Category Archives: Childhood tales

Stories from my childhood in Scotland spanning the 1950s and 1960s. Mainly light-hearted.

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.

Bob-a-Job mayhem.

imageBob-a-Job Week was one of the highlights of the year. I can’t recall whether the week fell in Spring or Summer; the Easter or Summer school holidays. In my memory, it was always warm and sunny, but of course, is not childhood weather always so.

It was the late 1950s in the village of Lasswade not far from Edinburgh. At a meeting our local Scoutmaster, Tommy Green, would hand out the record cards along with encouragement to do our best, our duty, to God and the Queen, along with the challenge to fill the card.

For a short spell, dressed in our Scout and Cub uniforms, we had immunity, a freedom to walk up the long gravel drives of the grand mansions, in the affluent areas of Broomieknowe and the Braeheads, with impunity, and, at times impudence. Any challenge by suspicious resident, who may have in the past, confronted us, up to no good, out of uniform, could now be met with a legitimate reason to be on their private land. A reason to be trespassing, casing the joints for future apple scrumping in the Autumn.

We washed cars, windows, cut grass, weeded borders and numerous odd jobs. Some odder than others. One eccentric householder marched us through his garden to a conservatory, clinging, along with the ivy, to the side of a dilapidated house; the sort of property estate agents would describe, optimistically, as having abundant charm. He had a military bearing and moustache and called us ‘chaps’ and ‘young’uns’. The job was to wash a massive, teetering stack of flower pots. A pointless task, the equivalent of painting stones or rocks white, on some colonial military base to keep soldiers from boredom. After half heartedly washing the pots, we received halfhearted praise, “Jolly well done, chaps!” and half a crown. Some people would employ us with understandable reluctance; car washing created a mess without a discernible difference to their cars, valued plants were pulled up instead of dandelions. I once polished, to the dismay of the owner, not only the shoe uppers, but also the soles. Willie, my brother, was confronted by the very odd and Very Reverend, Pike, a tall, thin, ascetic man, who told him in a sinister voice, “do not darken my doorstep ever again.” Once a job was completed the householder was given a ‘job done’ window sticker, which was gratefully snatched and immediately displayed. The sticker gave exemption from further visits by Cubs or Scouts.

imageOne of the most memorable jobs was clearing out the store room for Mr Scott, our local grocer. At the suggestion of my mother, we trooped into his shop and asked if he had any jobs to do. Mr Scott, a kindly man, probably on the cusp of dementia, led us through his shop and a heady combination of aromas: coffee, biscuits, cheese and paraffin, to the back yard. There, inside a store room, were piles of cardboard and timber boxes. Mr Scott stood in the doorway, as though in a trance, gazing intently at the stack of boxes.

“Och, I’ve been meaning to get rid of all these boxes for a wee while.”
“We can do that Mr Scott,” said Willie eagerly, then suggesting, “we could burn them.”
“Aye, you could do that, Willie. That would be a grand help.”

Mr Scott had no way of knowing that, some years before we had, accidentally, razed the railway station, just down the road, to the ground. My brother was a bit of an amateur pyromaniac. More than a bit, he was the original Firestarter.

We set about stacking the boxes, in a pile that would not disgrace an Indian funeral pyre, with no regard for the restricted dimensions of the yard.

“Fucking hell, look at this,” whispered Willie.
We gathered round my brother in the doorway. The removal of the boxes had revealed a large paraffin storage tank with a tap at the front.
“This’ll help get the fire going,” said Willie as he liberally sloshed paraffin over our bonfire.
We looked sideways at Willie; he had said something similar, a few years before, in the bushes at the back of the late railway station.

Predictably, the pyre erupted in a fireball which vaporised the telephone wires hanging overhead, then settled down to an inferno, a firestorm, the sort we had watched with our parents on TV documentary about the Blitz. The paint on the doors started to bubbled and one of the storeroom window panes cracked. Forced by the intense heat we retreated into the far corners of the small yard.

Across the yard, through the flames, Mr Scott appeared, framed in the shop back door, his spectacles mirroring the flames. He stood there trying, without much success, to make sense of it all, a steamy vapour coming off his overalls.
“Grand job, aye, a grand job lads,” said Mr Scott, then turned, probably just before combusting, and closed the scorched door.

We completed the job, tidied up, leaving the yard looking as though the Lunar Landing Module had recently blasted off the moon’s surface. We filed into the shop to receive our payment to find Mr Scott standing behind his counter, slightly red in the face and lightly toasted. He was chatting to my mother who was probably complaining, again, about the biscuits, which were displayed in glass fronted boxes, tasting slightly of paraffin. She turned to look at her two sons and our friend, Hally, clothes smoke damaged and with blackened faces. She looked back at Mr Scott, then looked again at us, with a suspicious expression on her face. An expression we were very familiar with.

Eventually, probably understandably, health and safety concerns and the rise of the compensation culture, forced abandonment of Bob-a-Job week. A grievous loss to society.

They shopped, I dropped!

imageI inherited the position of the local baker’s delivery boy from my brother. Willie had moved on to greater things; his resignation nothing to do with the incident involving the birthday cake ordered by Mrs Monteith. He had left the cake, secure in its box, at the back door, the tradesman’s entrance. Unfortunately and unluckily for my brother, a local squirrel, also celebrating it’s birthday, opened the box and partially consumed the cake. He then invited the numerous species of excited birds, resident in the Monteith’s  extensive, well stocked garden, to his birthday bash. Little remained of the cake.

On my first day in the job, my new boss,  Jimmy Muirhead, mentioned this mishap as part of my induction training, an example of something I must on no account do. The induction talk took a considerable time, as Jimmy had a habit of repeating things, in fact almost everything, he uttered. As a younger, inquisitive child, I had asked my dad why Mr Muirhead, who lived across the road from us, had a small square shape, like an access hatch, in his head. He told me that he had heard Mr Muirhead had suffered a serious head injury, the result of a motorcycle accident, being in the days before the wearing of crash helmets was mandatory. As I listen to Jimmy outlining the scope of my duties I imagined the small hatch opening to reveal a tangle of wires that were sparking and short circuiting causing each sentence to be repeated.

Following a demonstration in the art of packing bread, buns and cakes into the cardboard boxes I was led out to the delivery bike which was leaning against the wall. It resembled a section of the Forth Bridge with wheels bolted on. It had no gears and required ferocious pumping of the legs to move it from a standing start.

imageThe customers who ordered deliveries tended to live at the posh end of Bonnyrigg, mainly on a street called Broomieknowe, lined with mansions that on one side overlooked the Esk Valley and Lasswade village. The larger residences were approached by long, crunchy gravel drives. Some, owned by ‘Old Money’, were in a state of fading elegance and disrepair. The properties owned by ‘New Money’ were well maintained and had signs directing deliveries to the Tradesman’s Entrance. As a rule, ‘Old Money’ customers would greet me, on a wet winters day, with sympathy, even a cup of tea, “You look done in, old chap”. ‘New Money’ residents, savouring their recently achieved social position were unmoved by the hardship endured by a mere Bakers Boy. As fate would have it the Broomieknowe was approached by long incline requiring a combination of pedalling while steering with one hand, while holding the pile of cardboard boxes in place with the other. Occasionally, the jarring from a pothole would dislodge a box, spilling the contents, bread and rolls, over the road. I would furtively brush off the grit, and, if a sliced loaf had gone under the front wheel, careful reconstructive surgery was called for.

imageAll sorts of local characters passed the shop. Sergeant Turner, rumoured to mete out justice in dark alleyways, retired Dr Scott, so old that his drain pipe trousers and Beatle boots had come back into fashion. But the most colourful character was The Cisco Kid. One day Jimmy was helping me load the bike, or more likely making sure I didn’t overload it, as Cisco strolled passed. Aged anywhere between twenty five and forty, and one round short of a six gun, Cisco was resplendent in his cowboy outfit; ten gallon hat, waistcoat, chaps, boots and sheriff’s star.
“Och, he’s on another planet, on another planet, that one.” Suggested Jimmy.
More likely in Deadwood City, I thought. Where we could see Dr Somerville sedately approaching in his Rover, Cisco saw a stagecoach and tumbleweed rolling across the High Street.
“He’s the happiest man in Bonnyrigg, the happiest man, son,” mused Jimmy, as he eyed me building a small cardboard ziggurat pyramid at the front of the bike.

Mostly life was quiet in the shop, but from time to time there were moments of excitement.  “Snell, snell!” A pause, ‘”Snell, snell!” An excited, loud voice emanated from the front shop. I was in the back room packing bread and cakes into the cardboard boxes with Jimmy’s wife, Mary. Startled by this commotion I resisted the urge to hide under the table. The night before I’d been to the Regal cinema to see Von Ryan’s Express , one of the latest war films, which had a lot of German soldiers running around shouting “ Schnell! Schnell!” in loud, excited voices at everyone else who wasn’t German, who tried to hide under tables.
Jimmy marched into the back room. “Did you hear that, did you hear that, son?”
“Hear what, Mr Muirhead?” I said.
“Old Mrs Kay, old Mrs Kay, said to me, ‘it’s snell this morning, snell!”
I looked up from trying to squash a loaf into a ridiculously tight space in a box and peered at the hatch in his head. Had the wires shorted again?
“Snell, Mr Muirhead?”
“Aye, snell, snell, it’s the auld Scots for cold, for cold, son,” said Jimmy enlightening me, “I’ve no heard that for years, for years!”
Neither had Mrs Muirhead, who paused packing a box and rolled her eyes to look up at the ceiling.

I can’t recall how many years I worked for Jimmy, but when I was about 16, due to leave school I had handed my notice in. This probably save Jimmy the trouble of sacking me following an unfortunate lapse in customer care.

On a wet, cold and blustery morning I had just made the final delivery of the day.
I was about to pump the pedals with my aching legs, create the impetus to move the delivery bike and head back to the shop. “Baker’s boy! Baker’s boy!” A loud piping voice accompanied by crunching gravel. I turned mid-thrust on the pedals, rain mingling with sweat, dripping of the end of my nose, to see a small boy. A pupil of one of the Edinburgh public schools, resplendent in an immaculate school uniform and cap. “I say, Baker’s Boy, Baker’s Boy, mummy would like……….”
Being called a Baker’s Boy by this Little Lord Fauntleroy was just too much to bear.
“Fuck off, sonny!” I muttered, a little too audibly.
Startled, the distressed boy ran back down the long gravel drive, eager to regale mummy with the strange turn of phrase used by the ‘Baker’s Boy’ while the Baker’s Boy pedalled back to face Jimmy.

I must have left on good terms as later, older and wiser, during my Easter holidays from College, I made deliveries in Jimmy’s Ford van which had superseded the bike.

Dancers are the athletes of God

This is another tale from my days at Lasswade Secondary School. A story about a Christmas dance organised by my nemesis, Mr Stewart the P E teacher, known, behind his back, as ‘Peasel’. Due to my dodgy left lung physical education was not my favourite subject, ergo, I was not Peasel’s favourite pupil. But looking back, Peasel was a pivotal figure in the organising of community events at the school, in the church and the village.

imageThe dulcet tones of “Chattanooga choo choo” seeped into the changing room and swirled around, mingling with the smell of stale sweat and the unique aroma of well used gym shoes.
“Whit the fucks that…..?”
The changing room swung open with a bang against a bench as Peasel, our PE teacher, feared by many, marched in.
”That, Murchison is music. Melodious music, you moron.”
“Sir, sir,! An excited voice from the far side of the room. “That’s alliteration, Sir!”
The room and thirty buttocks tensed. Such a display of being clever would normally be stamped on, the culprit earning himself two circuits of the rugby pitch in the late November drizzle or if it was a nice day, fifty press ups with Peasel’s foot on his neck.
But Peasel was in a trance, absent, his eyes glazed over, lost in the swirling, undulating music. He had probably been transported in his mind to some far off WWII theatre of war, dancing, in a Nissan Hut to Swing Music with a pretty nurse or Wren.

The distant music ended as the gramophone needle began to squeak and scrape and Peasel snapped out of his reverie.
“That, Murchison,” he said reverently, “was Glen Miller’s Big Band.”
“y’mean, like the Troggs?” asked Big Murch, recklessly, then quickly adding “Sir!”
“The who?” Asked a bemused Peasel.
“No The Who, The Troggs. They’re a band, ye ken, like The Who, Sir,” Big Murch endeavoured to bring Peasel up to date with the current Pop groups, “and they’re big, the noo.” Had he been born later, in another era, Big Murch would have been a fan of the Sex Pistols or perhaps head banged to heavy metal music.
The changing room tensed at this exchange. A whiff of fear merged with the other changing room odours. But Peasel simply emitted a slow, resigned sigh of someone that had listened to, but did not comprehend, an obscure scientific theory. He shook his head, and asked us to assemble in the gym.

It was circa 1964 at Lasswade Secondary School. Christmas was tantalisingly close and the annual school dance was on the horizon. The year before, the organisers had pandered to the new Pop Music culture. As the music of the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Animals throbbed round the Assembly Hall, the pupils had gravitated into two distinct groups, boys on one side of the hall and girls on the other. We had posed and preened like mating birds, casually glancing at each other, across the fug of faint sweat and and our father’s Old Spice aftershave.
That would not happen this year, not be allowed to happen. Peasel had a plan; a plan to be executed with military precision.

As we trooped reluctantly into the gym we were lined up in front of the, thankfully, folded trampoline, with its blood stained canvas. A few weeks before, Willie McRob had nearly severed an ear when his head was trapped between the springs. Bouncing around on the trampoline was no longer regarded as fun.
Peasel stood arms akimbo facing us. “Right, pay attention!” he barked, “today, we are going to learn to dance. Proper dancing, not jerking around like demented puppets!”
“Ah thought we were playin’ Murder Ba’, Sir.” This was Big Murch, sounding like Jim Taggart at a crime scene, asking if we would be playing Murder Ball, his favourite indoor game.
The clue was in the name. A large leather ball, filled with, what felt like sand was place in the middle of the gym floor and opposing teams strove to carry the ball to the opposite end of the room. There were no apparent rules and inevitably, many injuries. Base on selection by height, Big Murch fronted one team and I the other. It was like facing Attila the Hun at the apex of a phalanx of bloodthirsty soldiers. Many us still nursed a catalogue of injuries from the previous week’s fixture.

Ignoring Big Murch, Peasel separated us into two groups, one to represent the girls, the other group the boys, which of course they already were.
Once the protest from the group designated as the girls died down, Peasel marched over to the gramophone, and like a surgeon performing an intricate operation, delicately placed the needle on the disc. After a few seconds of scratching, “In the Mood” flowed gently over the room.

image“I will now demonstrate exactly what I expect.” Peasel announced as he picked one of the smaller, more athletic of the ‘girls’ and launched into a sort of waltz, smoothly progressing around the polished parquet floor. We watched, astonished at this revelation of Peasel’s feminine side, then tried to emulate this exposition of ‘proper dancing’. We stumbled about, standing on toes and colliding with each other, amid laughter and curses. But eventually our skills improved and order slowly replaced chaos. Every week Peasel alternated the roles of each group. He had obviously watched Steptoe and Son, the popular TV comedy of the time, about the fractious relationship between a father and son. Harold Steptoe’s father, to his surprise, helps him prepare for taking a new girlfriend to a social event, by teaching his him to dance. But in the training sessions Harold always took the female role , the father, his mentor, the male. Predictably, the Harold’s relationship embarrassingly hits the rocks on the dance floor where he finds he has no idea of how to dance as the male partner.

As the week’s progressed and the School Dance loomed, more dance genres were added to our dance repertoire; The Gay Gordon’s, Canadian Barn dancing and, of course, Scottish Country Dancing, and, thankfully actual girls. The essential etiquette of dancing was introduced into the training and Murder Ball was forgotten as a real enthusiasm for dance slowly developed.

At last the evening of the dance arrived. We flowed in, through the rotunda into the assembly room. At first we formed the usual gender groups and gazed at each other across the fug of faint sweat and Old Spice aftershave. But as the music began the training kicked in. Or, at least we did as we had been trained to do before Peasel kicked in. The boys politely asked the girls to dance and took to the floor. ‘In the Mood’ was followed by Scottish Reels, Canadian Barn Dances, and later a few popular song to twist and the shake to, or as Peasel thought, jerk around like demented puppets.

imageAt the time we teenagers probably would not have admitted to enjoying the Christmas Dance. After all, it had been foisted on us, forced on us by Peasel; an almost military event. But, Peasel had something. The dancing to Pop Music required little etiquette or normal human interaction, unless it was a dance to slow music, which was virtually fully clothed adolescent foreplay. The ballroom room style of dancing encouraged, required, manners and respect for the partner you were dancing with. The country dancing, the Scottish Reels and Canadian Barn Dances, fostered a true communal spirit, something missing from previous school dances. Something, which sadly is sometimes absent in today’s society.

 

Dib, Dib, Dib.

This is a memoir of my days as a Cub then a Scout in Lasswade, a village near Edinburgh in Scotland. It is the late 1950s when life was simple and uncomplicated. The next decade, the Swinging 60s was about to kick off.

imageI was about to embark on my first Scout camp. I was still a cub, so it is probably 1959 which would make me 9 years old. In the picture, taken outside the Scout Hall in Lasswade opposite the Laird and Dog, I am in the middle, the second blond up from the front row. My brother Willie is standing to the left of the Scoutmaster Tommy Green. For the photograph, taken by my dad, Jim Wilson, we were arranged on the loading ramp of a cattle truck, which still reeked of recent and more appropriate passengers. This truck would be our mode of transport to the campsite at near Tantallon Castle on the coast of the Firth of Forth. The equipment for the camp, the tents, cooking gear, food supplies, our personal luggage (usually packed in military surplus kit bags) and so on were loaded first, followed by us, the Scouts and Cubs, on top. In those days, Health and Safety was not a consideration, in fact the only concern was that we didn’t fall out of the back.
The journey probably took a couple of hours as we meandered across the countryside, then along the coast roads. I recall the fun we had, as we passed slowly through the towns and villages, mimicking the cattle and sheep that would have been the normal cargo. Unsuspecting pedestrians were startled by the cacophony of moo’s and baa’s that came from behind the wooden slats, followed by hoots of raucous laughter.

imageAt the campsite we were released from the cattle truck, clattering down the ramp like a herd of beasts. The equipment was unloaded, tents set up and the latrine excavated; a long deep pit like a grave with a canvas screen and as time passed an evil smell. There was a large tent that acted as a kitchen where, in the morning, you could watch the porridge cooking in an enormous black pot while one of the scout leaders casual tapped his fag ash into it. I think there was probably about six occupants to each tent where at night, after lights out, gruesome stories and jokes were told. The photograph shows my brother Willie, standing by the tent pole, with his group posing like a nonchalant Edwardian safari party. I recall a torchlit midnight ramble along the seafront, games of rounders, campfires and learning scouting skills. I also remember the smells; damp grass, damp canvas, drinking chocolate. And the latrine.

imageThis photograph is of my initiation into the Lasswade Scout group. I would be about ten or eleven years old, dressed in a kilt, but hatless. Everyone looks a bit gormless, Dib, Dib Dibbing, and giving half hearted three finger salutes. The troop was organised into four patrols and mine, somewhat disappointingly, was called the Owls. The others had more inspiring names; the Hawks, the Eagles and the Ospreys. Inside the scout hall there was a canvas enclosure in each corner, one for each patrol. At the start of each session there was a pledge allegiance to God and the Queen followed by inspections by the Scoutmaster, who peered critically at the uniforms, shape of the hats (achieved by steaming and ironing) and position of the woggles. The enclosures were then scrutinised for cleanliness and order.

Activities included learning the scouting skills, knot tying and stiff, necessary to gain the various badges, and a variety of games. In the summer we could be found following trails through the local woods, the Braeheads and in the dark winter months we played indoor games. A particular game that I recall involved a boxing glove. The troop formed a circle facing inwards, eyes firmly closed and a boxing glove was handed to a scout who then started beating his surprised and startled neighbour with the glove as he chased him round the circle back to his place, bruised and panting. The glove was then randomly passed to another scout and the frantic pursuit repeated; an opportunity to settle scores.
In those uncomplicated days, the Scouts, Guides, Cubs and Brownies, like the church and school played an important part in the life of the village.

But soon, to the great disappointment of my dad, a King Scout in his youth, I left the Scouts.
One dark Winter evening, I was climbing the Post Office Steps, on my way home from a Scout meeting.
“Ye heard, Pal?” A voice in the dark..
“Heard what?”
“President Kennedy’s gone and been assassinated, Pal.”
It was 7.30 on Friday the 22 November 1963. I went home and sat on my bed in a state of deep shock. At a time when political leaders were old men with grey hair, pipes and moustaches, Jack Kennedy, with his film star looks, was someone we teenagers could relate to. He had celebrity status; a year before we had followed the Cuban Crisis with apprehensive awe.
Suddenly, life was no longer simple and uncomplicated. Not long after, I drifted away from the Scouts, an organisation that didn’t seem relevant in this new world, the world of the swinging 60s.

What a stinker

It is a holiday ritual. As the plane levels off and the sign lights up allowing passengers to unbuckle their seat belts, my wife, Val, will lean forward to begin a silent conversation with me. A conversation that requires minimal lip reading skills.
“Is that you?” She mouths.
“What?” I mouth back playfully, knowing full well where this is leading.
“That!”
“What?”
“That smell!”
“What smell?”
Exasperated, Val cuts to the chase. “Have you farted?”
“No, it’s not me!” I terminate the conversation, knowing my protestations will fall on deaf ears, read my book and sip a gin and tonic. If it was me the oxygen masks would be deployed.

This is not the first time in my life that I have been falsely accused of creating a stink. In 1956, as a six year old pupil at Lasswade Primary School, I was humiliatingly assumed to be responsible for a smell, a dreadful smell, in the classroom. It was not me.

image

Still coming to terms with primary school life I sat, seeking anonymity, somewhere in the middle of the classroom at a wooden desk, one in a regimented sea of desks. The sun is streaming in the large window, the room was warm and my mind probably elsewhere; mulling over the latest exploits of Davy Crockett or Quatermass, a scary science fiction TV film which surprisingly my dad had allowed me to watch at the impressionable age of six.

The class, in a state of mild excitement, was about to go to the music lesson to be held in a large room at the other end of the school where I would wield a triangle, the extreme limit of my musical talents.
My day unravelled with an unexpected and uncontrolled fart; loud enough for the teacher Mrs Blair, a tall, middle aged lady, to give me a disapproving look and the girl sat next to me to snigger. No longer anonymous I was the centre of attention.

imageThe moment passed and I slipped back into my default daydreaming mode. But this hiatus didn’t last. I slowly become aware, along with the teacher and my fellow pupils, that the room was slowly being blanketed with the smell of poo mingling with the ever present chemical odour, wafting from the paper mill on the far side of the River Esk. My recent fart had placed me firmly in the frame as the source of the smell. The teacher, suspicious that I had suffered a catastrophic ‘follow through’ told me to sit at the front of the class in an attempt to isolate the problem.
Even at the age of six I recall feeling victimised; surely the teacher couldn’t  believe that the sheer volume and persistence of the smell could possibly have seeped from my small body.
Much later in my life my mother would often announce, to my extreme embarrassment, in her lilting, but loud Scottish voice, that when I was a child Doctor Sommerville had remarked that I had very large bowels; the chatter and clatter in restaurants would be suspended at this revelation.
But, back to my childhood. I am sat, probably red faced at the front of the class with the teacher taking frequent smell readings over me with her nose. Things were about to get worse.
The class was marshalled into a column of pairs, a miniature military column, girls and boys holding hands to start the long march down the main corridor of the school. We set off, travelling in a cloud of poo smell. I was holding hands with teacher, my classmates smirking at my discomfiture as Mrs Blair stopped at intervals to bend over, and with fabric between thumb and forefinger, lifted up the leg of my shorts and sniff; a chef lifting the lid of a saucepan, uncertain of the contents.
This final humiliation was intense but short lived. Suddenly, a girl in the column burst into into uncontrollable tears. Thankfully the humiliation was transferred from me to the distressed girl as Mrs Blair gingerly lifted her skirt to reveal a memorably large poo slung in her knickers.

The unfortunate girl was led away. I replaced her in the column holding the limp, reluctant hand of her erstwhile companion. In the music room, at the back of the small orchestra, I again became anonymous, pondering on the recent indignity while striking the metal triangle vaguely in beat with the music.

The moving finger writes

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This class picture was taken in the playground of Lasswade Primary School. I am on the top row in the middle. It is 1959 and I am nine years old, the tallest, youngest and with thick blond hair.Too easily identifiable in the school and the neighbourhood for my own good.

My early school years were plagued by persistent hearing problems and by the time I was 9 years old I was almost completely deaf. My father once told me that when I was playing on the living room floor he would speak to me from behind his Scotsman newspaper without getting any response. I was probably suffering from ‘glue ear’ and nowadays would have grommets fitted. But in 1959 the cure seems to have been removal of the adenoids and so in the November of that year I had the operation.

imageMy classmates were given the task, by Miss Neilson, of composing letters to be sent to me in hospital. I still have these letters today. Careful copperplate script pencilled onto lined yellowing paper tell of the goings on at the school in my absence. Clearly, Miss Neilson didn’t censor the letters which speak, not just of school events, but of the occasional breakdown of discipline.

Brenda Ewing,  Sandra  and Moira in their letters tell me that new sums were being taught and that we were to be allowed to do our homework in ink. Brenda ominously stated that “the teacher said that if we had a mistake in our mental we would get the belt.” Hearing this could have caused a relapse in my recovery. Mental arithmetic, or indeed any sort of arithmetic, was my worst subject. This may have been due to my hearing problem or simply that I was thick. Morag, daughter of the Polish emigre known locally as ‘Joe the Pole’ twisted the knife of anxiety by revealing that the new sums involved multiplying by pound, shillings and pence. This revelation would have had me ringing for the nurse. In those pre-decimalisation days you could be set the task of calculating how much it would cost to buy 15 yards, 2 feet and 4 inches of curtain material when the price was one pound two and three pence a yard; extreme numerical torture. She continues, ” Mr Clelland (the Headmaster) showed us some writing from quarter to three till ten past three.” This was followed by “gym with Mrs Mackinnon’s class till four o’clock.” No going home early in the 1960s then.

Michael Blair, whose mother, if I remember correctly, was Swedish, and Elizabeth tells me that my team, The Rabbits,  were very proud of me. “You have earned thirty four points for your team by yourself alone,” wrote Michael. Maybe not  so thick then. Elizabeth had signed off with 14 kisses. David, informes me that he is now my team leader, confirmed that I was second in this mysterious test by scoring 34 out of 38 points and that we were “still on tapestries at Handwork.” I still have this piece of tapestry to this day.

More praise from William (probably Billy Watt or Watty)  for my test score “I must say ‘well done'” he says, then worryingly signs off with three kisses. Norma Goodall reveals that discipline is breaking down “every day someone is being put outside the door” then, teasingly will not tell me what my score was in the test, oblivious that everyone else has told me. She ends her letter with eleven kisses. I doubt at the time I appreciated all this attraction from the opposite sex. Margaret Stewart engages in a bit of oneupmanship. “I had to get my adenoids out and my tonsils,” and “was in the hospital for four days.” Ha, well I can’t remember writing to you! Neil Woodcock, the son of the paper mill manager is pleased the spat between Robert and Gordon has been resolved; “I am glad to say they became friends again.”

John Steel, “David’s letter has a surprise.” Obviously my stunning mystery test score. Catherine Frizzell tells me that “in History we are doing Margaret Tudor and James IV,” then confirms that teacher is in a bad mood but, worryingly adds, “she is very angry with you.” Betty Gillies, in her letter, breathlessly elaborates on the collapse of law and order in the classroom. “Robert and Gordon started a fight and Gordon was put in corner and Robert was put outside the door,” then she reports more trouble “a minute ago Jennifer’s desk was pulled out to the front and she was made to face the class.” In her long missive Betty describes Remembrance Day the previous Sunday. “It was cold standing at the monument. The Brownies, Guides, Cubs and Scouts were there.” I would have been upset to have missed the ceremony. The name of my maternal grandfather Clem Walter is on the monument in the park. It must have been cold as Catherine Wimbles, the class weather woman, in her letter predicts, “It is going to snow soon.”

Was Michael Bannerman in a different classroom? In his letter he contradicts his fellow pupils “the teacher has been in a good mood so far and we have had a good time and teacher has done some of your Handwork.” In the following Summer Michael would die, falling from a tree, and be buried in the graveyard across the lane from the school, the Cubs forming a Guard of Honour. My first funeral.

Robert, the son of another Polish emigre, had learning difficulties, and sang a lot and could be disruptive. But he was accepted as one of us. His letter, although neat, rambles. “I hope you got one operation and not two or three or four or five of them.” Yes, Robert I was pleased it was only one.

Catherine Swan with a small hint of envy says that Margaret Duncan’s writing is best. And there is some truth in this. Margaret Duncan, a tall girl, in her best writing reports that “the classroom is so quiet without you.” Then, as though I would be interested, “Elizabeth has brought her doll Vicky to school and it has a pair of long pants and a hat and a jumper which are red.” Yes, right. Despite complaining that I am always pulling her hair I am awarded ten kisses. Jennifer, the naughty girl facing the class, announces in faint spidery writing that “the tea tickets for the sale are out and cost one shilling.” Vital information for a 9 year old lying in a hospital bed. Sympathetically Gordon states the obvious when he writes “I don’t think you would like an operation,” and Corinne asked me “How do you like being in hospital.” Probably liking it more than doing mental arithmetic, getting it wrong and getting the belt.

Kenneth, an avid collector of wild bird’s eggs, mysteriously asks “I hope you are not forgetting our motto ‘Shoo’?” Then describes how “Fatty was sitting on the wall and I just about pushed him over. I wish I was you.” Meaning, I suppose, being in hospital instead of being in a classroom with a bad tempered teacher. Finally, happily, Barbara makes me feel tons better by telling me “We miss your fun!”

Most of my class mates omitted their surnames, a few, more formally signed off with their full name. Oddly, I remember the sound of the Polish surnames but I wouldn’t like to attempt to spell them. Morag Mal-eka-die and Robert Tris-cal-ski.

We would all too soon disperse to different schools. Some to the Edinburgh private schools, but most of us would end up at Lasswade Secondary School with it’s functional, soviet style buildings. I badly missed the village school with its easier pace of life and friendly architecture. My mother and her mother before her had been taught in the same, virtually unchanged, building. I felt at home.

 

The accidental arsonist

I have recently been contacted by people who have recognised characters from my stories about my childhood days when I lived, a long time, ago in Bonnyrigg, a small town near Edinburgh. This is a particularly famous story and one that gets rolled out at each family get together.

The town of Bonnyrigg where I spend my childhood had two railway stations. Dr Beeching closed one and my big brother spectacularly terminated the other. Fortunately, it was on an obsolete branch line which was rarely used.

FullSizeRender (8)The catastrophe occurred in the late 1950s during an intensely hot summer. Each summer holiday we would occupy a different location, build a gang-hut or shelter, annoy people, play games and sometimes just sit around a fire. On this particular year we were in residence in the wooded  embankment at the back of the doomed station buildings.

On the fateful day I sat, with my brother Willie and a mutual friend called Hally, around our fire in the manner of the cowboys that we saw in matinee films and emulated. Suddenly, a jam jar full of a suspicious and smelly yellowish liquid was produced, in the manner of a magician, by my brother with the claim that this would make the fire burn much, much better. Our father, a veteran King Scout had drummed into us the importance of making sure a camp fire was out before leaving and we responsibly had a ritual that involved standing around a fire, before going home, and peeing on it; a boy’s thing. But all the piss in the town would fail to dampen down this inferno.

I’m positive that it was my brother that brought the jam jar to the party; He had previous form for this sort of thing. Only weeks before he had stumbled, screaming, out of the utility room at the back of the house with his arms alight like a Christmas pudding. At the time I was grateful
for the distraction as I was being verbally lambasted by my father; I had cleaned his bike and, as a special service polished the saddle with dark tan boot polish. He had thanked me at the time but changed his tune when he discovered that the polish had unfortunately transferred onto his light beige trousers creating a prominent external skid mark. But, horrified at the sight of his eldest son ablaze the skid mark was forgotten and, in a throwback to his army days he exclaimed “F**king hell!” instantly expanding his seven year old son’s vocabulary as he sprinted, like Roger Bannister, up the garden path to dowse the flames engulfing his eldest son. The use of the recently laundered towels from the washing line for the purpose did not impress my mother.

But back to the camp fire. We were all enthralled, kneeling and standing expectantly around the fire as Willie carefully unscrewed the lid of the jam jar and poured a small quantity of the yellow liquid onto the smouldering pile of twigs. There was a sudden whoomph as a huge fire ball rolled passed our astonished faces and roared into the tree canopy above. Our eyes simultaneously swivelled upwards; we were mesmerised, but not for long. For the second time in a short space of time I heard the new and interesting phrase. “F**king hell!” my brother screamed as he realised that he was holding a Molitov Cocktail in his hand. In an understandable panic he threw the jam jar to one side it’s contents spraying into into the surrounding tinder dry undergrowth. We were now  in the centre of a maelstrom of fire. With surprising calmness and presence of mind Willie ushered us away from the disaster zone and led us up the pathway and made us walk with studied casualness up the road to our house not far away up the main road.

FullSizeRender (5)We arrived home and sat at the dining table while our mother stood preparing our dinner at the kitchen window. “Och, it looks like someone’s having a wee fire. I hope the washing won’t be covered in ash”. This was a wee understatement. It looked as though a plane had crashed into the railway cutting; the sun along with the distant church tower had been blotted out, engulfed in  a cloud of dense black smoke.  We sat in the now gloomy kitchen eating our meal in uncharacteristic silence, my mother oblivious to the missing eyebrows, singed fringes, faint stench of petrol and the distant clamour of fire engines bells.

Later, the catastrophe was on the front page of the weekly local paper. Our father tut-tutted while poring over the pictures of the devastation and a photograph of a startled Mr Black the local coal merchant and funeral director who had heroically prevented the fire from spreading to his yard, a vast area of piles of coal and tanks of various liquid fuels, and the accidental cremation of his late client awaiting burial.

Originally published in www.arewenearlythereyetmummy.com

Spot the difference

One of my early memories of my schooldays is of a flickering film in a classroom in a small school in Lasswade, Scotland.

Rictus (noun) The gaping of the mouth – often restricted to the corners of the mouth.

Cartoon for leopard storyWallace of Wallace and Gromit and Ed Milliband of the Labour Party are masters of the rictus grin. And so is, when faced with a situation of ambiguity, my grandson; the sort of situation which could be considered serious and yet, equally, could be seen as funny. When I was about the same age as my grandson an event at school placed me in the same dilemma.

Our teacher, Miss McIntosh announced with great enthusiasm (and to our unbridled delight) that instead of arithmetic we would be shown a film about leopards. I had seen leopards close up in Edinburgh Zoo peering dolefully but menacingly at me through the bars of their cage. A nature documentary wasn’t my film of choice but I was elated about missing couple of hours of the torture of multiplication tables

The projector clattered into action and pictures flickered through the dust motes. A small village was suddenly large on the screen and the camera panned around to focus on a group of beings with the most grotesquely deformed limbs and faces. We were now totally absorbed by the horrific scene, the absence of leopards forgotten. This was enthralling stuff.

Pith helmetAs children we were quite accustomed to this level of horror. Saturday matinees at the local cinema, The Regal, known locally as the Flea Pit, served up, along with mandatory flea bites, two distinct film genres: The Wild West featuring men in big hats, six shooters and Apache Indians or African films featuring men in pith helmets, large elephant guns and monsters in murky lagoons. I imagine Miss McIntosh enjoyed a more sensitive genre of film.

Miss McIntosh, who had clearly taken leave of her senses to think a film about lepers was suitable for seven year olds soon literally did lose her senses. Hearing her gasp “Oh no! Oh god, these poor, poor people!” I looked up to see her with her fist jammed in her mouth as she swooned, slid down the wall and performed a slow, sliding tackle on my chair worthy of a yellow card. This was my ambiguous situation; serious yet at the same time funny. I turned to look at my classmates to see a row faces reflecting my rictus grin.

In the way that my granddaughter is 9 going on 39 girls even then displayed the same sense of maturity beyond their years. While I sat immobilised, entangled with Miss McIntosh’s sturdy legs Gwendoline Criddle and Margaret Duncan rushed to our teacher’s aid (Or, at least to stand and discuss the crisis over her inert body like indecisive paramedics) while Betty the class swot ran frantically for help.

Miss McIntosh was absent for a while and when she eventually resumed her duties no mention was made of lepers or indeed leopards.

 

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.