Thirty years ago, my father Edwin died in Dundee at the age of 60, when I was still in my 20s. Such a passing of time allows for a degree of perspective, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge in the resulting years, enabling me to put his influence into some kind of context.
Eddie did not live to see the significant world events of the last three decades. He never saw the rise of Tony Blair, the emergence of New Labour, the end of 18 years of Tory rule, the Scottish Parliament, the arrival of the SNP in office or the 2014 indyref. Nor the Iraq war, Cameron and Osborne's austerity, Brexit, Boris Johnson and more. A lot of this would not have surprised him; obviously some would.
My father had many external passions and interests, several that influenced and helped shape how I view the world. One of these was political. He was for much of his life a Communist, and in the 1970s a card-carrying member and shop steward when working for the US multi-national National Cash Register (NCR) in Dundee.
He was a Communist of a certain vintage in some of his views, believing uncritically that the Soviet Union, despite its flaws, was still in some senses 'a worker's state'. To this end, he would defend the various zig-zags, invasions and failures of the Soviets, including the military interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, as well as Afghanistan in 1979.
He was not without capacity for self-reflection, telling me when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that 'it looks like you were right all along and it wasn't a worker's state'. As important, what being a Communist gave my father was an understanding of Marxism, having read all three volumes of Capital
in his teenage years, and an understanding that being part of the labour movement and supportive of organised labour was different from uncritically supporting the Labour Party.
As the Soviet Union began to collapse, my father changed. Repulsed by successive victories of the Tories and Thatcher, he moved to supporting Scottish independence. This was a shift which occurred to many on the radical left, turning their back on the idea of a British road to socialism and believing that more could be achieved through Scottish self-government.
This was quite a generational shift. My parents were of the post-war working class of the 1950s and 1960s, who believed in the good stories of Britain. They had a connection to the hopes, aspirations and dreams that Labour in government gave expression to. And because of this they – like many of their generation – believed in the idea of Britain and Britain as the collective future. They both voted to withdraw from the Common Market in 1975 and were against proposals for a Scottish Assembly in 1979, a stance not uncommon on the left then.
Fast forward to the end of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The following month my father applied to Dundee District Council to buy his council house. At the time I never even noted the serendipity, but looking back I now wonder if the two were in some way connected? Did my father wait until the conclusive end of history (which, of course, wasn't that in a wider sense) and decide then to cross over and join 'them'. It was a startling conversion, one born of the huge discounts which had been made available by Thatcher and the Tories, and which even my father could not turn down.
Life beyond politics: Dundee United, Frank Sinatra and dreams
Life though, and fathers, are not just about politics and it is not through politics that I most remember him and think of him fondly. Two big connections run directly from my father to me. The first is his love of Dundee United which he followed from being a young boy, when it was the second club in the city in the shadow of Dundee FC and struggling to make an impact in what was then the Second Division, playing before often miniscule crowds.
In the 1959-60 season, United won promotion to the senior league and never really looked back for the next three decades. This period heralded a Scandinavian revolution of player talent and the adoption of its now iconic tangerine colours. In 1971, United chose Jim McLean as its new manager, an ex-Dundee player and first team coach who made the short walk from Dens to Tannadice.
Thus began United glory years and by happenchance where my love of football and United started. The team won its first ever senior silverware, winning the League Cup in 1979, retained it in 1980, won the league in 1983, reached the European Cup semi-final in 1984 (making Dundee a member of a select club of cities where two teams had reached the semis of the most prestigious European trophy) and the UEFA Cup Final in 1987.
I was there at all of these, and more, historic United moments with my father. The team didn't succeed in getting to the European Cup final as a club: a mixture of bottling it and Roma bullying and intimidating the referee. Similarly, in the UEFA Cup Final, United lost by a single goal to Gothenburg and maybe just lacked that killer inner belief when it was undoubtedly one of the greatest teams seen in Scotland and Europe.
I draw two things from this. The first is that then I just loved the experience along with the occasional triumph. Now I feel that United was so close and wouldn't it have been wonderful if it had gone that extra mile. The second is the more tangible and emotional one. It gave us a bond, and a shared set of stories and emotional connection beyond politics or some of the complexities of our relationship. This linked back to United's rise, marked by the only time I saw my father cry – at the end of the UEFA Cup final in 1987 when the team had come so close.
The other shared passion we had was a deep respect and love for the music of Frank Sinatra. My father had been a Frank fan from the late 1940s and early 1950s, and had seen Sinatra play Dundee's Caird Hall in July 1953 when his career and reputation were in the doldrums. Frank put on a brave face in front of the small audience who had turned out to see him. He invited everyone to come down to the front to share an intimate musical experience, which my father always described with affection and joy.
It is no surprise that I became a massive Sinatra fan, appreciating his music across all the points of his career. In particular, I treasure the stellar Capitol albums of the 1950s and early 1960s, and the more varied in style and quality reprise albums from 1960s onwards, where Frank had to adapt to the changing world of music, the rise of The Beatles and pop culture.
There is to my mind no Frank album which isn't fascinating – from his artistic triumphs (Songs for Swingin' Lovers!
; Only the Lonely
) to his experiments (the first Sinatra-Jobim album; Watertown
); even his over-reaches (the triple album Trilogy
from 1980) and swansongs as his voice aged (She Shot Me Down
, 1981). Weeks after my father died, Sinatra released the technologically created Duets,
where he went through some of his iconic songs with a range of stars he never met which lacked the pathos of his previous work. I bought it on its day of release with £20 of pennies my father had saved in a biscuit tin which felt very apt.
Thirty years on: learning from the past for the present and future
There are lots of shades of grey and nuance to my memories of my parents. My mother passed away in 2006 and had a very different take from my father on much of the world. My memories as a child of my mother were her practical skills, determination and stubbornness for good and bad. She was informed by a community activism in the council estate I grew up in: Ardler, Dundee. She did things, she brought people together, and supported and encouraged others. It was not until well into adulthood that I worked out that in terms of practical politics it was really my mother who was the activist and campaigner.
Thirty years after Eddie's passing, our world may seem very different and going in the wrong direction but some things remain constant. Whenever various friends or family used to lament what Harold Wilson's Labour Governments were doing in the 1960s and 1970s, saying 'this shows the shortcomings of a socialist government', my father would always answer: 'We don't have a socialist government, we have a Labour Government'. At the same time, he had a deep-seated inability to understand the Tory Party or the appeal of Toryism to voters – a characteristic common to large parts of the left to this day.
I take many good things from my parents. Their love of books and ideas; their alacrity, spirit and zest for life; their constant curiosity in asking questions, sometimes constructively, sometimes when others wouldn't. Neither of them got every call or stance right, personally as well as politically, but who can truly say that about themselves?
Both my parents believed in the good society: an environment where people came together to support each other, look out for each other, and ensure that each generation saw wider opportunity and chances for working-class kids. That was the Britain my parents believed in and which they voted for in 1979, just as those good stories were being eroded and undermined.
Thirty years on, many of the storm clouds around are much darker for humanity and the planet. Yet there is no choice but to try to come together, to find common language around values and act – on the climate crisis, runaway capitalism, the rise of hate politics and fascism, and the open attacks on democracy across the globe. Inaction and lack of agency has dire consequences, so we must find a way and draw from the examples of previous generations.