Readers hoping for gossip will be sorely disappointed. I’m about to describe the events that took place before and after meeting our admired First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, (for the second time) but for those not yet had that pleasure I’ll convey what many have perceived of her. She’s highly attentive, in control and absolutely focussed. She exudes authority, but not the disengaged aloofness of the moneyed classes, or the verbal correctness of a high court judge. It’s that old fashioned thing known as unassailable integrity.
Two further observations: She practises the caution of those who learn a first meeting is what people are selling you, a built-in defence needed by any public person who receives praise and abuse from those it is her sworn duty to protect, and the society they live in. And secondly, she reads Grouse Beater. How often I didn’t ask.
Doon the Watter
The occasion was the opening of Dunoon’s refurbished Burgh Hall, a hefty red sandstone Victorian pile once for demolition, now saved as an arts and entertainment centre.
The Grade B Listed building built in 1874 is imposing. It sits high in the town’s centre, overlooking the harbour where the flat bottomed ferries forever chug back and forth from Gourock piloted by men who’ve held the same job most of their working lives.
The English weather forecaster on the radio pronounced it “Gow-Rock.” A day trip down the Clyde on a paddle steamer – Glass-gow, Gow-Rock, Done-noon, “Doon the watter”.
Dunoon, the Riviera of Scotland, punctuated with unkempt palm trees, has seen better times, and many a Labour and Tory government that didn’t give a damn. The centre offers shops that look as if they’ve not changed their window display since the 1950s. The shoreline is lined with the aging holiday houses of Glasgow’s 19th century wealthy, a boat ride away from the sheeple and hoi polloi of outside toilet tenement dwellers.
A great asset to the town
The transformation has generated jobs, not only trades in the recasting of the building, but now in administration, exhibition organising, classes, catering and trades. Every room is utilised to its maximum, with a modern café added onto the rear. There’s a room to create paintings, one to make and fire pottery, another to exhibit anything from children’s school drawings to great art, the obligatory gift shop, and a vast main hall on the second floor where plays can be performed, dances organised, or wedding’s held.
I and others were invited to the official opening to see some unusual prints of Andy Warhol, gifted to Scotland’s Museum of Modern Art. Warhol finally made it to Dunoon. There was also prints loaned for the occasion by Royal Academician painter and master printmaker Barbara Rae a Crieff lassie who’s made big in the world of contemporary art.
Let them eat cake
Once I pinned my name badge onto my shirt pocket I did what we all do, check were the free food and wine lay, (there was no wine or beer!) and searched the crowd for familiar faces. Amid the excited staff I recognised only three. John McAslan the principal architect, a Dunoon man, flying around rooms checking last minute detail, trailing the architect’s statutory denim jacket behind him. The head of Creative Scotland, Janet Archer, milled around, severe, stolid, dyed cropped hair, every inch Rosa Klebb of the KGB. Nearby the lanky patrician figure of Sir John Leighton, director general of our national galleries, a Westminster placeman from his shoes to his polished Scots accent.
I waited for the Big Moment in the café chomping on a cube of jam sponge, no reward for a long drive from Edinburgh. I got pinned there by a garrulous oldie who insisted on telling me about all her famous friends, and when my eyes glazed over, proceeded to continue the history of her above-average achievers to an unwary anthropology student next to me. The girl hadn’t learned the art of making the implausible excuse plausible for a quick exit. She remained seated, transfixed, taking refuge as best she could behind a large coffee cup that hid half her face.
An unceremonious arrival
The Big Moment was Nicola there to open the building, and let people know where some of the funds had come from, and that their elected government knew where Dunoon was unlike Westminster politicians. I expected her to arrive in a phalanx of black limousines, Saltire flying on the radiator cap, police motorbikes on either side sirens blaring. The only police presence was pleasant beat cops in ill-fitting uniforms who looked as if given a day’s release from a Broons cartoon.
Nicola arrived in a non-descript saloon – it might as well have been a bus – perfectly in keeping with her down-to-earth approach to her day job, which is the considerable task of retrieving Scotland’s sovereignty from the clutches of a belligerent neighbour nation.
After running the gauntlet of press cameramen, Nicola was greeted by the assembled staff, and guided to a series of meet the public moments, each set in a different room where she got involved in the activity that took place. I notice that contrary to the strict written schedule I was given she broke it at every opportunity, taking her time to meet and talk to whomsoever she wanted to meet.
There was not a sign of Mayisms – two minute photo-op chats and whisked off to a place of safety from the public.
Photays and selfies
Nicola’s ability to concentrate on the person talking to her amid a cacophony of chatter, pushing and shoving, and clicking cameras, impressed. Upstairs, in the vast hall big enough to shoot ducks, she was given a warm reception by speakers and a musical assembly group.
A frazzled organiser grabbed me by the elbow to ask if I’d like to be included in the group photo shot of the day. Pathologically shy of cameras I made my second excuse of the hour and snuck into the gift shop.
Nicola Sturgeon is a politician in the history books. I’m master of the missed opportunity.
After an hour of meeting and talking to VIPs and staff, Nicola drifted outside. There she was was greeted by people in street who burst into spontaneous applause. I bit my tongue to stop the emotion welling up in my throat from turning into tears.
About to get into her nondescript car she noticed an elderly man behind some railings waving to her. She joined him in conversation. In my mind I compared the low-key, relaxed scene I was witnessing with Ruth Davidson’s idea of meeting the public, a politician wholly unlike Nicola, yet to win an election, but who feels compelled to sit on the back of a buffalo demonstrating to Scottish farmers how Chinese farmers get to and from their paddy fields.
Three times Nicola tried to reach her car only to be surrounded by young and old. A group of young girls waving iPhones begging for a selfie. She obliged, and then, invited into the local SNP shop, went inside to chat to the staff. From a bench outside the hall I watched her mix with people in the street as naturally as you and I might greet family.
Wurr a’ doomed
Next to me on the bench sat a middle-years man and woman, between them a beautiful child, a girl not yet three years of age. He was Scots, the woman English, the child a painting fit for a portrait on a Dresden porcelain vase. I broke the ice and spoke to the child with the shining blue eyes and naturally curly hair.
“Hello, perfectly formed person. How are you?” She looked at the man with the grizzled face and designer stubble, and then up at her father for reassurance I wasn’t a mad tree logger from the wilds of Alaska.
“What’s going on?” asked the father, nodding in the direction of the crowds. “Nicola Sturgeon is here,” I said.
His face darkened. The woman shifted uncomfortably.
“That’s our excuse to get the hell out of here”, she chuckled nervously. The man let out the hiss of an expletive. “Fuck! No’ her?”
“Has she done you some harm?” I chose words I hoped might throw him.
He checked me out for a few seconds. “You’re not from here?” he said with a tone half-question and half-scorn. “Edinburgh” I answered, “Born same block as Sean Connery,” I added, to give him the impression my large frame might swing a punch if he got mouthy about our First Minister.
The importance of the non-important
There’s no rationale to the syndrome “I hate Nicola Sturgeon,” no reasoning with it either, nor was there to the carping of old, “I hate Alex Salmond”. I heard her denigrated again recently. And each time I hear it I am astounded. A young woman from Aberdeen told me she was shocked to hear her parents say they were voting Tory because they “hated Sturgeon”. “Why vote Tory? she pleaded. “Why do that to your own country? Why not just vote ‘No’ at the next referendum?”
What sort of First Minister do these immature people want? A bird brain Labour version or a budgie strangling Tory version? Can their revulsion have something to do with a Scots accent? Is it The Cringe, that terrible affliction inculcated in so many who live in a colonised country? In that case do they prefer a lump of limestone lead them with no ability to think on her feet, a Theresa May type? If all it amounts to is they want to live in a corrupt country then why wheedle their lives away in Scotland? Move south.
The man with the beatific daughter spoke up. “We got together to save the building”, he said, letting me know Dunoon had people power. “A fine thing to have accomplished,” I said, and meant it. “SNP have a policy of getting power and decision making back to us.”
He stopped his little daughter from moving out of his grasp and launched into a rant.
“They wasted five million on a fancy pier and naebody’s used it since.” The woman nodded in agreement. “Useless”.
“And ‘they’ are?” I snapped back. I got no answer only a scowl.
It dawned on me he was talking about the pier, the ferry terminal, a project that employed local tradesmen over a few years and spread its budget among the community. I’m told it was a Tory council who commissioned it. The father didn’t explain why the pier was ‘useless’ – I asked what sort of ferry was needed and got no reply – but it was clear he thought his taxes had gone to waste. I’m sure he felt there were more deserving priorities.
“I can see the town needs a couple of billion spent on its rejuvenation, but remember Scotland gets an allowance in return for all our taxes, and we don’t have surplus cash.”
He wasn’t in the mood to exchange political pleasantaries, and beckoned to the woman I thought his wife, but wasn’t, that it was time to go.
As he stood up from the slatted steel bench I gave him a parting farewell. “I’m for the same rights, the same opportunities, the same control of what we earn, as those folk south of the border. I take it you wouldn’t want less than that for your country?”
He gave me a half-smile in return. It was then I noticed his Ranger’s blue football strip.
The grotesque on the wall
On the side of the Burgh Hall there hangs a Grotesque, not a gargoyle, not the stone face that takes water off a roof, but a carving to ward off evil spirits. Maybe it did its work that day, or maybe the propensity that lurks in the hearts of some Scots to cheat themselves of their birthright will need more than a talisman against self-harm. For my part, I can’t understand why anybody denigrates the one political party dedicated to giving us back our rights and the land we currently rent.
When I left, Nicola Sturgeon was still in happy conversation with an increasing number of onlookers and admirers. Whatever schedule she had she’d junked.
I got back into my black SUV often mistaken for a taxi by late night revellers, and headed to the ferry and back to the M8 more convinced than ever that the saviours of Scotland and its communities will only ever be the Scots themselves, even the permanent misanthropes committed to nothing but themselves.
The trick is not to let them surrender, dragging us back to last century. They have to understand we share common ground. There’s no going back.
And we bloody mean it!