Oft in the Stilly Night…

Tomorrow (Friday 22nd January 2021) the TPNW (Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons) comes into being. Veteran peace activist Brian Quail (SCND) reflects on the thousands of people who fought for peace.

Tripe is revolting, disgusting. It was only by bullying my stomach that I forced the final nauseous portion down. Mine host’s genial “Would you like some  more?” was as much a tribute to my to my deception as it was to his generosity – and my host was Iain Munro, the former Chairman of Scottish CND. He had invited his friend Margaret and myself over to his South Side flat for a meal – which explains the tripe. Don’t ask me what year this was, some time in the 70s.

Ian was a bolshevik, a Scottish communist of the old school like Jimmy Reid or Jimmy Airlie. He had been connected to the wealthy Bata shoe business, but abandoned this for the cause. He had been in the front when the the communists organised the working class of London’s East End to deny Moseley’s Black Shirts control of the streets. This was the famous Cable Street riots, and he had been involved in this historic resistance.

The Sunday Post had denounced Iain when it featured a centre page “expose” with the word “Communist!” screaming out over 5 photos of the executive members of SCND executive detailing their party membership. True enough, but they didn’t mention the fact that George Macleod founder of the Iona Community and decorated war hero was also a founder of SCND, and he was not alone in the Church.

Another Ian exposed by the Sunday Post was Ian Davidson, who was a gifted musician and a leading light in the revival of folk music. His song “Mandela Danced in the Square” is rightly famous. He too was denounced as a communist. Yet when he died I attended his funeral mass in St Leo the Great Catholic Church, and a fulsome eulogy was penned by the musical director of the St Mungo Singers. He remained a passionate supporter of the great John MacLean and his resistance to war all his life. Ian had been involved in parish work helping asylum seekers at the end of his life.

Bloody communists …

I used to meet with these two comrades along with others in a philosophy discussion group in the splendid surroundings of the Trades House in Glassford Street where we had some lively debates. I remember on one occasion I had repudiated the applying of moral categories to non-humans and Ian replying with indignation that I had never watched a cat toying with a mouse. I rejoined that animals which lived by hunting had to constantly hone their skills because they would one day die of starvation through a failure of these very skills. The laws of scientific materialism prevailed…

Such memories crowd into my mind now especially since I have had a stroke and a heart attack. This double whammy has caused intimations of my mortality to press on me with ominous regularity. As the old song “Oft in the stilly night” expresses it “I feel like one who treads along some banquet-hall deserted / Whose lights are fled, whose garlands dead, and all but he departed”.

So with your indulgence I will continue my way plucking the occasional blossom from the unkempt garden of my past.

Like the occasion I heard a young red-haired speaker in George Square denounce nuclear war plans and the whole theory of deterrence with such eloquence and passion that even after all these years I remember the substance of his argument, and have used it myself (“Do these people think that being second to kill a million people is somehow less wicked than being first?”). I there and then crossed the square to the SCND stall and signed up.

His name was Robin Cook. I wonder what happened to him?

In more recent years at a Conference in Edinburgh I had the unique opportunity of looking into the eyes of a man who had planned to kill 285 million people. This was Robert McNamara, former Sec. of Defense to President Kennedy. Code named SIOP-63, this plan envisaged the use of 26,500 nuclear warheads and the resulting deaths of 285 million Russians and Chinese (in those days it was assumed that war with Russia automatically meant simultaneous war with China). There he was now campaigning against Trident sitting opposite me with the characteristic rimless glasses looking for all the world like a retired bank manager. I was reminded of the famous words of Hannah Arendt:

“Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.”

Another memory,  one especially painful. In 1986 in St Stephen’s Renfield church, I heard a woman called Analong Lijon speak. She was from the Marshall Islands, which were the scene of US nuclear tests in the 60s. There had been 26 explosions, including the then largest ever Bravo “event”, equivalent to 1000 Hiroshimas. She told us how as a little girl, she wondered at “snow“ falling from the sky after the nuclear explosions. She had suffered five miscarriages, and her sister had carried thirteen dead babies; she described a nightmare world where women gave birth to “jellyfish” babies, where one in eight live births were grossly deformed. Later, she gave testimony before the UN. These were the words she used then:

“This is our history: Blindness. Thyroid tumours. Miscarriages. Jellyfish babies. Mental retardation. Sterility. Lung cancer. Kidney cancer. Liver cancer. Sarcoma. Lymphoma. Leukemia. I do not weep for my lost babies. Two stillbirths. Three jellyfish – glassy, pulsing discoids that made the nurses sick. I no longer weep for the dead. The dead do not care. We are the people of the Marshall Islands. We are your experiment.”

It happens that while these explosions were happening around Bikini Atoll, a sensational event was taking place in the vapid world of women’s fashion – a two-piece swimming costume was being launched to wild acclaim. Because of the coincidental use of the syllable “bi” to denote two in English, the name of the island was transferred to the “hot” sexiness of the costume. Such is our cultural imperialism that the only thing evoked by the word “bikini” today is the costume and not the monstrous suffering inflicted on Analong and the thousands of the Marshall Islands.

Talking of women leads inevitably to Helen Steven. A former pupil of the prestigious Laurel Bank school, Helen worked in Vietnam for the Quakers and smuggled out information through the guise of Catholic confession. She told me how a drunken British officer in the middle of an eight-some reel boasted that: “We taught the Americans everything they know” (talking about techniques of interrogation, ie. torture). She spent a lifetime devoted to Peace and Justice. In 2002 Helen and her lifelong partner Ellen Moxely moved to the North-West Highlands and in 2004 the pair were jointly awarded the Gandhi International Peace Prize.

I fondly remember so many others; Dr Janet Cameron, a junior house doctor for 40 years. She stayed in Easterhouse in the most cluttered flat into which local feral youth would drop in for a chat regularly; she was a dedicated activist, stopping the nuclear covoys and getting underneath the trucks. Generous to the extreme, she was the only Russian speaking convent educated peace activist and doctor I’ve met.

There was a pub on the coast road called The Clyde. It was there the last time I saw Jim Taggart, ensconced in the corner surrounded by the young members of Helensburgh CND looking like Gandalf and the inhabitants of Middle Earth. Apart from being a distinguished botanist, building Linn Gardens into one of the finest in the country, Jim was a dedicated worker for peace. It was only at his funeral I found out he was also a theologian and an associate of no less that the Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins.

Eric Wallace who had a flat along Helensburgh Sea Front was a quiet worker but utterly reliable. He was a regular at the weekly vigil at the North Gate. Eric had a naively dry sense of humour and was a loyal supporter  of Faslane Peace Camp.

All these people are gone now and there are no statues to them. But on Friday the 22nd of January, when the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is ratified it will be the triumph of their lives, and the many millions – unknown and unrecorded – who devoted their lives to the struggle for peace and justice. All of these heroes I salute in profound gratitude.



More details about Marking the Progress of The Nuclear Ban Treaty here …

Comments (12)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    Yep, the Treaty’s an admirable good faith effort and redounds to the moral credit of all those heroes who have worked for this moment. The trick will be to get the nuclear states to sign it. Until then, all we’ll have in our hands is a piece of paper.

  2. chris ballance says:

    Brian, we salute you too, for all your years of bravery, dedication and struggle.

    1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

      And, I do, too, Mr Quail.

      In addition, I hope you continue to make sufficient progress from these two serious events to inspire others to take the walk up the road to peace.

  3. James Mills says:

    You and your fellow CNDers’ actions make me ashamed that I never did anything to further the cause of nuclear disarmament , especially living all my life in Scotland . I thank you all sincerely for your efforts on behalf of those of us who did nothing .

  4. david kelly says:

    Thank you, Brian.

  5. Daniel Raphael says:

    Thank you, Mr. Quail. As a lifelong antiwar activist who never approached the impressive level of achievement you have detailed on the part of your estimable comrades in peace, I can only salute and thank you.

  6. John B Dick says:

    Haven’t you heard that we need to keep Trident, not for MAD, but because it is a job creation scheme so vital that it outweighs any and all alleged benefits of indypendence?

  7. Dougie Harrison says:

    Brian, it’s good to know that age and health issues still don’t inhibit you from communicating your years of commitment and experience. Like some of those referred to in this interesting biographical piece, I was for many years one of the band of Scotland’s communists, and knew some of those you mention. And notably, one you didn’t; Dr Alan Mackinnon, for many years chair of SCND, who was taken from us early a few years ago. I also largely came into politics as a teenager in Edinburgh through the work of CND… I think when I first bought, and subsequently sold ‘Sanity’ on Princes Street, it only cost a few old pence.

    Keep fighting Brian! As this piece shows, you have much yet to do to help Scotland find its future.

    1. brian quail says:

      I knew Alan McKinnon very well indeed Dougie. in fact he lived just round the corner from me. Alan did not share my support for independence, in fact he was firmly in the brit left camp. Nevertheless he was a redoubtable fighter in the CND cause. At his funeral Jeremy Corbyn sent a wonderful video , very moving. I was gutted.
      I have many fond memories of Alan, one of the many people I could have said much more in my brief trip down memory lane Good to see that you are still alive and fighting Dougie. All the best to you.

      1. Dougie Harrison says:

        Brian, thanks for this. I wasn’t aware you were a neighbour of the Mackinnons, but did know that Alan maintained his CPB membership to the end, and was therefore not a supporter of independence. I suspect his daughter Maeve may think otherwise however…

        Part of my wee campaign to convince the English left about independence trades on my own personal history in the CPB and trades union movement.

        Take care Brian.

      2. Dougie Harrison says:

        Brian, it belatedly occurs to me that you might be interested to know that I’m in touch with a fair number of former Scottish CP activists who like me now fight for independence…

  8. Gillean Lawrence says:

    The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons offers a powerful critical discourse by countering the nuclear states’ narrative and challenging their policies. Those countries who signed and ratified the treaty shift the whole world’s attention to the humanitarian consequences and risks to life now. The Treaty is evidence-based and with facts challenges the nuclear states’ narrative of risks which MAY happen sometime in the future. The facts of the catastrophic effects of the use of nuclear weapons are evidence of a threat equal to climate emergency in causing deaths and destruction which could prevent life being sustained. The development, testing and maintenance of nuclear weapons also currently contribute to global emissions.
    In the same way as cluster bombs and landmines have been stigmatised through UN treaties, there is evidence already of some pension funds having withdrawn, or considering withdrawing investments from nuclear weapons companies. This is thanks to the voices and words in the Treaty which could benefit the whole planet in a powerful way.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.