Remembering Paddy Bort 1954-2017
“So shocked and grieved to hear this. A grand European, a kindliest counsellor, a wise and merry man in so many countries. We all came to him. Those blue eyes and snowy beard peeping out benevolently between the stacks of paper – he was like an Edward Lear man, with the birds of the earth nesting in that great Vollbart. And as Auden said about Lear, Paddy ‘became a land.’ Everyone sailed towards him. Still can’t believe the news – Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Europe never needed this lovely man more. Alas !”
It’s difficult to improve on Neal Ascherson, our national remembrancer, and such imagery may have its effect, with our new Scots MPs settling perhaps too easily into a metropolitan routine just as its foundations crumble.
Eberhart ‘Paddy’ Bort died suddenly in an Edinburgh street on the evening of Friday 17 February, apparently through a heart attack. We had supper on Thursday evening before I left for the airport and a Tuebingen Kompaktseminar and he was full of plans for the year, and beyond. Thus ended a friendship of thirty-six years, and a life devoted to peace, regionalism, socialism, learning and drama. In Edinburgh he famously embodied folk music – as his hero Hamish Henderson had done – but there were different Paddys in different places, who will go on stirring things up.
In Tuebingen’s Bert-Brecht-Bau on Saturday students were rehearsing in the theatre Producer Paddy helped build out of a large and quite useless cloakroom. It gave that ‘austere-brutalist’ building of 1973 a heart. Politics Paddy went on to repeat the act with the similarly-pilloried Scottish parliament, recognising how Enric Miralles’ strange creation actually threw people together in ways that made them think differently.
His Annals of the Holyrood Parish (Grace Note, 2015) shows how this happened between 2004-14 and (inter alia) how it got us our Borders Railway back. Paddy published the first pamphlet in June 1999, from Edinburgh University’s International Social Sciences Institute which he had served since 1996. He was with us at a ‘fete champetre’ at Avenel House, Melrose, for David and Judy Steel when it finally opened to Tweedbank in autumn 2015.
As ‘Academic Coordinator’ in the ISSI’s successor the Institute for Government he grasped the practical experience Holyrood could provide. This was partly because, while a student, Stadtrat Paddy (earlier a zivildienst worker in a local hospital in the Zabergau west of Lauffen: a training few UK students got) had also become an SPD councillor in Ilsfeld, the small vineyard-town south of Heilbronn where his father had taught. He was influenced by his one-time next-door neighbour Lothar Spaeth, who shifted the CDU leftwards to pioneer ‘eco-hi-tech’ and later became a dynamic Minister-President, just as Paddy came to my BrechtBau office via Trinity College Dublin. So even ‘the bunch of rascals’ who were his conservative opponents still counted as civic actors. Mutual if wary trust saved their burgh the vast administrative costs of modern Scotland. A recent council by-election in Melrose cost £30,000. On an Ilsfeld visit we (the council plus myself) counted each-others’ much larger Landtag vote in under an hour for the price of a round of drinks in the Gasthof.
Like the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh Paddy preferred parishes to provinces, because they represented the chances of human experience better. Saturday’s terrible news reached Tuebingen via the Phoenix Irish Pub which Barman Paddy had helped restore amid the barges and bridges of Lauffen-am-Neckar. In 1990 a timetabling mistake took me to the SPD’s Erler Akademie in the ‘Magic Mountain’ Zollernblick Hotel south of Freudenstadt on the wrong day. I sang for my lunch and convinced Alfred Braun, the Ebert Stiftung’s local head, that we ought to have an annual ‘regionalist’ gathering and I had just the man for it. Freudenstadt One was held the next January. Now its early July discussion weekends run to 26, with ‘Freudenstadt and-a-half’ evenings at Edinburgh’s Summerhall. In 1999 one such saw the first foreign visit by a Scottish minister, when we taught Sarah Boyack all about trams.
Above all for Paddy there was Ireland: grim at first, then after the Trinity year when the place began to change; then after 1985 when demographics and new voices from Dublin and Belfast reached Tuebingen too. Brechtbau Actor Paddy was Hugh the hedge-schoolteacher in Brian Friel’s Translations: perhaps his finest stage role in a play on language.
Health hadn’t dealt the Bort family good cards. Paddy’s parents and his younger brother Claus died prematurely and underneath the wit and energy there ran a heroic melancholy, a sense of ‘Work, for the night cometh …’
Something you get from both the Yeats’s words and pictures. From ‘At Galway Races’ we can recover them:
‘Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We’ll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune,
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is …’