Monday, 27 January 2020

Schoolboys and a Dead Doctor—part 1

The boys of Moredun house in 1918. Jim is seated at the right hand edge of the table
looking askance at the camera.
Thursday, November 29, 1917 was a chilly, misty day in Edinburgh on the east coast of Scotland. This was not unusual. With luck, if the prevailing west wind wasn’t blowing, the temperature in the early afternoon would pop up to around 45 degrees fahrenheit (7 degrees celsius), before slumping dismally back to somewhere around 38 degrees fahrenheit (3.5 degrees celsius), when the sun set at 4:30. 
As they waited, the crowds lining the route from St Giles Cathedral on the High Street to the Dean Cemetery 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometres) away, pulled their tweed jackets and shawls tighter, stamped their feet and wrapped their scarves more securely to keep out the chill. Eventually, they heard the tramp of marching feet and the rattle of iron-rimmed wheels on the cobbles below the castle. A gun-carriage, drawn by six black horses came into view. The coffin on the carriage was draped in the Union Jack and the red, blue and white Serbian flag emblazoned with an elaborate crest of a crowned, double-headed eagle. Around the carriage marched an honour guard of soldiers from the Royal Scots Regiment and men in the green uniform of the Serbian Army. Behind the carriage, dignitaries and a long trailing crowd of citizens followed. At the Dean Cemetery, the mourners watched in silence as the Serbian soldiers lifted the coffin and carried it to the prepared grave near the north wall.
The boy.
Perhaps, amongst the silent watching crowd were some students from the nearby spired and turreted Fettes College. Fettes was considered “the Eton of the North”. Today, it boasts a distinguished list of alumni as diverse as Tony Blair, Tilda Swinton and, according to Iain Fleming in You Only Live Twice, James Bond, but none of the famous were there that day. However, there might have been a twelve-year-old boy beginning his third year as a boarder in Moredun House. The boy had been born in India but had been sent back to Scotland to be educated and subjected to the Fettes regime of constitution-hardening ice-cold baths at 6 a.m.
The funeral ceremony was not to honour some famous military man recently fallen amidst the horrors of Passchendaele, but a short, fifty-three-year-old Scottish woman, Dr. Elsie Maud Inglis. Like the boy, Elsie Inglis had been born in India before moving to Scotland where she studied medicine and, in 1892, obtained her license from the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons. Shocked by the low standards of medical care for women, Dr. Inglis became a political activist and opened a maternity hospital for the poor. She also joined the suffrage movement where she became secretary of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. 
Elsie Inglis
In the formal photographs of the time, Elsie Inglis seems to be always trying to suppress the smile that threatens to overwhelm her face. Yet she was not someone to be trifled with. On the outbreak of the First World War, she established the Scottish Women’s Hospitals for Foreign Service Committee with the aim of providing female-staffed medical units. She proposed the idea to the War Office in London and was condescendingly told, “My good lady, go home and sit still.” Instead, Dr. Inglis offered her idea to the French, who jumped at it and organized for a group of doctors and nurses to go to Serbia.
Austro-Hungarian troops had invaded Serbia in 1914 to enforce the ultimatum that had followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June but, by Christmas and despite heavy casualties, the battle-hardened Serbian army—they had fought two brutal wars against various neighbours in the two years prior to the latest invasion—had driven them back across the border. 
The situation was quiet when Dr. Inglis arrived to take over the unit in May and she even had time to propose a scheme to introduce fresh water fountains into rural communities. However, in the fall, the Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies attacked, crushing the Serbian army and forcing the survivors to flee to Albania. In February 1916, the Scottish nurses and doctors were captured and forcibly repatriated to Britain.
Despite the horrors they had witnessed, Dr. Inglis and her colleagues immediately began raising money and organizing a new venture. In late August, 1916, they set sail for Archangel to provide medical aid for a Serbian division fighting with the Russian army.  For a year, the unit worked in Russia and Rumania, retreating and establishing mobile hospitals as the situation allowed or demanded. 
Serbian soldiers.
Dr. Inglis wrote extensively describing conditions. In a station waiting room, “A crowd of people was collected at one end with boxes and bundles and children. One little boy was lying on a doorstep asleep, and against the wall farther on lay a row of soldiers. On the bench to the right, under the light, was a doctor in his white overall, stretched out sound asleep between the two rushes of work at the station dressing-room; and a Roumanian officer talked to me of Glasgow, where he had once been invited out to dinner…” and later during the retreat, "The night was inky black; the only lights were our own head-lights and those of the ambulance behind us, but they revealed a sad and never-to-be-forgotten picture…it was like a dream or a play; it certainly was a tragedy. No one spoke; we just waited and watched it all; to us it was a spectacle, to these poor homeless people it was a terrible reality…We arrived at Braila to find 11,000 wounded and seven doctors, only one of them a surgeon.”
In March, 1917, revolution broke out, adding more unrest and chaos to the difficulties of war, but none of this daunted Dr. Inglis. A group of “Russian Citizen Soldiers” strained their command of English to write to her: “The wounded and sick soldiers from all parts of the army and fleet of great free Russia, who are now for healing in the hospital which you command, penetrated with a feeling of sincere respect, feel it their much-desired duty, to-day, on the day of the feast of Holy Easter, to express to you our deep reverence to you, the doctor warmly loved by all, and also to your honoured personnel of women. We wish also to express our sincere gratitude for all the care and attention bestowed on us, and we bow low before the tireless and wonderful work of yourself and your personnel.”
Despite fighting an agonizing personal battle with bowel cancer, Dr. Inglis struggled on, refusing to leave Russia before her unit was repatriated. On November 7, 1917, she and her companions took ship from Archangel to face the ordeal of a winter voyage through the Arctic and across the North Sea. She arrived in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on November 25 and died the following day in a room in the Station Hotel on Neville Street.
St Giles  Cathedral
In honour of Elsie Inglis, the British Residence in Belgrade is named after her, her picture graces the back of Scottish banknotes and there is a plaque where her funeral service was held in St Giles Cathedral, but her greatest memorial was constructed at the opposite end of the Edinburgh High Street from the cathedral. The Elsie Inglis Memorial Maternity Hospital opened in 1925 and before its closure in 1988 many thousands of babies were safely brought into the world there. Dr. Inglis would have been pleased.
Whether the boy from Fettes watched the funeral or not, he would certainly have known about it and been aware of Elsie Inglis and her achievements. What he could not possibly have known was that, thirty-three years, eight months and four days after that chilly day, at 10:10 a.m., his only son, John, would be born in the maternity hospital named for the extraordinary woman buried that day.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Interlude 1—Old Pictures

Old Pictures

I am surrounded by the dead.
In sepia formality they hang 
from the scaffold of the picture rail:
a great uncle killed at Loos
proud in his kilt 
before the steamer's sad farewell;
his brother who survived 
with a whole body 
and forty years of a broken mind;
my grandmother 
in mourning black forever;
my parents' wedding—
the groom alive with hope, 
proud before an empire's collapse—
my mother at eighteen 
between giggling sisters,
beautifully shy before the certainty of years.

All are gone, 
only the bride's magnificent veil 
lies, remembering 
in an attic suitcase.

Yet still they live
within the walls of my imperfect memory,
and watch with timeless eyes
my life's amorphous dream unfold. 

Who will I look down upon
when I am clay and dust
and stoic, stand and stare
from far behind some dusty pane?

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

A Seductive Liar

Nineteen-sixty-one provided a prelude to the decade that has always been the symbol of the baby-boom generation—my generation. It was a year of endings and beginnings, of echoes back to a fading past and faint rumbles of what might yet be. John Kennedy was sworn in as president, the Bay of Pigs invasion failed, the Berlin Wall went up, Adolf Eichmann was put on trial, and Mary and Louis Leakey unearthed Australopithicus in Olduvai Gorge in Tanganyika, a country that was just beginning its three-year-long life as a nation. Yuri Gagarin and Gherman Titov orbited the earth a total of eighteen times between them and Alan Shephard and Gus Grissom poked their heads above the atmosphere for a few minutes each. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 was published, Bob Dylan performed at Gerde’s Folk City and 101 Dalmations was released. Dashiel Hammett, Gary Cooper, Carl Jung, Ernest Hemingway and Ty Cobb died. Barack Obama, George Clooney, Princess Diana, Eddie Murphy and Wayne Gretzky were born.
In Britain it was also the year that the farthing disappeared and with it the ‘four-a-penny’ tray of candy at the local store. The soundtrack of that year was provided by The Shadows, Helen Shapiro, Del Shannon, Petula Clark, the Everly Brothers and Elvis. Hancock’s Half Hour, Desert Island Discs and the Navy Lark dominated the radio, and The Lone Ranger, The Avengers, Danger Man, All Our Yesterdays and Sunday Night at the London Palladium filled the small, black and white TV screens. At local cinemas the Guns of Navarone, the Swiss Family Robinson, the Time Machine and Whistle Down the Wind were popular.
The bay window on the ground floor centre hid the vast room.

In a house in Scotland, a young boy sat in the corner of what seemed to him to be a vast room. The ceiling was high and in its centre was a wide circular vegetative moulding from which, the boy imagined, a magnificent sparkling crystal chandelier had once hung. The moulding round the edge of the ceiling was simpler—long straight narrow ridges and wider street-like hollows. The boy often wished that he could defy gravity and crouch on the flat white ceiling, driving his toy cars along those endless roads. Below the ceiling, a wooden picture rail circled the room, separating the plaster above from the faded patterned wallpaper below. Hanging from the picture rail were a couple of abstract oil paintings by an older sister who had gone to art college in London, and several black-and-white photographs of stern people in formal poses.
One wall of the room was lined with low bookcases crammed with dusty hardbacks—history, philosophy and religion—belonging to another sister who had married a vicar in the Anglican church. As a special favour to one of the boy’s hobbies, a large plastic model of HMS Victory stood atop the bookcase amidst postcards from a third sister in Australia.

The bookcase and Victory
The opposite wall was almost entirely taken up with a  deep bay window, which looked out over a narrow front garden onto the main road from Paisley down the coast to Greenock where the River Clyde swung south, became the Firth of Clyde and ran past Great Cumbrae, where in 710 CE St Mirin in an echo of St Patrick cast out all the snakes, and Arran where hardy folk went to celebrate Scotland’s only official nudist beach.
The boy sat to one side of the hissing gas fireplace, the only source of heat in the room. A large, plain-faced, loudly-ticking clock rested on the mantle bracketed by small framed photographs of the three sisters and one of the boy aged about six. A selection of his most favoured toy cars lay scattered and forgotten around him and, by his shoulder, the television stood grey and silent, turned off because this was “grown-up time”.
The grown ups—the boy’s parents, an aunt and her partner, and an older cousin—sat in a wide arc facing the fire. The adult conversation lulled and the boy’s father stood, expelling a grunt of air as the worn bones of his arthritic hip ground together, and headed over to the table on the far side of the room. A bottle of Famous Grouse whisky, a present from the cousin, stood on a tray beside a photograph of a fourth sister, dead before the boy was born. The man poured a measure of scotch into a crystal tumbler and added a few cubes of ice. 
“Can I put the soda in?” the boy asked, jumping to his feet. He loved the astonishing release of the pressurized bubbles from the soda bomb. He loved the very name bomb, for that was what the empty grey cylinders became as they were dropped from one of his model planes onto the ranks of his terrified toy soldiers below.
The man nodded. “Not too much, now,” he cautioned.
The boy held the heavy soda syphon shakily and carefully pressed the handle. The bubbling water exploded into the glass, mixing up a chaos of water, gas, whisky and ice cubes.
“Thank you.” The man limped back over to his chair. The boy stood and listened to the magical clinking of the ice against the sides of the glass, then he returned to his seat on the floor by the television and listened.
The magical clinking still captivates.
The adult talk over the whisky around the fire did not mean much to the boy. It was mainly about somewhere called the Indian Raj, a place on the other side of the world that he knew little about. Sometimes the conversation intrigued the boy, as when the talk turned to a fish that for some unfathomable reason was called Bombay Duck, and sometimes he laughed along with the others even though he didn’t understand the joke, but mostly he was confused.
The boy listened, primarily because at this time of the evening the vast room was the only one in the house being heated and, until his mother went and tucked a hot water bottle into his bed, he didn’t want to brave cold sheets. More importantly, though, he listened because the stories of the Raj were told with such a powerful sense of loss that he was utterly convinced that the place they referred to must be so extraordinarily wonderful that it was worth the struggle to understand it. 
This feeling was reinforced by the breathtaking stories the boy’s father told him: hunting tigers from the backs of elephants, surviving the great Bihar earthquake, shooting a rabid dog and having his favourite pony killed by a wild boar while out hunting. The last of these stories was illustrated by the wild boar’s tusks mounted on silver stands on the bookcase beside the model ship, and by the man’s limp which had been caused by his fall from the dying horse. 

The tusks.
The boy finally went to bed, drowning in nostalgia for a lost past. He lay awake imagining the beguiling unreal memory world of the Raj so much more compelling and powerful than the damp grey Scottish reality that trapped him. But, as with all nostalgia, beneath the memories and fantasies there was sadness. The boy was doomed never to recapture his parent’s world and yet the seductive liar of nostalgia wove a bewitching silken thread around him, entwining itself around his experiences and perspectives in subtle ways that he was rarely even aware of. Those evening conversations around the fire gave birth to a ghost peering over the boy’s shoulder at everything he did, a wisp of history flickering in the corner of his eye yet gone when he turned to look at it. 
Even in 1961 as the boy lay in bed making up stories of Imperial adventures in the Khyber Pass, he knew that, except in his imagination, he could never attain this wonderful, perfect place that his parents loved and missed so much. It was the object of such powerful nostalgia precisely because it no longer existed and, although he had no inkling of this, it meant that the boy was destined to spend much of his life trying to go there.