The Shopworkers Tale. Edinburgh 1970

 

It was the autumn of 1970. After four years studying Interior Design at Napier College of Science and Technology In Edinburgh l had won a design prize, had letters after my name and the best pieces of my design work contained in a portfolio that had the dimensions of a small dining table top. I now needed a job.

When not laboriously writing application letters I would cold call on the architectural practices in the region in the hope that an architect with time on his hands would take pity, look through my portfolio of college work, be amazed and offer me a job; but the 1970s were just round the corner and optimism and employment were thin on the ground in equal measure. Then on night I met up with a college friend for a drink. He suggested trying some of the large furniture stores who might need the services of an   interior designer.

I started with one of the biggest, Robert Frost and Sons in Shandwick Place known locally at Frosts. Uncomfortably dressed in the smart suit bought for the prize giving ceremony I manhandle my portfolio through the elegant polished hardwood doors, wiped my feet on the mat and asked a vigilant sale assistant if I could speak to the manager. I followed him as he sashayed through the displays of colourful fabrics to arrive at an office door with a couple of seats against the wall.
“Please wait here and the manager will see you shortly.” He said in an unctuous tone.
I sat and waited, inhaling the smell of furniture polish, carpet fibre and curtain fabrics while I mentally rehearsed my pitch. Then the door squeaked opened and a small portly man appeared with a military bearing, a generous moustache and a shiny bald head.
“Good morning.” He said, then with a sense of urgency commanded. “Follow me please,” before he set off at a quick pace and vanished into the forest of colourful fabric displays. I was hindered my portfolio which I could just carry under my arm if I walked hunched over like Quasimodo. When I eventually emerged I found the small man standing waiting at the lift doors his eyes silently tut-tutting. We ascended several floors, the creaking of the cables and hum of the lift motor the only sounds. The lift stopped, the door slid open and I followed the small man into the landing. He tapped carefully on a door.
“Enter.” Said a voice from the other side.
The small man opened the door and I followed him into a spacious wood panelled boardroom. Three men, probably in their late thirties or early forties, sat at the far end of a table the size of a small aircraft carrier.
“This is Mr…em..em….” The small man was flustered.
“Wilson.” I said helpfully.
“Em..yes..Mr Wilson.”
As one of the men at the table searched through a pile of papers it dawned on me that I was an unexpected guest at the party. When I had walked into the store as a speculative job seeker I had been mistaken for an invited candidate for an actual job interview.
The man at the stern of the aircraft carrier stopped pointlessly leafing through the application letters and looked up at me. One thing Robert Frost and Sons valued above all else were good manners. “Do please take a seat Mr Wilson.”
I sat down and the small man left the room, and in the manner of a butler, turned to soundlessly closed the door.
The three sons of Robert Frost introduced themselves and I began my impromptu interview for the position of apprentice salesman. They were suitably impressed by my qualifications, the black and white photograph of me being presented with the Edmund Hudson Quaich and by the contents of my portfolio which I spread out across the table top. Then, after answering a lot of questions and asking a few I was instructed to wait in the corridor outside. Leaving the room I propped my portfolio against a cast iron radiator and sat down on a chair and listened to the muffled conversation in the boardroom and the occasional hum of the lift motor.
The door opened and the eldest of the siblings asked me to come back into the room. The position of apprentice salesman was mine. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do after four years studying Interior Design but as I was short of any other offers and short of cash I accepted. Robert Frost junior shook my hand and told me that I was to report on the following Monday to Mr Tice, the head of the curtains department where I would start my apprenticeship.

I arrived home from my interview to find my mother at the dining room table wrapping raffia around a wire lampshade frame: she and my recently retired father had taken up a wide range of hobbies. Mum was into arts and crafts while dad was fermenting a deadly range of potent wines.
“Och, Well, that’s grand Sandy,” she said as she rammed the lampshade’s plastic connector into the neck of a wine bottle. Then added philosophically. “At least it a job, son”
She was obviously thinking that at least I would cease being a drain on their depleted retirement finances.
“Where’s that going?” I asked looking at the garish pink lampshade sprouting precariously from the dark green wine bottle.
“Your bedroom.”

It wasn’t exactly my bedroom. Since moving to this house I shared a small bedroom with my elder brother. My parents were obviously not expecting both of us to impose on their hospitality for too long. Willie had left the agricultural college the year before and was employed a sales representative for a fertiliser company. The position came with a company car and a four drawer filing cabinet. The car stood on the driveway and the cabinet stood between our two beds; a sort of high level bedside cabinet. My mother’s recently completed arts and crafts project would stand on top of the cabinet.
On the Sunday night I had the bedroom to myself. I closed my book intending to get a good nights sleep before starting my new job in the morning. I reached up to turn off my mother’s hideous lamp high up on the filing cabinet. The light switch clicked and the room became instantly dark. In that brief instant I was aware that I was holding only the lampshade and that it had become detached from the bottle. I was just wondering where the bottle had gone when it hit me in the right eye with a meaty thud. In the morning as I carried out my ablutions I looked in the mirror. The face of an unsuccessful pugilist stared back. I thought, “For fu….!”

*

“….cks sake whit ye done tae yer face son.” Said my new boss. A small dapper man in his late fifties with wavy grey hair Mr Tice had an alter ego. I later discovered that when a customer appeared in front of him he would slip into an obsequious voice and servile manner but when in front of his staff his use of language was so colourful it spanned the full chromatic spectrum of a rainbow.
I explained the unlikely story of my mother’s home made lamp which sounded so far fetched it was almost believable. But I could tell by the raised eyebrows that he was hearing a ‘Walked into the door’ tale. “Well, if I were you I’d get yer mum one o’ those rug making kits.” He advised drily.
Before the store opened for business Mr Tice introduced me to my fellow members of staff who had just walked into the department: Mr Lowe and Mrs Alsop. Ernest was a tall fleshy man with a bald head and a genial disposition. He favoured loose fitting baggy clothes a fashion style I had seen in old black and white photos of my dad taken in the 1930s. Betty, a cheerful woman, was married but childless. If you didn’t know her you might assume her to be a prim member of the Free Kirk. She wasn’t. Betty was a laugh.
“Aye, well ye cannae face customers lookin’ like that” said Mr Tice. I followed him down to the basement and he gave me a sort of stock taking task, probably fictitious, to hide me away.
Two days later with my eye a muted shade of yellow I was released from the bowels of the store and allowed to face the customers. At my surprise interview the one thing that the directors failed to ask about was my arithmetical ability. At college I concealed this black hole in my education; slouched over a drawing board I had time to laborious do any necessary calculations, but standing in front of a customer while working out the drop and fullness of curtains was daunting. Then, once the calculation had been made a bolt of the chosen fabric had to be brought up from the basement. I had watched Mr Tice emerge from the basement a bolt of fabric across the shop floor and throw it onto the counter, like a wrestler slamming an opponent onto the canvas, then roll it out across the table and measure the the required length. A pair of scissors would magically appear in his hand which he would spin like a cowboy’s revolver before making a small nick in the fabric. He then deftly slid the scissors across the fabric with a soft hiss to slice the cloth in a straight line. When I tried this in front of a customer the fabric would embarrassingly ruck up to produce a jagged edge. So, even if I had miraculously calculated the correct length the piece would invariably end up in the remnants pile. Even the wrapping up the fabric was a consummate performance. Brown paper would be creased and folded with origami exactness and string tied with knots that would have qualified for a Boy Scout badge. Mr Tice was an artiste, a magician of his trade: Mr Tice was David Nixon I was more Tommy Cooper.

The scissors, measuring tapes and other tools of the department were kept in large, deep drawers beneath the counter. When the process of wrapping the fabric the simplest way to close a drawer was to thrust it shut with your thighs. One day I watched from the counter opposite as Mr Lowe completed a sale. He dropped the scissors and ball of string into the drawer. As pushed it closed his polite expression of gratitude to the customer turned into a whimper, a low moan and his face turned a reddish purple. I thought he might have been have a heart attack. So too did Mr Tice who rushed over, grasped him by the elbow and led him through to the partitioned area behind the counter. I assured the concerned customer that Ernest would be fine. Betty, who was showing another customer a sample book looked across and swivelled her eyes in the direction of the enclosed work area telling me to go and find out what was going on. So I did.
Ernest was slumped in a chair with his hand between his legs still quietly moaning and Mr Tice, was leaning against the partition with his hands on his knees. He was stifling a laugh as though someone had just told him a terrific joke. He looked up as I walked in.
“What’s up?” I said taking in the strange scene.
“It’s Ernest… Ernest….he’s…he’s nipped his cock in one o’ yon drawers….. “ he spluttered, stifling his laughter. I winced feeling the pain. Ernest had firmly pushed the counter drawer closed with his thighs and this action combined with his penchant for the looser Oxford Bags style of trouser and, presumably complementary loose fitting underwear, had resulted in the painful and embarrassing injury.
As I walked out of the storage enclosure Betty’s face appeared from behind one of the curtain fabric displays.
“What’s up with Ernest?” She asked discretely. Embarrassed, I self consciously mimicked the injury and Betty’s mouth became a pursed round circle. “Oooo! Is he alright?”
“I think so.” I said uncertainly, although I was feeling a bit queasy myself.
“He won’t be feeling cocky for a while, then.” Said Betty as she disappeared giggling into the forest of fabric display stands.

Robert Frost and Sons was a retail business from bygone age. David Croft probably visited Frosts on a holiday in Edinburgh and thought of the idea for the BBC comedy series ‘Are You Being Served’.
One day a young professional couple oozing new money came into the department and selected curtains and blinds for the house that they had just bought. It would have been a substantial sale. But, they wanted, expected a discount. Mr Tice was having a day off so I went to seek the advice of the store manager with the moustache and shiny domed head. At the word discount he visibly blanched. “Discount? This is Frosts! We do not offer discounts. If one offers discounts, every customer will ask for discounts. Then where will be be!” Profitable, I thought as I left his office to break the news to my bemused customers.

A week later a gaunt tall man dressed in a tweed suit marched through our department towards the entrance doors. The carpet department apprentice escorting the man stepped forward smartly to hold open the door and gave a slight bow as the gentleman left the store. The customer was some Lord from some island off the west coast. Later that day Mr Tice leant conspiratorially on the counter beside me. “Y’ken that Laird. He’s bought a wee Persian rug and because he’s a laird they’re going to send a van and two men a’ the way up to Skye and back. But they’ll no give yon customer o’ yours a discount. No way tae run a business these days.”

The the upper class nature of the clientele was probably part of the reason that the apprentices had been, like the Brothers Frost, educated at Melville College, one of the Edinburgh public schools.. The other apprentices could socially connect; I couldn’t. As a product of a comprehensive and four years at a Technical College I had a socialist mind set. I refused to address customers as ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ and struggled with the plummy accents. One day a couple placed an order and the paperwork required an address.
“Where?”
“Gellaine”
“Could you spell that, please.” I asked after several failed attempts to understand.
“Gellaine!” The lady said impatiently in the sort of voice you use when speak speak to foreigners. “On the coast near North Berwick!”
I realise then that she lived in Gullane which I had always assumed, as it was by the seaside, was pronounced the same as the ‘gull’ in seagull. It is much the same in Yorkshire where I now live. The stately home Harewood House is pronounced Haaarwood House by those of the higher echelons of society. But for the rest of us a hare is pronounced hare.

A few days before Christmas we were asked to stay late.
I asked Mr Tice what it was all about. “Och, it happens every Christmas. It’s a waste o’ fuckin’ time but y’ll hae a laugh.”
And sure enough it was. We all stood beside our respective counters as the ancient stooped figure of Mr Frost senior flanked by his sons shuffled slowly passed. He waved his walking stick in the air croaking, “jolly good show, well done!” It was a ‘Grace Bros’ comedy moment.
Our department was the first stop in Mr Frosts tour of the shop. As the cortège disappeared into the carpet department Mr Tice nudged me. “Thank the Lord that ower. Let’s get away home, son.”

After Christmas I decided a career in a retail mausoleum was not for me. I managed to get a job in Leeds with John Colliers – ‘the window to watch’ – tailoring group. Not on a shop floor but in the Architect’s department designing shops. I think my resignation letter was received with relief; I was a failed experiment. One lunch time during my last week after a heavy night out with my college friends I retired to the furniture department and fell asleep in a comfy chair. I slowly came round to hear voices approaching. It was the furniture sales apprentice with a customer. Too late to do anything I kept my eyes closed as the amused customer made some joke about ‘sleeping on the job’ and the apprentice muttered “how awfully sorry he was.” On my way down the stairs the apprentice confronted me. He told me I was a disgrace and that he would jolly well report me. I told him I was leaving on Friday.

That Friday as I left the store I turned to look back at the shop front and the new discount store next door. Then behind me there was a dull clunk. I turned around to see a man standing outside the discount store with a can of emulsion paint at his feet, the handle in his hand and a splash of turquoise paint covering his shoes and his left leg of his flared trousers up to the knee. He cursed, then turned to me.
“See that pal.” He said. “Cheap shite. They dinnae make things right nowadays.”
Yes, I thought: as Bob Dylan had sung “Times they are a-changin’”

It was the start of the decade that would bring power cuts, strikes, three day weeks and cheap shite. Frost and sons, purveyors of quality furniture, would face an uncertain future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MEMORY SPILL : a childhood memoir.

 

IMG_7660

The town of Bonnyrigg had two railway stations. Dr Beeching, Chairman of British Railways Board closed one and my big brother, Leader of the Black Spot Gang, would accidentally terminate the other. Fortunatelyit was on an obsolete branch line which was rarely used: Broomieknowe Railway Station.”

The book begins in 1953 and spans almost two decades. A time when life was still simple and uncomplicated; there was only one television station and large, black immobile phones were located in draughty hallways. Children, unfettered by health and safety invented their own games and designed the necessary props. At Lasswade Primary School, bees buzzed in peppermint trees, and an inappropriate film about lepers, (or was it leopards?), was screened. A house was haunted by ghosts. A railway station mysteriously burned down. A peculiar cricket match took place on the playing fields of Lasswade High School. A starship failed to reach the stars and there was Bob-a-Job mayhem. Children danced with the devil in the church vestry and teenagers danced to Glenn Miller’s big band sound at a school Christmas party. All this and more happened in the town of Bonnyrigg and Lasswade village, near Edinburgh in Scotland.

In my memoir, Memory Spill, I bring these events, and others, vividly, if not always accurately, to life.

MemorySpill available from Amazon.

Italian Holiday circa 1970. Part 2 Rome to Naples

IMG_7622

Naples: A long and winding road

The next morning, nursing stupendous hangovers, we were sat having a continental breakfast in the ‘greasy spoon’ café. On the table top we had laid out the two thin travellers cheques books, a few lira bank notes and a crumpled piece of paper with our dad’s mystery friend’s address written on it: a street in a town called Castel Volturno near the city of Naples. We were having a session of ‘blue sky’ thinking; how to get to Castel Volturno. Train, bus, hitchhike?
As we pondered our predicament we noticed a sign tied to to the lamppost next to our table. It advertised scooters for hire for a price that didn’t look like a mortgage repayment. We finished our meagre meal and, suspecting that the scooter hire deal was too good to be true, set off to find out. It was the turning point in our Italian adventure. The people renting the scooters were suspiciously genuine, and the deal equally so. As the rental forms were filled in we vaguely mentioned a bit of local sightseeing in Rome as the purpose of hiring the Vespa. Considering the lunatic Roman drivers, a ‘bit of sightseeing’ in Rome was probably more risky than the journey to Naples which we had in mind. Then, when for insurance purposes, we were asked about the history of accidents, we kept schtum about Willie coming off his motorbike on the cobbled High Street in Bonnyrigg and sliding under Father Gallagher’s Ford Anglia earlier that year in February. His helmet probably saved him serious injury then, but we would have no such protection if we fell off this scooter. Within half an hour we rode out into the mayhem of Rome’s roads and weaved our way to our hotel to pack and settle the bill.

Later that morning we took the bulk of our clothing and possessions, crammed into one suitcase, to the left luggage facility in the nearest railway station, the Roma Termini. A serious official in a intimidating martial uniform had asked us to open the bulging suitcase probably thinking it might contain a body. He then thrust a long rod into the case, some sort of electronic sniffer, to check for the presence of Semtex. We weren’t surprised he was po-faced. This was the era of the Baader Meinhof and the Brigate Rosse left wing terrorist groups.

Having successfully dumped our excess baggage we plunged into the chaotic traffic with the basic essentials strapped to the rack on the back of the Vespa scooter. With Willie at the handlebars and me precariously balanced on the minuscule pillion seat we headed for Naples.

We found the direction signs for Naples after twice circumnavigating a large, seemingly endless, roundabout; a Ben-Hur moment; the race scene but with cars instead of chariots. For the first stage of the journey we travelled on a motorway, probably illegally, burbling along the hard shoulder until we eventually left on a slip road to head over a line of jagged mountains before descending to the coast. As we rasped along l would watch, over my brother’s shoulder, as beetles of various sizes flew across our path. Willies head would periodically twitch and the scooter would wobble alarmingly when a larger bug would strike his face like the impact of a meteor on a planet. On the snaking mountain road trucks roared passed us within touching distance on one side as we looked down steep rock strewn, pine clad slopes on the other. At one point a red Ducati motorbike roared passed, the rider, dressed in red and black, impressively leaning over as he cornered at speed. Later we passed the same motorbike lying inert, on its side. Nearby a scrum of people were gathered around the front of a large articulated truck as a man looked under, presumably, at the body of the motorcyclist who had, with such élan, passed us.

Sobered by the accident that had befallen our fellow biker we travelled on with a little more care. At times we rested, sat in roadside cafes eating squares of pizza in the cool mountain air and in a haze of diesel fumes. As we caught sight of the coast, the sea sparkling in the distance then as the sun was setting we entered Castel Volturno. Castel Volturno, the place that I would remember decades later while sat in Mimmo’s Café in Baildon. The memory of an act of kindness by an Italian: Frederico the barista, the barman and night that the two young weary travellers that had walked into his bar at the end of their tether and their financial resources.

We had slowly entered a piazza that seemed to be the centre of the town. There was an abrupt silence as Willie turned off the rasping engine. My brother lit a cigarette and we stood in the warm evening air looking around as the cooling engine made small metallic ticking sounds that competed with the ever-present noise of cicadas. On one side of the square there was a brightly lit bar, empty, apart from a heavily moustached barman polishing glasses behind a counter. The only sign of life.

“Buona sera, Come stai?” Said the man as we entered, a tooth pick moving up and down like a miniature conductor’s baton under the moustache.
“Buona sera…… do you speak English?” Willie asks with hope.
“Sì, a little.”
“Do you have a room… eh… a stanza?”
“I regret, no.”
Our faces fell. This was bad news.
“But I think l may help you,” he says, line of nicotine stained teeth still gripping the toothpick appear beneath the moustache, “mi chiamo Frederico. Follow please.”

I looked uncertainly at my brother. His face apart from the outline of the area that had been protected by his sunglasses was spattered with the corpses of flying insects. Willie shrugged his shoulders: we had run out of options. We waited on the pavement while Federico locked up the bar, then follow our new amico around the corner. We were more than a bit apprehensive; our last ‘amico’ had enticed us, into a Roman brothel, with disastrous results. For all we knew he might be a psychopath or a bandit planning to kidnap us.

What Federico, the friendly barman was leading us into was not a trap. He had no intention of kidnapping us and sending ransom demands to our family in Scotland. We nervously followed him through a gap in a hoarding, then through a gold framed smoked glass door into what, obviously, was a hotel reception, a vision in marble.
“Is new built,” said Federico, stating the obvious, “l take care.”
“Caretaker?” Asked Willie, clarifying Federico’s position.
“Si, si,” Federico grinned in the gloom. “Follow.”
We padded down a corridor behind our new amico. He stopped outside a door which he opened with a theatrical flourish.
“Entrare!”
The bedroom had a chandelier hanging from the centre of the ceiling over two single beds draped with with dust covers. Other pieces of furniture, a dressing table, wardrobe, chairs and a circular occasional table were hidden to under covers, ghosts in the moonlight. Frederico walked across the room and closed the full length curtains, pulled the dust cover off a standard lamp and switched it on. A door in the corner led to an ensuite bathroom, the walls faced in a creamy marble with a bowl to wash your feet in.
We were in a recently built hotel, ready to be opened. We were about to be the first guests.
“You like, si,” said Frederico.
We were astounded. Was he offering us the room? Then the important, twenty million lira question.
“How much,” asked Willie. “Quanto costa?” In case Frederico didn’t understand the he rubbed his fingers together in the international sign language.
Federico shrugged and smiled. “Niente.”
Nothing! Amazed we shook his hand vigorously and thanked him profusely.
Once Frederico left we showered and lay, wrapped in the dust sheets, on the beds.
“Jings, Willie. This is great!”
There was no reply, just a gentle snoring. It had been an epic journey and my brother, usually the nocturnal one, had been the pilot. I had only been the passenger.
In the morning we would look for dad’s friend.

Castel Volturno: Salvation and the American Dream

We had breakfast in Federico’s bar. We thanked him and Willie gave him some of his tax-free cigarettes to show our gratitude and thanked him profusely. Frederico gave a depreciating shrug of the shoulders. He smiled. “I am a father to two boys. But they are younger than you, si. I would like someone do the same for them in the future, maybe in England, eh?” We were so grateful we suppressed the urge to point out the we were not English.

We left the piazza with the rasp of the Vespa bouncing off the buildings and set off along the coast. Directions from Frederico meant we knew where we were going.
Our father’s friend’s villa stood somewhere on a small and obviously exclusive estate that lay between the coast road and the vivid blue sea, a sprawl of white walls and terracotta tiled roofs. This idyllic view was marred by a man of brick shithouse proportions, dressed in a quasi-military uniform casually holding a pump action shotgun. He wore aviator sun glasses with mirrored lenses, the sort of sun glasses that you can’t see the wearers eyes but, disconcertingly see a reflection of yourself.
We pulled into the entrance and stopped alongside the security guard. Arriving unannounced and uninvited, the guard was both a surprise and a problem.

“Si?”

“Il nostro padre amico Mr Hutchinson,” explained Willie showing the piece of paper with the address in our father’s spidery writing.

The guard grappling with Willie’s phrase book Italian scrutinised the note for a while; a Bletchley Park code breaker trying to glean the meaning of message from Berlin to a U Boat hunting in the North Sea.

“Passporte favoure.”

He took our passports, peered at each photo and peered at us. Luckily, we had showered and the insect graveyard had been washed from Willie’s face. Satisfied that we were not a cell of the Brigate Rosse terrorist group planning to cull the filthy capitalist villa owners he motioned for us to leave the Vespa and walk up the road in front of him; in front of his shotgun.
We arrived at the villa with the guard on our heels with his shotgun slung under his arm. As we walked apprehensively down the drive way we realised that the villa stood on the edge of the sea, the shimmering blue Mediterranean Sea. For a moment, I had a vision of us running down the golden beach and playfully throwing ourselves into the waves. Our armed escort had different thoughts altogether.
‘Stand!” He commanded pointing with the barrel of his gun at a spot to the right of the doorway; just in case we had any thoughts about running down to the beach and playfully throwing ourselves into the waves.
He knocked on the door. We held our breath. Footsteps approached followed by a nervous questioning voice. The guard answered. The person on the other side of the door seemed satisfied and with a rattle of chains the door swung open.
A petite, attractive woman stood in the doorway looking quizzically at the two of us as the guard gave his report in Italian. Then Willie gave a rambling travelogue of our journey from Edinburgh and explained that our dad was a friend of her husband. Reassured that we were not terrorists intent on kidnapping her she thanked the security guard, introduced herself as Penny. She led us into the villa an asked us to make ourselves comfortable in the lounge then disappeared. As we sat on the cream fabric sofa looking out at the sea we could hear a muffled voice somewhere depths of the villa; the lady of the house speaking on the telephone, breaking the surprise news to her husband.
The door opened and the Penny reappeared with a reassuring smile.

“Okay, Andy will be home later this afternoon.” She said.” I’ll sort out a room for you and give you some lunch.” Then, probably concluding that our state of uncleanliness was a threat to her expensive furnishings. “Why don’t you go down to the beach for a swim?” Adding, “you’ll have it all to yourselves. It’s private.”

And it was. The deserted pristine beach had a wire fence running from the estate down to the edge of the sea to keep the rabble at bay. The wind had piled up colourful food wrappers and newspaper pages, against the fence on the peasant’s side stopping the private beach from being sullied by their litter. Willie and I ran down the golden beach and playfully threw ourselves into the waves then swam out and floated on the gently undulating sea. We looked back at the immaculate white villas and the cloudless blue sky above, savouring the moment.
Lunch was served on the patio. To the gentle accompaniment of the lapping waves Penny told us about Naples, Pompeii, Vesuvius and other places of interest. Andy, she explained worked for Alfa Romeo, not the cars but the aerospace division. She was a lovely person. It was a relief to sit and talk with someone without the worry that our virtually empty wallets would be stolen.

In the evening Andy appeared. A short, stocky, fair haired Scotsman with lively eyes and an easy smile. Yes, he knew our dad. He was a client of dad’s bank. It dawned on us then that Andy was not an actual friend but a client who handily lived in the country where his sons would probably have needed rescuing from some disaster or other. He may have even given us the address without forewarning his client. I could imagine the phone conversation on the hissing line giving the news that we had washed up in Castel Volturno.

“Mr Wilson, I have a Mr Hutchinson on the line. He’d like a word with you……he’s calling from Italy…shall I put him through……” our father, sat at his desk in the Granton branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland would had momentarily looked out of his window at the grey sea of the Firth of Forth, gathering his thoughts while watching the seagulls soar and swoop under the grey cobbled sky. He would have sighed, possibly with frustration but probably with relief. “Yes, put him through please.”

Back in Italy Andy explained to us that we could stay a couple of days but that he and Penny had to return to the UK. Our faces fell. Andy laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ve sorted something out for you. I’ll show you tomorrow,” he said, “and in the evening you’ll meet our neighbours. We’re all invited to a barbecue!”

The next morning after a continental breakfast Andy drove us to a holiday camp not far away from his villa. After a brief conversation with a man who appeared to be the caretaker we were shown to a room on the first floor of a block of holiday apartments that overlooked a large pool. The room was not as palatial as the bedrooms we had previously occupied: the hotel in Rome or the friendly barista’s hotel or Andy’s villa but it was clean and serviceable. And it had a large swimming pool. Feeling obliged to show gratitude to the caretaker Willie gave him some of his dwindling supply of cigarettes; due to our dwindling supply of liras we were not in a position to pay any rent. Later I realised that during that telephone conversation between our father and his client the funding of our accommodation in Naples would have been thrashed out.

The final days with Andy and Penny in their beach front villa were spent swimming in the warm sea or sunbathing on the beach under the envious gaze of the hoi polloi huddled together on the other side of the litter festooned fence.

In the evenings we were invited to join Andy and Penny’s American neighbours for barbecues. George and Mary were from somewhere in the American South. George was large man with a big personality. A sort of John Wayne, not a ‘red neck although he did have a rather florid complexion. Mary, his wife was small, bird like and intense. They had an attractive daughter about about fifteen and two younger sons. The barbecue, the first of many, was a feast. Our only comparable experience was Scout camp bonfires with sausages on sticks and potatoes thrown in the embers while we sang ‘Ging gang goolie’. This was a more sophisticated menu of thick steaks and fat beef burgers washed down with bottles of Budweiser beer. After the meal we had strong black coffee laced with Sambuca, an aniseed flavoured liqueur. As homespun Scottish boys we were fascinated by all things American and they, residents of the ‘New World’ wanted to learn about the ‘Old country’. The conversations flowed to a background of Frank Sinatra songs. We soon discovered that George was a fan of ‘Old blue eyes’. In fact, he was so fanatical about Frank that he possessed every recording he ever released with collection displayed on shelves that ran the entire length of a wall of the lounge. His eldest son was, in that confusing American way, named George Junior and his younger son christened Frank in homage to his crooning hero.
This extraordinarily generous American family would take care of us after the extraordinarily generous Andy and Penny left for the UK.

The next day, the day of their departure and our final day, the coast was visited by a violent storm. Grey clouds scudded over a slate grey sea. The crisp packets and newspaper pages had been blown free from the demarcation fence to join the gulls battling to keep their position in the gale. But it was warm, at least to us Scottish boys it felt warm. We decided, on this final day at the villa to have a swim regardless of the weather. Running down the beach through a thin salty mist we passed a group of astonished Italians dressed in thick coats and woolly scarves and launched ourselves into the rolling waves. We swam out some distance and turned to look back. It was our turn to be astonished; the Italian beach walkers and the villa had disappeared. As we had swum out we has been swept down the beach; a long way down. Alarmed, I turned to look for Willie only to find that he had disappeared too. Then, with relief I saw his head surface on the top of a rising wave some distance away then vanish. He was being dragged out to sea. I was near enough to swim for the shore where eventually I reached a point where I could stand up. I started to stagger up the beach to find help. But help wasn’t necessary. When I turned around Willie was standing Jesus like on the water. Luckily, he had been washed up onto a concealed sand spit. He was lucky. The next landfall would have been Sardinia.

Fifteen years later on a holiday in Wales l would regale a friend with this story, this tale of nearly losing my elder brother in a storm in Italy. It would lead to an extraordinary meeting on a windswept golf course in Abersoch. But in 1968 my brother survived, swam back to the shore where both of us trudged exhausted up the beach to the villa. Later that day we all gathered and watched Andy and Penny loaded their suitcases into his Fiat. “Don’t you go worrying about these here boys,” said George in his southern drawl, “we’ll take real good care of them.” We were about to experience the ‘American Dream’.

With Andy and Penny gone we moved into the holiday camp which, on this second viewing, looked like a small Italian version of an derelict Butlins or a Hollywood set for in an apocalypse film. A far cry from the luxury of Andy’s villa, it was beyond faded elegance. But, standing on the balcony we consoled ourselves with the fact that it had the swimming pool and the knowledge that things could be, had been a lot worse. It seemed, for some reason that the resort was deserted. Perhaps it was out of season or more probably, scheduled for demolition.

Every morning, before our self-catering breakfast we would carve our way through the flotsam of fly and beetle corpses and leaves that floated on the surface of the pool. Obviously, the duties of the caretaker didn’t extend to taking care of the pool; or much else for that matter. When we weren’t navigating through the pool debris our days were filled with a visit to Naples where we had run-in with the police when we drove up a one-way street in the wrong direction, to Pompeii where we marvelled at the ruins and the petrified inhabitants and to a place where hot gasses hissed out of holes in the ground and the soles of our sandals nearly melted. At the holiday camp, we would read or play chess on a minute travelling chess set; my brother the victor most of the time. And, thankfully we had permission to use the private beach to frolic in the sea without being shot by the security guard. Most evenings we were the guests of the Americans, enjoying lavish barbecues with Frank in the background singing ‘My Way’, his hit of that year. The Kinks, The Bonzo Dog Band and the Beatles were my sort of music, but Ol’ Blue Eyes slowly grew on me.

“Have you guys ever been to a drive-in movie?” Asked George one evening while we sipped our Sambuca laced coffee.

We explained that we while we were familiar with the term ‘drive-in movie’ it wasn’t a common cinema experience in Scotland due to the inclement weather. Not for the first time in our short friendship the Americans looked at us with compassion, as though their visitors were from a deprived country.

The next night, with petite Mary at the wheel of their vast American automobile we all set off for the leisure centre on the US military base. It was the biggest car I had ever seen. My ex GPO Morris Minor van would have fitted in the boot, or as the Americans call it: ‘the trunk’. We sat on the long leather front bench seat beside Mary as she manoeuvred the wallowing car down narrow rural roads, ghostly trees and hedges caught in the headlight beams rushed by. Worryingly, as I sat swaying in the middle of the front settee I noticed wooden blocks had been attached to the pedals so that Mary’s feet could reach them.
At the entrance to the military base we were stopped by a sentry at a barrier where passes were examined while torch beams flitted across our faces. Satisfied that we weren’t terrorists or Russians the barrier was lifted and we drove into the base.
The base was a sprawl of buildings enclosed in what appeared to be a vast extinct volcanic crater. Hopefully extinct; in this area of Italy it may have just been dormant, the magma bubbling beneath us. A dense pine forest covered the slopes that rose to the curved rim of the crater. Above there was a backdrop of a star splattered black sky and the bright orb of a full moon.

On the way through the base we passed between the playing fields set out for baseball and American football. Groups of footballers dressed like modern day gladiators caught in our headlights would trudge across the road in front of our car causing to Mary stab at her wooden block brake pedals. At least the men were well protected in their helmets and armour-like kit if Mary couldn’t reach the brakes.

Mary swung the car into the movie area. It was an enormous car park with a gigantic white painted concrete screen at one end. With our huge car parked amongst an armada of other huge cars we sat, windows open, and watched a forgettable movie in an unforgettable venue. To add to the surreal experience and to provide a pleasant distraction, a fire erupted amongst the trees on the hillside, flames leaping like solar flares into the night sky. Hyper with Coca Cola and stuffed with popcorn we drove back to our American friend’s villa, said our farewells and headed off back to the holiday camp to pack ready to leave Naples. After a subdued and exhausting journey back over the mountains we returned the scooter to the rental garage in Rome and caught the bus to the airport and the plane home.

At Napier Technical College my classmates excitedly exchanged stories of their holidays. Jimmy, John and Dave had worked on the refuse collections and wore the retro clothes that they had retrieved from the bins. Others recounted mundane holidays with their parents. I told my ripping yarn of our Italian adventure, only to be trumped by Maria who had got a job as an au pair in a town in Sicily only to arrive during a ferocious gun fight between two Mafia gangs. Willie and I had brought back a bottle of Sambuca liqueur, but the combination Sambuca and black coffee didn’t impress our parents and to be honest, us. Some holiday experiences just don’t travel well.

Wales: A coincidental encounter in Abersoch

My story now moves forward nearly a decade and a half to 1983. I had successfully qualified as an Interior designer and moved from Scotland to work abroad to the city of Leeds in England. I had married, fathered a daughter, acquired a dog, and bought a caravan. It was a time when we went on summer holidays with friends, fellow caravaners.
In the summer of 1983 we spent our holiday on a farm in Abersoch in North Wales.

The weather was shocking. Ferocious squalls blew in from the Atlantic. The caravans pelted with rain rocked from side to side in the wind. One day we braved the weather and walked down to the beach with our respective dogs and watched the white capped waves sweep in to rush up the beach. The combination of the warm winds and the stormy scene brought memories flooding back. Memories of a holiday in Italy with my brother. As we sat on a rock I told our friends the story. Of the colossal grandeur of St Peters, the visit to the Roman brothel, the scooter journey, the generous barista, my dad’s ‘friend’, the American experience. And, of how the stormy beach scene in Wales had reminded me of how my brother had been swept out to sea.

It was part of our holiday routine that my friend Martin and I played golf. To avoid antagonising our wives we played first thing in the morning, as early as possible, and in any weather; rain or shine. The morning after my story telling session on the beach we set off from the first tee of Abersoch Golf Club in the teeth of a howling gale. We were cocooned in plastic with bobble hats pulled down to our eyebrows. As we played along a fairway that ran parallel with beach we noticed a solitary golfer, also battling through the storm and slowly catching us up. Eventually, we waited at a tee, and as demanded by golf etiquette we invited the lone golfer to play with us. He agreed, and after welcoming handshakes, we played on.

“Do l know you, have we met before?” It was our new friend his words nearly swept away on the wind.

“I don’t think so.” I said uncertainly. Under all the protective clothing and bobble hat, for all I knew, he could have been Jack Nicklaus.
“I do know you, you’re Sandy. You and your brother Willie stayed with us in Naples, in our villa in Castel Volturno. I remember you fine.”

I was astonished. Only the day after the telling of the event filled Italian adventure to my friends, Andy Hutchinson, the man who had been our salvation in Italy was standing before me.

Italian Holiday circa 1970. Part 1 Edinburgh to Rome

Rome and Trevi

BAILDON: Italy remembered

My wife Val and I were dining at Mimmo’s an Italian café in Baildon not far from where we live. The owner is stereotype Italian, bonhomie is in the blood. In our short conversation I mentioned my love of all things Italian; the language, cuisine and culture.

“You have been to my homeland, no?” He asked.

“Yes, Milan and Lake Como,” I answered, thinking of a holiday with Val. Then a memory of a holiday with my brother comes to me. As teenagers in Rome and Naples, a long time ago, in the 60s.

“I once stayed near a place called Castel Volturno.” I added.

“Castel Volturno,” said our host, “Castel Volturno, I know well, very, very well.”

We never found out why or how well he did know this particular Italian town near Naples. The café was busy and he had other diners to attend to.

But I too remember Castel Volturno very well. While I wait for my pizza I remember. It is late one night in the August of 1968.  I am the pillion passenger on a Vespa scooter, precariously balanced behind my brother. We arrive in a square, a piazza in the town. The two-stroke engine stops its incessant rasping noise as Willie turns the engine off and, as we sit looking around the piazza the silence and the oppressive heat envelops us. Willie and I dismount and walk, in the manner of cowboys too long in the saddle, towards a brightly lit bar, empty, apart from a heavily moustached barman.

“Buona sera, Come stai?” A tooth pick like a miniature conductor’s baton under the moustache. “Mi chiamo Frederico.”

“Buona sera…… do you speak English?” Willie asks optimistically.

“Sì, a little.”

“Do you have a room… eh… a stanza?”

“I regret, no.”

Our faces fall. We are the end of our tether.

“But I think l may help you,” smiling, a line of nicotine stained teeth still gripping the toothpick appear beneath the moustache, “follow, please.”

I glance sideways at my brother, apart from the outline of his aviator sunglasses his face is spattered with the bloody corpses of flying insects: a Jackson Pollock masterpiece. Was this a kidnapping attempt? Did Federico think we were members of a wealthy family? Was he a member of the local Mafia? Not many years later John Paul Getty III would be kidnapped by Italian mobsters who would cut of his ear and sent it to his obscenely wealthy, and it is said, disinterested dad. Our dad was a banker but not in the obscenely wealthy range.

We wait on the pavement while Federico locks up the bar, then follow our new amico around the corner. We are more than a bit apprehensive; our last ‘amico’ had enticed us, unwittingly, into a Roman brothel, with disastrous results.

So, yes, I remembered Castel Volturno, the turning point during a holiday that could have been a catastrophe.

EDINBURGH: The plans of mice and boys.

The idea of an Italian holiday had been floated, literally, in a bar in Edinburgh. There were at least five of us, all students, drinking copious pints of Heavy and Special beer in the Cambridge bar. At that time, in the 1960s drinking time was called at 10 o’clock followed by a ten-minute period of grace to complete the consumption of the drinks we already had on the table. Grace didn’t quite describe the rush to the bar to get in yet another round of drinks; the space in front of the bar was like the penalty area at Easter Road during extra time with a corner kick about to be taken. Of course, we then drank the drinks already on the table and then the fresh round of drinks before staggering out into Young Street. The combination of the sudden intake of excessive alcohol and the cold Scottish air resulted in us all being, what is known in Scotland, as ‘miraculous’. Our excited discussion about the holiday in Italy continued, appropriately enough, in the Capri restaurant in Leith Walk. This was one of our regular haunts. It had a great atmosphere, an Italian ambiance. Most of the clientele were, like us, miraculous. Toni, the proprietor, in black evening dress with bow tie and swept back silver hair had the air of a mafia godfather. We sat watching our pizza being prepared, dough spun in the smoky air by flapping hands then placed in the fiery wood fired oven, a process occasionally interrupted when the chef would vault the counter waving his pizza shovel as he barged through the door to pursue a diner leaving without paying. As we consumed our pizzas the holiday plan evolved. We would fly to Rome, look at the Colosseum and other ruins, then travel to Naples, visit Pompeii to see more ruins, and of course climb Vesuvius.

As an experience it would have been truly been miraculous, but a miracle if we all actually went. Of course, in the end, as the months passed, the group number slowly dwindled to two; my elder brother Willie and me.

ROME: Veni, vidi, vici.

Our father dropped us off at the Turnhouse Airport on the outskirts of Edinburgh, hugging us as if he never expected to see his sons again. He handed Willie a piece of paper with an address scrawled on it. My brother looked at it with a frown.

“Take care of this, don’t lose it,” said our dad as though he had just headed over a segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls. “This is the address of a friend who lives near Naples. A place called Castel Volturno. If you’re stuck, got any problems, he’ll help you.”

We looked at our dad in mute curiosity. He had never mentioned that he had a friend near Naples. Then we were in the air on the first leg of our holiday.

We arrived at Heathrow and then on to Rome in an Alitalia jet. In the days before mass foreign tourism the plane was empty. We felt like important businessmen or celebrities on a private jet.  Late at night, very late, we landed at Fiumicino Airport. Of course, it would have been sensible to sleep on the seats in the airport terminal and wait to catch a bus in the morning. But, we fell for the friendly taxi driver routine, the taxi driver who knows of an affordable hotel. Tired after the long journey we gratefully accepted the offer naively failing to ask how much the fare would be. Which needless to say was eye watering. The drive from the airport ended in the centre of Rome going the wrong way up a one-way street. Predictably this illegal manoeuvre ended in a heated argument between our taxi driver and fellow irate Italian, annoyed to find his way blocked. The archetypal Italian motorist, he stood protruding through the sunroof of his Cinquecento, the archetypal Italian car, his arms waving about and his voice waking everyone in the neighbourhood, some of whom hung out of their apartment windows, adding a backing chorus. A truce was eventually declared and the taxi mounted the pavement skirted the Cinquecento and pulled up outside the hotel. The unremarkable appearance of the entrance gave credence to the description of ‘affordable’ but the interior design of the bedroom, on the other hand, worryingly looked luxuriously unaffordable. We had not realised that had been dropped off at the rear entrance. In the morning we woke, at least I did, as Willie was never an early riser, to the sounds of revving cars, car horns, rasping scooters and sunlight forcing its way around the edge of the expensive drapes. I pulled on the cords and the curtains slid smoothly open. Our room overlooked a large ornate fountain, the Trevi Fountain, famous from the film ‘Three Coins in a Fountain’.

We were enjoying the hospitality of the Hotel Sant’Angelo. Expensive hospitality; we would need all the coins in the fountain to cover the bill. I roused my brother and we dressed and walked through the ornate reception under the suspicious scrutiny of the concierge concerned that we were doing a ‘runner’. We stepped out into the searing sunlight, searing heat and stinking exhaust fumes, to look for the Italian equivalent of a greasy spoon.

After a continental breakfast we sought out a more suitable, affordable hotel and returned to the Sant’Angelo, paid the eye watering bill for our one night’s residence and carried our suitcases out, passing the sour faced concierge who clearly had given up expectation of a tip. For a few days we settled into a routine; sleeping, eating and drinking, and sightseeing. We were impressed by the Colosseum, enchanted by the views over terracotta roofs washed by the light of the setting sun, sat with the hippies on the Spanish Steps, dodged the insane Italian drivers as we crossed roads and wandered through the Basilica di San Pietro: St Peters, Lilliputians awestruck by the scale and grander. At night sat outside restaurants and cafes in the warm evenings we dined cheaply on pasta and pizzas washed down with cold lager. The Romans were friendly enough.

One evening an exceptionally friendly Roman sat down at our table introducing himself as Chico. It’s funny how, friendless in a large alien city, you tend to overlook the swarthy, rodent features of a new companion. We ignored, at our peril, the furtive feral eyes beneath the rim of the stained leather trilby hat. As well as being naively open to friendship our judgement was impaired by the state of near lager induced miraculousness. For an hour or so we enjoyed Chico’s broken English banter before he suggested we go to his club, an exclusive one, of which he was a member. The idea that Chico could be a member of an exclusive club was ludicrous; another warning sign that flew over far above our heads.

We followed our new friend who was energetically navigating through a piazza thronged with strolling family groups: mothers, fathers, children and funereal grandmothers. We turned sharply left up a dimly lit cobbled side street and arrived at what appeared to be a corner cafe undergoing an interior refurbishment, the insides of the windows covered with newspapers. Steps led up to an entrance door with a rectangle cut in the newspapers, a viewing aperture. Chico rapped on the glass. After a few moments, a pair of eyes appeared framed by the slot followed by a rapid exchange in Italian. There was a series of clicks as the door was unlocked and opened by a man, a doppelgänger of Toni, our friend, the maître d’ of the Capri restaurant in Edinburgh; now a world away.  We were ushered through the door into the mysterious café, a portal into another world. There was a faint smell of cakes, a counter on one side and shadowy figures sat at tables.  In the far corner, an orange glow emitted from a stairway illuminated the ceiling. Chico gestured to us to follow and he disappeared down the stair. Then disappeared altogether. At the bottom of the stairs we found ourselves in a large cellar. It was older than the modern retail unit above, with a vaulted brick ceiling, stone floors and sumptuous sofas upholstered in cream upholstery, that stood on, appropriately as things turned out, shag pile rugs. Large table lamps, standing on glass and chrome side tables, cast a warm subtle light over what, as an interior design student, l could see was a stunning modern Italian interior.

We sat down, sank into one of the sofas and looked around the stunning modern Italian interior then looked nervously sideways at each other.  Our admiration of the room was cut short as our attention was diverted to a group of women who sashayed soundlessly through an archway, one bearing a bottle of champagne and glasses balanced on a tray. The cork popped and drinks were poured and the scantily dressed creatures arranged themselves around us. They were the most beautiful, alluring women we had ever seen. At first, we were intoxicated, not only by the champagne or the heady cloud of perfume, but by the interest the bevy of beautiful women were showing in us as they chatted in exotically accented English.

“You are Amerrikan, no?” Enquired the lady sat next to me as her slender hand tiptoed across my thigh on long red talon tipped fingers that stabbed through the fabric of my chinos.

I looked down at her hand in alarm. “No, I’m Scottish, from Scotland.” I muttered.

“Skot-land, mmm.” My companion, mulled over the name of my homeland, “Skot-land, where is Skot-land?”

I enlightened her. “It’s part of Great Britain, above England.”

“So, not from Amerika?”

“No.”

The finger tips hesitated, ceased their slow march across my thigh.

“Mmmm…….” She considered this; a diner in a restaurant, expecting a spicy taste but finding the soup disappointingly bland. “……. Yes, l think l hear of Scozia.” I didn’t think she meant that she had heard the rumour that the Scots had invented almost everything on Earth. More probably she had heard the more reliable rumour that the Scots had invented the word ‘parsimonious’. I was not one of the American youths, sons of millionaires that loitered at the bottom of the Spanish Steps affecting to be Hippies, with allowances the size of the NASA budget. Her disappointment was tangible.

It took a while, at least three cork poppings before it dawned on me that we were sat in a brothel. We were way out of our depth. We needed to leave. Ignoring the wandering fingers stabbing through my trousers l half turned to look at my brother. A hand had slipped into his cheesecloth shirt and was rummaging about like a hamster building its nest; older and wiser than me, it was hard to tell if he was enjoying the experience.

This was not the first time we had happened by chance to find ourselves sat in a bordello. It had been years before, when l was 12 years old, on a family holiday, a sort of chaotic family tour of Europe. Arriving at Antwerp on a freighter from Leith we had travelled through Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany ending up in Holland to catch another cargo ship back. Near the end of the holiday our dad had led us into, what he thought was a restaurant in Amsterdam. We sat at a table for quite a while before, what appeared to be a waiter, appeared suddenly, like a ninja, at the table to whisper discreetly in dad’s ear before resuming his position near the bar. Dad, his face, wearing a rosy glow, shepherded our bemused mother and his two sons out of the brothel into the street.

Unlike our dad we didn’t need to be told what sort establishment we were in. But it wasn’t just a brothel we were in, we were in trouble. Big trouble. Disentangling ourselves, we muttered our excuses and headed for the stairs leaving the prostitutes milling about, predatory insects watching their prey escape. But escaping the clutches of the Ladies of the Night was one thing, getting past the Mafiosi minders upstairs was another.

“Un momento, per favore.’ It was our doorman, now standing behind the café counter.

We looked around feigning puzzlement, as though we thought he was speaking to someone else while Willie reached desperately for the door handle to open the door. It was locked.

“There is the small matter of the champagne, signors,” said the man behind the bar in a heavily accented English, laced with menace. “Quattro bottiglias, signors.”

We protested. We couldn’t possibly have consumed four magnums of champagne. But apparently four had been opened and four had to be paid for. The two shadowy figures sat at the table behind us stood up, chairs scraping over the tiled floor, to stand close behind us. Very close.

This tacit threat, accompanied by a warm garlic laced breath persuaded us to produce our now woefully thin book of traveller’s cheques. With trembling hands we signed away another small fortune. With the cheques scrutinised, the thug behind the bar nodded to one of his associate thugs who, with calculated politeness, opened the door and ushered us out. As we stood on the pavement, stunned by the evenings events, the door swung open and Chico, less politely ejected, stumbled down the steps and landed in an undignified pile at our feet. As we stared down at our erstwhile friend contemplating whether take him to the hospital or steal his wallet in compensation, the door partially opened and his hat spun through the air to land on his inert body.

Resisting the urge to kick our companion while he was down, we set off for the local police station to seek redress. We were shown into a small office with a desk, two chairs, and, surprisingly, as it was two o’clock in the morning, a polite and attentive policeman. The telling of our tale of woe was met with sympathetic shakings of the head followed by shoulder shrugs. Nothing could be done. As he held the door open for us to leave the policeman pointed at our feet, sketching the shape of a shoe box.

“Count yourselves lucky,” he said, “you could be at the bottom of the Tiber wearing….. what do you English say? Concreta shoes.” As we walked away his mirthless laugh followed us down the corridor.

But luck was what we needed now. Three days into our Italian adventure all we had left were a few traveller’s cheques, the return plane tickets and a scrap of paper with the address of a friend of our dad who, our he assured us, would help us if we were stuck. The friend lived in Castel Volturno, not far from Naples, at that time, in the late 1960s a long, long way from Rome. We needed a miracle and a means of transport.

A father remembering a day

IMG_7270

The machine that saws the uncut loaf into slices is mesmerising to watch, the buzzing sound soporific, the smell of fresh bread intoxicating. Then the noise stops and the lady behind the counter carefully places the warm sliced loaf in a paper bag and turns to hand it to me. She stops and looks across the glass counter at me. Her eyebrows are arched and her eyeballs are rotating loosely down to the left and then back up to look me in the eye; I wonder if the poor soul has some sort of eye muscle problem. But then her eyeballs stop swivelling and are fixed, staring down to the left. I swivel my own eyeballs and look down to my right. We both watch as my daughter’s small forefinger completes its journey like an icebreaker traversing the North Pole, slabs of icing piled up on either side of the channel she has cut across the top of an expensive cake.

That morning I had set out from home with my three year old daughter Laura in a harness, Winnie, our dog, on a lead, a five pound note in my pocket and a spring in my step. I was on a mission to buy a loaf of bread from the bakers at the bottom of our street. I was under strict instructions not to buy anything but the loaf and a ginger bread man for my daughter. Money was tight: unlike the gap between the glass fronted display cases on top of the bakers counter.

“Em, I’ll take the cake too.” I mumbled, thinking I should have tied my daughter to the lamppost with Winnie.

A box containing the damaged cake is placed next to the loaf of bread. I start to hand over the precious fiver when the woman’s eyes again roll alarmingly. I look down. Once more laura has slipped her hand between the two display cases and using two fingers, has skied across a gateaux swerving skilfully around a glazed cherry slalom.

As the lady stretches over the pile of cake boxes to hand me the leavings of my five pound note I feel I tug on my sleeve.
“What?” I ask looking down at Laura, I don’t know about the woman behind the counter but my eyes are now rolling like a hospitalised doll.

“Can I have a ginger bread man daddy?”

The world is okay

img_6566

It is a dark, dank, evening. I am sat in my car with Shano, a young girl I am teaching to drive. She is learning that driving is not always a fun activity. We are moving up a hill in a line of sluggish rush hour traffic passing bleak red brick terraced homes in Beeston, built to house the workers who toiled in long forgotten factories. It is fair to say it is not the most affluent district of Leeds.

The car in front of us stalls and the engine protests loudly as the driver attempts to restart it. The engine roars and screeches  and the car disappears in a cloud of dense blue smoke. As the engine noise escalates, the car slides slowly but relentlessly back down the hill towards us. I released the handbrake and allow our car to edge back towards the bus behind us. Eventually the car stops and the driver, an old man in a flat cap, emerges out of the smoke, like a contestant on the TV show Stars in Their Eyes: Tonight, Matthew I’m going to be Gilbert O’Sullivan. I get out of my car and walk round to him.

‘Eee, lad, ‘ave no idea wot t’ matter is.’ He says.

I know; the clutch has burned out. I’ve now  a number of problems: an old codger on the cusp of Alzheimer’s, his immobile car, a lonely learner in my car, and a queue of traffic stretching as far back as I can see.

But help is at hand, or, at my elbow to be exact.

‘We’ll push, love, if you steer t’car.’ It was the spokesperson of two women on their way home with bags of shopping.

They lead ‘Gilbert’ to the pavement and sit him on a wall and place their shopping bags at his feet. Bracing themselves behind the car they start pushing it up the the hill while it I steer it into the side of the road releasing the log jam of ungrateful motorists.

The next problem was what to do the wandered old man. To our relief he remembers the phone number of his daughter.

‘Ah’ve not got much credit on my mobile but I’ll give it a try.’ Said one of my helpers generously.

There was no answer. Then one of the ladies notices a letter lying on the front seat of his car. It is a document from the local surgery which stand at crossroads at the bottom of the hill.

Unsure of my insurance and worried about my pupil I weakly suggest I could drive him there.

‘No, we’ll take him, love. We know Cheryl on t’reception.’

So, the ladies pick up their shopping bags and set off back down the hill with the bemused old man.

With the New Year approaching, I leave the scene thinking that the world is okay. The two shoppers plodding up the hill with heavy bags could have reasonably walked on, ignored the car owner’s problem. But they didn’t. This small act of kindness by these two ladies of Beeston made me think that ordinary people with nowt, those that are ‘just managing’, don’t need to be told how to care for others by church leaders, politicians and celebrities with vast wealth and multiple property portfolios. The world will be okay, as long as ordinary people walk the walk, or in this instance, push the push.

Jay Spotter

image

At a recent meeting of the writing group that I attend, we discussed how memories are triggered and how such recollections can form the basis for a story or a poem. Today while I was walking my dog, Poppy, on Otley Chevin, she flushed a pair of Jays out of the heather. A long buried memory surfaced. A memory of my best friend at Lasswade Secondary School. Rob Gillies the Jay spotter.

At school the only subject I really enjoyed was art. I had a natural gift. I was not brilliant at art, but I had a gift none the less, whereas the gift for mathematics, science and languages was notably absent. The head of the art department, on the cusp of retirement, was Tubby Russell, and the only other art teacher I remember was Baxter Cooper.

Tubby was an excellent watercolour painter and some of his works were displayed in frames on the art classroom wall. If we were doing life drawing he had a slightly lecherous tone in his voice, as he discussed the form of the female breast lying beneath the folds of the model’s blouse.

UMr Cooper, or Coop as we called him behind his back was my favourite teacher. I doubt it would trouble him if he knew his nickname. Coop was popular and the name spoken with fondness and respect. He would often sit at his desk, drawing an ink illustration of a hawk or kestrel, for the Scottish Field, magazine, occasionally looking up, eyes swivelling to check that we were hard at work too.

One morning he brought an injured owl into the class. He had found it by the side of the road. Like any good teacher Coop abandoned the art class and used the opportunity to discuss the life of owls, pointed to the struggling bird’s features, the claws, beak, eyes and the texture of the feathers. Coop was, you see, an enthusiastic ornithologist. Through this enthusiasm he started an after school club. My friend Rob and I were two of the first members.

The ornithology club met weekly and we learned about about birds and their habitats. In addition to these meetings Coop would organise weekend field trips to nature reserves on the edge of the Firth of Forth, and to the woods and fields around Bonnyrigg and Lasswade, bird spotting and counting. These Saturday bird watching field trips were an excellent excuse to avoid the horrors of the rugby field and the psychotic PE teacher. My dad, keen to fuel to my enthusiasm, bought me a pair of binoculars from a secondhand shop in Edinburgh. Through the binoculars I would watch lapwings, kestrels, and the fine pair of tits belonging to the girl across the road, who would theatrically open her curtains at 9.30 every Sunday morning to provocatively dress in front of her bedroom window.

During the school holidays Coop would arrange trips to the Highlands where we would stay in Youth Hostels at places like Kingussie and Blair Atholl. I remember experiencing a slight apprehension. I still occasionally wet the bed, and had fairly blood curdling nightmares. Nightmares that I would share with everybody within earshot. Once, on a family jaunt with my father and brother in a Youth Hostel I had woken everyone in the hostel, including the hostel manager, who, thinking a vile murder was being committed on his watch had fallen down the stairs. The next morning he had waved us goodbye with his left hand, his right resting in a sling.

But, I feel the field trips were happy times. I can recall Coop coming out of a forest of Douglas Firs holding an Adder by the tail, waving it about to our, and the adder’s, alarm. On another occasion we gathered round Coop on a hillside as he poked his forefinger into a pile of deer shit to predict, by the warmth of the shit, how far ahead the herd we were following was. We were predictably disgusted.

One night during a trip Coop caught Rob reading, or staring mesmerised at a copy of Titbits, a magazine, that as the name suggests, contained pictures of lascivious bare chested women. Snatching the magazine from Rob’s grasp he had berated him. “You filthy minded, boy. You will go blind!” Said Coop, trying to sound annoyed. The next day Rob redeemed himself by spotting a Jay. Coop was impressed and, like an Apache Chief naming a brave, he honoured Rob with the name ‘Jay Spotter’, the Titbits incident forgotten.

Coop’s sense of pleasure at Rob’s twitching skills were soon to plummet. Later, on the same trip, after a break to scoff our sandwiches (or pieces as they are known in Scotland) the group walked down a rough track that ran along the bottom of a small glen in tandem with an energetic burn. After a while, Rob and I striding along, had pulled away from the straggling group. We were chatting away, probably about the charms of my neighbour’s daughter or something along these lines, when suddenly with a screeching sound and a thudding sound, like a carpet being beaten, a Golden Eagle rose from the heather covered hillside. It was barely twenty feet from us. If a double decker bus had launched itself into the air, we would have been no less astonished. It was an awesome sight.

Coop, leading the main body of the party round a bend, two hundred yards behind us, just had time to see the Golden Eagle disappear into the distance with languid flaps of its enormous wings. We waited excitedly for everyone to catch us up. But of course Coop didn’t share our excitement. We had, by walking so far ahead, spooked a magnificent and rare bird, denying everyone else the experience of a lifetime.

“You, you….you.. complete idiots!” He spluttered trying to desperately to keep a professional grip on his temper and his language.

Curling stones and scout huts

image

Sometimes, something you watch on television triggers a latent memory; curling stones, a gang hut and Tommy Green’s Scout Hut. It all came back to me as I watched the brilliant and informative television programme “Great British Train Journeys” in which Michael Portillo follows the train routes described in a Victorian travel book called Bradshaw’s Guide. During one episode Portillo travels through Ayrshire and, during the journey, visits a company called Kay’s of Scotland in the village of Mauchline. They craft curling stones from Ailsa Craig granite. It is the curling stones that trigger the memory.

As I watch a lump of granite being transformed into a highly polished stone my mind drifts to the late 1950s. A particular summer holiday, when our gang had chosen Melville Woods as the location for our sphere of activities. Activities that usually meant that we could not return to the previous years haunt.

Most mornings that summer, we would walk past Bonnyrigg Golf Club clubhouse, located at the end of the appropriately named Golf Course Road. Then we would furtively cross the fairways to reach the road that bisected the course. If there were golfers around we would amuse ourselves by hiding behind the walls that separated this road from the course, loudly shout “Fore!” and watch the golfers duck or scuff their drives. Followed by the angry shouts of the annoyed golfers we would run to the end of the road, cross Melville Dykes Road and climb over the wall into the fields that lay sprawled above the woods. Just over the wall there was a strange tip of spoils; soil and rocks from some unknown excavation. Strangely, amongst this heap there were fossils, rocks with the imprint of bark or plant fronds. Some were small and could be taken home to show our parents, others were too large to move.

The fields sloped down to the edge of the woods which was where we located our gang hut, a shelter of sorts, among the trees and undergrowth, hidden from prying eyes and hopefully the estate gamekeeper. As we explored our new domain we discovered, at the bottom of the wooded slope, a rectangular pond, the estate curling pond. Each winter, before the decline of the great country houses, the residents of Melville Castle would have skimmed curling stones across the ice, with servants, in clouds of breath, frantically brushing the ice in front of the stones. But we didn’t skim the curling stones, we rolled them.

Near the curling pond, there was the ruin of a shed. This was where the curling stones and other equipment had been, and still were, stored. Abandoned. To amuse ourselves we would carry the heavy curling stones up through the woods, then set them rolling down the steep incline, crashing noisily through the undergrowth, bouncing from tree to tree with dull thuds, to finally to enter the pond with an almighty splash.

A few years later, as a Boy Scout, and marginally a more responsible person, I would stand at the edge of the curling pond and wonder at the piles of curling stones that must have littered the bottom of the pool. It was now the early 60s and the flat area at the side of the pond was to be the site of Tommy Green’s dream. Tommy was our Scout Master, and his dream was to build an adventure centre in the woods. An ambitious project, the hut was to be constructed with brick walls and traditional pitched roof.

My only recall of this time was how some of us were sent to Rosewell, where Tommy had sourced, scrounged to be exact, bricks. A farmer, probably the same farmer who would transport us to scout camps in a cattle truck, provided a tractor and trailer to collect the bricks. We travelled to Rosewell sat, bouncing about in the trailer, then loaded the bricks, and sat, uncomfortably, on top of the pile, all the way back. Every jolt and bump driving the sharp edges of the bricks into our arses, the pain imprinted on our minds.

Sadly, the building didn’t go beyond the foundations and a few courses of bricks. Tommy Green’s ambitious dream had faded away. But the foundations will still be there, which along with the fossils in the nearby tip will baffle future archaeologists and historians.

The Picture

image

When I was a child my uncle Al was living out his retirement in a bungalow adjacent to the tennis courts at the end of Eldindean Place in Bonnyrigg. Born in 1887, Alexander John Lothian was the son of the local master painter and decorator, my great-grandfather, and the eldest of five children. He was brought up at 10 Polton Road in the village of Lasswade. He attended the Edinburgh Art College in the late 1900s and later, during the First World War, served in the Royal Artillery. Along with his two brothers, Bill and Harry, Al survived the ordeal. He was always involved in the local community, and was an Elder of Lasswade Parish Church for over thirty years. As a boy I knew my uncle as a mild mannered, gentle man. I would often watch him attending to his bee hives in his back garden with the dull thwock of tennis balls and the restrained cries of the players in the background.

image

Al sitting in the foreground at Edinburgh Art College circa 1909. Chambers Street Museum.

Days before my fifteenth birthday, I sat with uncle Al on the sofa in our lounge in the thin winter sunlight, as he taught me the principles of parallel and angular perspective, drawing elegant diagrams on a sketch pad. I carried this memory and used the knowledge as a student at Napier Technical College and throughout my career as an interior designer. At the end of this impromptu lesson he handed me a birthday present wrapped in brown paper. On the morning of my birthday I carefully unwrapped the gift. It was a picture. The picture, a watercolour sketch, disinterred a childhood memory.

It is 1960 and I am 10 years old. I have called to see uncle Al who is busy in his workshop, a long wooden shed set in the garden behind his bungalow. I open the door and step into a world of familiar smells; the sweet smell of wood, pipe tobacco and the slightly sour smell of wood glue. I sit on a high stool, amongst the dust motes that hang in the sunlight and watch my uncle. He is stooping over the upturned hull of a model ship, carefully shaping it with a spoke shave, the metal blade making a dull rhythmic hiss as it carves through the wood. Near to me, on the workbench, there is a completed sailing ship, a Man o’ War, that seems to float on a sea of curled wood shavings, sails billowing with nonexistent wind. A backdrop of small saws, chisels and files, the accoutrements of joinery, hang orderly on the wall.

Leaning against this array of tools is a small watercolour painting. Elbows on the bench, chin cupped in my hands, I look at the picture and ask where he painted it. He tells me that it is a sketch for a much larger oil painting that he has been commissioned to do for a wealthy farmer. In the picture, a landscape, a small mountain stands under towering clouds with the farmer’s fields and a copse in the foreground. Uncle Al, abandons his ship, to come and stands at my shoulder. He explains the composition, shares with me, his knowledge and his time. Later, I will be shown the completed oil painting, but I think it lacks the simple spontaneity of the sketch.

image

Aunty Jenny & Uncle Al. Golden wedding 1962.                 My brother looking on as Uncle Al lifts honey from a hive.

In the winter of the year that he gave me the picture, uncle Al died, shutting the door to his treasure trove of knowledge. My uncle, before he retired, ten years earlier, had been the curator of the Chambers Street Museum in Edinburgh. He restored ancient artefacts, built fascinating working models and miniature ships, that I, as a child on visits to the museum with my father, would look at with my nose pressed up against the glass of the display cases. He was also was an artist of great skill.

Many years into the future, my mother would tell me how, after her father, Clem, was killed in the First World War, Uncle Al, her mother’s brother, became a surrogate father of sorts. In the Scottish tradition I carry a string of family names, like a line of wagons transporting the freight of family history into the future. The picture is signed in neat initials with the name of my uncle: A. J. Lothian. Of my names, Alexander James Lothian Wilson, the Alexander and Lothian were given to me by my mother to honour her beloved uncle.

image

House of ghosts

In 1955 I moved with my family from Corstorphine to Bonnyrigg. Moved from a pleasant suburb of Edinburgh to a small industrial town, that had a constant aroma of jute from the carpet factory just down the High Street. My new school was in the village of Lasswade that nestled in a valley below Bonnyrigg, that had a constant chemical stench, a byproduct of the paper mill, that pumped technicolor effluence into the River Esk. But, for me it was the start of a magical childhood; I had come back to my spiritual home.

The Lothian family circa 1900

My mother’s family had lived in Lasswade for generations. I went to the same school that my mother and my grandmother had attended, and where, before the First World War my maternal great-grandfather had run a successful, upmarket, painting and decorating business from the family home. Long before the 1950s, the business had folded, a victim of the economic turmoil and social upheaval, that followed in wake of the First World War. But the family house, 10 Polton Road, remained, like a ship, washed up on a reef, the surviving bemused crew stranded on board.

The house, unchanged in almost thirty years, faced Lasswade Parish Church at bottom of the Wee Brae. As it was on my way home from school, before the steep climb up the Wee Brae, I would often call in, to scrounge pocket money or simply to hang out with the remnants of my mother’s family; my granny, her sister Jen and brother Harry. Uncle Harry was the Office Manager and Company Secretary at St Leonard’s Paper Mill, granny had her widow’s pension and Aunty Jen didn’t seem to work.

A mausoleum of sorts, the front elevation of the house had a large window, which in the heyday of my great-grandfather’s business, would have had arrangements of wallpaper and fabrics displayed to entice passing potential customers, but now was an empty void. To the right hand side of this window there was the door into the shop. A matching door on the left led into the house. I would walk through this door, a portal into a lost world, cross the small square hallway and jump down the two steps to the dining room. If granny or aunty Jen weren’t there I would walk through to the kitchen, a long stone paved room, with, bizarrely, a bath down one wall, and, still used ancient ringers and wash tubs. Then continuing my search, would open the door in the far left hand corner and look in the garden at the side of the house where a path led to the outside lavatory. If, when I eventually located the two sisters, and they were busy, hanging washing out or gardening, I would explore the rest of the house.

image

Alexander Lothian & Ellen Lothian sketched by her son Al

Two doors from the dining room led into the disused decorator’s shop and show room. One opened into the public area, the other into the space behind the counter. I wander around the shop, look into drawers, try on uncle Harry’s Air Raid Warden helmet, play with the rifles (Harry had thrown the firing mechanism into the river), look at the Special Constable’s uniform that I would, later, wear at a fancy dress football match in the park. While I explore, the ghost of my great-grandfather, Alex, is standing behind the highly polished mahogany counter. He is watching the apparition of his wife, Ellen. She has entered the showroom, with tea and biscuits, to discuss wallpaper selection with a customer from one of the large houses, in the Braeheads or Broomieknowe. Marvelling at her cultured Kent accent, he is recalling how he had met her, then a Nanny, when visiting a house in Bexley, the assistant to a Senior Designer who was advising the owner on the decoration of some of the rooms.

image

Laura Walter (nee Lothian) and Clem Walter

After exploring the shop I wander through to the entrance hall and climb the stairs to the first floor, walk past uncle Harry’s bedroom and open the door to the drawing room.

Like the shop it had remained untouched since the end of the First World War. Unseen by me there are more ghosts. My granny, who’s soul had died with her husband at Arras, is sat with my grandfather Clem on the settee in front of the elegant fire place. They are betrothed and her brother Al is sitting on a chair opposite, acting, unnecessarily as a chaperone. Al and Clem are best friends, Al the artist and Clem the writer. They are talking excitedly about Clem’s plan to join his brother Richard in Los Angeles to establish a publishing house. As the ghosts of my family talk, I walk, in the sunlight, around the richly decorated room, examine the ornaments, the bright brass Russian samovars, oriental ceramics and look at the watercolour and oil paintings set in tasteful gold frames. My great-grandfather had assembled a treasure trove of art and artefacts.

Then, in this life, granny calls me, and I leave my ancestors and head downstairs. In the dining room I sit, drink a glass of milk and devour an unhealthy plate of Scottish cakes. Aunty Jen might tell me stories, fictional or historical tales of the village, or I might quietly read the cartoons from the Sunday Post: The Broons, Oor Wullie and Nero and Zero.

image

Harry and Jen Lothian holding my brother, Willie

Aunty Jen was the life and soul of the trio. In my sixteenth year she died and my brother and I were handed cards with the shape of a coffin edged with numbers. We had been allocated ropes. She was buried in the graveyard that lay across the road from the Primary School. To the harsh grating call of the carrion crows in the woods, we strained on the ropes. As the coffin disappeared Willie’s feet scrabbled for purchase in the loose soil as he nearly joined Jen. She had been a muckle woman in body and in personality.

Then there were two. My eternally mournful granny and my disaffected uncle. They were both war casualties, my granny robbed of her beloved husband Clem, and Harry, like many surviving soldiers, war damaged. One day, when I was about ten years old, Harry found me in the old shop where, to my joy, I had discovered bound volumes of a magazine, with superb illustrations, published throughout the First World War. He sat down next to me and started to talk about his war experiences. I was taken aback at this, as he hardly ever said a word to me. A machine gunner in the trenches, he described how he had to ensure the trajectory of the bullets hit the chests of the advancing Germans. How too low was no good, as hitting their legs didn’t kill them. He was like a farmer instructing an apprentice in the art of scything corn. A killing machine at eighteen, it was no wonder that uncle Harry was slightly unhinged.

With the death of aunty Jen, granny and Harry decided to sell the house and move into a residential caravan on the new Kevockvale Caravan Park. The contents of the house, my grand-grandfather’s treasure, was sold to a sharp antiques dealer from the city. Anything that the dealer didn’t buy or that wouldn’t fit into the residential caravan, Harry burned in the back garden.

In my final walk through this empty house, through this time capsule, I wondered at the kitchen with the bath against the wall, at the rooms empty of the furniture of life, the sad squares and rectangles on the drawing room walls, evidence of missing pictures. Then, for the first time I go into the workshop that stands to the side of the main house. The door stiffly creaks open and sunlight floods in to illuminate worktops covered with paint pots, brushes and other tools of the decorating trade, as if the workmen had just finished for the day; a landlocked Marie Celeste.

image

Polton Road and the decorators 1911

With the sale and modernising of the house it became, along with the school, the paper mill, the post office, a faded memory of the village as it metamorphosed from a vibrant close knit working community into a commuter hub of Edinburgh.