Category Archives: Life in general

Forgotton Author


When I became a driving instructor, thinking it would be sensible to learn how to actually teach, I took a diploma course called Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning System. One thing I gleaned from the course was, and it’s pretty obvious anyway, is that people learn better if they see and feel the joy and purpose of a subject. That is why, to avoid boredom setting in, I take my pupils on occasional fun road trips.

One day I took Cherry Cuevas on a drive to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. In spring sunshine we drove along countryside roads edged with early emerging blossom. Brave birds flew low across our path, burdened with nest construction materials, clutched in their beaks. Lambs played alongside their dozing mothers in the fields we passed.

I stopped the lesson to give Cherry a rest. While admiring the gently rolling countryside we discussed how wonderful the area would be for walking our dogs. How, if she had a car, Cherry could bring her dogs to walk on the wooded Otley Chevin. She showed me pictures of her dogs, two border collies, Shadow and Calypso and told me that in her home country, the Philippines, dogs are not regarded as pets, only as working animals. Cherry, besotted with her dogs has embraced our dog loving culture.

I asked her if she had watched the film ‘Lassie come home’. Her eyes lit up. Yes, she said, she had seen the film and the television series. This is not surprising as the book and films were a worldwide phenomenon. The reason I mentioned the film was that the author of the book, Eric Knight, had lived in the village of Menston half a mile away from where we were parked. I knew exactly where. I had learned this interesting fact from another pupil who’s grandmother lived in the house, Carlrayne, where the author had been born on the 10th April 1897.

What I find surprising is that the recognition of Eric Knight’s life is quite low key in his home town; a plaque, bearing minimal information, on the wall of the the local library. Had my pupil not told me I would never have known he had been born in Menston, despite living there myself for two years. Knight was the youngest of three sons born to Frederic and Marion Knight. His father, a diamond merchant, was killed in the Boer War when Eric was two years old. His mother moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, to work as a governess for the imperial family before settling in America. Apparently, Eric was left in the care of an uncle and aunt in Yorkshire and emigrated to America in 1912 settling in Philadelphia.

Knight served as a signaller in the Canadian Army during WWI, then as a Captain of Field Artillery in the U.S. Army Reserve between the wars. When not in the armed forces he was an art student, a newspaper reporter and a Hollywood screenwriter. In 1943, when a major in the United States Army Special Services, Eric Knight died in an air crash.

Eric Knight published many books. His novel ‘This above all’ is considered one of the significant novels of the Second World War and his novel ‘Lassie Come Home’ set in Yorkshire was made into a film by MGM. Sequels and television series followed making Lassie a worldwide icon.

As I stood with Cherry, looking through the gate at the house where Eric Knight was born, I thought of the incredible story of this extraordinary man and his life. Is this, I wondered, a kind of literary snobbery. Is the author of story of a dog, enjoyed and loved by millions around the world not regarded as worthy of greater recognition.

A father remembering a day


The machine that saws the uncut loaf into slices is mesmerising to watch, the buzzing sound soporific, the smell of fresh bread intoxicating. Then the noise stops and the lady behind the counter carefully places the warm sliced loaf in a paper bag and turns to hand it to me. She stops and looks across the glass counter at me. Her eyebrows are arched and her eyeballs are rotating loosely down to the left and then back up to look me in the eye; I wonder if the poor soul has some sort of eye muscle problem. But then her eyeballs stop swivelling and are fixed, staring down to the left. I swivel my own eyeballs and look down to my right. We both watch as my daughter’s small forefinger completes its journey like an icebreaker traversing the North Pole, slabs of icing piled up on either side of the channel she has cut across the top of an expensive cake.

That morning I had set out from home with my three year old daughter Laura in a harness, Winnie, our dog, on a lead, a five pound note in my pocket and a spring in my step. I was on a mission to buy a loaf of bread from the bakers at the bottom of our street. I was under strict instructions not to buy anything but the loaf and a ginger bread man for my daughter. Money was tight: unlike the gap between the glass fronted display cases on top of the bakers counter.

“Em, I’ll take the cake too.” I mumbled, thinking I should have tied my daughter to the lamppost with Winnie.

A box containing the damaged cake is placed next to the loaf of bread. I start to hand over the precious fiver when the woman’s eyes again roll alarmingly. I look down. Once more laura has slipped her hand between the two display cases and using two fingers, has skied across a gateaux swerving skilfully around a glazed cherry slalom.

As the lady stretches over the pile of cake boxes to hand me the leavings of my five pound note I feel I tug on my sleeve.
“What?” I ask looking down at Laura, I don’t know about the woman behind the counter but my eyes are now rolling like a hospitalised doll.

“Can I have a ginger bread man daddy?”

The world is okay


It is a dark, dank, evening. I am sat in my car with Shano, a young girl I am teaching to drive. She is learning that driving is not always a fun activity. We are moving up a hill in a line of sluggish rush hour traffic passing bleak red brick terraced homes in Beeston, built to house the workers who toiled in long forgotten factories. It is fair to say it is not the most affluent district of Leeds.

The car in front of us stalls and the engine protests loudly as the driver attempts to restart it. The engine roars and screeches  and the car disappears in a cloud of dense blue smoke. As the engine noise escalates, the car slides slowly but relentlessly back down the hill towards us. I released the handbrake and allow our car to edge back towards the bus behind us. Eventually the car stops and the driver, an old man in a flat cap, emerges out of the smoke, like a contestant on the TV show Stars in Their Eyes: Tonight, Matthew I’m going to be Gilbert O’Sullivan. I get out of my car and walk round to him.

‘Eee, lad, ‘ave no idea wot t’ matter is.’ He says.

I know; the clutch has burned out. I’ve now  a number of problems: an old codger on the cusp of Alzheimer’s, his immobile car, a lonely learner in my car, and a queue of traffic stretching as far back as I can see.

But help is at hand, or, at my elbow to be exact.

‘We’ll push, love, if you steer t’car.’ It was the spokesperson of two women on their way home with bags of shopping.

They lead ‘Gilbert’ to the pavement and sit him on a wall and place their shopping bags at his feet. Bracing themselves behind the car they start pushing it up the the hill while it I steer it into the side of the road releasing the log jam of ungrateful motorists.

The next problem was what to do the wandered old man. To our relief he remembers the phone number of his daughter.

‘Ah’ve not got much credit on my mobile but I’ll give it a try.’ Said one of my helpers generously.

There was no answer. Then one of the ladies notices a letter lying on the front seat of his car. It is a document from the local surgery which stand at crossroads at the bottom of the hill.

Unsure of my insurance and worried about my pupil I weakly suggest I could drive him there.

‘No, we’ll take him, love. We know Cheryl on t’reception.’

So, the ladies pick up their shopping bags and set off back down the hill with the bemused old man.

With the New Year approaching, I leave the scene thinking that the world is okay. The two shoppers plodding up the hill with heavy bags could have reasonably walked on, ignored the car owner’s problem. But they didn’t. This small act of kindness by these two ladies of Beeston made me think that ordinary people with nowt, those that are ‘just managing’, don’t need to be told how to care for others by church leaders, politicians and celebrities with vast wealth and multiple property portfolios. The world will be okay, as long as ordinary people walk the walk, or in this instance, push the push.

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.

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.

Out of Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Greek tragedy, German screenplay, Spanish subtitles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Political kitchen sink drama

imageSwiss Tony, the comical epitome of a car salesman on the Fast Show, compared cars to a beautiful women. Margaret Thatcher, in a nod towards her upbringing as a grocer’s daughter, equated the economy to a basket of groceries. Recently, kitchens have featured in the political world. So, what if we consider kitchens as an analogy of the current political situation.

The Conservative Party have an advantage. Five years ago they had to build a new kitchen to replace the previous kitchen which had spectacularly fallen apart. The designers from the Liberal Party offered to help them and contributed a number of ideas which were taken on board. Parts of the layout and a few of the finishes, the doors and the worktops, weren’t what we were led to expect or wanted, but we have got used to it, and by and large it has worked. The principal designers, Cameron and Clegg are offering to carry out improvement, but the meals prepared will remain much the same for a while.

A different company, the Labour Party, is now offering to redesign and rebuild the kitchen so that a better, wider menu can be offered. Their salesmen are at a disadvantage; they can’t show us an example of what they intend building. We are promised, guaranteed that it will have so many cubic metres of storage and that it will have the essential equipment, but we have not seen a layout plan or a specification of the construction of the units and the finishes. Some of us are not quite sure about it. The last kitchen we were sold, installed, by a different company, New Labour, looked terrific, sleek and modern, but the build was poor and turned out not to be durable. We are a bit suspicious; the company name has changed but the new directors, Miliband and Balls, were apprentices in the previous company.

Another worrying problem: they may need help from another company, a Scottish outfit called SNP. Their in-house designer, Nicola Sturgeon, and a design consultant, Alex Salmond, have a very distinct style. The doors have a tartan pattern finish, the drawer handles thistle shaped and the worktops granite. The decorations are on a ‘Braveheart’ theme; claymores, shields and pictures of Mel Gibson will adorn the walls. Porridge and haggis will appear on the menu, not to the taste of the majority.

So, will we opt for a modification of the existing kitchen or do we want a completely new design, perhaps with a Scottish twist?

My Bonzer mum

imageWhen my father died, my mother proved incapable of living on her own. Left to her own devices in Roslyn, near Edinburgh, she stalked her GP, Dr Pope, phoning him at five in the morning with imaginary ailments. Dr Pope, desperately seeking a quiet life, contacted me, pleading that I do something.

That something turned out to be moving her to live with us, in Leeds, for almost six years until her death. After a difficult transitional period things settled down and mum slowly conformed to our lifestyle. She learned to enjoy football, surprisingly understanding the offside rule, but confused by action replays: “Och, is that not another goal!”. Her limited range of cuisine expanded from omelettes and dishes gleaned from a book called ‘100 dishes to make with mince’ to include Chinese takeaways, Indian curries and Italian pizzas.

She read racy novels, red top newspapers and watched Coronation Street. Near the end of this period of her life, and as it turned out, near the end of her life, I decided to write her a letter. A Mother’s Day letter.

Like many families my dad did all the interesting things; swimming, camping, bought the exciting fireworks and taught us to drive. Our mother, to her two sons, was relatively uninteresting, but in reality, an unsung, but essential support system. Mum fed and clothed us, healed wounds, dried tears and cheered us enthusiastically on at sports days.

My letter was one of belated thanks and a celebration of her life as a mother. I decided to write it on impulse when I was working in London, the Saturday before Mothering Sunday.

imageThe letter told of the care she had taken of us as children. The things she made: Davy Crockett hats, my toy dog ‘Smuff’ that she had knitted for me and the fancy dress costumes for Halloween. How she had inspired my lifelong love of books. I wrote of the freedom she allowed my older brother and I, in our childhood and adolescence, to enjoy ourselves, have fun. I recalled the summer evening in the garden when I was swatting the midges swirling around our heads; she stopped my killing spree and told me that each midge was a living being, that they didn’t live a long life. Of how she told me that swallows, flying high, were a portent of good weather.
I spoke of her enthusiasm for gardening, passed to my brother Willie, inspiring his career in Horticulture and how she stimulated my interest in Art, leading to a career as an interior designer.
I thanked her for her support during the dark times of my late wife, Ann’s, illness and death. And, I assured her, with honesty, that Val and I and our children, had enjoyed, benefited from, having her live with us despite the initial, sometimes fraught, upheaval to our home.

With the letter finished, I needed to print it. So I wandered down the street, to a shop offering printing, copying and secretarial services.
A young, blond haired girl was about to lock the door.
“G’day mate.”
Then, every receptionist and shop worker in London seemed to be an Aussie.
“I see you’re about to close, but could you print this?”
“No drama, come on in.”
I handed her the floppy disc, and she sat behind her desk and slid it into the hard drive.
“I’ll just give it the once over.” She said, as the letter appeared on her monitor.
She seemed to be giving it more than the once over. Irked that this ‘Sheila’ was obviously reading my private letter, I was about to say something, but stopped myself as I realised a tear had rolled down her cheek.
“Strewth! I shouldn’t be reading this, but what a dinkum letter,” she said, adding, “what a bloody bonzer mum you have!”
“She is,” I agreed, “she’s certainly that. Most mothers are.”
“I’ve not been back to my home, in Adelaide, to see my mum, for nearly two years.” She told me, in a sad voice. “I miss her, she’s bonzer too.”
“Send her an email,” I counselled. “I’m sure she’s missing you.”

When I got home I placed the letter with a conventional card and left it, with a bouquet of flowers, on her bedside table. Later, that day, Mothers Day, I saw my mother, through her open bedroom door, almost for the first time in my life, quietly crying. At that moment I realised, my mum, like many parents, had not felt sure, certain, that she had made a good job of it all.

So, my bonzer mum, whenever I see high flying swallows, or when I release a small insect from imprisonment in our house, I think of you.

A Scotsman abroad


This a tale of my early experiences of being a Scottish immigrant in England. It is the beginning of the 1970s. Not the best of times to leave a warm secure home and move to a damp bedsit. A tale of language and cultural misunderstandings.

imageIn 1970, I qualified as an Interior Designer at Napier College of Science and Technology, in Edinburgh. I had letters after my name and no apparent prospects. After a few weeks trolling around architects practices looking for work as an Interior Designer, in desperation, I ended up selling curtains in a furniture store in Edinburgh called Frosts, modelled closely on Grace Brothers in the TV comedy ‘Are you being served’. As I was to curtain selling to what Mike Tyson is to flower arranging, I had to look further afield for a job to suit my professional qualifications. I quickly found employment in the Architect’s Department of John Collier the men’s outfitter based in Leeds. I was about to move abroad. To England.

imageI arrived in Leeds in 1971. Then a drab industrial northern English city, after Edinburgh it was a severe cultural shock to my system. My first attempt to buy a drink in a pub proved a disaster. Uncertain of the English beers, Bitter and Mild, I asked for a Brown Ale. The barman looked down at the bar top, a mortician looking uncertainly at a body on his slab, then wandered off muttering. I leaned on the bar and examined the array of spirits at the back of the bar. In my native land this would have been row upon row of whiskies; every whisky under the sun. Or at least a weak, watery Scottish sun.

“Roight, loove.” The barman in his flat Yorkshire vowels, as he carefully placed a small glass of green liquid in front of me. “Whits that?” I asked, while simultaneously pondering on the barman addressing me as ‘love’; perhaps he thought I’m a thespian from the Grand Theatre across the street from his pub.

My request for a Brown Ale had been interpreted as a Double Pernod. To the Yorkshire barman “I’ll hae ah broon ale”, probably did sound like “Double Pernod”. I realised then that I would have to modify my, albeit mild Scottish accent, and speak slower. I wasn’t partial to Pernod.

My name also proved a hindrance. My parents christened me Alexander, after an uncle my mother was fond of, then, as customary in Scotland, called me ‘Sandy’ thereafter; a custom the English are totally unaware of. If I attended a meeting, the other party or attendees, expected someone wearing a frock, lipstick and high heels to enter the room, not a 6’2” Scotsman. When I answered the phone the caller would, having expected a woman’s voice, ask to speak to a lady called ‘Sandy’. To this day I still receive correspondence was addressed to Miss Sandy Wilson.

My brother’s name too once caused an incident. A very embarrassing incident. One lunchtime, I met up with Ann, my late wife, in the spacious and busy reception of the company where we both worked. We sat idly chatting, Ann absently leafing through a magazine. “Look at this picture! That looks just like your Willie” she exclaimed in the sort of loud voice you use when you are surprised by something. This sudden change in direction of the conversation wrong footed me, but not as much as the secretary about to climb the nearby stairs, her files falling to the floor with a clatter, as she stumbled on the first step. The receptionist, on the phone, paused mid sentence, and stared, eyebrows arched, across the top of her desk. For a few seconds the hubbub of the reception froze. A visitor sat opposite peered at the magazine, wondering if it was some sort of medical journal.

imageEarlier in our relationship, I took Ann on a date to see a well known American singer, David Gates, perform at Leeds Town Hall. It was February and the auditorium was freezing, the victim of a power cut, and everyone was dressed in winter attire; the audience a sea of fur hats, it looked like a Dr Zhivago convention. This was the 1970’s the decade of power cuts, miner’s strikes and three day weeks. Followed by more industrial disputes and power cuts. Gates heroically performed in a thin suit and a shirt with buttons undone to reveal a bare chest, no doubt covered in more goose pimples than hairs. We speculated that he must from Alaska. An equally heroic orchestra provided the music, accompanied by the castanet chatter of teeth. The audience clapped manically at the end of each number, the only way to generate bodily heat.

Periodically, during the performance the man next to Ann climbed over some empty seats in front of us, scuttled along the row and left the hall only to return again a few minutes later. When he was not seat hurdling he quietly, and annoyingly, hummed and softly whistled along with the performer. He either had a severe incontinence problem or he was one, or maybe two, notes short of an octave. At first he was an amusing diversion and Ann and I smiled at each other in the darkness.

imageAs the second half of the show starts there was a strange rustling noise from our bizarre neighbour. “What’s he doing now?” asked Ann out of the side of her mouth. I leant forward and peered through the gloom, leant back and whispered out the side of my mouth “He’s got his piece out” I answer. The seats creaked and squeaked as the audience within earshot of my sonorous stage whisper shifted uneasily, the way sheep react when they notice a dog peering with intent through a five bar gate.

“CHANGE SEATS WITH ME, NOW!” demanded Ann, now rigid with fear, in a much louder stage whisper. We changed seats and I sat next to the oddball as he noisily munched his ham sandwich … or if you are a recent immigrant from Scotland, a ham piece.