The Big Bang

A year and a half ago I was lucky enough to spend a week in New York with my daughter Sarah, who teaches Middle School in the East Village. We had a whale of a time, thanks mainly to Sarah’s meticulous planning – in fact if she ever decided to stop being a teacher she’d make a marvellous tour organiser! Here’s a wee taste…

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One out of many highlights was our visit to the Museum of Natural History at Central Park, where they had a display called the Cosmic Pathway which graphically illustrates the current scientific consensus about the origins of our Universe. The concept is that you start at the Big Bang at the top of a 360 foot spiral walkway and then walk down the spiral and follow the 13.8 billion year story of the formation and development of the universe, each step measured in millions of years. The relative blink of an eye that is the human era is depicted at the end of the pathway as the thickness of a single human hair.

Sarah and I were entranced by this display, and struggled to get our heads around the mind-blowing ideas being explained. Firstly the sheer enormity of the cosmic story, populated by the formation and evolution of stars and galaxies, and concepts such as nuclear fusion, black holes, dark matter and quasars. Not to mention the observational methods that have been developed in the last 100 years that have enabled scientists to present us with a fascinating view of our origins and show us phenomena like a background glow of microwaves. It seems that the spectrum of this cosmic microwave background identifies it as the fading remnant of the Big Bang.

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The thing I take away from all this is firstly how very beautiful and awesome the cosmos is. The second is that although we are but tiny specks in that cosmos, we are nevertheless as much part of it as the trees and the stars – in fact we ARE the trees and the stars. We have all come from the same impossibly distant event (act of creation?) – a miniscule “singularity” of infinite density and heat which must have contained the potential for all matter and energy which then unfolded into the still expanding Universe we know today. Would it be messing with your head if I also mentioned the existence of a Big Bounce theory which supposes that over the eons the Universe could be in a cycle of expanding and then contracting down to the singularity when the whole process will begin again.

I don’t really mind what the rights and wrongs are, I just find it perennially fascinating to speculate in this way on the nature of creation. Even just the fact that humanity feels such a need to make sense of the world/universe is enthralling in itself. Here we are, this tiny speck of consciousness with big beguiling ideas about how we came to be here and where we are going. It’s not just religion, our quest is also expressed in philosophy, science, politics, literature, film, you name it, not to mention late night discussions into the wee small hours. It seems wonderful to me that we even bother – I mean the universe has been getting on just fine without us for close on 14 billion years, and yet we have the temerity to imagine that what we think even matters, and that we would strive to live well, be happy and to make a difference in the world. That seems the biggest miracle of all!

There’s a Science Fiction story by Arthur C Clarke called the Nine Billion Names of God. In it, a community of Tibetan Monks believe that it is man’s purpose to compile a list containing all the possible names of the Almighty, and they have been working on the task for the last three centuries, each generation taking over from the last. Initially, they expect it to take about fifteen thousand years to complete the task, until they hit upon the idea of acquiring a “Mark V Automatic Sequence Computer” (this story was written in 1953). The computer, along with two – sceptical – engineers, duly arrives and proceeds to churn out the entire list in a mere three months. The sceptical engineers make their way down the mountain just as the computer is finishing its run, and they wonder what will happen once the monks realise the futility of the task. The answer comes in the quietly chilling last sentence of the story. Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.

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Here’s a link to the whole story if you’d like to read it for yourself – I recommend it!

https://urbigenous.net/library/nine_billion_names_of_god.html

I like to conjecture that we can actually sense the interconnectedness of matter and energy. Have you ever walked into a place that made you shiver, or where you instantly felt happy or full of dread? We all have things that bring joy to our hearts, don’t we? Moments that make us want to breath deep of an ocean breeze, or a baby in our arms; to touch and caress a beloved person. Or feel the sun warming our skin, or watch a wonderful golden sunset from the top of the Empire State Building…

Some places have a reputation for being haunted.  I’ve heard theories that even the very bricks and rocks that surround us can pick up vibrations from living things, which we are capable of sensing in some way. And why should we not? We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe – why shouldn’t our molecules and atoms resonate in tune with the music of the stars?

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A Child of the Universe

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I recently mentioned the poem Desiderata (see post “Hippy Chick”, Sept ’17) and the words have been echoing around my brain ever since. You are a Child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars you have a right to be here. and whether or not it is clear to you no doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should. The author, Max Ehrmann, a poet and lawyer from Indiana, wrote in his diary “I should like to leave a humble gift – a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods.” I take this gift very personally and thank him for it, for down through the years of my life the gentle words of his poem have comforted and inspired me. More, I have to say, than any amount of childhood catechism learning, where I was told that “God made me to know him, to love Him and to serve him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next”. Even as a child, my inner response was always “WHY???” “How do you know that???”

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t at all conscious of this resistance, no rebellion here! In fact I was a good Catholic girl, going to Mass, making my First Communion, all that. I remember the May procession every year, when most of the school (St Peter’s Primary, Partick) would dutifully troop out of the school gate, down the road and round the corner to the Church, carrying a statue of Our Lady and singing hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was a flower girl one year, scattering petals from a basket in the path of said statue and singing along as fervently as anyone. I can still easily bring to mind the words of those May hymns, sung with such pure devotion as a child. Oh Mary we crown thee with blossoms today, queen of the angels and queen of the May… and For ’tis the month of Mary, the lovely month of May.

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Of course, understanding becomes more sophisticated as you grow older and start to realise that devotion to the Mother of God is just one manifestation of humanity’s deep innate desire to find meaning in life and make sense of the world; a longing that seems to have been with us right from our earliest origins when we expressed ourselves in cave art and developed burial rites which displayed respect for the dead and a belief in the afterlife. From these simple roots came the profusion of religions in existence in the world today. Many believe that their religion is the one true faith, and despite the fact that all religions preach peace and love in one way or another, it has been used to justify countless human conflicts throughout history.

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We can’t ALL be right…can we? I turn again to Desiderata: Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. Undoubtedly there is reassurance and comfort in following the religion of our parents, in respecting the customs of our community – this is how we start to understand our place in the world. But perhaps that’s what it should be – a starting point for a lifetime of continuous growth in our understanding of ourselves and other people. And that may or (scarily) may not involve following the religion of our fathers. But the way I figure it, if God made me, then he also made whatever doubts and questions I find within my brain and will understand my conclusions about what I believe and how to live my life.

What I like so much about Max Erhmann’s “humble” poem is that it doesn’t lay down the law about how to behave, as so many dogmas do. Rather it’s an invitation to look into yourself, to find the best of yourself, and it understands what you might have to contend with as you strive to do so. Although it was written in 1927 when he was 55 years old,  it didn’t become well known until the 1960’s and 70’s, when someone made a poster which was an instant hit. There were even spoken recordings by Leonard Nimoy (yes, Mr Spock!) and Les Crane, both of which reached the top 20. Just type “Desiderata” into YouTube if you want to see them for yourself .

I used to read these words over and over again (displayed on a teatowel I kept hanging in the kitchen), and somehow they have always helped me to put the world, and myself, to rights. I don’t always manage to live up to everything, but if you ever want to know what makes me tick you could do worse than read this simple, but not simplistic, poem. These are my “things to be desired”.

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Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

Silver wedding

John and Ellen (Mum and Dad) reached their Silver Wedding anniversary on the 18th of March 1978. Here they are 25 years earlier on their wedding day, flanked by Dad’s sister Mary and his brother Donald. (See also my blog entry from 10 March).

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We six sisters spent months plotting and planning a big celebration for them, centering around a Mass where they would renew their marriage vows, but oh, so much more than that! I can’t really remember too much about it all these years later, but Dad was so moved by the whole thing that he wrote it all down on the day on some little scraps of paper, so this – more or less – is the story of their Silver Wedding in his own words…

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to theatre

THE DAY BEFORE – FRIDAY 17th MARCH – Ellen and I did as much as we could to the house in the way of cleaning and polishing. We were under strict instructions not to do anything else. In the morning we were given an envelope containing 2 tickets for the Theatre Royal and some money to have a meal in the “Ubiquitous Chip” where a table had been booked for 5.30 pm. We duly arrived at the appointed time, in the Cresta which was parked nearby. We had a really first class meal consisting of soup for me and tomato juice for Ellen, then the both of us had smoked mackerel followed by sirloin steak, mushrooms, carrots and potatoes. Ellen had a glass of sherry and I had a glass of beer. By this time we both felt properly full up so we forgoed the pudding we had planned and had a cup of coffee instead.

A word about the Ubiquitous Chip – until the “Chip” arrived in Byres Road in 1971, fine dining would only have been available in Glasgow in “posh” restaurants with snooty waiters and menus written in French. Now we had a new phenomenon – a restaurant where you were served by friendly student-type waiters, not serving chips despite the name, but offering fine Scottish cuisine using fresh local produce. I remember being taken as a student by a friend, Shuggie, who was desperate for us to try one of the exotic delicacies he had discovered there – fried onion rings!  Anyway, back to Dad…

After our most enjoyable meal we drove in the Cresta to the Theatre Royal and managed to park quite near to the main entrance. (I’m starting to notice how often the family car – always referred to by name – appears in this narrative, like an extra character.) We saw “The Sunshine Boys” – a comedy with Johnny Beattie and Roy Boutcher which we both thoroughly enjoyed. The theatre came out about 9.30 pm and as we were under instructions not to return home too early we went for a leisurely run in the Cresta (see!) to Drymen, returning via Balloch and Clydebank. 

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Touchingly, I found the tickets and programme from that show carefully preserved along with Dad’s wee notes and the order of service.

No doubt the somewhat obvious ploy of getting Mum and Dad out of the house enabled the six of us to get on with preparations for what was to happen on the day itself. I’m afraid that page 3 of Dad’s account is missing, so we’re going to have to jump to page 4 where we will pick things up from the morning of the 18th.

… I had previously tricked her into giving me her engagement ring which I switched for an eternity ring (my present to her) and slipped that on her finger, much to her surprise when she realised what it was. Up until mid-morning today we really had very little idea what the girls were up to but now Beatrice arrived and revealed some of what had been up to now very closely guarded plans indeed. We were to be at my sister-in-law’s (Mary Jordanhill) house at 12 noon and remain there during the afternoon and then to be at Turnbull Hall shortly before 4 pm. 

When we arrived at Mary’s house we had a great surprise when we saw my sister Mary and her daughter Mary were in the house, having arrived from London the day before. This was one of many delightful surprises we were to experience during the rest of the day. Mary gave us a gorgeous lunch and we were really getting into the swing of things now.

 

You may notice the absence of our Uncle Donald from these proceeding. Unfortunately Donald and Mary’s marriage had ended a few years before, and Donald was living elsewhere with a new wife and young family.

Shortly before 4 pm we set off for Turnbull Hall and parked the car outside Beatrice’s flat. Ellen and I waited outside until called for. We were met at the back door of the chapel by Father Ken Nugent who led us up the aisle to two seats and kneelers just beside the foot of the altar. The mass was a very beautiful personal one, with our names mentioned as often as possible. Several parts of this beautiful mass were very memorable – Lulie read the Reading (she said it was the first time she ever did that), the girls read one bidding prayer each and they were so beautiful I am putting them down here…  (unfortunately,  Dad didn’t get around to doing that, or the page has been lost)

When it came to the part of the Mass where we wish the peace of God on each other Fr Nugent came down and greeted us first then we each took one side of the chapel and greeted individually the whole of the Congregation who, as it happened, turned out to be our guests. I was absolutely delighted and not a little surprised when I began to realise that everyone there was to be a guest of ours. Receiving Holy Communion under both species was unforgettable and what made it even better was that all the girls received Communion under both kinds as well. The hymns were especially well chosen and all well sung all accompanied by Frances on the little organ. If there had been nothing else that day I think that the joy of this Mass and the great pleasure at seeing so many of our friends would have filled my cup of happiness to overflowing.

It brings tears to my eyes to read just how much this Mass meant to my Dad (and I know to Mum too). They were both devout Catholics all their lives, so it was only fitting that this should be the central focus of their Silver Wedding celebrations. At the time Peter and I lived in a wee basement flat in Turnbull Hall (the Catholic Student Chaplaincy) and Father Ken was our friend as well as our priest, so he was very happy to help us to put together this very special and personal ceremony just for them, including, though Dad doesn’t mention it, them renewing their wedding vows, which they did in a very solemn and heartfelt way.

And of course, that wasn’t the end of the day. I well remember Mum and Dad’s faces as they moved down the church and started to realise just how many people had come from far and wide to celebrate with them, which they did, well into the night, back at “Number 8”.  The next page of Dad’s account is missing, but I’m sure you can imagine the party for yourself – presents galore (silver tray, tea service, carriage clock, etc, etc). Toasts and tears; expressions of astonishment that people had come so far, that no-one had given away the secret; how wonderful it was that John and Nellie had reached this magnificent milestone… And not a single camera between them it seems! The only picture I can show you is this one of Mum and Dad looking tired but happy.

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We don’t have the last page of Dad’s account, but what HAS survived is this list he made of all the people who came. Friends and family from Glasgow, the two Mary’s up from London, even a sizeable contingent down from Fort William. I can’t now remember if the absence of anyone from Mum’s family in Ireland was because we neglected to invite them, or if they were unable to come. I’d like to think the latter. I also have an idea that there were messages, or possibly telegrams, read out from some absent friends, but I don’t have any documentary proof of that, so maybe it’s just wishful thinking on my part.

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safely home

As it turned out, John and Ellen had only three more years together before Dad passed away and Mum began her long widowhood before finally being reunited with her “poor dear John” so many decades later.

It gladdens my heart to know that they so enjoyed their lovely day together, and that it was a true reflection of the love and loyalty they had always shown each other over the years. I’m by no means saying they were perfect and I know that my parents were a product of their times, but I also feel they had a very unique take on life. Perhaps it was because they came to Glasgow as outsiders and had to start from scratch to make a life for themselves here. They were never interested in possessions except in as much as it would enable them to do things with and for their family – a home to live in, a car for freedom, a tent where we could make our own holidays, a gramophone to play music. They had to battle against sometimes being made to feel inferior, they often struggled to make ends meet, but somehow they survived and thrived and no matter how hard things were they seemed never to lose sight of why they were together and to enjoy together the simple things in life they both loved.

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Hippy Chick?

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With the end of one era, comes inevitably something new. The sixties and early seventies was a time of great upheaval and change in society, and our family was no more immune from those changes than anyone else. Our parents’ generation, who endured the second world war and were tasked with rebuilding society afterwards are sometimes dubbed the “Silent Generation” – in my mind because they just rolled up their sleeves and got on with it! We were the Baby Boomers, a generation who, it seemed, found fault with and rebelled against everything.

Now, let me make it perfectly clear, and to avoid any disappointment, I have never smoked a joint in my life, nor even an ordinary cigarette. So this post is NOT about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It DOES refer to flower power, the Summer of Love and the general attitude of change and a certain kind of idealism that seemed to pervade the world just at the point when I myself was busy trying to decide what sort of person I was and wanted to be. Although… that makes it sound like a rather more conscious process than it was. Do we really choose who we are going to be, or does it just happen by a combination of accident and heredity – nature or nurture?

Looking back, I feel lucky to have gone to school and been young in the “swinging sixties” when there was such an opening up of ideas and attitudes, a rebellion against old restrictions, encouragement to find new ways of thinking. I was two years into secondary school when the “Summer of Love” was declared in a great flurry of psychedelic colours and swirling shapes. I have to tell you it’s more than a little disconcerting when the 50th anniversary of something comes around, that you remember like it was yesterday.

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I suppose this time was an opening up for me of a somewhat restricted family life, an encouragement to think beyond one’s parents’ rather narrower attitudes, as it was for all of my contemporaries. We were all rebelling in our own ways, expressing ourselves in a way the younger generation never really had before, and haven’t had an opportunity to do in quite the same way again.

I’m not saying I took it all on board lock, stock and barrel. What I know is that I distilled and absorbed into myself elements of the so-called counter culture of the late sixties and early seventies – the elements that chimed with me. We all have a moment or a period, don’t we,  that defines us? A time that forms our tastes, our attitudes, our style. I suppose this is mine. Here you will find the music I feel most comfortable with – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and the Papas, Carole King, Simon and Garfunkel (I remember their Bridge Over Troubled Water being in the charts for weeks on end in, I think, 1970, and the 15 year old me listening religiously to the Top 20 every Sunday afternoon on my wee white “tranny” – transister radio, not transvestite!) And then there were the clothes that expressed who I was – Laura Ashley tops, Indian cotton dresses, a green poncho with a picture of planet Earth sewn on to it, flared trousers, beads – I still wear beads …

The slogans, the lyrics – I suppose I took them deeply to heart so that they colour my beliefs and attitudes to this day.

All you need is love / Give peace a chance / You got a friend / Save the planet / Ban the bomb / Where have all the flowers gone / Make love not war / We shall overcome / The answer is blowin’ in the wind / You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars you have a right to be here. That last one is from Desiderata, a poem I felt so attached to that any kitchen I ever had never seemed complete without my Desiderata teatowel pinned to the wall. (Too faded to read now, but still stowed away in a drawer).

But you know, I wouldn’t like you to think that I look back with rose tinted spectacles on the baby boomer generation I am part of. I happen to think we have made a complete hash of taking over and running the world and mostly I feel ashamed of the fact that the generation who enjoyed such seemingly unbounded prosperity and opportunity in their own youth have created a world of such restricted opportunity for the generations that have followed them. Our parents created a world where their children became better off than they were, we seem to have done nothing but feather our own nests and take advantage of cheap house prices and the ensuing property boom. Imagine no possessions (John Lennon) – well hardly!

It was said that the post war baby boomers were a generation that had never known war as our parents had. And yet, from the mid fifties until the early seventies, America sent thousands of its sons to die in what seemed to be an increasingly pointless and unwinnable war in Vietnam.  15,000 young American men, a disproportionate number of them black, died in south east Asia before President Lyndon B Johnstone finally admitted defeat and brought them all home. They had laid down their lives for a cause they could little understand, far less believe in. And we protested, of course we did.

It is those same baby boomers who protested against Vietnam who are in charge now. Those same baby boomers (yes, I’m talking about you Tony Blair) who have send our troops to die in Iran, in Kosovo, in Afghanistan. Who preside over foodbanks. Who have over-ruled the younger generation who believed that their future lay in staying in Europe. Who prioritise tax cuts over proper funding for essential services for the poor and needy, and acceptable safety standards for public housing to ensure that peoples’ homes are safe and not death traps and fire hazards. And of course, there’s that prime baby boomer over the water who thinks that leadership of the great United States of America can be accomplished through the medium of late night emotional tweets.

But despite the fact that I cannot hide the fact that do feel rather betrayed by my generation,  I’m not going to conclude on such a negative note. Instead, let me take you back to 1974 and a personal moment of hope.

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p & b

I’ve always loved this picture of me on my wedding day in April 1974. There I am, 20 years old, freesas in my hair, floaty dress covering a certain little bump. It encapsulates a moment when I was full of love for the world and everyone in it (not that I’m not now!) And a moment of being sure that the world loved me back. The fact that Peter and I didn’t manage to stay the course and are no longer still married doesn’t take away from the magic of that day and the heartfelt vows we made to each other – we meant it at the time!

And looking at the family group, my heart aches for all our younger selves; for our siblings who were still children; for the parents who were doing their best for their large familes; for the struggles, disasters and triumphs of the years to follow, when for me the hippy period would seamlessly morph into the ‘earth mother years’. Would we have done anything differently if we knew then what we know now? Probably not, how could we?

family group

End of an Era

As the 1960’s ended and the 70’s began, our family was heading towards the end of an era. By 1974 I had got married and had my first child, and over the next decade or so my sisters, one by one, would also leave home and start to make their various ways in the world. All of these transitions brought their own challenges of course. Suffice to say that in some ways Mum and Dad, and perhaps especially Dad, didn’t always find it easy to adjust to the ever changing family configurations as their six daughters ventured out into the big wide world.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself. Before all this re-configuring began, there were still a few years when we would all pile in to Victor the car and head off on various trips, which Dad would continue to document in that old leather album.  In 1969, we crossed the Irish Sea, and for the first time met our Irish cousins. For my Mum, it would have been 14 years since she had last visited her homeland. That first picture, of my mum and Phil her sister in law, has always made me smile as they pose in the garden complete with handbags!

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What do I remember of that visit? Very little I’m afraid. I see from the pictures that we visited Galway Cathedral and were taken by our Uncle Pat for rides in the hay wagon. My memories coincide with how my sister Mary describes it: “The family visited Mum’s home in Davros where she displayed her bike-riding skill to the astonishment of us all. On our journey home through Belfast we encountered a crowd throwing a pipe bomb and stones. We cowered in the car as Dad drove us to safety (the wrong way) up a one-way street. As we left on the ferry we spotted large graffiti letters painted on the jetty behind us saying “Paisley for Pope!” which we found very funny – I suppose because it seemed to insult both sides in equal measure – and it became a saying in our family for years afterwards.”  Trust us to choose practically the first night of the Irish troubles to finally make it over the sea to Ireland!

It was maybe a year after the Irish adventure that Mum and Dad acquired a great big tent, big enough to sleep all of us, and we became a family who took camping holidays instead of just going away for day trips. I think Glen Orchy was chosen for our first proper camping expedition, a spot beside a stream, which was our one and only concession to modern facilities. I remember my sister Ann and I being allowed to walk maybe a couple of miles up the road to the Bridge of Orchy, where there was a hotel and a shop. I’ve got a feeling we did no more than hastily buy some chewing gum before we headed back again for fear we wouldn’t get back to our camp before it started raining – I know, intrepid or what?. And we probably ended up with blisters as our footwear of choice was wellies!

After that we discovered North Ballachulish where there was an actual campsite owned by a very nice couple called Dykes. Although when I say campsite it was more a bit of extra land attached to their cottage, an informal – and relatively inexpensive – arrangement which suited us so well we went back a few years in a row. This was an ideal location for us, a mere 15 miles south of Fort William and thus within easy reach of places – and relatives – from Dad’s childhood, and indeed the place where Nellie had been the family nanny and the story of their romance began. (See post from 10 March “A Glasgow Wedding”). Both of them loved the Highlands, and passed that love on to us.

We would make visits to various of Dad’s Highland relatives and “John’s girls” would be duly lined up and coo-ed over.  One time we went on what must have been quite a major expedition to Dundee where we visited my Dad’s Aunt Ettie, Sister Mary Evangeline – she belonged to the Convent of Mercy there. The nuns seemed delighted to have us as visitors and the younger ones ran around the garden playing tag with our “wee ones”, Jane and Eleanor. I remember the nuns’ parlour with its characteristic smell of furniture polish, and all of us standing in a row entertaining said holy Sisters with our rendition of “Eidelweiss”. The nuns, being nuns, were very kind and clapped enthusiastically – or maybe they really did enjoy it. Another time we reached even further north and visited Ettie’s sister, Aunt Winnie, in Inverness.

In truth we rarely had much appreciation of who all these relatives were – I think in those days adults were not much in the habit of explaining things or introducing themselves to children, and it’s only as I look back now that I can understand just who those various aunties, uncles and assorted cousins were. In fact part of the purpose of this blog is to try and make some sense of it all.

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As you can see, at some point Dad had upgraded from the box brownie and discovered glorious technicolour! I was also lucky enough to acquire a camera of my own (a wee Kodak Instamatic as a reward for doing well in my Highers). One of the first pictures I took was this one of Mary, who had obviously just received her box brownie training! Now I come to think of it, I have very fond memories of my Dad showing us how things worked. He would take your hand in his and position your fingers in the right place, explaining all the time – Don’t shake the camera.. Make sure you stand with your back to the sun.. Press in the button gently.. He’d also tell you a whole load of stuff that you didn’t want to know – shutter speed, exposure times and so on. But, there’s something about those big gentle hands that is a deep abiding memory for me. My mum used to tell me that when I was a very little girl I’d push my hand into his and say “Hold oo wee handie”

So, to finish, here we all are, still at school, still having our pictures taken in the back green, still relatively unaware of the changes that would inexorably come upon us, and indeed upon the world. Embrace it or resist it, nothing ever stays the same for ever…

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The Enchantment of Books

IMG_1605This book is my oldest possession, it was my prize for “General Excellence” at the end of Primary 3. I have to confess I wasn’t even there for the presentation. I was mortified when an older pupil turned up at our door in Rathlin Street bearing said prize. In my head  “the holidays start tomorrow” meant we were on holiday immediately, not that we would break up after school the next day, and in fact after prizegiving – whoops!

I did manage to attend subsequent primary school prizegivings where I proudly went up and received my books in person. Actually now I come to think of it, it could be that primary school was the peak of my intellectual achievement because I never won anything at all once I went to High School! Or…nothing for academic subjects, where I would usually come second or third in the subjects I was good at. There was a prize offered for four years perfect attendance and I knew I’d be in line for it as I’d never been off in all that time. But…well, would YOU want to win a prize just for turning up? I think my sick day was entirely justified!

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Anyway, the Thousand and One Nights. I loved that book, with its exotic stories and beautiful illustrations. I read it over and over again, I read it to my sisters, to my children, and I’ll read it to my grandchildren sometime soon, now that I’ve unearthed it from the cupboard where it’s been stowed away. Flicking through the pages now, the stories and the pictures are still familiar after all these years.

Books do that, don’t they? At least some books do. Make a lasting impression, change your perspective, influence your outlook and opinions. For example, in a book called The Two Families (First Prize, Primary 5) there’s a scene where a couple of teenagers are cooking breakfast and the girl tells the boy, “Cook the bacon first in the pan, then the eggs in the bacon fat”. I do it that way to this day!

But of course I’m talking about a much more profound effect than just offering cooking tips. Some books even present us with a blueprint for our soulmate in life. Who hasn’t fallen in love with Mr Darcy, either Fitzwilliam (Pride and Prejudice) or Mark (Bridget Jones Diary)? Not to mention Mr Rochester, Heathcliff, Sir Lancelot, Rhett Butler. AND, on a slightly less unattainable level, I have to confess to also having an enduring soft spot for William Brown (Just William) and J.C.T. Jennings of Jennings and Darbyshire fame. Not to mention the latter’s long-suffering schoolmaster Mr Carter, who is described as having a “shrewd understanding” of the boys in his charge, combined with a “sympathetic ear”. What’s not to love?

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It could be that the affinity with William Brown isn’t so surprising. I didn’t know it at the time, but the character of William was probably deeply embedded in my Dad’s psyche – I discovered from one of his letters to his Mama that he received William the Outlaw for his 10th birthday in 1931. I think the sort of authors Dad enjoyed also reflected his persona – adventure stories by Hammond Innes and Alistair Maclean, among others. And Mum! Over the years she acquired an enormous number of books, mostly from her habit of browsing the charity shops in Byres Road – she absorbed everything that interested her and she was interested in everything!

Perhaps as a child it was partly a way of escaping a busy and crowded household, but you’d usually find me with my nose in a book whenever I had the chance. I think in some ways I was more influenced by the imaginary worlds in my head than by the real life going on around me. In fact my reading matter greatly coloured my perception of the world. What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge is a case in point. I totally identified with the 12 year old Katy, eldest of 6 siblings. In fact in my head I WAS Katy; Ann, next in line, was Clover, her loyal lieutenant; and then Mary was little Elsie. Katie’s next three sibling were, I think, boys, so the roles of Grace, Jane and Eleanor were less clearly defined. Why I would model myself on a heroine from 1872 is a bit of a mystery, but there you have it. Katy was always trying, and failing, to be good, and so was I.

Ann has reminded me of another favourite volume: Going on a car journey was a bit of a trial for me. I sat in the front with mum because I was carsick. You used to sit in the back with your 4 other sisters, often reading Little Women. When mum asked why you were crying, sisters replied you had just read the bit where Beth died. I had forgotten that! The thing I do remember about those car trips was the singing, sometimes we would sing the whole way there. Wild Mountain Thyme, Skye Boat Song, Flower of Scotland, sung in full and with feeling.

I read voraciously: books, magazines, comics, cereal packets, the HP sauce bottle: “Cette sauce de haute qualite est un melange des fruits orientaux, d’epice et de vinaigre pur”. I kid you not, I’ve heard many people say that reading that sauce bottle was their first introduction to the French language, I rather think it was mine! There’s even a you-tube clip of the late Marty Feldman singing La Sauce HP in the style of the French crooner Charles Aznavour. I recommend it to you!

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Thursday was comic day, which would involve a trip to the newsagent’s to pick up my copies of Bunty and Judy, both of which were avidly read from cover to cover by all of us, though of course my sisters would have to wait until I was finished catching up with The Four Marys and Sandra of the Secret Ballet. I never really forgave my mother for not bringing my comic collection with us to our new home when we moved from Govan to Kersland Street in 1963, especially as I had accumulated a complete set of every single Judy from issue #1. I moaned about it for years, “I mean it’s not even as if we don’t have lots of ROOM now to keep them in”. I think I’ve just about got over it now. Later we also read the Mandy, the Beano, the Dandy, Topper, June and School Friend – anything we could get our hands on really!

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I think it was not long after we came to Kersland Street that Mum acquired a big pile of old (rather musty) books from someone in the close next door – probably they were clearing out the house after an old relative died. These books were a real treasure trove for us. I can’t really remember the titles, but I know there were lots of vintage annuals and boys school stories and were full of “ripping good yarns” which for some reason greatly appealed to me and my sisters. One of the best of them, and the one I do remember, is “Desmond Plays the Game” (1929). I don’t know what happened to it, I’d like to think it’s in the custody of one of those sisters, but I was delighted to find a copy for sale on ebay the other day, hence this picture. I’m still toying with the idea of putting in a bid…

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The public library – in fact Partick Library to be precise – featured largely in my life for a year or two at the end of primary school (St Peter’s Partick, just a few streets away). I would visit there several times a week on the way home from school or on a Saturday, dropping off the six books I had finished and picking up the next. I could read the lot in one evening! And yes, I was one of those children who would read under the covers with a torch until late at night. Having exhausted the library’s childrens’ room, I discovered that my little cardboard library card was also a passport to the adult section. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was already familiar with Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Edith Nesbit, to name but a very few. At the other end of the scale I would also seek out Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers, Billy Bunter, The Chalet School and the aforementioned Just William and Jennings. And of course everything in between! I suppose this habit tailed off once I started High School and homework started to rear its head. Which reminds me – I did of course read all of my school text books from cover to cover well before term even started – Shakespeare, Chemistry, Latin, whatever….

I’ve maybe made it seem that I did absolutely nothing but read my way through my childhood, and perhaps I did inhabit this world of the imagination rather more than average. But let me assure you that I also had real life friends too, and I certainly had my sisters. Looking back now, perhaps books filled gaps which our family’s modest means couldn’t stretch to, and which I would never have dreamed of asking for. But I could always read to my heart’s content about music lessons, ballet classes, horse riding, boarding school. However my interests weren’t confined to those topics – I would be just as gripped by Science Fiction or Agatha Christie. So it seems likely that the desire to read, to be told a story, is just in my DNA, as necessary to me as food and drink – after all I had a double dose of it from those great readers, my Mum and Dad.

The enchantment cast its spell early and continues to the present day – reading, that wonderfully private and personal pleasure, is still my favourite pastime.

Are you sitting comfortably?

…then we’ll begin. Thus began Listen with Mother, one of the many radio programmes that accompanied my childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s.  And I think my own children probably listened to it too, or to its later incarnation Listening Corner. Here’s how the show used to begin, together with another favourite, Children’s Choice.

I should probably have issued a warning before you clicked on that link, likely as it is to transport you to a forgotten age of nostalgia where before you know it you’ll have spent a happy hour or two clicking on all the links for BBC Classic Themes or even whole episodes! By the way, I’ve chosen the shortest clips I could find but if you find them going on a bit too long, you won’t lose anything if you just press the pause button when you’ve had enough and move on to the next one. I do have to also include the the Listen with Mother closing theme, the piano duet from Fauve’s Dolly Suite, and, I seem to remember, the signal for younger sisters to go to bed.

There are many, many more examples of these old radio tunes – Music While you Work, Housewives Choice, 2-Way Family Favourites, Dick Barton Special Agent, Friday Night is Music Night – I could go on and on! In fact I’m listening to BBC 50’s Radio Themes as I write this, which is slowing me down somewhat as I keep having to stop and listen to yet another old favourite.  Perhaps it would be best if I just left you to explore on your own so you can re-discover, or indeed discover for the first time, some of these iconic themes which used to be so much part of the background of daily life, especially in the couple of decades after WW2 when the BBC Home and Light Programmes held sway. I suppose many families had got used to listening to the radio together during the war and the habit just carried on afterwards. If you feel like it, it would be great if you added a comment about your own particular memories.

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I remember our old wireless at home as looking something like this. It was an old valve set and was the subject of much tinkering by my Dad (who, remember, had been a radio operator in the War and the Merchant Navy, and the sort of little boy who would send away for and construct crystal radio sets at home). We would watch Dad as he occasionally replaced a broken valve, with many warnings about it being hot and not to be touched. I’m pretty sure HE sometimes inadvertently burnt or shocked himself because I can picture him snapping his hand away with silent curses and sticking it under his armpit. Do as I say, not as I do!

Actually, while I am thinking about my Dad, I must just digress for a moment to share a memory from my sister Ann, who reminded me of another example of his sense of fun. He would pull a wooden board from beside the cooker and do a wee tap dance on it. “I think we latterly rolled our eyes at him but still.. it was so Dad.”

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We girls also did our fair share of fiddling with the knobs as we tried to tune in to the exotic sounding stations printed on the front – Luxembourg, Hilversum, Paris. It seemed quite an achievement when you actually managed to tune in through the crackles to a programme from somewhere far away with an announcer speaking in a language you couldn’t understand. Dad would explain all about short wave and long wave and how the radio signals bounced around the globe, which somehow made it seem more like science to me and therefore more impressive. My sister Mary recalls the exciting feeling that you were contacting the world directly. Remember this was in the days when the radio used to actually close down at night; 24-hour news and the internet would have seemed unimaginable to us then.

I’d like to share an anecdote with you, which my then (now ex) husband Peter used to tell. When he was a wee boy in the early sixties (picture a little chap with short trousers and, if it was raining, wellies which would leave red rims round his bare legs), he’d arrive home from school, usually desperate for the loo, and would hear Mrs Dale’s Diary come on the radio from inside the house. Of course his mother would be at the back of the house listening so would often not hear the bell.

As illustrated here, the Mrs Dale theme featured a rippling harp, a bit like a waterfall, and sure enough as soon as he heard the first strains, the inevitable would happen and poor Peter would have an accident. Needless to say once the wellies dried out they would smell terrible! Thank you Peter for allowing me to share your shame!

If you browse the You-Tube clips, you’ll see that there are many comments and memories attached and it’s immediately clear just how many people share feelings of familiarity and nostalgia for these old tunes, reminding them of their childhoods, which it does me too, of course. Browsing through the comments, one of my favourites, about The Archers theme, came from a chap called Joseph Murphy who was remembering his nan. You should play this while you read the story!

My nan always said that she wanted this played at her funeral before we leave. Back in January when she passed away, everyone was in tears but before we left the funeral part, this tune came on. Everyone in that room was either laughing or smiling, even the vicar.

As an Archers addict myself, I am entirely in sympathy with this tale, though I don’t know that I would go as far as having the theme tune played at my funeral! Having said that I WAS actually toying with the idea of calling this post “Confessions of an Archers Addict” as I seem to have been listening to this “everyday story of country folk” for most of my life!

In fact because my radio listening has continued seamlessly into my adult life right up to the present day I am often confused as to exactly WHEN I first starting listening to shows like Woman’s Hour, Desert Island Discs and other long running series, some of which started before I was even born. All I know is that when certain themes come on, they can evoke such strong feelings of longing and nostalgia it can almost make me cry. A case in point is the Dolly Suite duet, and this one, the Paul Temple Theme,

However I’m rather careful about imagining that this was a better and more innocent era. Perhaps it’s just us who were more innocent – who doesn’t think that things were better when they were a child? But that’s not to say that I’m not perfectly happy to wallow in all this nostalgia occasionally – there IS something about these jaunty upbeat tunes that gives you comfort and reminds you of a simpler time. I wonder if “Dolly” would be a suitable choice for my funeral…?