Monthly Archives: April 2014

A funny old game

In my fifteenth year I was introduced to an odd game called cricket when our slightly deranged PE teacher Mr Stewart, or ‘Peasel’ as he was known, without much affection, behind his back, presented Hugh, a student teacher, who was to practice his teaching skills on us.

Call me “Hugh” hailed from England, the auld enemy, and enthusiastically declared his intent to teach us cricket,  a game we Scots were not very familiar with. We were intrigued about this new game, fascinated by Hugh’s posh English accent and, but most of all, relieved to miss out on a lesson from ‘Peasle’ who still thought he was training marines for the Normandy landings.

Quaintly addressing us as “chaps” Hugh launched into an eager description of the game; the relevance of the stumps, how to wield a bat and the material construction of the ball. Using a diagram stuck to the changing room door he pointed, like a general, to the various positions around the space between the stumps; deep cover, square leg and short leg. Silly mid off got a guffaw. Boredom descended; Tooter Ritchie started a mock brawl with Skud Kemp and someone at the back started to sing “Hey, Hey, Hugh, Hugh, get off my cloud” a play on the then current Rolling Stones single. Sensing he was losing the dressing room Hugh sensibly cut the talk short and led us out onto the playing fields.

Cricket ball jpegNot the playing fields of Eton that Hugh was probably more familiar with. With the backdrop of the drab school buildings this was more the playing fields of some drab East German communist block schule. As we walked across the threadbare grass Hugh playfully threw the cricket ball around amongst us “chaps”.

“Jings!” exclaimed Tooter, “it’s like a wee fuckin’ cannon ba’! Can we no use a tennis ba’ like when we play roonders, Hugh?

Hugh pondered on this foreign outburst as he pounded the stumps into the, unusually for Scotland, sun baked ground. “Right, ho, chaps, choose someone to bat!”

Realising that this was like volunteering to be at the wrong end of a firing squad we stood looking down at our gym shoes or staring across the playing field at the grey communist block style council houses that surrounded the school.

“Fudge, yer in, yer battin’.”

Volunteered by Big Murch, the class bully and, by default, spokesman, Fudge Fowler reluctantly trudged up to the wicket and stood with a look of hopeless resignation tinged with fear as Hugh polished the ball on the crotch of his track suit. Meanwhile we positioned ourselves at square leg, deep cover and silly mid off. Silly mid off? We might as well have been miles off. We had no intention at all of catching this deadly projectile. In the event there was nothing to catch.

Hugh gave the ball one last rub then gracefully bounded up to the crease and bowled. The ball bounced with a puff of dust as Fudge, in ungraceful desperation swung the bat and missed. There was no thwack of leather on willow, only an ‘oomph’ on abdomen. Fudge staggered slightly, stumbled and slowly fell back scattering the stumps and bails.

Skud unsympathetically shouted “Yer oot, Fudge!” Fudge was certainly ‘oot’. Well and truly out of it for some time.

In an early example of Health and Safety the game was terminated and, at the insistence of Big Murch we played ‘roonders’ or rounders, in the Queen’s English, with a tennis ball.

I have now lived in England for over forty years, and embraced the culture and lifestyle including cricket. I love to sit in the local park and watch this peculiar game, bemused; much as I would watch Morris Dancing. Only watching, never putting myself in the firing line.


Brave New World not Brave Heart!

I was born in Scotland and my early education, in particular history lessons, was largely focused on the strife between the English and the Scots. In ancient battles, rare Scottish victories were hailed as heroic and defeats excused as Goliath beating David. This insidious indoctrination is still ingrained. Despite living in England for over 40 years I still feel a tingle of excitement, silently cheer, when a foreign team scores a goal against England. Embarrassingly, when I first arrived in England, as the guest of some newly acquired English friends I did cheer out loud and punched the air when Poland scored to deny England a place in the 1974 World Cup. My English friends were quite astonished; they had no idea that we Scots were like that.

This thread of thought began as I watched “Digby Jones: the new troubleshooter” on TV. The theme of the show is that Digby Jones, a well know industrialist, mentors struggling companies. In this particular episode the company was Hawick Knitwear based in the Scottish Border region. Digby Jones advice was to expand their business by marketing their products in Japan and China where apparently there was an insatiable demand for anything made in Scotland. It was interesting to me that the Japanese and Chinese view Scotland as a unique and distinctive culture.
This made me ponder, why on earth does Scotland want independence when the world seems to think we are actually independent.

The trouble is that many Scots have a simplistic, romantic view of their nation. It is a trait of the Celts, probably found at its most extreme in the Irish Republic. For example, we Scots are rightly proud of the many inventions and achievements that we, as a small nation are responsible for. My mother had a tea towel embroidered with a list; it was a very large tea towel. But consider this, many of these inventions and discoveries actually came about because we were part of Great Britain not a separate isolated entity. Just to take three of the names on my mother’s tea towel; Logie Baird was based in London when he invented television, John Louden McAdam was the Surveyor General for Roads in Bristol when he developed his road construction system and Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in his laboratory at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. The reality is that these are actually British achievements; Scottish ingenuity partnered with English or American industry, finance and facilities.
Alex SalmonAlex Salmon, the SNP leader is as smooth and eloquent as a used car sales man. The car he is trying to sell has beautiful bodywork, a reliable engine and a long and interesting history. He reassures us that it will have a sound warranty and that there is membership of a recovery service in the event of a breakdown. We have all experienced such deals.

The promises often fail to match the reality. The dents have been skilfully filled, the mileage ‘clocked’ and the warranty expired.

To make the idea of breaking away from the United Kingdom palatable Salmon, the salesman, wants to keep some familiar institutions in place; a few home comforts. To ease the separation Scotland is to keep the Queen and the Pound.

Hold on a minute! Keep the Queen of England! I remember in 1968 when the Cunard Liner Queen Elizabeth 2 was launched on the Clyde there was a quite a stramash (Scottish for uproar) The Scottish Nationalists were outraged. Scotland, you see, has never had a Queen Elizabeth the first; how dare they name a ship built in Scotland Queen Elizabeth II cried the Nationalists. That was then, now, of course, keeping the Queen is acceptable; a political expedient. The same can be said for keeping the Pound. Laughably, Salmon accepts that this will mean that the Bank of England based in London will control Scotland’s currency. An odd definition of an independent nation.

Then there is the idea that Scotland can break away from the United Kingdom and still be a member of NATO and apply to join the EU. Salmon is going to be disappointed. Spain, France and about 15 other countries have problems of their own with separatist movements. These countries will not welcome Scotland joining their ‘club’ thereby setting a precedent for this sort of thing.

Anyway, why throw off the shackles of the United Kingdom then chain yourself to the European Union? Instead of Scotland being controlled from London the instructions would come from Brussels. The risks are enormous. Gordon Brown was on the money when he pointed out that when the Royal Bank of Scotland went bust in 2007 an independent Scotland would have followed it down the proverbial pan. Edinburgh, truly, would have lived up to it’s nickname ‘Athens of the North’!

On the 18th September the referendum will take place. Along with about 900,000 people born and raised in Scotland I will not have any say in the future of my country, but the newly franchised 16 year olds and foreigners living in Scotland will. The Yes campaign, backed by a lottery winner, cheered on by film stars living abroad and fuelled by dubious romantic historical tales, may well carry the day. What then? What of the aftermath. The Scottish Nationalist Party will cease to have a purpose, disband and new political parties and movements will emerge with different political agendas. There will be nobody to pin the blame on if Independence disappoints the people.

My personal hope is that Scotland will remain as part of the United Kingdom; I hope that we will continue to celebrate our culture, our creativity, to be proud of our history and achievements. I hope we will stop naval gazing. Cease this obsession with ancient wars and perceived slights by our neighbour. As Britain together we have fought good wars, explored the world, discovered and invented, excelled at sport and, on the whole, been a power for good in the World. Perhaps, because I got out more, lived abroad, I find all this ‘Brave Heart’ stuff mildly interesting but largely irrelevant to the present day.

Sadly, as I have been denied the opportunity to vote on the destiny of my homeland and if Scotland decides to become independent I will stick with my United Kingdom passport, continue to be British but still silently cheer on England’s soccer opposition.

Bum notes

My granddaughter, when she was seven or eight gave an impromptu violin performance at family barbecue. It was an instrument that she had recently started to learn at school. She stood, with remarkable confidence on the garden decking in front of an audience of friends and relatives sprawled in chairs on the lawn. She announced that the concert would comprise three short compositions. The first tune could be compared to a cat carelessly standing on a red hot cooker element, the second a cat at the moment of impact with a bus. Then the finale, a cat accidentally falling from the seventh floor window of an apartment block.  She is now learning the piano. I hope she perseveres as the piano is an instrument that I once had an ambition to play but didn’t stick at it. I wish I had.

One of my first musical memories is of my mother tentatively playing Clare de Lune by Debussy. There must be a difficult section halfway through as I’m sure she never ever seemed to complete the whole piece. So, we always had a piano in the house, but I never had any inclination to touch the keys far less attempt to play a tune.

The Pianist

The Pianist

That is, until the American music teacher passed briefly through our school bringing his American songbook. Suddenly music became interesting and I decided to have a crack at learning the piano.

My mother, suspiciously pleased at this development, promptly booked lessons before I had a change of mind. The local piano teacher was Miss Reid, an intense spinster of indeterminate age, bohemian dress sense and wild hair. She resided at the end of Broomieknowe, a street at the more affluent side of Bonnyrigg, her house standing amid colourful horticultural chaos in  the shadow of the local Scottish Episcopal Church.

I duly arrived, crunching noisily up the path to her door thinking that a machete would have been handy and that Miss Reid might be up for a spot of gardening during the forthcoming ‘Bob a Job’ week. Miss Reid’s sensitive hearing must have alerted her to my approach and the door swung open just before I had the chance to use the large brass bell pull.

“Good afternoon. You must be Alexander?” enquired Miss Reid in a cultured Edinburgh accent. I looked behind me. No one had ever called me Alexander since my Christening after which I was called Sandy; a quaint Scottish custom.

I followed Miss Reid into the hallway, gagging slightly on the atmosphere composed largely of furniture polish mingled with a slight hint of cat. One seat was already occupied by an elegantly dressed woman who regarded me balefully as she noticed the dried streak of snot on my comprehensive school blazer sleeve. I sat quietly opposite and listened to the exquisite piano tune played, presumably by the offspring of the elegant, aloof lady. This maestro must be at least twelve, I thought. The lesson ended and the music stopped and Miss Reid ushered out a girl wearing a smug expression who was at least two years younger than me. I knew then I was out of my league.

Miss Reid then summoned me into her drawing room which resembled a Victorian stage set. Patting the piano stool next to her she invited me to sit. “May I look at your hands Alexander?” She held them gently like a palmist seeking an optimistic portent. “My goodness, such large hands” she exclaimed. I gathered from her tone that this was not a desirable physical feature of a successful pianist. She then peered doubtfully at my fingers as though examining some pork sausages on display in Mr Scott’s grocery shop. Sausages well past their sell by date.

Releasing my disappointing hands she enquired “So, Alexander, what sort of tunes or songs do you like?” I really, really wanted to say “Hallelujah I’m a Bum” which we had joyfully sung with the American music teacher but decided it best to play safe. “‘Claire de Lune’, Miss,” I muttered. Miss Reid, surprised by this revelation, contemplated the picture hanging above the piano, lost for some time in the peaceful scene of sheep grazing in some Highland glen.

As weeks turned into months the lessons progressed in the way that explorers struggle across vast, endless snow covered landscapes. Miss Reid would welcome me at the door with a look of worldly resignation and sit patiently with me at the piano. At first I could follow the notes because, conveniently each had a letter denoting which key to press but without these aids I was lost. A sheet of music was as incomprehensible as the Rosetta Stone.

Unknown to me at the outset Miss Reid organised an annual concert to showcase her pupils. Held in the hall of the church next door attendance was considered essential by the local music aficionados. But not by me. I had two serious handicaps; my piano playing was rubbish and I suffered from stage fright. Miss Reid, in the interests of production quality sandwiched my performance between the smug seven year old girl playing Chopin and an equally smug teenage boy playing Schumann. I recall clumping up the steps and clumping across the stage to the piano clutching my music book in my large, sweaty hands and porcine fingers. I did my best, made a fist of it; literally. Then clumped back across the stage to polite, very restrained applause.

That, then, was the last time I played the piano. The end of my piano project.