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!

IMG_1614

IMG_1620

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

001 (2)

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…

005 (9)

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!

IMG_1609

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?

william (2)

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!

four marys (2)

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!

desmond (2)

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…

partick library (2)

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.

radio 2

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.”

radio stations

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…?

 

 

More from the Family Album

Today’s post is really just a few more pages from the family album, as we only managed to get to 1957 the last time (“The Man with the Box Brownie”). Mary makes her first appearance on this page in a photo dated April 1958 (Dad used to take advantage of the odd ray of sunshine to take snaps of us in the house.)

IMG_1539 (3)

And then in Sept ’58 here’s Mary waving to her fans from the family pram.

IMG_1542 (2)

And here she coming up for two years old in August ’59. Although, I’m questioning whether this is in fact August. Grace was born in June of that year, so where is she? I think Mum could be pregnant in that lower picture (she’s wearing a pair of her earrings, can you see?) In which case this would be earlier in the summer…

IMG_1544 (2)

And here’s Grace finally on the next page! Ann has her arm in a sling – she broke it when she fell off the bed! We used to get in trouble for bouncing on our parents’ bed, but it was one of our favourite games.

IMG_1594

As you can see, we had the odd outing to Inchinnan, where a friend of Mum and Dad’s had a caravan, and down the coast – I think on the train/ferry – to places like Helensburgh and Dunoon. And as well as the Elder Park, they also seemed to like taking us to Bellahouston Park. I have to smile at that second page to see my Dad all formally dressed in his suit and tie just for a trip to the park – different times!

IMG_1595

IMG_1597

The next page heralds the appearance in 1962 of yet another character that was to become an integral part of our family – the Vauxhall Victor which would serve as our family car for many years to come.  I’m quite surprised to find “Victor” making its appearance quite so early in the story, while we were still living in Rathlin Street, but the evidence is clear.

IMG_1600

And of course that wee Vauxhall Victor gave our family freedom. Whenever they could, Mum and Dad would bundle us up in the car and head off up Great Western Road, destination all points north. I can never travel along that road to this day – you can see the mountains in the distance – without getting that feeling of excitement and anticipation that comes as I read the destination boards – Dumbarton, Helensburgh, Loch Lomond, Crianlarich, The Trossachs…. And I am reminded of some words from John’s letter to his mother in 1931 (as written): “The May holiday was very wet and we stayed in ecept in the afternoon we went in the bus for a hurl to Corpach and back.” He was a great one for a wee hurl was our Dad!

And then, the following year, comes the move from Govan to Hillhead. Look back at the post entitled “Sisters, Sisters” if you want to be reminded of the difference that made to the family, and how “Number 8” became our family home for the next fifty years. Here we all are at the beginning of that era enjoying the sun in our very own newly acquired back garden. Jane was born in the January of that year, just before we moved house – unfortunately she was maybe taking a nap during this photoshoot.

IMG_1601

IMG_1602 (2)

I think it must be rather frustrating for my sisters that there are far fewer baby pictures of them than of me. My first couple of years are well documented – as new parents do – whereas they have to make do with the odd shot here and there, and in fact Jane has pointed out that there are NO baby pictures of  her at all. Which is very unfortunate, but perhaps not altogether surprising considering how quickly Eleanor followed on her heels a mere 15 months later in April ’64. Not to mention in that same time period the acquisition of a car, a house, a mortgage, a new neighbourhood, new school for older siblings. Our parent probably barely had time to stop and eat, never mind take photographs! However, they did manage to take this one of baby Eleanor with Mum in the Botanic Gardens, our new local park. After this though, there aren’t so many snaps of us all in the park, as Victor would take us to more exciting destinations where, sure enough, Dad would get out the Box Brownie and line us all up for the family photograph. (Click on each photo to see the captions).

Well, we’ve made it to 1969! It’s kind of funny when you look through old photographs – you know it’s you, but it also seems like somebody else that you struggle to remember. I kind of love the way I look in these photographs, so competent and confident, and sure of my place in the family and in the world. It’s good to be reminded of that, and to appreciate the wonderful close relationships that sustained you growing up – things can get so much more complicated as life unfolds.

The Man with the Box Brownie

It was a great disappointment to me that I failed to find a single photograph of my mother on my trip to County Mayo in April. However, once she had left Ireland to seek her destiny, she did then have the good fortune to fall in love with and marry a man with a box brownie camera – my Dad! So, happily for us, our family history was recorded from its earliest days – in fact I should say meticulously recorded, for Dad would carefully enter all the snaps, with captions, in a big leather bound album with black pages separated by tissue paper. This album became an essential part of our childhood and survives more or less intact to this day, give or take a few gaps where sisters have “appropriated” various pictures of particular significance to themselves. Here’s the first page:

IMG_1529 (2)
John and Nellie started out their married life in digs near Queen’s Park, so naturally this was where I was proudly paraded in 1954. I’m afraid there are more pictures of me than anyone else!

This lovely old book tracks our family’s development, not to mention each new arrival as she came along, and especially in the early pages, provides evidence of events none of us can now really remember. This was how I knew that Mum and Dad visited Ireland with me in September 1955, the year after her father died. These are among my favourite images of my mother, seeing Nellie through John’s eyes in the early years of their marriage. (You can click on the individual pictures if you want to have a closer look.)

Unfortunately Dad seems to have been so enamoured with his own little family that he forgot to take any snaps of my grandmother, Maggie Hynes, who would still have been alive then, or any other members of the Hynes family that he was meeting for the first time. Maybe they were too shy…

He’s done slightly better in these pictures of a holiday in Fort William in June 1957, when my sister Ann was just one year old and I was three and a half. This time he has also captured Grandpa (George) and Auntie Catherine, the youngest of George and Jessie’s six children, my Dad’s half siblings. Catherine must have been around 10 in these photos and I do have a memory of her pushing me on the swing and patiently spending hours playing with me in the garden – I absolutely adored her! I think we must have stayed in the house at 50 High Street, or The Barn (an adjoining annex), and by the look of it we had a lovely time. But as far as I know that was the first and last time Dad took his family to stay in what had been his childhood home.

Another selection from the family album shows an occasion when Ann and I were taken to visit Dad’s ship, the MV Bhamo when it was laid up at Princes Dock in August of 1958. I’ve also included a picture of Dad taken during the course of a voyage, and one of his radio room – a whole other life that had nothing to do with us! Again, I have no memory of this visit…

Dad was always very interested in gadgets and how things worked – the radio officer had been a boy who recounted such exploits as building a bogey and writing with invisible ink in the letters he wrote to his mother during the time she spent in the TB Sanatorium before her death in 1932. This letter is from 1931, when he was coming up for 10…

Don’t you just love that his trousers were “past mending”? I wonder what scrapes he’d got into to get them into that condition. John never lost the boyish playfulness and enthusiasm that’s displayed in this letter. If any of us ever collected stamps (I did for one!) or made a model or showed the slightest interest in morse code or how a valve radio or a car engine worked, he’d be there, explaining, showing, joining in. He tried, I’m not sure how successfully, to teach us to play bridge and he loved corny jokes. He once brought something home for Mum and patiently bided his time until she gave the answer she was in the habit of giving when asked if she wanted a cup of tea, “Just half a cup”. Whereupon he whipped out his prize – HALF a cup! Mum didn’t have much of a sense of humour for that kind of joke, but we all thought it was hilarious!

Vintage-You-Asked-For-Half-A-Cup-Of-_1
This is not the actual one, which mysteriously disappeared! But you get the idea…

002 (2)

The piano playing too carried on into later life. The familiar sound of him playing away on our upright piano would let us know he was home. Here’s how Mary remembers it, “He’d play Chopin and Debussy, and had a gift for arranging the popular songs of of his youth into his own lovely versions, like Stormy Weather and Stardust. He was a romantic person and bought Mum a pair of earrings every week, which she kept in a chocolate box.”  Ah yes, Mum’s earrings, I wonder what happened to them, I used to love being allowed to look through them and try them on. Dad’s piano playing reminded me of Russ Conway, a popular performer who used to appear on the Billy Cotton Band Show on a Saturday night. We would all squeeze up on the family sofa to watch. Dad often arrived home halfway through TV shows, depending on his shift pattern, and would be shushed by us when he wanted to know what was going on, ungrateful children that we were!

In many ways, the boy who wrote the letters points to the man he would become. The man who collected, in blue binders, the entire set of “Knowledge, the new colour magazine which grows into an encyclopaedia”; the man who spent endless painstaking hours constructing a model bungalow (long gone) entirely out of spent matches, setting the walls in place according to his detailed plans. You only have to look at these notebook pages (preserved for 60-odd years from when he was studying for his radio certification) to see how neat and meticulous he could be.

He was also meticulous in the way he kept control of the family finances, assigning the cash from his pay packet to the bills and the household expenses, from the largest to the smallest amounts, including our weekly dinner money. He would count this out on a Sunday night and wrap it up in little brown paper parcels complete with our names and amounts, ready for us to pick up on a Monday morning. Beatrice 4/11d, Ann 4/4d, Mary 3/9d. I think those are the right amounts though I can’t remember what Grace had to pay. I think he’d probably given up doing it (had he?) by the time Jane and Eleanor started school. I don’t know about my sisters, but there was no way I was going to hand over this pre-packaged payment intact as intended – I would unwrap mine (always sellotaped) and hand over the cash to the teacher in the normal way, just like everyone else!!

With hindsight, I suppose I’d have to say that Dad was just a tad obsessive-compulsive in his manner of fulfilling his responsibilities, as he saw them, as head of the household! But you know, I also see someone with a rather inflexible personality who struggled to accept and deal with some very hard blows that life had dealt him. I’ve said before that he never really got over the death of his Mother when he was only 12. And it’s perfectly obvious even from his boyhood letters that his expectations were somewhat different from the way his life turned out.

As a mother and grandmother I know that you have to learn how to be a parent, instinct will only take you so far, the rest has to be learned as you go along. The way I see it, Dad coped by doing what he always did – by faithfully carrying out what he saw as his duty and staying true to his beliefs and principles. Among the possessions he left behind are some items that say it all – his wedding ring, his wartime service medals, his rosary beads, awards from the Road Operators Safety Council for 5, then 10, then 15 years of safe driving. And this one, a tiny wee drawing done by his mother, our long lost granny, Beatrice.

001

I think what I’m trying to say is that, with Nellie by his side, John grew into the role of father, became less uptight and more accepting. That whatever his faults and failings, they were tempered by his sense of fun and romantic soul. And that he always loved Mum and his six daughters with all his heart –  you only have to look at our family pictures to know that the photographer was in love with his subject. I find it very striking that when I look through albums Dad made of his time in the RAF and then at sea, there are lots of photos taken of the places he’d been to. Whereas the family album contains pages and pages of just us, with hardly a view in sight. In fact I’ve only scraped the surface of those family pictures, so we’ll need to come back to them another time.

003 (10)

In the meantime, with Father’s Day coming up on Sunday, I’m going to leave you with my last loving memory of my Dad. It was 1981, he had come home from hospital – come home in fact to die – and his bed had been set up in our light and airy lounge at the front of the house in Kersland Street. We knew it wouldn’t be long and I had come up from London to say my goodbyes – my own four little ones were very young so it couldn’t be a long visit. I was sitting by the bed just quietly chatting with him before I was due to depart when he crooked his finger for me to come closer. As I leaned towards him he tapped his chest three times with his forefinger and said “Number one daughter”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Childhood in Govan

 

1200px-Blaeu.Atlas.of.Scotland.1654.Renfrew.Govan
1654 map showing Mekle (“Big”) Govan, Litle Govan, and the small town of Glafgow.

Let me introduce you to Govan, a historic area of Glasgow on the south side of the River Clyde. According to medieval legend,  a monastery was founded here in the seventh century and during the Middle Ages, Govan was the site of a ferry which linked the area with Partick for seasonal cattle drovers. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, textile mills and coal mining were important; in the nineteenth century, shipbuilding emerged as Govan’s principal industry and brought prosperity. In 1864, Govan gained burgh status, and was the fifth-largest burgh in Scotland. It was incorporated into the City of Glasgow in 1912.

So what’s all this got to do with my family ramblings you may ask? Well, Govan is an important character in this blog because it became home to John and Ellen MacFarlane, John and Nellie, when they bought a room and kitchen here at 31 Rathlin Street in around 1956. It was to be our family home until 1963, when our parents sold the little flat to a certain R McCaig for the princely sum of £275. This was a private arrangement and my Dad would cross the river once a month to go and collect the instalments in cash. We even still have the receipts…

rathlin street

The last time I was in Govan, quite a few years ago, I went to have a look at Rathlin Street and was not surprised to find that the old tenement had been demolished and the space occupied by a playpark. I found this picture from the 80’s on the web, obviously before the playpark was built. Our home would have been just where the empty space is.

new-housing3 (2)

There are some rather smart looking modern flats on that site now (some of which seem to be selling at upwards of £100,000 nowadays!) and some nice little houses along the street where I used to walk to school, past what was still Fairfields Shipyard, on to McKechnie Street where there was a cinema on the corner and across Govan Road with the lollipop lady. St Anthony’s Primary was right there at the corner of Harmony Row; we were so near it would only take me about 5 minutes to walk to school, which I seem to remember I was trusted to do on my own from a fairly early age. If you were a wee bit late leaving the house and the school bell rang, all you had to do was run and you’d still be on time. I still have my two class photographs from that time, 1960 and 1962. I’m third from the left, age 6, in the middle row in the top one and third from the right, age 8, in the second row of the bottom one.

001 (2)002 (2)

I can remember a few names – Gemma Corr, Paul Mellon, Anthony, Susan, Gerard, Rita, Annemarie, Sarah… and Alec, I will always remember Alec. He’s in the back row of both photos, third from the left in the top one and second left in the other. One time in class the teacher was filling in some information for the register – mother’s and father’s names, date of birth and so on. He was going round the class and we were telling him our dates of birth. He got to Alec, who just looked blank. Teacher got a bit impatient and said “Come on boy, your date of birth – when is your birthday?” Poor Alec looked even blanker and said “What’s that? I don’t have one.” That was the first time in my life I realised that there were children in the world who didn’t get presents or blow out the candles on their birthday cake every year, as I did. Alec was one of the “rough” boys, usually in trouble for fighting, and normally someone to be avoided. But ever after that – and to this day – I had a little soft spot in my heart for him, and looked at him less disapprovingly.

Govan seems to be enjoying something of a revival of fortunes these days (hence the desirable flats), but in the 1950’s the tide of its history was at a low ebb. Govan had a reputation as a deprived area of Glasgow with high unemployment and poor housing, including the notorious “Wine Alley”, an estate which had been built in the 30’s. During the war the shipyards made the area a target for enemy bombers and there were frequent reconnaissance missions overhead, and long hours spent in Anderston shelters, for those who had them, for the inhabitants. Not as badly hit as Clydebank, a short distance further down the river, nonetheless Govan also suffered bombing raids, the worst of which completely destroyed a tenement building on Govan Road, killing 69 souls.

So this was the post-war Govan where John and Nellie, Mum and Dad, fetched up in the mid-1950’s, neither of them with any connection to or knowledge of the area or its social mores – they just bought a flat somewhere they could afford. I’m pretty sure in my Mum’s mind anyway she would have looked upon this as somewhere she was just passing through – as indeed it turned out to be. She never really saw herself as part of, or understood, the culture of this very Glaswegian lower working class area.

I don’t think Dad did either, especially as for the first few years he was away at sea for large chunks of time. He had been a radio officer in the Merchant Navy since 1952 and continued in that career right up until 1958, by which time there were three of us. I’m told that when I was little I used to call this person who would occasionally come and stay in our house “the man”.  I’m sure that must have been upsetting for someone who set such great store by the family.

It’s hard enough for any wife whose husband works away from home, but I am also very conscious that my Mum had no family in Glasgow, no network of friends. Our flat was modest to say the least. For example we had a curtained off “potty corner”, which potty had to be taken downstairs to the outside toilet on the landing below to be emptied. I remember mum bathing the babies in the big ceramic sink in the corner of the kitchen.

For us older children the big tin bath would be got out – taking up practically the whole kitchen – kettles boiled for hot water and the weekly bath undertaken with much arguing about whose turn it was to get in first and who would have to make do with someone else’s used water – or maybe we would all get in together (“she’s got more room than me!”). It’s no wonder it was only once a week, it was such a palaver boiling up all those kettles, and there was usually a lot of spillage while the damn thing was being emptied with pots and basins and other receptacles.  Once my Dad had left the sea and became a landlubber (or maybe when he was on leave) it was much easier – he could just lift the whole thing up and empty it down the sink.

BATHNIGHT

Times were tough for John and Nellie, they had to endure long separations and money was tight. Dad didn’t always appreciate that although he always left carefully calculated amounts of housekeeping money for Mum, this was too inflexible to allow for price fluctuations or emergency purchases and would sometimes leave her short.  Many lessons had to be learnt, probably painfully, as their family grew and developed. Eventually the life at sea could no longer be sustained, John found a good job as a bus driver with Glasgow Corporation and came home for good. In later years he would very occasionally talk about the sacrifices he made for his family, as he had loved his life as the onboard “Sparks”, but it didn’t take much to remind him how much he loved Mum and us. If there was a choice to be made there was no contest, even if it did take rather a few years to make it! I think it took all that time for John and Nellie to finally accept that much though he tried, Dad wasn’t going to be able to continue his radio career on land; there just weren’t any opportunities in those austere days.

But, you know, my memories of Govan are not of deprivation. I’m not one of those children in the school photographs whose wee faces stare out at you with poverty and hardship written all over them. I’m one of the ones who is well fed, well dressed, clean and shiny. Maybe Mum wasn’t always as patient as you might have wished (this is the pot calling the kettle black!) and Dad had a tendency to keep harking back to the past, but they made a home for us where we were safe and warm, where we could rely on being fed and clothed, have your hair done up in a ribbon (“ouch, that hurts!”), toys to play with, books to read, be made a fuss of on your birthday, be taken for walks in the park, be bought comics. It was everything you needed and seemed abundant. Or perhaps I just had very low expectations!  I’ll probably come back to this topic another time…

I realised when I was writing this that I have never thought of myself as coming from Govan. When asked, I say “Glasgow” or “Hillhead”, which is indeed where I feel my roots are. Thinking about it now, there ARE some deep Govan roots in there too – you just have to dig a bit deeper to find them, and I find myself happy to do so. Here are some of the things I can remember when I try:

govan ferry steps
Jumping on the ferry was an adventure, though I feared I would fall in!
back green
All the back greens were like this, with the mothers watching their children from the kitchen window. The lucky ones would get a wrapped “piece” and jam thrown down to them.
children back green (2)
We loved going out to play in the back green – never got as dirty as this though
hometime
I remember the river of men who would flow out of Fairfields Shipyard when hometime came around
fairfields loco with passengers
This vehicle would take workers and goods up and down Govan Road. It’s going past the Co-op department store where I once bought a cardigan I fell in love with in the window. I saved up all my Saturday sixpences for weeks for it.
lyceum-cinema
There were 4 or 5 cinemas in Govan in those days. The Lyceum was the one I passed every day on my way to school. I think I was taken there to see “The Parent Trap” with Hayley Mills.
coalman (2)
The coal man would hoist your bag of coal on his back and bring it up the close stairs to be emptied into your coal bunker in the hallway. Mum would scramble to lay newspapers on the floor to keep it clean.
rag and bone
I would watch the rag and bone man give out balloons in exchange for old clothes (no, we were never allowed to do that!)
pearce institute 1958
This is the Pearce Institute, a legacy of Victorian days. I think I performed in a choir here once, wearing a white dress with a blue sash
john elder statue elderpark
This is the Elder Park, scene of many perambulations.
tram govan cross
Trams ran in Glasgow until about 1963. I remember sitting on a hard wooden seat and asking for a “three ha’penny half”
st anthony's school
St Anthony’s School. You went in through the gap between the two buildings.
st anthonys
I remember my first Communion and Confirmation in St Anthony’s Church. The Parish Priest was Father Molumby and he would visit his parishioners at home. I was always a bit afraid of his big black cane.
govan fair
Everyone turned out for the Govan Fair every year. I can remember seeing the Fair Queen go by on her decorated float, and being given a pear ice lolly.

I wonder if I subliminally imbibed that feeling of not quite belonging from my parents – I would never have described them as coming from Govan, or even Glasgow. I would say that Mum was Irish, and Dad came from Fort William. They settled in a place that was essentially foreign to both of them and in many ways had to invent our family mythology from scratch. Which perhaps meant that although we were IN Govan, we weren’t OF it.

 

On the Trail of an Irish Colleen, Part 2

I’ve been using my recent visit to Ireland to try and throw some light on the enigma that was my mother, Nellie Hynes. Last time, the trail took us as far as An Clochan School. After that Nellie would have progressed to the Secondary (Intermediate?) School at the Convent of Mercy, Ballinrobe and then later to the Convent’s Commercial School where she gained, respectively, her school leaving certificate and certificates in bookkeeping and shorthand.

certificates

I remember that when Mum talked about her school days, it was always with an element of frustration, even annoyance. She would describe how the nuns had a pecking order when it came to their charges, whereby the children of professional and trades people came higher in the hierarchy than the farmer folk. I don’t think she ever really forgave those nuns for not seeing her potential and encouraging her to go further in her education, although to be fair it would have been practically unknown in those days for girls from that area to have gone to university or college. As it was, it was Nellie’s mother and her aunt as well as her own personality which drove her forward to strive for more.

Of course, the upshot of her school experience was that Mum would forever be encouraging us, her six daughters, to “get qualifications”. Our all-girls school, again run by nuns, was academically focused and the preferred choice for the daughters of Glasgow’s Catholic establishment. Though she tried to fight the feeling of being an outsider, I think Mum felt rather intimidated by this and I remember her telling us that we were as good as anyone else – which was a bit counterproductive as until she mentioned it I don’t think I’d given it a second thought! She would always tell us not to let on that our Dad was a bus driver.

This did have a big impact on me – I would quietly shrink into the background if there were ever a casual conversation about what girls’ fathers did for a living – it seemed to me they were all doctors or lawyers or bank managers. It was a revelation when one girl proclaimed that her dad was a taxi driver. I so admired and envied her, and wished I could have the confidence not to care whether anyone judged me because of my Dad. I knew perfectly well that he worked tremendously hard to provide for his family and I loved him and was immensely proud of him for the person he was – in no way did I see him as “just” a bus driver. I don’t know if I ever told him that when I was growing up, so I’m declaring it now – perhaps he can hear me somewhere out there in the cosmos. But for me as a teenager, “telling” would have felt like a betrayal of my parents.

It’s possible that my younger sisters felt these restriction less then me as they followed on behind, I hope so. I know that by the time the two youngest, Jane and Eleanor, were at school, they had friends who would come and spend time at our house, some of whom even found a refuge there when life was difficult for them at home. Changed days! When I was at school I was always warned not to bring anyone home as the house was not “good enough”. I like to think that in later years Mum gradually started to escape the shame instilled in her by those Irish Nuns all those decades before. And I also like to think I eventually escaped it too.

IMG_5732 (2)

I didn’t manage to visit the Convent of Mercy on my recent trip, but I did go to Roundfort, where Mum’s parents are buried. As you can imagine it was rather poignant to stand at the grave of these grandparents I never knew, and to realise that Mum had also come and visited this place as a pilgrim from afar. As far as I know, she never again met her beloved father after she left home – he died just six months after I was born in January ’54.  I think that she and my Dad came for a visit the following year, so Maggie Morris would have met her grandchild. But again, that would have been the last meeting as she died in the same month that my sister Mary was born in 1957.

After Mum left school she obtained a post as a receptionist in the Imperial Hotel in Tuam, a few miles away from Davros (there may have been other jobs too, but this is the one I know about). Mum once told Mary that there was a huge dirty mirror and dirty bottle display behind the bar and Mum cleaned it all up and made it beautiful and sparkling, much to the owner’s delight. Not surprisingly, Mum did very well in this job and advanced to Assistant Manager. I found this picture of the hotel as it would have been then displayed on the reception desk.

IMG_5699 (2)

I’m sure that Mum, with her lifelong love of history, would have been aware of the story of this place, which describes itself as “one of Tuam’s most historic buildings”. It was built in 1832 as a stage-coach depot named Daly’s Hotel and managed to prosper, surviving two raging fires in the town centre, the first one, in 1892, being an accident. The second happened in 1920 and was a deliberate act of reprisal by British soldiers during the War of Independence. Which confirms a suspicion of mine that there was probably quite a lot of gun running activity in the area at that time. Not that you’d ever know it from Mum – it was one of those things she didn’t really talk about. That and her more than passing knowledge of the presence of poteen (home made spirits) at the family ceilidhs I mentioned in my last post!

IMG_5690 (2)

Anyway, by 1920 the Hotel had already passed into other hands and had been known as Guy’s since 1891. It became the Imperial Hotel in 1932 and Mum would have worked there in the 1940’s. It’s still going strong in its current incarnation as the Corralea Court Hotel, complete with snazzy cocktail bar. I wonder what Mum would have made of it. The Tuam that she knew was, and is yet, a busy little market town and you can still get a feel for what it must have been like in Mum’s day, despite quite a lot of building and development round the outskirts. Here’s an old photo – the cross itself is no longer there, but the buildings look just the same and you can see the Imperial Hotel just behind the wee booth to the right.

IMG_1248 (2)

Directly across the road is the Town Hall, where you can see a statue of the Virgin Mary below the clock (just to remind you you’re in Ireland!) The container with flowers is more or less where the old clock tower was.

IMG_5687 (2)

Let’s turn now to the episode that was to change the course of Mum’s life and set her destiny on a completely different course. From Mary’s wee booklet: “The story goes that around 1949 Nellie was sitting on the large stove in the kitchen at home on the farm, idly tearing up newspaper and feeding the strips of paper into the fire. Suddenly she snatched a half-charred piece out of the flames and read an advertisement for the position of housekeeper and nanny for a family in Fort William, Scotland. Without knowing anything about Fort William or having experience of being a nanny, she decided there and then to apply for the job. She was accepted and a few months later left her home in Ireland to embark on the long and momentous journey to Scotland to join the MacFarlane family in Fort William as housekeeper and nanny to six children.”

This momentous decision of Mum’s seems to have been made almost on a whim and with breathtaking speed. But Nellie was already restless, wanting more out of life than a small rural town could offer. A semi-serious boyfriend had already left Ireland to go and seek his fortune in Liverpool and she and a female friend had made plans to go and work in a big hotel in Dublin. But just before they were due to go the friend fell seriously ill and ultimately died, and it all fell through. So the fateful advert arrived just at the fortuitous moment when Nellie was ready for something to happen. As on so many occasions throughout her life, when the opportunity came she seized it without hesitation.

Thus one life ended and another began. It feels to me as if Nellie Hynes left Ireland with little more than her certificates and the clothes she stood up in. She never seemed to look back or to long for the land of her birth. When she did eventually return to visit after our Dad had died, I suspect she found it much as she had left it and was probably confirmed in her original instinct that she wanted more out of life than to stay where she was, treading a path that was circumscribed and limited. Having followed in her footsteps I can understand how someone with her drive and imagination would look for a wider destiny with more possibilities.

Mum once told me how when things were difficult she would retreat within herself to a place where she could find comfort and strength. I now think that place was her childhood home. How else could she have later recalled the stories she told Mary? If she didn’t share them with us as we were growing up, it was because, as Mary said, she was always looking forward, always focused on where her drive and vision would take her next. There was no space in that for what she might have thought of as wallowing in the past. Besides, my Dad tended to be a wallower, so maybe she thought that was enough without her doing it as well. Despite the fact that she never lost her Irish accent, Mum regarded herself as a citizen of Scotland, the country she had adopted as home over 60 years before.

But she did remember. The echoes of her Irish identity and upbringing lay just beneath the surface, subliminally colouring all her attitudes, whether in positive or negative ways. This didn’t always make for a person who was easy to get on with, but she was always true to herself and would embrace any challenge with that same grit and determination which enabled her to create a new life for herself at the end of the war. We’ll explore that new life further another time, but for now let’s end with some stories Mum told Mary. I like them because it reminds me of the Mum who loved the countryside and stone walls and drinking water from mountain streams – this was a Mum I knew. I would also have liked to have known better the one who would think nothing of cycling home from a dance in the dark. But maybe I’m getting to know her now…

horse snorting

“She told me three ‘horse’ stories – perhaps you know them? The first is when a horse stamped on her foot when she was a girl – she had a permanent semi-circular scar on her foot / The next was when she was crossing a field at home when she noticed a horse staring at her – she started to run as the horse snorted and charged at her – she ran faster than she had ever run in her life. The horse’s breath was on her neck as she flung herself over the wall, while the horse crashed into the wall / The last is when she was bicycling in the dark after a dance when too late she saw a large white stone in the middle of the road. She and her bicycle were flung over the fence. Meanwhile the ‘stone’ woke up – it was a white donkey sleeping in the middle of the road!”

white donkey