Lord mayor of a mighty English port city, Gary Millar’s story is one about family values and beating odds.
THOUSANDS gathered under a clear blue sky by the banks of the Mersey with patriotic pride in their hearts as they waved, cheered and gave thanks to those who bravely fought in the Battle of the Atlantic.
Gary Millar was there, too, standing alongside the First Sea Lord, navy veterans, dozens of dignitaries. Later he’d find himself in one of Liverpool’s cathedrals, sitting at the end of one VIP pew, the Princess Royal at the other.
“I sat there thinking, it’s a dream,” he says, chuckling. “There’s me, from a slum near Easter Road, working class, gay, Scottish. Fast forward and I’m lord mayor of one of the biggest cities in the country.
“How did that happen?”
How indeed? For if it’s perhaps a little surprising to find a son of an Edinburgh bus conductor and hardworking laundry woman in the splendid robes of Liverpool’s lord mayor – never mind the fact that he’s the first openly gay lord mayor in the land – the road to getting there is an astonishing and humbling journey that not a soul could have possibly predicted.
He was raised in a Leith slum room and kitchen in East William Street, with an outside toilet shared with the neighbours and loo roll in the shape of scraps of newspaper on a hook, upstairs bed was an alcove with a curtain slung over it.
There was devastating family tragedy, disability, hardship and foster homes to get through, various primary schools for a few lonely months at a time and a heartless teacher who called him a “dunce”.
And yet at the end of it, stood Gary Millar last weekend, with the sumptuous robes of Liverpool’s first citizen wrapped around his shoulders, a stunning – and, he points out, ridiculously heavy – gold and diamond encrusted chain of office glittering round his neck, his “consort” and civil partner Steve McFarlane by his side.
The 70th anniversary battle celebrations were his first major role since being sworn in as lord mayor a few days earlier, an emotional ceremony attended by family who made the trip from Edinburgh to Liverpool City Hall to watch with pride, acutely aware of the astonishing achievement they were witnessing.
Gary, 52, speaks from his City Hall office without a trace of Liverpool accent despite having lived there for around three decades. He’s still on a high after a phenomenal baptism which saw him help lead the poignant anniversary celebrations and is minutes from trade talks with the high commissionaire of Trinidad and Tobago.
Life now revolves around this year-long role during which he aims to raise £1 million for various charities close to his heart, endless whistle-stop engagements – in less than a week in office he’d already notched up 30 appearances at events – and too many ambassadorial and civic appointments to even guess at.
But his thoughts, for the time being, are back “home”, to a grim Leith tenement and what turned out to be a slightly unconventional childhood. He recalls being four years old when East William Street and the other slum tenements around it were finally cleared away. While scrapping crumbling and cramped homes was for the best, on the other hand it destroyed a tight-knit community and separated families and friends into newer parts of town.
Parents Gordon and Madge took Gary and his younger brother, Norman, to Burdiehouse and a house that overlooked rolling fields and where, he recalls, the fresh air was often tainted ever so slightly by the whiff of “donkey poo”.
“It was like going from the city slums to heaven,” he says, grinning. “Wide open farmlands, it was incredible.”
In a bizarre and shocking turn of events, he was five and lying in hospital having had an operation when he met his younger brother in the most harrowing of circumstances. Baby Leslie had been born with serious disabilities caused by thalidomide – not that the young Gary knew it.
“I’d gone to the Sick Kids hospital to have my adenoids out. I came out of the general anaesthetic and the nurses presented Leslie to me without my parents’ permission.
“He’d been very ill and mum had been ill, too – and they hadn’t told me about him. They’d been waiting to see how he got on – in those days they thought he might have just passed away. I completely freaked out.”
Leslie did not have the typical limb problems related to thalidomide – instead, he couldn’t hear or speak, issues which made it even tougher for the family to fight for compensation. “It took a long time to prove,” adds Gary, who has placed raising money for disability charities at the top of his “things to do while I’m lord mayor” list. “I was 11 or 12 before they received any compensation and even then it was only enough to enable us to buy a house in Gorgie.
“It was a tragedy.”
Sadly depression and ill health stalked his mother. And as her health dipped, Gary was placed into foster care. To this day there are swathes of his childhood which are blank – he does not know which schools he attended or even which parts of town he lived in.
“I’d like to know,” he says. “I had spells staying with my Auntie Sandra, my mum’s cousin, but I can remember being in this person’s house in Portobello, I don’t know how long for or which school I went to.
“I think I must have been in at least eight different primary schools – I went to Granton, Gracemount, Sciennes and Burdiehouse, but there were others, too. It was sad. Mum was in and out of hospital, dad was working, who else could look after me? I can’t even remember if Norman was with me or not, we were so young.”
Today he’s a successful businessman – Coldplay and Paolo Nutini have recorded albums at his Liverpool recording studio – but being hunted around schools and without time to settle in any meant he struggled through primary school.
The sting of that teacher’s “dunce” comment – he was shoved in a corner for being “stupid” – spurs him on: “I’m very patient about helping infants and junior school children,” he says. “I’ve visited a lot of schools, I run competitions because I want to inspire kids to do better.”
Tynecastle High, however, was “brilliant”, and Gary thrived, scooping prizes for history and English and forging friendships which remain remarkably solid 40 years later.
But even then, home life was difficult. With his mother often ill, Gary took on a young carer role long before the term had even been dreamed up, cooking family dinners of Spam or haslet with tinned spaghetti hoops, making do with hand-me-down clothes and taking on a string of after-school jobs – delivering the Evening News was just one – to help earn a little extra money.
Today he’s known in Liverpool for his sharp suits and elegant style and was even recently awarded the title of the city’s best-dressed businessman – a hangover, he says, from the days when, desperate not to be embarrassed at high school in tatty old clothes, he used his earnings to buy his own clothes.
Now he has traded all that in for a different kind of outfit – the Lord Mayor of Liverpool’s robes are vivid red and sombre black, a lacy white ruffle at his neck and one of two glittering gold chains – a day chain of solid gold and formal chain encrusted with jewels – shining on his chest.
He wore his robes with pride when, watched by his overjoyed Edinburgh family: his late father’s sister, Ina, from St Leonard’s, his Auntie Margaret from Richmond Place, Uncle Allan from Moredun, brother Norman, sister-in-law Lorna, and their children, Lisa and William.
And, of course, his other brother, Leslie, who made the trip from Glasgow and who followed the events and communicated through a typist and sign language.
“He gave a speech for me and we were all crying,” says Gary. “It was great that Leslie was there. Someone who is deaf, who can’t speak . . . just imagine how hard it is for them to understand and communicate.
“He is very proud of me, and I am very proud of him.”