Almanac Memoir: Wisdom in politics? Can you believe that?


It almost sounds like an awful admission these days, something from a H M Bateman cartoon.


You walk into a public place and dare to talk about politics and, suddenly, everybody in the venue gazes aghast at you and darts off like the devil in different directions.


And the caption reads: “The man who suggested there was nothing wrong with voting Labour!”


It isn’t something to laugh about, of course. Because there was a time when endorsing the party didn’t just seem the most natural thing in the world, but was a guarantee that men in the mould of Keir Hardie, Ramsay MacDonald, Aneurin Bevan and Harold Wilson would work to ensure certain principles remained intact.


These values included a belief in socialism, respect for other human beings, an inclusivity before the word was even coined, a tolerance for opposing opinions – without which democracy remains an impossible ideal – and the ability to conceive new ideas which might make a difference in the real world.


Bevan was at the forefront of the establishment of the NHS. MacDonald was the first party leader to back universal suffrage – and I’m not just talking about women – and, even in the days after Margaret Thatcher eviscerated Labour, some concepts which we take – or used to take – for granted in Britain, such as the minimum wage and preservation of the NHS, were sacred.


I have a huge interest in this. My grandfather, David Drysdale, was the Labour provost of Whitburn and, as somebody who worked for the old Cooperative movement, he drove a milk truck and gradually realised that many of his customers couldn’t afford to buy one of the most basic and essential commodities.


His life from that point was driven by the need to tackle the root causes of the mordant poverty which left so many people in Scotland condemned to the pits, the shipyards and cleaning the detritus in pubs, toilets and the garbage cans of society.


He succeeded, or at least he made changes for the better, not through fake gestures or false promises. He was true to himself: when he caught a young woman stealing milk from the back of his lorry, he sternly asked her why she had done it.


This was in October, 1924. His diary – which I’ve found and is incredibly precious to me – relates the tale.


“She was just a lass, 19 or 20. She had nothing. She cried. She had lost her dad in the war. Didn’t know where her mum was. Her bairn was three months old. He kept crying.


“Who else could I get involved? The lass needed milk for the wee one. [She was] really greeting by the end. I looked at her and I felt guilty. I gave her the milk. She looked so happy. But how had it come to this?”


There’s a Drysdale Avenue in Whitburn, which immortalises my beloved grandfather, who died in 1969. I was a child at the time, but he told me and my late sister, Jean, some valuable lessons about making sure we grabbed life by the scruff of the neck and enjoyed it.


He wasn’t preachy or po-faced, the opposite in fact. He wasn’t stuffy or self-absorbed, because he knew that politics was about hard realities and working together in a common cause. Men in his mould fought together in the trenches – they didn’t walk out of TV studios, scream abuse at one another and pretend they couldn’t find a seat on a train. In 1914, the trains were absolutely packed. And we all know what happened to so many of these fresh-faced youths.


Four months before his death in November, he wrote letters to Jean and I with these words: “So the Americans are first on the Moon. Can you imagine it? Can you…can I? I don’t know. They looked as if they would fall out of the sky.


“But please think about what it took to get there. Neil Armstrong made a great speech when he touched down.  He said what was going through our heads. And what these boys did was extraordinary [indecipherable] good. God speed them all back.”


David was special. He used to be the only person in the mining community of Whitburn to order a copy of The Guardian every morning. He agreed with their politics, of course, but he loved their sport as exemplified by the peerless John Arlott and even the hint that the onliest Neville Cardus might proffer an occasional piece.


And Alistair Cooke, of course, when he wasn’t otherwise engaged in composing his latest “Letter from America”.  Yes, it was a rich time.


As my grandpa wrote: “Never be mean. People make mistakes, but you see them get up and if you can help them, remember you might go through hard times yourself.


“I watch this TV. I can hardly see it. But I went down to see [Uncle] Allan and we loved watching Lancashire at Old Trafford. They were too good for Worcestershire, but Tom Graveney was a joy to watch – as always. Why does he get ignored so often?”


In his day, it was taken for granted that the Right and Left both had legitimate political arguments: he had fought in the trenches of World War 1 and, like so many other people, refused to speak a word about the horrors he had witnessed. But he knew there were no pat solutions, no one-size-fits-all philosophy.


As it turned out, just a few days before his death, he called Jean and I together and we sat down with a couple of packets of Opal Fruits. And he said, quietly, honestly: “I might not be here much longer. I’ve told your Gran I might be going away.


“But you two can do what you want  to do. Study all you can and [looking at me] get involved in archaeology. And [to Jean], sing, keep singing. You have a voice like a linty.”


It was a memorable few moments. He was one of the greatest, kindest, most modest individuals I have ever met in my life. He was a democrat to his bootstraps, compassionate to a fault, and in thrall to the notion that if any party ignored its core support, it was on a road to nowhere.


I wonder what he thinks right now!



For more of Neil Drysdale’s writing, CLICK HERE:



Read John Harms’ story on personal philosophy as the basis for political affiliation here: in “All is not what it seems,” published in Overland, Spring 2007. 


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  1. Wonderful story Neil. People of conviction in politics. There’s a good idea. The smug, self centred, banal nonsense that fills the halls of power now would cause the older generations to turn in their graves. Did they fight for this? I don’t think so.

    I think you get to the heart of the matter by suggesting that in the early political struggles thre was disagreement but respect for the opposing view. Not now. Modern politics has been dumbed down to glib slogans. Political understanding is shallow. That is a dangerous place.

  2. Neil Drysdale says

    I think you get to the heart of the matter. We’re seeing it in Britain where the Left and Right fling abuse at one another without listening and considering the merits of the other side. It’s not healthy and it’s the antithesis of Voltaire’s dictum!

  3. Peter Fuller says

    Thank you for this wonderfully uplifting memoir. It’s obvious where your own qualities come from. Your grandfather clearly set a splendid example of how to live a worthy life. That fine tribute to the WW 1 blokes who suffered the actual fighting “Lions led by donkeys” seems apt.
    Just a slight quibble about your reference to the past Labour giants. I wonder if we don’t lionise them after a few decades, even if they didn’t seem entirely impeccable to their contemporaries. I have a great deal of respect for Harold Wilson and often find inspiration in his call to arms : The Labour Party is a crusade or iit is nothing. However, my impression is that he suffered considerable criticism as he bore responsibility for the inescapable compromises of his period as PM. I also think that Ramsay MacDonald is fortunate to be included in your list of best players.
    In the Australian context Chifley and Whitlam are two examples of Labor leaders who are remembered fondly but were excoriated even by their own supporters, while they were attempting to manage the messy business of Government. Perhaps Disraeli’s analogy with the manufacture of sausages is to the point.

  4. Neil Drysdale says

    Thanks Peter, I agree with what you say. It’s one thing to be full of progressive ideas and principles when you’re not in office, another thing entirely to make them a reality after you’ve been elected. And, just as Ramsay MacDonald had to deal with the Zinoviev letter, his successors have been forced to battle against a hostile media. The problem for me with Corbyn is that it’s impossible to imagine him winning an election – and that stupid train stunt just showed that he still thinks he’s in student politics. Britain needs strong democratic parties who can argue persuasively from all sides. At the moment, we are sorely lacking vision beyond nasty reactionary views and pie-in-the-sky radicalism. Sad!

  5. Admire your perspective on life and politics Neil. No person or party is fully good or bad. I detest that we treat politics like a spectator sport – “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles” (Ambrose Bierce).
    Lincoln and his presidential opponent travelling on the same sleeper train and holding debates that went for hours from the platform of the rear caboose at each town they stopped. That’s real debate and town hall/railway platform politics to me.
    Your grandad shaped your character as much as your politics. Well played.

  6. Wonderful article Neil. Politics in that period, for those people was more than just a sound grab, they believed their politics would change the world, not just be a vehicle for numbers crunchers.

    Whilst we’re speaking of the politics and issues of the early 20th century, next Friday, 16/9 is the centenary of Archbishop Daniel Mannix’s first public statement on World War 1. If there are any almanackers who are around that night,who wish to hear a re-enactment of that speech. an event involving amongst others, Rod Quantaock, is being held @ St Johns , cnr of Queens pden and Welllington st Clifton Hill, for 6 pm.


  7. Neil Drysdale says

    Thanks for the kind comments. This site really is a treasure trove. It’s 16 years ago this week since I flew out to Sydney for the Olympics and it was one of the most enjoyable months of my life. Not just for the sport, but for the chance to have a good, old-fashioned natter and even argument with people without it ending in tears. We seem to have lost a lot of that these days! You’re either for and against something and there’s no room for the middle ground!

  8. Earl O'Neill says

    Great piece Neil, thank you. Our grandads would have enjoyed chewing the fat.
    I am taken by the line ‘both Right and Left had legitimate political arguments.’ These days, slinging insults seems the best anyone can manage and we are all the poorer for it.

  9. Anthony W Collins says

    Thank you for an interesting story, I am not convinced that we are so removed from the past. Menzies clawed back with his “forgotten people” speeches. I suspect that when you say “…there is no room for the middle ground”, that is a consequence of a new generation which regards itself as forgotten. As Thomas Jefferson said “A wounded friend will make the bitterest foe’. I suspect that a significant section of the electorate regards mainstream parties as being inattentive and uninterested. Your grandfather lived in a time when an individual could act for the common good. I am not sure why that seems less possible now..

  10. Ian Hauser says

    Principles, values, tolerance, respect – beautiful notions all and a good starting point for whatever field of endeavour you fancy.

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