SPEAKERS CORNER…Kenneth Roy
Two events this year have symbolised – for me at least – the passing of an old Scotland. There was the farewell to Kay Carmichael in January. There was the farewell to Jimmy Reid in August. I had the privilege of conducting the secular services at both funerals. For that reason, among many others, I am unlikely ever to forget them.
There was a lot of Scotland at Kay’s and Jimmy’s. There was a lot of our life in contemporary Scotland.
Before Kay’s, outside Maryhill Crematorium, a line of women held an unbroken sequence of small banners, colourful against the intense snow, each reminding us of such concepts as truth and justice. The women were Kay’s friends, the Gairloch Horties, living proof that in the face of a weapon of mass destruction, the one on our own doorstep, it is a subversive act to plant a bulb.
Before Jimmy’s, on a beautiful late summer’s afternoon in Govan, another line – several lines – formed by his fellow workers, including apprentices in their first week at work. Joined by the man who is now leader of the Labour Party, they stood in their working clothes as the cortege passed on its way to Govan Old Parish Church, applauding the crusader without whose unremitting efforts there would be no Upper Clyde, no continuing tradition.
They shared a passionate commitment to social justice. They had rebellious instincts in common (of course). And they were both masters of the word, although not only for its own sake.
Kay and Jimmy had much in common, including a Glasgow working-class childhood disfigured by personal afflictions – in Kay’s case abuse at the hands of teachers and polio; in Jimmy’s, the deaths of three siblings in a city with the highest infant mortality rate in the western world.
They had socialism in common and the deep need to express it in some meaningful affiliation. Both were members of several parties in their lifetime. Both ended up in the Scottish National Party and seemed comfortable there.
They shared a passionate commitment to social justice. They had rebellious instincts in common (of course). And they were both masters of the word, although not only for its own sake. They used words to change society – Kay as an eloquent and persuasive advocate of social reform, particularly of the law relating to children, and further back as a member of Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet; Jimmy, the superlative orator of our generation, as the champion of the rights of working men and women.
It is easy to forget that they were also journalists. Kay carried an NUJ card and was proud to do so. Jimmy tried the patience of his friends by working at one stage as a columnist on the Sun, somehow continuing to write as he pleased without interference from the management (so far as I know); but he was more happily berthed at the Herald and at his own brave, gutsy though short-lived current affairs weekly, 7 Days, where he nearly came to personal financial grief. The magazine deserved to succeed, but Scotland proved to be stony ground for new media ventures, then as now. Later he helped Bob Thomson to establish the Scottish Left Review, which survives him.
They were superb broadcasters – Jimmy in a variety of formats and styles (including ‘Parkinson’, where he outwitted the appalling Kenneth Williams), Kay most memorably in the ‘Lilybank’ documentary for BBC Scotland, produced by David Martin, which showed how the poor lived in modern Scotland. It was interesting to learn at Kay’s funeral that, among her many achievements, she regarded ‘Lilybank’ as her greatest. I disagree – I think her influence on the more humanitarian treatment of vulnerable and offending children was more lasting.
Here is something else they had in common – the vital factor. Although both Kay and Jimmy were instinctively mistrustful of the established order, and for very good reasons personally as well as philosophically, they were not empty rebels. They channelled their restless dissatisfaction, their burning sense of injustice, into the creation of a better society. They were practical people as well as thinkers. They were elegant and witty and cultured, too. How I wish I had brought them together on a public platform. It is too late, for that as for so much else.
I spoke to Jimmy and, without giving too much away, said we wished to honour him. The great man sounded intrigued and delighted.
There was another man of his word. I use the phrase advisedly, for that is what we, his friends and admirers, called the book of essays we edited in his honour: ‘A Man of His Word’. Like Kay and Jimmy, Alastair Hetherington was someone who was prepared to make a stand against authority. He was still in his mid-thirties, having recently been appointed editor of the Manchester Guardian (as it was grandly known in those days), when the Suez crisis broke.
Alone among editors, Alastair fiercely opposed the British intervention, penning a memorable editorial condemning it as an act of folly. It caused outrage at the time, risking not only his own professional future but the reputation of his paper. But he held firm, he was proved right, and in his 20 years as editor went on to transform the Guardian from a great provincial newspaper into the daily broadsheet of the British Left.
Remembrance is what helps to make us human. How should we remember Kay, Jimmy and Alastair?
SR is instituting an annual Kay Carmichael Award for someone who makes a principled stand, often at great personal cost. I shouldn’t imagine that there will be a surfeit of candidates for this unusual accolade in Scotland – there may be barren years when it cannot be given at all – but we are off to a good start. The winner of the inaugural Kay Carmichael Award will be announced tomorrow.
Early this year, SR and its publisher, the Institute of Contemporary Scotland, decided that the award of Scot of the Year 2010 should be named in memory of Alastair Hetherington and that it should be given to Jimmy Reid in recognition of all he has done for Scotland. I spoke to Jimmy and, without giving too much away, said we wished to honour him. The great man sounded intrigued and delighted. But, as his health faded, his ability to be present to receive the award faded too. Until it was too late.
But there is a distinguished tradition of the posthumous honour and we invoke it in this exceptional case. Jimmy Reid, a man for all seasons, is our Scot of the Year.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.