Obituary: Patrick Trainer

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The Independent Culture
AT THE age of 89, entering Ward 19 of Hairmyres Hospital, Glasgow, in the pretty certain knowledge that he was about to die, Patrick Trainer joked to the nurses: "You've got to be a union member to look after me!" Of unquenchable spirit, couthy but clean wit, fiery temperament, and a champion of the poor, Trainer was chairman of the Labour Party in Scotland before the 1964 general election, a colourful and effective city councillor of Glasgow for three decades, and a heavyweight of the trade union movement north of the border.

He was born on 12 July 1909 in South Wellington Street in the Gorbals area of Glasgow - the Orange marching day. His father told him: "Son, when you're looking for a job, dinna tell them your name - just tell them the date on which you were born!" Trainer was born into a world where there was considerable discrimination against Roman Catholics by Orange- leaning employers - and the Trainers were devout Irish Catholics.

His grandfather had come over the water from Glentees in Donegal, like a host of others during the potato famine in the 1840s. Trainer's own birth took place in the "wellback", the building at the back of houses where the well or the water supply was situated. He could not be born, he would tell us, in the tenement because the midwife had to have running water. Their house had a stone floor and they had no water, let alone electricity; lighting was supplied by oil lamps.

As a councillor and trade union leader, and in his never-ending work for the Labour Party, Trainer never forgot the poor, and was appalled at some of the actions as reported in the tabloid press of the Blair government.

Trainer loved school and was very sorry to have to leave at the age of 14. "I went to a fee-paying school," he used to tell us with a twinkle in his eyes, adding: "School fees were one penny a week, but often you didn't have the money to pay them. If your mother couldn't afford to buy you the books, you just shared with someone whose parents could. Sometimes we could not afford boots, even in the winter months, and we had to go to school with our bare feet."

Despite his short spell at St Francis School, in the Gorbals, Trainer developed a great love of poetry and history. He was adamant that nothing was too good for the children of Glasgow in the latter part of the century. The fact that Glasgow was one of the most generous education authorities in Britain was due to the councillors' enthusiasm for education which they themselves had not had, and they used their power to give the new generation the best.

Trainer began work in a barber's shop as a "soap boy" and in 1924 found a better-paid job on the railways. His mother died of cancer on the very day, 31 July, on which he started work on the railway. His father suffered from poor eyesight and Trainer remembered spending long hours reading out the newspapers to him; he wanted to know about the declaration of Irish Home Rule, the meetings of Michael Collins and Lloyd George and all the other issues of the day.

In 1926 Trainer was active in the General Strike: "The situation was a disaster. You had to work or you starved! There was no welfare state. It began when the miners were asked to work longer hours for less pay. There was no transport and all the shops were shut. The authorities tried to get students to drive the trams." Trainer recollected that he was one of a group of people who boarded a tram which was being driven by a student, throwing that student off and letting the tram run without a driver.

When he was 21, Trainer travelled to the south of England and stayed with the Carthusian monks in the monastery of Parkminster near Brighton. The tough, strict and austere life of these monks had a profound effect and influenced him for the rest of his life. At home in the Gorbals, he took an enthusiastic part in the life of the parish of St Francis, which was run by the Franciscan friars. He was a member of the "League of the Cross" which encouraged abstinence from alcohol until the age of 30. It was while attending a dance run by the League of the Cross that he met his future wife, Madge Hevran, a member of the Girls' Guild with whom he was to have an extraordinarily happy marriage until she died in 1986.

By the start of the Second World War Trainer had moved to Avonspark Street in Springburn where he worked in the famous Caledonian Steel Works ("the Caley") first as an oiler ("greaser"); later he was promoted to wagon repairer. He was never called up for National Service but given an essential works order to make railway wagons to carry tanks for shipment. Transferred to Motherwell depot, which involved rising at 6am to catch the train and working until 7.30pm, often in air-raid conditions where he was an ARP warden, he collapsed from exhaustion following the end of the war.

Illness presented him with the offer of becoming a school attendance officer. He joined the General and Municipal Workers Union, later became a full-time organiser in 1948, and was a power in the union until he retired in 1974. In the 1960s I represented the British Motor Corporation (later British Leyland) in Bathgate, the biggest machine shop under one roof in Europe, employing 8,000 people. There were endless delicate problems in the motor industry and as an MP I shall always be grateful for Trainer's streetwise advice, unstintingly given late at night or early in the morning. He was a superb trade union officer and had excellent relations with his union colleagues, particularly the powerful Donnett brothers, Alec and Charlie.

As chairman of the Scottish Labour Party he led the great May Day procession alongside Hugh Gaitskell in 1963. He had been elected Labour councillor for the Springburn ward of the city council at a celebrated by-election caused by the disgrace of the previous councillor, "Honest John" Ingles, who had had to resign his seat - because he had not lived up to his nickname.

Trainer spent many years as a Glasgow Bailie and a Justice of the Peace working in the courts as a magistrate and a police judge. In the 1970s, Cliff Hanley wrote an article about "Christmas in the Courts" for the Glasgow Evening Citizen where he described Trainer as a "dapper, shrewd little man with understanding eyes".

Trainer had a quick wit and a brilliant sense of humour; he could deliver one-liners as quick as a flash and this served him well in the magistrates court. One of the many stories he used to enjoy relating was about the time he advised a fellow accused of stealing that he was admonishing him. The man replied: "Does that mean, Mr Trainer, that I can sell the stuff?"

In 1974 Trainer became a Strathclyde regional councillor. His workload included prison-visiting committees and List D (approved) schools. He wholeheartedly supported the formation of "special units" in Barlinnie Prison on what he called possessively "my patch". He believed that there should be "special units" in every prison since the real hard men were in his opinion inside for too long and the pressure just built up.

Trainer believed that prison should be about rehabilitation and often stated that he was convinced that 80 per cent of prisoners just wanted to do their time quietly and get out. He had a high regard for the prison chaplains and never missed an opportunity to sing their praises and give them support.

The Roman Catholic Church became his life after retirement. After the Second Vatican Council when the Universal Church changed to the vernacular from the traditional Latin, Trainer, however unlikely it seemed to the Scottish political establishment, kept using the Latin responses at Mass, a practice that he maintained all his life. It was fitting that he should die at 10.30 in the morning, church time, on the Sunday after the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Patrick Joseph Trainer, trade unionist and local government officer: born Glasgow 12 July 1909; Councillor, Glasgow City Council 1962-90; Chairman of the Scottish Labour Party 1963-64; married 1933 Madge Hevran (died 1986; four sons, three daughters); died Glasgow 6 June 1999.