Companionship 15 April 2024

Tracy Niven
Monday 15 April 2024

Good morning,

Today is the centenary of the birth of Sir Neville Mariner, a wonderful conductor whose recordings are filling Radio 3’s programmes all day.  I remember playing over and over the soundtrack to the film Amadeus which he recorded with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, full of Mozart’s music. 

But I want to remember someone else born on 15 April 1924 who would have been 100 years old today – my father.  Gordon MacEwan was born and brought up in Clarkston, Glasgow by his mother Christina alongside an elder brother and sister.  His father (my grandfather) James died when my father was 3 years old.  After school, he joined the RAF during the Second World War and trained as a pilot in England and Florida, later describing flying as “pure, unalloyed pleasure.”  He recalled telling someone in the States that he was not from England but from Scotland, to which the man responded, “Scotland?  Are they on our side?”  Towards the end of the war, he flew gliders, and took troops by glider on the Second Rhine Crossing en route to Berlin, returning by jeep.  Following the war he served with the RAF Regiment in Palestine, learning at quiet times to play bridge.  He recalled hearing, then seeing a camel train by starlight. 

On being demobbed, he became a chartered accountant, working with a number of firms in and around Glasgow, including Armitage Shanks, makers of bathroom products.  I still recall their avocado bathroom suite which we put in – will it ever be fashionable again?  He married Esmae Ritchie in 1959, who is still going strong, and three children followed, my sisters Barbara and Christine, and then me.

His interests have almost all become mine – golf (his handicap was usually around 13; mine is 12); reading – though he liked political biographies much more than I do; and travel, taking lots of pictures for subsequent slide shows.  He had an undemonstrative but deep Christian faith, serving as an elder in Greenbank Church of Scotland, and using his accountant’s skills to good use in organising the Bonds of Annuity for 30 years (a complicated precursor to Gift Aid).  As my cousin Jimmy said at his funeral, my father was inspired by Proverbs 11:1 – a false balance is abomination to the Lord.    

On 3 November 2019, I preached a sermon for All Saints, including this section:

My father went to church every week, sang the hymns with a deep and rather gravelly, flat voice, and invariably nodded off during the sermon.  This was known as “resting his eyes.”  He had a small handful of records, but only one which he seemed to love, a collection of songs by the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar.  He was a pro-European Conservative who, even in the 1990s was exasperated by the euro-scepticism of the parliamentary party.  He was kind, patient, hard-working.   He was occasionally witty – I still hear myself borrowing his phrase to describe certain modern dwellings – “a double garage with a house attached.”  He could be old-fashioned with curious prejudices.  Every car had to have a sunshine roof.  His beer mug had to have a handle.  Sandwiches had to be moist – his word for this was “sappy”.

He died on 3 July 2008, aged 84, after a short illness.  His life was not untypical, overlapping with the lives of many people from the suburbs of Glasgow across the 20th Century.  He was imperfect, and many of his imperfections have been inherited by my sisters and by me.  But he was faithful in countless ways, one of the millions who are part of Christ’s body.  Everybody in Chapel today will know others who have been as ordinary or extraordinary as my father.  These are the lives which are depicted in the stained glass windows of our hearts, imperfect saints, who were forgiven by their Father.  I could have told the story of many of the people in your lives, only I knew my father better, and I feel his story is partly mine to tell.  His story exemplifies the central truth of the Christian faith: Jesus became human, the Word became flesh, so that all humans can receive his faithfulness, his grace, and so be counted as holy ones, as saints.

A few years ago I wrote a poem about my father, in particular his time spent gardening, and I share it with you as a tribute to him on this day, the centenary of his birth. 


All winter, the tubers rested
in those slatted wooden boxes.
Once lunch was over,
he’d put on his gardening jumper,
lower the Ramsay ladder, and ascend.
Even then his hips weren’t great
and he’d take a little help,
let me receive the boxes from above.
Once down, it was a private business in the garage,
sorting clump from clump,
eyes up, nothing much to look at.
Then – or was it then?
They might have needed a month or so in the garage,
my mother will remember –
he put them out in borders,
trowelling the holes.
It wasn’t just begonias,
there were marigolds as well
and silvery things, all around the edges.
Once finished, he’d make them black with water
and have a glass of milk.
They’d bloom all summer,
massy reds, yellows, pinks,
until the slatted boxes reappeared,
and the knackered plants were put away again.
Again, on hands and knees, he dug.
Again, the Ramsay ladder’s creak.
Again the dusty loft
to wait until the spring. 

J. Gordon MacEwan, 15 April 1924 – 3 July 2008


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