John Main – Every Little Helps - by April McGinty


Born in Kittybrewster in 1927 John Main spent his later years seeking both purpose and recognition. His mother Margaret had fled an abusive relationship and at age five he left his native Aberdeen to spend the next decade in Northern Borneo.

A distant aunt funded his education and at age 16 he returned to the Granite City to take up an apprenticeship with a local granite merchant.
During his time in Borneo, he had maintained a correspondence with his alleged father, whom he had never met. Monthly letters flowed between the two describing both post-war hopes for a new Europe and a desire for a meeting between the two. As it turned out, the father he wrote to was not his own. But, in later years that became less of an issue following the revelation that the letters were in fact from an uncle hopelessly infatuated with Margaret Main. Always the optimist, the young John could empathize with his uncle's unrequited hopes of love and happiness.
John’s true dad was an itinerant beggar by the name of Jason McBride. A petty thief and occasional cat burglar from Torry, Jason had fathered him during a brief but passionate affair in the summer of 1926 at which time Margaret, a rebellious music teacher, had become an early member of Oswald Mosely’s fascist party.

Shortly after the battle of Cable Street, Margaret became infatuated with McBride. But it was not to last. The Black-Shirt violence and the anti-semitic rhetoric quickly became overwhelming and the pair soon parted. She fled to Spain then on to Vienna where she met an Egyptian by the name of Saud Megrahi. Saud had fought on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War. A Coptic Christian, he had been captured during the siege of Barcelona and sentenced to death by members of General Calrose’s notorious Black Brigade. On the eve of his execution his guards, probably fearing an attack by Royalists, fled and Saud was freed from his cell by a sympathetic Falangist Colonel.

In fear for his life, Saud made his way overland to Portugal then to Austria where he had a brief affair with John’s mother before succumbing to typhoid.

Following his return to Aberdeen as a teenager, John quickly became disillusioned with the granite trade in all of its glory and soon took up a position as a porter at an Aberdeen fish-merchant. This was not to his liking either and after a brief spell amongst the fish, he left to pursue a career in retail.
The erstwhile supermarket chain William Low was his introduction to the food trade. But the Aberdeen typhoid scandal soon overtook him. The resultant downturn in trade led to lay-offs and he soon found himself unemployed and in desperate need of a new career. The Low supermarket, where he worked, was identified as the source of the outbreak which hospitalised some 540 and killed three and to his credit John appeared as a witness in the subsequent Milne public health enquiry.

A decade or so in advertising followed and in 1992 he moved to New Zealand to manage an import/export business specialising in kangaroo-meat before returning to the UK to work as a senior retail marketing executive.

In between times, he had invented an early electronic machine for separating fact from truth which was later taken in hand by the FBI, pioneered a process for intensive spaghetti harvesting in the Algarve and fathered two sets of twins. But his main claim to fame must surely be the penning of the supermarket slogan ‘Every little helps’.

Hired by the then Walmart owned supermarket chain Asda in the summer of 1993, he had entered an employee competition featuring a prize of £250 for the best corporate strapline submitted by a current employee. Entries included ‘You only live twice with Asda’, ‘You only get an ooh with Asda’ and ‘Never knowingly under-souled’.

In the event Asda were to go along with the somewhat uninspiring slogan ‘Asda price, dum-di-rum-pum’ leaving rival Tesco to grab the now ‘Every Little Helps’ line for an undisclosed sum reputed to be in the six figures.

The money eventually led to two divorces and John was once quoted as saying that although when money comes in the window ‘love goes out the door’, it had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.
‘It left me free to do whatever I wanted’ he said ‘I mean, life is quite absurd and death's the final word. You must always face the final curtain with a bow. Forget about your sin. Give the audience a grin. Enjoy it. It's your last chance, anyhow. So Just purse your lips and whistle. That's the thing really. And always look on the bright side of life.’

He returned to live in his native Kittybrewster just months before his death but told both family and carers that he simply hated the place. ‘It’s a run-down sort of place compared to what it was in William Cadenhead’s day’ he told his new neighbours.

When asked more about his Kittybrewster memories, he would often recite the lines:

She sell’t a dram – I kent her fine
Out on the road to Hilton
Afore the door there stood a sign
A hint a lairack beltin

The sign to mak’ it bright and gay
Taxed Tinto’s best resources,
An ale-stoup and a wisp o’ hay
Farin’ for men and horses

Her dram was good, but O, her ale
Twas it that did her credit
Aboot a’ brewsts it bore the bell
And twas hersel that made it

Just twa-three waughts o’t wi a frien
Out ower a bargain makin
Wad cheer your heart and light your een
And set your lugs a-cracklin

Her yaird had midden-cocks and game
And mony a cacklin’ rooster
She was a canty, kindly dame
They ca’d her Kitty Brewster

Alas, the change! Houses, like men
Have just their life to live it
Kind Kitty’s canty but-and-ben
Is levelled with the divot

Kate’s brewin craft and spotless fame
For name had eer traduced her
We own that Lily Bank we name
Conjoined wi Kitty Brewster

John Main was born on April 1 1927 and died peacefully in his sleep on 30 February 2019 from Mays Syndrome just short of his ninety-second birthday.

He is survived by daughters Mary, Jane, Elspeth and Sue. His third wife Nigella sadly pre-deceased him in 2003 and his ashes were scattered alongside the 13th hole at Balmedie at midnight during the February full moon.

At the somewhat poorly attended ceremony, attendant mourners were heard to sing that Python great: Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.


April McGinty is author of two books about the Shire: The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire and The Little History of Aberdeenshire. Both titles are available @ Amazon.


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