'Keep your eye on Paisley,' the saying goes. Yet, when I mentioned it recently in conversation with the well-known Newton Mearns swimmer Walter Humes, in the hope of inspiring a conversation about Paisley, he professed never to have heard of it. The saying, that is.
There are reasons for enlightening him now. 'Keep your eye on Paisley' originated as a quote in Benjamin Disraeli's novel, 'Endymion', whose eponymous anti-hero was a clever, greedy, ambitious politician – you will be vaguely familiar with the type; they never change – who went on a reconnaissance to the provinces. In Manchester, Endymion met a mill-owner, Job Thornberry, whose wisdom and experience had given him an instintive feeling for the restless mood of the workers.
'What you should do,' said Job, 'is to go to the Glasgow district; that city itself, and Paisley and Kilmarnock – keep your eye on Paisley. I am much mistaken if there will not soon be a state of things there which alone will break up the whole concern. It will burst it, sir, it will burst it.' Job Thornberry was alerting Endymion to the possibility that, if the revolution happened, the fire would be lit in somewhere like Paisley.
The author may have arrived at this fictional citadel of popular revolt by sticking a pin in a map of the industrial north and, faced with a choice between Paisley and Kilmarnock, casually selected Paisley. 'Keep your eye on Kilmarnock' would have had a certain alliterative flourish. But the honour went to Paisley, where the saying was wilfully misunderstood over the years, becoming a local synonym for a town of outstanding curiosity or merit. The truth was that Disraeli had never been near Paisley and had nothing to say about it, good or bad.
As it happens, however, it is usually wise to keep an eye on Paisley. For its long, unbroken record at the polls, it was once known as 'the maiden city of Liberalism' – not that it was ever a city; that was just another of the Paisley myths. By 1948, the year of a famous parliamentary by-election, it was still every inch a town of the Industrial Revolution, not yet down on its luck, still grand enough to boast a number of gentlemen's clubs. Ten thousand people worked in the cotton thread mills. Many others were employed building machinery, dyeing cloth, making soap and marmalade, stirring cornflour. Its patterns gave it an international reputation; the villains in American crime novels were among the many smart people who sported a Paisley tie.
My late friend, the journalist William Hunter, a senior pupil at Paisley Grammar School in 1948, was pleased to be a buddy, the name given to the people lucky enough to have been born there. He told me that he had come to think of the word itself – Paisley – as elegant and beautiful and that his heart soared whenever he saw it. He would not have been pleased that its football club, St Mirren, languishes second bottom of the championship table, above only Ayr United, in the current season; it is as well he did not live to witness such a civic humiliation.
My own heart, however, does not necessarily soar at the sight of Paisley. I continue to keep an eye on it: a sceptical one after Sunday, when it launched its bid to be the UK City of Culture (for which, paradoxically, large towns are eligible).
The big event of the weekend was an outdoor concert in honour of Gerry Rafferty, a native of the burgh, who died in 2011. 'Dozens of saxophonists' were expected to take part, according to the BBC. In the event, the press agreed that 'around 25' actually turned up. You have to wonder that journalists are incapable of counting to 25 but have to make do with an approximation; we have always been useless at basic arithmetic. No matter: the tribute went ahead, albeit perhaps on a reduced scale.
Now, Rafferty was not a saxophonist. He was a singer-songwriter, whose best-known number, 'Baker Street', reached number three in the UK singles chart and number two in the USA. By 2010, it had received five million air plays worldwide and was consistently earning its creator £80,000 a year in royalties. The experts rated the song 'nothing special'. What made it special was the riff, variously described as 'the most famous saxophone solo of all time' and 'the most recognisable in pop music history'.
But the riff didn’t have a lot do with Gerry Rafferty. It was the work of a humble session musician, Raphael Ravenscroft, born in Stoke-on-Trent, brought up in Dumfries, who died in Exeter in October 2014, aged 60, of a suspected heart attack. Thrice married, he is survived by a daughter, an artist with the wonderful name Scarlett Raven.
Ravenscroft wasn't much impressed by his own riff. He called it 'fairly straightforward' and complained that it was slightly out of tune. 'Yeah, it's flat,' he confessed to the BBC. 'By enough of a degree that it irritates me at best.' Often requested to play it, he almost always refused. In May 2014, though, he made an exception at a charity concert in aid of the family of Nicole Hartup, a 12-year-old Exeter girl who had been killed falling off a wall. Six months later, Ravenscroft himself was dead.
Rafferty lived comfortably off 'Baker Street' for the rest of his life. The sax player's reward was a one-off Musicians' Union session fee of £27.50. It was later claimed – apparently falsely – that the cheque bounced. It didn't make much difference one way or the other. For Rafferty's funeral, Ravenscroft composed a solo entitled 'Forgiveness'.
There was no reference to Raphael Ravenscroft in the many press reports of Paisley's bid to be the UK City of Culture and the collective attempt to reprise his riff. Naturally it would have spoiled the story if Rafferty's posthumous moment of glory had been decently shared with someone not from Paisley. Still, the omission rankles – as another small example of Scotland's selective approach to its own contemporary history.