James Wyness was an Aberdonian through and through. He was born there, and lived there, and loved there. Recently, he died there.
He began life as a shipyard electrician in the late 40’s (for life began with work in those days) and as a young man he travelled the world with the Merchant Navy. He had youthful vigour and dashingly good looks on his side but not, it seems, much luck. At the yards he fell from a ship’s mast, and any career involving physical labour was over. He would suffer from the injuries sustained for the next 70 years.
Undeterred, he retrained at Aberdeen University. He got married to his childhood sweetheart Lys, and they were rarely seen apart from that point onwards. James - Jimmy to his pals - became a history teacher in the early 70’s, and worked at the same school for nearly three decades. In parallel, and very much symbiotically, he was active in the trade union movement and rose slowly through the ranks until, in 1992, he became Lord Provost of Aberdeen - the end of the road, the top of the pile, and the highest position he could reach. For a boy from the shipyards, it was a remarkable achievement.
During his four years in office he once again travelled the world - this time as an ambassador for Aberdeen – and met with the good, the bad and the ugly of world politics. British politicians and foreign dignitaries galore came to the Granite City to discuss, amongst other things, the booming oil trade of the north east. The Queen and Prince Phillip arrived on board a yacht, and Mikhail Gorbachev visited in 1993. Jimmy was part of delegations that met with Robert Mugabe and Muammar Qaddafi and, in what we can only assume were slightly less loaded encounters, he entertained King Harald V of Norway and Cardinal Ratzinger.
There was pomp and ceremony required for his role, which Jimmy became adept at dealing with- he wore smart suits and smiled broadly, and charmed all who came across the threshold of the city. He knew, as any good diplomat does, how to keep people happy - the current Provost remarked recently, on the topic of the legendary parties in the council chambers under Provost Wyness, that (sadly) “we’re unlikely to see blackjack tables in the Town House ever again.” And yet, his own lifestyle was generally a frugal one, and the ceremonial qualities of his position were simply a necessary part of the process of continuing what had become his life’s work: improving lives in Aberdeen. He pushed for more rights and better working conditions, and became known – even amongst those that disagreed with him politically - for his honesty and drive, and for being completely incorruptible. In ’95, James Wyness finally retired from his teaching job, saw out the final year of his Provost-ship, and collected a CBE for his services. He moved to a humble, rented apartment in the outskirts of Aberdeen, and lived a quiet life on the margins of the city he loved.
I knew only the vagaries of this potted history, until recently. To me, Jimmy was simply Grandpa. As a child I clocked that his lifestyle was somewhat unusual, but then: who’s wasn’t? Adults were all strange, I figured. In the summer of ’94 I was visiting Aberdeen, and awoke one morning to be told that I’d be meeting the Queen that afternoon. It was my eighth birthday, and I was unimpressed; I had other plans. Apparently I was only coaxed into the idea with the promise of ice cream at the beach afterwards (this is perhaps the lesser-known side of Jimmy’s successful diplomacy.) I was there too when Gorbachev was given the freedom of the city. I wondered why I couldn’t just meet him in my denim dungarees, and it was left to Grandma this time to explain protocol for these things. Afterwards, Grandpa handed me a ceramic dish that Gorbachev had brought for him. (I think it might have been as an apology for making me change out of the dungarees.) I put the dish together with a leather purse that Grandpa had given me the year previously. It was filled with coins and banknotes that he’d collected from all over the world and to me, a kid who’d never travelled beyond the shores of the United Kingdom, it was a Pandora’s Box. Every coin was a passport to a new place and a new idea and, if I was lucky, a new accompanying story from Grandpa. Zimbabwe; Egypt; Peru; Norway; Japan. They were physical representations that these places existed, and that they could be visited. Maybe one day I’d even see them for myself.
I still have that purse.
We didn’t talk much of politics when I visited – by the time I was old enough to understand, Jimmy was no longer directly involved in the city council and he preferred to retire into the background. The city he knew was changing and – in my reading between the lines – he saw his socialist vision being eaten away by rampant capitalist greed as the demographics and morals of the Aberdeen he knew morphed with every drop of oil brought out of the ocean. Disease and age corrupted Jimmy’s body in tandem with his changing city and as he grew more frail he preferred to spend his time with Lys, and with us, and at his computer writing up the histories of Old Aberdeen, and in front of the TV watching Gary Cooper westerns with the sound on full.
Jimmy’s was a life devoted to others. Seven decades of servitude. The only thing he loved more than his city, perhaps, was Lys, who was by his side at every turn. Her story too is a good one– she was a poet and a writer, and Jimmy’s greatest supporter. At his funeral I was told that it was well known that Jimmy would not make any important decisions without counsel of his Lady Provost. I don’t really know about that – it was before my time. But what I do remember is that their lives were almost one and the same in retirement, and that they both spoke in the lilting soft dialect of the Scottish north-east, and that Lys’s writing was evocative of a life and landscape in a barren but beautiful corner of the British Isles. She passed away last year and, at Jimmy’s funeral, there was a general agreement that above all else he died of a broken heart.
These are, and were, my grandparents. I write this with pride, and in celebration of their lives, and because there are people all over the world who dedicate their lives to a worthy cause. I’ve met a few of them, and I knew these ones. It seemed like a good idea to take some time to write about it. Jimmy's headstone will read that he was a man of, and for, the people, and never were truer words spoken.