Lockdown has been doing strange things to my auld heid, and I'm most grateful to SR on 20 May, and especially Gerry Hassan's
piece, for drawing me gently back into the real world. Govan has indeed been the location of much of importance in the history of Glasgow and wider Scotland, and Gerry's words reminded me of a small event in my own life.
In 1988, several matters were at the centre of my world at the STUC, and one of them was our railway system. Specifically, the possible impact on Scotland's economy of the Channel Tunnel, upon which construction had just begun. So I had to make it my business to learn about the extensive French network of high-speed trains (TGVs), which was the second in the world after Japan's revolutionary 'bullet trains' in the 1960s.
Please note that in our disunited queendom in 2020, 32 years later, we still have only one short high-speed railway in far-off Kent, and are consumed by disagreements over the building of HS2. This, at a time when every large country in Europe has an operating network, and even wee Denmark, about the size of Scotland, has opened the first stage of what will become its contribution.
The previous year, 1987, the STUC had published its detailed and influential report, Scotland, a land fit for people
, which attempted to articulate the policies needed to rescue Scotland from eight years of Thatcherism. I was responsible for most of its economic and industrial content, including transport policy. So far as I know, this was the first stage in any public campaign to link Scotland to Europe by high-speed trains through the planned tunnel.
The Govan by-election of late 1988 was an historic event, as Gerry notes, because it was won by Jim Sillars for the SNP, and (all-too-briefly) shook Labour out of the complacency of its domination of Scottish politics. So when Sillars accepted an invitation to attend an election meeting (I think organised by left newspaper The Morning Star
, and held in the Pearce Institute), I made sure I was there. I understood that Sillars was a serious challenge to Labour.
It was a dreich Glasgow autumn evening, but the meeting was far from dreich. My own wee contribution was to ask Sillars whether he supported the STUC policy of linking Scotland to Europe with high-speed trains through the tunnel, which was planned to be operational in the 1990s.
Jim's a smart man, and my recollection is that his response was positive. I got back as soon as I could with a second question: how, if Scotland is independent, could such a high-speed line be afforded all the way from Scotland, when England was unlikely to finance its construction for 100 miles from Manchester to Carlisle, with no English reason to do so? In my memory, Jim was rather flummoxed by this, although I've never spoken to him since on the subject. It remains a major issue for Scotland, as we now know, as HS2 is indeed planned to terminate at Manchester and (maybe) Leeds, nearly 100 miles of mainly sparse population short of the border.
COVID-19 will certainly change world travel patterns. But the green movement and young Greta aren't going to disappear, and flygskam – flight-shaming – has already, pre-COVID-19, reduced Swedish air traffic significantly, as the BBC reported on January 10
this year. Political support for high-speed rail construction is therefore likely to intensify. And as it does, the Scottish independence movement, which I have now supported for over a decade, is going to have to find an answer to this Cumberland Gap Question.
(STUC Assistant Secretary 1976-1990)
This week, despite the distraction of the majority of the UK population getting in a lather about the activities of the Prime Minister's top advisor, I've been thinking about quizzes. Our family are enthusiastic quizzers with regular keenly contested events between members, located here in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. Friendly competition and familial interaction, is completely missing from these interactions, indeed the ferocity and fall out from our social connecting through the medium of the quiz has been known to result in 'radio silence' for extended periods of time. Though I do expect that this is not an unknown phenomenon. That, and the logistics of trying to actually set up a quiz time, allowing for all family members to participate. Not helped by the different lockdown rules in operation in England of course, along with the fact that my eldest in London is the only one in the family who is currently regularly attending his physical workplace.
At the outset of lockdown, Dominic made the decision to stay in Glasgow in the flat he currently shares with his friend Christoph and the latter's house cat. Mixu, or to give him his full name, Mixu Caatelainen is, I am prepared to wager, the only Hibs-supporting cat in the East end and caused a buzz when spotted by an eagle-eyed tweeter over the weekend, leading to him becoming a minor social media star in the Dennistoun area. We can all appreciate people need to find a way to get through these strange times, I know. Incidentally, the real Mixu is aware of his number one cat fan, having been made aware of this while guesting on recent episode of Off the Ball
Quizzes then, we are currently at an early stage of rapprochement with the branches of the Eardley diaspora and hoping that once we re-establish diplomatic relations post the fall out from the most recent quiz, where one of the participants loudly and aggressively harangued, through interruption and continually challenging the authority and arithmetical capabilities of the appointed quiz leader, we can set a provisional timeline for a new event. USA-North Korea eat your heart out.
As the Scottish Government announced its gentle plans for a return to school for some young pupils, a bell rang in my head. When World War Two broke out in September 1939, governments had to plan for schools about to start their first term. By October, it had led to some odd variations. In my case, entering education for the first time, the class was split geographically and one mum opened up her front room to six wee local boys and the teacher came to us. The day the Luftwaffe attacked the ships close to the Forth Rail Bridge, our teacher made us sit on the floor behind a settee while she peered down the street from the bay window. Unlike a virus, the opposition was visible.
Other schools lost their premises to the Red Cross and such like essential services. Their solutions varied wildly. Some planned mass evacuation 'to the Borders', a land well away from the dangers of the big city. Others pooled resources – girls in the morning, boys in the afternoon. A form of social distancing prevalent at the time that warped a generation or two.
My sister's school had a simpler approach. I always wondered why she, though older, was at home when the Heinkel and Junker bombers came to visit. She saw them go past the trees at the end of our tenement back green. To my lifelong irritation, she saw a Spitfire pursuing them. I was behind a settee, remember? Why was she, the lucky so and so, in a box seat in the living room? She was at home doing her schoolwork – by post. For her first term at senior school, the weekly tasks arrived by mail and were duly posted back at the end of the week. So far, I have not spotted that elegant solution in our current Government plans. And the long-term effects? She graduated from university, unharmed.
The social media are filled with accounts, a reproach to those of a more indolent disposition, of improving activities undertaken during these days of lockdown. It is impressive to read of people learning Arabic, redesigning their dining room in the style of Louis XII, tackling Gibbon's Decline and Fall
, or getting to grips with the early cinema of von Sternberg. Spurred by these high-minded examples, I decided to do something, and so I made up my mind to grow a beard. This was not the sloppiness which allows some people never to change out of their pyjamas, but a deliberate, militant decision. I have never before actually sported a beard, so if not now, when?
This course of action – for such it was – required more commitment than might be anticipated. I am now discovering that growing a beard, especially when it is a disconcerting grey colour, is a more active, demanding task than might at first sight appear. There are definite ideals and models. The modern mind is repelled by the hair on the chin of the Victorian gentleman, seen in stately portraits in the galleries where they recall benefactions. The moustache on its own might be preferable but this is associated with primary school teachers, usually just out of the army and still carrying themselves as though on patrol. I have let slip past me cultural moments when the beard was common, such as the late sixties when it would have been been 'groovy', a word befitting the period. Then it was an assertion of rebellious non-conformism, and it is always easier to be non-conformist in the same way as everyone else.
Certain stages can be identified. The first can be called the Ben Gunn phase, moderately wild. The following stage is the Franciscan friar, where the look is not exactly unkempt or straggly but nor is it trim. The risk is that as the stubble lengthens, the image reflected back from the mirror will imperceptibly deteriorate into the Worzel Gummidge, or even Rasputin, with the overall appearance aggravated in lockdown by uncut and unkempt hair. This prospect gives any man pause, arousing in him fear of going out, not because of possible infection but because of the likelihood of having stones thrown at him by children in the street.
I saw a photo of Alistair Darling as leader of the anti-independence movement in 2014, his beard trim, close-fitting and neatly cropped, and referred to as facial hair. That is a bad precedent, but perhaps a good model. Maybe I should take up Samuel Pepys' Diaries
The brave new world of the virus continues to expand. This week Liz, my painting teacher, set up Zoom tutorials – they are no substitute for the class where I can see what everyone else is up to, and can stop for a chat but at least I now can once again learn where I am going wrong before it is too late. The online advice is one step more for those of us said to be stay at home vulnerables towards improving the quality of our lockdown life. It also means the pile of paintings I would like to show, if the group ever holds an exhibition again, just gets bigger.
I can watch plays on You Tube and continue to review them, something I have been doing on Reviewsgate
for ages – and which I occasionally did in the Herald
when the proper theatre reviewers were not around. Right at the start of my career, being a drama critic was something I thought I wanted to be. In fact, I am grateful it never happened. It would have been enjoyable but it really is a pointless profession telling people why what they have enjoyed is really not all that good. Fate took me to Westminster instead where the goings on were much more exciting than any play. When I started in the Herald's
press gallery seat right above the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was still turning up to sit in the corner seat below the gangway from the Government front bench. It was never clear if he knew what was going on, let alone where he was, but at least there was the great man in the flesh. Those were years when the backbenches were full of Titans, characters, people you rushed to listen to when the wall ticker tape – no TV screens then – announced who was on their feet. The same was true of the frontbenches. Those were the days when ministers who got it wrong resigned and employees who did got the sack.
Now, instead of watching Parliament, I just switch channels to something more interesting like Talking Pictures – where all my yesterdays keep surfacing – Facebook, Twitter or go on Amazon and buy something I do not actually need. If nothing else, being locked in has made the smart phone and the internet an escape route from the limitations of home – without that escape route, this unasked for new life would be much worse. One consolation is when I lose something, like my wallet or phone, I know it has to be in the house somewhere, not dropped on a tube train or picked from my pocket. It has also introduced me to our street's WhatsApp site where neighours exchange ideas, offers of help, and do what good neighbours should do.
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