LONDON — As Gordon Brown prepares to move into 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s residence, pride of place in his new study will be given to a hardback collection of some of his late father’s sermons in the Church of Scotland. The book was compiled by Mr. Brown and his brothers, John and Andrew, to mark John Ebenezer Brown’s 80th birthday in 1994, four years before he died.
The first sermon, poignantly, is called “Our Need of Vision” and was written with a father’s heartfelt concern for a son who had nearly been blinded: “Blindness is surely one of life’s sorest handicaps. Those who are deprived of sight miss much. They cannot gaze with wonder on hills and wayside flowers or crops growing in the fields, … stars twinkling in the heavens, … waves lapping on the shores.”
Mr. Brown delivered the sermon at St. Brycedale Church in Kirkcaldy, where the family lived after Gordon, his second son, had gone blind in his left eye and had almost lost sight in the other.
The darkness descended several months after Gordon was kicked in the head during an end-of-term rugby match. He was playing against the teachers at Kirkcaldy High School, where he was the leading scholar of his year, shortly before he went to Edinburgh University.
When he arrived at the university in 1967, he was just 16, having been fast-tracked in a pioneering scheme for the brightest pupils. He had succeeded at just about everything he had tried, whether in the classroom or on the sports field. But after two terms at the university he was left lying in bed in a darkened hospital room, both eyes covered in patches, unable to move or read. The retina in his left eye was detached. After three failed operations, the sight was gone for good.
A few months later, while playing tennis, he noticed the same symptoms in his right eye. After undergoing experimental surgery at Edinburgh Infirmary the eye was saved. But the combined effect on the sports loving, academically brilliant 17-year-old was profound. Gordon Brown feared, as he lay in total darkness for weeks at a time, that he was going blind.
“It made him more determined,” his older brother John, now a public relations consultant in Glasgow, says. “He was in more of a hurry; he feared he might lose his sight altogether. It was a bleak time.”
Gordon Brown, Britain’s longest serving chief of the Treasury, will take over as prime minister after Tony Blair leaves office on June 27.
Gordon, John and Andrew were brought up in the manse in Kirkcaldy, where they enjoyed, by comparison to other families, a relatively privileged existence. Until Gordon was 3, the family had lived in Glasgow, a city scarred by acute poverty and rising unemployment.
The experience in Glasgow defined the social conscience of Mr. Brown and, in turn, had a decisive impact on his son’s philosophy.
“Our father never told us which way he voted,” says John Brown, “but you knew, because of the poverty that he had seen, that he leaned towards Labor.”
Gordon attended nursery school, taught by a Miss Bogie, in two rooms of her apartment, where he met Murray — now Lord — Elder, who is still a close friend and who was chief of staff to John Smith, the late Labor leader.
When Gordon was 4 he enrolled at Kirkcaldy West, the local primary school. “Thomas the Tank Engine” was his favorite book, according to his brother John.
At 10, he joined Kirkcaldy High, an ancient school with a new 1950s campus. It was selective in its intake and its 1,200 pupils were given a “hothouse” education.
His father was the school chaplain and his Presbyterian writ ran at home as well as school, so Gordon and his brothers had to sneak out of the house to buy the Sunday newspapers. Their father did not approve of shopping on the Sabbath, even though he read the newspapers himself on Wednesday, when the guilt had faded.
A dutiful son, Gordon always practiced his father’s good Samaritan message with whoever came to the door seeking help. One day, his mother was surprised on her return from shopping to find her 10-year-old son deep in conversation at the kitchen table with a notorious house burglar. While her initial instinct was to worry about the family heirlooms, Gordon was not chastised.
John Brown remembers: “Gordon found him on the doorstep and let him in, but he was not in trouble because our parents saw it as their duty to help.”
When the time came to make money, he did so for a good cause. Gordon and his brothers opened a snack shop in the garage of the house to raise money for refugees. Gordon looked after the money. At age 11, when most of his friends were reading comics, he and John founded the Gazette, whose proud boast was that it was Scotland’s only newspaper sold in aid of African refugees. The 10-page paper had a circulation of a few hundred, was produced on a duplicating machine and sold for three pence.
The Gazette became the vehicle for his political philosophy and provided the first glimpse of his now famous Presbyterian streak.
In April 1962, at age 11, he wrote an article about a church campaign in favor of television commercials against the twin demons of alcohol and tobacco. The newspaper’s biggest scoop was an exclusive interview with U.S. astronaut John Glenn in 1963.
In the same issue, the schoolboy pundit delivered a remarkably prescient view on the national political scene after a Scottish by-election in which the Conservatives were routed. Referring to Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, shortly before his hospital-bed resignation, Gordon wrote: “Now, at the age of 69, many people rate him too old for this responsible job. The trend in the country now points to younger men like Harold Wilson and Edward Heath.” Within a year, Mr. Wilson was prime minister and Mr. Heath was Conservative Party leader.
By the time he was 12, he had already pushed Labor Party leaflets through the letter boxes of neighbors’ homes and, while most of Gordon’s school friends cared little about the assassination of President Kennedy, he was devastated.
By the time he was 15, Gordon had passed a number of the more difficult high school exams and he was E-streamed — the E stood for early — which fast-tracked the brightest 16-year-olds to university.
In many schools, the pupil who is consistently top of the form, or teacher’s pet, would often be targeted by bullies. But Gordon won over the boys because he was a precocious talent on the sports field. He was a fearless member of the rugby scrum at 15, while the other boys were 17 and 18; he was a junior tennis champion and played the violin in the orchestra. He was also popular with the girls, who thought he was handsome and “going places.”
So it was no surprise that, in January 1967, in one of his first public speeches, the 15-year-old proposed the toast to “the lassies” at the Burns Supper hosted by Kirkcaldy High School Literary and Debating Society. In the speech, he praised Burns for championing the role of women in society at a time when the “female was regarded fit only for the kitchen sink.”
At the university, he took a first in history and wrote a doctoral thesis on the Labor socialist movement in Scotland.
Bob Cuddihy, a colleague in student politics and a local television presenter, remembers: “There was always a queue of lasses, including my girlfriend, who were admirers. … Gordon had [the power] to mesmerize people.”
Drinking to excess and smoking dope was an occupational hazard for students in the late 1960s, but none of his contemporaries recalls Gordon Brown being drunk or taking drugs. However, neither do they recall the “dour son of the manse,” as he is sometimes portrayed.
After editing the Student magazine, in which he exposed the university’s investments in pro-apartheid South Africa, he became the second-ever student rector; chairman of the university court and second in importance only to the chancellor, the Duke of Edinburgh. He was 21.
“At the time Tony Blair is playing air guitar with Ugly Rumours at Oxford, Gordon is having a court battle with the Edinburgh establishment and winning,” said one former classmate.
After the university and a spell at teaching, he began work as a researcher at Scottish Television, but his heart was set on a career in politics. He first campaigned for an Edinburgh seat, with little hope of success, in the 1979 general election, which swept Margaret Thatcher to power. He was then selected for the safe Labor seat of Dunfermline East in his family’s back yard.
When he announced his resignation to fight the seat in the 1983 general election, Bill Brown, the managing director of Scottish TV, declared himself unimpressed. He asked: “Can you tell me why we employed that young man?”
Russell Galbraith, who was head of news and current affairs, replied: “Mark my words, one day we will be working for him.”