Friday, 20 April 2012

Adventures of an activist called Tom

As STUC Congress approaches I always reflect on the characters of the past and the bits of fun I remember in or around the movement over the years. So sit back and enjoy some unashamed name-dropping from a back-office publicist who happened to be in the right place at the right time – from time to time.

Not strictly the STUC but let's start with the biggest first. 1993, Glasgow, pissing rain. Thousands welcome Nelson Mandela. A chance meeting with Lothian Region convener Keith Geddes and UNISON general secretary Alan Jinkinson led to me being in the line-up to meet Mandela. I was in a red nylon hoodie and soaked to the skin.

I’ll never forget Mandela’s moving words, full of political significance, as he shook my hand. “You are very wet”, he said.

As a result of this dialectic, I left in tears through the wrong door and was confronted by serious security (the type with a weapon). “What are you doing here?”, she asked in that way that you know she’s not to be messed with.

“I’ve just met Nelson Mandela”, I bubbled. So she gave me a cuddle!

Off then to the New Blane Valley pub (it is now refurbished and is no longer ‘New’ - just the Blane Valley. I always think that’s strange).

Anyway, I kept the Mandela handshake hand in my pocket (leading to a failure to catch my camera when UNISON’s Jane Carolan knocked it over). I kept it there all the way home until I laid it on my young children’s foreheads. Daft I know but I’m still glad I did it and so are they.

On the emotional front, as Mandela left the stage that day, I went round the back of the stage to take a photo and met a woman from Namibia. As we watched him come down the scaffolding stairs to the empty space between the back of the stage and the city chambers, the new South African national anthem struck up.

It was pouring down but Mandela stopped and stood to attention halfway down the stairs, getting drenched as the assistant with the brolly had been left a couple of steps behind.

I looked to the right. The only other people watching this were the woman from Namibia, me and, in front of the city chambers, a line of Glasgow polis standing to attention and saluting the man. Such a powerful vision that it still moves me to relate it to this day.

Back to the STUC.

In Dundee many moons ago I met Michael McGahey and Jimmy Reid in a taxi with Bob Thomson. That was to be the start of a fair wheen of stories.

Michael McGahey. A man who respected me so much, he called me ‘Tom’. I first met him in 1983 when Eric Clarke led me up a mysterious dark staircase into a wood panelled room at Hillside Crescent NUM HQ, for an audience.

I was trying to persuade the NUM to accept the NALGO open-topped bus with 7:84/Wildcat on the back as part of the Miner’s Gala. I came prepared with ‘Put People First’ balloons, paper baseball caps and of course beer mats. Inspiring!

In the centre of the room was a huge desk. There sat the great man that I’d seen on TV, in the papers, in books and through my dad’s descriptions. Two bakelite phones, one black, one white, sat on the desk.

“Hello, Tom”, he said.

“John”, I said.

“Aye”, he said.

I made my pitch. He lifted a paper hat and put it on. The white phone rang. He lifted the phone, listened intently and eventually said loudly and firmly in that familiar gravelly voice, “Don’t talk to me about metallurgists, get the men motivated”.

I couldn’t have agreed more.

He hung up, took the hat off, looked at it and put it back on again.

“Bona Fide trade union campaign, Tom. You’re on the Gala and you’ve got a good chance of winning the cup for the best float”. Which we duly did.

Come the day, all went well until we arrived at the gates of Holyrood Palace. The bus inexplicably stopped and pulled to the side. Walter, the by now legendary Strathclyde bus driver, shouted from the cab, “Bus is two inches higher than the gate – no can do”. We had to wait and let the whole gala through. I took the opportunity to take the salute.

So we missed the presentation of the cup. A fact Mr McGahey was intent on communicating to me from the other side of the road later on. How proud was I with my mates as McGahey shouted across to me.

How deflated when we realised he was shouting “Well done, Tom!”. Much looking over shoulders and murmurings of “who’s Tom?”.

Years later after a memorial service for Alex Kitson, I took advice from Jimmy Reid on the Tom thing. “Jimmy, Michael keeps calling me Tom and my name’s John. What should I do about it?”

After a pause and much thought, Jimmy offered, “Run wi’ it”.

Not one to be put off so easily (even though it was sage advice from a lifetime of experience), I approached Michael McGahey junior on the issue.

“Mick, gonnae ask your dad tae call me by my proper name?” I ventured. I saw a brief conversation between the McGaheys but then thought no more about it.

As I was talking to a T&G rep and a seaman’s union rep at the bar, Michael snr was leaving the pub. To my pride, he slapped me on the shoulder, pulled me round, and in front of my impressed new friends he said: “Goodnight, Thomas!”

I was clearly out of my depth. But it got worse. I shared a taxi home with Jimmy Reid and Bob Thomson (he keeps cropping up) but I was so drunk I couldn’t get up the garden path.

Jimmy Reid kindly assisted. My wife was at the window after a couple of wines or few at a summer evening’s barbecue, when she thought, “That cannae be John being carried up the path by Jimmy Reid?” Her promise never to drink again was never kept.

I’ve enjoyed these wee anecdotes. So much so that I may well follow up with gems like Alex Kitson being recognised at the polling station and Jimmy Reid being taught by Bob Thomson to use a mobile phone. Watch this space…

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