An evening in the company of Dr John Reid and his friends on June 16 2006 sparked off the following stream of consciousness, an extract from which appeared in the Financial Times Observer diary early the following week. Although the lead item has apparently been killed off by subsequent events, I still very much enjoyed the creative process that brought it into being, and realise that diarists really do have the easiest jobs in journalism!
Could Dr John ‘Attack Dog’ Reid be preparing himself for a leadership bid in the event that Prime Minister Tony Blair does fulfil his promise to stand down at some yet-to-be-determined date? Anyone listening to his address to a celebratory dinner in Glasgow last Friday might have been forgiven that the event was being held to launch his campaign to become Prime Minister rather than to mark the closure and demolition of his former school, St Patrick’s High School in Coatbridge, Lanarkshire.
Letting down what’s left of his hair, and drawing himself up to his full five feet six (or is it five feet four?), Dr Reid spoke energetically and emotionally about his life, his time at the school and, some suspect, his plans for the future. Sounding suspiciously Old Labour, even Soviet Socialist, Dr Reid called the attention of his adoring like-minded audience to the need for passion on the part of those in public life. “Without it, people might as well vote for dessicated calculating machines or synthetic creations of the media.”
Dessicated calculating machines? Synthetic creations of the media? Who can he have been thinking of? Do the names Gordon Brown and David Cameron spring quickly to mind?
Every aspirant leader needs a circle of friends, some to be held close, others to be held closer still. Dr Reid, it seems, already has a phalanx. The right honourable Tom Clarke, one of the many Labour MPs entrenched in safe seats in the Central Belt, drew attention to the good doctor’s flexibility and other good character points. “Shortly after leaving school, John found himself with eight job offers,” said Mr Clarke, recalling one of the many recurring themes in Dr Reid’s speech. “He’s had almost as many jobs in the Cabinet in recent years. If I were a betting man, I’d be placing a bet on where the eighth might be.”
Mr Clarke continued approvingly, going on to make what he presumably saw as a witty, dismissive and crushing reference to the ‘twitterati of the London media’. The joke, though, is very much on Mr Clarke, who, like Dr Reid and other speakers, remained oblivious throughout to the presence in the room of a member of that set. He sat some 15 feet to the left of the speaking area, scribbling openly and furiously in a small reporter’s notebook.
“This attack dog has restored the rottweiler’s reputation as a lovable family pet,” said Mr Clarke, who has now publicly made his own small contribution to the restoration of the Scottish Labour MP’s collective reputation for narrowmindedness, lack of vision and outright bigotry. “St Patrick’s is a place that brought about a revolution,” he boomed, looking and sounding more like Fidel Castro by the moment. “Public service is superior to self-service. These values will endure.”
Full of Grace
In a room full of Catholic teachers, Catholic former pupils of all ages, sexes and sizes, and Catholic priests (at least one of whom is a long-serving Jesuit), it is probably only to be expected that an atmosphere of some reverence characterised the evening.
Non-Catholics, though, might have found themselves shifting uneasily in their seats as the pro-Catholic tone of the speakers and their speeches grew increasingly strident. Take a dash of Nuremburg rally, add a pinch of Friday prayers, throw in a hint of a Papal Urbi et Orbi address, mixed with lashings of sub-Catherine Cookson meanderings on the distinctive aura forged in coal and steel communities, especially amongst unemployed and hungry ancestors, and there you have something of the flavour of the evening.
With each table groaning under a large candelabra packed full of votive lights, it wanted only a whiff of incense and the sound of the consecration bells to turn the dinner into a mass rally. Maybe Mary Magdalene didn’t flee to the south of France after all, as Dan Brown would have it. Maybe she moved to Coatbridge with the Holy Grail and set up St Patrick’s, where her bloodline continue to serve today.
It would certainly help explain why neighbouring Airdrie long boasted its very own Templar Hall, and why the people of The Monklands, as the surrounding area is called, believe they have a God-given right to complain about how the country is run.
Several times Dr Reid displayed an unexpected sense of humour, as when recalling the visit of the late Roy Jenkins, an MP with distinctly upmarket tastes in food and wine, to the constituency of Hillhead in Glasgow where he won a by-election in 1983.
“He had to have lunch in Partick,” intoned Dr Reid, knowing that his audience had an instinctive understanding that Partick, lunch and Roy Jenkins were unlikely words to feature in the same sentence. “He looked at the paltry menu. There was little there to suit his palate. ‘Do you have some asparagus tips?’ he asked the barmaid. She said she would check with the manager.
“I’m sorry,” she said, on returning. “We don’t have asparagus tips. Would Benson and Hedges do?”
Illlustrating the law of unintended consequences is the story behind Dr Reid’s first cigarettes. A friend at the school was caught smoking by a teacher, who insisted that the culprit smoke every cigarette between now and the next morning, and furnish as proof the doubts (cigarette ends). The friend handed them round his group, so that instead of one boy smoking, there were five. “I thought, this is good,” said Dr Reid, before adding, “Don’t link this with the stuff they found in my house.”
The next day, he bought five cigarettes of his own. “It’s ironic, I started smoking because someone said not to.”
James Dean Lookalike
A highlight of the evening was the range of photographs illustrating key moments in the school’s sporting, academic and social progress. Dr Reid himself drew attention to the embarrassing one showing a certain James Dean lookalike glaring defiantly at the camera during a school trip to (where else?) Rome. We are open to bids for its safe return in a plain brown envelope….
What do you get?
“What do you get if you cross a Freemason with an alsatian?”, asked Dr Reid. “You get a policeman with extremely good promotion prospects.”
Dr Reid apologised for the presence around him of certain groups of tall good looking men with bulging biceps. ‘These are the guys I inherited from Peter Mandelson,’ he quipped. ‘I don’t normally write speeches, which is a problem for my civil servants. ¥es Minister is not a sitcom, it’s a documentary. I dutifully ignore the volumes they produce. I believe politicians should say what they think, especially about Jeremy Paxman and other journalists.”