Monthly Archives: December 2015

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.

Games we played

Winter

A dull thump, a thwack on my back. A direct hit by a snowball. Dodging more incoming missiles we retaliate. The kids from Nazareth House on one side of the road and us on the other are like passing ships exchanging broadsides. Snow balls arc across passing cars, then the firing peters out as we move out of range of each other; the orphanage kids heading towards the Catholic Primary school in the town while we disappear down the steep Wee Brae, treacherous after a snow fall, and descend to the village in the Esk Valley. Our periodic spats had nothing to do with religious intolerance, we were just two different groups of school children in different uniforms. It was only later in my life, much later that I heard stories, rumours of the abuse of the children by the nuns, women who had given their lives to Christ, sacrificing a life of motherhood to care for the children of others. No surprise, I suppose, that it all went wrong.

It was the late 1950s, a time of innocence and simplicity. The games we played at school and at home, required few props and an abundance of imagination. My early school life was spent at the Primary School that stood overlooking the small village of Lasswade, just south of Edinburgh.

imageThe school stood at the top of the School Brae. A grey austere building with tall windows, it overlooked the village and floated high above the chemical stench of the river, caused by of the colourful fluid that spewed out of Leonard’s Paper Mill. It must have been there a long time; my mother and her mother before her had been pupils. At the top of the Brae I would turn right into the upper playground, a flat tarmac area that ran along the side and across the front of the building. Steps at each end of the front portion of the playground led down to two shelters, or sheds as we called them, which were open to the front. Sandwiched between the sheds were the primitive toilets. The slopes to the sides of the stepped pathways leading to the sheds were covered in threadbare grass.

In the winter months, snow, when it fell, was the main ingredient of fun. Snow ball fights on the way to school, at play time and on the way home. On the School Brae slides formed like glaciers and, to the cheers and laughter of children, even the occasional teacher was known to sample a slide, precariously balanced with arms outstretched, a briefcase in one hand. Playing ended when the bell clanged and we would form lines, under clouds of foggy breath, at the entrance doors. As we sat down to our lessons the radiators under the windows were covered with steaming coats, and mother- knitted scarves, gloves and hats. Beneath this embankment of clothes, shoes and boots were propped against the wall in puddles of melting snow. The teacher would struggle to hold our attention as snowflakes would gently cascade past the high windows. All we were interested in was the next playtime.

At the weekend sledges would be retrieved from sheds and cupboards and dragged to the hill in the local park or the Broomieknowe golf course where the pins flags could be used to form slalom courses. One winter, to the annoyance of my mother the Kirkwood boys from across the road, rolled a massive snowball into our vestibule.

Spring

imageIts’s Spring. My mother has caught me leaving the house to go to school with my hair uncombed and my clothing in disarray. In the vestibule, I stand still as a statue, while my mother combs my hair, straightens my blazer, pulls my socks up and wipes any residue of snot from under my nose. She then stands back for a moment appraising me with narrowed eyes, a sculptor admiring a work of art. Once out on the street and before I crossed the end of Golf Course Road I have mussed my hair, unbuttoned my blazer and pushed my socks down to my ankles, to look like William, the child antihero of the Just William novels by Richmal Crompton. Novels, which I avidly read and which influenced generations of horrid children. After I disarranging my clothing and hair to my satisfaction, I wave to Mr Scott, standing outside his grocers shop, peering at me through his round wire spectacles, slightly baffled. Then a car approaches and I run and use Miss Meldrum’s garden gate to lever myself off the ground as it passes. This is a version of High Tig, one that you can play on your own, without a friend. The game has one simple rule: every time a vehicle passes you have to be off the pavement. A wall or a step would do, or Miss Meldrum’s gate. She raps on her window in irritation. She is actually a nice lady. She once invited mum, dad and my brother and me for a meal. The main course was hamburgers. We were agog when she told us that she had lived in America and had been a personal assistant to some business mogul in New York. A dark horse, Miss Meldrum. At the time we had never heard of hamburgers, fast food was still some time into the future.

On fine days, usually in the upper tarmac playground, we would play tig in small groups and, sometimes, the enmity between the girls and boys would be suspended and a game of Chain Tig would develop. Chain Tig was a communal game where one child was nominated as ‘het’ ( or ‘it’) and would manically run around trying to catch someone. When they caught a fellow pupil both would hold hands and try and catch someone else. Eventually there would be an extended ‘chain’ of children trying to corner the the remaining boy or girl. A game would be popular for a time then, for no apparent reason would fall out of favour and be replaced by another. A ball might be brought to school by a pupil and, with rules agreed, dodgeball would be trending. If teams were necessary for a game, two children, on the grounds of peer popularity or basic natural selection, were chosen as leaders. One leader would step, heel to toe towards the other. The one whose foot overlapped the other had first pick. The last to be picked, the least wanted kid, may have felt a bit humiliated, but would soon forget as the game, whatever it was, started.

In wet weather everyone crowded into the sheds at the bottom of the grassy slopes. In the boys shed, British Bulldog or Corner Tig would pass the time. British Bulldog involved hopping towards an opponent with your arms folded in front, the winner was the last boy standing; usually the one with a streak of violence in their make up. The rules of Corner Tig were that you had to run between the corners of the shed without being caught by the person that was ‘het’.

Summer

imageSummer. In memory, imaginary days of continuous sunshine and blue skies. There is sporadic outbreaks of warfare with the Nazareth House kids. The projectiles are now stones, not snowballs, and a lorry driver, window open, is hit in the face by a stone. There is a severe clampdown by the police, the school and the orphanage and an armistice is declared. At the school the slope of the lower playground has dried out and out come the racing cars: Dinky and Corgi miniatures of Cooper-Climax, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. At playtime we set our cars hurtling down the slope, the winner is the car that travels the furtherest. At home we strip tyres from military vehicles and trucks and fit them to our cars trying different combinations of tyres to improve performance, gain an advantage, make them go further. We imagine we are Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham or Manuel Fangio. In the classroom a child Fangio stands his car on his desk in order to admire its flowing lines or tyre combinations. But his inattention is spotted by the alert teacher who pockets the model like a magician, as he stealthily passes down the aisle.

At some point in the season the interest in racing cars fades and marbles, pea shooters or water pistols became the new fad. ‘Gerries and British’ war game enactments are a popular boys game, fuelled by the relentless diet of Second World War films or stories in the comics that I would read in Mr McKenzie’s barbers shop. While we boys played with our toys the girls played games that seemed to required far more skill. I remember standing in a corner of the upper playground watching, mesmerised by the girls skipping, sometimes with two ropes at once or two girls hopping up and down through the arcing ropes. Hopscotch, too, seemed to require a high degree of dexterity well beyond any boy’s ability.

To the relief of the teachers and pupils the holidays came round. We looked forward to days of building gang huts in Melville Woods, the Old Sandpit or up the Braeheads. Sometimes we would sneak through the council yard fence, like commandos, to steal pram wheels to build bogeys. If we had some pocket money saved we would take the train to Portobello to swim in the salt water baths and mess around in the arcades. All to soon it would end and we would again make the long walk to school.

Autumn

2013-04-19_5Summer has turned to Autumn and my pockets bulge with conkers. At home, I sit at the kitchen table and bore holes through the conkers with a bradawl from my dad’s tool kit. I thread strings through the holes and tie knots. In the morning I head for school to try and smash an opponent’s conker off it’s string. A win will add to my conkers tally, an opponents miss will result in very sore knuckles. There are rumours in the playground of fifteeners or twentyers, and of unscrupulous kids who marinate their conkers in vinegar or some other sinister substance to harden them. One day I suffer the combination of knuckle injury by conker and a stinging palm, the result of getting the belt. For at least a week, a group of us has been ringing the bell of Mr Towers’s flat and doing a runner. Mr Towers is our teacher and lives in the top floor of the red sandstone apartments at the end of Golf Course Road, just round the corner from my home. He could have simply walked round the corner and complained to me father about his son’s extra curricular activities, but then, in the late 1950s there was no limit to a teacher’s jurisdiction. One morning, just after Billy Watt has nearly broken one of my knuckles, Mr Towers calls the bell ringers to the front of the class and gives us all a thrashing with the tawes, or the belt. My father never found out, either from Mr Towers and, certainly not, from me.

As the dark nights set in we would, as a family, play simple board games like Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, and various card games. On the way home from school and at weekends stealing apples from gardens and Mrs Clarks small holding was a popular pastime. Then, as Guy Fawkes Night approached, our pocket money financed small arsenals of penny bangers and jumping jacks which we would use to terrorise the local citizens as they stood at bus stops or walked about the town.

After hallowe’en and bonfire night the residents of Bonnyrigg and Lasswade breathed a collective sigh of relief and Sergeant Turner and his constables would relax and put their feet up for a few weeks to await the first snowfall.