Aamer Anwar, the current Rector of Glasgow University and leading human rights lawyer, delivered the seventh Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture in that ancient institution's Bute Hall, where Jimmy (my dad) delivered his memorable speech Alienation
. Aamer gave a powerful, passionate, angry yet optimistic speech about the state we're in. He made the case, clearly and eloquently, for human rights – including workers' rights – to be at the core of economic policy, immigration and of our justice system. His humanity, like Jimmy's, shone through every word.
Like Jimmy, Aamer draws people not just from the trade union movement, but from across political divides. His humanity and struggle for justice is evident from his campaigning work with the Chokkar family, Shaku Bayou and Clara Ponsati. Jimmy would have been honoured that such a speech, by such a man, in that place, was given in his name. Aamer received a standing ovation, just as Jimmy did back in 1972. For Jimmy's family, particularly his granddaughters who were captivated – hanging on to every word – it was an emotional event. We were deeply moved, and very, very proud.
A few days later, the launch of a new biography, Jimmy Reid: A Clyde-Built Man
by Knox and Mackinlay, took place in John Smith House. Our family was glad Bernard Ponsonby was there, as he wrote a superb tribute to Jimmy shortly afterwards on the STV website. We were delighted.
Sitting in Bute Hall awaiting Aamer, I gazed at the huge overhead screens of grainy clips of a distant yet so familiar voice delivering fragments of that address in 1972. A thought crossed my mind – he looked so young. Then it hit, as it sometimes does: a surge of grief not for the loss of a great campaigner, but the realisation yet again, that dad is gone.
There is hardly a month goes by that I don't see his face, hear his voice, read something about him, write about him or speak of him detachedly as Jimmy the trades unionist, not Jimmy, a beloved dad. 'A rat race is for rats. We're not rats. We are human beings,' he boomed. To hear him say those words, rather than read them, explains the love of it. As those who were there at the time claimed, it was 'electrifying'. Dad was a superb orator. His timing was immaculate. Hearing it for the umpteenth time, the surge welled. It's like a rogue wave suddenly crashing into the back of your head.
Our family miss his love, his warmth, his bear-hugs, his laugh, his good nature, his general noisiness. I miss our discussions and our bouts of sometimes ferocious political arguments. He was several degrees to the left of me. One morning, my neighbour asked, 'What's a tankie? Did Jimmy go to a hotel for the night?' I tried to explain tankiness, and no, we fell silent because we had run out of steam and alcohol, were fed-up arguing and wanted a bowl of soup instead. One of the most important things dad taught me was never to take political disagreements personally.
Soon after he died in 2010, I sat in his study in his old leather chair. The silence was huge. His old clock on the mantelpiece was ticking. In all those years, I didn't know that clock ticked. I'd never heard it tick before.
'The wee small hours are difficult. The lonely, vulnerable time, when it's harder to escape the reality… I follow the second hand of the clock, note the passing of each precious second, listen intently to its tick… Here is a night terror: something I truly dread. The scenario: I wake up and think everything is all right; for a few moments I imagine that an ordinary day stretches ahead, a day full of purpose and plans. Then I remember. No more ordinary days. No more purpose. No more plans. Finis. It hasn't happened yet, but I rather fear it might, and it disturbs because I know it would be upsetting, even destabilising. I can only exist in the reality of my situation, living from minute to minute, the clock ticking, day after day, the clock ticking… That ticking clock… could it be the last thing I hear?'
These are the words of Kenneth Roy from his remarkable book, In Case of Any News: A Diary of Living and Dying,
written in the few weeks he knew he had left to him, in Ayr hospital. Great writers make poetry – in Kenneth's case, unsettlingly direct poetry – about the most prosaic of experiences.
At the book launch last week, Sally Magnusson read movingly from the book, including her own foreword: 'What hard and lonely work dying can be'. You'd think such a book would be bleak and depressing. It isn't. It's characteristically Kenneth. Ian Jack, journalist and friend, captured him perfectly: 'Facing up to his own mortality, sustained by the kindness of his doctors and nurses, he evokes and examines what life has meant to him – not in philosophical generalities and religious abstractions, but in its compelling and diverting particulars. Roy's distinctive, wry voice is always present. His book is a marvellous achievement, often funny, always direct and honest; bleak and somehow not bleak. You will read few better accounts of saying goodbye'.
I recall with some horror the relentless ticking of the clock on the wall while in hospital. It drove me mad for reasons I couldn't articulate. Instead, I demanded of my mum that she bring the hammer so that I could smash it to smithereens. The clock disappeared soon after. A ticking, cheap clock is a peculiar kind of torture for the serious or terminally ill. Kenneth knew. He always knew. But he could write with searing clarity what he knew.
The night after the book launch, mum and I went to see Scottish Opera's magnificent production of Tosca
. Puccini, that arch emotional manipulator, could never be accused of sweating the small stuff. At the end of the first act, when Te Deum
reaches its climax, the wave hit us both: Dad. Kenneth. Death. But most of all, life. Or in Kenneth's words 'pain, love, anger, ambition, altruism, selfishness and grief, and no doubt all sorts of other stuff that escapes me at the moment'.
For my 60th birthday, mum bought me a magnificent, antique clock with chimes and a marvellous, deep, satisfying, crunching tick typical of beautiful old timepieces. If that's the last thing I hear, that's fine with me.