Bill Lothian: My friend, David McLetchie

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His family was Tory and mine staunch Labour. He liked Elvis and I preferred Cliff. He was for Hearts. And I wasn’t . . .

Despite fundamental differences, Davie McLetchie and I were bosom buddies throughout primary school and remained friends until this leading light of Scottish politics died an untimely death at age 61.

David McLetchie.  Picture: Robert Perry

David McLetchie. Picture: Robert Perry

It was a friendship that would take us to a Cliff Richard and the Shadows concert at the old Regal Cinema, wearing our short trousers, and standing among 134,000 at Hampden Park watching Scotland draw 1-1 with England in 1968 (no Better Together that day).

And, above all, it was a friendship that earned me a reputation among our kith and kin of being a renowned “clapper”.

You see, at the culmination of primary school Davie, as he was always known in our house, was inevitably proclaimed dux en route from Leith Academy Primary to a bursary at George Heriot’s.

As tradition demanded, the prize-giving audience of pupils and parents rose to give a standing ovation, and my mum turned to me, tear in her eye, and said: “Don’t you wish that was you up there?”

David McLetchie far left and Bill Lothian far right pictured in the Leith Academy Primary School rugby team 1963/64

David McLetchie far left and Bill Lothian far right pictured in the Leith Academy Primary School rugby team 1963/64

I replied: “Och no, somebody has to do the clapping.”

In truth I wasn’t envious of my oldest pal’s academic achievement in the slightest. Had he managed to ever beat me at tennis, well, that would have been serious, for what bonded us was sport.

Cricket, rugby, football, golf, even boxing with gloves given to me by my auntie – you name it, we played it, and in tennis I always had the edge, which was good enough to offset against mere certificates and awards for neat handwriting.

I didn’t know until last week, though, when David’s sister, Carol, called to tell me the end was nigh for her beloved brother, just how my throwaway remark had endured.

In his final days, David received his thoroughly deserved CBE but, too ill to go to the palace, it was presented at home by Edinburgh’s Lord Provost.

After the handover, Carol remarked to David: “Pity Billy’s not here to lead the clapping.”

I was always proud of being Davie’s pal but even prouder – and moved – to be told that recall brought a smile to the lips of a man ravaged by cancer and unrecognisable from the tall, imposing figure who would boom a golf ball down the fairways far better than me.

Except on the last occasion we played golf. It was a four-ball match in which Davie partnered another primary school friend, Lawrence Leask, against my son and I.

Finishing all-square, my son turned to Davie and, noting his opponent’s Scottish Tory background, quipped: “What’s it like to take part in a close contest?”

That was perhaps the only occasion I’d seen Davie stuck for words.

If, in later life, our paths crossed only a fraction of the times they did earlier it was balanced out by formative years when we virtually lived in each other’s houses, usually playing Subbuteo table-top soccer endlessly.

Obituaries have referred to Davie being raised in a tenement (missing the fact he shared a small bedroom with two sisters) but these were tough times post-Second World War and few would have been affluent, certainly nobody in our circle.

What we both had were loving families who got by, and I knew Davie’s mum and dad – Rena and Jim – well enough to appreciate, even at my young age, their strong work ethic and ability to sit their son down at the table to do homework and

revision, a trick my folks tried but never quite mastered.

There was no getting away, though, from Davie’s upbringing being called the antithesis of the Bullingdon Set who influence today’s Tory hierarchy.

Never were truer words spoken, in my view and that is very much to his credit so far as I’m concerned.

If the Bullingdon comparison (or lack of it) struck a chord, so did virtually every other political tribute I read, which is something to be taken from dark days.

Without exception our political representatives accurately portrayed the man I knew bearing in mind it is supposed to be formative years, when we were particularly close, that shape us.

With politicians often accused, with good reason, of playing to the galleries and insincerity, it is reassuring to truly know how often they got it right in assessing a good man’s personality, I believe.

Other than when he responded positively to my call on behalf of Efe the Turkish restaurateur at the end of our (then) street who was worried a takeaway restriction would put him out of business I never had any dealings with Davie, politically.

Unless, that is, you count the reception after my wedding to Helen.

Davie and wife Sheila were guests, as were our other friends, Margo Macdonald and Jim Sillars.

More than once I checked with Sheila to ask whether another drink would help anaesthetise her against what I imagined would be non-stop political chat around their table.

With hindsight I probably misjudged the three politicos and especially Davie who could switch easily from affairs of state to, er, karaoke.

Take the occasion of our Leith Academy Primary class reunion in early 2003 when a tour of the classrooms was followed by a meal and drink in the nearby Persevere pub at the foot of Easter Road.

Davie was back in his heartland and there were some raised eyebrows at the sight of the leader of the Scottish Conservatives belting out a few numbers.

It registered that here was a real man of the people at play.

Also, it was a lifelong Jambo – unlike me Davie was always consistent in both football and politics – with something to sing about at Easter Road.

I just had to clap . . .