A salutary thing has happened to the tiny, exclusive club of which I have been the self-appointed honorary president for the last 22 years. Just over half the members have gone to that far from tiny, not at all exclusive club in the sky. Apart from myself (whose membership is strictly ex-officio), there are only 11 left – enough to play for Scotland but with no subs remaining on the bench.
The survivors include such disparate souls as Tom Conti, Charles Kennedy, Winnie Ewing, Tam Dalyell, Gus MacDonald and David Murray. But a dozen have now fallen off their considerable perches, among them Rikki Fulton (perhaps my favourite of the lot), that old monster John Junor – I mistakenly wrote 'that old master', I suppose he was that too, if only a master of invective – John Smith, Alec Douglas-Home, Maurice Lindsay and Gentleman George Younger.
What, you may well be asking, was this club which united with unexpected harmony so motley a crew? It was – and just about still is – the Conversations in a Small Country Club. Not a small country club, of which we have more than enough in Scotland, but the club bringing together the participants in a book called 'Conversations in a Small Country'.
The year was 1989. In the spring I interviewed 23 of the most prominent Scots of their era. The book appeared in the early autumn and by Christmas had sold out twice. Although, for some unaccountable reason, it never went into a third print run, it had a surprisingly long shelf-life. A few years ago it was selected as the traditional gift presented by the moderator of the General Assembly to the lord high commissioner at the close of the Kirk's annual meeting.
All this sounds like the most frightful boasting, but it isn't – the only credit I take is the essential entrepreneurial one of persuading so many luminaries of Scottish life to talk, letting them get on with it, and setting down what they said.
When it occurred to me this week that the recent departure of Iain Noble had given the dead a narrow majority in the club, I revisited 'Conversations in a Small Country' in a half-serious way for the first time in years and re-read some of the chapters devoted to the now-deceased. To my surprise, I discerned a theme that, in the rush of compiling the book, had not occurred to me at the time. Many of its older subjects were haunted by a fear of poverty – if not their own, the poverty of others.
In the case of the industrialist Monty Finniston, the fear was quite explicit. He was 76 when we met, yet he was still a director of more than a dozen companies. I asked him why. 'What the hell do I have to look forward to? Actuarially? How many more years? At the end people will forget me. But I've still got to satisfy myself that I'm doing something.' That didn't seem good enough, so I pushed him. He gave a little laugh in that distinctive high-pitched voice. 'It's a throwback,' he said. 'I'm scared of being poor.'
He was born poor, a Gorbals boy, the oldest of five children of a Russian-born Jew. He crawled his way up to the top of the greasy pole, but he took his social conscience with him. He worked tirelessly for prison reform because he could not bear the thought of men urinating and defecating in a cell.
From the other side of industry I met Mick McGahey, who was of Finniston's generation, perhaps a little younger. When he was a power in the land, leading the miners' strikes of the 1970s, I would interview McGahey for the BBC and suggest that he was becoming a threat to democracy: our encounters bristled. In retirement he was sweetness personified. We drank whisky – undiluted in his case, as pure as his unreconstructed communism – in a trade union club in Edinburgh and he unwound about his early life as a miner, in Gateside pit in Cambuslang, where he went to work at the age of 14. 'Left school on the Friday, was down the pit on the Monday. I was a pony driver. Hard, brutal work. Pick and shovel.'
By Thursday night, there was nothing left in the cupboard. His mother called Thursday 'the day before tomorrow'. The north ward of Cambuslang had the highest rate of tuberculosis in western Europe, 'including Franco's Spain, as we always used to emphasise'. It was 1939. He spoke of the cruelty of the mine owners with a bitter passion. The resentment never left him; it shaped him. Although Mick McGahey and Monty Finniston took opposite directions from similar backgrounds, it was the same fear propelling them – the fear of poverty, personal in its source with Finniston, more general and politicised with McGahey.
Among men of God, I interviewed the Roman Catholic archbishop of Glasgow, Tom Winning, who was born into the poverty of small-town industrial Lanarkshire. His father, a former miner, lost his job during the depression of the 1930s and was out of work for 15 years. He spent his time making tablet, selling it to the local Co-op for a small, undeclared amount. After young Tom was asked in an exam whether fiddling the system was ever justified, he discovered that he was the only one in the class who had agreed that in some circumstances it was quite justified.
I suggested to Tom Winning that we should be profoundly grateful that the sort of poverty he had described, common also to the experiences of Mick McGahey and Monty Finniston, was a thing of the past. He nodded without enthusiasm and thought about that for a bit. 'It's a different kind of poverty now,' he said finally. 'You might go into a house and find wall-to-wall carpets. Comfortable in that way. But you'll also find that the family aren't eating. Look at the youngsters. Now kids are going home in the middle of the day to junk food, not to anything worthwhile.'
If I had the space, I could mention other members of my exclusive club, from more privileged backgrounds, whose lives were also influenced by poverty – poverty in their cases observed rather than experienced at first hand. I now see this as the implicit theme of 'Conversations in a Small Country', though never spotted by any of the book's many reviewers.
Well, how interesting – to me, anyway. But I also realise at the distance of 22 years, with most of the older interviewees now dead, that I was recording to some extent the passing of a generation, the Scotland of between the wars, a vanished Scotland but with resonances still heavily in the air. I wonder – it is an intriguing thought – if some enterprising journalist, with the energy and curiosity I had in 1989, conducted a similar experiment now, and interviewed 23 prominent Scots of my own generation, born after the second world war into a period of relative peace and plenty, what the result would be.
What were the influences that shaped us
Photograph of Mick McGahey by Ninian Reid
Painting of Tom Winning by Norman Edgard
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