An unforgettable day

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Kenneth Roy

On the far side of Govan, heading towards Craigton crematorium, the cortege at last left the crowds behind, but the day of Jimmy Reid’s funeral had one memorable image still to reveal. ‘Look,’ said Billy Connolly. On an otherwise deserted street, a middle-aged man was saluting. Somebody – I think Jack McLean – had said to me earlier that it had been the nearest thing to a state funeral, except that it had been a very Glasgow state funeral. In that gesture of gentle dignity we saw the finishing touch.

Kenneth Roy

On the far side of Govan, heading towards Craigton crematorium, the cortege at last left the crowds behind, but the day of Jimmy Reid’s funeral had one memorable image still to reveal. ‘Look,’ said Billy Connolly. On an otherwise deserted street, a middle-aged man was saluting. Somebody – I think Jack McLean – had said to me earlier that it had been the nearest thing to a state funeral, except that it had been a very Glasgow state funeral. In that gesture of gentle dignity we saw the finishing touch.
     There were a lot of nervous people in Govan Old Parish Church. I met the Herald’s sketch writer, Hugh MacDonald, on the way in. He wondered about his ability to do justice to the occasion. I smiled the following morning when I read his piece – perhaps only someone who doubted whether he was up to it could have produced something so warm and true. Billy Connolly himself was a bag of nerves before it began. His hand shook. It was still shaking as he held his script before the – what exactly? What do we call the 800 people crowded into the church and the thousands more gathered in the streets? Not a congregation in the religious sense. Audience doesn’t sound right either. Perhaps Billy Connolly was holding that script, holding himself together, for something as noble as a cross-section of Scotland. But it felt like the cross-section of an old Scotland, not quite of these times.
     ‘The Govan boy comes home,’ said Alex Ferguson. Home turned out to be a broad church – not just physically, but culturally and spiritually too.
     Quite a few people in conversation prefaced what they had to say with the words, ‘Of course, it’s an overworked phrase, but…’. You knew what was coming next. ‘It’s the end of an era, isn’t it?’ Yes, and I have even tried to work out why. There may be two reasons.
     After Jimmy delivered the Glasgow rectorial address, which Alex Salmond described as the finest political speech of his lifetime, a speech compared by the New York Times to Gettysburg, someone asked him which university he had attended. Jimmy did not reply, ‘The university of life’, which would not have been his style. He replied with devastating accuracy: ‘Govan library’. The foundations for his love of literature and socialist principles were built outside the home, in which his father’s only book was the collected Burns, and built astonishingly young.
     Though astonishing only by our pampered standards. By the age of 14, he had read Tom Johnston’s ‘History of the Working Class’. This Scottish tradition of self-taught young men and women, thirsting for knowledge and understanding, restless in their spirit of independent inquiry, was long ago replaced by a system of higher and further education as plentiful as tap water. But there needed to be a formal burial of the tradition. It was finally observed in Glasgow last Thursday afternoon.


The idea of Jimmy containing himself within a 140-character tweet is as ridiculous as the 140-character tweet itself.


     We buried something else – largeness of personality. It sounds ungracious to have to acknowledge this, but Jimmy’s oratory no longer has a place in public life. Would the rectorial address, or the earlier speech to the UCS workers which made his name and reverberated across the world, have the same impact if delivered today in the same high style? There are brave causes, of course there are, but they are fought for in a lower key, often on a note of conciliation or compromise. The platform where battles are articulated, hearts and minds engaged, is no longer made of two boards and a passion. You now win your case on a studio floor, or adrift on the anarchical internet, or you fail to win it at all. The idea of Jimmy containing himself within a 140-character tweet is as ridiculous as the 140-character tweet itself. In the essential skills of communication he was a man of his time, not of ours. The values, however, are enduring.
     After the public celebration of his life, I led – conducted – took – I am not sure of the appropriate word – a secular service of cremation for family and close friends. I too was nervous – I had always found public speaking an easy substitute for living until last Thursday. Joan and Rena, wife and sister-in-law, sang a tender folk song called ‘Black is the Colour’. Cousin Alasdair, daughter Eileen, son-in-law Stephen delivered fine tributes. For the final hour of the long day in Rothesay and Glasgow, Jimmy was returned to the family and became James. It was a lovely late summer afternoon. The sun shone as the curtain closed.
     At the reception afterwards, Ernie Walker told a good story. Ernie said that, unexpectedly, given his political leanings, he had been invited by Michael Forsyth to chair the new Health Education Board for Scotland. Ernie said to the then Scottish Secretary that he would like Jimmy Reid to serve on the board with him. Michael Forsyth replied that ‘she would never agree’. The ‘she’ was not identified. In a brave moment he asked her anyway. Lo and behold she did agree; Jimmy was duly appointed to one of his rare public offices, if not his only one. So even Margaret Thatcher and Michael Forsyth came in for a good word at Jimmy Reid’s farewell.
     And so, with kindness, we marked the end of an era.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.