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If that’s ok………

November 3, 2015


As a fully paid up member of the grumpy old men’s club, one of my recurring rants concerns the power of celebrity these days.

However, it is not always the case that actors, writers, artists and musicians have an influence which is merely banal. Sometimes, when the stars align, in more ways than one, the results can be unexpectedly profound, and remarkably long lasting.

I enjoyed a long, successful, rewarding, and very happy teaching career – and, generally, when asked what inspired me to follow that profession, I can mention a particular teacher who taught me when I was 11, a general liking for school and education, and a kind of vague notion that I wanted to “ contribute to society” and “make a difference”. They are all acceptable and commonplace answers to the question.

But there are alternative responses.

In fact, alongside my much loved primary teacher, Bill McCann, probably the two main motivations at the start of my career were actors.

As I have written previously, Scots actor John Cairney, starring in BBC Scotland’s “This Man Craig” in the mid sixties, portrayed a young teacher who got involved with his pupils, and sometimes their families, in his attempts to help them get the most out of their education. It was a different model of the profession to that with which I was familiar at my Grammar School in the north west of England, but I thought I would quite like to teach, if I could be like that. When I returned to Scotland in 1970, I realised he had been portraying the new approach in Scottish education known as “Guidance” and was further encouraged by the possibilities.

So I had already decided to become a teacher, an English teacher, and was at Moray House College in Edinburgh, when an inspired lecturer decided to show us Ken Loach’s film,”Kes”, based on Barry Hines’ superb novel: “A kestrel for a knave.”

Cairney’s “This Man Craig”, well written as it was, had been midweek drama on the BBC; “Kes”, like the novel on which it was based, was able to be a far more hard hitting and gritty portrayal of the sharpest end of education. And it was in that film, which I had not previously seen, that I met Colin Welland as the English teacher, “Mr Farthing”.

I had come across Welland before – as PC Davy Graham in the iconic “Z Cars”. In a world of almost nightly police procedurals, it is now difficult to explain the impact of “Z Cars” on two channel television in the early sixties – especially to those of us living within a few miles of the fictionalized “Seaport” and “Newtown”. Its characters seemed “real” in a manner not previously achieved in television drama.. One of its early inspirations was John McGrath – who would have further mighty impact on me as the director of the 7:84 Company.

Welland was lucky to join “Z Cars” when he did, for a number of reasons. He replaced the original co-driver of Z Victor 2, Bob Steele, played by Jeremy Kemp, who had been an unpleasant character, revealed to be a wife beater. When Davy Graham arrived, although he could be short of temper, he was a far sunnier character, and his interplay with his co-driver: Bert Lynch, played by the wonderful Jimmy Ellis, became a integral part of the programme’s success.

However, his portrayal of caring English teacher, Mr Farthing, really affected me. He was no “Mr Chips”, he was hard when he needed to be, and had excellent classroom control. However, the scene where he tackles the class bully, and finds the time to listen to the forlorn Billy Casper, is simply magical, as is the actor’s ability to portray the nuances of teacher/pupil relationships.

Casper details his life of woe and Farthing takes the time to listen. He knows about Billy and where he lives, and has assimilated the information as the lad talked in class about his hawk. He asks him where and when he flies the hawk, and when Billy tells him, replies: “I’ll come round then, if it’s ok?”

Billy can hardly respond to this – he is totally unused to the novelty of someone asking for his permission. His conversation with Farthing is quite possibly the longest two way communication he’s ever had. His family, and teachers, and friends normally shout or talk at Billy, not with him or to him – and nobody ever listens.

It’s a brilliant scene – and merits watching again and again.

Its impact comes from the writing and the acting.

Welland, Bob Bowes who played the Head, the wonderful and much missed Brian Glover – the PE teacher, writer Barry Hines, and Director Ken Loach were all former teachers – and it showed. Seldom has the profession been so accurately portrayed on film. Welland would echo this authenticity in his superb TV drama: “Roll on 4 o’clock” in 1970.

The message – which I took with me throughout my career, and shared with countless probationer teachers – is that teachers must know their pupils – and take the time to really listen to them. And that message was ingrained on me from an early age by the power of Colin Welland’s performance.

He was there on other occasions too. His script for “Chariots of Fire” about Edinburgh hero, Eric Liddell, won an Oscar, and one of my pupils had a sizeable part in the film – but it was the voice and demeanour of Mr Farthing which endured.

So much so, that on many occasions when in a “difficult” conversation with a pupil, I realised I was unconsciously echoing Mr Farthing’s words to Billy – or even his body language. That’s how powerful was the effect of his portrayal.

His voice stayed with me. Though born in Leigh and mostly associated with Newton-le-Willows, he was brought up in the same Kensington district of Liverpool as my mother. Maybe that helped the resonance too!

I may well have been a teacher without Colin Welland – but I’m not sure I would have been the same kind of teacher.

I’ll say thank you and God Bless, if that’s ok……..?

Are you talking to me?

October 21, 2015


It’s the lot of a football manager to take the brickbats when the team is doing badly and to be largely invisible if the team is doing the business..

Much the same could be said about the area where he and his assistants are stationed during the game – it largely comes into focus when the supporters want to vent their spleen; when the goals are flowing on the park, it is less noticed.

Even its changing title – from “dug out” to “technical area” – seems to reflect the journey upon which football has embarked in the past century.

Richard Gordon’s latest offering: Tales from the Dug Out: Football at the Sharp End (Black & White Publishing) gathers together tales and reminiscences from many of the big names of Scottish football – all focused on that area which, more than one contributor suggests, can be a bit of a mad house of stress and confusion.

As you would expect, Fergie features, alongside Archie Knox, Jim Duffy, Alex Smith and Gordon Strachan. Terry Butcher, Stuart McCall and Jimmy Calderwood share their memories, and Jim Jeffries and Billy Brown confess to a few moments of irascibility!

If you’ve ever wondered about the meaning of pitchside managers’ frantic gesticulations, or how difficult it can be to make a substitution, this is the book which will satisfy your curiosity.

Referees, many of whom supporters will have been trying to forget, give a good insight into their approaches to controlling the technical area and their communications with “Fourth Officials”, and you may even have some sympathy for the likes of Kenny Clark, Willie Young and Hugh Dallas .

Craig Brown provides a lifelong perspective, Jimmy NIcholl is predictably amusing, and a chapter from the ever thoughtful Pat Nevin offers his ideas on technical area etiquette for substitutes and squad members.

Like the beautiful game itself, this book contains the trite, the hilarious, the affecting, and the surprising. It reminds us, as fans, how little we actually know of the world of the footballer and manager, despite our reserving the right to tell them how to do their jobs on a weekly basis.

The dry wit of the much missed Tommy Burns brings reflection, and Chick Young’s description of Martin O’Neil’s touchline devastation at having a championship snatched away from his team in the dying minutes of the season, remind us of the emotional energy which is invested in the game.

On the other hand, the games employed by managers – Dick Advocaat and Nigel Pearson come to mind – remind us that winning football matches is not always solely about the skill of the players on the field.

The oft quoted Bill Shankly line about football and life and death hovers over the stories in this volume – and indeed the great man from Glenbuck Cherrypickers features in the history of the humble dug out.
We learn that the “dug out” was originally just that – a pit dug on the sidelines in the 1930s to enable visionary Aberdeen coach, Donald Colman, get a clearer view of what players were up to on the pitch.

The author tells us that, when the introduction of substitutes, physios and various other staff became common in the 60s, Shanks decided the dug outs at Anfield were no longer fit for purpose.. Knowing that assistant manager, Bob Paisley, had some bricklaying experience, he set forth, along with Paisley and Joe Fagan, the coach, to construct new dug outs at Liverpool which did service for over thirty years. Thus three consecutive Managers were physically responsible for the building of the Anfield technical areas.

A bit of a modern day challenge for Messrs Mourinho, Wenger and Van Gaal one would have thought!

In keeping with his broadcasting persona, Gordon’s book has obviously been written not only by someone who loves football and all its arcane routines and traditions, but who gets on well with its practitioners and revels in the tales and memories which make up its hinterland. The names here may be predictable, but frequently their stories are not.

Football fans will smile at the secrets revealed and the mad moments recalled here, but, if they have a mind to, may well be given cause to reflect on the pressure under which players, managers and referees operate, and the role the supporters play in its generation.

My favourite moment in the book?

Ebbe Skovdahls’ triple substitution – pure fitba’ magic!

It’s comin’ yet

September 18, 2015

I paid a visit to Hugh MacDiarmid’s last home, Brownsbank Cottage, near Biggar, this week. It’s a tiny, dark and very basic farmworker’s cottage. With a year gone since the Referendum, it seemed an appropriate time to visit and to think about the state of the nation.

I recalled that, on MacDiarmid’s death, Norman McCaig suggested, with typical wit, that his passing should be celebrated “with three minutes of pandemonium”, and it seemed a helpful phrase.

For, used in its sense of “a wild uproar”, 12 months of “pandemonium” would be a good description of what has occurred since the “No” vote on September 18th last year.

Before Referendum Day, the general consensus was that a “No” vote would lead to a lull in the political process – where the Yes supporters would retire to lick their wounds, and the unionists would be happy to carry on with “business as usual”.

It hasn’t quite worked out like that.

As everybody knows, the seeming “winners” from the Better Together Campaign – Labour, Lib Dem and Tory – suffered an apocalyptic defeat at the polls in the May UK Election, whilst the perceived “losers”, the SNP, garnered a level of popular support that was, in the most accurate sense of the word, historical. Political pandemonium indeed!

It is reasonable, after twelve months, to take a stab at understanding what has happened on the political scene as a result of the Referendum, though a detailed and nuanced deconstruction may have to wait much longer.

Initially, I suppose, we need to take a brief look at the headline attitudes of each campaign. As you would expect, the “Yes” campaign focussed on the democratic deficit of Scotland not getting the governments for which it voted, and a demand to play our part in the world without our views and wishes being filtered through the needs of a UK state. Equally predictably, the “No” campaign suggested that Scotland had done well out of the Union and should stay.

Probably a majority of those who thought through the political ramifications were inclined to a “Yes” vote. They eschewed flags and Braveheart and Scotland the Brave and understood that a government responsive to the attitudes and needs of its voters was a better model than the current arrangement. It was a view which was not anti-English, but which recognised whatever the merits of the Union in the past, it was not now working to the advantage of the majority of people in Scotland.

The majority of those who voted “No”, not surprisingly, tended to have had life experiences which suggested the status quo was just fine. Good jobs and income and a high quality of life were personal gains from the Union which they did not fancy putting “at risk”. The appeararance of union flags and “Better Together” posters in the lush countryside of Perthshire and the elegant flats of Edinburgh’s New Town tended to reflect this point of view.

Both these points of view are reasonable, and resistance to change is a formidable human attitude.

Around this bedrock of opinion was liberally scattered any amount of emotional and self interested argument. At times, the “Yes” campaign seemed to suggest that an Independent Scotland would be some kind of Nirvana, that the socio-economic problems of decades could be solved by a change of flag. That is not a difficult argument to counter.

On the other hand, the unionist camp seemed strangely reluctant to detail the much lauded “benefits of Union” and resorted instead to fear mongering: pensions would be at risk, there would be no EU membership, Russia would invade, you would need a passport to see your granny in England. In the cold light of day, these are seen to be ludicrous, but, as we continue to see in the London media reaction to the election of Jeremy Corbyn, scary headlines, no matter how improbable, have an impact.

One leading pro-Labour journalist wrote of how we had all grown up with “British” culture, citing the Beatles as a shared enthusiasm across the Border, and to vote for independence would see us losing all of that, as if art and culture stopped at international borders, and independence would erase history. As someone born in Scotland, brought up in England, with an Irish passport and a love of the Beatles’ American inspired R&B roots, I found it insulting that an experienced journalist would expect his readers to believe such nonsense.

There were other attitudes in both camps. The Yessers had their fair share of Braveheart, Wha’s Like us, bonnie fechters, who treated the campaign as a sports event, while there were No voters from both the Home Counties elite, and the rump of Empire Loyalists’ antiquated view that Britain was “great” and was always right. There were also a decreasing number of “loyal Labour voters” for whom it was “party right or wrong” and who could only see a vote for independence as a vote for the hated SNP.

The expectation at the start of the campaign was that the Yes campaign would do well to accumulate 32% of the vote – which was a kind of average mean of support for independence over the years. Many commentators thought that, when it actually came to a vote, even some of that hard core of support would dematerialise.

My own thought, having been active in nationalist politics for a lifetime, was that we would do well to get more than that 35%. Independence is a huge change, and experience suggests that people approach such change incrementally – rather than in one giant step.

In the end, the Yes vote managed a creditable 45%, having nudged towards a majority in the late campaign, if the polls are to be believed.

So how was support for independence increased? And how has the momentum of the Yes campaign been maintained after what was, on the surface, a defeat?

To a large extent, I think many folk who were interested in politics, but not pro-independence, watched the campaign and began to think clearly about the ramifications, and to realise that an independent Scotland in the 21st century would not be an isolationist state, but a country able to play its part in a north European alliance, in which it shared more needs and attitudes with its Nordic neighbours than it did with England, or, more particularly, with the international ambitions of the UK state. Their conversion to “yes” was based, in other words, on sound political thought, rather than emotion or nationalism. Those with an understanding of geo-politics knew that, as two countries, Scotland and England could be positive and beneficial neighbours, and that Scotland would benefit from being able to play its own self defined role in the world rather than being a region of the UK state. Many also came to accept that an independent Scotland, rather than abandoning English Labour voters to permanent Tory government, could provide a beacon for progressive thought in our southern neighbour. Current events seem to bear that out.

Other “don’t know” voters were swayed to “Yes” by a number of factors: the energy and youth of the “Yes” campaign; the hope of its message over the fear and doom perpetrated by Better Together; and a dislike of the threats and sneers that emanated from the Establishment at the very thought of Scotland being able to pursue a democratic mandate – irrespective of the result.

Some people merely looked at the line up of supporters on the Better Together side and did not recognise themselves as being like that, whilst they felt comfortable with the care workers, trades unionists, teachers and health workers who were increasingly declaring for Yes.

On the No side, many were entrenched in their view by the impossibility of predicting what an independent Scotland would be like. These were mostly folk who had voted for Labour and Tory Governments in the past whose leaders had proved singularly unable to predict what would happen in a 5 year term, but, no matter, they bought the “fear of the unknown” line.

Others were swayed by Gordon Brown’s “Vow” – that a No vote would lead to virtual “Home Rule” and be a win/win for Scots. This ignored the fact that any kind of “Home Rule” would fail to address Scotland’s most important needs fully, but it was a comforting “get out clause” to those who were wavering.

Many of pension age, forbye the scaremongering about pensions, looked back on a lifetime of being “British” and did not want to risk what they were threatened would be “a new identity” at that stage of their lives.

Perhaps the Yes campaign did not do enough on the question of national identity, the retention of British citizenship, or the choices which would still be available to all who lived in an independent Scotland. Irish journalist, Fintan O’Toole.spoke very well in Edinburgh this year about the time it takes to assume a “new” national identity, based on Ireland’s experience.

Perhaps understandably, but regrettably, the Yes campaign felt unable to call on Ireland’s experiences in terms of re-establishing itself as a nation, while the No lobby were rudely dismissive of all “small countries” it seemed. The Irish Republic’s disentanglement from the UK, politically, was incremental, despite the apocalyptic start in the Rising and the Civil War. A Republic was only declared more than two decades after the signing of the Treaty, the UK had ports in the Free State until 1938 and probably only with Ireland’s entry into the Euro in 1999 was economic independence achieved. Despite this slow withdrawal of “partnership’, economically and socially, in trade and cultural relations, Ireland and the UK remained closely tied together, despite the former’s independence – and that would undoubtedly be the case with Scotland and England.

The role of Ireland’s Naval Service in the current refugee crisis, and its army’s service with distinction on UN Peacekeeping duties, also provide a very positive alternative to the UK state’s approach to military might, and promote the effectiveness of “small armies”.

In terms of “British” identity and other transformations, Ireland’s experience suggests it would take at least a generation, in an independent Scotland, for any change to be noticeable, and many, of course, would continue to regard themselves as British rather than Scots.

So what has happened in the past year?

From my viewpoint, it seems that more people have understood that a change of government organisation is just that – and that it doesn’t change who you are, or remove the identity with which your are most comfortable. Labour’s message that the Scots Government should “concentrate on policy rather than constitutional change” has led to their downfall, as more and more folk have come to realise that only with constitutional change will the necessary changes in government policy be possible.

The word” incremental” rises again. It seems to me that the Scots people have carefully judged the SNP in stages: as a minority government, as a majority government, and as promoters of independence. Each time they’ve tested them they have liked what they have found and given them more trust.

I think a lot of people woke up on September 19th last year regretting having not trusted their fellow countrymen enough to vote Yes – and now they are willing to go a stage further. The move from the pragmatism of Alex Salmond to the committed social democracy of Nicola Sturgeon has caught the mood of the people – who now are starting to believe they can make a difference and can be heard – whether it’s on independence, fracking, austerity, or Trident. Folk are no longer willing to be taken for granted by the Westminster elite – and this mood in Scotland – forged in hundreds of meetings and local events and thousands of conversations with friends and workmates – is now finding an echo in England – where thousands are preferring the honesty of Corbyn to the marketing of Cameron and the spin of a media largely owned by corporate tax avoiders.

By chance, I visited one of Scotland’s country houses a few days after I had been in MacDiarmid’s humble but and ben. It was a Victorian Gothic pile, with all the wealth and decoration which that implies. There were lots of family pictures around – often involving kilts – but, in nearly all of them were pictures of young children “catching their first salmon” “bagging their first deer” “waving on Her Majesty’s visit.”

It was a way of life entirely foreign to most Scots and as anachronistic as the Union and its supposed benefits. The two houses seemed like useful bookends to my week of reflection.

You could suggest that thirty years ago the cause of Scots independence could have been cartooned as an old guy in a kilt and tweed jacket; today it would be a mid thirty something with a computer bag. Both sides are far wider than that of course, but it is a useful way of measuring how far the drive for independence has travelled – from romantic roaming in the gloaming to a more European view of social democracy and voter participation. The people are leading and fewer and fewer are inclined to “let the politicians get on with it”. They have noticed that change is needed, and they think they have found a means of achieving that change. Independence – once a niche oddity – has become a perfectly feasible ambition, much feared by the Establishment.

The progress made in the last year has been inescapable – but really it’s the climax of a far longer and more deep rooted movement – largely fuelled by the ignorance and disinterest of established politicians in both Tory and Labour parties.

One year on I am more optimistic than ever. There is light at the end of the unionist tunnel, the light of taking responsibility for our own affairs. Scots are not rushing towards it in an emotional pell mell of Braveheartery or anti_Englishness, but rather approaching in a measured way, considering the benefits of change, and noting the disadvantages of the current set up.

When they are ready, they will become independent, on their own terms .

It’s coming yet for a’ tha’.

A Casual Acquaintance

July 15, 2015

We can never know the extent of our impact on those we meet who are casual acquaintances. Perhaps this is just as well, for it would be a huge burden to carry if we were to go through life pondering our effect on the thousands of folk with whom we come into contact. Mostly, I suppose, it is unpredictable – some who affected us greatly may have forgotten us completely, others, whom we felt hardly noticed us, may carry our memory for years. It’s part of the unknowable joy of humanity.

These reflections were prompted when I noticed, belatedly, online, an announcement of the death in March of Maureen Haugh of Kilkee, Co Clare, and Chicago and Fort Lauderdale.

I originally met Maureen on my first visit to Kilkee in 1966.

The only child of a widow, I revelled, like so many others, in the freedom that a Kilkee holiday gave me.

On that first day, released from the Hydro Hotel after a huge breakfast, I made my way tentatively along the sea wall at the West End. At Edmond Point, outside Sykes’s, still ignorant of the disaster which gave the spot its name, I scrambled over the rocks, examined the pools and watched the waves surge and retreat. I made my way along the road to Newfoundout and vowed that there would be no way I would ever dive off those boards (a resolve I have kept!) and headed down the slope to the car park at the end of the road.

There was a weather beaten shop there, more of a shed really, with a lopsided caravan behind it. It was placed in front of what looked to me like a miniature golf course.

I knew nothing of Pitch and Putt, but, living less than a mile from the Royal Birkdale Golf Course in northern England, I was interested in golf, though I had never played it. I wondered if this would be a way to try it out.

Even at 14, I was a shy child, especially with adults, and I am still faintly surprised that I summoned up the nerve to enter the shop.

There was little space, filled with a counter, and behind it shelves of sweets and chocolate bars and soft drinks. A rather forbidding elderly man was to one side, (referred to later by locals as “Old man Haugh”!) but it seemed a younger couple were running the place.

I bought a chocolate bar while I formulated my request to play on the course. As she took my money, the woman said: “Do ye fancy a round on the pitch and putt?” and I nodded gratefully. It was a positive first meeting with Maureen Haugh – and it set the trend for the rest of our encounters.

She took my money and, as I walked towards the back door of the shop, handed me two clubs, a ball, a small scorecard, a couple of plastic tees, and a stubby pencil. I must have looked lost, because, as I went through the door, she said: “Bernie will show you the ropes.”

And that was how I met Bernie and Maureen Haugh and played my first ever round of pitch and putt.

I was hooked from the start. God knows how many strokes it took me that first day, but posting a “record” score became an obsession for me and for the rest of that holiday, and for many years to come, it would be an unusual day if I didn’t play at least two rounds.

I suppose it would be a normal occupation for a child who was fairly solitary, though I made many friends each year in Kilkee, most of whom were press ganged into pitch and putt challenges at the West End. I even played a few times on the pitch and putt course at the Golf Club at the East End of the town, but the attraction of the West End was undoubtedly Bernie and Maureen.

Before long, there was a cheery greeting of “Hiya, John! Gonna beat the record today?” Sometimes my mother would come along and chat to the couple while I hacked my way around the 18 holes, constantly distracted by that view up the coast across past Georges Head and as far as the Aran islands on a clear day. The sun, the sea, the coastal air and the personal challenge of the ‘record’, all combined to make it a kind of heaven for that teenager.

There was an attractiveness about the Haughs – an easy going approach which I suspect came from their time in the USA. Kilkee was a very faraway place in those days – the morning papers arrived on the 6pm bus, and fashions were local rather than international. It had a pace of life removed from the mid Sixties hype and hustle – so the modern clothes and slight American twang of Bernie and Maureen made them stand out a little, I suppose.

Even in that first holiday, I became one of the thousands worldwide who fell deeply in love with Kilkee. It was not just about pitch and putt – it was the beauty of the place, the people who were there – visitors and locals, the excitement of a teenage holiday in the sun. I cried when I left that first year, and whenever I return I have the same reaction as I turn away from the Strandline and head up past the Square and out of town.

We summered in Kilkee every year from 66 to 75 and then, as a student, I would visit the town three or more times every year, in all seasons. This continued until the mid 80s when family responsibilities, and others to be considered, reduced the frequency of my visits.

Every year, I would go down to the West End, and Maureen would greet me with: “Hiya, John, nice to see you back – how’s your mother getting on?” Bernie, it seemed, remained working in America for the summer, but Maureen’s welcome never faltered.

The friendly welcome became as important as the pitch and putt, if I’m honest, and, as the years went by, the chat lengthened and the ‘record’ became less important. I was always amazed that she remembered me – out of the thousands of visitors who must have played the course, and I always looked forward to what became my ‘welcome back’ to the town.

When I started visiting ‘out of season’, the pitch and putt would be closed, but, when Maureen knew I was in town, she would leave a couple of clubs and balls in the front porch of “Dunearn” where she lived in the West End, and I would pick them up and drop them off – “no charge”. Sometimes, if she was around, there would be an invite in for a cup of tea and a chat about the passing years.

I last met Maureen in 1991.

Having won a prize at Listowel Writers’ Week, I escaped the festivities for a day and headed for the Killimer ferry and thence to Kilkee. It was my first visit in a while, and I was both excited and nervous. I invest a lot of love in the town, but I am always aware that my version of Kilkee is partly artificial – a construct of memories and favourite spots. Towns – and people – change, and I was not sure what I would find when I turned down the familiar O’Curry St.

There were changes, of course –some I had known about, and others which were a surprise – but Kilkee has always been more than just buildings, and there was a pleasing continuity about the scene.

I parked by the Hydro – now “Old Moore’s Apartments”, and walked along the road towards the West End, shadowing my first ever walk in Kilkee. I took in the various changes – and the parts that had stayed the same, and then, with a little trepidation, turned the corner by ‘The Dickie Harris house” and looked down the hill.

Nothing seemed to have changed – but there was no guarantee that Maureen would still be behind the counter, or, if she was, that she would remember me after all this time. It felt like an important moment – daft as that may sound – and I did consider walking on to the Diamond Rocks without stopping.

However, as brave as I had been at 14, I pushed at the door and entered a shop which was basically unchanged since 1966.

Behind the counter was Maureen. She looked up and said. “Good afternoon!” When I replied, she said, with no surprise at all, “Well, John – we haven’t seen you for a while – how is your mother doing?”

I don’t have the words to describe the reaction that generated. On one hand, it was a retailer recognising a good customer from former years, there may be dozens of people to whom Maureen showed such kindness and attention, on the other hand, it was a link with my childhood in a place which had brought me so much joy.

Before I could get too emotional, she said – and I swear the American accent had become more noticeable – “We had a guy in a couple of weeks ago used to come round here with you and your mother back in the 60s – can’t remember his name….” It was the perfect introduction to a conversation in which we reminisced and she learned about what I had been doing – and the fact that I had a son and wife who had already visited Kilkee.

I bought a bar of chocolate, for old times sake, and headed off to the Diamond Rocks. As I closed the door she said: “See ya!”

Thanks to the internet, it has been possible to keep up to date with at least some Kilkee news without actually visiting. I saw at some point that Maureen seemed to have moved a couple of houses along from “Dunearn” to “Duggerna” and realised, as time passed, it was unlikely that she would still be running the pitch and putt.

I paid a flying visit to the town about four or five years ago. I knew from my online news that the “Diamond Rocks’ Café had been constructed at the West End, as had the statue of Dickie Harris in racquets pose, so I had no false illusions of what I would find as I drove down to the end of the road. A “danger” sign in Polish served to illustrate the changes through the years – but I was glad that Kilkee seems to prosper thanks to the townspeople’s hard work. The café attracts rave reviews and I occasionally treated myself to a look at the view from their webcam – a view that remains familiar.

It seems the business is still in the family – though Kilkee has so many Haughs you would be hard put to work out relationships! I hope so – because it would be a good continuation of the entrepreneurial spirit shown by Bernie and Maureen.

Until I retired a couple of years ago, I was deputy headteacher of a 1200 pupil secondary school just outside of Edinburgh. It was an enjoyable and rewarding job – but it could be stressful. On my office wall I had pinned a large panoramic view of Moore’s Bay, taken from the garden of the old Hydro Hotel. When I needed to be calm and to reflect, I would take a walk round the bay in my head.

I would walk down from George’s Head, past Burns’s Cove and the derelict “Dutch”, along past the Thomond, where Christian Brothers would sit in holiday mode in the glass fronted lounge, past the Strand –where the craic was always good, the spot where Maggie sold winkles from her barrow, the Esplanade with its peculiar shade of green, the back of the Arcadia, the sun lounge of the Marble Bar where Mrs Egan, Johnny and Ray Russell reigned supreme – with Ted Kavanagh playing the Hammond Organ each night in the middle bar, past Wally’s Amusements, the Vic, Murphy’s Café, the West End Stores, the spot on the wall over the racquets courts where I opened the telegram that told me I had gained the exams to get me into university – the smell of the seaweed as strong and as redolent as ever, past the beach shelter where we sang to the guitars of strangers, the croquet lawns of Clar Ellagh, and past Sykes’s and Newfoundout to “The Billows” and down the hill.

It never failed to relax me and lighten my mood, and at the end of the road would always be Maureen Haugh, behind the counter in that cramped little shop, to say “Hiya, John!”

I couldn’t call Maureen a friend. In reality we knew very little about each other – but what a legacy, to be a casual acquaintance and to make such an impact on a stranger’s life; to be a kind of totem for the effect of humanity, kindness, and friendliness. How many more people, I wonder, were affected so positively by that lovely woman in the West End?

Whatever the reality on the road to the Diamond Rocks, I think she will always be there, waiting with that friendly welcome, that recognition which said, somehow, that you mattered.

It would be nice to think that she has encountered my mother in that part of Heaven which isn’t Kilkee, and I hope they are having a good catch up.

And as for that record, Maureen: I never bettered 38, and I guess I never will.

Rest easy, and thank you.

Brand New Experience!

July 7, 2015

Imagine if FIFA decided to re-work qualification for the World Cup. Indulge me, and envision that tournament being divided into two levels: an international version of the Champions League and Europa League, if you like. Then, anticipate the joy if you were to learn that the second level tournament – for teams world ranked 9-18, was to be held in Scotland and Ireland, and there would be 20 tournament games and 8 warm up matches in Edinburgh and Stirling inside two weeks.

Currently, that would mean the chance to see teams such as Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Rumania, Czech Republic and Italy. And then add Scotland, as home nation, to that list. While you are salivating over that intensive football diet, take in the marketing news that only 6 of those games will be ticketed and the rest will be free entry.

It’s not difficult to imagine the media interest and fan discussion which would be generated by such an event – and yet, in cricketing T20 terms, that is exactly what will be happening in Scotland between the 6 and 18th of July, when Afghanistan, UAE, Netherlands, Scotland, Canada, Kenya, and Oman will be battling it out in Scotland, while Ireland, Nepal, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Namibia, USA and Jersey lock horns over in Dublin. The top 6 sides qualify for the ICC World Twenty20 in India next year, against the major Test playing nations.

It’s a timely tournament for Cricket Scotland – providing a surge of game action in a year when the excitement of the World Cup is receding and the regular action of the County One Day league is still being missed.

It’s also a great opportunity for sports fans in Scotland to take a look at cricket –perhaps for the first time.

Two of the most regular reasons given for a disinclination towards the game are: “I don’t understand it” and “It takes too long”. The T20 format dismisses those excuses easily.. It is basic cricket – “big bash” if you like, with something obviously happening all the time, and a match lasts only 3 hours – hardly more time than you would invest in attending a Saturday afternoon football match.

With settings such as New Williamfield at Stirling, and Grange, Myreside and Goldenacre in Edinburgh– where better to spend a few hours on a summer day watching international sport? Historic castles overlook three of the venues and the sight of Craig House on the hill above Myreside is hardly less dramatic – and for the vast majority of games there is no entry charge. There is also an opportunity to support a Scotland team in international sport at a level of which the football team can only dream.

I suppose, ultimately, if you are not already a cricket fan, whether or not you avail yourself of the opportunity, will depend on what kind of sports fan you are.

There are those for whom sport is almost exclusively about watching the elite at the highest level. Through the wonders of cable television, they can choose a non-stop diet across a range of sports in which they seldom view a team or performer outside of the world top six. They count themselves as connoisseurs and are more familiar with the footballers of Barcelona than Alloa, happier watching the All Blacks than Melrose, and more comfortable with Australia v India than Freuchie v Falkland.
Their chosen point of observation is more likely to be sofa than stand, though they may be inveigled out of the house if there is a tempting Hospitality package, or premium seats are available.

However, their confederates in the world of sports spectating take a wider view. Well able to appreciate the game at the highest level and as susceptible to the skills of superstars as anyone, for this type of supporter, the thrill of the game is completed by “being there”, close to the action, and with the constant possibility of spotting a nascent champion, an unexpected demonstration of talent, or merely to enjoy the thrill of live action a few feet away. Though they can fully appreciate the sublime skills of Messi, Linlithgow Rose v Newtongrange Star on a wet Tuesday evening may hold equal allure, they grew up admiring Shane Warne, but are often to be found watching the lusty hitting number 6 at Fauldhouse. Sport at all levels fascinates them – and each fixture offers promise in differing ways.

There is also the excitement of the unfamiliar.

Watching Afganistan, there is the knowledge of their amazing climb up the world ranking against a background of war and uncertainty; how will the athletes of Kenya adapt to the plush, sea level turf of the Grange, shouldn’t Jersey be playing French cricket, are the Dutch cricketers as technically proficient as their footballing counterparts, will a Canadian batsman drop his bat and head for point after a good shot, how many sweaters will the guys from the UAE and Oman feel the need to wear?

With wall to wall sport on subscription television these days, it sometimes feels like a growing number of viewers are watching a dwindling number of top teams and superstars on an ever more regular basis. The T20 Tournament is a chance to witness something new, which is urgent, important in international terms, and on our doorstep.

It would be nice to think that Scotland – and all these teams visiting our shores – can run out to a good support, a deserved level of interest and media coverage, and a tournament which will leave happy memories of skill, competition, comradeship, and accomplishment.

Three hours in the Scottish sun (!) may prove to be a good investment for sports fans with open minds, and the desire to see a Scottish team qualify for a world finals tournament.

Even as a fully paid up member of the Old Gits club, whose cricket of choice is four day county championship fare, I’ll be traversing Edinburgh this month, supporting our guys, and learning about our guests.

It’s what makes sport important.

Feeling the way through the dark

May 11, 2015


When I was growing up, the “Blitz” in Liverpool was well known to me – which is odd, because I was born in Edinburgh, some 200 miles to the north, in 1952 – ten years after the last bombs fell.

However, my mother was born and brought up in Albany Rd, Kensington, a residential area of Liverpool, just to the north east of the city centre, and her reminiscences were scattered not just with local street names: Hall Lane, Empress Rd, Guelph St, Adelaide Rd, Wavertree, Old Swan, Jubilee Drive – but with references to the second world war – the blackout, the shelter, the Blitz.

Of course, when you’re growing up, your parents’ youth seems like the early years of a previous century, and the matter of fact way in which she made the references deflected any chance I had as a child of truly understanding what she had been through.

I suppose I was well in to adulthood before full realisation dawned. Firstly, the events of which she spoke had taken place less than a decade before I was born, and, secondly, from the age of 22 to 28 – theoretically perhaps the most free and exciting years of your life, she had lived through the threat of war. Indeed, even her 21st celebrations, a year previously, in Septemebr 1938 had been under threat just because of the threat of approaching warfare

The generality of that was hard to understand – but it was in the details that the reality really took hold – and her stories were filled with details, because, invariably, when she spoke of the war it was incidental to some other tale she was telling about her younger days. She never made a big deal of the war, though she never hid her memories, and always claimed that her mother, being a gentle soul, died so soon after the war ended because she had been worn out by the terror and the uncertainty.

Without a doubt, war had been unkind to my grandmother. When my grandfather was in the First World War – he was a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, who saw service at Paschendaele – she had moved around England to see him in his various home postings – from Shoeburyness to Gosford and various points around the coast, taking along with her my mum, who was only months old, and her sister only a couple of years older. In the Anderson Shelter during the second war she had been terrified by the bombing, and not helped by her husband, by then an ARP Warden, with Great War phlegm, stating: “Don’t worry, Rose, you won’t hear the one with your name on it!”.

So my mother’s stories related the ‘mundane’ every day realities of living in war time: feeling your way home along the wall in the total darkness of blackout; the move from ‘under the table’ to cellar to ’Anderson shelter’ as the bombing intensified over the months, and the destructive power of the bombs was illustrated on a sometimes daily basis.

One day she came out of the shelter to go to work and saw that a house further down the terraced street on the opposite side to her own had been taken out by a high explosive bomb; houses on either side of it, apart from smashed windows, were apparently untouched; the family, whom she knew well, had all perished in the cellar, the only upstanding thing in the wreckage of bricks and wood was a bird cage on a stand, the canary dead inside.


Civilians, she said, started to talk like soldiers: “Who bought it last night?”

The answers would be general or specific: “The Maloneys on Jubilee Drive” “Blacklers in town” “Jimmy Kelly, crossing Smithdown Rd” “Mr and Mrs Rimmer in Empress Rd – the dog survived” “The Pier Head caught it badly” “The ice rink.”

Of course, the bombing didn’t occur on a nightly basis. The raids started in late August 1940, when 160 bombers attacked for three nights, and over the next three month period were a succession of attacks, some ‘minor’, others involving up to 300 aircraft, leading to incidents like the deaths of 166 people in the Durning Rd air raid shelter. This period ended with the “Christmas Blitz”, when over 360 folk died, mostly in direct hits on public air raid shelters between December 20th and 22nd.


However, it was the uncertainty of where or when the bombers would strike which shredded the nerves. Thirty years later, when an air raid siren was incorporated into the credits of the hit TV show “Dad’s Army”, the BBC had to limit its exposure due to complaints from people who were severely affected by the memories the sound brought back to them.

Civilian bombing depends, inevitably, on demoralising the public by creating a sense of fear and tension. The bombs would often be aimed at docks, factories, and other important installations – but ordinary homes were also targeted. When the sirens sounded, there was no way of knowing whether you would be ‘in for it’ that night.

Sometimes death was arbitrary – a stray bomber dispensing its load as it headed home, a church too close to the docks, a hospital mistaken for a factory. My mother’s sister had married before the war and moved out to the Childwall suburbs. Sometimes mum and her parents would stay out there to avoid the worst of the raids – but even Childwall was hit. Years later I would play in the ‘shed’ half covered by earth in my aunt’s garden with not the remotest idea it was the Anderson shelter where they had spent nights during the war.

But, wherever you were, the horror was inescapable. Mum described tuning in to “Lord Haw Haw” – William Joyce, who would broadcast from Germany on a nightly basis. Obviously, the Germans had detailed street maps and knowledge of Liverpool. Indeed, Hitler had close family in the city and had stayed there pre-war – an irony being that the house which had once been lived in by his relatives was destroyed in an air raid.

As a result, Joyce would read out a list of streets which would be bombed that night. Mum would recount the horror of sitting in the small living room, clustered round the radio, hearing the bizarre tones of Joyce announcing: “Tonight, the Luftwaffe will drop bombs on Kensington, Albany Rd, Saxony Rd, Albert Edward Rd, Empress Rd, Adelaide Rd, Leopold Rd.”

At this distance, it’s impossible to imagine the dread instilled by hearing your own street read out as a target for bombers in a few hours time.

Of course, the point of the broadcast was that you never knew if Joyce was reading out from a list provided by his Air Ministry, or whether it was mere psychological warfare. Similarly, when the siren went off, there was no way of knowing whether an actual raid was incoming – or it was a ‘false alarm’ – that phrase remaining today in our every day speech.

Even the sound of the “All Clear” from the sirens was a mixed blessing: were the raiders really finished? What damage would they emerge to find, what bad and tragic news? Would my grandad, on fire watching and ARP duties, arrive home safely, and, if so, what tales would he have to tell of what he had witnessed? He was a Post Office Supervisor, and one night the head Post Office was hit – how many colleagues did he lose?

Inevitably, life went on as normally as possible – what other choice was there? Mum worked as a book keeper for a furniture store run by the Swifts – a well known Old Swan family who included two young lads who, as Clive and David would go on to become well respected actors. She also volunteered with the Girls Training Corps, and became an officer in that organisation, and supported young girls ‘in trouble’ in various ways, taking them on  residential stays to Llangollen in North Wales, as an escape from the city bound horror.

The Church was important to her, and she worked supporting those in need. As was the way at the time, much of her social life revolved around her church, her parish, and religious organisations, so that the bomb damage to churches, schools, and similar buildings around the city was painful to her, and she knew many who lost their lives or who were badly affected by the bombing and destruction. She very rarely talked about the young men of her own age who were killed on active service.

However, one story symbolises the people’s approach to the times.

She often spoke of a young priest who was a hugely talented pianist and much admired by his parishioners. Returning to the church house after the ‘all clear’ one day, he was putting the key in the door when a stray bomb demolished the presbytery. The door lintel fell on him. smashing his arms to pieces. When he died shortly afterwards, the general feeling was that it was merciful, as to live and be unable to play the piano would have been unbearable for him. I suppose that’s an example of how you cope with unimaginable situations.

Of 4000 people killed in air raids in Liverpool during the war, around 1750 died between May 1st and 7th 1941 – in the “May Blitz” – with the same number seriously injured. For seven nights it involved nearly 700 Luftwaffe bombers, dropping around 2500 bombs. As was the case throughout, death was random – pick the wrong air raid shelter, the wrong time to check on a relative, a different route home – and you might find it fatal – or, for that matter – your choice and timing might be life saving. During this week, a ship in Huskisson Dock – the SS Malakand was set on fire by burning debris from bombed dockland warehouses – and 1000 tons of bombs in its hold were detonated as explosion after explosion decimated the surrounding area.


When Mum spoke of the May Blitz, it was as if everyone knew what it involved – and, of course, if you had lived through it, that would be true. They had no way of telling how long it would go on for, and, when the Germans turned their attention towards the Eastern Front – from 1941 onwards, the people in Liverpool were still listening for sirens, still existing in a darkened world of blackout, shelters, and apprehension. Though they couldn’t know it, the last air raid on the city was in January 1942 – but the fear and alarm continued until VE Day.

In the sixties, we drew cartoons on our jotters of “Jerries’ fighting the ‘RAF’, we passed by or played on open spaces known as ‘bombsites’ without ever relating them to war, death, or destruction; we walked down streets and passed buildings where bombs had rained and death had become commonplace – we were ignorant. And folk like my mum told their stories quietly, possibly without any expectation that we could really understand, but not wanting the memories to be lost in time.

So I am ambivalent these days when anniversaries of the two world wars are marked with various celebrations and ceremonies, and when every military campaign and death is described as ‘defending our freedom’.

And I am worried that, in a very short time, those who have not experienced the actuality of war – at first or second hand – will come to see it as part of the great British ceremonial, with soldiers parading, flags unfurled, Red Arrows flypasts, and stirring speeches. Proud tradition rather than appalling tragedy.

Such an inaccurate, sanitised view merely increases the possibility of it all happening again, and we need to remember, and to honour those who died, in a more appropriate fashion.

For my part, I will recall the second war as a woman hunched over in a corrugated tin burrow, terrified at the wailing of the falling bombs, demented for the safety of her husband and children; a man ‘doing his bit’ for the second time in his adult life, trying to control the shakes as the impact of explosives detonating hurls him back to the mud of Flanders; and a young woman on her way home, feeling her way along the wall made invisible by blackout regulations, preparing for another night in the shelter, wondering what tomorrow’s dawn will reveal.

For the people of Liverpool, merely surviving was a kind of victory; making our lives better was the ultimate justification.

Two meetings, 40 years, and a journey of hope.

May 9, 2015

This is the tale of two meetings – and what happened in between them.

It is October 1974 and I am sitting at a shoogly table in the back room of what was once a plumber’s shop on the Southside of Edinburgh..

When I look round the table, this is what I see: an old man in a kilt and a tweed jacket, a young woman and her brother, recently returned from Australia, an economics lecturer with a London accent, a middle aged man wearing a deerstalker and plus fours, a Norwegian engineer and his Scots wife, a Mechanical Engineering lecturer, who has parked his three wheeled, yellow, Reliant Robin outside, an Irish Politics and History Professor, several “Morningside ladies”, a middle aged woman who runs a painting and decorating shop, and myself – with a passable Lancashire accent after a childhood spent away from my Edinburgh birthplace down south, and my American girlfriend – both of us students.

The names still remain: Dougie Stewart, Roseanna and Chris Cunnigham, Gavin Kennedy, Jim Campbell, Arve and Louise Johannsen, Kerr MacGregor, Owen Dudley Edwards, the Potters, Mairi Stewart, Mairigold Roche.

There were a few others with whom we constituted the activist core of Edinburgh South SNP – but I record their names because they were the folk who welcomed me into the SNP, who gave me a sound political grounding, and, most importantly, who had kept the party’s flag flying through hard times as well as good.

In later years, there would be many more folk I would have cause to thank and to celebrate the fact I had the chance to know and work beside them: Bob Shirley, Allan Lawson, Valli Shirley, Stephen Maxwell, Kenny Macaskill, Greg McAra, Iain Thorburn, Fiona Hyslop, Alison Purser. There were more whom I have forgotten – and many of these, no doubt, will have forgotten me.

The fact was – as that original list suggests, in my earliest days in the party, the SNP was composed of an extraordinary mixture of characters – unlikely and otherwise – and it would be fair to say that this was sometimes reflected in our ‘welcome’ in the streets and on the doorsteps.

A major motivation for my activism – on the doors or behind the keyboard – over the years was the Labour party agent in our constituency at my first “count” in 1974. We were chatting to the Labour candidate when the agent came up and said: “Oh – talking to the kiddies are we?” It was a sneering attitude which many in Scottish Labour still espouse, and played its part in this week’s crushing defeat.

However, in one respect, he was probably not far wide of the mark. Despite the expertise of various individuals, there was an overall political innocence about the party in those days, which, in one sense, could be charming, but, in another, limited our potential to win votes – or, at least, seats. We did the legwork up and down the multistorey flats, but we also shouted at people through poor loudspeakers on top of that Robin Reliant and introduced pipe bands to housing scheme shopping centres at 10 am on Saturday mornings. The party’s image – and probably its major appeal in those days – was related to a vague kind of patriotism, coupled with a desire for more social justice. It was fairly ill-defined and quite similar to the picture unionist parties have sought to paint of the current SNP. But it was forty years ago, and a relatively young and inexperienced organization.

Then came the Garscadden by-election in April 1978. Though the SNP needed a 10% swing to take the seat, the press promoted it as a near certainty to fall to the Nats. When a young Donald Dewar won the seat for Labour, the media suggested the wheels had come off the SNP bandwagon. Certainly, opinion polls suggested our support had fallen from over 30% to under 20% and in the 79 Election 11 MPs became 2 and, with a little help from George Cunningham’s anti-democratic 40% rule, the 79 referendum was ‘lost’.

Times became hard for the SNP. I am still proud of my 79 Group m embership card and of the fact that it led to my expulsion from the party for being ‘too left wing’. But lessons were learned, as they must be if there is to be progress.

Ultimately, the party took the time to rebuild, to listen and to reflect. Building from a low position, it realized that connecting with folk and addressing their concerns was the only way forward for a truly social democratic movement. If you have a cause you believe in, it deserves to be presented in a professional manner and you need to attract the best talent to do that. People – and their persuasion – should never be taken for granted.

The media often portrayed the SNP’s development as “Fundamentalist” v “Gradualist” – but it was more sophisticated than that. Nicola Sturgeon is representative of young folk who joined the party at that time –and she said last year that, for her, independence was important in its own right, but more so because it was a means of bringing social justice to Scotland. It is this point of view which has transformed the party – a point of view brought about by an openness to new ideas and a willingness to let the membership decide issues. The unionist press frequently make disparaging reference to the SNP’s ‘party discipline’ as if it was a repressive machinery. They fail to recognize the difference between organizational discipline – which leads to electoral success, and politically controlling discipline which tends to lead to internal strife and electoral losses.

The burden of the party’s approach was as follows: if you are looking for social justice in Scotland, you are pushing at an open door, because a large percentage of Scots share that aspiration; the only thing blocking that door was the unwillingness of a controlling Westminster parliament to follow such a progressive agenda. Scottish Labour believed that, as part of a UK movement, that equality would come sooner or later. The problem was, post New Labour, that was not the way the London party was operating – winning middle England votes was their alternative agenda, and one which led, inevitably to a sort of ‘Tory-lite’ approach.

The result of the SNP’s slow but thorough re-birth has been a kind of unstated pact between them and the Scottish voters – especially those who had previously voted Labour as an article of faith.

In post industrial Scotland, Labour’s role was less clear than previously, its patronism less pervasive, its effectiveness hindered – especially by the New Labour project. Hubris replaced principles and they continued to view themselves as an immutable working class establishment, secure in their position.

The voters, starting to feel taken for granted, and seeing little benefit in voting for a party which pursued Westminster power before serving its people, and predicated policy on the focus group divined wishes of middle England, they started to ‘test’ the SNP.

In the Scottish Parliament, they gave them five years as a minority government – and liked what they saw enough to vote them in next time as a majority government. This should have been a warning to Labour, who had set up the Scottish parliament in a manner to preclude this eventuality ever happening. However, having viewed the Scottish legislature as a minor institution, most of Scottish Labour’s ‘talent’ were focused on Westminster – and, in Scotland, it showed.

Meanwhile, for many Scottish voters, the SNP were “passing the test”. A support for independence which had hovered around 30% for some time moved towards 45% in the 2014 Referendum – a sign, perhaps, that the voters were now looking for something more than the status quo if not outright autonomy – and when Westminster, and Scottish Labour, failed to divine that movement in aspiration – or at least dismissed it, the scene was set for a further rise in trust of the SNP’s position, and this time in a Westminster setting.

Which brings me to my second meeting.

This was at the Mound, on Edinburgh’s Princes St on Wednesday morning of this week – an eve of poll meeting which Nicola Sturgeon would address.

When I arrived there about 9.30am there was already a large crowd – most were activists, but as time passed and passers by enquired what was happening, the numbers grew exponentially. Eventually, there must have been five or six hundred gathered – not a bad number for a work day morning.

I had time while waiting to look around and reflect.

There was an understated professionalism about the set up which was a long way from Robin Reliants and wee men in kilts. A small stage was set up, and a PA system, protected from the incipient rain by two see through ‘Stronger for Scotland’ umbrellas, while a sound man checked it was working effectively. A couple of security guys protected the space around it. At the back of the crowd a table had been set up to distribute party merchandise. There was a sense of purpose rather than excitement, a confidence rather than any sense of entitlement.

I suspect the location was chosen for its central position but it was also quite redolent. We were next to a couple of famous Scottish institutions: the National Gallery and the Royal Scottish Academy. Above us on one side was Edinburgh Castle with its Union Flag reminder flying from the battlements, on the other was the towering presence of the Bank of Scotland headquarters – an icon of what has come to be of priority for the elite in the UK state. Just along from us was the Scott Monument – a gothic pointer to the realisation of how far Scotland has come from the writer’s Bagpipes and Stags version of nationhood.

However, it was the people who most took my eye.

Compared to that back room in Grange Loan forty years before, the demographic was far wider: young and old, prosperous and less so, hipster and staid, folk who looked like business people and many who could be students, tradesmen, tourists or professionals. In short, the gathering reflected modern Scotland; it was beyond pigeon holing. Granted there were a few folk who could have graced the front page of a Sunday Magazine in their glorious idiosyncrasy, but, by and large, there was little remarkable about the people around me – they were representative.

When Nicola Sturgeon arrived – accompanied by husband Peter Murrell , the party’s national organiser, and a couple of assistants, there was no big fanfare – just an appreciative applause. She stopped and spoke to those around her en route to the stage, and after a stock stump speech, she stayed for ages to take the famous selfies, sign autographs and chat to the people who had turned up. It was as unlike a 2015 election event as you could imagine – no minders, no stage managed moments –simply a politician meeting voters – and those, like the tourists, who can’t vote, on the main street of a capital city.

Despite the best attempts of the mainstream media to portray it as otherwise, this is not demagoguery, not an artificially managed media event – those who attended were there to see and hear her, and she was happy to speak and meet with all of them. At one point somebody asked for a picture of her and Murrell together; she borrowed an SNP placard, handed it to her husband and gave the photographer a shot in which he was holding a sign saying #I’mwithNicola. As she satisfied the seemingly endless demand for selfies, she said to me (yes I did get one!) “I’ve First Minister’s Questions in half an hour (in the Scottish Parliament) I don’t think the Presiding Officer would accept ‘I was taking selfies’ as an excuse if I’m late!”

People warm to her because what you see is what you get with this particular leader; they also recognise that she is a conviction politician who cares, and knows, about people and their lives. It is quite a rare phenomenon in modern politics.

As I left the meeting, I felt quite emotional. I’ve stuck with the SNP, in good and bad times, for the policies I support and those with which I’m less enamoured, for a lifetime. I’m proud that it has never veered away from its belief and principle that the good of the people in Scotland is best served by their taking control and responsibility for their own country and playing their full part alongside the nations of the world – and I still anticipate the coming time when it can be a force for good rather than a ‘region’ separated from the world through the decisions of another country’s parliament. It is good to have politicians of whom we can be proud.

Forty eight hours later, coming to terms with an incredible general election result, those two meetings, and all that happened in between, came strongly back to me.

And I thought of a wee man in plus fours and a deerstalker who took the trouble to come all the way up to my student’s residence room on a Saturday morning in December 1973 and give me my branch membership card.
“I just wanted to welcome you to the SNP!” he said.

Thank you to Jim Campbell, to all those folk round the table in that shop backroom, and the thousands of others who have worked tirelessly over the years to maintain the SNP’s message, its principles, and its integrity.

You all made this election result possible.

Now’s the hour!


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