John Kay obituary

The Guardian, by Jackie Kay

My father, John Kay, who has died aged 94, was a political organiser and activist; he stood for parliament four times as a Communist party candidate. He had a lifelong commitment to socialism and a passion for books, ideas and music.

Born in Glasgow, the son of Joseph Kay, a tram driver who had been a PoW in the first world war, and Helen (nee Duff), a cleaner, John won a scholarship to Allan Glen’s school in the city, but left at 14 – his biggest regret – to earn money. He gained an apprenticeship as an engineering draughtsman.

In the mid-1950s he went under the postwar migration scheme to New Zealand, where, in a cafe in Christchurch, he met Helen Kirk, who came from Fife. They married in 1954 and spent 65 happy years together. Inspired by their Maori friend Tam, they joined the Communist party in New Zealand. They pursued their love of hillwalking both there and on their return to Scotland.


In 1959, living in Bishopbriggs, north of Glasgow, John and Helen, who became a primary school teacher and also secretary of the Scottish peace movement, adopted my brother Maxwell; they had been told that no babies were available until my mother remarked: “By the way, we don’t mind what colour the child is.” Two years later, they adopted me too, to keep Maxwell company.

John started working full-time for the Communist party of Great Britain in 1964. He was the Glasgow secretary, then the industrial organiser; I remember hearing his impassioned speeches at factory gate meetings when I was a girl. He was involved in the workers’ struggle at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in 1971 and the anti-poll tax campaign in the late 80s.

An eternal optimist, he stood as the party’s candidate for Glasgow Queen’s Park in the general elections of 1974 and 1979 and byelection of 1982, as well as in local elections; his best result was 372 votes. The green Morris van he drove around in, coincidentally, contained the letters “KGB” in its number plate.

John loved reading Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Stendhal, Brecht and Vidal. He was like a living encyclopedia; a peripatetic public library. Theatre was another great interest and he was on the board of Wildcat, the political theatre company. A brilliant dancer, he jived across our living room at parties.

John passed on his enthusiasm for blues, jazz and classical music and theatre, film and poetry, and was proud of his children and grandchildren’s achievements.

When I became Makar (Scotland’s national poet), I read a poem in front of the Queen and the Scottish parliament for the opening of the new session in 2016; my father walked into the building that day and said: “I made it at last.”

John is survived by Helen, Maxwell and me, his grandchildren, Matthew, Robbie and Maxine, and his great-granddaughter, Nieve.