Chris Creegan

Comment | Ideas | Opinion

The day the new dawn broke

by Chris on 4th May 2017

‘A new dawn has broken, has it not?’ I remember that dawn and the speech but I wasn’t there to hear it. I had left the Festival Hall shortly before Tony Blair arrived. As I said good morning to the night and headed away from the revelry I had another new horizon on my mind. At the age of 36, I was going to meet my mother for the first time the very next day.

Looking back it seems like an absurd clash of personal and political priorities. I had spent the previous month working 12 hour days at Walworth Road in the policy response unit. I was drunk in the moment in more ways than one. And rather than sleep it off, I embarked on a journey which would culminate in one of the most significant encounters of my life.

But that is how it was. I had first voted in 1979 at the age of 18 and spent most of the next 18 years yearning for the political landscape to change. I had also been on an increasingly urgent journey to understand how I had come to spend the first 18 years where I had. Not in the family I was born into, but somewhere else. Now, in the bright light of that May morning, the second half of my life to date was coming to meet the first half. Things, I hoped, could only get better.

No surprise then that, 20 years later, as others recalled where they were on the 1 May 1997, I had more than one reason to reflect on that new dawn. And the one that was to follow. In truth, both moments failed to live up to their expectations in many ways, but they wrought profound changes in my life and the life of the nation nonetheless.

I can’t tell this story without revealing my own Portillo moment. Working in the policy response unit had been a gruelling experience. But we didn’t mind because we knew we were onto something. Our job was to respond to pretty much any call from anyone about anything with the exception of calls from journalists. Although more than one of us suspected we might have encountered a journalist in disguise.

Some calls were straightforward enough, not least because we had the five pledges and our pocket size policy bible. We knew it all off by heart. Right down to the, we had no plans to have plans about something or other. Most people were pleasant enough even if they weren’t satisfied. But there were some difficult customers. And sometimes they would keep you talking and talking, in a seemingly deliberate test of every ounce of discipline and resolve you had left.

Sometime during the last week or so, I answered one such call. Very tired, I became tetchy in my head and had to do everything I could not to let it show in my voice. As the relentless caller wore me down, I leant back in my chair with my eyes staring at the ceiling and the phone away from my ear. And I mouthed the words, ‘fuck off’, but without emitting a sound. Or so I thought.

Then to my horror, he said ‘okay I will’ and hung up. I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. How on earth was I going to explain this? He was bound, in fact, to be a journalist, wasn’t he? From a red top. It would be front page news and I would be responsible for the hopes and fears of all the years crashing in an instant. Those were exhausted delirious fantasies. But even so, I didn’t dare admit it to a soul until Portillo went down. Then, in a quiet corner of the Festival Hall, I shared my guilty secret with a colleague. She laughed of course.

And so as I left the Festival Hall I felt both elated and absolved. We had won. I had played my part and I could go to meet my Catholic mother with a clear conscience. I returned home to the east end of London to be whisked away up the M1 by a friend. By late morning we were sitting in a bar in North Queensferry, in the sun-kissed haven of an apparently Tory free Scotland though we knew that wasn’t really true. A new dawn had broken but not everyone was celebrating that day. Even in Scotland.

The next day I travelled from Kirkcaldy, where I was staying, to my home city of Dundee, a place I’d only visited once before. The first time had been five months earlier in the depths of winter. The search for my mother had taken me to an address in the Hilltown area of the city in the shadow of the Law. Snow had fallen the day before and it still lay on the ground.

It was dark in the car and the curtains were drawn at the house. It felt somehow that there was no one at home. Later I was to find out that my hunch about that was right. But I hadn’t intended to knock that night anyway. It was just a moment of muffled reflection on what could have been and might have been in the cold still of the evening.

In the months since that first visit, the trail had gone hot and cold and then come to a head with a phone call to another nearby address. The woman at the other end of the telephone had confirmed she’d had a son and that would be me. My mother had been found. Now, after an exchange of letters, we were to meet for the first time at a neutral location in the city.

But there is inevitably nothing neutral about meeting your mother for the first time. Though it wasn’t an overtly emotional moment, each of us trapped by our own reserve, it was massive for both of us. So many questions, starting as such encounters do, with one from my mother. ‘Did I blame her?’ ‘No’, came my answer, quickly and truthfully, even though in so many ways I wished that she had never let go of me.

At that moment I realised that this wasn’t the first time she had met me. Nor actually, the first time I had met her, though unlike her I had no recollection of the first few weeks we spent together in the spring of 1961. And there was the fault line that ultimately was to be the undoing of our relationship the second time around. We had parted before and we couldn’t get those missing years back again. Life had got in the way.

Yet we did have a few years. And I’m glad of that. For all the upheaval, they helped me make sense of my world. Then one day in March 2001, that bit of it stopped again. It wasn’t to be. Our second chance at making a go of being mother and son had lasted just shy of four years, which as it turned out was not far off the first term of the Labour government I had longed for too.

What would I say to my 1997 self now? I’d say sort your priorities out for sure. Manage your expectations. But I’d also say make hay while the sun shines. You never quite know how things will turn out, how long something will last. Today I have a photo of my mother and me by my bedside. She didn’t stay but she couldn’t get away. Not completely. I don’t know if there’s a photo by hers. I’d like to think so.

We all remember where we were when that new dawn broke. And things did get better. Fast forward and I’d say the chances of meeting my mother again were slim if considerably higher than the chances of another new dawn for Labour anytime soon. Either way, I certainly know which I’d choose. That’s not a statement of political preference but of an essential truth. For all the talk of the whether politics makes a difference, ‘Do you know who you are?’, is a question that would be more likely to preoccupy the vast majority of us if we had to make a choice.

Away from the shrill battle lines of the current election, I was at the funeral of an old friend yesterday in Glasgow. It was another timely reminder that life, death and everything in between goes on as politics and politicians come and go. It reminded me too that while this election is apparently the product of a battle between Anywheres and Somewheres, we’re all Somewheres deep down. My friend certainly was and Glasgow seared through the funeral narrative. His father and namesake was a tunneller who had worked on the construction of the Clyde Tunnel. There’s a way to leave your mark somewhere. Indelibly.

Yesterday’s was a more political funeral than many. But it was the loss of a husband, father, brother, uncle, son and friend that held us all in suspense. The theatre of politics matters but when push comes to shove it can’t compete with the rhythms and rituals of everyday life. And the harsh fact which even the most notable politician has to face is that very few, if any, of the decisions they make, will ever rival the events and relationships that shape our personal stories.

In the unlikely event that the indiscretion I revealed in my Portillo moment had changed the course of that landmark election, I just might have been able to look back at something that had eclipsed the encounter with my mother which followed. But, of course, it didn’t. Thank goodness. I’d say there’s a lesson for all of us in that. And it’s not just about keeping our mouths shut.

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