I’d brought flowers, a card, a marker pen to sign the stookie.
A nurse asked me to wait a minute. “Just sit there,” she said. I watched her walk the length of the ward to the duty station, indicate me as she spoke to the ward sister. I lowered my gaze as they both turned to look at me, not wanting them to see me watching.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the sister approaching. She looked at her fob watch, smoothed down her apron, composed her face. I turned towards her. I knew that what she was going to say would turn my world upside down.
So there I was, putting together my list of music should I ever be stranded on Radio 4’s famous desert island with only 8 disks, a book and a luxury item (as well to be prepared don’t you think?). Which song out of Les Miserables should I chose? A quick look at You Tube will help…
Except there’s no such thing as a quick look at You Tube! A couple of hours later and I was still no nearer to choosing between Do You Hear the People Sing and Bring Him Home, both stirring in different ways…
But I think I have chosen my luxury item – never mind the endless supply of pens and paper, or the marvelously comfortable pillow or even the concertina which I’d love to learn to play. No, it’s got to be a device to get me on to YouTube! Actually if I had that, I wouldn’t need any of the rest of it, I’d have the perfect companion to cover every mood and need. Well except for real human companionship of course – there’s really no substitute for a hug.
You know, when I first started listening to Desert Island Disks, way back in the sixties, the internet hadn’t even been invented yet. No internet shopping or Skype chats with your nearest and dearest on the other side of the world or online petitions seeking to right wrongs and change the world for the better… It’s even hard to remember how we managed without all this wonderful convenience we have at our fingertips nowadays. Mail order catalogues, expensive phone calls, demonstrations in the streets. Nowadays demonstrators can orchestrate their efforts on social media. Back in the day I it was word of mouth, phone calls, pamphlets. I suppose we just use whatever we have at our disposal, for better or worse.
Anyway, I digress. What caught my attention when I clicked on You Tube, was a video of a flash mob singing “Do You Hear the People … ” in a shopping mall somewhere in the mid west of the United States. Have you come across this phenomenon? If if you haven’t, type “flash mob” in to Google straight away! Or wait, maybe you’d better leave it until the next time you have a couple of hours to spare – if you’re anything like me you’ll get caught every time! I It’s just that I love watching the faces of the crowd when they realise what’s going on. It’s totally infectious and joyful. Go on, click on this link now – I defy you to watch it without a huge happy grin on your face!
I’m sure, like me, you’ve heard people being referred to as being “of their time”. It’s usually to excuse something about their lives that today we would find reprehensible or unacceptable. The Me Too movement is just the latest manifestation of our long painful progress towards the concept that all people should be treated equally regardless of gender, colour, creed or orientation. And that it’s not alright just to sweep it all under the carpet and leave the burden of getting over it on the victim’s shoulders.
Does it make a difference when we discover that our heroes have feet of clay? When we learn that Charles Dickens had a secret mistress, Nelly Ternan; or that Chaucer is likely to have raped a woman, one Cecilia Chaumpaigne; or that the charismatic John F Kennedy turned out to be a terrible womaniser and numbered Marilyn Monroe among his probable conquests? I don’t know… Perhaps one does look differently at an author’s work when you understand more about the dark side of where it came from. Or can the truth, the art, stand independently from the artist? I am mindful of a couple of quotes from the late, great George Harrison:
I play a little guitar, write a few tunes, make a few movies, but none of that’s really me. The real me is something else.
Forget the bad parts, you don’t need them. Just take the music, the goodness, because its the very best of me and the part I give most willingly.
I suppose I’m largely content to go with that and read a book or listen to music on the understanding that I am sharing a vision, a truth, wherever it might have come from. That is valid in itself. If I know or learn something detrimental about the writer, that may or may not cause me to look differently at the work. After all, many of the lessons we learn in life come from our mistakes, our dark times. And I still feel inspired by the words of JFK when he declared in his inaugural speech, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Whether or not he actually ‘borrowed’ that phrase from his old headmaster or was a less than faithful husband, they are nonetheless stirring words, worth repeating.
And I still think of Charles Dickens as a great Victorian novelist who cared about the social conditions of his day and wrote most movingly about the plight of the poor. If he wasn’t in truth the unblemished family man he’d have you believe, he did on the other hand engage in many philanthropic deeds including setting up a home for “fallen women”. Perhaps I will read the cosy fireside scenes with a somewhat more cynical eye and make a mental nod to the hidden Ms Ternan, but I can still enjoy these marvellous books and wonderful writing.
As to more contemporary transgressions. With each new revelation about the movie industry, I find there are now certain films I can never watch in the same way again, if at all. Fiction or not, I don’t want to be drawn into falling in love with that handsome leading man, or a director who, it turns out, sees sex as a weapon to be wielded. These are more than private indiscretions, this is an abuse of power, a whole rotten system which needs to be called out for what it is. Me too!
So I suppose I’m saying that moral ambiguity does surely make a difference and does force you to encompass a wider picture of what you thought you knew. You might think “How amazing that someone like that could produce something so beautiful” or “No wonder he says that, look what was happening in his life when he wrote it”. Of course all this only highlights how little we really know of another person’s soul, of their motivations – someone like what, exactly? We see everything through the prism of our own experience, understanding and yes, preconceptions. Not to mention what we read in the press or social media.
What about right and wrong, black and white? Yes, there’s that too. If a thing’s wrong then it’s wrong – isn’t it? It’s wrong to kill. Even if it’s in self-defence or to save someone’s life? It’s wrong to steal. Even if it’s to feed your starving family? It’s wrong to lie. Is there anyone who hasn’t bent the truth or concealed it in order to protect the innocent? I suppose what I’m saying is that I always want to know the WHY; the story behind the headline, the circumstances, the mitigating factors, the actual facts and why they are being presented in the way they are.
Here’s a final headline for you to ponder: BODY OF PROSTITUTE FOUND IN ALLEY. I remember being stopped in my tracks by that one. I suddenly found myself feeling angry that some poor woman whose life had been cut short in the most brutal way possible had to suffer the final indignity of that heartless and judgemental headline. I found myself wondering what had happened to her in life to have brought her to the point where she was selling her body to men in a back alley. She could have been someone’s mother or sister or daughter or wife. She was a woman.
The paper could have chosen any of those words to describe her; they could have said ‘female body’. They could have had some consideration for the family who might have had to read about their loved one in such dismissive terms. But no, they went for the sensational. They summed her up in an attention grabbing headline for the sake of selling more papers and making the rest of us feel quite comfortable and safe, because, after all, it hadn’t happened to US, but to one of THEM.
I took a bit of a break last month, what with Easter and all that; spent a few days in Cork with the Irish grandchildren, which was lovely. And it seems that, however haltingly, spring has arrived at last.
But now that the welcome Easter hiatus is over, it seems as if it’s back to the same old same old on the political front. Even front page news such as the fire at Notre Dame Catherdal, the shocking killing of the young journalist, Lyra McKee, on Good Friday, and the terrible massacres in Sri Lanka seem to offer only a temporary respite from the interminable debate over how to progress with that most poisoned of poisoned chalices, the great Brexit debacle. An issue that seems to have sucked the oxygen away from all other debates.
Most Members of Parliament in any country say they got into politics to make a difference. That may or may not be true, and I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but to be honest it becomes increasingly difficult to suspend one’s disbelief when you look at the absolute dog’s dinner that is being made of the so-called negotiations for Britain to leave the European Union. The only thing that everyone in our divided country seems to agree upon at the moment is that our politicians are hardly covering themselves in glory as day after day we hear spokespersons from one side or the other endlessly rehearse what have become increasingly tired old arguments.
I regard myself as quite a political animal. I always go out and vote, brought my children up to do the same – “People died to give you the vote, the least you can do is get out there and use it!” I love that feeling that in your own small way, you are participating in the march of history when you stand there in the polling booth and mark the paper with your cross. These days you can keep up with the results on the internet, but in the olden days (!) you had to stay up all night tuned in to the BBC as one or other Dimbleby told you the results as they came in, with Jon Snow in the background analysing what it all meant on his his famous swingometer.
Of course it’s all much more sophisticated nowadays, with computer graphics and animations, and endless polls from social media giving you continuous updates. If I’m honest I do feel a certain nostalgia for those rickety old sets and the ponderous pronouncements of the great and the good. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the way the candidates all have to assemble behind the Returning Office as s/he announces the results of the ballot one by one. Long may that tradition continue – how else could we see the spectacle of Theresa May in the same lineup as Lord Buckethead, Elmo and Mr Fishfinger. That’s democracy for you….
Now, if we could only get over the current obsession with Brexit, perhaps we could go back to the cut and thrust of proper politics. Honest politics where politicians gain support because of their ability to inspire and unite us rather than cause us shame and embarrassment as they muddle around in ever decreasing circles in a mire of their own making.
I started this blog coming up to Mother’s Day 2017; I write this one on Mothering Sunday 2019. Didn’t really know back then what the blog was for, other than a desire to share what was in my head. I am somewhat surprised to find, looking back, that I have actually carried out what I intended to do – write about family ramblings, history and observations. I don’t even need to edit my “About” page – except to note that I’m now 65 – as it’s pretty much what I would say today.
I don’t know why I should find this so surprising. I suppose its reassuring to find that I can look back on my 60-odd posts with a degree of pride, and realise that it was probably in me all the time to write consistently and regularly, instead of my rather sporadic attempts in the past. I suppose there was a fear at the back of my mind that I’d make a start only for it to peter out after a while. But it hasn’t. I have what you might call a body of work behind me now and I no longer worry that I’ll run out of things to say. I have screeds of topics lined up that will keep me writing for weeks, months, years to come.
Some posts almost write themselves, pop in to your head practically fully formed. Others (like this one!) are more of a process of discovery, of delving into one’s skull to try and find out what it is I want to say about a topic. Even when there’s a lot of research, there’s always the question of how to present it, what to leave in, what to leave out. Because I’ve realised that the way you tell a story reveals much, above all, about yourself. You don’t necessarily write it all down, but the process forces you to examine and perhaps re-evaluate what you thought you knew. If you are delving into the past it’s almost inevitable that you will find pain and hurt, whether its your own or someone else’s.
I’ve mentioned before that my intention here is not to uncover dark secrets, but rather to appreciate better the circumstances that made people – and yes, myself – who they were. And more than that, to understand and forgive. The stories, the facts, are always fascinating, the truths universal, and, I venture to suggest, worth sharing!
I have to confess I felt a bit bereft when I recently came to the end of what turned out to be the 10-part saga of the history of my childhood home. I’d imagined it would be worth two or three posts when I started, but once I got into it…! And the latter part of course was largely about my mother, whose story, for more than half of her long life, was inextricably entwined with that of our house.
And yet she left it without a backward glance. I always felt, in that time when she became confused and lost the ability to safely be left on her own, that it was a kindness that her brain had drawn a veil over that period. She didn’t know it, but we sisters took over the care of the house from her, cleared it out, gave it a fresh coat of paint and, not without some considerable soul searching, let it pass on to someone else.
The one thing my Mum never forgot was her love for all of us. Names would come and go, but those feeling were at her core. I could (and probably will!) grumble on about the shortcomings of my upbringing, but at the end of the day none of that matters any more. I read once that one’s parents’ shortcomings are what make us who we are. I really hope that’s true because, though we do our best, we’re only human and we all fall short in one way or another. I never cease to be grateful and proud of the amazing, delightful people that my own children have turned out to be.
In the end, what matters to me on this Mothering Sunday is the love of my children and grandchildren and the infinite tenderness of my memories of that singular woman who was my mother.
This is the lane that runs down the side of our house. It’s called Sandringham Lane and we’re going to take a walk down there today and have a look. See that bricked up doorway? That marks 6½ Sandringham Lane. It was blocked off during the time of the great repairs, but when I was a child there was a door there, a green door leading to something we knew as the paint store. I haven’t mentioned it before because this back corner of the building didn’t belong to the rest of the house, couldn’t be accessed from our basement, or from the adjoining wash-house. Through the years it was owned by – or rented to – various small businesses as a storage space for goods or materials.
The first of these, who I think owned it from 1874, were Fairley and Reid, who were joiners, wrights and builders, and probably heavily involved in all the new building development work that was going on at the time. They were just the first in a succession of tradesmen who found it a convenient spot to use as a base. Here are just a few of them: 1883-93 John P Scott, slater and plasterer / 1896-98 John Logan, gardener / 1900-01 James Wilson, painter and decorator /1904-06 Charles McGrory, cooper / 1914 James McAlpine, plumber and gasfitter. There was even, in 1902-03, a manufacturers of baskets, hampers, cane and wicker furniture, toys and mail carts. I don’t imagine that S Fredericks & Co would have done any manufacturing in that small cellar, but they obviously needed a storage space for a year or so. And so on through the years.
By the time the MacFarlanes (us) took possession of the house in 1963, the store must once again have been owned by a painter/decorator – hence our name for it. I can’t actually remember being aware of anyone using the paint store, but I think it might have been broken into a couple of times. Or that might have been after I’d left home… I should have paid more attention! Suffice to say it was just there, an unremarkable feature of the building that we felt had nothing to do with us.
Until the whole edifice started needing major repairs in the 1980’s, as we’ve already seen (parts 7 and 8). As Mum watched her beloved Victorian house stripped bare, I think more than ever she began to see the building as a whole. You can perhaps get an inkling how she was thinking from this sketch she made around that time…
In the mid 80’s, with yet another round of renovation work looming, it occurred to Mum to inquire about who actually owned the paint store and the wash-house. This resulted in her taking possession of number 6½ Sandringham Lane in September 1989, having purchased it from one James Duffin for the sum of £850. As to the wash-house, it turned out ownership was divided equally between herself and the various owners of the flats at number 10 – eight shares in all. So she set about asking, through her solicitor, whether the owners would sign over their shares to her, if she agreed to pay the legal bills. There was a certain degree of urgency about all this as Mum had a plan, as we can see from a letter written to the Council by the neighbour in the first floor flat, Sheila Morrison.
This is to verify that I approve the plans of Mrs MacFarlane to put a door from her basement into the now derelict wash-house and store space in the common close. This will enable the area to be aired and kept damp free and will benefit the building. Sheila Morrison. 12 December 1990.
Most of the others agreed with these sentiments and it wasn’t long before Mum had secured ownership of most of the space, together with Planning Permission from the Council for use of washhouse/store as extension to maindoor flat and external alterations, just in time to have incorporated the changes in the major works which were due to commence in 1991. The ‘external alterations’ would have meant restoring the windows at the back, which had been bricked up years before.
However, the Planning Permission was dependent upon having approval from all the co-owners and by the time the works were under way Mum only owned a five eighth share of the wash-house and didn’t have full permission from the others who for various reasons had not agreed to the proposals in time. So the work went ahead without incorporating her plan and the quest to gain full ownership of the wash-house space became a bit of a saga. It took well over a decade for Mum to finally gain her goal. She never gave up the idea though and renewed the Planning Permission twice in the intervening years.
The above-mentioned Sheila Morrison seems to have been Mum’s primary supporter, or should I say partner in crime, in the matter of the wash-house and indeed it was this Sheila who had originally initiated the moves to have the back green reinstated. I rather think she might also have been active in the campaign to save the Botanic Gardens Garage. You may remember the Garage had been under threat due to the development plans of Arnold Clark Motors. This campaign also turned into another saga which finally succeeded in its goal in 2007 when the Botanic Gardens Garage was designated a Category A Listed Building.
From the point of view of Mum and Sheila, the main objection to the development plans had been proposals to make use of Sandringham Lane for access to the back of the garage. Indeed there was always some kind of running battle going on regarding the lane and its use or abuse. In 2007, the new owner of the premises across the lane at number 6, a cafe called Naked Soup, also joined battle and, together with the residents, successfully saw off all attempts at development of the lane.
Naked Soup typifies many of the new enterprises when were starting to spring up in and around Byres Road during the 80’s and 90’s, so that by the millennium the area was taking on a much more cosmopolitan outlook. Over the years, most of the old fashioned grocers, butchers and fishmongers had disappeared, to be replaced by supermarkets, cafes and a whole range of stores from charity shops to fashionable niche boutiques. Even that stalwart of the high street, Woolworth’s, where we used to go to spend our “Saturday penny” disappeared in 2008, and the City Bakeries where I had a Saturday job as a teenager was eventually replaced by Gregg’s.
Naked Soup opened at 6 Kersland Street in 2007, just about coinciding with the end of the era when the house was earning its keep as a theatrical digs. It’s under new ownership now, but the original young men who ran this popular takeaway and cafe were very kind to my Mum and would pop across the lane to make sure she was okay and sometimes drop in any delicious sandwiches which were left over from lunchtime. Mum was 86 when she waved goodbye to her final guest in June of 2009. She marked the day by writing this rather sweet note on the flyleaf of her Visitor’s Book:
By that time, my nephew David had become a permanent fixture in the basement… We would eat fish and chips and watch the snooker. She was always wandering about the house singing. In the later years she slept on her chair a lot. I’d sneak in and she’d wake up pretending she’d been awake the whole time. I never called her out on it. Whenever she wanted a cup of tea it became almost a creative challenge to her to describe the smallest receptacle possible so not to be considered an inconvenience in any way. She settled on ‘a thimble full’. I described her as my flatmate to anyone who knew me. I thought it was cool, some people maybe saw me as a 28 year old living in his grans basement. Wouldn’t change a minute of it…
In those latter years Mum’s forgetfulness became more and more marked and one day in 2013, she walked out of the house and forgot her way home. She never again returned to the dwelling she’d lived in for 50 long years and from then on when she talked to us about ‘home’ she meant her childhood home of Davros in County Mayo. She passed away peacefully in 2015 at the grand old age of 92.
So we, her six daughters, sold 8 Kersland Street, our childhood home. We had one last ‘saying goodbye to the house’ party, and I like to think that in turn the house said goodbye to us. But a house never really belongs to you, does it? You belong to it, whether it is for a short while or a long one, but in the end you move on to somewhere else, taking your memories with you.
I suppose in some ways things haven’t changed all that much in the 166 years since the house was built – most of the streets and buildings would have a familiar feel to anyone who’d lived there and came back for a visit. But change happens nonetheless and even a short stroll around the block would serve to illustrate how things have moved on. The West End of today shows a new, more open and creative face to the world than I could ever have imagined when I was a child…
From Oran Mor, we can look across the road to the gates of the Botanic Gardens, beloved of children – and grown ups – for generations. Today you can do so much more than take a stroll in the fresh air. For example, in July it becomes an important hub for the West End Festival, an annual celebration of culture and the arts which grew from its humble beginnings in 1996 to become the biggest street festival in Glasgow, with events happening in dozens of venues all over the West End. And it’s not just July. There’s plenty on to catch the eye or tickle the imagination all year round. Here’s just a taste…
We’re not going in to the Botanic Gardens today though. Let’s continue on past Oran Mor, down Byres Road and round the corner into Vinicombe Street, where we come to the two iconic – now listed – buildings facing each other on either side; the Salon Cinema and the Botanic Gardens Garage. As you can see from this picture from 2015, there’s a much more relaxed feeling in the street than in the days when it was dominated by the constant movement of cars in and out of Arnold Clark’s garage. With the end of the road now closed off, cafe culture is thriving – the sunny side of the street is already busy and once the sun has moved round, the Hillhead Bookstore Restaurant, which took over the old Salon Cinema building, will soon start to fill up. The Botanic Gardens Garage Building, a little further up on the other side will shortly start undergoing renovations.
8 Kersland Street is home to another family now. Another family who can pop in to Naked Soup for lunch, or take a stroll in the Botanic Gardens, or a bus into town from the stop around the corner; just as we did; just as all those that lived there before us did. Perhaps one day someone might blow the dust off that old planning application and fulfill Mum’s dream of extending the basement. Be that as it may, the house has seen many residents come and go through many decades. It has survived two world wars, rising damp, subsidence, and the ever-shifting political and economic climate. In 2073 it will reach it’s 200th birthday and I’d like to think it’ll still be going strong then.