club committee have invested effectively in the facilities, the 4G pitch looks in good fettle and there is a buzz around the place.   This is the first game as manager for ex Ranger, Barry Ferguson. “Look , Dad, the media are here!” says a young lad passing by,  as three cameramen cluster round the dug out to capture Ferguson’s entrance.

The game is not spectacular. Kelty are a big and strong side, well drilled and already looking a good bet for at least the play offs. Gala are not so physical, and their midfield struggle to influence the play, and eventually the Borders outfit lose by two first half goals.

However, there is more to our day out than the quality of football. Applause, individual comments, and the murmur of conversations provide the aural backdrop, rather than terracing chants and insults. You would find it difficult to play or officiate here without knowing exactly what the crowd thought of you – but it’s pretty routine football banter – good humoured and without rancour.

There’s an exit door in the wall near by, and a steady stream of folk entering and leaving. One man comes in carrying a bar stool which he sets up by a barrier to give himself a comfortable vantage point.  There’s a guy with two dogs who stands behind the goals and then transfers under cover when the rain starts. The dogs look like season ticket holders – they know their place and look alternatively mildly interested and fascinated by what’s happening on the pitch. At times they turn their back on the game entirely – as  all regular match goers feel like doing from time to time. Other dog owners appear and there’s a brief catch up between owners and between dogs.


There are many youngsters here – some fixed on the game, others just pleased to be out and about. One youngster kicks a ball about in a corner of the ground with his dad, others shout encouragement to the team or catch up on school gossip. There is a sense that this is a crowd of people who know each other, families who have maybe connected through generations. The Saturday game is a point of contact. Many of the lads on the pitch are familiar, some local. There’s Stephen Husband in the maroon of Kelty, after a career at Cowdenbeath, Livingston, Hearts, Forfar, Blackpool, Stockport County  and Dunfermline.

The position of the ground adds to this sense of connection. Primary school pupils grow up seeing the ground over the wall from their playground, folk hanging out washing in the gardens of the douce bungalows nearby can hear the shouts on match days and on training nights and register “That’s our lads” – whether  they follow football or not.

Every week dozens of local boys and girls take part in Kelty Hearts Community initiatives – social involvement that works in both directions.

Put simply, football here is a part of the community, and a vehicle for cohesion, for belonging, and for pride in each others’ achievements. This club deserves success and promotion, but I’d be willing to bet they will not move far from their foundations – however high they rise.

Sadly, the events of the past week have lent an edge to this description of grassroots football. Leicester City’s owner was seeking to re-connect, albeit with a 21st century model, and it was ironic that  his death  and that of his colleagues came about in  such an iconic corporate manner.

The moronic nonsense at Tynecastle, and some of the witless reactions to the events, remind us that there are those in our society who will use football for their own selfish ends. Young men at football matches metaphorically beating their chests in macho posturing suggests a major deficit in their lives, and all of us need to consider that. In addition to that, the almost ritualised blaming of  victims for being targeted is, of course, a major part of  ongoing problems we have in Scotland.

One disaster in Kelty’s Lindsay pit was caused when an illicitly lit cigarette ignited underground gases – a reminder, perhaps, that young men will always take risks and act inappropriately, but, in a  genuinely caring society, perhaps we should be finding ways of safeguarding them, and us, from rash decisions and impulsive actions. Older and wiser heads, parents, teachers  or those in authority, have a major responsibility.

I loved our visit to Kelty. It was a reminder that football, at its best, like all sport, is a part of our shared humanity, about coming together to celebrate, interact, and form memories and relationships.

Without that basic humanity, football is pointless.