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Degrees of separation

June 8, 2010

Sometimes life seems to play tricks on us, and sometimes you can’t help wondering what may have happened if things had just been ever so slightly different. Reading an interview with an ex-footballer, produced as part of the preparations for the World Cup, I had cause to rewind nearly forty years to the early seventies.

Third year at university and living in a typical student flat in Marchmont in Edinburgh, one of our duties was the Edinburgh tenement chore of  ‘doing the stairs’. Once every six weeks or so a notice would be hung on your front door handle: ‘Your turn for the stairs’, and the flat inhabitants would have to clean the whole staircase  from top to bottom of the four storey building. In those days, there was much more of  a mix of students and ‘normal folk’  in Marchmont tenements, and student flats came under deep scrutiny when it came to fulfilling the communal duties of stair cleaning and back green grass cutting.

On the floor above us was another student flat and, pushing the brush idly by, you would stop and read the names of residents, traditionally penned on a bit of paper and stuck to the door with blu tack. One name on the brown door diagonally above us in the stair was ‘Margarita de Roumaine’. It transpired that she was, in fact, a Rumanian Princess, and, as the world and his cat now knows, was going out with our student Rector, Gordon Brown.

Broon, of course, we knew well. Prominent in student politics, the first student to become Rector and always surrounded by acolytes, mostly from the trendy Students Publications Board, he was hard to miss. However, on the stair outside our flat, you would be lucky to get a grunt as he passed.

We wondered if he knew we were the opposition!

A number of us in the flat had taken umbrage at his emergence as a candidate for Rector. We were faced with a choice between Broon – albeit a student, but representative of a very ‘in crowd’ of students, or Sir Frederick Catherwood, an industrialist, – and we thought the choice should have been wider, and the nomination process  clearer and better advertised. Or maybe we were just bolshie. For whatever reason, we launched a home knitted  ‘Spoil Your Vote’ campaign, with hand written posters and badges, and put across the message: ‘If you don’t want either, don’t stay away, Spoil Your Vote!’ In other words we were against apathy but for choice.

In the end, Broon won with around 2200 votes to Sir Frederick’s 1300 and we were very pleased with our 199 votes,  a number which at least suggested some folk agreed with our message. But I was destined to be a midge fleein around Broon’s head in the future as well.

In his first tilt at Parliament in 1979, in Edinburgh South, who should be one of the SNP activists against him but yours truly. He lost to Tory, Michael Ancram, by around 2500 votes, and it’s entirely possible that the 3800 votes garnered by our happy Nationalist band went some way towards ensuring that defeat. Not that I would have wanted to get his Lordship into Westminster, but, again, it must have been annoying for Broon to some extent.

Then, come his ascension to Chancellor, lots of bio pieces appeared in the media, and nearly all of them featured the picture below of his student days:

and in every one. clear as you like, is our sad little poster imploring students to ‘Spoil Your Vote’. I always enjoyed that!

All this is far in the past, of course, and  even these tenuous connections have been thin on the ground over the past twenty years or so while he has been a world figure. But then, a few days ago, it happened again.

One of the other connections to Broon when I was at university was through the group of girls known as ‘Brown’s Sugars’. Again, their picture has been frequently reprinted and is familiar to all.

The three girls featured above are Ayshea Cockshott, Maggie Barry and Trisha Meagher, and in interviews now they will tell you that, though they hung around with Broon through the Publication Board connnection, the whole ‘Sugars’ thing was just a one off photo opportunity. Well, my memory is that they spent a bit more than one photoshoot promoting Broon’s candidacy, but no matter. In fact, Ayshea was merely a stand in for another student, Jane McNiven, who wasn’t available on the day the picture was taken.

Again, my connection was fleeting: I sat between Jane and Trisha in Spanish seminars in first year and Jane, probably the best looking girl in our year, studied English with me. I knew Maggie through the two of them and the fact that her Gran lived in Southport, where I stayed at the time, and a couple of times during the vacation I bumped into her there.

One of the great loves of my life is Hibernian FC, and among my favourite all time players is international goalkeeper, Alan Rough. In the weekend press,  I was interested to read his views on the coming World Cup and on his current job as a radio phone in specialist with Real Radio. In the content of the article, it turned out that he has fairly recently remarried, and his new wife was – Maggie Barry, yes that one! It was a weird and unexpected coming together of several strands of a former life.

So, in my definitively non-stellar life as a Deputy Headteacher, I’m left to consider what might have been, given  a different table in the pub, a different turn on the stairs, or a political choice made differently.

It seems it was all happening in the next room, but I’ve been too happy with my life to notice!

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