Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Chris Bartter

For comrades who were unable to attend, here is my contribution delivered at Chris's funeral on 13 November.

This is the speech I didn’t want to have to make.

Mind you, Chris and Doreen and I had a history of speeches. Many years ago, when I used to get up to speak at NALGO’s Scottish District in front of 300 people, Chris would be behind me on the platform and Doreen would be sitting in the front row with the Glasgow District delegation – a row of faces with all the welcoming look of a Friday night audience at the Glasgow Empire.

Doreen would nod supportively throughout the speech but at a random moment she’d suddenly shake her head – totally throwing me and leaving me wondering where the hec I’d got the line wrong.

Not today, Doreen, please.

As I wrote last week in the Herald, Chris Bartter was a huge, almost omnipresent figure on Scotland's cultural, labour and trade union scene.

Yes he was impressively tall but what made the impression on people was his warmth, his sensitivity, his knowledge and intellect, his creativity, and his sense of fun.

He had a love of words and the bizarre fun you could have with them.

If you said, “It’s muggy today”, you would get the response, “Yes, and tomorrow’s Tueggy, then Weggy….”

Or when some pompous guy had been ranting on, Chris leaned across to me and said: “Aye, the world is his oxter.”

Chris became a proud Glaswegian, recently doing walking tours of the city's history, but he remained a dedicated and optimistic Tottenham Hotspur supporter with the theory that to do any good for the team you had to be called ‘Arry.

He achieved a feat few locals can manage in that he could sing (and often did) a full and perfect version of Hamish Henderson's 'The Freedom Come All Ye'.

It is impossible to list all that Chris did in the Arts, Labour and Trade Union movement but I hope I can give a flavour.

He started as a NALGO steward in Glasgow libraries, went on to be Service Conditions Officer making long term friendships with the legendary, if notorious, Glasgow Housing Department stewards.

He chaired NALGO’s Scottish Publicity Committee and was elected Scottish District Secretary, working with Andy Sweeney as chair.

He drove the first election campaign in the 80s by the then 'non-political' NALGO. We had to be careful with words so we urged people to 'vote wisely'. Unfortunately we later found out there was a Tory candidate in Aberdeen called Wisely - using our posters.

In 1990 he became NALGO’s then UNISON’s first full time Communications Officer, a post we had long campaigned for in Scotland.

It was through the early days in the union that I met Chris and Doreen.

Their moments of kindness over the years roll out one after the other as many of you will recognise.

They came through to Edinburgh on the day my daughter Seonaid was born to give her a teddy that she treasured into adulthood and which saw just about as many adventures as Chris and I did.

Yes, like many of you, Chris and I had many adventures, and he managed to convince Doreen they were all my fault.

There were many union trips to London or other parts, often with Liam Chalmers, or Jim Cochrane or Morag or Eugene Duffy.

The journeys were measured, not in hours, but in litres of wine.

Many of these adventures left lasting tales and references. Not least the Great Northern Hotel at Kings Cross.

Way back in the 1980s it was one of the first hotels to do a buffet breakfast. This was a novelty that baffled us both at first, but pretty soon Chris got the hang of it as he piled up his plate – then went back for another plateful.

For years after, in fact again only the other month, if someone asked whether there were two ‘ts’ in Bartter, the answer was “We don’t know about two ‘ts’ but there are certainly two breakfasts.”

In the union, Chris didn’t just work communications, he created the communications culture in the union, engaging, enthusing and training activists and always finding the time to gladly support them.

Communications was not just publicity, it was organising. To Chris it was at the very root of organising in the arts and the labour and trade union movement. And he was very good at it.

He was instrumental in 1983 in mounting the first trade union street theatre campaign - 'On The Pig's Back’ - taking 7:84 and Wildcat out on to the streets of cities and towns of Scotland to campaign for our national Health Service.

And he was behind the union’s sponsorship of some of the first performances of ‘The Steamie’ – using that to take the production out into communities and promote the union’s public services message.

He chaired the 7:84 theatre company, he wrote culture reviews for the Morning Star – and you will see the warm tribute from arts editor Cliff Cocker in today’s edition.

I commented on social media recently that one of his reviews was so vivid, I almost wished I’d been there. I got back: “What do you mean, almost?”

He was a huge part of reinstating Glasgow’s May Day as a festival and latterly he was organising the launch of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation and the Havana Glasgow Film Festival which paid a beautiful tribute to him last week.

And he did much of this after his so-called retirement in 2010.

Fellow Havana festival organiser Simon Macfarlane summed it up perfectly when he said: “He always championed the role arts could play in our struggles and in the enrichment of all our lives. He was of course a creative artist himself, designing and publishing countless resources that we could all use to fight for our members.”

He was also a tireless Freedom of Information campaigner. He certainly never tired of reminding me about when we gave evidence to the Scottish Parliament on freedom of Information and I was so lacking in being free with information that I never uttered a word.

Chris was as you will all know, an internationalist. He and Doreen travelled widely before and after retirement, not just as tourists, but as people who understood the history, politics and struggles of the people and places they visited.

I often told him I wouldn’t mind his job, but I couldn’t be doing with the travelling.

Chris loved people (well, most people). His famous Chris hugs, his booming presence and that guffaw of a laugh are legend.

An abiding memory will be seeing him at the Mandela statue appeal in the City Chambers just a month ago in deep and knowledgeable conversation with Sir Alex Ferguson about a painting on the wall. Followed by the booming laugh as some one-liner was exchanged.

In his spare time, if he had any, Spurs and cricket were his passions. But not as much as collecting books – lots and lots of them despite Doreen's attempted restraints. So much so that he was known to have bought the same book twice as I found when I was presented with a duplicate recently – a book about punctuation - because he reckoned I was an even bigger pedant about punctuation than him.

So, was there anything that made Chris Bartter angry?

Injustice, inequality and poverty were the obvious ones. Those were the things that drove his socialism – a practical socialism about making things better for people - that got him active on the left of the Labour Party and out round the doors at elections, and that saw him campaign on so many issues.

He also got a wee bit irked about - misplaced apostrophes. We were teaching a course at the Glasgow Airport Hotel and in the loo I spotted a poster advertising ‘Christmas Disco’s. Yes, Disco - apostrophe - s’. I thought, I must tell Chris - then promptly forgot.

Later I went back to the loo to find someone had altered the poster to say “Christmas Disco’s what?’. This time, I remembered to tell Chris - and got the proud response: “Yup, that was me.”

It is that sense of fun, the inner-child nonsense he shared with so many that brightened up so many days, that will live with me.

So let me share a couple of my favourite Chris-isms.

When you needed cheered up, the philosophical: “Every silver lining has a cloud”

Or my personal favourite: “See a pin and pick it up – and all the day you’ll have – a pin”.

The fact that Chris engaged so well with people, that he touched them so much with his humanity, is what led to such an outpouring of shock and devastation when his passing was announced.

He achieved so much and, in so many areas, he made a difference that will leave lasting legacies.

But he didn’t do all of this alone. He was part of a team that was he and Doreen. Matched in humour, kindness and commitment to the labour and trade union movement.

Chris was unique. We can try to pick up on the work he did and take forward the issues that were dear to him. But we can never replace the unique.

There was and will forever be only one, unique, Chris Bartter.

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