In 1997 I was at a political event in London. My accommodation the first night was a squat. I slept in a chair, my mate who I’d travelled down with slept on the floor, and a scruffy lefty from Paisley slept on the couch. I knew that lefty, Davie Fraser, a little, having seen him at meetings and demos, but that was probably the first occasion on which I’d spent any real time in his company. I was drunk and he was stoned and I don’t remember much about it except that we had a good laugh. We were both in the SWP at the time and already comrades in the party political sense, we gradually became friends after that trip to London.
When I moved to Paisley in 2000 Davie quickly became a regular visitor and a bad influence. I should have been studying but instead Davie would come round and we’d watch films all night. Some of them we watched so many times we could almost quote the entire film. Years later it wasn’t unusual for me to receive a text like “Back and to the left” and I’d know Davie was watching JFK again.
Then came a discovery that wrecked Davie’s sleeping pattern and almost destroyed my chances of getting a degree. One night he turned up at my flat with Championship Manager 00/01. Films were forgotten, university was forgotten, and at times the world was forgotten. Even when the game told us “Remember to feed the cat” or reminded us to go outside and get some sun we’d carry on playing, the bags under our eyes getting bigger and bigger. Right up to the last time I saw him he exhibited an astonishing memory for “Champo” matches. If a player was mentioned on TV he’d say, “Remember when you were Celtic manager and he scored a goal for you in the 4th round Scottish Cup match against Livingston in season 04/05? You went on to win the Cup but you lost in the European Cup semi-final to Ajax.” I’d just shake my head and ask how he could remember a computer game we’d played a decade earlier. He remembered things that happened in Champo better than most people remember things in real life.
There was some politics going on too. Davie and I were at times the nucleus of our party branch, and at other times we were the branch. We’d meet in the Bull Inn, where Davie would tell me “Gerry Rafferty used to drink in here. Billy Connolly too.” On one occasion, while having a drink in the Bull, he listed all the “intellectuals” in the other branches, then said “And we’ve got …” paused, looked at me with a raised eyebrow – “You!” and laughed. I was both offended and flattered.
I often felt that Davie’s political contribution was overlooked. As well as being virtually omnipresent at meetings and protests, he carried out – usually on his own – the SWP’s only regular industrial paper sale in the west of Scotland in the late 1990s and early 2000s at the Chivas bottling plant. He was such a fixture there that once when somebody else took over one week the people going in to start the early shift wanted to know who the interloper was and “what happen to the regular guy?” He was sceptical about the SWP in Scotland joining the SSP, but he did his best to make it work and I think he was well respected in the Paisley branch. We were both drafted in as council election candidates for the SSP but we weren’t particularly excited by that.
One thing Davie was excited by was the anti-capitalist movement. He loved the protests, the ideas, the books and the articles, but not the meetings. The meetings were, after all, awful, but the protests were amazing.
In 2003 we travelled to Italy for the European Social Forum (ESF) in Florence. We had booked tickets online in an internet cafe – remember them? We had spotted a flight to Pisa with Ryan Air that would have cost us about £15 each and thought that was amazing. We were just about to book it when one of us spotted flights to Ancona for something ridiculous like £1.50. We decided to go to Ancona then travel by train to Florence. It would take longer and would actually cost more when you factored in the train tickets, but we thought it was a good opportunity to see some of the Italian countryside. As it happens we saw loads of the Italian countryside because Davie made the mistake of insisting I get the train tickets when we reached the train station in Ancona. I misunderstood the man at the ticket counter and we ended up on a branch line train. By sometime after 9pm we had reluctantly accepted it was going to take us about 3 days to get to Florence that way. We decided to disembark in Bologna and try to find a hotel room.
In Bologna Davie needed to use the facilities at a MacDonald’s near the train station. So while he went to the toilet I considered the irony of ordering a McChicken Sandwich while en route to the biggest anti-capitalist event in Europe since 1968. I never got to be ironic. When Davie came back from the toilet he said we should leave because we had inadvertently walked into the seediest fast food place either of us had ever seen. There were people taking smack in the toilets, half the customers appeared to be prostitutes or pimps, and a fight was about to break out between what looked like members of rival gangs.
We walked miles that night trying to find a hotel. Everywhere we went they were full up. We walked so far we ended up on a housing estate miles from the city centre and had to walk back. Eventually we found a hotel with a room, but now there was a new obstacle. The man on the front desk was reluctant to give us the room. The hotel had been refurbished recently, he told us, but not that room. It only had a double bed, surely we wouldn’t want to share a bed? I don’t sleep well, especially when I’m travelling. I hadn’t slept the night before and had barely slept the night before that. I had to beg him to give us the room, and I was close to just climbing on to the counter and going to sleep in front of him when he finally relented. There was nothing wrong with the room, it was really nice.
The next day, reasonably well rested, we pushed on to Florence. This time we were on a proper train and it didn’t take too long to get there. On the train Davie had been reading his “Rough Guide to Florence”, which said the train station was full of people renting out rooms but on no account should we rent one. So, obviously, we rented a room from the first person who approached us. We spent a few days in Florence, and we had a nice room (this time with three beds in it as if to make up for the hotel) in a lovely street lined with flower pots and hanging baskets. And it was a stone’s throw away from the venue that was hosting the ESF. It was also near an Irish theme pub called the Fiddler’s Elbow – owned by an Englishman and staffed entirely by Scottish students from Dundee and Edinburgh. We enjoyed a lock-in there, and enjoyed the free beer the landlord gave us even more.
I was supposed to be interviewing activists for the dissertation on the anti-capitalist movement I’d be doing the following academic year, but the fact is we barely noticed the ESF during the day. We went sight seeing until late afternoon, when we’d try to go to a meeting. On the final day we went to the Fortezza. It was supposed to be the starting point for a huge demo. We waited amid a mass of people for it to start. What we didn’t realise was that the protest was so huge that as we sat on the grass waiting for it, it had in fact been filing passed us for an hour. Just like being in the eye of the storm, we were in the one spot in the neighbourhood where there was calm. There were plenty of people, but like us they were waiting not marching. At least 1 million people marched against capitalism and for a better world that day. When we joined the march it was still morning. We marched, shouted, chanted all day, and when it got dark we still hadn’t reached the end. Reluctantly we had to leave for our flight home – this time from Pisa airport, thankfully.
The following year we did the same all over again – in Paris. We stayed in a hotel in the Asian district known as Tolbiac. We did plenty of sight-seeing, just like we had in Florence. I missed my last chance to interview activists for my dissertation, and we once more had to trek across a city – this time looking for a pub not a hotel. Wine bars were there in plentiful supply, but Davie wanted to go to an actual pub, so one night we accepted the recommendation of the Rough Guide and found – eventually – an Australian pub that was every bit as Australian as the Irish pub in Florence had been Irish: in other words it sold Fosters. While we were there, a student from Burma tried to sell us some weed, but the thought that he was probably connected to the military junta put Davie off.
Another night, we kept our fellow guests in the Hotel Tolbiac awake as we sang the Internationale over and over again at the top of our voices with the windows open. I blame the rather good cider we’d bought at a farmers market. That was a welcome change from the Konigsberg that seemed to be the only beer Parisian supermarkets sold – so much for the vast array of choice capitalism is supposed to provide. On our final night there we were so exhausted we just stayed in our room and watched Taggart in French. Neither of us could speak French, so sadly we missed the line “Ah, Monsieur Jardine there ‘as been a murder.”
The ESF in Paris ended with a protest at least as vast as the one the previous year in Florence. Again we had to turn back before the end, but anyone who has ever been to a protest of 100 people and then been subjected to 50 speakers will appreciate how lucky we were on a protest of over 1 million people, including a multitude of nationalities, to avoid having to hear the speakers.
One other memory I have of Davie and the anti-capitalist movement was the time I was watching the news coverage of the protest at the G8 summit in Genoa. The phone went and it was Davie, in Genoa, on the protest I was watching. People on the section of the march he was in were getting worried about smoke they could see drifting in from a side street. Luckily the camera angle on the news meant I could see right down that street to where a flare had been let off, and Davie was able to relay what I was getting from the news to the people around him. It was quite surreal.
As the anti-capitalist movement began to run out of steam, Davie was becoming disillusioned with the SWP and the SSP. The bickering, the impending split, it got to him and he eventually gave up on party politics, as did I at about the same time. He continued to see himself as a socialist for a long time, possibly until the end, and an anti-fascist, but he was done with political parties many years ago.
Now comes the dark stuff. When I think about the good times we had I should feel happy to have known him, and I’m sure those feelings are there, but right now they are buried under a furious anger. Davie Fraser was still a fairly young man, just approaching his 42nd birthday, but his health had not been good for quite a long time. Sometimes he’d be improving, sometimes getting worse. Last year he had pneumonia and ended up in intensive care. He had 2 toes amputated, and his time in hospital had taken a lot out of him. He needed time to recover, and he needed help. Instead, what happened was a prolonged period of being pushed from pillar to post. He was told he should be getting disability benefit, then he was told he should be on JSA, then back again and again. Often he was getting neither, and that meant he wasn’t eating properly which led to complications with his diabetes.
This year that all seemed to have been sorted out. He had moved to a nice new flat, he had even joined a scheme to look after abandoned or abused dogs that were waiting to be re-homed. But that period of stability was only a brief respite. Once again they cut his money and he was left with nothing. The last time I saw him was 3 weeks ago. I’d gone to Paisley to visit him and give him some money for groceries. He was gaunt, having lost a lot of weight, and walking very slowly. Twice as we crossed the pedestrian precinct in Paisley High Street he had to stop to rest against a lamppost. When we went into a cafe for lunch he would only take a cup of tea – he was worried he might be sick if he ate because he’d barely eaten for days, and he didn’t want to risk that in public. He told me he felt old, and said he was sure if he went to the hospital they would admit him immediately.
A week and a half later Davie was in intensive care fighting for his life. They had to amputate his leg below the knee. He fought on. Finally, on Monday 27th June Davie fell into a diabetic coma and later died. His death was entirely needless. The benefit system that should have helped and supported him the last time he was hospitalised instead failed him and even punished him. Rather than help him recover, they pushed him around, they threatened him, they starved him and they eventually wrecked his health and killed him.
If you said to me “surely a life long socialist and activist like Davie should have shouted louder for help?” I’d agree. If you said “couldn’t you have done more?” I’d say yes. Whenever he asked for help buying food I helped him; but I shouldn’t have waited to be asked, I should have asked him what he needed. If you said “couldn’t the people around him have done more?” I’d say yes. But to all of these points I’d also say, you just don’t expect that in 21st century Britain someone could be allowed to go hungry for days or weeks just because they’re on benefits. You don’t expect someone in that situation to be allowed to die. You say to yourself “I’ll phone him at the weekend and see how he’s doing.” When the weekend comes, maybe you phone but maybe other things get in the way. You expect any problems with benefits will be sorted out eventually. It never occurs to you that someone might die waiting for that to happen, even when you’ve heard stories like that so many times. You just don’t expect it. I could finish by saying that we should all check on people we know who are having a hard time, but while that would be a good thing to do, it misses the point. Davie and thousands like him should never be in a position where they need to ask a friend to buy food for them. The DWP is responsible for David Fraser’s death, his and many many more – unequivocally.
In recent times Davie’s life took some unexpected turns, and he went in new directions and explored new lifestyles. I didn’t see much of him over the last few years, but whenever we met up it always felt like we’d only just seen each other the day before – and of course he was always ready to remind me of some triumph in Champo, like the time he won the SPL with St Mirren or the European Cup with Reading. He could be funny, and I’ll miss his sense of humour and zest for life. One night when we were out in Glasgow the group split up and Davie went off to one pub and I went to another. Later, while I was waiting for a taxi with some friends, he reappeared, and he was extremely happy having had more than a few. He spotted me and shouted “Sean! I love you. I LOVE you!” and gave me a hug. It made me feel special for a moment, so I said thank you. At that point he spotted the friend next to me and shouted “I love you!” and hugged him too, before working his way down the line. I will try to remember him like that, but I think it’s likely I will never forget what was done to him.