Like many of our Humans to date, Euan comes from the east coast, albeit the east coast of Scotland. Married for almost 30 years to Jane (as of this coming September 1st), their children Sarah and Malcolm both currently live in Brooklyn, and much to their parents’ delight, even live in the same apartment building.
For most of the past 30 some years Euan has worked for Minnesota Public Radio, where his current role involves being on air several times a week, as an Arts Correspondent, together with considerable behind-the-scenes effort involved in research, attending events, and preparing and writing for radio, the web, and even video.
We met one evening recently over coffee and day old scones at Dunn Brothers, in the shadows of Macalester College.
So what do you want to know?
Whatever it is, I want to know it fast. I have to get this in by Tuesday this week.
I’ll not be loquacious.
(taking my plastic, Radio Shack microphone)
You want me to hold this? I’m not used to these things.
First let me find the ‘on’ switch. OK, let’s start with the basics. Born, raised, family, growing up.
I was born in Burnside, just outside of Glasgow. My parents moved first to a place called Cumbernauld. My father was part of the team there that helped design the city. It was one of a string of new towns that were built up just after World War II, to move people out of the slums of Glasgow.
But much to my father’s delight – and horror – Cumbernauld has been identified by the BBC in recent years as a place that should be demolished.
Note: Cumbernauld has won the Carbuncle Award for its town center, which is bestowed annually on a Scottish town which is deemed to be a blot on the landscape. The town center stems from the town’s rebirth in 1956, when it was designated as one of five “new towns” in Scotland. A sprawling, angular concrete complex, it was described by the award organizers as “soulless and inaccessible, something like Eastern Europe before the wall came down”.
We then moved to Edinburgh when I was very young, 18 months or so, and I grew up there. So in terms of Scotland, that means I’m schizophrenic. The two sides of the country, even though they are only 45 miles apart, see themselves as being entirely different. It’s a bit like Minneapolis and Saint Paul.
How about schooling?
I went to an all boy’s school, starting when I was five and still had the same classmates when I was eighteen. Then I went to the University of Stirling, which is where I first met people from this strange place called Saint Paul, because there was an exchange program with Macalester College.
I wanted to do something between high school and college. At first I thought I wanted to go to a kibbutz in Israel. To live the idealistic lifestyle. I read all about it and got books from the library. But then somebody started shooting at somebody there, and it never happened.
I ended up going on what was then called Camp America. It allowed college kids to work their passage, and have a summer in America. You sign up, and tell them the things that you can do, and they match you with a camp.
So one day I got this letter from a camp, in a place called Wisconsin, and it said ‘we would like you to come and teach archery’. I could teach archery, but I hated it. But I had been told in my interview that I wouldn’t have to do it more than an hour a week. So I said “oh, I can do an hour a week”. But I ended up it doing five hours a day.
What was it called?
Camp Nebagamon for Boys. It wasn’t a Jewish camp, but it happened to be maybe 75% Jewish. So I went there, and I had an utterly hellish year … a dysfunctional cabin. And I went back to Scotland, and I thought I’m never going to go back to that place again, it was a horrible place.
Then one day, back in Scotland, we heard that Elvis Costello was going to come play Edinburgh. In those days, Elvis Costello could have played any venue in Edinburgh, but he insisted on playing this little night club that only held about 300 people. It was called Tiffanys, and it was famous for its plastic Easter Island statues and fake palm trees. It turns out that he had played the worst gig of his entire life there, so he made it a point to come back.
And for some reason – it was completely insane – but I thought if Elvis Costello can come back here, I can go back to Camp Nebagamon.
So I went back, and the next time I met Jane, and we’ve been married for 30 years.
Was she a camper?
Well, as it turned out she was the boss’s daughter. Her family owned the place.
And every summer I came back. Then finally, we realized that if we were going to be serious about this, one of us was going to have to move. She had a job, and I didn’t. I was interested in radio, and Minnesota had a good journalism school, so I came over and did a Master’s degree. Though I actually haven’t finished it yet. I have a few more credits to do.
Then at one point the INS said, ‘well you know your visa is about to run out’, so I thought ‘uh … well, I’d better get married’.
So that was it.
And the wedding itself?
We were married at the camp, there was a little point on the lake. By Rabbi Norman Cohen. We were members at Bet Shalom at the time, we had been living in Minneapolis.
But we joined Mount Zion by the early 90s, after we moved to this side of the river in 1987. So we’ve been members of Mount Zion quite a while, and I’ve been there at least 4 or 5 times since.
Then I must have seen you there every time. Seriously, what has been your connection to Mount Zion?
Well like many families, it’s through the children. Jane grew up very reform, at Temple Emanuel in Saint Louis, to the point where they actually moved services to Sundays. Like many people of her age, she felt that perhaps things went a little too far. The driver though, is that we really enjoy the community. Both kids went through Religious School, and I think that they both certainly identify culturally, and are connected at least a little with the community in New York. They both find it fascinating there.
How about your own upbringing?
My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a printer who was very involved in the socialist movement in Glasgow. Scotland has always been very left wing. He used to print the posters for the movement. He knew people that are now in the history books – Keir Hardie and John MacLean.
So there has always been that atheist side to my family. Though strangely enough, religious education in Scotland is compulsory in school. So in a way, it turns out I actually knew more about Judaism than Jane did.
And your parents?
At some point in the early 1970s my mother decided she needed to do something about domestic violence. She took part in what became Scottish Women’s Aid. It is a nonprofit group to aid battered women. But she kept it quiet. For years, she would look after us during the day, and at night she would take off and go around with a couple cops, and they would confront batterers. They would take women to a secret location. My mother was this very quiet, gentle woman, but she could get very fierce.
She ended up being the president of Scottish Women’s Aid. You just kind of accept things like this, and it wasn’t until after she died, and I did her eulogy, that I learned more, and it was like ‘oh man this was extraordinary’.
They started the first group, and now there are dozens of them, and now they are writing a history about it.
Do you have any family mementos?
One of my favorite things, that frankly Jane is not terribly keen on, is we have a picture in our living room that was done by an artist called Alisdair Gray.
He was a novelist, and an artist, and he does mainly pen drawings. So we have this picture that my uncle commissioned from Gray for my grandfather’s 60th birthday. In a way it was very sad, both my uncle and grandfather were called George, and it was about their relationship. It was based upon a poem by Helaire Belloc.
In February, I was back in Scotland and there was an exhibit of works by Alisdair Gray. And I went up to him and introduced myself and told him about the drawing. He said “I’ve been wondering for years where that went”. He and my uncle were friends. “That was one of the best pictures I’ve ever done”.
What about your MPR career?
I fell in love with radio in Scotland, when I was in college at Stirling. We had the only college radio station in Scotland at the time. I started off being a DJ during the punk days. But eventually I got bored with just spinning records and decided I wanted to tell stories.
Jane said I should come here because we have Minnesota Public Radio. I had actually heard about Prairie Home Companion from some of the Macalester students. And they used to tell me about the Hungry Mind Bookstore. I never, ever thought I would end up living here, having heard so much about it.
But I ended up getting an internship with Deborah Fisher who was the legal affairs reporter back then, helping her cover the attempt to rewrite the juvenile code. And gradually I started doing more and more stuff on air. And now I’m an Arts Correspondent. It’s true, though, that everyone there is kind of a generalist. We have to be prepared to do anything. And of course the business has changed, we now also do the web, and occasionally video.
On an average day I might be on air, do research, interviews, and then writing the stories. I usually write 2 or 3 stories a week. The features take a long time to do. Well I don’t have to tell you. Transcribing, choosing the cuts, writing it up.
Do you have a favorite interview?
That is so unfair. I’ve met a lot of entertainers – Jennifer Lawrence. One of my heroes when I was growing up, a guy named Paul Weller, who was a punk musician with the Jam.
And there is Neil Gaiman – I’ve talked to him a number of times – the fantasy writer. Just a fascinating, creative fellow. I love talking to authors.
Have you written, published? Do you plan to?
I think everyone believes they have a novel in them. It takes a special discipline, and when you’re writing all day already, it’s difficult.
How about special talents?
I can still shoot archery. And I have been an avid curler. I have curled since I was 14. I hope to do that till I’m in my 90s. I play soccer still, every week. I am on the Board of the HGRA (Highland Groveland Rec Association). I’m in what they call the ‘over 35’ league, but many of us are well over 35. I played soccer growing up. I also played rugby and cricket.
Do you still play those?
No, that’s why I took up curling. Curling had the advantage that you could play with girls.
Have you had any favorite adventures?
Well one thing was going to Cuba recently. I went to Cuba with the Minnesota Orchestra. It was a whirlwind tour, we got very little sleep, did lots of stories, but just kept meeting the Cubans. They are in this extraordinary period of transition. They are both really excited about it and they are also really scared, because they want change but they want it on their terms, and they are justifiably concerned they are not going to get it – on their terms.
Can I ask, what’s been your perspective on Judaism?
I grew up atheist – hard core, third generation atheist.
But I’m very proud. I consider my family to be Jewish, though I’m not Jewish. But I never felt any pressure, and actually I’m very grateful to the community for that. Because I enjoy going to services, and I enjoy the community, but it’s just not me. And I am really grateful for the sense of community that Jane gets from it. And Sarah was the NFTY President, so she traveled all over for that.
But I love the questioning that comes with Judaism. And the idea that you debate, and you talk, and you talk. It just seems very human. And humane.
Even with a Radio Shack mic and a day old scone.