Christmas Blues and the Ghosts of Christmas Past.

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Actually, this title is a bit misleading as there is NO NEED for Christmas to get you down – all you have to do is avoid the crowds, the shops and the demands for the latest must-have toy or gadget! Were Christmases less commercial in my childhood? Perhaps they were, or maybe we were just a bit poorer in the fifties. I suppose we all have a tendency to look back and imagine things were better and simpler “then”. Maybe it’s just that WE were simpler. I remember that when my own children were very little we didn’t put up the Christmas tree until after they’d gone to bed on Christmas Eve and they’d wake up in the morning to find that Christmas had magically arrived and Santa had been.

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At this time of the year, there’s always a strong element of nostalgia intermingled in the celebrations, isn’t there? We recall how things used to be, and those who are no longer with us. So there is often just a hint of sadness in the mix, which makes it all the more precious I suppose. I’ve been looking back through my – somewhat random – collection of family photos and memorabilia in order to connect with those far off ghosts of the past and to get an inkling of the origins of my family Christmas.

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1931 – I’ve written before about my grandmother – and namesake – Beatrice, who died of TB in 1932. She spent the Christmas of 1931, which of course turned out to be her last, in a sanitorium far from home. We have letters from that time to “Dear Mamma”, which give a flavour of Christmas at home without Mamma for John, Mary and Donald (my Dad, Auntie Mary and Uncle Donald), aged 10, 9 and 6. In John’s letter dated 25 December, he hopes that Mamma “likes the Gramophone that dada took up to you”. I like to imagine Beatrice and her fellow inmates and staff gathered round said gramophone to enjoy the hits of the day – Stardust, Minnie the Moocher and this one, Goodnight Sweetheart by Al Bowlly, which was also a hit that year for several other crooners including a certain promising young baritone named Bing Crosby.

Perhaps you’d like to listen as you read the childrens’ letters. First Mary.

And John. I notice that he says they didn’t decorate the room other than putting up holly and mistletoe. Probably that was Mamma’s job…

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1945 – Here we have a menu from wartime. I think that the No. 120 Maintenance Unit might have been in North Africa at the time, somewhere in the desert. No doubt my Dad and his mates enjoyed their traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings – a taste of home and another big turkey.

If they’d had a gramophone in the Mess, they could have listened to Bing Crosby dreaming of a White Christmas or the Vaughn Monroe orchestra with Let it Snow.

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1959 – These are Christmas cards sent to us individually by our Great Aunt Ettie, who was a nun in Dundee and went by the name of Sister Mary Evangelist. There were four of us girls by this time and the family still lived in Govan. Christmas hit that year? Little Drummer Boy by the Beverley Sisters.

I don’t know what, if any, were the childhood Christmas traditions followed by my Mum’s family in Ireland – if you remember, I’ve not been able to track down any photographs of the young Nellie – though I’m certain it would have involved a ceilidh or two and plenty of poteen. So maybe the excitement of us unpacking our knobbly stockings at the end of our beds came from our Dad’s bank of memories (though I never got an actual onion in my stocking!), as did the paperchain decorations which were always carefully folded up and put away, ready for the next year. Another thing that would be brought out was a small candle holder where the heat from the candles made four little cherubs spin round and a bell ring. I loved it so much that years later I bought one of my own and enjoyed the annual ritual of unwrapping it from its tissue paper and setting it up year after year until it literally fell apart. cherub candles

We like to imagine that we are following well established traditions when we celebrate Christmas with our own familiar family rituals. But of course these traditions are constantly shifting because our families are always growing or shrinking, as does the whole notion of what is the “norm”. The very idea of a celebration of the winter solstice goes back to Neolithic times, and people still gather at Stonehenge to this day to mark both the shortest and longest days of the year. These are customs that stretch back into the mists of history, creating a convenient festival ready made for the church to eventually come along and weave in the idea of the baby Jesus. Did you know that Jesus may not even have been born in December? But if it’s a myth, it’s a wonderful myth, and whether we are rejoicing in the incarnation of God on earth, or simply the love of family and friends, its a fitting way for us to mark the deep midwinter and the far off hope of the spring to come.

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When I was young – even when my family were young – there was not such a vast over-abundance of stuff in the shops or the possibility of choosing from a seemingly endless array of consumer goods from every corner of the world. I remember, some time in the 1960’s, finding out that some of my friends put out not a stocking, but a pillowcase for Santa to fill. Of course part of me envied this, with my knobbly stocking plus one modest present, but mostly, my frugal wee soul felt appalled at this display of overindulgence. I suppose that even as a child I felt a sort of loyalty and defensiveness towards my parents: towards John and Nellie who worked so hard for their family and, I felt, deserved our appreciation and gratitude. I’ve probably never really got over this nervousness of excess in any form.

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But the best Christmas memories aren’t about the presents, are they? In fact I can hardly recall what presents I’ve received or given over the years. I do remember the childrens’ nativity plays; the home made crib (pictured at the top of this page); the toddlers who played with the box rather than the toy inside; the trips out to see the Christmas lights; Christmas carols at Midnight Mass; the year when Santa’s little elves left beautifully wrapped tiny gifts for me and Peter; or the one where the children dressed up as the characters from The Snowman (including the Christmas tree!) and performed the entire story with music and actions….

And of course there were the Christmases when we ventured away from home in order to enjoy a family get-together. This picture is from 1989 when we all managed to gather at Jane’s flat in Glasgow and capture this image of Mum – Granny Ellen – surrounded by ALL of her existing grandchildren (only Magnus, now 21, is missing from the group as he wouldn’t be born for another 7 years).

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In latter years while Mum was still with us, me and my sisters used to congregate at some point at “Number 8” with our families where we would cram into the front room to have a grand exchange of presents (I’d learned by this time how to actually enjoy this cornucopia of goodies). Mum would have made her usual marvellous pot of soup and would preside over the proceedings, smiling benignly at everyone from her cosy armchair. As I say, I don’t really remember the gifts, but I do remember the fun, chaos and warmth of those special times.

Nowadays, as a granny myself, I rejoice in being able to share Christmas with my lovely children and grandchildren. I’ve found plenty of ways of keeping things simple and meaningful, despite the commercial “bah humbug” that assails us from every direction, and I’m happy to say that as far as this family is concerned, the magic is alive and well and safe in the hands of the next generation. And to all my readers, I can do no better than sign off with these words of Dickens’ Tiny Tim: “A merry Christmas to us all, God bless us every one”

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This year, Maggie and Jamie took the boys all the way to Lapland to visit Santa in person.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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!



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.)

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

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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…

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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.


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!



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.


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.


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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:

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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!

This is not the actual one, which mysteriously disappeared! But you get the idea…

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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.


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.

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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


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.

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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.


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
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.
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.