Gina Davidson: Eccentric life is life well lived

Councillor John Henderson speaks to council tenants in Fountainbridge in 1962. Picture: TSPL
Councillor John Henderson speaks to council tenants in Fountainbridge in 1962. Picture: TSPL
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THERE are moments in the midst of this season of mellow fruitfulness and festivity when sadness creeps in with its ethereal tentacles, dulling the Christmas lights like a fine Edinburgh mist.

It can happen at any point – in the receiving of a Christmas card from a long-standing but seldom seen friend, in the realisation that nativity play attendance doesn’t last forever, in the listening to a festive appeal to give to those less fortunate.

This week it happened when I read of the death of John Henderson. I didn’t know him. It appears hardly anyone did. As a result his body lay in the city morgue for two months until officials there were satisfied no-one was going to claim him.

What a tragic end, it seems, to the life of a man whom it appears had lived it to the utmost. He had been a Labour councillor for Edinburgh, a criminal lawyer, had survived shelling during the Second World War as a naval officer in Sicily and during the D-Day landings, had travelled widely... he had had a full and varied life.

Yet he had no family, no-one to hold his hand after he had a stroke and talk about their shared childhood, reminisce about the past, or just tell him they loved him. It has fallen to a man he met through a council befriending service to tell his story in the hope that people will attend his funeral.

There is something that tugs at the essence of human nature when you hear of those who die alone, to feel a huge sadness that he, or anyone, should shuffle off this mortal coil without anyone noticing, without another person feeling their loss.

Of course that may be what John Henderson wanted. And who should tell anyone else how to live their life? Who should suggest that he was missing out by being on his own? He was, perhaps, entirely happy and content.

It was certainly that way for my uncle Alex Bain, whose funeral was this week. All his siblings had passed away years before, he had no immediate family, and he died in London, 400 miles away from his many nieces and sole nephew.

His funeral was a simple affair – his two brothers and one sister represented by my cousins and myself, while on the other side of the church were a handful of firm friends with whom he’d spent most of the last 40 years. They had become his family. They knew him best. They had been with him at the end.

Like John Henderson he had lived a full and varied life. He had been a professional footballer with Motherwell, Falkirk, Huddersfield (under Bill Shankly and alongside Denis Law) and Chesterfield. He was a painter and decorator – a trade which took him to Dubai, to Australia and to settle in London.

He had married and divorced. Had met the love of his life and then watched her leave.

He had drunk and smoked, gambled and fought his way through life. He wasn’t an easy person for his family, but his random, short-lived visits back to Edinburgh always felt exciting to a child, who was star-struck enough to think the present of a small bookie’s pen was a thing to be treasured.

Alex lived the life he wanted. And after a long-term partner passed away years ago, what he wanted was to be on his own – or with friends in the pub. Now he is gone but at least, unlike John Henderson, he had them to see him off at the end.

As one said to me later in the pub he used to frequent, “he was an eccentric”. Perhaps former Councillor Henderson was too. Instead of feeling sad, maybe we should salute the eccentrics among us, for perhaps their role is to make us hold on to those around us all the more tightly.

Sweet memories a tribute to shop owner Dorothy

DOROTHY Laing was the opposite of John Henderson. Quiet, unassuming, she would never have run for office. But her passing this week will touch the hearts of hundreds of people in the south-east of the city.

As one half of the husband and wife team who ran their eponymous newspaper and sweet shop on Southhouse Broadway in Burdiehouse for decades, she was a well-known face to the countless children who went in with a 10p in their sweaty hands looking to buy a mixture.

She and husband John were the heart and soul of the area. They knew every child by name. It was a sad day when they sold up.

But Dorothy didn’t know the meaning of taking life easy. But now she can rest, and without doubt the turnout for her funeral will show just how many people her life affected. She was, quite simply, a lovely person.

Don’t repeat the velodrome cycle

I USED to go to the Jack Kane Centre every week for hockey training, and it’s great to hear that the place is getting a major investment.

It had its issues with some who’d rather ride motorbikes on its pitches than take up a sport, but the staff were always fantastic. Now it’s to replace Meadowbank as the centre for Edinburgh’s cyclists with… you guessed it… an outdoor velodrome.

Insanity apparently occurs from repeating the same mistake and expecting different results. If officials want a velodrome so much, they should put a roof on it.

Sands manager a caring inspiration

THERE are many inspirational people in Edinburgh doing amazing things for charities. One of them is Dorothy Maitland.

She may have become a regular face in this paper because of the horrors of the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal, but for years before as operations manager of baby bereavement charity, Sands Lothians, she and her team have quietly been supporting grieving parents struggling to cope with their loss.

She knows what it feels like, having been through it herself, and turning to Sands for help. That’s why she got involved.

Now she’s retired and her role will be filled by Nicola Welsh, another parent who suffered the loss of a baby and turned to Sands for help. Experience counts for a lot when grief can so quickly crack the surface of a parent trying to hold it together.

Sands Lothians will miss Dorothy and she it. But behind her is a legacy of care and support of which she can be rightly proud.