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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
14 April 2023
Jane O'Donnell: Getting to Know You

Jane O'Donnell, chief executive of Cosla

Jane O'Donnell: Getting to Know You

What is your earliest memory? 

There are a couple, I have a fleeting impression of being a really small kid. From pictures at the time, I think I was in the living room of my house, and we had a big ginger cat, and I remember wanting to touch it and not being able to.  

But the first that I can fully remember was during the nativity play when I was in primary one. I was Mary, and I absolutely hated it. Every moment of it. The pictures are not of a beaming child, they tell their own story. Not a very happy little girl at all.  

I don’t remember what about it I hated so much, and I was really chuffed when I got picked. I must have felt very awkward in front of all those people.  

What were you like at school? 

I come from a family of lots of teachers, so I knew that I had to behave. There were big consequences for me if I didn’t behave at school.  

I really liked English, history, and languages. I wasn’t so keen on maths and science – that wasn’t my strong point. When I was in RE or modern studies, I always liked to play devil’s advocate when arguing cases. I would always be putting my hand up; I loved the attention, quite contrary from primary one. 

Who is your dream dinner date? 

Time with family is really precious, so I love that, and I like to go out for a meal with my partner and my daughters whenever I can.  

But if I am going to be selfish, I was at the Edinburgh Book Festival a few years ago, and I saw Neil Gaiman interview Margaret Atwood for an hour and it was amazing; it flew past. They talked about writing, the environment, politics, they covered everything. So, yeah, I would like to get them around a dinner table and just listen to them talk all night, that would be a real treat.  

What is your greatest fear? 

I have a personal and a professional one. I have two daughters who are really intelligent, really independent-minded, and they are living their best lives. Like most parents, my really strong personal fear is that something would get in the way of that. 

Professionally, I am really worried about the way people aren’t valuing local democracy. We live in this amazing country, and all our communities are different, vibrant, and interesting. And I think a one size fits all approach belittles and minimises them.  

What is your most treasured possession? 

I am a very keen, but not a very good amateur runner. I have been running since my late 30s, I found it a bit later in life, so my most treasured possession would be my running shoes. Just because that is where I get a bit of peace and quiet, a bit of time on my own where I can think things through, and I always feel better after a run.  

Have you taken part in any big runs? 

Not since I had Covid. I had it last year and that really affected my fitness for a long time. It is just slowly coming back.  

In the past I have done two marathons; I did my first one for the local food bank and the second one I did was for Alzheimer Scotland. I don’t think that I would want to do another marathon again, and that is seeming like quite a difficult ambition to go for with my fitness the way it is.  

How difficult was it to recover from Covid? 

I got the Omicron strain last year, and I wouldn’t have said that I was really poorly at the time – it just felt like a really bad flu.But I don’t think I ran for about two months afterwards, and just walking was quite difficult. And actually, I had childhood asthma, which had gone, but I am now back on inhalers, so it definitely had an effect on my lungs.  

What is your guiltiest pleasure? 

I am never happier sitting with a book and a big packet of biscuits, and I do mean this, I tend to eat every single biscuit. But I do it quite often, so I am not sure that it is really guilty.  

If you could go back in time to a period in history, where would you go? 

There is probably a theme emerging here around books. I love the Brontë’s, and I studied them at university. I have also been to Haworth in Yorkshire to see their house, and I would love to go back and see the three sisters and [brother] Branwell all living, writing, and painting together.

The rooms that they lived in were so small, and they wrote these tiny matchstick-sized books from a very young age, and of course, their minds were all bouncing off of each other. It must have been amazing to encounter them, and the landscape around there is just amazing.   

What is the worst pain that you have ever experienced? 

About 20 years ago I got necrotising fasciitis, it is a flesh-eating illness from an insect bite on my foot, and I didn’t realise what was going on. I thought it was just a sore bite, but the infection moves so quickly.  

I was down in Leicester visiting family and had to get an emergency appointment. I was injected with antibiotics. I have never felt a pain like it in my life, it was just unbearable. It got harder and harder to put my foot on the ground, and I got to the stage just before I got medical help that even a cover over my foot was agony.  

What is the best holiday that you have been on? 

About ten years ago I was lucky enough to go to Japan. I was there for a couple of weeks, and it’s a beautiful country and the people are lovely. The culture was different enough that it really felt like you were in a completely different and unusual place. I was there in April, which is when the cherry blossoms are out, it is astonishing.  

The food was amazing, it was great to see the way that they treat food, and the way they see eating as a real communal experience. My daughters were there so they got the chance to understand that as well.  

I was also struck by the people and the extent they would go out of their way to help. They could tell we were tourists and when we were struggling. In Tokyo they have an incredible underground, and we got lost a few times. Every time someone asked if they could help, even if their English wasn’t so good.

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