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Conned, well conned

March 6, 2018

Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Jacob Rees Mogg?

Who can we really blame for the Brexit farago?

The answer came to me in one of my occasional political dwams, in a revelation adding fuel to the assertion that tragedy and comedy are close bedfellows.

The real villain behind the piece is none other than James Bond!

The more I though about this, the more sense it made.

If we start by looking at Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator and alter ego.

He was the son of a banker, Eton educated, worked for Naval intelligence, and mostly obtained his later employment through contacts or nepotism, rendering his ability  in any given post more or less irrelevant. He had relationships with the Harmsworths/Rothermeres of Daily Mail notoriety, eventually, after a long affair, marrying Viscount Rothermere’s ex-wife after he divorced her because of that affair. His leading role with Kemsley newspapers came with an annual three month holiday in the winter, which he spent in the West Indies.

Not  surprisingly, Bond was cast in the same mold, and, if we look back at the general attitudes of the novels, a pattern emerges.

Despite the fact that the sun was setting fast on the British Empire for most of Bond’s existence as 007, the subplot was that Britain had world influence and if you wanted a job doing properly, you needed to use a Brit. Bond has a friendly “special relationship” with Felix Leiter of the CIA – but despite the American’s greater resources, generally it’s Bond who helps him out of difficult situations. Foreigners are generally bad guys – often German, increasingly Russian, and finally, and vaguely, with the arrival of SPECTRE, basically “everybody else”.

Bond’s appeal is that he knows how to dress, what to drink and eat, and is perfectly at home in “elite” company. Spending silly money on everything from cars to shirts to suits, shoes and cuff links is seen as admirable, and also a positive image of British affluence.

Though Bond is “On Her Majesty’ Secret Service”, he is plainly out for himself most of the time, and when things go wrong, he is forgiven because he is so charming, witty, and urbane. He gets out of seemingly terminal situations not because of his own ability, but mostly because of gadgets supplied by the much more intelligent “Q”.

Women, foreigners, and anyone he perceives as inferior are basically treated, at best,  with callous indifference. He’s involved in “the Bond Project” but quite happy to dress it up in a Union flag, if that eases his path, or makes it more acceptable to those to whom he is accountable.

Looking at the current UK government, you might be forgiven for recognising quite a few of these traits – though you might feel they are more sanguine about taking risks for other people rather than themselves.

The real point, however, lies in the fact that the Bond books were phenomenally popular, and that popularity increased with the films as the sixties and seventies moved forward.

Their popularity was generally put down to  a certain mix of sex and adventure, and, in the films, the increasing use of special effects and gadgetry.

However, there was an added ingredient which was generally overlooked, or, at least, downplayed.

Bond’s world was a place where Britain still ruled the waves and somehow had the respect and affection of its former imperial subjects; it was seen as a major power and frequently was the bulwark between total war and peace. In a sense, it was as if the war had never stopped: foreigners were still to be kept in their place and, if not downright hostile,  couldn’t really be trusted, there were Communists under every bed, and occasionally in them, and if you had money, power, good looks, and the support of the Establishment (however grudgingly) you could get away with just about anything. A grin, a wink, and a knowing smile were all you needed to get by. If only they’d sent 007 to Suez!

On a personal level, Bond and political correctness were complete strangers – he could say and do what he wanted with complete impunity, especially when it came to the women in his life. He was, in effect, the complete Bullingdon Club member.

The grand gesture, the power of wealth, knowing the right people, and making a show: all became a substitute for hard work and graft and a genuine concern for one’s neighbours, other than in a grand political sense. Bond would have been quite happy with the  phrase: “There is no such thing as society” – he may well have had it embroidered in to his expensive hand made shirts!

And, it’s the fact that this made the books so popular which suggests so many people in Britain believed in his world, or at least desperately wanted to, or needed to, and, apparently, still do. Bond offered the kind of freedom, adventure, influence and excitement to which the vast majority of Britons, nor their state, could never aspire. If he was a vicarious character for them, the world in which he operated was a vicarious universe for them.

It was a world in which it was perfectly acceptable to quote “the war” as the best of times, and to define your country’s strengths and values by the damage it could do to others. It was a world which others were rapidly abandoning, but one to which the UK State seems to have become increasingly and delusionally wedded as time has moved on. My mother frequently spoke about the blackout, the May Blitz, and spending her twenties sleeping in an Anderson shelter – but I never once heard the phrase: ‘the best days of my life’.

Most folk, of course, recognised the books for what they were: entertaining hokum to pass away the time in an airport. For some, though, it brought on a wistfulness for imagined times of international glory, and for other, the elite, it must have seemed a pretty fair reflection of a world they recognised. It was a vainglorious vision of a past that had never properly existed, the few elements that had, being well gone, long before Roger Moore raised his eyebrow. There’s nothing wrong with having a Golden Age – but there is something odd about inventing one and continuing to pretend it exists. The self image of the British State is as out of touch with the reality as the elite who peddle it as a means of retaining their privileges.

Ian Fleming tapped into the escapist wishes of his readers, just as the Brexiteers tapped into the escapist wishes of the voters.

The people whose mindset was that  James Bond’s world was true parallel those who want the post Brexit world to match their similar aspirations.

The name is conned, well conned.


Kindness of Strangers

March 5, 2018


My football DNA is pretty clear – it is Hibernian green through and through. However, it gets a little frayed around the edges when you examine my history.

My family started supporting Hibs when they arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland in the mid 1890s, my uncle played for them in the late 20s, and he and my dad took me to my first game when I was not yet four, in January 1956.

However, my dad died the following year and later we moved to the north of England. When I was considered old enough to go to a game alone, in November 1963, it was to watch Southport FC in the old Fourth division, and I developed a lifelong passion for live football in the ten years I lived there.

Naturally, when I returned to Edinburgh in 1970, I became an ever present at Hibs’ games, and now, after a lifetime in teaching, I work voluntarily as Hibernian’s Education and Welfare Officer.

But – there was a gap between our arriving in Lancashire in 1958, and my starting to go to Southport games in 1963. It was the time when I was starting to understand football and develop a love for it, it was the time when we were starting to get the odd highlights of games on grainy black and white television – limited to midweek European games.

It was the time when Tottenham Hotspur were quite clearly brilliant.

And I fell in love with that team with an intensity which only comes with first love. So much so, I can rattle off the line up without pause, over fifty year later: Brown, Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, MacKay, Jones, White, Smith, Allen and Dyson.

For me, just recognising football, it was ideal timing: Arthur Rowe had introduced a beguiling style of “push and run” football which was easy on the eye and highly effective; Bill Nicholson – who could have been modelled on any of the war heroes we were still reading about in our comics – had modified the style and was getting together a team who could fully apply its fluency; and there was a mixture of players to satisfy every footballing need. I loved the athleticism of Bill Brown in goal, the reliability of full backs Baker and Henry, Blanchflower’s intelligent probing play and leadership, the uncompromising centre half play of Maurice Norman, and the no nonsense linking play of Dave MacKay. The wing positions were perfectly balanced with the speed of Jones and the brave trickery of Terry Dyson, Allen poached goals, Bobby Smith could have invented the word ‘rumbustious’ at centre forward, and my first proper footballing hero, John White – born a few miles from my home in Edinburgh – could ghost into positions, pinpoint passes, and score goals out of nothing. I’ve no idea how you could play against that team – goals and inventiveness could come from anywhere, and when they were on a roll they were unstoppable.

The magic was enhanced by the film noir productions every few weeks on television, darting figures in all white strips playing against black uniformed teams like Gornik of Poland, snow on the ground, the harsh glare of the floodlights. How many guys of my generation remember being allowed up late, hunched in dressing gowns on the sofa, avoiding parental eyes in fear of the “time for bed” nod? And weren’t that Spurs side just worth it?


There’s no love like first love they say, and though, naturally, my weekly attendance at Southport and my return to the Hibernian Family inevitably brought a stronger sense of reality to my football supporting, I’ve never quite managed to shake off that Tottenham team of the early sixties: that team provides the default image for every position; their style provides a comparative starting point for every team I watch. Those players hover over my times at football, like benevolent uncles, sharing my joys and woes, they never fade. Each July 21st I make the short trip to Musselburgh and walk from John White’s childhood home  down to the park at the bottom of the street where he first kicked a ball, and I think of  him – and his Tottenham team mates – who fired a young boy’s enthusiasm for football.

And because football – even now – is about people rather than simply trophies and glory and high finance, I share this tale of what made Tottenham so extra special to me.

In August 1965, off on holiday with my mother, we had a stopover of three days in London – to see the sights and take in a show. What would I like to see, she asked me. No hesitation: “White Hart Lane!” Bless her, she agreed.

So, after a brief flirtation with Tottenham Court Rd, we eventually  arrived at a bus stop on the High Rd. My mother thought it an unlikely place for a football ground – but I had studied all the pictures in my copies of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. There was the pub – the White Hart, there was the actual lane!

I think I probably ran through the gates and towards the huge main stand “Tottenham Hotspur Football Club” in large letters. I’d made it to White Hart Lane!

Then, of course, reality invaded the dream moment. It was early August – even if Spurs were back in training, it would have been out at their Cheshunt Training Ground. The place was locked up and deserted. I tried to put a brave face on it, but my mother would have sensed my disappointment.

We returned to the High Rd. There was a row of shops there, among them a newsagent and a greengrocer, if my memory serves, and my mother headed into the paper shop, explained we’d come from the north of England, and asked if there was any way of seeing the Spurs ground. The shopkeeper was not a football fan but thought it would be difficult at that time of year. As we left the shop, he came running out after us and called to a guy passing by: “Hey – Harry – this lad’s from the north and he wants to see the Spurs ground, you’ve got a connection, ain’t you?.”

I must admit, as a 13 year old, I was getting a bit embarrassed by now, and would have let it go, but the man stopped, and said he’d see what he could do, telling us to wait while he had a think. He disappeared down the lane, I dared to get my hopes up. They didn’t exactly say: “Wotcher, mate!” but to my Scottish/north of England ear, the shopkeeper and Harry both sounded like proper Londoners.

Harry returned and told us to come with him. We walked down the lane, across the car park and along the front of the stand. There was a small door in the vast frontage – Harry knocked, it opened, and a voice said: “In ye come – you can show him round, Harry.”

It turned out this was a watchman and Harry knew him, so he’d checked it would be ok. I must have just about been hyperventilating by this stage. It’s worth remembering that “stadium tours” did not exist in those days; indeed, preserving the mystique of “behind the scenes”, was a bit of a priority for clubs at the time, and very few people would get to view the inner sanctum. I’d hoped to get into the stands to see the pitch – now I was heading for the dressing rooms – Spurs’ dressing room! The corridors were dark, there were white painted brick walls and navy blue trimmings. The dressing room was dark wood, frosted windows and navy blue cushions or coverings on the benches round the walls. There was a big bath and some individual baths. This was where the team got ready!

You can imagine the effect on a 13 year old boy. I was ecstatic and a little overwhelmed – trying to take it all in, wanting to remember it, but just awed that I was actually there.

We passed the tunnel and then climbed some stairs and emerged in what must have been the Directors’ Box. There below was the pitch! All those black and white nights – Gornik, Slovan Bratislava, Dukla Prague, Feyenoord. There it was below me. Truly magic!

A voice from below broke into my dreams: “It’s alright, mate, “ shouted Harry, “they’re with me.”

After one last look at White Hart Lane – THE White Hart Lane – we headed back down and out of the stand through that same small door.

Back on the High Road, Harry prepared to say his goodbyes – but 13 year olds have no self awareness, and I was muttering to my mother. She took the hint and relayed my wishes to Harry: “He was a big fan of John White – is there any way he could get his autograph?”

Talk about not quitting when you’re ahead!

Harry scratched his head but looked less perplexed than you might expect – given my hero  had died more than a year before. He agreed to ask around and we exchanged addresses. It was a wonderful demonstration of the kindness of strangers. I didn’t really expect anything to come of my request, but was hugely grateful for his generosity in making a dream come true for a small Scots lad he’d never met before.

The next day – obviously on a roll, we went out to see Wembley Stadium. A knock on the door and a well rehearsed tale about our trip from the North seemed to do the trick and before I knew it I was in the Wembley dressing rooms and walking down the famous tunnel. In the modern day world of marketing and commercialism, the idea of walking up to stadium like Wembley and “getting a wee look” seems impossible to accept – and I have to say, on my return to school, when I reported that I’d been in the dressing rooms at White Hart Lane and Wembley, there were more than a few sceptical looks.

I hadn’t expected to hear from Harry  again, but, in mid September, a large packet arrived for me with a return address of 19 Chalgrove Rd, N17. Inside were programmes and a number of A 4 sized –photographs, of the kind displayed outside newspaper offices in those days – all had been signed by the players in the picture, including a number by Jimmy Greaves.  “Up the Spurs! Harry Vickery.”

What a lovely gesture, and one which has stayed with me through the years. As I had his address I was able to write and thank him, and I  sent him a Christmas Card for a good few years.

Whenever I see Spurs on the television I remember those days and I hope they have retained at least some of that north London community feel in these highly corporate times – because, ultimately, that says far more about a club than winning trophies. Harry’s home was a ten minute walk from the ground – which is how the shopkeeper knew him and how he knew the watchman. Clubs need to be rooted in communities in that way – which is one reason I am pleased that the new Spurs ground will be within the footprint of the other one.

I hope Harry’s kids and grandkids are Spurs fans and I would love them to know of Harry’s kindness – which I forever will link with those Glory Glory days.

In the early sixties, there were no substitutes – only eleven men in a team, but when I start off on that familiar list of “Brown, Baker, Henry……”  I always recall twelve names; I always include Harry Vickery!

Matchmaker for the Mountains

February 26, 2018



                                   Sgór  an Lochain Uaine – May 11th 1975

It was around 3am. The tent was billowing in a breeze which had suddenly translated itself into a wind. Below me, under a clear moon, was the long, sleek, shining finger of Loch Avon, one of the Cairngorms’ many iconic views.

Of course, I couldn’t see the loch, because of the tent, but then, suddenly, I could see the loch. The tent had gone, snatched by the wind, rolling madly across the mountainside, snagging on boulders, changing direction, no clear destination, just the need to escape, like a drunk seeking the way out of a desperate situation.

This was not good.

I had pitched the tent four or five hours previously, having been assured that it was idiot proof, though I had never attempted such a task before. It was a new model, being tested for its efficiency. Well, it had failed the test, it wasn’t idiot proof, and I was the idiot who proved it.

I sat there surrounded by the remains of my belongings. What was I supposed to do now?

A shadow appeared next to me, it was the man who had set me the test with the tent.

“Gather your stuff and follow me.”

So myself and five sixth year pupils  scrabbled about and followed him up the slope to the Shelter Stone, under which we  spent the rest of the night dozing, singing, and telling stories.

The moral of this tale, I suppose, is: if your tent blows away in the middle of the night, it’s helpful to be camping with Cameron McNeish.  I remembered this incident when I attended the  launch of  ‘There’s always the hills’, his “some kind of autobiography”, in Edinburgh last week.

It struck me that, while the impact of an author and broadcaster can be quite clearly defined, what is often hidden is the effect a public figure may have on individuals. In my case, Cameron’s influence was huge.

Most folk in Scotland are, at the very least, aware of our hills and mountains. Even in the most urbanised areas in the central belt, the hills are seldom more than 45 minutes away, and many of the country’s residents live in highland regions. Beyond that, there are those who utilise the hills for pastimes like photography or art or weekend breaks in spa hotels, those who  pursue outdoor hobbies like skiing, hillwalking, mountain biking and fishing, and those for whom Scotland’s outdoors is an adventure playground for mountain or rock climbing, munro bagging, sailing or diving, and hang gliding

It is safe to say the hills and mountains are very visible to Scots – not just in our geography, but, for many, in our psyche. Folk like Cameron have done much to encourage this interest in our great natural assets, but the relationship between people and countryside, like all relationships, has moved and flexed with the times.

For my first six years, I was a city boy, brought up in Edinburgh’s Piershill. Then I moved to England, and for eighteen months, ran free through countryside around our small village in central Lancashire. This was when my interest in the outdoors was first aroused. After that I lived for ten years in a prosperous seaside resort, which had its own, more suburban, outdoor attractions.

However, at 18, I returned to Edinburgh, to university, and, reacquainting myself with Scotland, became more aware of our mountains and hills. I had friends who came from the highlands and islands, or the west coast, and others who disappeared each weekend to walk in the hills. This was all new to me – like Scottish history, our geography is largely invisible to folk in England, so my early twenties involved a steep learning curve as far as the country of my birth was involved.

However, I had seldom, if ever, wandered any further north than Dundee, and university, along with weekend football, and playing in a band, was taking up my time, so, despite a developing fascination with the hills, I still had no practical experience of them.

Then, in November 1971 there occurred an incident which left an indelible mark on those in Scotland who were interested in the hills, particularly those involved in teaching or working with young people. An Outdoor Education group from Ainslie Park High School, in north Edinburgh, were on a weekend expedition, based at Lothian’s Outdoor Centre at Lagganlia.

At the time, Outdoor Education was becoming increasingly popular in schools and for youth groups – a reflection of projects like Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. It was a kind of generational follow on from the love of walking developed between  the wars by city folk as an escape from industrial grime, which spawned the growth of various and varying Scottish climbing clubs which built on the original Cairngorm Club and  the Scottish Mountaineering Club, both of which dated from the late 1880s.

The leaders of the Ainslie Park group had different degrees of experience – as teachers or instructors – and they checked their route with the Head of the Lagganlia Centre before they left.  The programe may have been feasible given fair weather, but it proved not to be so in the heavy snow conditions which moved in. Half the group were unable to make it to the agreed Currour  bothy but managed  to reach the Curran shelter, the agreed fall back plan. The other, less experienced part of the group, feared missing the Curran if it was covered in snow, and opted to bivouac in a dip by the Feith Buidhe burn. It was to prove a fatal error.

By the end of the weekend, the news had come through that five pupils and an assistant leader had died while another leader and a pupil were lucky to survive.

At this distance, it is hard to evoke the level of shock which hit the country after this – the worst ever tragedy on Scotland’s mountains. In Edinburgh and in education circles, as well, of course, as  in the outdoors community, the sense of loss was palpable. The question was: How could this happen?

The resulting inquiries led to a tightening of requirements for expeditions to the hills – new qualifications were brought in and an even more rigorous approach was demanded,  to the extent that there was a height level imposed on group leaders without the necessary  qualifications.

For those of us heading for a career in education – or at least for me, this was a defining moment on how I thought of the hills. In what was a possibly predictable  over reaction, I saw them as symbiotic with “danger”.

To be fair, this was not just as a result of  the Feith Buidhe tragedy, but also of the prevailing ambience around mountaineering at the time. It seems strange to recall now, but in the 70s for a period, there was a group of mountaineers, many based in Scotland, or the north of England, who had a kind of rock star status, and were known to the wider public outside of climbing circles. Chris Bonnington was already establishing  a familiar presence, in the media, and through his Himalayan and other expeditions, but there were other younger climbers with an almost Byronesque “mad, bad and dangerous to know” reputation.

Foremost amongst these was probably Dougal Haston, from Currie near Edinburgh, and there was also Don Whillans, Joe Tasker, Joe Brown, Edinburgh’s Graham Tiso, who invariably equipped the expeditions,  and others who were familiar names to the general public. Needing finance and sponsorship for their expeditions, they became expert at gaining media attention and promoting an exciting profile for themselves, though the mercurial Haston was never even close to comfortable with this side of things. Occasionally, major climbs, like that on the Old Man of Hoy, were transmitted live on national television. Where now a holiday weekend’s viewing may be dominated by the tension over who might win the “Bake off”, in those days, it was often the words: “And now it’s back live to the Old Man of Hoy to see how our climbers are getting on” that quickened the pulse of the 15 million viewers.

This air of danger was to be increased by the numbers of deaths amongst the top mountaineers over the next decade or so. As was the case with motor racing at the time, it was almost as if the regular loss of heroes added  a rather morbid interest to the pastime.

With no practical experience of the mountains, it is no wonder that my admiration and interest in them was overlaid by apprehension at this stage in my life. Members of the university mountaineering club, hard drinking, and huddled over maps, while they discussed equipment, in a corner of the Meadow Bar, hardly encouraged a sanguine view of the high places.

Then, in 1975, as I completed my year of post graduate teacher training at Moray House, a friend told us of a poster in the college advertising an outdoor education residential experience for those of us who would be graduating that summer. It was to be based at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms and would last for a week, with the opportunity to take part in a variety of activities under the instruction of experienced outdoor guides.

At this stage, “Cairngorms” and “Glenmore Lodge” were just words to me, but it seemed like a great opportunity, and an excellent way to round off our student careers, so we signed up for it.

It was scheduled for the last week of term – our exams finished, results known, and, for most of us, in those halcyon days, jobs acquired. It was a special time and always would have been, whatever we did. However, being introduced to the Cairngorms made it luminous in our memories.

It would be fair to say that, as our minibus approached Glenmore, we were in a mixed state of anticipation. The weather – as it would be all week – was glorious, and we had ample opportunity to appreciate the landscape on the way north on the old double track A9 which, even as late as  the 70s, was little more than a country road.

Turning off  at Aviemore, to drive through Rothiemurchus, Inverdruie, Coylumbridge and then along the shores of Loch Morlich as the range of  mountains and corries appeared under deep blue skies, is still vivid in my memory. Wow! What a place. It is a road that never fails to raise the spirits even all these years later.

To be fair, the  size and scale of the mountains did nothing to minimise our fears of what we were about to experience.  So – awe and trepidation would be a fair description of the state we were in when we arrived at Glenmore Lodge and met the rest of our group. There were students from many Moray House courses, so one of the positives of the week would be meeting new folk and getting to know them.

In those days the Lodge was pretty spartan and you were left in little doubt that, as a National Training Centre,  this was a place of serious intent. We chose our bunks, dumped our gear, and  congregated in the main room for an introductory talk from the head of centre, Fred Harper.

The first surprise was provided by mugs of coffee and tea and huge slabs of cake. Glenmore was apparently famous for its cake!  Fred’s welcome was warm and encouraging, but again, there was the undercurrent of taking the hills seriously and operating within our abilities. The group of seriously fit looking young staff members around him, all displaying the insouciance that comes with expertise, only served to  underline the point.

He finished by suggesting on this beautiful evening we might want to take a walk later up towards An Lochan Uaine – the Green Lochan – which was only twenty minutes or so up the track behind the Lodge and a very beautiful introduction to Glenmore.

The Moray House staff divided us into groups of eight and showed us the options for each day’s activities. The possibilities ranged from going to the tops, to art and sketching opportunities, sailing instruction on Loch Morlich and practice with map reading and compass skills. On the Friday we could choose to repeat our favourite activity or, if we were fit enough, to do a day long journey across the hills taking in a number of Munros – the meaning of which had to be explained to most of us.

As a vivid demonstration of what might be termed our fear and ignorance, we agreed after the meal that we were brave enough to walk up to An Lochan Uaine – always remembering the warnings about safety.

And so it was we ventured out of the centre and in to the surroundings. We were all fully kitted out for the equivalent of a winter walk on the tops. I don’t remember the detail of what others were wearing, but my outfit is burned into my memory: climbing boots, gaiters, weather proof outdoors jacket and a green woollen balaclava. If I tell you that the temperature was around 60F and the walk to the lochan can be comfortably completed by parents wheeling a buggy, you will understand the scarcely contained mirth of the two staff members dressed in jeans and tee shirts who passed us as we left the building. It was only later that I realised that one of them was Peter Boardman who within a few months would be standing on top of Everest alongside Sirdar Pertemba.

The beauty of the lochan further convinced us that we had come to a special place and at least the gear protected us from the worst ravishes of the midgies!

The week proved to be amazing, though I never quite gained confidence in reading compass bearings. We became familiar with Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui, and sampled Rothiemurchus and the beguiling Loch an Eilein, and Glen Feshie, tried sailing on Loch Morlich, discovered details of flora and fauna in Ryvoan, and even had a morning attempting to sketch the landscape from the lower  reaches of  Allt na Ciste.

Our leader for the sketching experience was from Moray House’s art department – and had an interesting tale of her own, although we were not aware of it at the time.  Cecile McLachlan specialised in ceramics at the college and was  an artist of some repute. However, her lasting impression on  hundreds of teachers was formed by this multi-disciplinary week at Glenmore  each May – which she organised for  more than thirty years

At that stage I didn’t know that Moray House had long promoted links with Glenmore Lodge – a subtle  but highly effective way of ensuring many of Scotland’s teachers would  have an interest in the outdoors at the very start of their  careers, and in this, Cecile had been a prime mover since the beginning, just after the war. Neither did I realise that my uncle George, when working at the Central Council for Physical Recreation, had been one of the group who planned Glenmore Lodge and its opening in 1948.

Cecile was an imposing figure – sat on the mountain with a chiffon scarf keeping in place her straw hat and encouraging our sketches, which, in my case, were fully representative of the 15% I had once attained for art at school. She was also great fun, as she demonstrated at the last evening ceilidh and a great story teller and conversationalist. We were so lucky to have had the chance to be there with her.

Two things we didn’t know about her till much later: she had worked at Bletchley Park during the war – a period of her life to which she never referred, and she had also been the original St Trinian’s school girl.

To be exact, artist Ronald Searle had become friendly with her family when stationed in Kirkcudbright during the war, and was particularly taken by the tales Cecile and her sister Pat would tell him. They attended a progressive school in Edinburgh, called St Trinnean’s, which was situated in St Leonard’s Hall near Holyrood Park. By the 1970’s, this was the administration area for Pollock Halls of Residence, and a place where I had spent many hours rehearsing as a musician while at university. Searle later produced drawings to illustrate the girls’ school adventures, changing the name of the school to St Trinian’s – and these, in time, became the famous films. By the time we knew her, Cecile was certainly individualistic, but betrayed few signs of a chaotic school history!

One other detail of her history, which must have caused her some private pain in the seventies, was that, for a time, she had taught art at Ainslie Park High School, so the recent tragedy must have hit her hard.

None of this we knew at the time; we just appreciated her company and repeatedly thanked her for organising such a wonderful opportunity.

On the Thursday night, we were told to choose our activity for the final day. Our group must have gained some confidence during the week, because a number of us volunteered for the “long march” that would take in four Munros and the Lairig Ghru. Given our ages, and a week spent on the hills, we were all adjudged to be fit enough to tackle the expedition. There was much chatting and mumbling from bunk to bunk that night as we tried to predict what the morning would bring, and wondered if we were over stretching our abilities.

Early next morning, after a nervous breakfast, we gathered in the meeting room. Outside, some of our colleagues were collecting materials for a leisurely day of sketching and painting, others were headed for the boathouse at Loch Morlich for an idyllic time on the water. We wondered had we made a hasty, hubris driven, decision. We wanted to challenge these mountains, but had to consider it might have been the phrase “only for the fittest” that had been the trigger for our volunteering.

Addressing us was our leader for the day. We hadn’t seen him before, but the whisper was that he was a serious mountaineer of some repute. Actually, we didn’t need that whisper: the guy in front of us reeked of mountaineer: strongly built, appropriately but not flashily dressed, he was an imposing sight. He spoke with a clipped  accent, which  turned out to be Rhodesian, and even his name fitted: “Good morning!” he said with an edge to his voice. “I’ll be leading you today, my name is Rusty Baillie.”  Rusty Baillie? What a great name for a mountaineer!

We should have been reassured by his aura of experience and control. Instead we started to wonder about his expectations: would we let him down? If he was a top climber, how would he feel about taking a group of novices out on what to him must have been foothills?

Luckily, we didn’t know he had climbed the Eiger and the Matterhorn, or indeed that he had been on the first ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, alongside Chris Bonnington and Tom Patey – the climb that had been recreated the following year in 1967 for live television.

It was a quiet but well equipped group that left the Lodge with Rusty that morning. He had detailed what lay ahead and given us a chance to withdraw if we felt it might be beyond us. I suppose the  proposed route must have been around 20 miles of hill and mountain, and none of us needed telling how difficult it would be to change our minds half way through the twelve or more hours it would take..

For the first mile or so out of the Cairn Gorm car park, I found myself near him. I have a natural urge to chatter, especially when nervous, but I made strenuous efforts to control my blethering as we headed onward. He was not taciturn, but obviously didn’t feel the need to  keep us entertained. I later heard him described as rather mystical, so who knows what thoughts he was thinking. Later on, in 1982, he would be part of a Canadian team tackling Everest when three Sherpas were killed in an avalanche. As he and Blair Griffiths – a CBC cameraman on the expedition, tried to dig out their buried colleagues, Blair was struck by a falling sérac – a sharp slab of ice – and killed not three  feet away from him. After four deaths, half the party, including Rusty, decided to abandon the attempt – a very different scenario to the “walk in the hills” he was embarking on today.

He must have been deep in thought, or maybe a little distracted, because less than half an hour into the walk, he badly turned his ankle and had to stop.

This generated a number of reactions amongst our group.

There was some surprise that a well known mountaineer might damage his ankle on such a simple expedition, and then, because we were now well up for the day’s adventure, came a fear that we might have to turn back

Never a chance of that, of course. To  someone of Rusty’s calibre and experiences, a twenty mile hike with a sprained ankle was as nothing, and we were soon on our way again. The incident seemed to have broken the tension and he became quite talkative, explaining our route, pointing out features along the way and being very supportive, despite the odd grimace caused by his injury.

It was a remarkable experience, one of the days of my life, beyond any doubt. We crossed from Cairn Gorm (where a sudden snow squall, in May, reminded us how high up we were) to Macdui, and had our first experience of that  desolate but grand plateau, then it was  descent into the Lairig Ghru – where we all promised ourselves we would return to walk its length one day  – and up to Cairn Toul. Shortly after that,  we stopped for lunch and it was grand to lie back and rest and enjoy the wildness of the area.   Sgór an Lochain Uaine loomed above us and I asked Rusty about it: “It’s not a Munro, but if any of you would like to go up it, there’s time and it’s not difficult from here. I can stay with  the others.” A few of us fancied it – we thought it looked like a mini Eiger, and when we were walking up the narrow ridge with  a long drop below us, we felt like real mountaineers. Preparing to write this blog, I discovered it had been reclassified as a Munro in the late 90s. We climbed it as an extra, on a whim, and, over forty years later, I discover that we made the tops of not four but five Munros that day!

The picture at the head of this blog was taken on the summit of Sgór  an Lochain Uaine  that day. It’s probably the only picture I’ve had taken where I look the way I hoped I looked! I think that says something about my happy state of mind at that moment!

Then it was the trek over the flat tops  to Braeriach and eventually the long walk back to the minibus. We had been on the hill for over twelve hours and arrived home sun and wind burnt, shattered, but with an enormous sense of achievement. May 11th 1975: we would probably never have such a momentous day again. After a shower, a mug of coffee and some of that cake, we made our way down to the shore at Loch Morlich and took some photos of our new friends – the mountains, and the people with whom we had shared them. It felt like a special bond.

After our meal, there was a ceilidh, and beer, and it all passed in a bit of a haze before we eased ourselves into our bunks. On previous nights there had been much chatter and banter – tonight there was just instant sleep.

I’m amazed to look back and realise that the following day, after our trip down the A9, I played cricket in the afternoon.

It was a special time in our lives, of course, the transition from students to working people with all the implications of that transformation. Leaving Glenmore, we were all sure we would be back – if not to the Lodge, then certainly to these mountains – such a sudden and complete falling in love leaves a lifetime of longing.

Life, of course, gets in the way.

We had to adapt to our new jobs, form relationships, deal with adult matters like household bills, mortgages and the like. The hills kept calling but the time was never available and the first cars we could eventually afford would have struggled to make it to Speyside and back in a weekend. Some folk became ardent mountaineers or hill walkers, some of us pursued sport and other pastimes, while promising ourselves we would return. Cecile’s cunning plan – to introduce student teachers to the hills so that they would develop a love they would share with their pupils was largely successful with our group.

What delight then, around five or six years later, when our headteacher, a great outdoors enthusiast himself, proposed that all of our first year pupils should enjoy a residential week of outdoor pursuits. We sampled a few possible locations till we eventually settled on a centre in Newtonmore, called Craigower Lodge. I was absolutely delighted to be returning to Speyside and to those familiar haunts.

In our first visit our pursuits were  centred around Newtonmore and Kingussie. The guy who had set up the centre was from Ayrshire and was to trade a caterer. I think he thought that we would bring our own instructors and gear.

By the second year, however, he had wised up – there was more equipment available at the Lodge, and he had hired a qualified instructor – which meant we could spend time on the various hills. And so it was that I got to meet Cameron McNeish – a story familiar to many, I would expect.

We took each of our first year classes to Craigower for a week, but it was a very full schedule, and Cameron was new to the centre and still working out expeditions – but even in the week I was there I warmed to him – it would be hard not to, as we walked the moors at the back of Newtonmore and he talked of his love of the Monadhliath

The following year, I was guidance teacher for first year and the headteacher suggested I go up to Craigower with each of the classes. That would give me three weeks in total in Newtonmore with the year group, two classes at a time – a great way to get to know them all, and demonstrative of a period when guidance was about relationships rather than tracking and monitoring.

Over those six weeks, I got to know Cameron and appreciated his approach to the mountains and many other aspects of life. We had some shared interests – folk music was one, and the pupils were frequently nonplussed as the two of us traded songs we knew, our voices echoing off rocks and rising above the rattle of burns running down the mountains. We had great chats on these walks, and often in the evenings as well. He introduced me to a fine local beer: Alice Ales, requested in those far off, non-pc days, as “A pint of slack, please!”

I learned not to be afraid of the mountains, but to treat them with respect, to enjoy them for their own sake, and on my terms, whilst always knowing the limits of my outdoor abilities. You didn’t need to scramble up gullies on the end of a rope – you could walk around a lochan and sit and write poetry, if that’s what you wanted. He pointed out the history of the places we passed – empty glens once heavily peopled, the remains of the Caledonian forest, legends from Pictish times and pre-history. With the exception of his hero, Tom Weir, I have never known anyone so skilled at placing humanity in the hills and identifying the place of the hills within our humanity.

He took us to Glen Feshie, to the Falls of Pattack, Glen Tromie, Ruthven Barracks and many other places. I became comfortable in the Cairngorm landscape, though never considered myself skilled enough to lead a party on the hills.

I know now from Cameron’s autobiography that this was a strained time for him, working long days at different tasks, and with a young family, but that never showed in his dealings with us.

I had brilliant group of sixth years around this time and asked if he would take us on an overnight camping trip one weekend – and that was how we came to be  huddled under the Shelter Stone, as I described in my introduction. That weekend was a fantastic and formative experience for those pupils, some of whom still refer to it when they meet me nearly forty years later. They remember what they learned and what they experienced – the hills and lochans, the burns and scree, the views and the history – and Cameron brought it all to life with his stories and his points of information. It was visceral education – squeezing some sphagnum moss to see how it retains water, rubbing a juniper leaf between the fingers to smell the scent of gin, listening for the cry of a ptarmigan on the tops or a capercaillie in the woodland, standing still to watch the deer, helping us pronounce and understand the Gáidhlig names and terms. He was a natural teacher – still is – and he made the pupils want to learn. A number of those students – and those who met him as first years – have retained a love of the outdoors for life – what a legacy!

Years later, it was no surprise to find he shared my conviction that for Scotland to get the best out of its people and its land, it needs to take responsibility for its own governance, and hold to account politicians who, in turn,  understand the needs and priorities of all who live in our country, and make decisions to help all flourish..

And I have maintained my love affair with the Cairngorms.


                              Beautiful Loch Insh – late November afternoon 2017

I’ve never come remotely near to repeating that epic Munro walk, but I return often, to sit by the Insh marshes, or to perch on a log on Loch Morlich’s beach and remember when I was young and fit and wide eyed about life. My son sampled Coylumbridge almost before he could walk, and Cairn Gorm was his first Munro. The A9 is an easier drive now, and often in retirement we will head for those familiar places and enjoy the high we get from just being there.

With typical repetitiveness, I will walk at Loch Morlich and count off the mountains I climbed that day, naming them with reverence, greeting them as old friends rather than a threat to be avoided. I’m no mountaineer, I couldn’t even claim to be a hillwalker, but I revel in the spirituality of those mountains and corries across the loch.


         The Cairngorms tops across a frozen Loch Morlich at twilight – November 2017

One of the places Cameron and I used to talk about was County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. There is a town there called Lisdoonvarna where, every September, there is a matchmaking festival and a man known as the Matchmaker. He claims to have introduced thousands of couples over the years and brought them happiness.

I wonder how many hundreds of folk have been touched by Cameron McNeish, his knowledge and love of the mountains of our land. I wonder how many folk, like me, have had their attitude the hills formed by his skill at communicating his love of nature around us, its history, its people and its wildlife.

The Matchmaker of Lisdoonvarna may claim to have brought happiness to many couples through his introductory skills – but I doubt he could hold a candle to the matchmaking skills of Cameron McNeish – who introduced so many of us to what he loves to call his “hills of home”, and instigated a lifelong love affair.

Talk about making a difference!



An unconvertible rebel

February 5, 2018


It was October 1981 and we were coming towards the end of a week long trip up the west coast of Ireland – a kind of early version of the Wild Atlantic Way. From Kerry to Clare, Conemara, Mayo and Sligo, we had meandered, following side roads and interesting routes, always drawn towards the strands, and heading eventually for dear old Leitrim and my family’s homeplace.

Towards the end of the week, we were in Sligo and had “passed by” at Drumcliff Graveyard to visit Willie Yeats. We were headed for Mullaghmore and wondering if there was a route along the coast, so at Ballygilgan we turned left on what seemed to be a seaside route which might also provide a view across to the Rosses.

As is not unusual, the road hesitated, faltered, and then, close to the strand, seemed to run out of ideas completely. There were a couple of ruins in the trees to our right and the sea to our left. We decided to park and go for an exploratory walk in the woodland which was tangled and overgrown and quite out of control, it seemed – with ivy gripping gnarled trees, and mossy banks of rocks and vegetation undulating below in the shadows.

It was a strange landscape – it seemed it had clearly been man made at some point, but there was little sign of any meaningful husbandry. Was this yet another remnant of the Anglo Irish ascendancy in this part of Ireland? Would we come across a great, burnt out, manor house somewhere ahead?

Well, in a clearing, there was a house – and a grand size it was. It was grey and looming and looked possibly deserted, but there was no sign of fire or damage to it and it certainly didn’t look abandoned.

We wondered if it might be open to the public, or if there was any information about it and so we circled the building: huge windows with blinds and hangings, closed wooden shutters, gravel under the grass under our feet, doors with flaking paint, rust appearing on gutters and pipes.

Gradually, we became aware that it might still be inhabited. There was that feeling you sometimes catch – a feeling of being watched, even though you can see nobody. More daring in my twenties than I would be now, I approached one of the ground floor windows and tried to see through it. The window was cloudy with dust and age, but there seemed to be furniture within.

All of a sudden we were a little apprehensive. We had no idea whose house this was or what their attitude would be towards a couple of trespassers. A little shaken, and still with that feeling of eyes being upon us, we retraced our steps, returned to the car and appreciated the free and open air of the strand for a while.

In pre-internet days, a map search needed an actual map, but the basic copy we had in the car  did not name this house. We had to wait till we returned home.

And there I discovered that we had been wandering around the environs of Lissadell.

At this point in my life I was at the beginning of my study of Irish history and politics. Born into an Irish family in Edinburgh, I received most of my education in England when we moved there when I was 7 years old. The English only teach English history. So, when I returned to Edinburgh to university one of my subjects was Scottish history, and, in my twenties, I was catching up on Irish history.

So I knew of Madame Markiewicz and that she came from Lissadell – but, as yet, I had no knowledge of where Lissadell was situated, so I had never considered that as a possible identity of the house we had stumbled across.

With research came further realisation.

I discovered that the house was indeed still lived in – and still occupied by the Gore Booths – Angus and his sister Aideen, who would be Constance’s nephew and niece. As “Madame” had become rather a hero of mine, it was quite a shock to realise that not only had I peered through the windows of her house, but that any eyes I had imagined peering out at me may well have belonged to such close relatives. Stranger still was the discovery that the house was actually open to visitors during the Summer months. I can only imagine how haunting such a tour would have been, as by the seventies the family had retreated to a small suite of rooms and the greater part of the house, despite being in disrepair, was very much as the Countess would have remembered it.

Somehow, it seemed a suitable “introduction” to Madame Markiewicz, whose life is a continuum of enigma and non sequiturs – on a scale which only tends to increase one’s admiration.

A member of high society, a debutante, and Slade art student, her father had been a hugely philanthropic member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, providing food and work for the hard pressed local population in the late 19th century: a concern for the poor which she inherited, and which motivated her Irish Republicanism and her fight for women’s rights – the latter alongside her sister, Eva Gore-Booth.

She famously offered as advice to revolutionary women:

“Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.”

It is a form of words which sums up this remarkable woman, brought up in privilege, wedded to ideals, and saved from mystical irrelevance by a hard won practicality.

She was no mere “cultural nationalist” in the shape of a Lady Gregory, but was to be found, literally,  where the bullets were flying; her philanthropy propelled her to sell many of her possessions, to open and operate soup kitchens and to work so closely with the wretched poor that she may well have exposed herself to incurable tuberculosis, and an early death at 59.

Her background gave her no right to be a friend to the poor, but she was; her fin de siècle romantic pacifist ideas should have precluded her from active involvement in the Easter Rising, but they didn’t; those who started by ridiculing her military uniforms and her Anglo-Irish ways, finished by using her as inspiration. If Edinburgh born socialist James Connolly could accept her, there is a little doubt that her heart, like her actions, was in the right place.

She stands as a reproof to all those who would stereotype, compartmentalise, or dismiss those who appear “different”. In Constance’s  case, idiosyncrasy disguised commitment rather than replacing it. She was, in every way, an outstanding woman: unique, driven, and both of her time and “modern” in a most unlikely way. Despite first impressions, she was not a dilettante on what we would now call a “poverty tour”, she was a committed revolutionary – in the most revolutionary of times, and her actions matched her ideals.

What takes some understanding is that she was simultaneously a creature of her own upbringing – a reflection of that almost forgotten strand of Ireland’s history – the Anglo-Irish. They were often free thinking, unpredictable in their choices, and influential in the development of the Irish land around them, despite their sense of being apart.

When we consider the insular and inward looking Free State established by De Valera, a state which marginalised the Anglo-Irish and gave them no sense of being welcome in the new country, it is hard not to suspect that had they been included in a more inclusive and pluralistic state, it would have been to the benefit of all – a widening of perspective and cultural input, an acknowledged part of Ireland’s history, much as Northern Unionists are now becoming viewed.

Instead, the burning of the great houses in war time was followed by a fate which was just as cruel in some ways, the ignoring of the occupants and the creation of a new order in which they were neither despised nor persecuted but merely ignored, as if they had no role, no history, or no future. Not being “Celtic Irish” they were considered as having nothing to offer – an egregious example of cultural myopia, the result of  political insecurity and immaturity.

In many of his stories, Leitrim’s John McGahern mentions the big house, its inhabitants an elderly father and his bachelor son, condemned to look after each other as the house fails around them, only leaving to tend the bees in their garden hives, industrious to the last, driven to work.

They welcome him in, the young village lad who brings their groceries, they give him the run of their vast library. It’s how he becomes educated, cultured, thirsty for knowledge,-  and no reader can miss the contrast between these gentle, harmless, ostracised people, and the brutality of his own ignorant father, charged as one of the new Civic Guards with getting the new state off to a start of law and order, allegedly at the heart of a community, which regards him with fear and mistrust.

How Madame would have despaired of contemporary Ireland, with the homeless dying on its streets and the desperate poor driven into criminality. What a thorn she would have been in the side of the Irish establishment, a reminder of their dereliction of duty, an embarrassment of a half English aristocrat with more feeling for the dispossessed than those charged with their care as “children of the state”.

Even Lissadell itself reflects the position of the Gore-Booths – for decades at war with the Irish state over ownership and management of house and lands, till eventually the last remaining siblings who lived there were allowed to remain until the end. The house by then almost past saving – at least for any reasonable sum – the State was encouraged to buy it “for the people” when the family put it up for sale. More controversy, no offer from official Ireland, until finally it was sold into private hands, and there followed more conflict over public rights of way on the estate.

Now the house has been restored to much of its former glory, the owners live there, but it is open to the public in the Summer months again, there are exhibitions, events, and tea rooms and the owners aim to make the house and grounds  self sustaining and a tourist draw for this part of Sligo.

Though it is good the house has been saved, I cannot help feeling that our visit to the haunted grey presence in the tangled woodland was more in keeping with the strange, engaging, and unpredictable Constance, whose memory and deeds are still  inspiration for Republicans and women activists. The house I happened upon in 1981 seems, somehow, more representative, of the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Countess.

She would be delighted at the discomfort she still causes a British Establishment, pledged to celebrate the election of the first woman MP, distressed to realise it was not the impeccably connected Nancy Astor, but this renegade debutante with the military uniform and the waving pistol.

Constance Gore-Booth was born 150 years ago this weekend, she lives on in many a politicised mind and household, and her words still resonate, just as surely as the echo of birdsong on the grey walls of that big house I wandered around nearly forty years ago:

“But while Ireland is not free I remain a rebel, unconverted and unconvertible. There is no word strong enough for it. I am pledged as a rebel, an unconvertible rebel, to the one thing – a free and independent Republic.”




It was fifty years ago today

January 27, 2018


It was fifty years ago today that my then local team, Southport, took on Everton in the third round of the FA Cup. My family have supported Hibernian for over 120 years, since we first arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland, but, for ten years in the sixties, I lived in Southport, and it was there I caught the life long habit of attending  football matches each weekend.

Half a century seems a decent period to gain some perspective on that bright January day in 1968, when the football aristocracy from Goodison Park, containing World Cup winning heroes, Alan Ball and Ray Wilson, and iconic players like Howard Kendall, Joe Royle, and Colin Harvey, came to the homely third division ground at Haig Avenue.

My first Southport game had been five years earlier – another cup tie, against Walsall, in November 1963. I had scoped the experience by attending reserve games in the Lancashire Combination – against Rossendale and Netherfield. Southport’s attendances that season were around 3-4000, so it was felt it would be safe for me to attend alone. In time, I was even allowed as a teenager to cycle to the game – a method of transport shared by a large number of fans and even some players. There was a grassy area in the middle of some houses just across from the ground where we all left our bikes – the image I retain of men in overcoats carefully laying down their bicycles in that circlular space dates me as much as anything I suppose.

My timing was unusually perfect. Southport had enjoyed a mixed history, largely in the bottom, or fourth division,  but their current situation was as good as it had ever been, largely due to the influence of former Everton and Northern Ireland player, Billy Bingham.

He had brought belief, footballing ability and technical know how to the playing side of the club and hugely raised its image and following in the town. This was no mean task, as Southport was in easy distance of Liverpool, Everton, Manchesters Utd and City, as well as Preston, Burnley and a host of Lancashire clubs. Despite that, supporters like me preferred to go to Haig Avenue to see the Port than make the journey to Old Trafford to see Best, Law and Charlton. Whether you think that is crazy or admirable will, I suppose, reflect your attitude to football.

Two years before, Southport had enjoyed a cup giant killing run, beating Division 2 (Championship) sides, Ipswich and Cardiff on the way to a fifth round tie against Hull City at a Boothferry Park crammed with 38000 supporters. At that time I had school on a Saturday morning, and when I climbed on to the special train at Southport’s Chapel St station it was the only time in my life I had been off school without being ill.

So the Cup was a big thing in the town, and, of course, the competition was still taken seriously by all the clubs, irrespective of status. The build up was intense: local and national press, television and radio – all elements of publicity which the team normally had to struggle to access. It had all the necessary ingredients for a classic cup story – local rivalry, the Everton connections of manager and some players, the thin possibility that Southport might actually do it – or at least achieve a money spinning replay at Goodison.

I was almost sixteen, and so at an age where football and the team were of overwhelming importance to me. As I will go on to write, the connection between club and supporter was entirely different in those times, especially in the nether regions of the league, so it is no wonder that concentrating at school, especially once I had managed to obtain a match ticket, was not easy. In addition, I went to a school in a Liverpool suburb, so there was constant patter from teachers and pupils: the Reds wanting us to win, the Toffees saying what their team was going to do to us. Normally, my support of the Port was a case for amusement or indifference, so all the attention only raised my excitement prior to the match.

At the time I was a cross country runner at school and we had races on Saturday mornings. This meant I normally went to bed nervous on a Friday night, so the addition of the cup match resulted in little sleep. I remember being quite relieved that there was something to distract me on the Saturday morning – but can remember nothing about the race. With more life experience I would have been worried that any delay on train or our team coach would have risked me missing the game, but as a teenager I just assumed I would get to Haig Avenue on time.

It was quite a job to get to my normal place to leave the bike. The whole street was thronged, there were television vans, mounted police, and lots of Everton fans wandering about in this strange environment. The atmosphere, even outside the ground, was electric and I remember being very proud of Southport and all the attention the club was receiving.

The biggest crowd I had been in at Haig Avenue was around 15, 000 for the Cardiff City cup tie two years previously, so the nearly 19, 000 packed into the ground was a sight to behold, with extra police and stewards trying to control the surges and the chanting crowds.

If I’m honest, the match itself was a little underwhelming. As always on such occasions, the major emotion was dread of Everton getting a goal, especially early on in the game. Southport had elected to play a stuffy defensive game – understandably, as Everton were not just top flight but a class outfit. It was emotionally draining – that feeling of holding your breath for 90 minutes. A young Joe Royle scored the only goal with a header eleven minutes from time, and that was it.

There was an inevitable feeling of deflation afterwards, which was only added to when Bingham departed for Plymouth Argyle and a stellar management career with Greece, Northern Ireland and Everton. Southport won the 4th Division Championship four years later, but I was older and back in Edinburgh at university then. Of course, I made the trip down for the game v Hartlepool when an Alex Russell free kick clinched the championship, but it was never quite the same as when the Bingham Boys were making the headlines. Things were not right at the club, and a mere decade after the Everton game they were voted out of the League – a tragedy for supporters and, though some were slow to recognise it, the town – with all that free advertising each Saturday lost, and its media absence adding to the resort’s decline.

Back in Edinburgh for good and, naturally, following Hibs, I was no less supportive of the Port and came down to games whenever I could, aided in those pre-internet days, by local press cuttings faithfully posted my my mother.

The club has not had a good time in the three decades since, with very few highs amongst a landscape of under investment and reactive management.

However, what was important, and could not be taken away by non-league status, relegation, or poor results, was the life long impact that team of the sixties had – on my approach to football and supporting and enjoyment.

By the time I was thirteen or so, Saturdays were for going to the match, and supporting was what you did for your team, irrespective of results or personnel. Sometimes it was hard, often downright miserable, but they were your team, and when things went right, it was the best feeling on earth. Actually, if I’m honest, just getting up on a match day and knowing there is a game to anticipate is a magic feeling – no matter how the team is playing. The matchday routine provides a comfort which is lifelong and unchanging – it’s what you do and it’s what people know you for. I was lucky that was my introdction to football, in the days before live games and changed schedules and television and marketing led “initiatives”.

Some of the players I watched at Haig Avenue were at the club for a decade – they became a part of your life. They earned no fortunes and certainly didn’t  “live in a  bubble”, but, in a strange way, that made them even more admirable than today’s cossetted multi milionaires. There was “a connection”: Colin Alty was a local lad, Alan Spence taught PE at the school behind the stadium, you might get something printed by Alex Russell once his apprenticeship was finished.

When our red setter died and we wanted to replace it, I remembered that goalkeeper, Brian Reeves, had setters, and so we phoned him up to ask where he had got his dogs, and were able to source our new setter from the same breeder.

Long serving captain, Arthur Peat, gave me an interview for the school magazine, probably one of the first independent pieces of writing I ever did. I included the sentence: “Peat is a ‘one club man’, having joined Southport from Everton’s youth team.” I knew what I meant, but my pals slagged me rotten. Last Saturday, half a century later, I was at Haig Avenue with a couple of old school mates for Southport’s game v Stockport County. Midway through the first half, one of them leaned towards me and asked, straight faced: “Have they got any ‘one club men’ playing for them today?”   The connection is enduring!

On November 14th 2013, I took my son down to Haig Avenue for  a game v Hereford. They lost 3-0 and played abysmally – but that wasn’t the point. It was the fiftieth anniversary, to the day, of my first Southport match. At the end of that week in 1963, John F Kennedy was assassinated – which is what most folk remember it for. I remember Dallas, of course, but equally important to me was Southport v Walsall on the Saturday previously.

It was a great anniversary day – made even better by the fact that my son, a fourth generation Hibs fan, also supports Southport, and gets my love for the club and what it represents for me. Club stalwarts, Rob and Julia Urwin, had arranged for me to meet my two big heroes Eric Redrobe and Alex Russell. I was way beyond the level of excitement that is reasonable for a man in his sixties, and a retired deputy headteacher at that!

Of course, nostalgia is powerful and the loves of our childhood resonate even more strongly as we grow older, but to meet these two heroes, even after fifty years or so, was a real highlight. I couldn’t help giving “Big Red” a hug and both he and Alex Russell seemed to understand that connection.

red alex

As we grow, our priorities change, and football is never quite so all consuming once you have a career and a family and other concerns. After a lifetime in teaching, I now work as the Education and Welfare Officer with Hibernian FC, continuing a connection with the club forged when my uncle played for them in 1928. Obviously, as a supporter, to walk into the Hibernian Training Centre, to pass Head Coach, Neil Lennon, and first team players in the corridors is a joy, chatting to heroes is a perk of the role,  and helping with the development of the young players is a brilliant way to give something back to a club my family have supported for generations.

However, with age comes balance, and I have to admit that I am able to act my age when I’m at Hibs. I’m there to do a particular job and I’m a bit old to be starstruck.

Except, of course, when it came to Southport, Eric Redrobe, and Alex Russell. That was different – when I met them at Haig Avenue I was sixteen again.

Football has, of course, moved on. It is now an industry, and the elite players exist in a bubble which presents them as celebrities to the television viewing public – and to the ever ready marketing moguls. This brings its own problems, not least to those players without the ability to withstand the pressures. We also have generations of youngsters who believe that football is something you watch on television or play on a computer. Indeed, sometimes, when the players are almost as shiny as the giant screens which embellish their every move, it’s hard to differentiate between the computerised version and the televised, mega glamorous, version.

Although it’s the lot of older guys to shake their heads about the state of the world today, I don’t spend much time bemoaning football’s future direction. Once multi-millionaires become involved in anything, only money counts, and the emotions of supporters become more or less redundant to the “business model”. There’s precious little we can do about it. Before long they will spin off into a worldwide marketer’s dream of a super league where the oligarchs and television giants will get richer and exert almost total control over the game, while the idea that it was ever played for the fans to enjoy live and at their local ground will be quietly forgotten.

However, there is an alternative vision, to be found in what the media now call “grass roots football”.

Smaller clubs, freed from the pressure of megabucks and stock market flotations, can continue to offer live entertainment on a Saturday afternoon or under the lights midweek, so that those fans who want the real deal, who still seek that “connection”, who want their sons in fifty years time to recognise what was important about a team of men on a cold afternoon a lifetime ago, will still be able to access that opportunity.

The good news for Southport, after generations of decline, is that the future is starting to look brighter. After a summer of turmoil, an investor with vision has joined the Board. Phil Hodgkinson, a guy well schooled in the nuances of football, has come to the same conclusion that many Southport fans have come to through the years. With a catchment of more than 100,000 and with local Premiership and Championship teams pricing themselves out of the family market, there is a real niche for Southport to fill if they can invest wisely and make a return to the Football League.

The initial signs are good: an ambitious and thoughtful manager appointed in Kevin Davies, plans well advanced for ground reconstruction, and a thorough revamp behind the scenes.

Perhaps crucially there is the appointment of a CEO, Natalie Atkinson, with a fine track record and experience in football administration. If she has the impact that Hibs’ CEO, Leeann Dempster, has had in her first three years at Easter Rd, Southport will really be going places. After 114 years, Leeann’s reconstruction of the club, on and off the pitch, led, at last to a Scottish Cup win, and then there was promotion back to the top league. Who is to bet against Phil and Natalie getting Southport back into the League?

As I write these words, kind of making my point, Newport County, in Old Gold, have just held Spurs to a draw: they were three or four minutes from a win, all those years ago, Southport were eleven minutes from a draw. I’m looking at youngsters in the Rodney Parade crowd on my television and thinking: “They’ll be telling their kids about this in fifty years time.”

Last Saturday, as part of the revival, Southport beat Stockport 3-1 – a result in a fixture which was always a benchmark in the old league days. With a couple of old school mates and my son, I had enjoyed a great day out, well worth the 400 mile round trip.

As I walked down Haig Avenue, I passed a familiar looking face. When I realised who it was, I turned back and approached him. At my age, you don’t miss opportunities. I went up to Phil Hodgkinson and shook his hand: “I’ve been watching Southport since the sixties, Phil,” I said, “Came down from Edinburgh for the game today. Thank you for all you’re doing for the club.”

Then, daft old bugger that I am, I filled up.

That’s how much Southport means to its supporters. That’s the importance of the “connection”.

Fifty years is nothing!



Who knows where the time goes?

January 1, 2018

Back in February 2012, in a blog called “Being Bill”, I reflected on the death of the father of one of  my oldest friends. He had been a complex man, and, understandably, rather peripheral to my adolescence, but, on the occasions he had been there at my friend’s house, or given us a lift home from a concert or other outing, his kindness and sociability had left a big impression on me.

Now, Joyce, his wife, has died, and I am left to consider the loss of both these  adults who were an important part of my childhood, and in the establishment of my lifelong friendship with their son, his siblings, and the succeeding generations of a family.

Joyce had not been in the best of health in the last few years, dementia encroaching on her relationships and the feasibility of independent living, so there are comforting words available to describe her passing – a release, a relief, a long journey completed. They are all true, and do carry an element of comfort, but fail to assuage the knowledge that a life has ended  and the love she gave and engendered has moved into a different reality.

Whereas businessman Bill was frequently absent from my pal’s house when I called round, Joyce was always there. She was younger than my own mother and I saw her as a highly glamorous figure – in looks and style and demeanour. As a teenager I was very shy and often going to friend’s houses was an ordeal for me – I never knew how to address their parents or family, and was always unsure if my behaviour was appropriate for a guest.

However, alongside her attractive poise, Joyce possessed the skills of hospitality to put me at my ease, and steered a careful balance between providing our group with tea and biscuits, and leaving us to our own 60s devices – with loud music emanating from a darkened living room. We aways looked forward to going to Steve’s, never really pausing to recognise that the presence of five or six music listening teenagers in the front room rather sidelined the normal routines of the house. She was always welcoming – and knew us by our bizarre nicknames. I got off quite lightly with “Jock” in a company which included “Rat”, “Worm”, and “Cube”.   However, one of our teachers had mistakenly identified Steve as a lad called “Sid”, which naturally we had adopted with delight,  and Joyce would always correct us if we referred to him thus in her company. She was no less pleased when we went through a phase of calling him “Fred” after  discovering that was his middle name. Oh the wit of youth! To Joyce, he was always “Stephen” or “Ste”.

However, Joyce was remarkable.

Not in terms of fame or highly rated public success, nor even in terms of being different to others of her generation.

Though my mother and her were very different in many ways, they shared a similar background. They grew up  in a Liverpool Irish Catholic community which was dealing with the emotional and physical ravages of the second world war. Their Faith gave them the positives of love of neighbour, compassion and acceptance of hard times – but it also produced a generation which was repressed, and in possession of a sense of duty and responsibility – particularly in family life – which at times must have bordered on the  overwhelming.

Joyce brought up four very different children, giving each of them her love, attention, and support. For her generation, the sixties must have been a bewildering time. After growing up with the phrases “after the War” and “if we are spared”, they were to find that their post war relief at survival, and the better world available to their children, was tempered by the apparent “youth revolution” – which seemed at the time to seek a different way forward, rejecting the stolidity and calm  that their parents had fought for, looking to “change the world”. With perspective, we can see that the “revolution” was a chimera – a mere pause while the Establishment worked out how to best regain control and resist change – but it must not have felt like that to our parents’ generation. They must have wondered if their efforts  had all been in vain.

When we look back on the journey towards equality – limited though it still is – which women have followed since the sixties, we are often in danger of promoting an unintended corollary: the idea that those women who did not pursue careers outwith the home, or who chose to be homemakers rather than follow their own careers, faced fewer, less formidable challenges.

I don’t believe this is true. Their middle age was caught between the achievements of radical women and their own need to fulfil what many saw as their duty within the family – for, while many women had changed in attitudes, far fewer men had taken a progressive route, and homemaking was seen by most as a women’s task.. I have no idea if Joyce was satisfied with the route she took through life – I’m sure there were moments when, like everyone,  she wondered if there could have been another way. What I do know is that she never wavered in commitment to family. Apart from raising her children and supporting her husband – and as I wrote before, Bill was not always the easiest of partners –she also took care of her own  mother, bringing her to live with the family in her final years. One can just imagine the tensions brought by caring for an elderly parent in a house full of school aged children.

She was a remarkable woman, then, in the way so many of her generation were remarkable – maintaining a sense of what was right in a world which changed and evolved in many different directions. Like so many of her peers, especially the women, she was a rock to those around her, often to her own detriment. The women of her generation are still not properly recognised for what they achieved and for the families they helped to flourish. In a sense that is the story of their lives.

Joyce was blessed to enjoy the love of her own grandchildren, and helped them through the joys and disappointments of adolescence and young adulthood. They in turn loved their nana.

When Joyce died, Steve and his partner  and his three daughters were in New Zealand, the homeland of his partner, and where the two older girls now live. They had been at the glacier at Mount Cook – a place of universal and timeless beauty. Knowing that their nana  had not long, the girls had  brought from their garden a sprig of lavender, which they placed on the moving ice of the glacier to ease Joyce on her final journey. When they were young, Joyce had placed lavender on their pillows to help them into sleep. It was a powerful symbol of all that this remarkable woman had achieved  – that her granddaughters would acknowledge her in this beautiful, thoughtful, personal,  and sensitive manner.

In one of those quirks of this time of year, Joyce died in the final hours of the old year in England, while Steve was already in the new year in New Zealand – a suitably timeless  start  and end to her journey.

Later tonight, I’ll scan through my now digitalised album collection and select a track. I’ll crank up the volume on the headphones and switch off the lights. For a moment, as Sandy Denny’s haunting voice echoes through the years, with that understated but perfect Fairport backing,  I will be seventeen again, and in Steve’s front room, enjoying the unobtrusive hospitality of the woman of a thousand welcomes.

I’ll remember her for her attractiveness and her style, but most of all I will honour her for her strength.


And I am not alone while my love is near me

I know it will be so, until it’s time to go.

So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again

I do not fear the time.

For who knows how my love grows

And who knows where the time goes?

The old familiar places

November 28, 2017

Television Quiz show, University Challenge, first broadcast in 1962, has switched question master and channel and has reflected the changes in academic institutions and their students – but one thread has remained constant.

Ask a question centred on the culture, history, or geography of Scotland, Wales or Ireland and, unless a team contains a student from those far flung corners of the world, there are liable to be blank faces. Place Aberdeen on the map? Sorry, mate. In what century did Owain Glyndŵr live? Haven’t a clue. Where is the Hill of Tara? Nope.

Now, you might wonder why a young person brought up in, say, Warwickshire, should have the information to answer questions centred within three or four hundred miles of his upbringing – if you were rather insular. And maybe it isn’t important.

But then, ask students from Ireland, Wales, or Scotland similar questions about England and you are liable to find they know the answers. Place Bristol on the map? There ye go. In what forest did Robin Hood live? No problem. Where is Stonehenge? Pinpointed immediately.

So, if these young people represent the brightest and the best, and are capable of answering loads of questions which many of us don’t even understand, why this Celtic blind spot? And why does it not operate in reverse?

The simple answer, of course, is that, in educational and media terms, information about the country of 50 million souls outweighs the information provided about the countries of 5 million and 3 million. You may say this is just the way of the world, the consequence of comparative size – except, it doesn’t seem to work that way between France and Germany or Belgium and Holland. Let’s not get into the question of autonomy here, but clearly, that has an effect, and one which Ireland still has to fully offset even after  nearly a century of independence.

However, this is not merely a question of self government. It is more a question of whether education is inward or outward looking, and the signs are that, in England, popular knowledge of these islands is, geographically, rather limited.

How else to explain the acceptance of the Brexit promises, so obviously based on falsehood? Why are “values” based on wars from a century ago, and the suggestion made that this shows the best of the “British people”? How come the ignorance of the harm done by colonial exploitation, or the easy stereotyping of “foreigners”? Why the generally unchallenged view that “British fair play” and “English Justice” are the best in the world – when the evidence suggests both claims are dubious at best?

It is perhaps ironic, or inevitable, that it would be a Scot who wrote the wise words:

“O wad some Power the giftie  gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us!”

Lack of self awareness can be annoying in those yet to mature, and has caused many an embarrassment or mistaken decision. That can be coped with – what is more worrying is when it is a feature of the body politic, as it seems to be at Westminster just now: a  lack of self awareness and an ignorance of, or disdain for, the impact of decisions and actions.

If the apparently “best educated” in the land grow up with a general blind spot when it comes to other countries – especially those in these islands, and if they go on to make crucial decisions in governance, then we can all suffer. It is interesting to note that, whilst English exceptionalism can lead to a kind of xenophobic nationalism, in Scotland and Wales, there has developed a more outward looking civic nationalism, where independence is not about flags and superiority but about an effective, connected governance, and a welcome to citizens from elsewhere as part of the nation.

The reason this is particularly important just now is to be found around the Irish Border issue as part of Brexit. As seems to be their general approach, those charged with effecting Brexit apparently take an “It’ll be alright on the night” approach to the problems that would follow the construction of what would  become a hard border on the edge of the EU.

Well, it won’t be alright.  And the fact that they think it will be betrays a long recognised  aspect of British politics: they know nothing about Ireland – and don’t particularly want to remedy that state of affairs. There are a whole swathe of folk in England for whom, sadly,  Ireland is no more than Terry Wogan, Guinness, and leprechauns.

As always, history is involved, and we only need to go back as far as the creation of the Border in 1922.

When arrangements were being made for Partition, there was an understanding on the Irish side that a border would be drawn round areas of Ulster which contained  largely a Loyalist/Protestant majority. Though demographically this could never be exact, it was fair to expect that Co Antrim, North Down, North Armagh and East Derry would remain under UK control – roughly a third of the current 6 county state. Free State politicians were confident that this would not prove to be a viable entity in  the long term. This optimism was abetted by an agreement that there would be a review of the decision by the Border Commission after some years of operation to see if the borderline should be adjusted.

However, the Commission proposed  a border not just around “loyalist” territory but one which included the largest area of land that could maintain  a unionist majority, thus stranding thousands of nationalists within a state which was openly set up as “A Protestant State for a Protestant People.” The promised reappraisal was never carried out.  After the “initial” border was operational, the absence of the chance for restructuring was a particular blow to nationalists living in Fermanagh, Tyrone, Derry, South Down and South Armagh.

Behind this lies much of the angst that the border has caused through the years – even when there were no “Troubles”. What most English politicians fail to realise is that the Border Commission’s partition of Ireland was so  incompetently carried out that it led to a novel and film: “Puckoon”, by madcap humourist, Spike Milligan, who admitted even he could never have thought up anything as bizarre and unworkable.

The border cuts through fields, houses and businesses. Even more tellingly, it cuts towns off from their hinterlands: Derry’s natural hinterland is Donegal, folk in Leitrim and Longford are as likely to shop in Enniskillen as they are to go to Sligo; Donegal folk receive hospital treatment in Derry’s Altnagelvin Hospital. It is, in every possible sense an “unnatural” border, and as such is porous and, without military intervention, basically impracticable.

Generally speaking, English politicians are either ignorant of these facts, or dismissive of them. And, without being overly alarmist, as has been said today, if you put up customs posts, as EU law requires, then  they will be attacked as well as  circumvented, and that will require military protection, and that will offer an excuse to some for “retaliatory” action.

The vast majority of meat exports from the six counties are processed in the 26 counties, so how would a border impact that trade? Thousands live in one jurisdiction and work in another. Virtually everybody who lives along the border crosses and recrosses it many times every day. There are well over 300 crossing points. No wonder the people of the six counties voted decisively to remain within the EU.

None of this information seems to have reached, or at least resonated with, anyone in Westminster.

The Brexiteer claim that this is some sly trick by the EU and Ireland to force a re-unification of the country is laughable. Anyone with any knowledge of contemporary Irish politics knows that, no matter what might be said in party manifestos, neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael are keen on re-unification, and all the challenges it would bring. Both parties, and many in the Republic, are happiest with a 32 county state remaining an aspiration: it would be nice, but maybe not yet. Leinster House politics is shambolic enough without adding another 6 counties into the mix.

The truth is that the current situation, where the border is of little import to those who live on either side of it, suits nearly everybody. The DUP can claim they are still “British”, and nationalists can  point to the invisibility of the border and the many cross border initiatives to demonstrate that unity is steadily approaching.  Like the original Partition and various initiatives through the years, the Good Friday Agreement was the familiar model of the British “kicking it into the long grass”. It will do for now  – and then we can go back to forgetting about Ireland.

Those of us who remember the start of the Troubles have a clear recollection of the ignorance in England about the six counties, an area they had forgotten about since the 1920s, with a short exception during World War 2.

The vast majority of people in England, including politicians, had no idea of the voting system, the housing allocation, the gerrymandering, the employment practices, or the bigotry which permeated the  six counties of the province,  and were flummoxed at the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in the mid sixties.

Ironically, the incumbent Prime  Minister of the statelet, Captain Terence O’Neil, either by temperament or political instinct, was of a mind to meet at least some of the Civil Rights demands, but was hounded out by extreme members of his party. An informed Westminster Government might well have come to his aid, insisted on changes, and possibly avoided the escalation to paramilitary warfare. The irony, of course, was that the extremist loyalists were arguing against their six counties becoming the same as Britain; they preferred their position of inbuilt electoral and social superiority.

The reaction of Home Secretary James Callaghan, as he later admitted, was one of bewilderment, yet, despite the admonishments of the likes of Gerry Fitt – far from being a militant Republican –  the UK government was hopelessly ill informed about the realities in the six counties. They repeated the mistakes of ignorance by permitting Internment in August of 71, which, possibly  more than any other event, promoted the state of unrest from protest to full scale armed insurrection – with the tragic consequences.

Though it roils easily off the tongue, the oft repeated aphorism is deadly accurate: “Ireland’s trouble is that the Irish can’t forget their history and the English won’t remember it.”

The only solution to such a situation is skilled negotiation and a willingness to adopt a means of progress that all sides can live with. The dropping of the territorial claim by the Republic from their constitution, and the acceptance of “unity by consent” were two very important examples of this. It’s informative to note that the meat of the Good Friday Agreement was ground out by the American George Mitchell, and Irish politicians, rather than Westminster knowledge.

In the Brexit situation, a deal to allow the six counties (and Scotland who also voted heavily to retain EU membership) to maintain their position in the single market and the Customs Union, would be best in terms of the impact on people’s everyday lives.

Unfortunately, the politics of the situation means that Westminster, and the DUP, are unlikely to accept this.

Brexit was conceived as a party political strategy to allow David Cameron to face down his right wing Eurosceptics, and it failed miserably when the vote went against continued membership. Its toxicity lingers on, as the Westminster Government, ill-prepared and seemingly without a strategy, find themselves beholden to the DUP, and reduced to ill founded hopes that all will turn out for the best.

Without informed and skilled negotiations, this will not happen.

Of course, the people who will suffer from this incompetence are not the Tory politicians in Westminster, nor the hopelessly divided parliamentary Labour Party in opposition, but the people of Leitrim, Donegal, Sligo, Derry, Monaghan, Fermanagh, Louth, Armagh and Down, as well as the farmers of the six counties in general and those dependent on trade on the island of Ireland.

There’s a danger that English politicians will again pay the price for their ignorance of the Irish situation, be it in a veto, or in the support of the other EU members for the Irish position.

And this time, it seems like someone has cut the grass, and it’s no longer of a length to cover a fudged solution.