By Tim Porteus

JOHN Martine’s interesting book of reminiscences from our county, written in 1890, has a reference of an encounter in the late 18th century between John Glassell, then proprietor in Longniddry, and David Aitken, a man who was to become a well-known merchant in Tranent.

Aitken was a supporter of the Friends of the People, a democracy movement campaigning to extend the right to vote and make Parliament a more meaningful representative of the common people in the 1790s. It was repressed and the leaders were sent into exile in Australia by a corrupt and undemocratic Government which was led by men of noble privilege.

Glassell, on the other hand, was not a supporter of this democratic movement. But he was one of Aitken’s regular customers and when he heard that Aitken had associations with it, and had even shaken the hands of its leaders in 1794 before their transportation, he decided he would no longer do any business with Aitken.

And so the angry Glassell set off to inform Aitken of his decision.

Here is my interpretation of how their conversation went, based on Martine’s account:

“Ah, Mr Glassell, good day tae ye sir, whit can I dae fir ye the day?”

“Weel, Mr Aitken, I’ll tell ye whit I’ve come for, I am closing ma account wi ye.”

Aitken stood quite shocked. John Glassell had been a well-known and long-standing customer, his custom was good promotion for his business.

“I see. Has there been ony service or product ye have no been happy with sir? We huv been daein business thegither fir mony years, perhaps I can rectify yer dissatisfaction in some way?”

Glassell stood, scouring at the shop owner.

“Naw,” said Glassell, “I have nae complaint aboot yer service or produce.”

Aitken was now confused.

“Forgie me then, Mr Glassell, if ye are happy enough wi ma service and produce, whit is the reason ye wish tae terminate oor mutual business?”

Glassell’s face reddened and his voice rose as he spoke. He seemed on the point of rage.

“I think ye ken fine well why I dinnae want tae dae business wi ye, ye traitorous scoundrel. I want naething tae dae wi ye!”

“I’m a traitorous scoundrel?”

“Aye ye are, and I no longer want tae bring ma custom tae a man o’ seditious persuasion. I demand that we close oor business thegither and I will then say farweel tae ye.”

Aitken realised the reason; it was his politics that Glassell objected to. He felt sad about this as the two men had conducted business together for many years. But nevertheless, he realised Glassell’s mind had been made up.

“Very weel Mr Glassell, that o’ course is yer right,” said Aitken courteously, trying to defuse the anger.

“It is indeed, and I wish tae terminate oor business relationship immediately.”

“Certainly,” said Aitken, “and may I tak this opportunity tae thank ye fir yer mony years o custom. Noo if ye wait a moment I will fetch the ledger so we can close yer account.”

Aitken went to the rear of his premises and then returned with a large ledger book, in which were recorded all the transactions of the business over many years. He opened it at the page containing the details of Glassells’s account.

“Aye, weel Mr Glassell, as ye can see here, this is yer ootstandin balance. As soon as this debt is paid, then I will immediately close yer account, as ye wish.”

Glassell stared at the amount due. He looked at the entries and realised it was correct. He hadn’t realised it would be so much, in fact in his anger he hadn’t thought about the issue at all. But now he did. It was a substantial sum to pay, and if he was honest with himself, having an account with Aitken had often been very useful.

Glassell’s eyes raised from the pages. “Aye, weel, perhaps I’ve bin a wee bit hasty Mr Aitken, it does seem that oor business thegither has bin, shall we say, mutually beneficial.”

“I wud agree, Mr Glassell. But o’ course if ye wish tae end it, it is yer right. Dae ye still want tae close yer account?” asked the shopkeeper, now with a discernible grin on his face.

Glassell shook his head: “Perhaps, oan reflection, no.”

“Very weel, I will keep yer account open then,” replied Aitken, putting the ledger away.

Glassell left without another word.

“Guid day tae ye sir,” Aitken said, as his still less than happy customer left the premises. There was no reply.

But John Glassell continued his custom, despite his dislike for David Aitken’s politics. They would have fierce disagreements on the affairs of the day, but they recognised it would be foolish to end an account which was ultimately to the benefit of both.

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool,” Aitken once quoted from Shakespeare, in one of these heated discussions.

“Aye, but which one is the fool, that is the question?” was the quick reply.

Over time, they continued to disagree, but developed a relationship of grudging respect. They benefitted from each other in different ways; it was a triumph of wisdom over self-defeating rage.