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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, October 16, 2009

fathers


my father - a painting commissioned from Yuliana Sotirova (who worked only from a black and white photo!)
We are all shaped by our upbringing – family; neighbourhood; and education. My father was a Presbyterian Minister (in a Scottish shipbuilding town) whom I would like to have known better. Last year I found myself discussing the possible establishment of a series of lectures (better perhaps “conversations”) which would celebrate my father’s passions and values. These can be tentatively but not adequately expressed in such words as understanding.. tolerance.. sharing.... service....exploration.... reconciliation.... and also, in pastimes, such as "boats, books, bees and bens".
The discussion involved me drafting the following thoughts - partly in an effort to clarify why I felt my father's memory deserved "resurrection"; partly because I was aware that he represented a world we have lost and should celebrate. And partly, I realise, because I was trying to find out what being Scottish now means to me. Scotland's Minister of Justice suggested - in his defence of his recent, controversial release of the so-called Lockerbie bomber - that there distinctive Scottish values....

Memorials are normally for famous people – but the point about my father is that he had no affectations or ambitions (at least that I knew about!) and was simply “well ken’t” and loved in several distinct communities. It was enough for him to serve one community (Mount Pleasant Church in Greenock for 50 years) and to use his time on earth to try to open up - to a range of very different types of individuals - the richness of other fields of knowledge. So he tutored in ancient languages and history – he was a prison chaplain – he was chairman of Greenock’s McLellan Gallery and Philosophical Society – latterly he was a lecturer on a British circuit about his travels (which included an expedition to Greenland in his sixties!). In all of this, of course, he was quietly supported by my mother - about whom I will write separately.

His well-known passions for books and travel were expressions of his passion for the world. His service as an independent (“moderate”) councillor (and Baillie) on Greenock Town Council equally showed his lack of dogma and his openness. When, in my late teens, I became both an atheist and socialist (offending some of our West-end neighbours) I felt only his quiet pride that I was, in my own way, searching for myself and, in different ways, living up to his values[1].

1. Serving the community – love and professionalism
My father was much respected by people – the support and service he offered to his those in trouble; his modesty; the quiet way he wore his learning. Like many other similar people he received little official recognition. Strathclyde Region’s first Convener, Geoff Shaw, was also a Church of Scotland Minister who struck a chord with so many people in the mid-1970s – coming into politics late from a "community-based" ministry - but then died so tragically early. Just as appreciated – but behind the scenes - was the old miner (Dick Stewart) who actually led the Region politically for its first decade.
They were perhaps the last generation which made Scotland what it is. The last 25 years have celebrated a different – more ambitious and greedy – global ethic.
I noticed a wonderful piece in Scottish Review in 2008 - by Kenneth Roy - about how people like the radical Rev George McLeod influenced the shop steward Jimmy Reid who led the Clyde shipyard sit-ins in the 1970s. We need more of these intellectual vignettes.
The importance of such role models has, of course, been rediscovered recently – and integrated into government strategies. And the importance of communities and service has been stressed incessantly by government agencies for 30 years in Scotland – but perhaps government is now too dominant and impatient a partner?
Like other sons (and daughters) of Scottish Presbyterian Ministers, I threw myself into politics – but this took an unconventional route as my mission was to try to reform what I saw as a centralised system which denied a voice to many people. Community development was the name of the game for me.
I continued my belief in social engineering in the new career I developed from 1990 as an EU adviser to central European and Asian governments as they tried to restructure their systems of government. Very much moving on the periphery - a balancing skill I learned at my parent's West-end house as I cultivated the East end!
There is a lot of talk about the cynicism with politics and politicians – Robert Michels[2] warned more than a hundred years ago of the dangers of professionalization[3]. Perhaps, however, some of the fault lies in the arrogance embodied in the ideology behind the social sciences which came of age as I did in the late 1960s and underpinned the claims not only of the new financial system but of the new public management which was forged here in Britain and has been so assiduously marketed abroad.
Scotland served in the 1990s as an important example to other European countries about community regeneration; its new parliament took up the theme of social inclusion which some of us started 30 years ago; and Strathclyde University is the centre, for example, of a very important network which shares information and best practice relating to the massive EU Structural Funds.
But what does this all really mean for the hopes and dreams of the people a parish Minister or priest deals with? The language in which the business of government (and think tanks) is conducted excludes many people. And there can be no communities without shared language – one of Greenock’s most neglected figures[4] was very eloquent about this. And much policy discussion is conducted without reference to lessons from previous periods or places.
There’s an issue struggling to get out here – I can’t quite define it – “How to act when we are aware of the counter-productivity of good intentions?” “How inject dose of humility into political and administrative class?” “Evil in government[5]?” Various figures – such as Bob Holman and Alaister McIntosh[6] – might be invited to contribute to such a debate.

2. Reconciliation and understanding
My father was one of the first Scottish Ministers in the late 1940s to establish contact with a German Presbytery (Heiligenkirchen; Detmold; Bad Meinberg) and to organise mutual exchanges. The network this created continued until my mother’s death in 2005.
Now such European exchanges are two-a-penny, institutionalised and achieve exactly what? Their equivalents these days would be exchanges with mosques in Bosnia, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and Uzbekistan – who’s game?

One of Scotland’s self-acknowledged weaknesses is reflected in the “Wha’s like us!” cry. Of course, we refer with pride to the “Auld Alliance”[7] and the links we established with the European Commission in the 80s as signs that we are better Europeans than our southern neighbours; and a Scottish Parliament and Executive is able to give Scotland a more official range of international contacts. But perhaps they are being used for too selfish and immediate ends? Of course Scotland has become home to various refugee groups – and their support and integration is taken very seriously by statutory and voluntary agencies. But, as a society, have we really embraced and learned from them?

My father was a passionate (and single) traveller – almost in the mould of Patrick Leigh Fermor – certainly in his travels (with camera and in kilt) in the hinterlands of Greece in the 1970s - when he had to update his biblical Greek!. Austria was also a favourite haunt – although more sedately with my mother. Not content with the voyage itself, he wanted to pass on the experience to others and arouse their interest in “others”. And so he photographed – and became active in a national lecture circuit. He passed these passions to me – and was, for example, indirectly, responsible for me being there on the wrong side of East Germany as the Soviet tanks sped to support the building of the Berlin wall in August 1963. And the passion for travel and photography have been passed, in turn, to my daughter Hilary.
The 1990s opened up Central Europe to me – what a shame he was no longer there to share the discoveries with me. I was very taken to discover the role which a Scotsman - Robert Seton-Watson - had played in the early part of the 20th century in creating the 2 countries of Slovakia and Romania which have become particuarly dear to me. My father would also have been fascinated with my seven years in Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan – where the Scottish track is not so easy to find. But the UK Ambassador in Tashkent (Craig Murray) was driven to his confrontation with the Foreign Office by Scottish values – and people and songs in poor and mountainous Kyrgyzstan have such strong similarities with Scotland!
But how can travel give such meaning in these very different globalised and ecological times? What can Scotland contribute?

3. Bees, bens and boats
Coming to Greenock (from Kilcreggan and Helensburgh) just before the outbreak of the second World War, it is hardly surprising that my father developed a passion for boats – and, during the war, served on the small naval boats which patrolled the River Clyde and Scotland's west coast. Apparently my birth was announced to him on one of these patrols. And one of my first holiday memories is a small boat he had hired (“The Elspeth”) to take us to places like Tighnabruaich! And the motor-boat which was our life-line for 4 glorious summers in the early 50s between Calve Island in Tobermory Bay and the shops. Colonsay was another site for memorable childhood holidays. Another memory is his tending his bees at the bottom of the manse garden.
My father was not only a keen hill-walker but knew and climbed with some of the early writers about Scottish Mountaineering – such as Bennie Humble. Needless to say, he never had a car.
Now we have writers and books such as Robert McFarlane’s “Mountains of the Mind” which rediscover the meanings behind such passions.

4. Mapping, collecting and sharing-
And of course the McLellan Gallery which my father chaired for how many years! This marking his passion to share the beauty and richness of the world. I noticed the books then – more than the paintings. Now I can appreciate both. I remember a shop in Venice in the early 1980s – which had been making paper for 6 centuries. I stumbled in 1989 on a small print shop in Berlin with a poem celebrating bookmaking (in the non-Greenock sense). To him I owe the love I have developed for visiting European art galleries – particularly the less-well known of Germany and Belgium. Recent examples are encounters in remote Slovak and Bulgarian villages with custodians of amazing collections of paintings – eg Moymirovce and Smolyan – who have no resources for their preservation let alone websites. And the incredible, unknown Uzbek art (bought up now undoubtedly by Moscow (snake) oil tycoons. How does a rich society like Scotland support such work?

5. Fathers
Why do we take so long to appreciate our fathers? When he was alive I found it difficult to communicate with him at any other than a superficial level. That was my fault.

Possible contributors
Apart from those mentioned above, I think of someone like Neil Ascherson who wrote initially about Poland (and tracked the rise and victory of Solidarity). Who knows about the 16th century Scottish community of Gdansk? Ascherson then extended his musings to the fascinating area of the Black Sea (including the influence of the Greeks) and wrote latterly about "The Stones of Scotland".
Christopher Harvie’s contribution as a commentator on Scotland’s history - with his 20 years at Tubingen University and now in the Scottish Assembly.

[1] I will never forget his quiet welcome when I returned home one evening in the early 1960s with Pat Arrowsmith in tow – then one of the most prominent (and female!) practitioner of non-violent demonstrations against the H-bomb.
[2] The Iron Law of Oligarchy
[3] And JP Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards on the evil of technocracy
[4] The poet WS Graham
[5] Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is the key reference for this
[6] http://www.alaistermcintosh.com/
[7] Which Scotland had in 17th and 18th centuries with England’s enemy - France

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