Thursday, 23 July 2020

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.

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