The Saving Grace


NickandWillsmallJournalist Nick Thorpe tells of the inspiration for his new play – an unexpected friendship formed at the margins of society.

When I first saw Will McMillan, he was wearing a battered overcoat, a silk cravat and a frown which hung like forked lightning above the storm cloud of his beard.

He struck me as just the kind of man I would instinctively avoid in the street.

As a cub reporter, newly arrived in Edinburgh from London, it fell to me as a kind of rite of passage to field the latest “story idea” from one of my newspaper’s more volatile readers. “You?” he barked through broken teeth. “You’re barely out of short trousers! And you’re not even Scottish!”

It was an inauspicious start, particularly when I could make no promise that the paper would publish his hand-written musings on international war crimes. But against the odds it was to be the first of many meetings, and the beginnings of an unusual friendship.

It was mainly liberal guilt that motivated me at first, based on the assumption that I ought to help a marginalised fellow writer. But Will could sniff a patronising attitude like a shark scents blood and as time went by I grew simply to enjoy his bracing directness, such a refreshing contrast to the English habit of talking endlessly around an unspoken truth. It also helped that we hovered, for a while, on the fringes of the same Edinburgh church, both muttering about leaving, albeit for different reasons: Will liked the conservative evangelical theology, but felt ill-at-ease amid a wealthy middle-class congregation, while for me it was the other way round.

Steadily haemorrhaging faith, I increasingly saw myself as the embodiment of agnostic tolerance – at least until I aired my views with Will. After one of his diatribes on immigration or the reality of hell for homosexuals, I found it frighteningly easy to get into a stand-up row. I soon realised that my own anger was every bit as primal as Will’s, just directed at different things and buffered much deeper below the surface of my generally comfortable life.

Will had no such luxury. He lived alone in a series of grim council flats, and often woke up bruised and bleeding from the violent epileptic fits that had plagued him since childhood. At the age of 38 going on 50, he dismissed any suggestion that he might go into sheltered accommodation, proudly attributing his independence to his late mother, who had insisted he would do normal childhood things like riding a bike.

Now estranged from his father and remaining family, however, Will seemed to me to have crossed the line from independence to loneliness. His anger, like his epilepsy, was always threatening to boil over, often with complete strangers.

He ended up in court for assault on a couple of occasions, and took compulsory anger management classes – but I think what he most needed, when the red mist began to descend, was someone to listen. His furrowed face would relax visibly over our ritual cup of tea as he moved from ranting, to bemoaning, to musing and sometimes finally even a bashful hug.

The need simply to be heard is an undervalued one, and it worries me that professional listeners – social workers, health visitors, doctors, counsellors – are now more stretched than ever from austerity cuts and savings. And how would a man like Will survive without the back-up of Disability Living Allowance, which gave him the breathing space to pursue his lifelong passion for writing?

At first I encouraged him to write about his own life, as a kind of therapy as much as anything else, but he disdained such self-indulgence, preferring to tap out speculative articles on anything from the evils of unemployment to the intricacies of international law – a few of which did make it into print. But he also wrote poems, on subjects like nature, friendship and the solitary life of the wandering albatross. He loved bird watching, and on a subsequent birthday boat-trip to the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, gasped joyfully at the “sheer bloody audacity” of the diving gannets – before succumbing to sea-sickness. I felt privileged to see the gentler side of a man who had been forced, by harsh circumstances, to grow a tough skin.

With some trepidation I invited him to my wedding, where he acquitted himself with the manners of a society dandy and even coaxed my mother-in-law on to the dance floor.

His faith in a loving (if rather choosy) God remained more or less unshaken throughout our 10-year friendship, and it dawned on me eventually that for a man in Will’s position, my intellectual doubts were simply an unaffordable luxury. His beliefs were more like the navigation system of a wandering albatross – they made the difference between sink or swim. Once, after a severe fit which landed him in hospital, he told me he had fought off the devil and told him he was not ready to die yet – he still had God’s work to do.

But he did die, quite suddenly in 2005, alone in his flat in the midst of an epileptic fit. He was 46. By the time I heard, a week later, he had already been cremated and all his papers and possessions cleared. At a belated memorial service attended by a scattering of well-wishers – pals from his housing scheme, the proprietor of his favourite bookshop, the minister and other church friends – I gave a tribute and pondered his fascination with war crimes. Was it his inbuilt desire for justice, or regret at how we humans so often let ourselves down? The answer seemed to lie in a sentence he had underlined in one of his own articles: “It is not judgment that is important, it is forgiveness.”

Will understood forgiveness better than anyone I know. God knows he had to ask for it often enough. His temper landed him in police cells, in hospital, and often drove away people who could have loved him.

But it meant he knew about starting again, and that old-fashioned thing called grace – an increasingly scarce commodity in a hyperactive consumer society.

I miss the way Will helped me slow down – how he’d wait till I had my mouth stuffed with lunch before asking why I hadn’t “given thanks”. Or the way he playfully mimicked my answer machine with po-faced messages telling me that Will was far too busy and important to talk to the likes of me. He hated answer machines. Will was a face-to-face sort of guy.

I sometimes glimpse him in the eyes of those solitary, angry men I still instinctively avoid in the street, and wonder if they too have generous, undiscovered hearts. Recently I’ve written a fictionalised radio play in tribute to them all, based loosely on that scary, fascinating man I first met at front counter. I still miss him.

It’s funny: I always thought our friendship was about Will needing my help. Now he’s gone I realise how much I needed his.

Article originally published in the Herald, 2nd August. This Solitary Bird was broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland on 3rd August 2011. 


Posted on: 03 Aug 2011 in Broadcasting, Features, General, Journalism
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