An empty place at the table.
I bumped into my pal, John Brown, on May 20th 1994, outside Cluny parish Church, in the Morningside area of Edinburgh. We were both in a crowd of a couple of thousand, there to pay tribute at the funeral of Labour Leader, John Smith. John spotted me and in his typically blunt but not unfriendly manner, said:
“I’m surprised to see a Nat like you here!”
I replied that I felt it was only right to pay tribute to an admirable political leader, irrespective of whether I agreed with all of his views or not. I thought Smith had integrity and wanted to serve his country, and that was why I was there.
As was his wont, he nodded, and said: ‘Very good, McP, very good.’
John died last Wednesday, after a long and courageous battle with Parkinson’s and recently diagnosed bone marrow cancer. Hardly into his sixties, he was taken far too soon. In the days since the sad news came, it has occurred to me that, in reality, he was the reason I stood outside Cluny Church that May day, because, among many other attributes, he modelled for me the importance of listening to others with respect, arguing with civility, and being genuinely interested in the other man’s view.
I first met him exactly 37 years before his death – on June 8th 1974 – when, having finished my university finals, I travelled to Arboretum Rd in Edinburgh’s Inverleith, for my first net practice with Holy Cross Academicals Cricket Club. John was vice captain of the second eleven – a natural home for me, and though, as a cricketer, I’ve always been more enthusiastic than skilled, he was happy enough to select me to play the following Saturday. Thus began a companionship, off and on the cricket field, that would endure and steadily grow in warmth over the next four decades.
One of the joys of cricket as a sport, which is quite invisible to those who don’t play or watch, is that it lends itself to developing friendships. Part of this, of course, is down to its longevity – if you spend around 7 hours with team mates on a Saturday or Sunday, half of them in the pavilion, waiting to bat, there is plenty of time to exchange views, chew the fat, and learn about each other’s world view.
However, it’s about more than that. The pace of cricket, its tactics and its playing conditions all lend themselves to collegiate decision making. Captains consult more with team mates in cricket than in probably any other team game – from what to do when winning the toss, through who to bowl, how to bat, and what result to go after.
I was an opening bowler, John knew what to expect with me, as with any such bowler. Required to get early wickets, we sulk if taken off before we have achieved them. In our view, a wicket is always coming in the next over. Skippers like Broon had to handle such changes in attack carefully – not just tactically, but in terms of man management. A sulky fielder, brooding down at long leg, is no good to the team. He was great at that management – never took any nonsense from me, but always made me feel a return to the attack was only a matter of time. He gave lots of good advice, some of which I was skilled enough to attempt to follow. Along with the other members of the team, he was a joy to play with.
He affected a dolorous approach to life, which on the cricket field was compounded by a stubborn resistance to attacking strokeplay, but, in reality, he had a keen intellect, a dry wit and a self deprecating and wry view of the world that was most engaging. We called him ‘Thistles’ or ‘Eeyore’ and he took it in good part, giving as good as he got, thoroughly enjoying the banter. He served our club – Holy Cross Academicals, in many roles over more than thirty years – Captain, vice captain, President, Treasurer; he was one of the stalwarts that small clubs depend on, giving time, effort, and expertise to ensure the club is there for others to enjoy.
Away from cricket, he was a highly respected taxman, originally for the Revenue, and latterly as a university lecturer – where his students formed the same affection and respect for him as had his team mates. His expertise was such that European visits were solicited. He loved travel and never failed to link a business trip with a knowledge of local culture, and, often, a visit to a football match – he would know the history and demeanour of whichever local club he watched, no matter which country or league. At home, though a Scot brought up in Kilmarnock, he kicked over the traces to support Celtic – because he liked their style of play and their ethos. He was a committed, but never blinkered fan, and was troubled latterly by the rancour in the Scottish game, being as fair minded and unbigoted as you could hope to find. The game, for John, was the thing.
He was – without the faintest trace of cliché – a devoted family man, hugely proud of his four daughters, travelling far and wide to see Susie represent Scotland at Rugby – not a game he particularly liked, but an honour that made him justifiably delighted.
Our playing days over, eight of us so highly valued the friendships forged that we formed the Old Bores, and we meet every couple of months or so for a Chinese meal, wine, and (too much too loud) conversation. In later years, physically but in no way mentally debilitated by Parkinson’s, he knew that we would translate our affection and concern for him into high octane banter, and I hope the fact that we ribbed him mercilessly contributed to his continuing positive and happy involvement with our dinners.
Though in our heads we were still players, the reality was that, activity ceased, we traded physical for mental energy, sporting competition for mental gymnastics. Unfailingly, we laughed, recalled and probed each other on every topic you could imagine – from our antecedents’ Great War records, through politics, to the state of sport.
Politically, John and I differed. But, though he was rock solid old Labour as compared to my nationalist stance, he was pragmatic and open to ideas – the best sort of Labour Party member. We never argued, we discussed. Often we agreed with each other on topics our party loyalties should have made impossible. Having an open mind himself, he opened others’ minds. Well read, well travelled, and mentally sharp as a tack, you always came out of a conversation with John knowing all points made were relevant and defensible, and backed by knowledge rather than bluster, philosophy not sophistry. He was a rare man.
He gave to intellect a good name, to friendship a highly affirming quality, and to those around him an understanding and loyalty that was quite simply joyful.
It was always a marvelous irony that this man who played the role of the gloomy pessimist, by the warmth of his greeting or farewell, by his obvious attention to your words and ideas, and by his natural interest in all around him, could unfailingly make you feel better about yourself and the world.
We were due to meet up, three of us, to have a pint and a chat about the state of Scottish football. Typically, John had been interested by a couple of points I’d made at our last dinner and wanted the chance to tease them out in a quieter atmosphere. I had been looking forward to it – with John, you always looked forward to discussion and chat, banter and memories.
I wonder what he would have thought of me writing this. He often commented on things I’d written, and obviously read them carefully. I hope he would have been pleased that I’ve attempted to show my respect and affection for him by writing some words; I know he would have read it carefully, thanked me for the bits he liked, and corrected me in anything I may have got slightly wrong. I always valued his comments or arguments, just as I’d respected his decisions as Skipper, because I knew they always came from the right place. He operated with grace, integrity, a wonderful human empathy, and concern for all around him.
When we were younger, both having similarly coloured hair and fashionably drooping moustaches, opposition players often mistook us for brothers.