Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Launch of book, end of blog.

This blog is about a third of the finished book, Lands of Lost Content: A Memoir. I am closing the blog for two reasons:

1. The completed manuscript is now available as an eBook and a Print on Demand (PoD) paperback (see links below),

2. The blog has been getting a lot of weird hits recently (who knew I had so many fans in Azerbaijan?).

The posts will remain up for a while, with more photographs than in the book.

The eBook and PoD are available through your local Amazon site, eg.,,, etc. The eBook is also available through Smashwords and, in the next few days through Apple Books, Barnes and Noble, etc.

If you enjoyed the blog, enjoy the book and if you do, leave a review.


Monday, 31 August 2020

Interlude 10—Otzy



The cold eats through your bones,

the blinding snowflakes freeze your beard,

and leather straw and wool have lost their power to warm.

You stumble on on feet of lead

a roaring fire, a waiting wife 

the only impetus

for that next agonizing step.

A feather bed of snow 

beneath the wind,

you lay your quiver knife and axe aside 

and rest 

Fifty centuries of calm blue ice

muffle with equal ease

an army's thunderous tread, 

the whisper of a thought.

Asleep you lie 

as Hannibal passed by

fooled by Rome's eternity

and Christ fished

in waters deeper than your sleep.

Your changeless dreams 

a simple hut on legs beside a lake

a hearth

a meal of fish and grain

a family to pass your memory down.

Poor fool

even the lake has long since gone.

The ice withdraws

and leaves you naked

in our questing glare,

an ancient man so primitive

and yet so much like us. 

We probe in awe 

the arrow in your back,

the sacred marks upon your skin,

each tiny seed of gruel from your final meal, 

and catalogue your trinkets tools and garb

as through those hollow eyes

you watch our petty quarrelling

I want to touch your face

feel the skin's dark leatheriness

let you know I am alive

and care.

Maybe then you will awake

and forgive us

for killing you.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Sex. drugs and rock 'n' roll—part 2

The only surviving stone from the original Paisley Grammar.

Paisley Grammar School was universally known as the Grammar, although its full title, Paisley Grammar School and William B. Barbour Academy, was much grander. The pretensions of the Grammar didn’t help its reputation for snobbishness. Founded by a royal charter in 1576, the Grammar charged fees, the students played rugby and cricket as opposed to football, which was what everyone wanted to play, and had a school song, the Oriflamme:

The torch of our yesterdays

Was kindled by a royal hand.

To bear the Oriflamme always,

And keep it splendid and ablaze,

Was his command.

The torch has ever burned with light

Inspiring, down the days of dust.

They held it sacred in his sight.

To pass it on, a beacon bright:

It was their trust.

The torch, long borne of storied fame

Our eager hands are grasping now.

That we shall tend its vital flame

In loyal service to his name

This be our vow.

Despite singing it on numerous occasions, I was never eager or inspired and made no vow. 

The Grammar also had a Latin motto inscribed above the front door. It was “Disce Puer Aut Abi.” This translates as “Work boy or get out”, which I didn’t find particularly encouraging.

Franz's car turning, moments before the shots.
To be fair, the Grammar did, overall, provide a decent education. Of course, there were good teachers and bad. I had two favourites. Colin Campbell taught me history for two years. He made it come alive and was influential in giving me history as a source of the stories I now tell, so much so that I reconnected with him in 2004 and dedicated a book to him (The Flags of War). I can still visualize the lesson he gave on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. I was so impressed that I went home and wrote the story down, complete with a map of the route the Archduke’s car took and crosses where the assassins stood. 

It helped that Mr. Campbell was closer to us in age than many of the teachers at the Grammar and so we could relate more easily. He also had a cool story about his brother who was in the RAF and told us, through Mr. Campbell, how, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vulcan bombers loaded with atomic bombs had been distributed to civilian airports around the country and sat, fuelled and armed at the end of the runways with a pilot in the cockpit 24/7 for eleven days.

The story resonated because, like most teenagers in the sixties, I really thought the end of the world was round the corner. Our grandparents generation had had a war, our parents had had a war, pretty soon it was going to be our turn. I was hugely impressed and scared by Peter Watkins’ movie The War Game, which in 1965 depicted in documentary style the run up to and consequence of a nuclear war in Britain. I even did a school project on the coming nuclear holocaust and went to talk to Civil Defence experts in the local government. I still have the faded and rather quaint brochures they gave me complete with instructions on how to build a “safe place” out of mattresses in the centre of your home. 

I kept a diary during these years of living on the edge and make several references to the possible start of World War Three. For example, on Monday, May 15, 1967, the day I sat my last O Level exam and recorded that today “everything goes back to monotony”, I finish the entry with “I am of the opinion that if the war in Viet-Nam does not stop it will lead to Chinese intervention and an inevitableWorld War 3. It’s pretty frightening but true I’m afraid. Cold sunny day.” Two days later I sadly registered that Colin Campbell was leaving to become head history teacher at Greenock Academy.

My concern with the world and its end dovetailed perfectly with the second of my favourite teachers. We had him for only one year and he taught Religious Instruction. My experiences learning First Corinthians and a burgeoning atheism didn’t encourage high hopes but the teacher overcame those impediments. We were encouraged to research and discuss topics like the morality of having used nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945. The complexity of moral issues that I had always thought simple fascinated me and every scene I have written where a character wrestles with a problem that those around him see as straightforward owes a debt to that unfortunately nameless teacher.

The other side of the teacher coin were the teacher who got into a fist fight with a student outside the lunch room and the chemistry teacher who, for a strap had a narrow, wickedly flexible strip of leather that left angry, painful weals on your wrist if you couldn’t drag your shirt or jacket cuff far enough down your arm.

Oddly, within the culture of violence surrounding us, we admired both of these teachers. The first because he was one of those who had taken us to Austria and because we agreed that the student he hit had deserved whatever was coming to him. The second, his slightly sadistic streak notwithstanding, was a good teacher and, in any case, getting six of the strap from him gave one status in the strangely disturbing competition we boys had to suffer to prove our budding masculinity.

Other incidents stand out in isolation. There was the time I was tripped running along the school corridor and smashed my jaw into a door, loosening a front tooth and causing me to faint at morning assembly. One year a teacher came in from outside to give a lesson on Sex Education. Bizarrely it was only given to the girls and we boys were left hanging around outside fantasizing about the mysteries that were being revealed behind closed doors. 

The school library had two bookshelves on one corner containing titles that only fifth and sixth year students could sign out. In fourth year I asked for a dispensation because those shelves contained treasures by some of my favourite authors, Hemingway, Orwell, Maupassant, etc. I was told no, so I got around it by stealing the books I wanted to read. It wasn’t really stealing because I returned the books when I had read them, but I doubt if the school would have looked at it that way had I been caught.

At the breaks during the day, we played a fast and vicious version of poker, three-card brag, for pennies behind the sheds. We played football with a tennis ball in the playground, often with more than twenty-a-side and long arguments about whether a shot was inside or outside the chalked goalposts on the gym wall. We hung out in the covered walkway between the school and the gym, which was the only place we were allowed any interaction with the girls who had a separate playground on the other side of the school.

We also hung out off the school property half a block down Mckerrell Street outside a tiny convenience store. The creepy guy who ran the store sold single cigarettes and it was here that all the serious business was carried out. Forbidden literature was exchanged. For a while, Lord Russell of Liverpool’s two books on the Nazi and Japanese war crimes, The Scourge of the Swastika and The Knights of Bushido, held sway and we huddled round in groups reading and shuddering at the graphic descriptions of torture. It was not that we were young monsters preparing to perpetrate these horrors on others, it was more that out lives and experiences were so well-controlled and bland, that we were naturally attracted to anything that gave us a glimpse of a darker world than the one we were supposed to believe in. Yet, even through my morbid fascination, I had a suspicion that listing atrocities was gratuitous and that there was more complexity to history than these books suggested.

Popular as Lord Russell’s works were, they couldn’t compete with sex. Well-thumbed, dog-eared copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill were breathlessly passed around. Tattered copies of Parade and Girl Illustrated and even the rigorously unsexual (although it always seemed to show bare-breasted women and not men on the cover), naturist magazine, Health and Efficiency, circulated. Compared to what any teen can access today on the internet, this was all incredibly tame and bland. Nothing was ever shown apart from bare breasts and bottoms but it was the only window most of us had into this foreign land of sex and the coquettish smiles on the model’s faces seemed to offer so many more unknowns.

Long pants but still with a lot to learn
Once, I was spotted skipping class and heading down Mckerrell Street. A teacher followed me and I ran, dodging through tenement closes, alleys and back greens—if he didn’t catch me he couldn’t prove anything. I came back out onto Mckerrell Street, only to see that the teacher was still hovering about. I ducked into the convenience store and the creepy guy said I could hide in the back. Unwisely, I did. He came through and brought out two or three dirty magazines. These were ones I wasn’t familiar with but were just as bland as all the others. As I thumbed through them, he tried to fondle me. I was wondering what to do, when the bell of the shop rang and he went through to serve a customer. Hurriedly, I stuffed two of the magazines under my shirt and brazenly walked out through the shop, ignoring the stare of the woman buying groceries. Of course there was nothing the creepy guy could do and the teacher was gone, so I got away scot free.

This was the first suggestion I had that sex was a much more complex part of human relationships than my simple, idealized, clean-cut imaginings promoted by Health and Efficiency. The next day I took one of the stolen magazines to pass round outside the shop and gained minor status for it. I still shamelessly went into the shop to buy my single cigarettes, but I was always careful that others were around. In time, I learned that my experience wasn’t unique. None of us even remotely considered reporting the shopkeeper to the police. It was just the way things were, if you went through to the back of the shop, the store owner would try and fondle you. 

At the time I had no qualms and felt no guilt about stealing from the creepy guy, after all many of us tried to shoplift candy given an opportunity. I didn’t even feel disgust at what he had tried to do, he had simply tried something that he could have got in trouble for and that gave me a certain power over him and a freedom from culpability in stealing from him. Today I feel very different about him. He was probably just a sad and lonely man in a time when his sexual preferences could still draw him a hefty prison sentence. I wonder whatever happened to him.

For me, being a student at the Grammar was a world away from the image that the school represented and I never bought into the ethos that it tried to portray. It was a trial that had to be survived but, for all the ups and downs of the rocky journey, the Grammar served its purpose in getting me into university. University was an escape from school but it was also an escape from Paisley and its gangs.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll—part 1

Paisley Grammar School and William B. Barbour Academy

As a member of the leading edge of the baby boomer generation going through my troubled formative teenage years in a decade that for better or worse supposedly defines my generation, this section should be, as the title suggests, about the wild, free love and mind-expanding life in the sixties. Unfortunately, honesty must intervene. 

I admit that I spent far too many hours in the 1960s thinking about sex but, apart from a few fumbling and unsuccessful expeditions into this intriguing yet foreign land, the age of free love it was not. We knew about marijuana and LSD in a theoretical sense, but our drugs of choice and necessity were Players No. 6 cigarettes, pints of heavy and, if we could afford them, fifths of vodka and orange juice. As for rock & roll, we were more aware through weekly episodes of Top of the Pops, pirate radio stations broadcasting from Luxembourg or ships in the North Sea and, latterly John Peel. On the other hand I spent a couple of years in the mid-sixties being into country and western music. Paisley was not Haight-Ashbury. While we knew about the goings on in San Francisco and swinging London, for the most part Scotland remained stubbornly immune to the Summer of Love.

My six years of high school were not, as many people claim, the best years of my life. The moment I put my pen down at the end of my last exam in the spring of 1969, I stood up, walked out of Paisley Grammar School and never returned, not even for the end of year party and dance. While others hung out, reminisced and said goodbye, I took a deep breath and began scrubbing the grease off the kitchen walls in Glasgow airport. That summer I felt truly free for the first time in my life. I was earning money, going to Spain on holiday and, despite some significant anxiety, heading off to university in the fall. I was only seventeen and still had many mistakes and stupidities ahead, but my troubled teenage years were over.

The hall at Paisley Grammar

My less than stellar academic career had ended on a high note. In my fifth year, when we were all taking exams that would determine which university we would attend or if university was even in our future, my parents and I had a meeting with the school principal, Robert Corbett, to discuss options. I was nervous. I had been in Corbett’s office far too many times listening to him tell me, and sometimes my parents as well, that I was on the brink of expulsion. I tended to blame Corbett for all my troubles at school, which was unfair, but our relationship had sometimes descended to one-sided physical violence (in those days strapping a recalcitrant student on his outstretched hand with a leather belt was perfectly acceptable), and my view of him see-sawed between fear and hate.

Eve assumed university was a given and I had vague ideas of turning my passion for collecting fossils into something geological.

“What do you see your son doing?” Corbett asked Eve.

“Going to university,” she answered.

“And you?” he asked looking at me.

“I want to do History or Geology,” I answered.

My memory has Corbett laughing but he probably didn’t. He did tell Eve a story though, “A few years ago we had a girl at the Grammar who was accepted into all four of Scotland’s universities. She was an exceptional student, unlike John.”

There was more about my poor marks in preliminary Higher Level exams—physics, chemistry, history, english and mathematics had all been just enough to allow me to sit the final exams. French, for which I had not seen the point of doing the slightest work, was a remarkable 19%. 

Corbett went on to go over the various troubles I had been in and outlined the options for technical college. All of this must have been hard on Eve but I don’t remember the details because I was sitting thinking, “Fuck you, Corbett,” and other even less savoury things.

The upshot was that, in my anger, I applied myself and in fifth year passed four Highers: English, History, Maths and Science, (Physics and Chemistry were combined into Science since I was in the first year of a new curriculum and we hadn’t got far enough through it to allow sitting separate exams), with good enough grades to be accepted into Glasgow and Aberdeen universities to do Geology. It wasn’t enough for two reasons: first I had to show Corbett and second St Andrews was the best university in Scotland for geology and their requirements were greater. I returned to the life I detested for another year and passed Physics and Chemistry, Advanced Maths and, to fill in time, O Level Geography with good enough grades to be accepted into Edinburgh and St Andrews universities.

I dreamed of walking back into Corbett’s office and waving the four acceptance letters under his nose while saying something suitably pithy. I didn’t, and it was only years later that I wondered if the whole thing had been a set up on his part. Had he been smart enough to spot that, beneath all my childish rebellion there was something worth saving and challenging me would allow that rebellion to work in my favour?

So my high school years ended in a high note. They began on a similar one half-a-dozen years before.

Can you answer these questions?

1) Make adjectives from these nouns: beauty, slope, glass, friend, doubt, expense, delight, sleep, danger, sport.

2) A motorist leaves home at 10.15am and drives at 32 miles per hour. He stops for lunch from noon to 1.45pm and then continues his journey at 30 miles per hour. How many miles has he travelled by 5pm?

3) Multiply 7,296 by 479 (Without a calculator).

4) What article of furniture is DWEBORRA an anagram of?

5) Pick the odd word out in each of the following lists.

a) alike, same, similar, somewhat.

b) pigeon, duck, goose, swan.

c) firm, rough, solid, hard.

d) this, that, the, those.

e) pretty, nice, charm, lovely.

f) tumbler, cup, mug, jug.

g) fishing, rowing, climbing, swimming.

h) scarlet, blue, red, pink.

i) sewing, cotton, needle, calico

6) Write an essay on “What life must be like as a cat.”

Okay, but could you have done it in a strictly limited time when you were ten- or eleven-years-old?

The questions above are taken from the old eleven-plus exam, which was used in Britain in the 1950s and 60s to stream students academically in the last year of primary school. Your mark determined which secondary school you would go to, broadly, a senior secondary that gave you five or six years of education and the chance to go to university or college, or a junior secondary that gave you a much more practical education until age sixteen with the expectation that you would then go into a trade. It was possible but very difficult to move from a junior to a senior secondary school once you were categorized, so the exam was important.

Eve realized that, although it was too late for her, a post-secondary school education was one way to avoid the trap that the collapse of the Raj had thrust her and Jim into. This was particularly true for girls and my sisters had, respectively, a science degree from Edinburgh University, an art college diploma and a teacher training certificate. The expectation was that I would do well in my eleven-plus as a first step on the way to university.

At eleven-years-old I had only the haziest idea of what university was and no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I was okay with that. The difficulty was that I was a lazy student and didn’t particularly care which senior secondary school I went to. There were three options in Paisley and which one you went to depended upon your mark in the eleven plus, in ascending order, Camphill, John Neilson and Paisley Grammar. Eve was convinced that the last of these was the best, even though going to Paisley Grammar included the added cost of small fees and the purchase of a school uniform, which must have put a strain on the family finances. 

Most of my friends were aiming for Camphill and regarded a desire to go to Paisley Grammar as snobbish. I would probably have coasted into Camphill had it not been for an event that strangely prefigured my experience with Corbett. After a pre-eleven-plus parent-teacher meeting, Eve came home annoyed that the teacher had said that I was not capable of getting a good enough mark to get into Paisley Grammar. Based on past performance that was an entirely reasonable supposition but it annoyed me too and, in a fit of juvenile bloody-mindedness, I worked hard and with one other person from my class made the grade. Am I really that easy to read and manipulate?

In any case, Eve was thrilled and I was scared. The only positive was that I had a crush on the girl who was accompanying me and, with the whole of high school ahead, maybe she would notice me—she didn’t.

What an island
should look like.

One of my most vivid memories of early learning was a geography lesson. To illustrate whatever point she was making, the teacher drew a rough outline of Scotland on the blackboard. She had already told us that Britain was an island but I was totally confused by the zig-zag lines of her map. That wasn’t what an island looked like. Islands were more-or-less circular or oval and had bays and beaches round the edges where pirates and castaways could land. I went home and looked at an atlas, only to discover that my teacher had been right. I learned that the sketches in Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, while useful to their stories, didn’t constitute worthwhile geography textbooks.

With the move to Ferguslie Villa came a move of schools from South Primary School to West School. The latter was a combined primary and junior secondary, and it was a very different proposition from what I was used to. The junior secondary half of the school was troubled. There were frequent fights in the playground and police cars were a common sight parked outside. Primary kids were fair game for bullying, which normally took the form of threats of a beating to extort school lunch money. It was good practice for honing my invisibility skills.

West School
Knifey was played out front.

Games of conkers were replaced by marbles, sometimes for pennies, and knifey. The latter involved two boys standing about six feet apart with their legs together. Some arcane ritual that I no longer remember decided who began the game. The object was to firmly throw a folding penknife so that it stuck upright in the ground beside either of the opponent’s feet. If the throw was successful, the other guy had to move the foot nearest the embedded knife and place it where the knife stuck. This opened a gap between his legs and the game was won by throwing your knife so that it stuck in the ground between his feet. The game was more subtle than it appears at first sight. It was easier to get the knife to stick upright with a short throw close to the opponent’s feet, but that gave you less of an open target between the feet and hitting your opponent’s foot lost you the game. On the other hand, successfully making your opponent spread his legs wide lowered this body and none of us had a desire to emasculate the other with a missed throw.

Unsurprisingly, knifey was against school rules, but I recall playing it in plain sight on the grass verge beside Newton Street in front of the school, so the rules can’t have been strongly enforced.

The dreaded short pants

If you were a boy going into first year of secondary school at Paisley Grammar in 1963, the wearing of long pants was optional. When I look back on the photographs of my childhood, apart from playing in the snow, I wore short pants. Therefore, I had short pants that would fit with the school uniform, so that’s what Eve decided I should wear. What she didn’t realize was that long pants were what big kids wore and short pants would mark me as a little kid and the last thing I wanted to do was stand out. I fought the decision, but to no avail and, at the beginning of September, I dressed in my brand new jacket, cap, shirt, shoes and old shorts, learned to tie a dark blue crested tie, loaded my pencil case with erasers, pencils, pens, compass and ruler, and boarded the bus across town for my first day of secondary school.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Interlude 9—Travelling Without Leaving Home.

Travelling Without Leaving Home

Oh Martha look, the Taj Mahal
see how it glitters so
a masterpiece of ancient art
oh damn, its time to go

Oh Martha see, a Raphael
its filled with life and hope
the form, the lines remind me so
of that old ad for soap

Oh Martha hear, the symphony
the crystal, dulcet tones
its good to sit in here awhile
and rest the tourist's bones

Oh Martha now, how meaningful
affirmative not bitter
those zen boys really knew the way
to rake out kitty litter

Oh Martha well, at last we’re home
to Kansas we're returning
with souvenirs and photographs
and not one ounce of learning

From Sawney to Spain—part 2

Productid Brachiopods from Navan Fort

As I got older, the holidays began to change. By the mid-sixties my sister Dorothy and her growing family had moved to Armagh in Northern Ireland. For a couple of summers, I was put on a boat in Greenock and met in Belfast by my brother-in-law for a two week holiday. I loved these holidays with new countryside to explore, my nieces and nephews to entertain and the wonderful chip shop around the corner. I drank Guinness with my brother-in-law and visited his family at their echoing mansion in Omagh; and went down to stalk the second-hand bookstores on the banks of the Liffey in Dublin and gaze at the blank space where Nelson’s Pillar had recently stood. The only down side was a sleepless night if I was there on July 12 when, outside the pub on the corner, Orange Order celebrants repetitiously hammered on huge Lambeg drums throughout the night.

One thing that Armagh offered was encouragement for my nascent interest in the distant past. Just outside town was Navan Fort which in the 60s was being extensively excavated. It was not actually a fort but a huge, circular ceremonial site dating back to the Neolithic. The archaeologists took weekends off so I would wander around the deserted site peering down post-holes and under tarpaulins. I dreamed of stumbling over a horde of gold coins but soon realized that was not going to happen. What I did find was almost as exciting.

Excavations at Navan Fort
The last major structure on the site had been a vast, circular timber structure around 40 metres (130 feet) in diameter. For some ritual reason that neither I nor the archaeologists knew, around 100 bce, the building was partly filled with rock, burned down and buried under an earth mound. As the scientists worked, they moved the rocks into piles outside. The rocks were limestone which had formed on a seabed around 340 million years ago. To my delight they were loaded with a suite of impressive fossils. I brought a hammer and chisel and spent many hours happily hammering away at the waste pile and in a nearby quarry. Out of the hard rock, I patiently chipped three hundred million year old corals, crinoids and productid brachiopod shells, the largest of which were four or five inches across. My background reading told me that there were fossil fish in the quarry, but I never came across one. It was always a challenge heading back home on the ferry with my treasures. People sometimes offered to assist this obviously struggling boy, but I soon learned that few were as interested in heavy bags of rocks as I was.
Any possibility of holidays to Armagh ended in 1969. Dorothy and her four kids were in the front garden when a man ran around the corner. He shouted, “Better get the kids inside, Missus. There’s been a man been shot on Cathedral Road.” The shot man was a catholic civilian, John Gallagher, and he was killed by Ulster Special Constabulary officers. Gallagher’s death, along with the other seven who were killed in the rioting that August in Northern Ireland, marked the beginning of the modern Irish Troubles. Within a year, Dorothy and her family had moved to Canada.
Despite speaking a few Gaelic words when I was very small, I do not have a facility for languages. Because it was the early sixties and Paisley Grammar School had certain educational pretensions, I had to do a couple of years of Latin. They were taught by an old teacher who was close to retirement and, I am certain, knew deep down just as certainly as we did that what he was doing was utterly pointless. He had the same perspective on Religious Instruction, although he gave me an appreciation for the English of the King James Bible and a love of I Corinthians Chapter 13. He drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney and when he retired in my third year of high school the class clubbed together and bought him a half bottle of decent Scotch and a pack of good cigarettes, a gesture that reduced the poor man to tears.
Latin not being compulsory past third year, I was left battling with only French, a struggle that was never going to be anything other than a complete rout. For the O Level national exams in fourth year, I was in the lost cause class. We were given into the care of new teaching graduate and we reduced her to tears as well, but not for the same reasons as our Latin master. Remarkably that year was one of the worst in O Level history and, since the national results were bell curved, against all the odds, every single one of us lost hopers passed.
The point of this story is that having passed O Level, we were expected to progress into a Higher Level class, albeit the lowest one. I never thought this was a good idea and, after the teacher (not the same one) burst out laughing in the middle of my French oral presentation, I gave up, skipped class regularly and became quite proficient in billiards at the local workingmen’s club. The bright spark in the class was that at the end of the year the teacher and one of his buddies led a class trip to Austria. As far as I know, no one questioned why they were taking a French class to Austria, but it said something about what they thought of our linguistic abilities. 
Fuschl am See from a nearby hilltop
Anyway, we travelled by train to Salzburg and by bus up to Fuschl am See, which our teacher gleefully explained had been the favourite holiday haunt of Joseph Goebbels. We didn’t see any Nazis but we had a great week wandering around the town, swimming in the lake, climbing the hill behind the town, playing cards for money and underage drinking at the local disco. We were, at least in theory, supervised but it was the first non-family holiday for all of us. At the end, we were all given awards by the teachers, best card player, heaviest drinker and so on. I won the award for dancing with the best looking girl at the disco, a stunningly beautiful, almost cliche gorgeous, blond blue-eyed German called Trixie. Of course, a dance was all it was and brief totally unrealistic fantasies of skinny-dipping in the lake at midnight came to naught. 
My first real on-my-own holiday came in the summer of 1969. I had a job that paid the princely sum of eight pounds a week—more if I did a few split shifts—in the kitchens of the fancy restaurant at the new Glasgow Airport. I almost didn’t last the first few weeks. My initial job was to clean three year’s grease off the kitchen walls. This involved a lot of violent scrubbing with some vicious chemicals and each night I went home exhausted, red-skinned and coughing. The plus was that I could imagine myself as George Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London. Fortunately the staff turnover was high and after I had stuck it out for few weeks I had risen to the lofty heights of pot-scrubber and salad-maker.
The head chef was Italian and quite possibly certifiably insane. He treated the trainee chefs, of which we had three, as if they were medieval serfs and used to throw knives in their general direction and laugh uproariously as they leaped out of the way. My torture was different. When I was standing at the deep sinks scrubbing, I had my back to him. The vegetable cooking was done in huge pots and when the vegetables were removed you were left with a heavy pot half full almost boiling of water. He would lift the pots onto the floor and, using the aisle between the work surfaces as a well-greased bowling alley, send them barrelling down at me. I had to be continually alert as there was very little time to get out of the way between hearing the noise of the approaching pot and having it crash into me. I always managed to jump to the side before a pot and several gallons of scalding water crashed into the sink where I had been standing moments before. The chef would laugh gleefully as I mopped up the spilled water and lifted the pot into the sink for a good scrubbing. One glorious day the chef carved a sizeable chunk of his thumb off while thickly slicing onion rings on the meat cutter. Taking the piece of thumb with him, he left to go to the hospital and we never saw him again.
The waiters were the elite of the restaurant staff and they knew it. After all, they were the image that a first class restaurant portrayed and they had to keep the customers happy and take any complaints about the food. They were masters of keeping wonderfully calm, subservient and polite on the restaurant floor, and becoming foul-mouthed bullies at some perceived imperfection in the food the instant they stepped through the kitchen doors. Not even the crazy Italian chef was safe from their scorn if something was wrong with the food.
The clientele, who were mercifully ignorant of the goings on in the kitchen, were a mixed bunch. Since we were considered a first class restaurant, well-off people dressed up to the nines and came to us in search of a decent a la carte menu and some drinkable French wine. 
Being an airport restaurant, we were also subject to the whims and caprices of airlines’ changing schedules. A flight would be cancelled and we would be notified that 180 passengers would be arriving for a meal in thirty minutes. It was total chaos, but it worked. Everybody got the same set menu. My job was to prepare trays of half grapefruit sprinkled with brown sugar and a half maraschino cherry and passed under a grill for a few seconds—the starters. The main course was always gammon steak with boiled potatoes and either boiled vegetables or salad, the latter also being my job. Dessert was a scoop of ice cream with a spoonful of canned fruit or a couple of crackers and cheese.
At the other end of the spectrum from the well-off crowd were the drunks with a few pounds in their pocket who came to us because we were somewhere they could drink after the pubs closed at 10 p.m. On one memorable occasion, the conversation went something like this:
Waiter: Good evening, sir. may I get you a drink to start with?
Man (who has had a sufficient amount to drink already): Aye, gi’us a pint o’ heavy.
Waiter: I’m sorry sir, but we don’t have any draft beer.
Man: Just gi’us twa bottles then.
Waiter: Certainly, sir. (offers the customer the menu)
Man (pushing the menu aside): Gi’us some fish.
Waiter (realizing that further detail would not be forthcoming): Would sir care for some Pommes Frites with that?
Man: Naw. Just gi’us some chips.
Waiter (struggling manfully to keep a straight face): Yes, sir. I’ll be right back with your drink.
The waiter somehow managed to hold it together until he was safely through the doors into the kitchen where he collapsed in paroxysms of laughter.
My enjoyment of restaurant eating took a long time to recover from that summer, but there were benefits. When the dessert trolly came in at the end of the evening, much of it could be eaten after the waiters had had their share. There were also good opportunities for theft. I developed a taste for many varieties of cheese that summer and even managed an occasional tiny piece of incredibly expensive, carefully guarded smoked salmon. On one memorable occasion I left the airport with three very nice fresh trout stuffed into the belt of my trousers and the realization that there were other ways to catch fish than to sit in a small boat on a lake on Lismore with Jim. The other benefit was that I earned enough money for a thirty pound return red-eye flight from Glasgow to Barcelona and fifty pounds spending money.
I went to Spain with two friends, Ronnie and Jim, and we reckoned that the fifty pounds each, which was all one was allowed to take out of the country at that time, would last us for a month. It almost did.
After a bumpy flight over the Pyrenees in a plane filled with raucous, heavy drinking, package holidaymakers, we landed in Barcelona before dawn on August 21. As the bleary-eyed tourists boarded their buses and taxis to their hotels and resorts, we hoisted our ungainly backpacks (mine had belonged to my sister Eelin and was of roughly the same vintage as the old Morris Ten Four), and trudged out to the highway to find a bus into town. As the sun rose, the first bus into town appeared. It was packed with workers heading for their shifts in the ring of factories surrounding the city. The bus doors opened and we were faced with a wall of people. We stepped back to await the next bus, but the workers beckoned us in. Through sign language they got us to pass up our backpacks, which we nervously watched disappear over the heads of the crowd. We were then physically hauled onto the bus and the doors closed.
This was 1969, Franco was still firmly in control and apart from a few places along the coast, tourism was not what it is now. Everybody on the bus wanted to talk to us and the fact that our languages were mutually unintelligible didn’t seem to matter. Eventually, some way down the bus, a woman who spoke some English was found. Questions were shouted to her, she shouted the translations, we shouted replies, she shouted the translated answers.
As we wound our way through the industrial areas, the crowd on the bus thinned. Everyone who got off wanted to shake hands with us and no one left on the bus seemed to mind how long it took. We virtually had the bus to ourselves by the time we reached the Placa de Catalunya in the center of Barcelona. We tried to pay now that we could reach the driver but he waved us off, claiming that someone had already paid our fare. I was tired and stunned, but very much in love with the country and its people.
John and octopus friend
Our holiday was probably fairly typical for three eighteen-year-old boys let loose in those days. We stayed in city-sized campsites at Palafrugell on the Costa Brava, spent our days on the beaches and our evenings chasing German girls in the discos to a soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Lodi, Proud Mary and Bad Moon Rising, the Stones, Honky Tonk Women, Crazy Elephant’s Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’, and Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg’s Je t’aime…moi non plus, the last of which was an added bonus as it was banned in Britain. We caught an octopus, visited a weird cemetery where the bodies were entombed in the walls and went to a bullfight in Sant Feliu de Guixols. We spent far too much of our limited funds on Sangria and Cuba Libre and, with the notable exceptions of a couple of wonderful Paellas in a tiny backstreet restaurant, we lived mostly on canned sardines, and eggs fried in olive oil over a camping stove.
We arrived back in Barcelona with enough money for a breakfast omelette each in an early morning worker’s cafe but not enough for somewhere to sleep. We tried to find the beach and were stopped by a very short Guardia Civil with a very large gun. Fortunately he seemed to regard our attempts to find somewhere to sleep, or perhaps our terrified attempts to explain this to him, as humorous and directed us to a vacant lot where we settled down to a cold, uncomfortable night. We wandered around the town the next day and caught our midnight flight home.
I had to walk home from the airport and arrived on my doorstep as dawn broke. I hadn’t slept in forty hours, eaten in twenty-four, shaved in four weeks or washed in far too long. I rang the doorbell with images of the Prodigal Son being welcomed with open arms, a big breakfast, a bath and fifteen hours sleep. What I did get was Jim opening the door, taking one look and saying, “My God, you look terrible.” Eve took a kinder perspective and I ate, washed and slept. 
Apart from my lack of success with the German girls in the Discos, I was proud of what I had achieved and filled with a desire to see the world. I had left home a holidaymaker and returned a traveller.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

From Sawney to Spain—part 1

Sawney at his work.

Alexander “Sawney” Bean was a caring paterfamilias. Born near Edinburgh sometime in the early fifteenth century, Sawney apparently married a witch, Black Agnes Douglas. This offended the locals who drove them away. Eventually the wandering Sawney and Agnes arrived at Bannane Head near Ballantrae in Ayrshire. There they discovered a large cave in the cliffs above the beach and decided to set up house. For twenty five years, so the story goes, despite the cave mouth being cut off at high tide, the Beans struggled to raise a family.
Disinclined by nature to undertake honest work, Sawney and Agnes took to a life of crime. Venturing out of their rather dank home at night, they waylaid solitary travellers, murdered them, and stole their money. As time went on, the family grew and ultimately, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters shared the cave in a web of relationships that I hesitate to think too hard about. The growing family presented certain practical problems, not least of which was how to purchase enough food with their ill-gotten gains without attracting too much unwelcome attention. Caring father that he was, Sawney overcame this difficulty in an ingenious way: the Beans would eat their victims, pickling what they couldn’t manage at one sitting. This, as it were, killed two birds with one stone, solving the food crisis, while conveniently disposing of the evidence.
Of course, the people in the surrounding area became suspicious as the numbers of disappearing travellers mounted and partly dismembered body parts washed up all along the coast. Searches were mounted, but the cave remained hidden. In frustration, the locals lynched various innocent strangers without much effect. However, things were doomed to go wrong for the Bean’s unorthodox lifestyle. 
Bannane Head with the (in)famous cave.
One night, the family surrounded a couple returning from a local fair. They murdered the woman, but the husband put up unexpectedly vigorous resistance, holding the family off with his sword until help arrived. Four hundred men and bloodhounds soon discovered the Bean’s happy home and led the forty-eight family members away in chains while they tried to prevent their shocked minds dwelling on the sights they had seen in the cave.
Sawney and the male members of his clan were killed by having their hands and feet cut off and being allowed to bleed to death in front of the womenfolk. The women were then burned alive.
Serious historians have cast doubt on the Sawney Bean story, not least because there are no written records and it does stretch credulity to imagine a family of forty-eight cannibals living undetected in a cave for a quarter century while they happily murdered and ate hundreds of people. Of course, that didn’t bother my fourteen-year-old mind on a family holiday to Ballantrae in 1965 and I shuddered deliciously as I peered into what legend identified as Sawney’s cave. It apparently also didn’t bother movie director Wes Craven, who used the tale as the basis for his 1977 horror film, The Hills Have Eyes. Craven revelled in the cannibalism, incest, and violence, but balked at the Scottish weather and set his version in the desert of the America southwest. Wes Craven was smart to avoid the bracing elements of the Sawney Bean story.
Ballantrae Beach on  a calm day.
One of the many meanings of “brace” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is “invigorate.” This is what my mother meant by her favourite word on family holidays in Scotland. It was usually brought out when I was dressed in every stitch of clothing I possessed, bent double against a force eight North Atlantic gale as the foaming rollers crashed on the shingle at my feet. I would beg to go back to our cozy bed-and-breakfast and be told, “Don’t be silly, it’s bracing.” I never understood what she meant because it was the opposite of what I was told at home, “Put a jacket on, you’ll catch your death of cold out there.” Why freezing half to death should be a bad thing at home and a good thing on holiday always escaped me but, despite being braced to excess, I enjoyed these holidays.
I don’t remember us having a family car before moving to Paisley, but at Ferguslie Villa we owned a large, black, square four-door Morris Ten Four, one of the 49,000 or so built between 1933 and 1935. This was back in the days when cars were still such a novelty and roads so quiet that people used to go for a relaxing drive on a Sunday afternoon. On many Sundays we piled into the old Morris and drove aimlessly around the Renfrewshire countryside. Sometimes we would pack a blanket and recreate an Indian Raj picnic. We didn’t have servants or hot weather, but Eve would enthusiastically pack tuna sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, some recent baking and flasks of tea and we would stop at a likely spot, walk into a field or convenient small wood, spread out the blanket and sit and eat while Mac and Meg explored the countryside round about in search of rabbits. It was all delightfully pointless.
More purposefully, the car was also used to take us on holidays. Sometimes this was simply a day trip to Largs on the coast, but some years, like 1965 in Ballantrae and 1963 in Troon, it was a proper summer holiday. In 1961 we went to a bed-and-breakfast on the tiny island of Lismore in Loch Linnhe off Oban. The island is only 9 miles long and 1 wide, but there are several good lochs where Jim taught me fly fishing. I had my photograph taken with two small trout, which the landlady of the B&B kindly cooked up for me as an addition to her already vast breakfasts.
An early interest in rocks
(or golf balls) on Lismore.
Most of the two weeks on Lismore it rained and I sat in a window alcove betting against myself on raindrops racing each other down the glass. There was a bookcase in the house and I read Robert Falcon Scott’s diary and was fascinated at Edgar Evans going mad, Lawrence “Titus” Oates saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time,” and walking nobly out into the snow, and Scott’s descriptions of himself, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson dying in their tent. Even through Scott’s imperial self-aggrandizement and his widow’s careful editing, I sensed that mistakes had been made and things could have been better done. Later reading has convinced me of this, but I still hope that Oates said his iconic sentence.
I was also impacted by two local stories about Lismore. One was of a piper who, with his dog, planned to walk underground between two caves. He played his pipes and they could be heard all over the island, then the sound ceased. The piper’s dog emerged, blind and hairless, but the piper was never seen again. I shivered at the description of the pipers end in his lament, “I was drowning and howling amongst the horrid pools.
Oddly, there is an almost identical story from St Andrews on the other side of the country. There a piper went into a tunnel near the castle to trace old coal workings. People on the ground above followed the sound of his pipes until they stopped. The piper was never seen again and a pattern in the cobbles of the main street is said to be where his pipes fell silent. 
The other Lismore tale was about the time two early christian worthies, St Molaug and St Mulhac, argued about who should build a monastery on the island. They decided to settle it by having a boat race. The first to Lismore got monastery rights. As they neared shore, it became obvious to Molaug that he was going to lose. Resourcefully, if somewhat extremely, he cut off a finger and hurled it ashore thereby claiming that a part of him had won the race. Founding a monastery was a very big deal in those days.
Car journeys in the old Morris were always an adventure, not least because Mac had a weak stomach and would throw up after the first two or three miles. This was a problem until my mother worked out what fraction of a sleeping pill would safely put Mac out for the requisite number of hours. 
Mac wasn’t the only problem. Occasionally I was. One time, deciding that it would be a good father/son bonding experience, Jim suggested that he and I go camping for a weekend. Eve prepared some food, Jim checked the car and I collected the sleeping bags, stove, tent, etc. With me feeling thrilled and very adult, we set off. In those days there were few campsites and it was common to simply camp wherever looked suitable beside the road. As dusk thickened, we pulled into a field and began unpacking. 
“Where’s the tent?” Jim asked.
“It’s…” I said before the slow hideous realization dawned that it was lying on the couch in our living room back in Paisley. I had forgotten the tent and all my misplaced pride in being an adult vanished. Fortunately it wasn’t raining and the old Morris had a high clearance. Jim slept under the car and I scrunched miserably into the back seat. We went home the next day.
Me and the trusty Morris.
On another occasion we were driving at night down to the south of Scotland to visit my aunt. With a surprisingly loud thump we hit a pheasant, which shot up in the air and landed stunned on the road behind us. Jim stopped, ran back, wrung the bird’s neck and with a “Pity to waste it,” threw the limp body onto the back seat beside me. 
Several miles farther on, Jim was broadening my education. “It’s a shame we didn’t hit two,” he said.
“Why?“ I asked loyally.
“Game meat has to be aged to taste its best,” he said. “To do that properly with pheasant you need two, a brace. You hang the birds in a cool shed and leave them. When one rots enough to fall off, you eat the other one.”
While Eve said, “Jim, don’t tell him things like that,” I silently gave thanks that we only had one pheasant. The pheasant itself, which had apparently only been feigning death, decided that now was the time to begin trying wildly to avoid this unpleasant fate. Now, you may not think that a pheasant is a particularly large or threatening bird but, if you are a small boy and one is hysterically flapping around in the back seat of a Morris Ten Four with you, it appears immense and deadly. While my mom attempted to calm me down, my dad stopped and dispatched the pheasant again, this time efficiently.
I used to love the visits to my father’s sister Helen’s place down near Newton Stewart. It was a small cottage called Banks of Dee, but it was set on a large estate, of which I had free run. Jim taught me to shoot his .22 rifle there and I would hunt pigeon whenever I had the chance. I used to dream of coming upon a deer but, given that I only had a .22 and no idea how to clean a deer, it was probably just as well I didn’t encounter one. My cousin, Ken, did, however, and presented my dad and I with a complete haunch. This coincided with Eve spending a week in hospital and Jim and I roasted the haunch and, in fine medieval fashion, cut off hunks of venison whenever we felt hungry.
Eventually, as it approached its fourth decade of life, the Morris faltered. It wasn’t worth much, but Jim decided that he might get a little more for it if it was repainted. He hired me and a school friend to do the job. Unfortunately he gave us too much leeway with the colour. We could see no reason why cars should be black and so decided on a pleasing powder blue. When Jim came back from work, I took him into the garden and proudly showed off the careful job we had done. To his credit he took it very well, commenting only that the car looked like an ice cream van. In retrospect, I was ahead of my time, but I doubt if, back in the 60s, my colour choice added much to the car’s value.