A Poem from Wartime

I mentioned before that my father was in the RAF during WW2. He was a radio operator and was posted to South Africa, Italy and North Africa. These are his service medals.

medals

Dad never really talked much about his war experiences and the photographs he brought back are mostly of his pals – Tommy, Vic, Skip, Roy… Here’s a slightly hazy one of him in Egypt in 1945, still managing to look quite dapper in those shorts.

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Going through my mum’s papers, I found that she had kept a poem he wrote when he was stationed in South Africa. It was written in pencil and rather faded, so she copied it out, noting “Poem written by my darling John during a thunder storm in South Africa during World War 2”

The sun is hidden, undecided;  /  The clouds torment the trees,  /  Thunder lurks, loose, yet undivided  /  By the faintest breath of breeze.

The coming storm is longed for, hoped for  /  To ease the electric atmosphere,  /  There is no time now to stop the downpour,  /  Let it come, yet still I fear.

Long streaks of light create a chaos,  /  Rivers swell and oceans roar.  /  Death, destruction, killing, fire,  /  The earth is shaken to the core.

Filled with dread, yet never doubting,  /  This terror comes in the murk of night.  /  But after night will come a dawning  /  Of beauty – breathless, fresh and white.

Another thing he gave her from those days was this little plastic aeroplane (it’s just a couple of inches long) which he had made. I found it safely tucked away along with the half crown he put in her hand at their wedding.

little plane

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Sisters, sisters……

Take a good look at these six photos – notice anything?

communion collage

That’s right, we are all wearing the same First Communion dress! And of course me being the oldest (Beatrice, 1961) I got to wear it new, AND I probably got to choose it too – tough luck little sisters! I think that by the time it reached Eleanor in 1971 there had been an invisible mend or two (Mum was good at those – she had to be) and the veil seems to have totally disappeared. In fact if you look at Jane, 1970, that’s not the original veil at all. I’d love to know what happened to that hardworking outfit – maybe we could resurrect it for a new generation, these things never really go out of fashion, do they?

The other thing I notice about this array of pictures is that it not only graphically illustrates the hand-me-down nature of being a family of six girls, it also tracks the movement of our family over the years. My first communion picture was taken outside St Anthony’s Church in Govan, which was where our family lived in a tenement flat within hooter distance of Fairfields Shipyard on the Clyde. In 1963 when the frock had been passed on to Ann, we had gone up in the world and were having our pictures taken outside the front door of what became our much loved family home in the West End of Glasgow. As you can see from Mary, 1964 and Grace, 1966, having your picture taken at the front door became something of a family tradition, and carried on long after our dear Dad left us in 1981 and the life of the house carried on without him. Here are a couple of examples from my own collection, and I know that members of the family will have many more…

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It was a momentous event for us when we came to sell 8 Kersland Street in 2014. Mum had lived there for a total of 50 years,  half a century since we had migrated over the river and taken possession of what seemed to us a palatial home on two floors, not to mention a garden, compared to the room and kitchen with tin bath and loo on the landing that we were used to in Govan. I still remember the wonderful imaginative games we used to play together downstairs in the “big room”, including one where we had to traverse the room by climbing over the furniture – anyone who touched the floor was out, and many arguments ensued over whether this one or that one’s foot did or did not make contact with the floor. And we did argue, of course we did, like any family. We would split into factions – The Big Ones, The Wee Ones, The Babies… I’m afraid I used to resent terribly always being made responsible for the behaviour of my sisters and I would often lead the daily crocodile to school “hold hands with your sister” in a bad mood and would walk too fast for the wee ones, and hold their hands too tight. I hope it’s not too late to say I’m sorry.

But you know, mostly what I remember about growing up in our little corner of the West End is the feeling of closeness with my sisters, of knowing that this was our own little world that we could rely on and feel safe in. My memories of all the things we did together come in random waves – Mum taking us to the Botanic Gardens and the Art Galleries: watching Doctor Who from behind the settee: counting how many times you could run round and round the back garden; standing for hours watching our Dad tinkering with “Victor”, the car, occasionally being allowed to hand him a tool; days out at the Trossachs where we would light a fire and cook sausages for tea and spend a lot of time poking sticks in streams; going down Byres Road to Woolworths to spend our “Saturday penny”; the summer we went to Church Street Baths every day and learned to swim… I could go on and and on, and yes, all these memories are of sunny days!

One last recollection is of my “Give a Show” projector, a kind of magic lantern toy I was given for my birthday when we were still living in Govan, so I must have been 9 or younger. I used to love this toy, and would line up my sisters on top of the coal cellar cupboard we had in the hall of our tiny flat, with a sheet hanging over the front door for our screen. I’d then make them watch the entire collection of 16 slide shows, doing all the voices in fine dramatic style, everything from Cinderella to Popeye – “Avast ya swab, leggo my goil!” This of course continued once we were in Kersland Street in our more commodious auditorium (the aforementioned Big Room), the audience enhanced by the addition of Jane (who had been just a baby when we moved) and Eleanor (who arrived in a bit of a hurry the following year).

They say, don’t they, that your position in the family affects who you are. Oldest children are supposed to be smarter and more successful than their siblings. Well, I don’t know about that (I’m not), but I certainly think my leadership qualities (bossiness) and organisational skills (desire to be in control) do stem from those early days of being the oldest. This picture says it all really …

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The years – in fact the decades – pass, and our siblings gradually transform into real people, and wonderful friends who are always willing to understand and forgive you in a way no-one else can. At least mine do, and for that I am very grateful. Here we are all together celebrating Eleanor’s wedding day in 2011: not a hand-me-down in sight!

6 ladies on stairs

 

 

 

A Glasgow Wedding, 1953

Here’s the wedding party gathered at the Grand Central Restaurant in Jamaica Street for my Mum and Dad’s wedding breakfast. I wish that the photographer hadn’t made them wait so long with their ankles daintily crossed and their smiles fixed. You just can’t help feeling that they were all taken unawares when the flash bulb finally did go off and captured – slightly the wrong – moment. But I suppose setting up your camera with its flash bulb, etc, was a lot more of a palaver in the 50’s than today’s profligate age of digital photography and you just had to take what you could get! I do have a better, more smiley photograph of just the bride and groom you’ll be glad to know.

My cousin Catriona remarked that the priest (whose name I think might be Father Kavanagh) looks like someone out of Father Ted, and I can see what she means – poor chap’s probably wondering when he’s going to get his cup of tea, or something stronger. And my Uncle Donald (standing, far right) certainly looks a bit shell shocked. Though mind you, at that point young Donald, his firstborn, was only about 9 months old, so maybe he and wife Mary (seated, far left) had just been up all night with the son and heir.

It could also be that my Dad’s other sibling, Mary (standing far left) had also recently done a night shift as I believe she was training to be a nurse at that time, in Helensburgh. In fact, apart from the priest and the seated Auntie Mary, I don’t think any members of this group actually hailed from Glasgow. The other individuals in the front row comprise George MacFarlane, Dad’s father, his sister Muriel (Aunt Moolie) and his wife Jessie, all from the Highlands. The people in the back row are, I think, Mum’s relatives from Ireland, though I’m ashamed to say I can’t just at the moment say which is which.

Looking at the handsome young man in his uniform (Dad joined the Merchant Navy as a radio officer after he was de-mobbed from the RAF after the war) and the pretty woman on his arm, I am reminded of the story of John and Nellie and how they met. Nellie had come to Scotland from County Mayo in Ireland in the late 1940’s. She had taken a position as housekeeper/nanny to a family of six children, the MacFarlanes at 50 High Street in Fort William. Jessie was George’s second wife and the children were the offspring of this marriage. Dad, Mary and Donald were the children of the first marriage and had grown up and left home by the time Nellie arrived. I’ll tell the rest of the story in the words of my sister Mary:

‘Nellie thrived in her new life in Scotland. One day around 1951 at 50 High Street, she heard a man’s voice calling down the stairs, “Who is staying in my room?” It was John MacFarlane, the oldest son of the first family, returning home for a visit. The two fell deeply in love and were married on 18th March 1953 in St Joseph’s Church, Clarkston’

Which is where we come in with our photo … If Jessie was annoyed at losing her marvellous mother’s help, she’s managing to hide it very well! By the way, I have the invoice here in front of me, and the bill for the entire breakfast, including 14 persons @ 6/6d a head; Rental of Rooms @ £1.1s; Wedding Cake @ £4.10s and Sherry, Port & Beer @ £2.14s comes to a princely £12.16s. That’s about £340-odd in today’s money, still a modest little celebration and nothing like the lavish amounts spent on weddings today. I suppose that brings it home to you just how different were those years of austerity following the Second World War, not to mention people’s expectations. It really does seem like a lost age, even though it’s not even 100 years ago.

Mother’s Day 2017

So, Mother’s Day will be here soon. My dear Mum, Ellen Hynes MacFarlane, has been gone two years now, but somehow she’s as much with us as the day she died, age 92, in 2015.

She had slipped away gradually over the previous two or three years, a process of becoming physically and mentally frailer, as her marbles, her memories, gradually and inexorably rolled away from her, leaving her with only the need to hold on ever tighter to those she loved and she knew loved her. She may have often forgotten our names, but she always knew who we WERE, and reached out to us to seek the comfort of our love, especially in her final days. And she never stopped being herself. One of the last things to go was “Danny Boy.” When she could no longer remember the house she had lived in for 50 years, she could sing Danny Boy, note and word perfect, from beginning to end. She probably sang it on this, her 90th birthday celebration.

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Arranging her funeral, though naturally sad, was in many ways a joyous task, and I think enabled we six sisters to express our love for this tiny indomitable Irish woman, not always easy to live with but so full of vision and determination for her family. I think maybe the very best thing was my sister Mary’s inspired idea to hold the funeral reception in Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Galleries, where Mum was a guide for many years. She would have so loved this unique tribute and it really did feel that she was with us when we mourners gathered together in the great hall while the magnificent Kelvingrove organ resounded to the strains of – what else? – Danny Boy. The memory still brings tears to my eyes.

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