Monthly Archives: September 2015

Small furry animals

Owning a small furry animal is a rite of passage for every small child. As a parent, in a moment of grand delusion, you buy your offspring a hamster or gerbil. You think, wrongly, that they will learn from the experience, learn the joy of caring for another being.



Me, aged about 9 years with my guinea pig.

I knew all this. I had, in my childhood owned a hamster called Tag and a guinea pig. I recalled that my mother ended up doing most of the cage and hutch cleaning. My first experience of the parent role in small pets was when  my daughter Laura’s older sister Kate acquired a hamster. It had lived a short life, died and had an emotional burial ceremony in our back garden. A few days after the funeral I sat gazing out of the patio door mulling over whether to cut the grass or not. As you do. Suddenly, the remains of Kate’s hamster cartwheeled though the air in a cloud of loose soil to land spread eagled on the patio. The hamster’s slightly mauled body was followed by our frantic dog who had obviously disinterred it. I confiscated the corpse from the disappointed dog and secretly and unceremoniously reburied it in the wheelie bin.
Years later it was my daughters turn. She pleaded with me, persistently begged me to buy her a hamster. She just had to have one. Her sister had had one, a friend had one. I capitulated, accepted that, despite her promises, there would be the usual division of labour: I would end up mucking out the cage and she would cuddle and play with her new pet. Laura’s hamster on one of its evening outings in the lounge created a neat circular hole in the new carpet. It emerged from under the TV cabinet looking very furtive with its pouches packed with a mixture of carpet pile and jute. To add insult to injury, the hamster, having been summarily returned to his cage disgorged the contents of his pouches and proceeded to use the debris from my carpet to line his nest.
This hamster must have passed away as I have a vague recollection of the hamster being superseded by a mouse, but I am not certain, as there is only one image in my mind. It is this: Laura and I are standing at the counter of the local video shop and I am surprised to see out of the corner of my eye a mouse emerging out of the breast pocket of her blouse. But not as surprised as the girl serving us, if this recollection is true.
Snowball the rabbit I have clearer memories of. It was white. The name sounds suspiciously obvious, so that may be wrong, but for the sake of the telling I’ll stick with it. I agreed to buy Snowball on the usual clear guarantees that Laura would not only hug the large and cuddly Lagomorphs (that’s what rabbits are; not rodents as I thought, and many people think) but that she would, in addition to lavishing love and affection on her new pet, feed and perform the more unsavory task of cleaning out the cage. This arrangement, predictably, soon lapsed to just the giving of hugs while I, muttering curses, cleaned the hutch.



Snowball’s cage before being connected to the shed

After much thought I had the answer, a dazzling moment of design brilliance. Snowball could live in the lean-to shed that leaned on the precariously on the back of the garage. I would cut a round hole in the bottom of the shed door. From this hole would run a piece of flexible air conditioning tube connecting the shed to a large moveable cage made with a timber framed covered with chicken wire mesh. During the day, while I was at work and Laura at school the rabbit would hop happily through the tube to the cage to feed and poo on the grass. I would move the wire enclosure to a different patch of the lawn every morning before leaving for work. I assumed, wrongly, that Snowball would neatly crop a different area of the lawn thus reducing the number of times I would need to get the lawnmower out.
Unknown to me Snowball was a closeted member of a World War One historical re-enactment society. Possibly the UK’s only Lagomorphs member. Instead of neatly cropping the grass he proceeded to construct a scale model of the Somme battlefield complete with trenches and shell craters. Within a week he had a full set; Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Arras.

My scheme was not going to plan, the design was clearly flawed, before long I would have the complete Western Front. And, I certainly wouldn’t have any need of a lawnmower.

I was thinking about re-grassing the top of the lawn, probably with Snowball under the slabs of turf, when the problem resolved itself. Snowball’s re-enactment interests moved forward in history; to the Second World War. This time he enacted the Great Escape. Without the vaulting horse, the motorbike and forged papers, it lacked the historical accuracy of his First World War creations but he did have the tunnel. A big one.

It was rather unfortunate that, by coincidence, the local foxes Historical Re-enactment Society were re-enacting the German occupation of Europe 1939 – 45. Poor Snowball was never seen again.

Africa is where the heart is.

image A picture of one drowned child had brought home the human tragedy of the migration of Syrians and other people escaping from war and political persecution. For whatever reason of the human psyche, the working of our minds, it has somehow distressed us more than the news of 70 migrants suffocated in a sealed truck or 300 victims of people traffickers drowned in the Mediterranean. One child. But the solutions are not simple.

Driving test examiners have stock questions that they ask the pupil that they are testing to give the impression that they, the examiners, are human beings. During his test the examiner asked my pupil Yohannes “Well, Yohannes, what would you be doing if you weren’t on this test?” “I would be working” replies Yohannes. “So, Yohannes, what do you do for a living?” Continues the examiner. “I am a cleaner.” Yohannes replies. “That’s interesting,” as if it is, says the examiner flinching as Yohannes, distracted by this pointless conversation gambit narrowly misses a parked car.


Yohannes. Mathematician, teacher and ………cleaner.

I’m in the back of the car, a comfort blanket for Yohannes, listening to this exchange between the examiner and my pupil. I smile to myself; Yohannes may be a humble cleaner, here in the UK, but I know that in another life, in his own country of Eritrea, he was a teacher of maths and science. I discovered this during a discussion about tyre pressures and how you should check the pressures when the tyres are cold. I had no idea why, just that you should. But Yohannes knew why and proceeded to explain about molecules and stuff that flew over my head. I asked him why he didn’t take up teaching in Britain. He told me that he felt his command of English wasn’t good enough and that he couldn’t afford to stop work to improve his English or train to teach here. His sole priority is ensuring his children have a future, and to that end he will sacrifice his.

Unlike many commentators, through my work as a driving instructor, I meet many immigrants, get to know them personally. I have enjoyed their hospitality, shared meals with them in their homes, listened to sad, heartbreaking stories. Yonas a farmer, Yohannes a maths teacher, Yohan an aero engineer, Roben university lecturer and author, Bisrat a mechanical engineer. This is a small cross section of the Africans; Ethiopians, Eritreans, Zimbabweans and Nigerians that I teach to drive. They are all intelligent, educated people, but here in the UK they are all employed in warehouses, factories and kitchens. A shocking waste of talent here and a tragic loss for Africa.



Another of my pupils, Luwam, a lovely Ethiopian mother of two children, said to me, “this is not my country, it is painful, too painful. I miss my country, my home.” But, like Yohannes she is resigned to accepting her lot to ensure a future for her children. This longing for their homeland is a common emotion amongst the immigrants I know.

I have listened to well off politicians, celebrities and actors, living isolated in the leafy suburbs of London, their children at nice schools, suggesting we accept thousands of immigrants, distribute them around the country. Ten families to each town has been suggested. A news reporter then interviewed a local resident of Wolverhampton who pointed out that ten families in her neighbourhood will mean less housing opportunities for her son or daughter, additional pressure for school places for her grandchildren and longer queues in her doctors surgery. I totally agree with the noble sentiments expressed by the politicians, luvvies and celebrities as they compete to wave their compassion credentials. But, but, I also share the constituent’s fears. An ordinary person, her life style was closer to mine; my life, my problems. After all, it is not so long ago, during the election campaign, that we were told that the NHS was in the grip of catastrophic crisis, there was a massive housing shortage and millions were queuing at food banks. An exaggeration, I suspect but nevertheless, there are problems here and now. So, while we must do something to help the migrants it must be planned, considered and pragmatic.

One of my father’s pithy pearls of wisdom was that ‘problems only require solutions’. The only real solution is to fix Africa: almost an insurmountable problem. After the Iraq debacle it is obvious that the migration crisis will not be sorted if we persist in trying to foist our political, cultural and social systems on the Africans. The long term solutions, lie in Africa, as for many Africans, like Luwam, home is where the heart is.

Twin Towers memory.

imageI recently read a short memoir by author Kirsty Grant about the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers. It was titled ‘Collapse’. She posted the memoir on her blog and Kirsty invited readers to reply with their own memories of that terrible day. This was my recollection.

Kirsty, I too watched the Twin Towers tragedy unfold on television. We stood in the reception of the serviced offices that we operated from. We were a group of designers that specialised in office design and planning, familiar with the anatomy of commercial buildings we watched the second plane slice into the South Tower with the same understanding that a doctor would have of a projectile smashing through the anatomy of the human body. The event had an unreal sensation about it, a block buster film quality. Like historical events such as Hiroshima or the holocaust, in terms of Man’s inhumanity to Man, it was off the mental Richter scale, difficult, almost impossible to grasp.

It was later in my car heading home in a traffic queue, that the personal, human dimension, was brought to me by wireless. On the Radio Four news the CEO of one of the companies that tenanted the Twin Towers was interviewed. He was in London, Hong Kong or an international business place somewhere. He had lost more than 700 employees. At first he was rational, then as the interview progressed he started crying. Talking and crying. About how the company must continue, must provide for the widows and the orphans of his dead workers. It was utterly, utterly heartbreaking.

Listening, I started to weep too. Taken aback at this unexpected loss of control, embarrassed, I looked sideways at the driver alongside me. She was in tears, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. The man behind had his head in his hands, the shoulders of the driver in front were shaking. I don’t think he was laughing. That day isolated in our cars, we were all in a state of shared collective grief.

Later, at home with my family, I watched, in numb horror; the jumpers, some making the long descent alone, others with companions, holding hands. Then the final collapse.
Kirsty Grant’s story stirred this ineffably sad memory.

Dancing with the devil

After attending Lasswade Parish Church Sunday School, I seem to remember the next stage in the church’s religious education programme was Bible Class, then in my teenage years I joined the Youth Fellowship. During a meeting, on a dark, driech, winters night we stepped over onto the dark side. 

The Youth Fellowship met one evening each week and discussed topical stuff, with a Christian twist. There was plenty to discuss, it was the mid 60s; Vietnam, Civil Rights, Kennedy had been assassinated, space travel, the Cold War, with the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation. Occasionally a local person of note would give a talk. But, for teenagers there was the distraction of Pop Music, fashion, television. The attendance at the meetings became sporadic. One dark, wet November night there was a gathering of only five members in the cold church hall. I have no recollection of who was there at the time, but there was at least one girl the rest boys.

As the large bunch of keys, collected from the Beadle, included the keys to the church we decided to use the vestry, a small room, off the church, where the Minister changed into his robes before a service, wedding or funeral. And so the draughty hall was abandoned and, braving the wind and drizzle, we sloped off down the path, illuminated for brief moments by the moon, through the church garden to the much cosier vestry.
This particular evening there was no enthusiasm for putting the world to rights. Bored, we chatted about the latest singles chart, examined the Reverend Kennedy’s garments and tasted a little from a bottle of wine, unfermented for the sober Scottish Protestant communion. What to do?

imageI, along with my brother and friends, had recently dabbled with a Ouija Board. On our kitchen table we had contacted amongst others, a dead miner and a distant relative. Of course, there was the lingering suspicion that someone was manipulating the glass, pushing it around the letters and numbers for a laugh. My fellow members of the Youth Fellowship listened to my description of all this and how anyone could set up a Ouija Board. Sat round a circular table it was all too tempting. A note pad was discovered in a desk drawer along with a felt tip pen, and soon the alphabet and numbers, a yes and no, written boldly on squares of paper, were arranged neatly around the table. A candle was lit and four fingers placed on top of an upturned glass. The fifth person was delegated to taking down the message, the possessors of the four digits would not look at the glass; this to avoid cheating. The imprudence of performing a séance in the Parish Church, a place of God, was disregarded in our excitement. We were about to dance with the devil.

“Is anyone there?” The observer asked tentatively.
A nervous finger twitched and the glass moved. Our collective breaths were held, the candle guttered.
“Is anyone there?”
The tumbler moved again, with a squeak it slid over the oak table top to the paper square with ‘Yes’ written in capital letter. In unison four suspicious pairs of eyes looked up, then back down at our feet.
“Are you a man?”
Squeak, squeak, the tumbler arrived at ‘Yes’.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
No answer.
“Ask what happened to him!” Hissed one of the fingers.
“What happened to you?” Our observer enquired.
At this point the tumbler started to slide, squeaking and scraping across the polished top, to one letter, then to the middle, then to another letter. It was spelling something out. The tension was palpable. Rain spattered against the window pane, the door rattled in the wind.
K, squeak, squeak, I, scrape, L, squeak, scrape, L, squeak, E, scrape, D.
“What’s he saying?”
“Killed.” The observer, with a tremulous voice .” He says he was killed!”
At this point the glass starts to skid around, backwards and forwards: K.I.L.L.E.D, K.I.L.L.E.D, K.I.L.L.E.D. Then it squeaked to a stop. Probably at this point we should have stopped too. But of course, we were inquisitive, we needed to know more.
“How were you killed?”
Our Spirit visitor declined to answer. Our inquisitor tried another tack.
“Where were you killed?”
The glass, almost instantly set out across the table, backwards and forwards.
Y, squeak, U, scrape, G, squeak, squeak, O, scrape, S, scrape, squeak, L, squeak, A, scrape, V, I, sqeeeeeeeek, A.
“Yugoslavia……honestly,” said observer, uncomfortably aware that it sounded suspicious, far fetched, “it spelt out Yugoslavia. ‘m no kiddin’!”
“Four pairs of eyes stared in disbelief at our observer.”
“’am no jokin’.” He confirmed.
“Okay, who are you?” Demanded one of the ‘fingers’, speaking to the tumbler.
Squeak, squeak, squeak. The tumbler was on the move, we were about to receive an answer.
“Christ!” our observer said under his breath.

Fingers were snatched from the glass, the light quickly switched on, the candle extinguished, and the evidence: the paper squares, the letters and numbers, swept up and pocketed. The Vestry door locked, we hurriedly walked up the path to the Wee Brae, the actors in a horror movie, tacit partners in an unmentionable event. We hastily made our goodbyes, my four companions heading, I recall, down the brae to the well lit main road, leaving me to the lonely climb up the Wee Brae to Bonnyrigg. The brae, lined with trees, creating a claustrophobic, dark tunnel. The wind whistled through the high branches and the Moon, through the scudding windswept clouds, illuminated ghostly forms. I was Tam o’ Shanter, the subject of Robert Burn’s poem, chased by imagined witches and ghosts. But unlike Tam, I was sober. Cold sober.

imageThe wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last
The rattling showers rose on the blast
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellow’d
That night, a child might understand
The Deil had business on his hand.

I arrived home, breathless, slightly disheveled, never so glad to be with my family. I don’t think we, the participants ever talked about that night again. It all started as a bit of teenage fun, adolescence bravado. But had we inadvertently danced with the devil or had one of us been a very clever joker?