My glory was I had such friends

On Tuesday this week (20th July, 2021) I was in Edinburgh to join a large gathering celebrating the 80th birthday of the Scottish writer John Herdman. It was a truly historic and convivial occasion, the wine flowing, a huge repast of delicious food, and many of John’s old friends and fellow conspirators from the Edinburgh literary scene and ‘The Heretics’ in attendance.

The fact that the party even went ahead was nothing short of miraculous considering that just the week before John had sustained a particularly nasty fall and broken between 8-12 of his ribs, probably multiple times! But it’s a testament to John’s huge strength and spirit that he was standing and chatting to guests for over four hours.

The party was held at writer and publisher Peter Burnett’s sumptuous home and for someone such as myself, who has spent years reading around and researching the Scottish Renaissance, it was a heady experience not only getting to see so many kenspeckle faces in one room, but also getting to talk to them. There was a very moving impromptu sing-song from Dolina MacLennan and I feel incredibly lucky to have been there.

John had two main gifts, one a picture portrait taken of him by Robin Gillanders and the other a festschrift book (co-edited by myself and Peter Burnett) entitled Not Dark Yet: A Celebration of John Herdman. This book really has been a labour of love, with an emphasis on the labour. It holds nearly fifty separate contributions from John’s friends, contemporaries, readers and students, all over the globe. It would be invidious to name just a handful of people and the book will soon be for sale and is well worth investing in if you are an admirer of John’s work.

John himself was deeply touched by both gifts and was at pains to express his thanks yet his work deserves vastly more attention that it has so far received. We were glad to try and redress this critical oversight. John quoted Yeats at the party when he said ‘My glory was I had such friends’ but he should have said it in the present tense. I too feel a sense of glory at knowing some of his friends, and in particular, of counting John as a friend.

Happy birthday John!

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