Connal Parr writes:
It is difficult to do justice to the protean life of writer and activist Bob Purdie, who died in Kirkcaldy, Scotland, on November 29th. His various political turns, from factory worker and Clydebank shop steward in the early 1960s to London-based international leftist at the end of the decade, via his initial regard for the “Stickies” and the Official Republican movement in Ireland, to his subsequent Belfast Labour activism in the 1980s (a doomed venture if ever there was one) – to his final incarnation in the ranks of the Scottish National Party – it all constituted one hell of a journey.
Purdie’s reach was enormous and the people he touched legion. But as Gerry Dawe once said of the poet John Hewitt, I knew him really through his work. At the same time I did get to know him personally a little towards the end and we had some priceless encounters. In the last few years of his life Bob had taken to putting his memoirs up on Facebook, as if he knew he didn’t have much time left. When I met him for the first time properly in 2012 he told me that he was “blogging”. I asked what his blog was called and he replied “Facebook”. He then proceeded to a long discussion about the left in Ireland, as lucid as his books were.
The first time I saw him was at a conference held in Queen’s University Belfast to mark the fortieth anniversary of the beginning of the civil rights agitation in October 2008. Bob spoke at the end of a session with Paul Arthur, Paul Bew and Edwina Stewart. He had a fine recollection of the time – as all the panellists did – but also saw its continuum: “When I see the young people in the room, I’m filled with hope and am reminded now that ’68 is for them.”
I remember thinking at the time that he was giving my generation more credit than they deserved: I didn’t believe too many of them heard the cry of ’68. But even on that, I came round to what Bob meant. He had the grace and humanity to trust in future generations, who he believed would see the errors of their predecessors and change their times for the better. This was later to make complete sense in the context of his final years in Scotland.
Yet it was Purdie’s engagement with Northern Ireland which established his political and academic credentials. While resident in London he visited Dublin and then Belfast in July 1970, where he lodged with leader of the Official Republican movement, Billy McMillen, witnessing the army posts and foot patrols a matter of weeks after the Lower Falls curfew (he felt more at home in the Falls than he did amongst middle class left-wingers in London). In one memorable incident he emerged from an anti-internment meeting in Andersonstown – Purdie was an organiser of the Anti-Internment League – as a British army patrol was passing, prompting one member of the gathering to urge another beside him to “shout abuse at them”. The man cupped his hands to his face and yelled “ABUSE!”
Purdie’s visits to Ireland stood him in good stead when it came to his finest book, Politics in the Streets (1990), derived from his doctoral thesis. Despite a few pretenders to the crown, it remains the best survey of the civil rights movement. Because he was close to the developments he understood their complexity, but was not hampered by associations. He was, as Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote of Jules Michelet; with “intense lucidity and … unguarded felicity of language” telling us “a great deal about the state of mind of the people whom he loved and taught and to whose glories he belongs”. Reading it now it seems that Purdie was able to stand back and detach himself – along with his fiercely passionate persona – to deliver a diligent yet uncluttered history of that particular minefield of an era. At the time Joseph Lee praised Politics in the Streets as “a painstaking and valuable account” which was “sympathetic towards, but by no means misty-eyed about, the various movements whose fortunes he chronicles”.
One of the most interesting things about Purdie was his ability to renounce his former self. Perhaps the best example of this was his 1972 pamphlet Ireland Unfree. When Fergus O’Hare and others running under the People’s Democracy banner in elections at the time of the 1981 hunger strike told him they had been inspired by it, Purdie denounced his own document, opening as it did with the statement that he would not use the term Northern Ireland and would instead refer to “the Six Counties” or “the North”. The “responsibility” for this, early-seventies Purdie wrote, was “British Imperialism, and its Irish collaborators”.
When a version of Ireland Unfree resurfaced online in June 2009 and was enthusiastically received by a few Republican automatons Purdie again felt compelled to interject that he was “disconcerted to discover that a pamphlet I wrote thirty-six years ago, which has been thoroughly falsified by history, and which I publicly repudiated in 1980, is still being taken seriously”. He once believed fifty years of Unionist misrule justified the IRA campaign, “but I was wrong. It became evident, quite quickly that the IRA campaign had roused the fear and resentment of Northern Ireland Protestants, giving an immense boost to the Paisleyites and Loyalist paramilitaries”. Purdie’s analysis of Northern Ireland hardened into sophistication.
His memories of Belfast in the 1980s – where he lived after completing his PhD – are particularly vivid. His recollections of waiting to sign on at Shaftesbury Square in part of a line that “was said to be the most highly qualified dole queue in Europe”, the intransigence of the council chamber, the violence of the ongoing Troubles, and that “Cold weather stretching on and on”, are born of real, timeless experience of the city. Nevertheless he took time to adjust to the departure – there was “no place on earth in which I have more friends than in that city. The culture is gregarious and somehow you just meet friends, without planning to do so.”
He realised “my world had shrunk to Belfast and that should have been a signal that I would be well to get out of it”. When in 1988 a tutor’s post was advertised at Ruskin College, Oxford – where he had been a mature student – he presumed he did not have a chance on account of having been turned down for numerous academic posts at Queen’s University. However he got the Oxford job and was to discover, courtesy of one of the interviewers, that he had been placed well ahead of the other candidates.
After two contented decades at Ruskin, Purdie retired to Kirkaldy in Fife. Yet he had no intention of winding down quietly. The year after his return he described being able to view from his study the water tower of the factory where he had been a shop steward convener prior to leaving for London in 1968: “It gives me sense of completion, but my political journey is not over. As a member of the Scottish National Party I am looking forward to taking part in the campaign to unseat Gordon Brown as the MP for this constituency, and then going on to win Scottish independence. I still have a rebel heart.”
Of course Brown wasn’t unseated, though the former prime minister has just resigned his Westminster seat. And Scotland did not in the end vote for independence, though it has just been pledged additional taxation powers (Purdie died on the day they were announced). I couldn’t share his passion for Scottish nationalism because no kind of nationalism appears in my view progressive (we know what it collapses into in Ireland). But I admit in certain, rare moments during the referendum campaign I almost wanted it to be a Yes vote – if only for Bob.
Aside from a proliferation of reviews and pieces in Fortnight magazine and some now-standard articles in journals, he also managed to finish his life project on poet Hugh MacDiarmid in 2012. The last time I saw him was at the Errigle Inn in Belfast in May. He introduced me to one of his Ruskin friends and invited me out to Kirkcaldy to stay with him during the Edinburgh Festival (to my eternal regret I never got out to see him). That day he was in full campaign mode, gearing up for his final political lap. At one point in our discussion he lent forward to intone part of the Declaration of Arbroath: “From the deeds alike and the books of our forefathers, we understand, most Holy Lord and Father, that among other noble nations our own, the Scottish, grows famous for many men of wide renown.”
Bob paused: “Robert the Bruce, 1320. I am a proud Scotsman.” And he was.