Dreams of my Father and an Elegy for a Lost Scotland
Sunday Herald, January 5th 2014
Twenty years ago last October, my father, Edwin, died.
I was a young man at the time, in my late twenties, and my dad’s death was a major moment in my life, of maturing, of putting life in perspective, and of sadness.
In the months coming up to the anniversary of his death this year, his memory came more to the fore, as I reflected on his life and influence on myself. Truth be told, my father had in his last years not been an easy person to be in the same room with, and as well as loss I felt a sense of release when he passed away. As twenty years have passed, I am now more able to understand my father and the man who contributed to making me the person I am today. And I think that the values and ideas he represented can shed some light on where we are now and the choices we face next year in Scotland’s big debate.
My father was very political: a member of the Communist Party in Dundee in the 1970s and a NCR shop steward when that had a kind of status and power. He wasn’t a very active Communist; in fact, my mother, Jean, was the motivated one in our household, a community activist, organiser of rent strikes and protests and an editor of the local newsletter (where I began my first writing with a regular music column at the age of 14).
He had a sense of certainty about how he saw the world: the Soviet Union was good and to be defended despite all its shortcomings. He supported the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and even Afghanistan. My father managed in the era of (male) full employment to combine a Stalinist politics with a belief that the world was getting fairer, and even, outlandish though it may seem today, that the best way of delivering this was through Britain.
My parents despite the above differences and my mother’s unstated party politics (she always refused to say how she voted, and once in the seventies played with my dad and myself with the prospect that she had voted Tory), agreed in this faith and optimism about the future and Britain.
I just remember in the mists of the past, my parents having a conversation about how they would vote in the 1975 Common Market referendum. Both were against it because they saw it as ‘a capitalist club’. Four years later, and my memory is a little clearer, as they discussed the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum, and my parents were clear: they were against it. Their reasoning was in the words of my mother that they ‘didn’t understand why were going into Europe and decentralising in Britain at the same time’, but more than that, as my father put it, because ‘I believe in Britain’. That wasn’t an unusual sentiment in 1979 and on the left: being anti-devolution and believing in the progressive credentials of Britain; it was one shared by Johann Lamont for example at the time.
My parents were of course about more than politics. One of my dad’s favourite recollections was talking about his leisure pursuits in the summer of 1953, now exactly sixty years ago. In the spate of a few days in July, he saw his golfing hero, Ben Hogan, win the British Open Championship at Carnoustie, and then witnessed his musical hero, Frank Sinatra, perform at Dundee’s Caird Hall.
The Sinatra concert was one my father used to faithfully recount for years. It had not been an auspicious British tour for Sinatra, the timing of it coming in his lean years commercially, after he had been dropped by his Columbia record label. This was before the impact of his Capitol records work with Nelson Riddle began to have an impact, and his role in ‘From Here to Eternity’ proved to turnaround his career.
Sinatra’s Caird Hall concert was like all his British dates sparsely attended, and Frank, making a virtue out of the situation, at the outset invited the entire audience to come down and sit at the front of the stage, and enjoy an intimate night with him. That left profound memories in my father for years after.
My father loved playing golf. One of its attractions was despite him being sociable, he also liked his own company, and golf allowed him to have time to be by himself. One of his prize possessions in the 1960s was a set of Ben Hogan clubs, and in 1963, the year before I was born, he won the UK NCR Golf Championship. When we moved to Ardler and a flat in Edzell Court on the thirteenth floor in the late 1960s, he took up a membership of the nearby private club, Downfield Golf Club, but as fees went up steeply in the seventies and he played golf less regularly, he let it lapse.
The other passion my father had was football and Dundee United. He used to tell a great story of him and his father, John, going to see United at Tannadice in 1959 play I think Alloa Athletic. United were then second bottom of the Second Division and there was only a home crowd of just over 1,000. My father and grandfather had seen United trundle along in the shadow of Dundee, but thought this even more of a humbling; in truth it was the calm before the storm that was to be the terrors golden era.
My father first took me to Tannadice when I was seven, and I saw United completely outplayed by the great Hibs team of the 1970s, who won 4-1. I was bored stiff. Then United reached the Scottish Cup Final in 1974. On the morning of the game, he asked me if I wanted to come with him to Hampden. It was a rainy day, I had no interest in football, and as my reasons for declining I offered the explanation that,’the film ‘The Desert Fox’ was on TV in the afternoon’. That must have been disappointing to my dad, who went alone and saw United lose their first final 3-0.
This all changed during the first season of the ten team Premier Division in 1975-76. The end of the season saw a tense relegation battle between Aberdeen, Dundee United and Dundee, which went down to the last game, and in which Dundee were relegated. I was hooked, the ‘New Firm’ was born (with the combined threat of Alex Ferguson at Aberdeen and Jim McLean at United), and power switched in the city, as Dundee, the dominant force since there had been two clubs, never recovered to this day.
Thus began the golden era of United and it was one I saw at my father’s side. We got to a League Cup Final in 1979 at Hampden and faced Ferguson’s Aberdeen. This game was a stultifying 0-0 draw, but it was my first experience of Hampden, and my first of a Rangers’ fan trying to sell me the hard right National Front ‘Bulldog’ paper outside the ground. The replay was at Dundee’s ground, Dens Park, on a damp Wednesday night, and United tore the Dons apart winning 3-0 and their first silverware.
We won the league in 1983 just before Thatcher won her second election victory, and just before her third we got to the UEFA Cup Final against IFK Gothenburg. Then this was a two-legged affair and after United lost the first away leg 1-0, the second leg at Tannadice saw us only manage a 1-1 draw. Then something wonderful happened at the conclusion of the game. The United fans applauded both teams off the park, and something even more momentous happened: my father began to cry. I had never seen this before and would never see it again, but in this moment, father and son stood together bonded in the emotions of this moment.
I should add that my parents had split up in 1980, my mother leaving my father for another man. It was something my father took badly and never fully recovered from. The man who had been this mixture of the life and soul of the party and a bit of a loner, was suddenly different and difficult to be with.
Slowly he got his life back into some order. In early 1992 he eventually after much soul-searching and procrastination decided to buy his council house. With the huge discounts, his flat would only cost him £7,000 but this to him and a generation of working class families, who didn’t know debt or credit cards, was a colossal amount. But he knew it was too good a bargain to resist, commenting that the monthly rent to mortgage reduction from £160 to £48 a month allowed ‘more money for drinking’.
He died just over a year and a half later in October 1993. The mortgage he took out meant that it was not paid off when he died, but in a quirk that my father would have appreciated he died one month before he formally retired, and was eligible for a death in service benefit which paid off the outstanding mortgage. There was irony in all this, for my dad had never had that much money while he was alive after my parents split up.
His outlook on life changed in his later years. His Stalinism slowly evolved into a Scottish nationalism of the left, for independence and a ‘socialism within one country’ called Scotland. It was a journey many were to make in the years after. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, he did have the grace to say to me, ‘looks like you were right about it after all’. I never noticed at the time but I now wonder if the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991, and him putting his application to buy his council house the following month were connected. Had he waited to see who had won the battle of history; probably not but you never know.
Where are my father’s dreams and hopes now? Well it is relevant in all this that I was an only child with all the positives and negatives that entails. I had more freedom as a child and my parents more financial choices; a large part of my childhood was defined by having my own bedroom and space unlike most of my friends.
My father’s interests live on in many ways. I am a passionate, but non-tribal football fan; the love of the game interests me more than the pursuit of my own team, United. My affection for Frank Sinatra’s music at least matches my father, and sometimes when I put on a Frank record in the wee small hours, I swear in the timbre of his voice, I can hear my father singing ‘That’s Life’ or ‘One for My Baby’.
Twenty years on I don’t know where his politics of certainty would situate themselves. There is in the memories and idealism of my father something which needs to be remembered and not lost: namely, the power and confidence of people coming together to can change society for the better and believe that they can shape and create the future.
There was in the decades after the Second World War, a can-do attitude amongst working people, one of confidence, idealism and faith in progress. Today 1979 stands exactly halfway between 1945 and 2013 meaning that the experience of retreat and rolling back social provision and gains has lasted as long as the period of previous hope and advance. Yet, we still haven’t completely lost the insights or all the institutions created and nurtured in that period – despite the recent implosion of the Co-op Bank.
Scotland’s debate on its future and independence offers us collectively the possibility of taking some of those qualities: believing in people bringing about change and creating a better future. To do this we have to broaden the debate beyond dry constitutional change and two competing technocratic visions of Scotland with their economic fixes and pretences of certainty in a world looking more uncertain by the day.
How do we go from recognising the inadequacies of the status quo, linking the economic, social and empathy deficit which scars so much of modern day Scotland, to nurturing that different Scotland into being? It is after all going to be a long haul with many difficult choices and painful discussions.
Maybe it is because I have the sense of hope and positivity bequeathed to me by my parents and my parents’ generation, but I have a feeling that we can do this if we collectively sum up the courage to do it. Most of us know in our hearts that the kind of Scotland we want to live in and pass on to our children and grandchildren, no longer looks possible within the confines of the United Kingdom. For some of us there is sadness in that, but an acceptance. It is a shift my father years ago already made.
If we are to embark on that journey next year we will need all our wits, skills and memories, and that means drawing pragmatically and humbly from those before us who did so much to challenge power and privilege, change lives and overcome the evils of poverty and hardship. In this the generation and dreams of my father (and indeed of all our fathers) still have I think something to teach and show us in the times ahead.