Monthly Archives: July 2015

The village cabinet maker

This is a story told by my mother, Nell Wilson, of Davy Reid, the Lasswade village carpenter and cabinet maker. This is not just a memory of a well loved family friend, but also of life, and death, in Lasswade, a village near Edinburgh in the first half of the 20th century.

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Lasswade in 1911. The Parish Church is on the right.

Davy Reid was my Grandfather’s friend; they were very close, helping each other in many ways in the way of business. Davy was a tall man, spare of figure with a moustache that drooped, making him look a little sad until his face lit up with laughter and those deep blue eyes of his shone. His eyes always looked as if they were scanning far horizons. Indeed they might have done so for as a young man he had gone to Canada to find his fortune, He did just that; building up a prosperous joinery business and I understand from my Grandparents, he had planned to marry out there and settle down. He returned to Scotland to tell his parents of his plans with the firm intention of persuading them to return to Canada with him. They refused. The wringing of hands began; who was going to look after them in their old age? What about his sister Lisbeth who was in ‘delicate health’ and unmarried? Davy had made his one big mistake. In the end he was prevailed upon to give up his business in Canada and all his plans for a fine future there. He gave in, electing to stay in Scotland with his parents and sister.

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My grandfathers home and decorating business,10 Polton Road, Lasswade. Circa 1910.

By the time I was born in the house at Polton Road in the spring of 1915 Davy’s old parents had long since died and he was left to look after his sister Lisbeth who seemed to be a chronic invalid, I can’t ever remember seeing Lisbeth Reid; she was something of a recluse shutting herself away in their house (now gone) opposite Spring Bank. Davy continued to come about our house and shop opposite Strathesk Church at the foot of the Wee Bras and his friendship with my Grandfather Alick Lothian the Painter and Decorator became his one solace in life. They both enjoyed many happy hours of conviviality together until the dreadful night when my Grandfather died. He had been helping Davy with a ‘chesting’ and the effort of lifting a very heavy lady into her coffin was too much for him. He had collapsed across the coffin, dying of a heart attack and brain haemorrhage. When he brought my Grandfather’s body home Davy was distraught. We were all distraught and weeping. Davy stood with tears streaming down his cheeks. It was the first time I had seen a grown man weep. I joined him in his misery for I too had lost my best friend. I was just four years old.

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My mother at the door of 10 Polton Road around the time of her beloved grandfather’s death. Only 4 years before, her father had been killed at the Battle of Arras.

Davy was fond of children and my cousins and I often toddled down to his workshop which was situated where the electricity sub-station now stands at the Junction of Polton Road and Elm Row. With our teddy bears and dolls, we sat amongst the wood shavings bedecking our dolls’ heads with the pinewood curls. Even now I have only to smell the scent of pinewood and I remember Davy. He always had time to put off with the bairns. In fact he would have made a fine family man, and that was the pity of it all.

In the 1920s when we had not the life saving modern drugs Death was a frequent visitor to the village. Older people passed away in the nature of things, but tuberculosis (TB) was the main scourge while diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and pneumonia could be fatal to a child or a very young person. Consequently a large part of his business was in the making of coffins, most of them for people he knew well. No trouble was spared in the fashioning of each coffin; every detail and embellishment was exact and beautiful. Sometimes when he had completed his work on a coffin he would lift us up to let us see his finished creation. We looked down in wonder on the lovely white sateen-padded interior; the soft lace edged pillow and the lace edging all round the top of the coffin.

It was the last service he could render to those who had passed away, people he had known. He carried out his work with pride, and, I daresay with an unspoken prayer for the departed, He was a staunch Kirk man — a good and faithful servant to his God. The final decoration was the coffin plates. These were expertly lettered by hand by my Uncle Al or Uncle Bill on the scrubbed table in our kitchen. The wet painted lettering was sealed by a sprinkling of gold dust. Then my cousin Jane and I carried the coffin plate down to Davy’s workshop, instructed to hold it well away from our frocks and not to smudge the paint. Very elegant, we thought, were the brass coffin plates which were used for the solid oak coffins. In a funny sort of way we children got used to coffins and coffin plates from a very early age. We were not upset by any of it, looking on it as part of village life!

Then there were the funerals, carried out with meticulous formality; the big black hearse drawn by two fine black horses, and Davy seated beside the driver smartly turned out in his black top hat, frock coat and a black stock with a pearl tie pin Davy was a bit of a Don Quixote, occasionally ‘tilting at windmills’ One of his windmills was the Parish Kirk Minister who wanted Davy to arrange for the funerals to go up the steep School Brae instead of up the drive past the Gospel Wynd and the gate of the manse. The Lady of the Manse also was very insistent in regard to this arrangement. Davy objected to this in no uncertain terms and spoke his mind; he wouldn’t have his horses drag a heavy hearse up the steep School Brae when the drive which passed the Manse was so much easier, His angry riposte to the Minister was reported by one onlooker: “if ye try tae stop the funerals gaun up by the Manse, Ah’ll clure ye wi ma forehammer”. For a long time, as a mark of defiance Davy sat up beside the driver of the hearse with his forehammer laid across his knees. The matter was not referred to again.

Davy never got over the death of my Grandfather. He came regularly to our house, just wandering in through the shop into the kitchen in the middle of the working day, Then he would settle down to a wee crack with my Granny about the on-goings in the village. His sister was always something of a trial to him. Occasionally he would appear in our kitchen to announce: “Lisbeth has got the glooms!” After a chat and a gossip he would wander over to The Foresters’ Arms to drown his sorrows. Later he could be seen wending his erratic and unsteady way homewards up the Polton Road. Granny would take my cousins, Jane and Alick and me to the front door to witness at first hand “What strong drink does to a man”. Small wonder that a few years later we joined the Band of Hope meeting in the Wee Brae Hall and signed the pledge!

 

Mum as child with flowers

My mum as a child.

Two of his visits to our house I remember vividly. Once after a visit to the Foresters’ Arms, he arrived in our kitchen very unsteady on his feet and announced to the world at large: “I fear no foe in shining armour!” and before our astonished gaze lurched backwards from the kitchen into the scullery, ending up by sitting down in a tub of bed-linen soaking in cold water ready for the Monday wash, That sobered him up! Then we had to dry him out before he could go home to Lisbeth. On another memorable occasion he arrived in our kitchen declaiming: “I have no fear of any mortal man” and sat down on top of our American range which had been stoked up to heat the flat irons for the ironing. Again Granny came to the rescue, stitching a patch on the seat of his trousers with her sewing machine before he could go home in a decent condition,

And another tale of Davy told to me by my family. Once, when my Grandfather was still alive, Davy had gone to the Musselburgh Races with rather a large sum of money from a customer in his pocket and his love of horses got the better of him. He became gloriously tipsy and bought a race-horse! Getting him out of that fix took a good deal of effort on the part of my Grandfather and Davy’s lawyer. Later, when he had sobered up be was quite abashed at what he had done. I have a feeling that during his days in Canada he must have learned to ride and the sight of all these beautiful animals at the racecourse had been just too much.

By the time I had reached my late teenage years Lasswade was changing. One by one the families were moved out from their little houses and cottages and re-housed in the new Swedish timber houses or in the new Council houses at Dobbies Road. Davy had retired, giving up his business to look after Lisbeth; where his workshop had been The Lothian’s Electric Power Company had built the sub—station which is still there today. All Davy’s old friends were gone; even my Grandmother had been laid low with a slight stroke. Eventually too Lisbeth died and Davy became something of a recluse, From time to time he would be seen wandering down Polton Road to do his bit of shopping at Andrew Scott’s grocery shop; always on the way back to his house with his bag of groceries there was the tell-tale bottle stuck in his coat pocket. Poor Davy, living a solitary existence, shut away from the world with only his bottle and his memories for company.

Then one bitterly cold winter’s night our front door bell rang. There on the doorstep stood Davy, flanked on either side by Dr Young and Mr Jimmy Stone JP with Mr Curle from the Parochial Board Office bringing up the rear. Davy took a few faltering steps into the kitchen and announced that he had come to seek advice from his friend Alick (my Grandfather).

He stood there with a Canadian fur-trappers hat on his head, the frosty rime which had been clinging to his beard melting and dripping down the front of his coat. Still the gentleman he removed his hat, his gaze searching for his friend Alick. Suddenly the lost look left the faded blue eyes; sitting in Grandpa’s chair was my Uncle Harry who had inherited his father’s build and looks. Here, thought Davy happily was his old friend Alick whose advice he sought. “They’ve come to take me to Rosslynlee, Alick, to be looked after. What do you think? Should I go with them?” My Uncle Harry played his part, took Davy’s hands in his and said it was the best thing Davy could do. He had lived on his own long enough. And that was the last I saw of him; helped by his friends Jimmy Stone and Mr Curle he got into Dr Young’s car. When it had disappeared up Polton Road I must confess there was a big lump in my throat.

He was well looked after at Rosslynlee during the remaining weeks of his life and died peacefully in his sleep. I feel certain that that other beloved Carpenter, the Man from Nazareth, would be there to welcome Davy with open arms when he arrived on the Heavenly Shore.

TAILPIECE

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My mother Nell Wilson around 1941

When the contents of Davy’s house were sold off I attended the sale and for half-a-crown (12p) I bought a reasonably sound washing basket containing picture frames and glass and also one oil painting of a Knight in Shining Armour. I am firmly convinced that my Grandfather painted that picture and that Davy sat as the model for it, When I married and had a young family of my own the picture occupied a special place in our living room. The boys christened our two-and-sixpenny knight ‘Uncle Fernando’ and so he has remained down through the years. He is still with us gazing down on everyone benign and happy, his eyes always looking at you no matter where in the room you may be. A fitting reminder of my dear friend, Davy Reid the Lasswade carpenter.

 

Nell Wilson (Walter) 1991

 

 

An English woman in Lasswade

This is a memoir written by my mother Ellen Wilson in 1991 when she was 76 years old. It is about the life of her Grandmother Ellen Lothian (nee Harris) who was born in 1862 and died in 1943 during the Second World War. It is an fascinating tale worth the telling.

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A sketch of Ellen Lothian by her son Alexander

My Grandmother, Ellen Harris was born in Bicester, Oxfordshire in 1862. She was the daughter of Miss Harris, a maid in a country house near that town; In fact my Grandmother was the offspring of a well-to-do man and his maid! The gentleman, whether from a real fondness for the girl he had seduced or from a feeling of obligation to the girl who was his illegitimate daughter made it plain to his family that he wished to honour that obligation, insisting upon providing for young Ellen’s proper education. In consequence, she was provided for to the extent of a place being found for her in a private boarding school, and she was suitably set up sartorially. According to my Grandmother, she was all packed up ready to embark upon this new life when the gentleman died suddenly.

His family did not cast her off as might have been expected. Instead they arranged for her to be settled in the household of friends who lived in a large country house near Bexley, Kent as under-nursemaid to their children. She would then have been fourteen years of age.

In the ensuing period of years she progressed from the lowly state of nursemaid to become a well thought of and much loved nanny to the family. Her employers were very well off and of some consequence, for the whole household down to the servants, the gardeners and the estate workers lived in some comfort. For instance, my Grandmother had at her disposal as the children’s nanny a dogcart with a groom to drive her and the children around on shopping expeditions to the nearby town or just simply to ‘take the air’ in the beautiful countryside around the estate.

‘Mi-Lady’, as Granny called the Lady of the House, was very beautiful. Granny remembered ‘Mi-Lady’ favouring Pond’s Face Cream and Pear’s soap for the care of her complexion.  There was a Lady’s maid who took charge of ‘Mi-Lady’s’ elegant gowns and clothes and a French hairdresser whose sole occupation was the care of Madame’s hair.

At this time my Grandmother would be in her 21st year and pretty enough for the French hairdresser to display romantic inclinations towards her. She was very petite, fair haired and blue eyed. They had been ‘walking out’ she and the Frenchman, for some time, when suddenly a tall well set up Scottish man arrived on the scene. He (my Grandfather-to-be) had been sent by his father (of Messrs Lothian & Kinross, Wallpaper Merchants of Edinburgh) to the School of Art in London to study Interior Design.

On this occasion he had travelled down from London as assistant to a senior Art Designer from the School who was advising on the decoration of several rooms in the house at Bexley. The arrival of Alexander Lothian at Bexley put paid to the romance between the French hairdresser and Ellen the children’s nanny. The handsome young man from Edinburgh swept my grandmother off her feet.

By the time Art School commission at Bexley was complete Alexander Lothian had proposed marriage to Ellen Harris and had been accepted; the wedding was to take place in Scotland, ‘Her Ladyship’ was quite enthralled with the whirlwind romance and set about arranging for the whole of the trousseau (six of everything!) and the wedding dress which was a marvellous gift. ‘Mi-lady’ and her husband also presented Ellen with a long gold chain and locket, and from the children who had been in her care, there was a gold brooch in the shape of a horse-shoe with the initials ‘B H’ engraved upon it. These two items are now in the possession of my cousin Jane.

So Ellen travelled to Edinburgh with her betrothed to be introduced to his family and to a very different way of life as the wife of Alexander Lothian, On 6th June 1884 they were married in the Lothian family home at 41 James Street, Pilrig, Edinburgh.

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No 10 Polton Road Lasswade

Having left the beautiful countryside of Kent Ellen Harris and her new husband Alexander Lothian set up house in the Bank Building in the little village of Lasswade, a far cry from the luxurious surroundings she had enjoyed in the country house near Bexley. In due course on 8th May 1885 my mother, Laura Ann was born in the house at Bank Buildings, but by the time the rest of their family arrived (Alexander John, William Graham, Harry Dickson and Jessie Alexandra) my Grandfather had bought the Decorating business with house above at Polton Road, Lasswade. He employed between 14 and 20 painters, journeymen and apprentices. The business flourished and as the years went by the services of Mr Lothian of Lasswade were much sought after by the folk who lived in the ‘Big Houses’ roundabout who required his expertise and advice on their interior decorating. He also had an eye for good watercolours and oil paintings, antique furniture and such like his advice on which was also sought by those people who were intent on investing in such things.

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The Lothian family circa 1900s

The sitting room upstairs in my Grandparent’s house was a world of wonders for me. I can see it yet in my mind’s eye with all the wonderful paintings on the wall, the elegant polished mahogany table and chairs, the Chippendale and Sheraton side tables with the collection of polished brass candlesticks and the brass samovar, The corner cupboard held a collection of beautiful Crown Derby and Spode china along with some antique ornaments. The floor boasted a lovely old Brussels carpet and the curtains of heavy jade brocade were tied back with embroidered ties. The mantelpiece was unique in that it had been fashioned from part of a four-poster bed of carved mahogany. On the hearth there were brightly polished brass fire irons and several large brightly coloured foreign sea shells. As children my cousins and I were allowed to hold one of these shells carefully to our ears to ‘hear the sea’. And we did hear the sea.

There was a good upright piano. When I was seven years old I was introduced to the intricacies of playing the instrument by Miss Muirhead of Broomieknowe; one hour’s practice every day but never on a Sunday The Sabbath was a day of rest; the pattern always was the Church Service in the morning followed by Sunday School and the Church Service again in the evening. Granny worked unstintingly for the Church and my Grandfather was an Elder. After the family Sunday dinner Granny would retire to the room upstairs for what she called her forty winks. I remember when I was very small sitting quietly at her knee I would count very slowly in my head up to forty then wait hopefully for her to wake up and talk to me.

When she did, she told me tales of her childhood in Kent. I listened enthralled to her descriptions of the leafy lanes, the meadows full of wild flowers and the wonderful floral displays in the gardens of the thatched cottages. In spring there was the mossy dell where she and the other children gathered primroses and cowslips. Early summer carpeted the woods near her home with bluebells and soon the whole countryside was covered in a haze of pink and white apple, pear and plum blossom. Small wonder that Kent was known as the ‘Garden of England’ – and still is. Autumn came and everyone went picking blackberries for jam, crab apples for jelly and sloe berries which the cottagers made into sloe gin. Then the children plundered the woods and hedgerows gathering cobs, filberts and hazelnuts. The Great Meadow also yielded a harvest of mushrooms. Nothing in the countryside was ever wasted. During the summer too, many people were busily employed in the hop fields gathering hops ready for the brewers. The Harris family was engaged in market gardening near Wantage; probably that is why I inherited the passion for growing plants which has been with me all my life.

I can’t remember Granny talking about her mother. I never found out about her or what happened to her but she did talk at length about her Grandmother, Ann Cowley who could trace a slight connection far back with the writer and poet Abraham Cowley who as well as being a writer of some note in his day was a Government Agent in the reign of Charles II. I still have by me a leather bound copy of the ‘Works of Abraham Cowley’ handed down in the family as a very precious possession.

At the time of these tales told by my Grandmother on Sunday afternoons she would be over 60 years old. In 1920 when he was 61 my Grandfather Alexander Lothian had died suddenly of a stroke. Three years earlier the family had suffered the loss of my Father, Clem Walter who was killed at the 3rd Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917. He had gone off to the war in the first flush of patriotism, leaving my Mother to return to her family home in Lasswade where I was born on 7 May 1915. These two blows must have shaken the family badly but as happens in the scheme of things people pick up the pieces and carry on. The Painting and Decorating business was taken over by Granny’s second son William (my Uncle Bill).

When my Grandfather died my Grandmother went into mourning and like Queen Victoria never came out of her ‘widow’s weeds’. I can’t remember her ever wearing any other colour than black. I recollect strongly her deep love of her Grandmother; it was a reciprocal adoration, and like my Grandmother I was brought up by my Grandmother. She was a very gifted needlewoman and she taught me all I know about that craft, her fine sewing, feather-stitching and embroidery were exquisite. She was also adept at tatting; to my regret I was never able to master that art!

My Mother on her return to her old home applied herself to the household duties, the day to day chores for a fairly large family but Granny saw to all the cooking and baking. She never seemed to work with recipes; it was all in her head. She was an excellent cook providing good and nourishing meals for all her family. I shall never forget Christmas preparations in our house; the delicious tangy smell of orange and lemon peel and the sharp warm smell of rum and brandy when we gathered round to stir the plum pudding mixture for luck. What a busy household ours was! Hands were never idle.

The one complaint about me was that I always had my nose in a book. Reading books was looked upon askance by all the family except Granny. Books were my other great passion and she encouraged me to read all kinds of books and she bought me Arthur Mee’s Children Encyclopaedia for my seventh birthday. That certainly furthered my education! Granny was the one person in my life I was in terror of losing. I worried about that for some time after my Grandfather’s death but as the years went by Granny seemed to go on forever and I stopped holding my breath. She never went back to Kent

The Harris relations came north from time to time; Granny’s nieces Nell and Kathy Harris and a nephew Harry Harris, Then we saw a lot of my Grandmother’s cousin Auntie Laura (Harris) who was already in Edinburgh in charge of the kitchen in the house of the Younger family the well-known brewers. There, as was the custom of the time she was referred to as ‘Mrs’ Harris holding quite an exalted position in the household. We all loved Auntie Laura and visited her often. She was such a jolly plump amusing person so full of wit and humour, She was a first rate cook and we looked forward to her coming to stay with us at Lasswade for a wee holiday. We often visited her in Edinburgh and enjoyed her really sumptuous teas in her vast kitchen while all her staff scurried about getting everything ready for the Family’s meal ‘upstairs’. My cousins and I were allowed to take turnabout standing on a chair to grind the coffee beans; that was the high point of the visit for us — that delicious aroma of freshly ground coffee beans!

Our house at Lasswade had an ever open door. It would not be unusual for someone like Viscount Melville to wander in unannounced, through the shop, right into the kitchen even into the scullery looking for Granny or my Mother or my Grandfather whom His Lordship had really come to see. Then there were all the children going up and down to the school. All the cuts, bumps and bruises were brought to our door for immediate first aid by Granny. She never applied disinfectant or ointment; rather it was “We’ll just anoint this with something to make it better”. The bandaged casualty would then go away, tears dried and happy. She loved and cared about any children who came her way.

Granny also had frequent visits from people collecting for various good causes – The Grass Market Mission, The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, and The RNLI – they all received a donation. There was one lady who came without fail once a year collecting for ‘The Boozers League’; in my childish innocence I thought she was collecting for a handout of intoxicating beverages! Then there was Old Tage the tramp who called almost weekly. The look of the tall unkempt shambling man nearly scared the wits out of me but he was harmless enough. Granny filled his old syrup tin with tea and sent him on his way with a large ‘doorstep’ of bread and jam. One winter he failed to appear and we heard that he had been found dead in a secluded part of the Braeheads. I had always wondered why he walked so funny; it was discovered that he had hidden all his worldly wealth in his boots, winding hundreds of pounds in notes round and round with strips of old cloth like army puttees.

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Ellen with her daughter, my mother, Laura.

Granny never turned anyone away; help was always given when it was needed. In fact it was the way of Lasswade folk; they always rallied round and helped each other when the necessity arose. There was no such thing as the Department of Health and Social Security, only the Parochial Board and Poor Relief and folk lived in fear of that happening to them especially when old and perhaps senile or ‘wandered in the head’ and being taken to Rosslynlee Asylum or the Poor House in Dalkeith.

When war broke out in 1939 Granny was the driving force where our family was concerned and idle hands were frowned upon. Everyone got busy with knitting needles and wool making ‘comforts for the troops’. We made quite a pile of navy socks, scarves, gloves and mittens to send to the men of HMS Edinburgh which not long afterwards was torpedoed while on convoy duty to Murmansk. Then we would switch to ‘comforts’ for the Army or the RAF; it was a busy, busy time.

By the time I was in uniform myself in the ATS serving away from home Granny had suffered a slight stroke, collapsing in Church one Sunday. A year or so later she suffered another massive stroke from which she never recovered, confined to bed, unable to move and in a coma. Her last words to me were: ‘Remind them, Nell to order plenty of boiled ham for your wedding’. That must sound laughable, but village weddings were often held at home or in the village hall and the usual centrepiece of the Wedding Breakfast was a large boiled ham. Generally everyone joined in, cooking and baking to provide a long, long table groaning with food and village weddings were certainly joyous occasions for everyone to enjoy until rationing and other wartime circumstances brought many changes to the old ways of doing things.

When Granny suffered her last illness I was engaged to be married but because of the war it was over two years before my happy wedding day arrived. Sadly she did not live to see that great day. She died on 21st September 1943 and I was given special leave from the Army to attend her funeral.

Ellen Harris was a small woman in stature but she had a great big heart. The whole village grieved at her passing. I shall never forget her, a much loved and loving Granny whose memory lives on in my heart.

Today (1991) I am a grandmother myself in the seventy-sixth year of my age. I hope my grandchildren in their turn will look back in the years to come and remember me too with love.

Ellen Wilson. January 1991.

Out of Africa

imageYesterday, one of my Ethiopian pupils, to celebrate failing his driving test, took me to an authentic Ethiopian restaurant. The Melkem Megeb Restaurant stands on a corner of Roundhay Road and Gathorne Street in the Harehills area of Leeds. It is obviously a popular venue for the community.

We sat a table by the window and I looked around the simple interior, taking in the other, predominantly, African diners, admired the ethnic artwork on the walls, wondered at the wash hand basin, predominant in the corner and noted the absence of cutlery.

The tall proprietor approached and welcomed us and handed us the menus, while a boy, obviously his son, set the table. To my dismay, all the dishes on the menu contained lamb. Why was I dismayed about lamb? Well, much to the annoyance of my wife Val, who rather likes lamb, I have a psychological problem with lamb; I can’t rid myself of the idea that lambs are baby sheep, kittens of the farming world. I see the word LAMB on a menu and a voice in my head says, shouts: NO, NO, NO! I see them, in my head, gambolling, playing in lush green fields under blue Spring skies. I have a similar difficulty with duck, and of course with Val, who likes duck. Most people see meat, I see Donald.

However, my good manners trumped my abhorrence of eating the children of sheep. I ate what Yosef had ordered, ate what was put in front of me. I was determined to enjoy this unique experience in a far flung outpost of one of the cradles of human civilisation.

imageWe shared two meat dishes which were served, not in dishes, but on top of a flexible, rubbery pancake called an Injera. This is folded up on a platter and looks as though, if it was unfolded, would cover the entire table. It has a sort of sour taste, which, if I was a food critic, I would say contrasts beautifully with the fiery sauces of the meat course. But, as my family and friends would testify, gourmet, I am not! The way the meal is eaten is that a piece of the injera is torn off using the right hand and is used to pick or scoop up the meat and the sauces. This explained the necessity of the wash hand basin in the corner of the restaurant and the absence of cutlery.

I may not have fully appreciated the meal, but, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the conversation and the exposure to another culture. I learned that there are 75 languages in Ethiopia, that it is the most populated landlocked country on Earth with a population of over 90 million. Yosef tried to explain the Ethiopian calendar, a solar calendar, that the current year is 2007 and started on September 11th 2014 AD. He told me that Ethiopia is the only African country never to have been colonised, although Mussolini did have a go. I was informed that it is one of the oldest centres of Christian and Muslim faith and, according, to Yosef they all live in peace. But the politics are far from peaceful.

imageEritrea, which was a part of Ethiopia, the coastal part, had a referendum in 1993 and became an independent country with a population of just over 6 million. Both countries fell out, went to war, over where the border should be drawn. “At least your country will not have such problems, they have a wall do they not?” Said Yosef, who has the opinion that the Scots are stupid to, but will, leave the UK. “Your country, Scotland, it should think very carefully,” counselled Yosef. “Ethiopia has never been wealthy, it is African, but now Eritrea, it is the fifth poorest country in the World. It has a very small population, you understand.” And, it is true that Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, whereas Eritrea, a single party presidential state, is in the economic doldrums. I thought, as I listened, that life and politics are complicated. I thought of the tragedy of the wars, the poverty, driving these people to risk everything to seek a better life.

Yosef has dual nationality. His mother is Eritrean and his father Ethiopian. After the referendum and when the war kicked off his family lived in Ethiopia. Yosef and his mother were told they could remain in Ethiopia only if they signed a document promising they would not cause any trouble.
Yosef laughed when he told me this. “You will have to sign such a document, to remain in England when the time comes, after the next referendum!”

Coffee was served. Ethiopian coffee is pretty strong stuff and is served in small cups on saucers with the only piece of cutlery in the place: a tea spoon.

A Greek tragedy, German screenplay, Spanish subtitles.

imageI lived and worked in Spain for four years. It was a fascinating experience being on the margins of a culture, so different in many ways to my own, watching and observing another way of life. Living in Spain, I learned three things, well more than that, but three things that I think are relevant to the current crisis in Greece, a country that shares many similarities with Spain. Corruption, the residual effect of the war and the Germans.

The first point is that Spain and Greece share the same Mediterranean culture. Both populations have a laid back attitude to life in general, and an astonishing laid back attitude to corruption. We were involved in the property market and I can relate a personal experience of corruption in Spain, tax evasion to which the state turned a blind eye. What happened was that a property had, not only an Actual Value, but also a Declared Value. The Actual Value was the price paid to the builder, the Declared Value, the property value written into the deeds, or escritura, was a sum as much as a third lower than the Actual Value. Tax was only paid on the lower Declared Value. If you have followed this, you will have realised that the builder has collected about one third of the property value in undeclared cash. I have read enough to suspect it is similar in Greece.

imageSay, a villa is bought for 150,000 euros. That means that the builder or developer has collected, give or take, a few thousand, 50,000 euros which is completely off the taxman’s radar. You may now be thinking: what does the builder do with this cash mountain. The company simply launders the undeclared money, the ‘Black Money’, by paying their employees and buying materials partly in cash. A friend of ours worked for one of the major, respected, developers. He was paid with a taxable pay cheque plus a brown envelope containing untaxed cash. This works fine, as long as the country has total control of their currency. Once the country relinquishes it sovereignty and shares a common currency, then these dodgy transactions become every else’s business. In the case of the Greeks, the Germans.

We once sold an apartment. The completion of the sale was conducted in the offices of a Notario, a government appointed official who, among other legal duties, checks that the conveyancing documentation is all in correct legal order. All the interested parties sat in front of the Notario, children in front of the headmaster, we, the sellers and our solicitor, the buyers and their solicitor, the agents (making sure they collected their commission) and a bank representative (making sure the outstanding mortgage was collected). We collectively held our breath as the Notario pored through the documentation, flicked the pages, tut tutted a few times, muttered something in Spanish, then signalled his approval. We all exhale, shook the Notario’s soft hand and were then led, by his secretary, to a small windowless room off the reception area, lit by a flickering fluorescent tube. In this room cheques for the taxable portion of the sale were place on a table, alongside piles of the ‘Black Money’, the cash the tax man would never, ever, know about, never collect.

This Mediterranean relaxed attitude to economics was well known to the Germans, the largest Greek creditor. After all, the Germans, along with the Irish arrived in droves to launder their respective currencies when the Euro was introduced. The trick was to use the cash that they had hoarded, in their Mother or Fatherland, as the ‘Black Money’ deposit for a villa, in the sun, by the Med. I was told by one disgruntled Irishman in a bar that he was being investigated by the Inland Revenue, so I imagine the German government would chasing their Expats too.

The second thing I became aware of is a collective memory of war. It surprised me that the Spanish Civil War still cast a dark shadow, memories of atrocities, carried out by both sides, lurk in dark recesses of many minds. There is even a Historical Memory Commission which attempts to address these issues. One of the property developments we were promoting was built near the site of one of the most notorious concentration camps at San Isdro, including a number of mass graves; something omitted from the glossy property brochures. And, of course, the Germans took part in this Spanish spat, a sort of training tour, in preparation for the Second World War, famously, or, more accurately, infamously bombing Guernica.

Europe has similar problem: a collective memory of war. The wars of the last century, principally the Second World War, are still vivid in the living memory of the peoples of each country. Most countries suffered invasion, occupation, reprisals and industrial scale looting of financial and cultural treasure. The Germans were undeniably the chief culprits, in fact the instigators of both wars, and Greece undeniably one of the victims. By and large we Brits don’t harbour the same feelings about the Germans. After all we won and the buggers didn’t invade us.

imageBut the Germans were lucky. After their war, the debts, moral and financial were largely written off. The West needed a strong West Germany on the fringe of the Iron Curtain.
The Marshall Plan, which West Germany joined in 1949 financed the reconstruction of the Europe that they had wrecked. In a speech, George C Marshall said “Europe’s requirements are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.” The good old USA were the main contributors. The same speech could apply today to Greece. “Greece’s requirements are so much greater than her present ability to …………..”
Some Greeks argue that the Germans owe them €162 billion in war reparations. They are probably not far from the truth. How on this Earth do you compensate a country for invasion, massacres, transportation of Greek Jews and other atrocities?

My third observation is of the Germans themselves. This is a purely personal opinion about them collectivly as a nation and will, of course,  inevitably sound like racial stereotyping.
In the late 1970s I went to Rhodes on holiday. It was an adults only holiday and we were part of a British group.
Within half an hour of entering the hotel bar, our group had gleaned the barman’s name, bought him a drink, found out that his brother was a sort of amateur musician and bought tapes of his amateur music. We had completely bonded, were the best of friends with Andreas, who then dispensed with the drinks measures. We all sat watching the first German that followed us in, march up to the bar, dispensed with any social interaction and demanded, ordered, Andreas to provide him with a drink. Andreas smiled thinly and dusted off the spirit measure cup, partially stuck his thumb in it while he poured a less than exact amount of gin.
During our time in Spain we lived among a lot of Germans, and I noticed this tendency to standoffish antisocial behaviour and wonderedAre the Germans naturally disposed to be off hand and humourless or, is it because they assume that we all probably think they are absolute bastards, because of the war and stuff, that they don’t bother to put in the effort to be nice?

So back to the Greek crisis. The one currency fits all, the Euro, clearly doesn’t work. The Germans clearly thought it would be to their advantage, making it easier to export their goods and dominate Europe; create a fourth Reich without a troublesome war. They weren’t thinking straight. They seem to have overlooked the inconvenience of democratic elections and referendums. If it had been a war they could have invaded Greece and carried out some random reprisals to bend and shape the will of the people.
But what were they thinking in the first place, lending the Greeks all that money, then lending some more. It’s like the Deutsche Bank, taking leave of their senses, and lending a hippy commune a shed load of money, and then, a few years later, lending more. Then saying if they become more sensible, mend their ways, that they will give them more money so that they can repay some of the loan.

I am no economist, but I have come to the conclusion that the Germans deserve to lose their money and the Greeks do not deserve the absence of hope for two generations. I also think, come the United Kingdom Referendum, that I will vote to leave the EU.

 

Deliver the letter, the sooner the better.

It was 1966, I was sixteen and in my first year of an interior design courses at Napier Technical College in Edinburgh. In the summer, after l had left school, and, before I started at college, I had worked at the local concrete works. My first job was operating a guillotine cutting blocks of concrete into mock stone of different hues and dimensions, then promoted to making concrete lintels of doubtful structural integrity.
imageBut, the Christmas holiday loomed and my entertainment schedule required money. Seeking a holiday job, I offered my services to Mrs Smith, the postmistress who ran Lasswade village post office.
She peered doubtfully at me over the counter, obviously remembering me as a troublesome boy, one half of the Wilson brothers; recalling incidents involving fireworks, stink bombs and broken windows.

She had once watched, from her back office window, as we recycled lemonade bottles from the unlocked store of the local Grocer and ‘Italian Warehouseman’ in the alley below. By recycle, I mean we stole the empty bottles, took them into the shop, inhaled the smell of ground coffee and other exotic foodstuffs and claimed the two pence return payment. The proprietor, Mrs Black, probably in the grip of the early onset of dementia, failed to realise that we had, ten minutes before, handed in the same bottles. Mrs Black would then wander up the path to deposit the bottles back in the store. And so the process went on, until, in the way of village life, Mrs Smith gave the heads up to my granny, who lived just up the road from the Post Office. The scam was quietly stamped out. So my honesty, essential to the operation of a successful Post Office, was slightly tarnished.
Luckily, Mr Smith, a hard looking but kindly man, ignorant of my childhood misdemeanours, saw a pleasant young man, veteran baker’s delivery boy and, vitally, grandson of Mrs Walter, a regular customer and son of Jim Wilson, Church Elder. The job was mine.

On my first day I turned up dressed in my WW1 full length leather flying coat (discovered in a cupboard in my granny’s house) a trapper hat, and scarf. This was my winter college outfit. I thought it was ‘cool’, defining me as a modish design student. Mr Smith, looked me up and down with the expression of a diner, anticipating a steak, but served a plate of whelks.
“Jings! Whit Soviet Gulag have you escaped from, son?” He said, smiling uncertainly, failing to see the trend setting design student.

My first task was sorting mail in the back office. It was from here in this room that Mrs Smith had looked down on our bottle scam, and decades before, in the summer of 1917, a telegram would have passed through, bringing the devastating news to my family, of the death of my grandfather, Clem, at the Battle of Arras. One telegram among many.

After a mail sorting session, I was introduced to Jimmy Jones. Each temporary worker was partnered with a regular postman and mine would be Jimmy.
We stepped out of the door on our first joint mission into a small snow storm. Once of earshot of the management, Jimmy caught my arm.
“Listen, son,” said Jimmy,” ‘ah dinnae want ye tae gang aroond yer half o’ the roond like Eric Liddell.”
“Eric who, Mr Jones?” The film Chariots of Fire was a long way off.
“Liddell. A runner, son, a famous runner,” Jimmy enlightened me, adding proudly, “a Scottish runner.” Then, getting to the point .“The boy last year got back more than a ‘oor afore me. Made me look slaw, y’ken.”
There was a constant fear of time and motion inspectors, rumoured to carry out clandestine inspections, with dire consequences for any postman dawdling.
“Well, Mr Jones, why don’t we fix a time to meet up, the we’ll go into the Post Office together?” I suggested in a show of worker solidarity.
“That sounds grand, son. And dinnae ca’ me Mr Jones, ca’ me Jimmy.”
And so a four year partnership was formed.

Jimmy was at least sixty, on his last legs I thought, and so I agreed to take the half of the round that started with some local dwellings known as the Swedish Houses, then up to the local sandpit, Melville Castle and a string of farms ending up at Dobbies Nursery. A long, long walk. A long walk, but with few letters. I probably only had about forty letters and, every Thursday, a strange, small package with the weight of anti-matter, to be delivered to the sandpit. Luckily, the sandpit was one of the first deliveries. A large number of the letters were addressed to a bungalow near to the nursery. I remember this because they were from every part of the globe. As I stood in a cloud of frosty breath, feeding the letters through the slot, I would imagine the senders addressing the envelopes and licking stamps in warmer, faraway sunny places: Brazil, Mexico, Portugal and India.

imageThe latter half of the 60s was the time when the government experimented with not turning the clocks back for winter. As a consequence, Scotland, far north of the seat of government in London, was in darkness until mid morning. I started work at six o’clock in the dark and finished my first shift, still in darkness, at about half past ten. I would walk through the silent countryside, along the farm tracks, through a dark tunnel of trees, in snow and frost, the frozen puddles silver pools in the moonlight, singing to myself; ‘My Generation’, Bonzo Dog’s ‘I’m the urban spaceman’ and of course the Beatles ‘Please, Mr Postman’ “Mr Postman, oh yeah, wait a minute, wait a minute, Mr Postman, deliver the letter, the sooner the better…………..”

Occasionally, in the inky blackness I would bump, literally, into a farm worker, and, one morning, a large pig crossed the track in front of me. A scary moment. I had read in a newspaper of an attack by a porker on a woman, nearly chewing her arm off. I froze, stopped singing, as the pig silently slipped into the undergrowth.

My part of the round completed I had to kill at least an hour in the freezing cold so that I could coordinate my to rendezvous with Jimmy. I would find a secluded spot in the woods of Melville Estate, built a large fire and sit reading a book, a flask of coffee and sandwiches by my side. Then it was back to the post office, walking in simultaneously, to the front shop, shaking snow off under the suspicious gaze of the Smiths.

All good things come to an end, they say. Even now, after many decades I still look back with fondness on my days as a Christmas postman. Many times in my life, in stressful moments, I have wished myself back to that simple life, walking through the snow covered countryside, under a canopy of twinkling stars and steady planets.