Last week, I attended the funeral held in Edinburgh of a family friend, George Brechin OBE, who died on Saturday 17 October after an unexpected short illness. I didn't make the journey to Warriston Crematorium, but I did attend. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 20 people could participate in person, so George's family arranged to have his funeral broadcast online.
Such a service you might think a forlorn affair, but it was quite the opposite. Not only did it bring many family, friends and colleagues together to say farewell to George, there was a feeling of spiritual awareness and a unity of unseen others watching and sharing in a beautiful ceremony led by his two children, Jessie and Hugh Brechin. George would have been immensely proud of them. Both tributes to their dad were intensely moving, with lasting resonance for those who heard them.
This was no ordinary funeral, which is fitting, because George was no ordinary man. Jessie and Hugh, spoke beautifully and movingly of their father's life and what losing him meant to them and their family. George's old schoolfriend, Sir Muir Russell, spoke eloquently of their lifelong friendship since schooldays. What shone through their words encapsulated the person George was: principled, compassionate, kind, empathetic and a devoted family man. With his wife Carol, they were about to embark on the latest stage of their incredible life together. Carol told me that George was excited that he was unanimously voted in as chairman of his beloved Edinburgh Zoo earlier in 2020. Sadly, that was not to be.
Although a graduate in electrical engineering and electronics from the University of Glasgow (GU), George joined the Department of Health in London after graduation. He moved to NHS Scotland in 1988 where he remained in public service for the rest of his working life. But, as Sir Muir said, George was the antithesis of a mandarin. He was a man of integrity and thoughtfulness, a trusted, honest broker with encyclopaedic knowledge: personal characteristics he utilised fully to make complex organisations work well and affect change for the common good. George was awarded an OBE in 2013 for his commitment to – and his outstanding career in – public service.
Until my family were informed of George's death, whenever his name was mentioned, we smiled spontaneously. He was the loveliest of men. We first met him in 1971 when I was 12 years old. As a student, George worked in the election campaign for Jimmy Reid (my dad) to become the first communist student rector. Jimmy won, of course, and once the euphoria had died down following his famous Alienation
speech, he got down to the serious work, with George at his side. The old guard, the powers-that-be at GU, were most displeased, at best.
One of the ways in which Jimmy promoted student participation was by choosing a student as rector's assessor. For the first time in the long history of the university, the student body was asked to elect their own assessor who would sit on the University Court and act as the link between the rector and the student body. Beating Gerry Malone, ex-president of the Tory Club, the first student assessor in over 500 years was, yes, George Brechin.
Bridget Prentice (ex-Labour MP), a lifelong friend from those halcyon student days, was quoted by Jessie Brechin in her eulogy: 'it could have been a disaster'. It may well have been: Jimmy without George's thoughtful attention to detail would probably not have been such an effective 'working' rector. George's description by his son Hugh as 'the fourth emergency service' likely began in 1971. But, as Bridget said, George and Jimmy forged a deep friendship and trust in each other which endured for life, despite their divergent career trajectories.
George's wife Carol and Jimmy's wife Joan (my mum) reminisced last week with memories, stories and no shortage of laughter. When Jimmy died, the Sunday Mail
published an article by George with the opening sentence: 'I was the man who had to follow Jimmy Reid's speech'. Their bond made in the 70s was a match made in heaven, where I'm sure it will continue over a few pints.
Sir Muir described his joy of a lifelong friendship with a loyal, trustworthy man possessed of a strong social conscience and a set of ideals of what public institutions should be. 'George was one of the good guys', he said. Indeed. Everyone who knew him will miss him dearly. Rest in Peace, George Brechin. You were special, and we are glad to have known you.
President Trump is as far from being a 'good guy' as it's possible to imagine. He is a repugnant man and it's extraordinary to think that George Brechin and Donald Trump are of the same species.
I'm writing this on the afternoon of Tuesday 3 November. By the time you read it, we should know the result of the US Presidential Election, unless the result is too close and the monster-baby refuses to accept he's lost to Joe Biden. But right now, we can only pray. As a philosopher once said, there are no atheists on the battleground. I imagine there will be precious few atheists tonight.
A friend of mine, an avid Celtic supporter, always bets on Rangers before an Old Firm match. Quizzing him about this strange behaviour, he said that if Celtic won, he wouldn't care about losing his punt; but if they lost, then at least he'd make a few quid. Tomorrow, Wednesday 4 November, I hope I've lost a great deal of money, but if not, at least in my despair I can buy a new kitchen.
Photo at top of page:
George Brechin (far left) with Jimmy Reid, celebrating Jimmy's famous rectorial address with a pint