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If it’s broke – fix it.

June 7, 2017

I have scarcely blogged politically since the Independence Referendum because, to be honest, I don’t much like the online atmosphere.

This isn’t really to do with the ad hominem attacks from people who think name calling proves a political point – all areas of  life have  individuals seeking attention through poor behaviour. It is rather more to do with a political attitude that  has developed round the UK’s electoral and political system.

Much of the political landscape seems to have been cornered by folk who look at elections as if they were football matches – a goal for us, a penalty against you, a biased referee. There is much cheering and shouting and whataboutery, in the wake of which, the real essential of the political system – to make life better for the majority – can sometimes seem forgotten.

This week’s election in Scotland is a case in point. You can bet your bottom dollar that, should the SNP return 40 MPs, there will be gleeful shouts of “Peak SNP”, “No Indy2” etc.

In fact, in electoral terms, SNP will be still more than comfortably the majority party from Scotland in Westminster, and will still be able to continue its opposition just as it did with 50+ MPs. Electorally, at Westminster, little will have changed for Scotland – unless you think of seats as goals in a game of electoral football.

Ironically, many of the frustrations that lead to a demand for Independence have been highlighted in this election campaign. Not only have issues which are important in Scotland, notably, of course, Brexit, been trivialised or minimalised, but the unionist parties, aided and abetted by parts of the media, have sought to make this General Election about the SNP’s record at Holyrood. This may be due to the fact that many neutral observers have been impressed by the work rate and opposition of the SNP Group at Westminster, or it may be a refusal to tackle genuine Westminster issues. Either way, the voters are being short changed.

While the SNP have focused, as is only correct, on Westminster issues such as WASPI, the Rape clause, austerity measures, welfare cuts, the other parties have tried, ironically, to make the election about Independence. Indeed the Scots Tories campaign literature has been almost exclusively about Indy Ref 2 with scarcely a mention of their party’s elitist agenda. It is this difficulty in squaring Scottish representation with the focus of politics at Westminster which highlights the need for autonomy: it is quite simply – as EVEL and the Brexit vote differential demonstrate – a system which doesn’t work – neither for England – which is dominated by the needs of London and the City, nor for Scotland and Wales, who are dominated by the needs of England.

This is the inevitable consequence of a state composed of countries with different needs and often conflicting geopolitcal views. The way to rid ourselves of internal division is to loosen the exterior, constricting,  bonds and allow each country to make its own relationship with the other, and with the rest of Europe. It’s not a case of “hating” anyone or “disrespecting a shared past”, merely acknowledging a broken system, and espousing a desire to move forward in a way which gives each of the countries of the UK the best form of Government to reflect its needs and people’s wishes.

To those who suggest that the UK provides the “best form of government”, the current election campaign proves challenging.

The “Better Together” catchphrase in the Independence Referendum was “Lead don’t leave”. Even before the votes had all been counted, David Cameron was gleefully announcing the move towards EVEL, making it patently clear that the Westminster parliament was not composed of “equals”.

After the Brexit “remain” vote in Scotland, of 62%, an assurance was given that the views of Scotland would be taken into account in negotiations. Although the Scottish Government was  the only British institution to put forward a detailed plan for negotiations, especially in regards to the single market, this was demonstrably ignored by the UK Government.

Whilst the “Yes” campaign in 2014 faced constant demands for “accurate” extrapolations of what would happen after independence as proof that they should be supported, the Brexit campaign before the Euro Referendum, and the Westminster Government prior to Leave negotiations,  refuse to give the slightest idea of plans or outcomes.

The “Vow” of stronger devolved powers for Scotland after a “No” vote, has actually been replaced by veiled threats that power will  be taken away from the Scottish Parliament.

These are, of course, points you would expect me to make as a supporter of independence, but, in fact, their effect is wider than just party political. All these issues weaken public trust in government from the centre; they demonstrate that the elite in Westminster feel no need to listen to Scotland or its voters, and, when voters feel they are not being listened to, they either disengage from the political process, or they vote with a knee jerk contempt for the status quo in all its guises – leading to votes for UKIP or Trump, as we have recently seen. Both these reactions are worrying for the democratic process.

In vox pops, in America and the UK, we  see numbers of voters admitting that they were either uninformed, ill informed, or just plain pissed off when they voted, and weren’t sure for what they were voting. Many of the 38% who still approve of Donald Trump are happy to admit he is failing to deliver on his promises, or that his policies are bad for the US, but are still supporting him “because he’s Trump and not Clinton, or the political elite.” Similarly, Leave voters, informed of the ill effects of such a vote on the country’s and their personal futures, are often unrepentant, seeing their vote as giving the fingers to the system.

In the current election campaign in the UK, we are seeing the inevitable apotheosis of developments over the past thirty years or so.

Thatcher was the first to establish a cult which said: “I don’t agree with her, but she sticks to her guns, so I’ll vote for her.”: an attitude which is manna from heaven to political operatives – you don’t have to convince people of your policies, just convince them you mean it.

We travelled farther down the highway to political marketing with New Labour and “Cool Britannia” in which political principles could be dumped in order to secure election, and then policies could be decided according to influential backers or focus groups composed of swing voters. This was a development which led to short term gain for Labour but, ultimately,  left them with a party whose policies were unclear to most voters, and many members.

The disengagement from politics, or its cousin, “dog whistle” voting, has been hastened by a media controlled by a narrow elite of oligarchs – each with their own money making philosophy and their access to senior politicians,  and an approach to reporting politics which, generally, is tailored round opinion rather than reportage and sound bites rather than analysis. The self fulfilling prophesy that “politics is boring” has led to a political coverage in our media which is often superficial, biased, agenda led, or misinformed. Voters are not engaged by reporters who operate with an obvious bias, nor by political pieces which are obviously based on a party’s press releases.

The agreed approach in many cases seems to be: “Tell them as little as possible, keep it short and snappy, get a sound bite, and a memorable picture.” The unspoken assumption is that the average voter is incapable or unwilling to assimilate anything more complicated or nuanced. Like a tube of Pringles, this approach goes down well at first but ultimately leaves you feeling sick.

Of course, for the career politicos, the situation is brilliant. Whilst the mass of voters  issue their own sound bites along the lines of: “They’re all the same” “I just ignore them” “They are all out for themselves”, the Campaign Manager and his team have a dream scenario. There are no awkward questions from members of the public, no public meetings to arrange, no challenging hustings, and, ultimately in Theresa May’s case, no contact with the public at all, not even by proxy in a televised debate.

Even better, pesky policies,  which might come back to bite you on the bum, can be eschewed entirely, and replaced by meaningless phrases: “We’re working on it” “The other lot can’t be trusted” “Brexit means Brexit” “Enough is enough” “Strong and Stable” “Do the day job”  “No to Indy 2”.

When I first became active in politics in the 1970s, the days of multiple local hustings were fast disappearing, but to suggest you could campaign without policies, without public meetings, without television debate and on a platform of “they are bad people” would have been laughed to scorn.

Now, when the UK Prime Minister “campaigns in Scotland” in a remote village hall or with a hundred activists in a shabby removal warehouse, hardly a media eye is blinked. You could call it CGI campaigning: it’s false, the public know it’s false, but they accept it because it’s supposed to look good.

All of this is to the ruination of the political system and its worth to the people it is supposed to serve. A Prime MInister who won’t debate, parties replacing policy justification with negativity, a media of limited resources and elitist owners – all of these things pervert democracy’s true aims of public service and community enhancement. A political system which, by rights, should serve the public in the common good, has become a plaything for the rich and a means of silencing the voice of the vulnerable. The fact that a Prime Minsiter can end an election campaign calling for the abandonment of human rights is a strong statement about where we have reached in the political process.

So I will be voting SNP because I want independence: the independence to institute a political system which serves the people.  The party’s continuing popularity after ten years of Holyrood Government suggests not that they are perfect or without blemish, but that people prefer their positivity to the negativity of the unionist parties, that they prefer a party which talks up Scotland’s potential rather than denigrating the country’s achievements, and which can take decisions in the interests of the people who live in Scotland, rather than making constant reference to what is good for the population south of the border,  or for UK election prospects.

In the terms by which this campaign has operated, I suppose you could say they prefer the party of a First Minister who is spontaneously hugged by children to that of a Prime MInister who is afraid to meet the public and campaigns in sheds, or party leaders whose day job appears to be angrily shouting at the Scottish Government while defending or abstaining on Westminster policies which have attacked women, the sick, public services, the poor, and  the most vulnerable in our society.

I have no idea what party will form the first Scottish Government after independence. What I do know is that it will have the opportunity to be responsive to the needs and wishes of the people it serves, it will have the responsibility for spending and prioritising all of the revenue it raises in Scotland in the interests of the country’s residents, its leaders will be accountable to the people in Scotland, rather than party organisations in London, and it will be able to present a Scotland internationally which is freed from the post imperial need to aspire to “world  power status” with all the consequent disadvantages to our social welfare capacities.

I find it hard to believe how anyone could not prefer this future to the current state of UK politics and its major players. Basically, the message to Scotland is: come and be part of a political system which is responsive to your needs and views, or maintain the status quo – of a country treated as a region, lucky to get even the 8% of attention it is entitled to demographically in the UK State, and prevented from forging an identity in Europe or the world.

Increasingly it seems that those who cling to the broken system in these islands are those members of the elite who have ordered things to their advantage – economically, socially, or politically.

I think people – in all the countries of these islands – deserve better.

Indeed, I know they do.

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The Best People in the Best Place

May 24, 2017

After my dad died when I was 5, I moved from Edinburgh to west Lancashire  a year or so later. First we lived in a country village called Euxton; its nearest neighbours included, Croston, Chorley, and Tarleton. It was a perfect introduction to the north of England for a wee boy who had lost his dad, and I quickly acquired a suitably local accent whilst I explored the woods and lanes,  and made new friends.

Two years later we moved again, to Southport, on the coast, and, again, I was fortunate to live in a friendly, welcoming,  town, and to make lots of friends.

So from the age of  8 till 18, my nearest cities were Preston, Liverpool, and Manchester.

Thanks to Beeching’s cuts, there was no direct railway  line to Preston from Southport in the early sixties, so Liverpool became the most familiar of the three. I went to school in its suburbs, my mother’s family were there, and there we went on our earliest shopping expeditions – mostly for records, but eventually for clothes. The mid sixties wasn’t the worst of times to be a teenager in Liverpool! The Cavern, The Grapes pub, NEMS record shop, and Frank Hessy Music were still places we shopped in or passed,  rather than destinations on a heritatge tour. I travelled to school sports fixtures on the Wirral on the iconic Mersey Ferries – because they were cheaper than the underground or buses.

From the perspective of the 21st century, I suppose I got to know Liverpool just as its glorious mercantile history was finally disappearing. At primary school, the lads whose dads were dockers or shipping line employees could still tell us which big ships were due into the busy docks, and, exiting the long gone Exchange Station, there was a definite air of excitement and business,  the air heavy with the industrial tang of Tate and Lyle sugar refining, breweries, flour mills and engineering, and ships’ sirens floating over the buildings from the docks.

And what buildings they were!

Every bank, insurance company, and head office seemed to be a masterpiece of Victorian architecture. Outside they loomed over you, no decorative effect too expansive to be left off cornices, ballustrades or red stone masonry. The streets were canyons of commercial success, every building constructed to display its owner’s outrageous business acumen and financial probity.  Inside they were all long gloomy corridors, frosted glass doors, and dark wood partitions.

The Kardomah cafe, just along from Epstein’s NEMS shop was a kind of distillation of what the city was about. Fifty years before Starbucks and Costa, this was the place to go for a cup of tea or a coffee in their distinctive glass cups. The scent of coffee in the place was such that you could imagine them dumping bags of beans in the back shop, off wheelbarrows just pushed up the hill from the docks. The decor was mysteriously “eastern” and it was easy to remember you were sitting in one of the world’s major ports.

And, soon enough, Liverpool became the venue where we attended “pop concerts” as they were known. To celebrate my pal Steve’s 15th Birthday on November 1st 1967, we went to Livepool’s Empire Theatre to see a classic concert line up of the times: “The Who, Traffic, The Tremeloes, The Herd and Marmalade. It was a brilliant venue – long witness to variety, pantomime and musicals; the show was compered by Michael McIntyre’s dad, Ray Cameron, and, if you’d gone to the toilet you may have missed two groups and six top ten hits, such was the speed at which it passed, with two shows each evening on the tour.

We didn’t mind – it was our first concert, we were with our mates from school and we were finally part of “the sixties generation”, which we’d read so much about, but until that point had not managed to join. For all of us, it was the start of a lifetime of concert going and appreciating music. It was a special moment in our lives. Liverpool continued to be our venue for concerts and theatre productions throughout our school days, a comfortably  familiar place of entertainment.

Manchester was different. It was further away and not as easily accessed.

I first went there to see Lancashire play South Africa at Old Trafford cricket ground on September 1st 1965. It involved the excitement of a train from Southport and then the Altrincham bus from the city centre to the top of Warwick Rd, and going to Old Trafford to see international cricketers was a big thrill as well – it would be the South Africans last visit to England until 1994, though of course we were ignorant of that at the time. Still, Manchester had been visited and soon there were repeat visits for the cricket but also, via school, for drama, and we attended a number of events in the tiny and atmospheric Library Theatre. Again, we probably didn’t realise the part the basement theatre played in the 60s drama revolution, but it increased our familiarity with Manchester, as did occasional school trips to the huge fairground at Belle Vue.

Gradually as we approached school leaving age and some were able to drive, Manchester became a regular alternative venue  for our gigs. Steeleye Span, the Who, Tom Paxton, Fairport Convention and others were seen at the atmospheric Free Trade Hall. We didn’t know it had been built on the site of the Peterloo Massacre, nor, I suspect, that it was the home of the Halle Orchestra, but we knew there were great concerts there.

It was where a fan shouted “Judas” at Dylan as he introduced his electric set, not a gig I was at myself, but a landmark in musical history, and, as the years passed, Tony Wilson, the Hacienda, and the whole Manchester scene blossomed to the joy of a later generation.

I had a  musical landmark of my own in the Free Trade Hall on July 11th 1971, when, again with Steve and the lads, I saw James Taylor and Carole King perform there. This was within months of them releasing the epoch making albums “Tapestry” and “Sweet Baby James”. It was one of those rare gigs where, even as we sat there,  everybody  just knew it would be a special moment in our lives, long remembered, and proudly mentioned in the years to come.

After I’d returned to Edinburgh and was teaching, we brought  pupil groups down on a number of occasions to do the “Granada Studios Tour”, and, while they walked in awe over the famous Coronation St cobbles, I was able to buy “World in Action” merchandise – imagine a time when investigative journalism was popular enough to sell its own merchandise!

Meanwhile, my pal Steve had become Editor of “World in Action” and moved to greater Manchester – more reasons to visit the city, and a chance to visit the WiA studios: more excitement in Manchester. His house became a place of great hospitality and we felt we had a “Manchester family” in the affection that had continued to grow through the years, and the joy of watching our children grow past the age we had been when we first became friends.

Another school pal and gig going mate, Mick, also ended up in Manchester, and it’s a joy to still be in touch with him, to have schoolday friendships affirmed.

I’ve never become familiar with Manchester in a geographical sense; I can’t find my way round without a map, and I would struggle to point to anywhere I could identify as “the city centre”, but it’s  become a part of my life.

And, when I heard the tragic news from the Manchester Arena on Monday night and watched the events unfold, it occurred to me that, in my whole life, and for the many reasons I had visited that city, I could not recall a single time when I had left the place feeling anything less than joyful; I realised I associated Manchester with happiness; it was not so much a geographical entity for me as an emotional venue, a place I went to and came away feeling good. And it was about the people as much as the place.

Such a realisation only added to the emotional reaction to the loss of so many young lives.

Just last month, Steve and I had attended a Who concert in Glasgow, in an informal but affectionate attempt to celebrate 50 years since that first Who gig at the Liverpool Empire. We’ve both continued to go to gigs ever since, occasionally together, more often separately, but part of our lifelong dialogue has been about who we’ve seen, what they were like, and how was the venue. Like millions of other friends, music, especially live music, has been part of the glue that has kept our relationship together, and reminded us at regular intervals of our shared and long history as mates.

At that recent concert, we were trying to remember the exact site of the “longest railway platform” in Britain, which, like the world’s first railway station, was in Manchester. It turns out that it  ran from Manchester Victoria Station to Exchange station –which closed in the seventies, and is now the site of part of the Manchester Arena complex.

Apart from the needless, pointless loss of life,  and the gut wrenching pain with which so many parents and children were going to have to meet their loss, I felt angry at what had been taken away from so many children – whether killed, injured, or traumatised on Monday night.

I thought of all the gigs, all the music, all the joy, all the shared memories. I thought of how the music provides a cocoon from the realities of life, that the best of live music transports you, takes you out of the every day, and into a place to which  you hope you will be able to return again and again. I thought of the innocence that is possible at live music concerts, the thrill of “actually being there”, the single minded attention, the tickets, the posters, the tee shirts, the programmes, the date circled on the calendar for months, the breathless retelling of the night to parents and friends, the humming in the ears – and in your heart.

Surely all this is part of life at its best: a kind of distillation of what it is to be young, which can carry you through the succeeding decades. What a thing to snatch from the young, what an ache to leave with the old.

As “Cottonopolis”, Manchester was a city  built ruthlessly on trade, slavery, exploitation of foreign and indigenous workforces, and it was an architectural monument to commerce and profit. Liverpool’s buildings were a testament to a working port, Manchester’s, on an even grander and more impressive scale, spoke of a world headquarters, a place of power and overwhelming wealth. And yet, for all that, Manchester somehow has always been about people –the Suffragettes, the Chartists, and all their descendants – people who refused to be crushed by enterprise or profit, and the modern day music, art and drama creators – who have transformed the city’s profile. I couldn’t help but also think of the late Victoria Wood’s representation of the city in that wonderful musical “That day we sang”, based on a true event in the Free Trade Hall in 1929, linking Manchester, music, and joy.

And there was some small comfort, even as the horror of Monday evening was growing in its random awfulness, in the knowledge that people will out; just as there is no manufacturing without creativity, there is no city without people, and no progress without humanity.

Those small towns near my first English home – Croston, Tarleton and Chorley –  were the places were the first two announced victims at the Arena, Saffie Roussos and Gina Callandar, lived and went to school;  the fact that so many at the concert should have been embarking, as Steve and I had done all those years ago, on a lifetime of gigs, and music, and sharing, added a further resonance.

On Tuesday, a number of people on social media, struggling for a reaction, posted John Maddon’s iconic picture of “Ena Sharples looking out over Manchester”. At first, it seemed like a strange choice. It was, after all, a fictitious character from a fictitious street, and there was nothing remotely fictitious about the horror of Monday night. But, somehow, it seemed to work – at least as a paradigm for a city.

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“Ena Sharples” and “Coronation St”, in the beginning, owed their popularity to  the humanity, brought into what might have been just another soap opera, by Violet Carson’s acting and Tony Warren’s writing. “The Street” portrayed not a city but its people – and it worked for the viewers because, despite its strong sense of place, it possessed a universality that transcended television and dramatic fiction  – much as Granada television  under Sidney Bernstein and The Guardian under  CP Scott  held a resonance for millions far beyond Manchester, because they dealt in recognisable humanity. Two more people who made Manchester definitively special. More opportunities for the humanity of the place to be displayed.

Tony Walsh – Longfella, whose poem “This is the Place” spoke so eloquently for Manchester at Tuesday’s memorial meeting, quoted Coleridge tonight, describing poetry as “The best words in the best order.”

The hope for Manchester, after Monday’s horror, is that history has always proved that,  in that city,  they seem to have the best people in the best place.

Out in the middle

May 13, 2017

You will not recognise us.

Men standing, alone, on the boundary, watching, whilst you are together in the middle.

You may not even notice us, alone – except for our far away looks and happy memories of hundreds of Saturdays – when we were in the middle, and you, in the oblivion of childhood,  were on the boundary.

You are busy in the middle, with your sharp runs and well held catches, your strangled appeals, and perfectly timed drives, while we stand alone, on the boundary, with time for our thoughts and something in our eye.

As you are now, we were then – the nicknames, the inedible sandwiches, the kit we forgot to wash, and the eternal optimism. We marked the same run ups, took the same guard, polished the ball as feverishly, and sought to catch the captain’s eye. And we had the guy whom nobody could stand,  the talent who could have played at a higher level, the enthusiast we never had the heart to drop, the skipper with the room to store the kit.

.In older cars, on less busy roads, we crossed the country, shared our dreams and hopes, told stories of  nights out, and hid our regrets under caps that were often multicoloured.

We were absent from our loved ones, and hoped they understood, and when stumps were drawn and pints were drunk, we took home our tales of almost glory and they welcomed us with indulgent pretences of interest and understanding.

You carry the game lightly, even while you care so much. The tiny routines of play, the adjustment of the cap, the twirl of the bat, the practiced stare at the batsman, the repeated shouts of encouragement, the marking of the run up, – all are measured, all betray your love of all you are doing, out in the middle.

There is nowhere you would rather be, and you will be there forever, you think.

But, when the umpire calls “Over”, and you make that thoughtful walk from end to end, changing your perspective every three or four minutes, seeing the game from different angles – spare a moment to look up at us, men alone on the boundary, looking through you to the past, hearing shouts from long gone friends, reliving the stunning catch, the perfect shot, the uprooted stump, and the reflected heat from the well prepared pitch.

For one day we will be gone and you will be us.

With the speed of a scampered run, the certainty of an edge to first slip, and the inevitability of a late afternoon batting collapse, one day you will be a man, alone, on the boundary, reaching out to the middle, puzzled to be on the edge, dressed in the old fashioned thoughts of former days. You’ll be beyond the boundary but still feeling part of the action, timeshifting dreams and plundering long held delight at moments stored away for reward: the swinging yorker, the tumbling catch, the straight drive for six, the thirty year old hat trick still strong in the senses, the faces of the lads turned towards you in joy when you took the wicket or scored the run,  faces unchanged in your eye, despite the years, despite the losses; the umpire’s strong declaration echoes off the far sightscreen: “That’s Over!”

Just now, you run in the middle, but soon enough, you will walk round the boundary. Enjoy your closeness to the action, but embrace the future chance to reflect from a safer distance.

Carry your cricket like a loved one, in your heart in all seasons, changing to match your progress, always there to remind you who you are.

And, if by chance, you do notice us, men, alone, on the boundary, maybe give us a smile, and recognise the present, the future,  and the past are  closer than you think, and, without the boundary, there can be no middle.

And the blackbird sang

April 17, 2017

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You could say that St Patrick’s church in Edinburgh’s Cowgate is a place with a sense of atmosphere. It is surrounded by the capital city’s “Old Town” and, since its construction in the  1770s has continually evolved to stand at the heart of its local community.

Originally, the Cowgate was the “Back of the Canongate” – the foot of gardens which swept down from the merchant’s houses on the High St and, as such, an area where the Episcopalian religion might be expected to flourish, explaining St Patrick’s origins as a church of that faith. With the building of the New Town, the old town lost many of its wealthier residents, and the United Presbyterians took over the building in 1818. However, by the mid-19th century, the area had declined and become “Little Ireland” – an Irish ghetto for the thousands of post Famine refugees who flooded the city. At that point, the church became St Patrick’s to serve the Catholic community.

So, in its very history, it stands testament to a scarcely suspected Ecumenism over two and a half centuries.

It has a personal resonance as well.

My grandfather and his family first worshipped there in the 1890s, as immigrants from Ireland, and Hibernian Football Club had already been founded in the Parish in 1875. Parish Priest, Canon Hannan, from Ballingarry, Co Limerick, had agreed with the leader of the Catholic Young Men’s Society – Michael Whelahan, from Kilglass, Co Roscommon, that the youth of the parish would be better employed playing football in their spare time than carousing and fighting in the closes off the Cowgate.

Fifty yards from the church is the old St Anne’s school building, where James Connolly’s education began and ended – at least in a formal sense, and the church is  now the last resting place of trade unionist and nun, Margaret Sinclair, who is on the road to sainthood, in recognition  of her selfless life, lived for others. Both, in different ways, epitomised the basic Christian values of brotherhood and common cause.

So, attending Mass there – particularly at a time of the year like Easter, is an evocative and reflective experience which suggests the idea of “Faith” is about much more than rules and regulations and tribal adherence to a  particular label. It always seems a place where the spiritual and the human are entwined to a degree which makes a kind of sense  of both.

The Easter Service involves the creating of new fire – a ceremony which dates back to pagan times and perhaps even further – as a sign of hope. It’s performed in the courtyard of the church which is nowadays overlooked by the bedrooms of two budget hotels. In keeping with the church’s history, it didn’t seem out of place against the backdrop of revellers passing along the Cowgate and hotel guests coming and going. As it’s always done, the church was fulfilling its function, cheek by jowl with the life of the people and community it serves.

One of  the pleasures of attending St Pat’s, along with a keen sense of its history, is the feeling of walking alongside my family and their friends from days gone by: a shared experience which is scarcely possible in any other setting. Faith is about belief, but it also evokes continuity – an experience just as sensual as the tang of incense in one’s nostrils.

And continuity is important to many. The many arguments and hostilities towards religion tend to base themselves on theology, philosophy, and the perceived hypocrisies of those who claim Faith. The sense of comfort and belonging which comes from that sense of continuity is maybe undervalued in a fast and furious, interactive and instant world.

For many, their spirituality is a simple, more positive part of their humanity – its complexities best left to academics, and to those who find themselves offended by the apparent impossibilities of Faith.

There are many ways of reaching St Pat’s – spiritually, historically,  and physically.

On Saturday evening, we  took an Old Town route, involving closes and stairways which held much Edinburgh history.

As we waited to cross the road to the church, the traffic lessened, and the only sound came from birdsong. It was from a blackbird, boldly atop a tree, singing with the volume, beauty, and conviction that only a blackbird can muster  in the twilight of a Spring evening. It was, to coin a phrase, heavenly.

As it happened, the tree was in the grounds of the city Mortuary – the imponderables of life and death, beauty and decay, presented to us side by side, as we prepared for a ceremony of hope and new life, in a place where those who came before me had experienced the same feelings..

It seemed somehow appropriate – and, if my Faith means anything, it tells me while death shall have its dominion,  the blackbird will always sing.

Last day at school

March 11, 2017

“17” is a production  currently at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, which focuses on the last day at school for a group of seventeen year  olds. The dramatic twist is provided by the fact that the teenagers are played by actors in their 60s and 70s: the words of those embarking on life spoken by those nearer to leaving  it.  It caused me to reflect, some 47 years later, on my own  last day at school. 

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Late May 1970. This is my last day at school. There’s no fanfare, no Senior Proms or leavers’ ceremonies. As far as the school is concerned, as long as we’ve returned all our books, we ceased to be pupils when we walked out of our final exam last week.

It’s in keeping with the curiously and emotionally barren approach to education at the time. We expect nothing else.

We are called by our surnames, we are “lazy” if we make poor progress, we are “encouraged to learn”  by daily use of corporal punishment,  and we are there to pass the exams which will turn our predominantly working class cohort into university qualified members of the middle class.

It is what our parents want, and, because we know no better, it is, mostly, what we want.

As “grammar school pupils” we are told regularly that we comprise “the top 2% of the population” but no thought is ever given to building our personal self confidence. Indeed, individuality or celebration of success – other than for “the school” – is actively discouraged.

In my final year, through some kind of kink in the 60s  inspired, minimal “democracy” that’s crept into the place, a head boy is elected who is something of a rebel.

On our grand “Speech Day” at Liverpool’s illustrious Philharmonic Hall, where we sing “Jerusalem” and “Drake’s Drum”, there is the undignified spectacle of the headteacher shepherding the honoured guest through a maze of backstage passages, like a scene out of a Marx Brothers’ film, to ensure there will be no meeting between rebellious Head Boy and Establishment’s Honoured Guest.

I’ve been part of this school, primary and secondary, for ten years. Most days I have been frightened – by the threat of the belt, by the unpredictable sarcasm of some of the teachers, by the spectre  of failure, by the subjects I don’t understand and with which I receive minimal help.

But, and here’s the rub, I love this place. I enjoy school, I’m proud to be a pupil, love captaining the cricket and cross country teams, I’m going to miss it all – the comfort of companionship, the solace of routine, the good teachers – the ones I got on with, who appeared to see me as an individual.

I’ve called  in to see them, to thank them – much to their surprise I suspect. Out of my group of friends there might only be two or three of us who feel like this – the others detest the place.

Phone calls have been made and perhaps a dozen of us have agreed to be in school this morning, and we bump into each other as we tour the corridors for the last time, passing the locations of highs and lows, the daft and the portentous, the wayposts through an education which would lead us mostly to university, and to degrees and careers which would give us the comfortable lives which met our parents’ aspirations for us.

We don’t  know what to do, and neither do the school. There are no formal goodbyes or emotional hugs, no invitations to visit again in the future, just a kind of silence of embarrassment.

I walk past the classrooms in which I have spent my teenage years, the same voices teaching the same lessons, half afraid a door will  open and I’ll be punished for being somewhere I have no right to be.

When I next pass along these corridors, some thirty years later, I wilI feel I might meet my teenage self round every corner. The familiar scratch on the locker that had been mine, the pervasive smell of floor polish, the way the light falls on a certain staircase, the echo of my feet on a stone floor  – they will  all seem near to me and resonant. But on the day I leave school I am far too close to it all to have such feelings.

I can have no idea that my ten years here will remain so large in my memory, so vivid in my thoughts.

In May 1970, I know nothing but this time and place  – and I have no clear idea of where I am going.

This is true factually, as I have to wait for exam results to see if I will be going to Edinburgh University, but it is also true in a far wider sense.

There has been no preparation  at all for the next stage in our lives, other than an expectation that we will  “go to university” For all  the post facto media view of the sixties, most of us are compliant, and never question this.

Our music and our politics is radical, but our schooling is repressive and conservative. When our inspirational English teacher, Ernie Spencer, tells us we can  bring in “LPs” so we can discuss the lyrics in poetry classes, it is seen as apocalyptically progressive by some staff.

I have applied to Edinburgh to read English because I want to return to my birthplace. I have chosen to read English because, latterly, Ernie has introduced me to the idea that literature can  be inspiring. I know nothing about the course or, indeed, what university education entails. When I told our peripatetic “careers teacher” of my ambition to go to Edinburgh, she snorted with derision and left it at that.

We are mostly first generation university applicants so our parents know as little as we do.

So the future is  somewhat blank and I think the overwhelming  sensation this  May morning  is one of tiredness. I have done a minimum of two hours homework, five nights a week, for ten years. I have coped with the emotional stress of a fairly inhumane regime and the personal pressure not to let down my family.

In addition, I have sung in the choir, played the cello, and represented the school at cricket and cross country most weekends.

School has taken up 70% of my waking hours.

I have run my entire academic race for other people and their expectations – and now I am  shattered. Too tired, certainly, to look beyond the long summer holidays – at my ambitions and hopes for the future.

It seems a pity, rather a diminishment of the proper aims of an education.

My school has failed to give me a sense of who I am or what I can accomplish. It has highlighted our failings without praising our abilities. It is the way of the times, but even in our ignorance we are somehow aware of this.

Yes, we have had the best of this type of Education; we will make it to universities, gain our degrees and step on to the rungs of  the professional ladder  -but it will take us much longer to know who we are and what we are worth.

Gradually we drift to the area in front of the school outside of the Headteacher’s office. He must see us there, but there is no response. He must know a dozen of his senior pupils are gathering in school for the last time, but he fails to make any gesture of recognition.

We look at each other and then, quite bizarrely, we begin to sing the current England World Cup song. ” Back home- they’ll be thinking about us when we are far away…”.

We are not rowdy, we sing in tune and quite solemnly. It’s nothing to do with football – I don’t even support England, it’s an attempt to fill a vacuum – in a faux amused,  half defiant, manner.

It’s carried out with typical teenage brio and swagger, but, as I will later reflect, it’s a very sad way to end your schooldays. It’s like an abused child telling desperate jokes in an attempt to show their bravery and make their abuser smile.

Then we go our separate ways,  still  unacknowledged.

I will go on to be a teacher and eventually a Depute Head.   I’ll commit my career to guidance and pupil support. My consistent theme over nearly forty years will be that each child is precious and unique and deserves the best possible chance in life. I will not be embarrassed to tell the pupils that to their faces, and I will foster relationships with their families.

I will love my job and the pupils I teach. I will have similar affection for the colleagues I lead.

It seems my school taught me this by omission. In my own teaching,  I will try to supply all that was missing in my own education.

Our school taught us how to succeed academically, but not who we were. The idea that learning could be joyful and empowering was completely absent. They gave us examination passes and emotional failures. Our sense of self, for the most part, was ignored.

Still, I have to thank it for my academic success and the road upon which it set me – to a fulfilling career and a happy life.

That’s why, despite all I have written, I still look back with great fondness on my schooldays, the friends I made, the sports I learned to play, and the knowledge with which I was imbued. My love of school clearly led to my ambition to become a teacher.

But when I think of those gangly youths boldly singing an irrelevant song – because they had not been taught, or offered, any better means of leaving school, I really do wonder at those who promote the grammar school system.

Yes it can be successful in its way for a minority — but what of all the others? Why should the few be pushed to success at the expense of the many left behind?

And who will support those whose exam results  have been achieved at the cost  of their own emotional intelligence – qualified for external success, whilst prone to internal failure?

Thomas Paine suggested those who believe in a cruel God make  a cruel world.

You could say the same for an education system.

A nod, a smile, and a wink

February 20, 2017

I was once asked to give a presentation to a group of aspirant teachers, sharing what I had learned about the qualities needed to become an effective member of a senior management team in a pupil centred school.

When I sat down to prepare for the meeting, I realised I had to look no further than John Dames, who has died this week, after a typically courageous and uncomplaining battle against illness.

In the late 70s, I was a second year probationer teacher at St Thomas of Aquin’s High  in Edinburgh, when we heard we were getting a new Depute Headteacher. It was unsettling news for youngsters who were just beginning to feel comfortable in the profession. What would he be like? Would things change? Would we get along with him?

Then he arrived and was introduced to us. He seemed very young – to us a good thing – and resembled a cross between Jimmy Carter and Robert Redford, which gave him an immediate presence.

All we really knew was that he had come from a school in Dumfries, and the scarcity of informaton, of course, fed our curiosity. Over staffroom coffee, the chatter was consistent: “Have you met him? What was he like? Will he be ok as Depute?”

Quickly he became visible around the school – always crucial for a successful manager, and the reports developed a pattern: “I saw the new guy, he nodded at me, and smiled,  then he winked.”

At the time, and even written on the page just now, that seems like a strange introduction. However, as we were later to realise, it was a typical “Damesy” way of being friendly, and as his initial introduction to most of us, it was highly effective. When we came to deal with him more formally on school business we felt comfortable in his presence, and this was reflected also in his presentations to staff meetings, where we first became aware of his dry and self deprecating wit. Almost subliminally, I suppose, I started to understand a model of authority which came from calmness, shared concerns, and genuine care for colleagues and pupils.

What became very obvious, very quickly, about John Dames, was that he loved his job and he loved being around young folk – staff or pupils. He was full of energy and ideas, but never overpoweringly so, because he was a good listener and a man with a great capacity to seek consensus and advice. I always thought his authority came from the confidence of operating from the most positive of motives – concern for  others and the determination to do as good a job as possible. John used no complicated strategies as a school manager, he expected high standards and strong commitment from those around him, and led by his own example.

He very soon gained the staff’s trust and became one of us, whilst retaining his detached position as Depute. I know from my own experience that such an approach brings extra demands, but also great rewards, if it’s successful. Because he was always honest and we knew he was operating in our interests, it was not difficult to move between the friend we laughed with in the pub after work, and the depute who might need to address a concern with us more formally in school.

He joined in with our staff social life and became a mainstay of the staff football team. He was a talented sportsman and played a variety of  sports with the skill and dogged determination which reflected an earlier  successful time as an amateur boxer. As a footballer, he showed skill, guile, intelligence and strength as a pacy overlapping full back with a full box of tricks.

When the headteacher who had brought him to St Thomas’s (Jimmy Barbour,  a tribute to whom, sadly, I had to write earlier this week) announced his retirement, the staff were unanimous that we wanted John to get the job. This was not just a case of familiarity, it was a recognition that he knew what we were trying to build as a staff, and he had contributed hugely to the project.

There was a morning interview for the post, after which John returned to work, and, at the end of the day, he joined in a game of staff v pupils football on the Meadows at the bottom of the street. After  repeated attempts to reach him, a secretary had to run down to the Meadows and shout that he was wanted on the phone by the Director of Education. Staff and patients at the Royal Infirmary opposite the school were then treated to the sight of a middle aged man trotting up the road in full Celtic kit to receive the phone call which would tell him he was the new Headteacher of St Thomas’s. Naturally, he returned to the Meadows, told us the good news, and finished the game. In the manner of his becoming a headteacher, he demonstrated how he would pursue the tasks the post demanded.

There were initial challenges for the new headteacher. The school roll, at around 600, was considered small for a city school. Pupils, staff and parents recognised this was an ideal size, especially as the school, with a catchment that ran from north to south of the Capital through the city centre, was truly comprehensive. However, local authority economics suggested the school should be closed. We felt this was unthinkable, given the education it provided to its pupils.

It was typical of John’s energy and vision that we would  meet the situation proactively. We considered ourselves a community school in all but name, and we would “walk the walk”. In a series of innovative and sector leading moves we welcomed adults into our classes, offered evening and night classes, and instituted the city’s  first complete 4th Year work experience programme with the support of our local and parental community. We made the point over and over that St Tam’s meant too much to Edinburgh to be lost.

So successful was the campaign that not only did we stay open but required an annexe at the former Jimmy Clark’s school overlooking Holyrood Park,  to accommodate growing pupil numbers.

For me, it was an early lesson in what can be achieved by a school leader with total commitment and the trust and respect of his staff.

I saw it again with John’s promotion of Outdoor Education.  All  first year pupils would have a residential week away – an invaluable experience for both staff and pupils.  Originally it was at Kinharvie House near New Abbey on the Solway coast. We all learned to share John’s love of the area and its heritage, and former pupils still talk to me about their times there nearly forty years later. The same is true of our second Residential base at Craigower Lodge in Newtonmore, where pupils and staff discovered the beauty of Speyside and the Cairngorms – and formed life long associations with the area.

Alongside this came steady improvement in academic results till St Thomas’s became one of the top  schools in Edinburgh in this respect.

Invariably with John, his actions matched his words, and his total commitment to the school was reflected in the fact that his children attended the school and Mary, his wife, also worked there, showing that same caring approach, as a feisty and much loved advocate for the Learning Support department, which she led with predictable energy.

But it would be wrong to suggest it was all worthy intentions and hard graft. It was also a joy to work alongside John Dames. One Friday night in the pub ended with over a dozen staff crammed into his much loved beach cabin at Southerness on the Solway coast, and his children were accustomed to being woken late in the evening at home by various of their teachers arriving back from staff celebratory occasions. After one particular Burns Supper, the residents of this douce Morningside street  must have been amazed to see three male teachers dressed as nuns emerge from the Dames minibus with flutes and a big drum! Don’t ask!

It was a beautiful home, made special by the strong family love it contained, but also by John and Mary’s long term project to restore its interior. None of us knew where they found the time or energy, but for  a good few years we reckoned you could tell the Heidie was approaching by the distinctive whiff of Nitromors paint stripper in the air!

Though always and indisputably an East End of Glasgow man, John adapted well to life in the capital and clearly loved Edinburgh. Soon after his arrival at St Tams, pupils interviewed him for the school magazine and asked how he was finding life in his new abode. Typically, he pointed out that the school was in Edinburgh’s Tollcross, near the city centre, and he came from Glasgow’s Tollcross, in a similar position, so he already felt at home. His interests and learning covered far more than the world of education, and he could be fascinating when he shared his knowledge and discoveries, being always open to new experiences.

Like many men of his generation and background, he wouldn’t  find it easy to talk openly of emotions, but his many personal and discreet kindnesses to staff members at hard times in their personal lives were a measure of the man’s fundamental goodness – and I write from my own experience.

Laughter was a mainstay of  all John Dames activities – as was football. On one occasion he damaged his leg in a staff match. Typically he played on till the end, had his shower and drove home. It must have been very painful overnight, but he was at his desk on time next morning.

By break time we had convinced him to go across the road to Casualty to have it checked out. He returned at lunch time with his broken leg in a full stookie – and never missed a day at school. He had been away for around 3 hours, but in the retelling of the tale through the years, that was eventually refined to “no more than twenty minutes”!  Such was his commitment to the school, many folk found that easy to believe.

He was a member of the  idiosyncratic “Morningside Celtic Supporters Club” and an enthusiastic attender at their annual “Tommy Burns Supper”. The Celtic legend and John Dames had much in common – in their Faith, goodness towards others, and work ethic. We were delighted to arrange a letter from Tommy to John on one of his “big” birthdays, recognising his lifelong support of Celtic and his contribution to education.

Outside of school and family, one of John’s long term commitments was to our Thursday night five a side games which were played for over twenty years on pitches down by the beach in Portobello. Most of us who played were teachers or lecturers, and, though we would never have stated the fact, those games, and the pint in the bar afterwards, became  crucial to our mental as well as physical well being. We would chat about a wide range of topics, often seriously, but frequently with underlying humour, and there we got to know John well. It was a situation in which he shone, being a natural raconteur, and employing his dry wit, often leaving us crying with laughter.

When  we discovered that he had served part of his RAF service on Lewis, this was always referred to as “the time when he saved Europe single handedly,  through his vigilance on the western seaboard, as one of the Brylcream boys.” He was often the only Celtic supporter in a group of Hibees, but, much as he had taken to Edinburgh despite his Glasgow roots, he avoided patronising us about our support for “the first to wear the green”, and developed an affection for the Edinburgh side. Often he would listen patiently to our Hibs centred discussion, before interjecting to steer us on to another subject. I remember his comment one night: “That’s fascinating, boys, but could we move on to something more interesting, please – maybe discuss how we do the ironing, for instance?”

Thursdays were sacrosanct, and future historians will marvel how, over more than two decades, there never seemed to be a St Tam’s school event on a Thursday night. Even when an event was arranged outwith his control, I recall, for instance a reception at the Civic Chambers, he would make his excuses and leave, determined to arrive at the pitches for our 9pm start.

It seems right to paraphrase St Thomas Aquinas, who memorably suggested: “Sorrow can be alleviated by good sleep, a bath, and a glass of wine.” In our case the alleviation came through “a good game, a shower, and a pint of beer”.

In his retirement, he worked still for young people – on Rotary scholarships, and with the council pupil placement committee. He and Mary travelled widely in their trusty camper van, frequently to trouble torn areas on charity relief missions, where he would listen and learn, often reporting back to us on Thursdays after the football. There were romantic City Breaks as well, though these often seemed to be arranged in the vicinity of Celtic’s European ties.

Being a father and a grandfather was always central to his life, and, of course, the Thursday football continued. He played on into his 70s, still able to find a killer pass, or confuse an opponent with the drop of a shoulder. He added an additional skill to compensate for his advancing years. He would subtly handle the ball and play on straight faced. When we shouted for a foul, he would stop, turn with a look of complete innocence, spread his arms and ask: “What?” So polished was this performance that, in the end, we changed the rules, and “Damesy’s hand ball” became an accepted part of our game. We couldn’t resist the twinkle in his eye.

And now, it’s small moments I will remember.

In the 80s I ran school discos, and often the crates of singles would be left by the staffroom door. On one occasion, Mary looked down and noted the top single was Robert Palmer’s hit: “Johnny and Mary”. It was made even more relevant by the opening line: “Johnny’s always running around…” I think of him whenever I hear the track.

Late in life he and Mary moved to a flatnear the Meadows. I asked how he was settling in after so long in his other house. His answer reflected his lifelong commitment to education: “It’s nice to be opposite a school and hear the bells during the day and the pupils out playing.”

All who knew him will miss him greatly. All who  have spoken to me about him in the last couple of days have used the same, accurate, phrase: “He was a good man.”

He was a man of huge integrity and a deep and abiding Faith, about which he was never ostentatious.

When he reached the gates of Heaven, I have no doubt they will have been opened to him, and I am certain he will have been welcomed in with a nod,  a smile, and a wink.

See you, Jimmy.

February 14, 2017

The man opposite looked up from my CV and said:

“Hmm. Celtic history, I see. So you’re a Celtic supporter?”

Twenty three years old and innocent, and being interviewed for my first teaching post, I replied bright eyed:

“No, no – it’s Keltic with a hard C. Actually, I’m a Hibs supporter!”

He put the paper down and looked at me.

“Really? I’m afraid I don’t have that pleasure….”

My heart sank – I really thought I’d blown my chances.

Luckily, Jimmy Barbour was much much bigger than that, he was winding me up, had I known it, I got the job, and when I heard of his death today, one day short of his 90th birthday, I thought how appropriate it was that a man so full of heart should die on Valentine’s Day.

For the first five years of my teaching career, Jimmy was my Headteacher. His influence on my career was enormous and yet he was a man of the most understated nature in his approach to school leadership.

It was he who identified me as a possible guidance teacher, encouraged me to apply for  a post, and set  me on my way to a successful and very happy career in that area of teaching. He saw qualities in me of which I was totally ignorant, gave me confidence I didn’t realise I had, and certainly recognised how to get the best out of me.

Headteachers bring a personality to a school. Some are brash and highly  focused, and consistently at the centre of everything; you would never be in any doubt as to whose school it was. This can be a successful approach, if the heidie listens to his staff and takes them with him – the Iron Duke galloping along at the head of his troops. Of course, it can also be an ego trip of a disaster, causing resentment and anger, with pupils and staff left far behind as he (or she)  trail their clouds of glory.

Jimmy was the complete opposite of such a model. Like many who have high skills, he operated almost invisibly. People would go in to his room upset about something, make the point forcefully, and emerge having agreed to do what had  originally been upsetting them – and feeling as if they had won a victory.

I remember my first year probationer review – a big “state of the union” moment for any young teacher. He had moved his office from the entrance of the school to a nondescript room off one of the interior corridors. I thought it a weird decision at the time, though later, as a Depute, I could well understand the merits of being stationed in the midst of school life, rather than at a distance.

He bumped into me outside the door one day and asked me in for a chat. There was some banter about football and he commented on how well I had settled in, my work in the English classroom, what I was contributing to extra-curricular activities, and my enthusiasm. Strangely, he mentioned no date for my probation interview, but I left feeling confident it would go well.

A couple of days later, in my staffroom pigeonhole, was a fully signed and dated probationer Review – it had been painless and effective, a typically “Jimmy Barbour operation.”  As I taught both his daughter and his son at various times, I was relieved that the message seemed to have gone home that I was  “ok”!

At the beginning of my second year in teaching, after a Parents’ Night,  the staff were in Bennets’s bar in Tollcross, a favourite watering hole near the school. I turned from the bar with a couple of drinks to find Jimmy standing there:

“Have you ever thought about being a guidance teacher?” he asked, taking a pint from me.

“Er..not really.”

“Well, you should – there’s a post available.”

By the time I  sat down I had agreed to apply. I was successful, was a Principal Teacher of Guidance by the age of  26 and ended up as a Depute leading a guidance team. It was a career I loved, focusing on an area for which I obviously had an aptitude – which Jimmy had seen and I had not. I had him to thank for guiding me with a gentle hand.

He operated with a sense of humour and a kindness which myself and my colleagues, as probationers,  didn’t always spot. If there was a way of gaining benefits for the staff or pupils, he would make sure they were accessed, but he would seldom reveal that they had occurred through his intent. He had many managerial skills, but he deployed them subtly and positively. It was always about the school, not about Jimmy.

In the late seventies, there were a series of teacher strike actions – largely about conditions and resources rather than pay. It was a difficult time. Our school, St Thomas’s, was a caring and close community, we had good links with parents, and operated in a child centred fashion. Despite that, or more probably, because of that, we were a militant staff, committed to fighting for the best for pupils, and so we became one of the schools chosen for “unofficial strike action” on a rolling basis.

In terms of school management, this meant that each of us who were striking, because it was “unofficial”, had to see the Headteacher personally, and inform him that we would be taking action. He then had to inform the local authority, who would place a disciplinary letter in our files noting the fact.

Jimmy did this very professionally, and copies of our letters duly appeared in our pigeonholes.

On the Wednesday afternoon, we left school and gathered in the East End of Edinburgh for a teachers’ march along Princes St.

As we passed what was still then the GPO, one of my colleagues nudged me. There on the steps, his reactolite glasses dark in the sun, head held high, was Jimmy, proudly watching his staff march by – for all the world like a leader reviewing his troops.

It was a moment which had a huge impact on me, and on my colleagues. What a gesture of absolute support, executed with minimal fuss, never mentioned again, simply a headteacher sending a message of how much he valued his staff. When I became a Depute over a decade later, Jimmy on the steps of the GPO was one of the images I carried with me –  I tried to remember always that I was a teacher first and a manager second, and that the wellbeing of pupils and staff should always be my priority.

Jimmy was a great man for the football – for years he signed on as an O Grade English night class student at Telford College, to ensure he and his mates could play indoor football in their gym each Thursday evening. Celtic  FC remained a passion but he had a general interest in the game as well.

When Scotland played Wales in the  World Cup qualifier at Anfield in 1978, I managed to get two tickets. It would mean missing a couple of classes in the afternoon, but if we travelled home through the night after the game, we would be available for the next day. Jimmy weighed up the amount of extracurricular work myself and my pal put into the school and decided it was a just reward that we should be allowed to go: the type of kindness he showed in different ways to many staff at the school – it wasn’t strictly within the rules, but then like a lot of mavericks in those days, Jimmy could be comfortable bending the rules if he felt it was in the interests of school, pupils or staff.

I think he was quite calculating in presenting an image that undercut his skills and experience. Folk who underestimated him, especially in the local authority, often found he had bested them both expertly and invisibly. He had been a leading councillor down in Ayrshire and was justifiably proud of a civic sewage scheme which he had piloted and seen through to completion. However, he gave the appearance sometimes of being a little overwhelmed by his role, but it was a deception – he knew what he wanted to do and he generally got his way. The welcoming and caring  atmosphere in the school, and the success in all areas of its pupils, was a testament to his leadership – as were the subsequent careers of his staff.

In later years, I never addressed a staff meeting without remembering Jimmy at his mystifying best. There was an unpopular change that had to be made – possibly to the timetable – and it fell to Jimmy to impose it. He stood up in front of a fairly fractious staff meeting and began:

“You have decided……well, we have decided….ahem……it has been decided that…….oh, alright, I have decided that…..”

By the time we stopped laughing, the change had been agreed.

The year I started teaching was the year that St Thomas’s became a co-educational school – previously it had been a girls’ school – originally run by nuns. It was a difficult transition – especially as it coincided with the Raising of the School Leaving Age, and was to be implemented year by year – that is with boys starting in the first year, so it would take six years for the school to become fully mixed.

I was unaware at the time that, with these changes in mind, Jimmy had started on a  recruitment campaign to lower the age and mix the gender of the staff cohort – hence the reason why I was a favoured candidate as a 23  year old male. It was typical that Jimmy would plan ahead in that manner. The staff he put together were highly skilled, enthusiastic, energetic, caring, and talented young folk, and together we supported each other into the best start you could possibly wish to your career, friends as well as colleagues, committed to education, innovation  and progress, and to our pupils. It was a time when anything seemed possible. Jimmy chose well.

So when he announced his early retirement – he was only in his mid-fifties – it came as a shock to the staff. In fact, at first, we were incredulous. However, he explained that the way education was going, he could see he would have less and less control as a headteacher, particularly in the area of choosing staff, and, as he felt that was his only major talent, he thought the time was right for him to go. It was a typically self deprecating exit, and time and events probably proved his fears were well founded.

I bumped into him regularly thereafter.

One time, as we left a funeral together, he complimented me on my promotion to Depute. Then he added:

“I always thought you’d be headteacher of St Thomas’s one day.”

I had never had an ambition to be a Head, but it was comforting to hear Jimmy, thirty five years or so after that chat in Bennet’s Bar, still finding a way of encouraging me to be the best I could be.

Later still, I discovered he had a talent and an enjoyment for writing cowboy novels. They were very good, and, somehow, typical of a hobby which Jimmy would pursue.

When I retired from teaching I wrote a book about my education experiences – from my first day at school to the end of my teaching career. Naturally, Jimmy’s influence  on my teaching career featured, and I was glad to get the chance to acknowledge his effect on my career by sending him a copy of the book.

I arrived home some time later to a message on the answer phone from Jimmy, thanking me for the book and saying he had no idea of the impact he had had, and wishing me well. It was typically Jimmy: to the point, brief, and understated. It meant a lot to me.

He was a talented and complicated man, thoughtful and gentle in his approach,  who made a huge difference to the lives of the staff and pupils for whom he worked – I could not have hoped for a better introduction to a a career in education.

Looking for a final representative image of Jimmy, I find myself back in my first year in teaching.

With the innocence and daring  of youth, and having noticed a few of our staff bore a passing resemblance to the  Broons of Glebe St, I wrote a staff Christmas pantomime based on the famous family.

Nearly everyone was in it, but we wanted a cameo role for Jimmy. Obviously, he would have to be the family patriarch, Grandpaw.

Fair enough – he sportingly agreed, and we wrote the play along the lines of the family being worried about Grandpaw, and whether he would make it for the Bells.

Right on cue, Jimmy appeared at the end.

The idea was that he would burst through the door to huge applause and then, as part of our curtain call, he would thank everyone for coming, and wish them a happy Christmas.

The big night arrived, Jimmy was primed, and his costume was perfect – bunnet, dark suit, waistcoat, and big beard (though for some reason he had made it yellow rather than white).

When he entered through the door, the audience, made up of pupils and parents, went wild. These were the early days of staff pantos; the reaction had  steadily risen in excitement as each member of staff came on and was recognised. They had noted that the Heidie was one of the few staff still not on stage, and so when he arrived, they raised the rafters.

Jimmy moved to the front of the stage and, in the midst of the applause, pulled down his beard, and said: “It’s me!”

He was worried he might not have been recognised – a typically understated reaction.

Of course, his action provoked even more laughter and a brilliant finale to the show.

That was Jimmy Barbour, a great leader who made a huge impact with the smallest of gestures.

I owe him  a lot.