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Dr James D Young

An Appreciation

Dr James D Young, who died on June 23 at the age of 81, was a defiant, brave and unremittingly controversial Scottish intellectual. He was always relaxed about annoying people, and he annoyed many in his time. He was very much a man of the left, a socialist of the old school. I suspect that overall he somehow annoyed more of his colleagues on the left than those on the right. That was his political side. In persona he was a very kindly man with a marvellous, mischievous sense of humour. He was super company, and a good husband to Lorna and a fine father to Alison and David (who writes very successful thrillers under the pen name Sean Black).

James was for many years Reader in History at Stirling University – till 1990, when he became seriously ill. But his intellectual vigour remained and he felt he was rather bulldozed into premature "retirement". He continued writing, flyting and agitating, relishing the fact that he got ever more radical as got older. For him socialism was a mission; you had to engage with the world, noisily and persistently. He wanted to become ever more "dangerous" to the bourgeois world all around him.

I know that he regarded me as a bourgeois conformist of the worst kind and yet he could not have been more pleasant in his various dealings with me. It was a privilege for me to be able to commission various pieces by him for this news-paper and the Scotsman. His articles were forceful to the point of aggression. He was a committed polemicist, a feisty fighter for the Scottish and the international left.

Although he spent much of his life labouring in the supposed groves of academe, James was no bland academic. Cerebrally, he was confrontational and if you wanted a quiet life you stayed well away from him. He adored intellectual turbulence. In that respect he resembled the greatest Scottish poet of the twentieth century, the contrary and combative Hugh McDiarmid.,

James wrote several very fine books, including a study of his great hero John Maclean. The titles of some of these books give a clue to their style and content: The Rousing Of The Scottish Working Class, Making Trouble and The Very Bastards Of Creation. This last (the title is a description of the Scots by the English radical John Wilkes) was published in 1996, and is a wonderfully sympathetic study of various Scottish radicals and troublemakers. I was surprised and delighted when he asked me to write the introduction to it. His last book, which will be published posthumously by the Clydeside Press, is a study of John Connolly.

I first got to know James through our mutual admiration for the great radical headteacher R F Mackenzie. "RF" was one of James's many heroes. He had a particular respect for Keir Hardie and John Maclean.

James lectured all over the world but he always ended up back in the Stirling/Falkirk/Polmont area which he knew so well.

He was also very fond of Glasgow. I remember one convivial, sparky evening in the mid-1990s when James was holding forth in the city, at the Clutha Vaults, down by the Clyde. The company consisted of grizzled old lefties, a few folkies, some rather earnest young students, one or two journalists and a scattering of confused punters who didn't really know what he was on about. But all succumbed to his fiery charisma. As he held court, we somehow understood – whether we went along with him or not – that here was that precious rarity, a man who genuinely believed that better times would eventually come, and the way to ensure they did come was to embrace socialism, strong meaty socialism, not the watered-down version of the Labour Party.

He didn't convince me; I don't think he convinced all that many present, even some of those you would have expected to be endorsing him. Yet his words stayed with you long afterwards. In his own way, he was a prophet. He had fire in his belly, hope in his heart and a plan in his head. And in his always decent, decidedly angry radicalism, he was somehow showing up all the timeservers of the Scottish political class – indeed more or less all of us.

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