Category Archives: Life in general

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.

 

Her influence is still around me, guiding me in difficulties, cheering me in sorrow

 

This family story has been taken from my daughter Laura’s blog, www.arewenearlythereyetmummy.com

Lasswade ShopWritten two years ago, it is a tribute to my Grandfather Clement Walter who died in the First World war. Clem was married to Laura (my daughters namesake) the daughter of Alexander Lothian who had an house decorating business in Lasswade. The shop was located opposite the church at the bottom of the Wee Brae. 

Clem’s mother Elsie died when he was thirteen years old and his father James remarried. This blog story was uncovered by Catherine, a great granddaughter of the second marriage. Catherine has contacted my daughter and  hopefully we will learn more about our family.

Laura’s story about her Great Grandfather.

This is my Great Grandfather, Clement Henderson Walter. He was born on the 28th of November 1885 and died in 1917 aged only 31.

ClemI dug out an old file that my Scottish Grandfather, Jim Wilson, who is no longer with us, compiled.  I’ve always known that it’s there, brimming full of family history, but I’ve never sat down and read it. The file traces both my paternal Grandfather and my Grandmother’s family, in one case to 1722. It’s fascinating. There are four lines of family tree. Every person has a photo, a back story. Of the immediate family there is a wealth of first hand musings about each relative. One part of the file particularly resonates with me and that belongs to my Great Great Grandmother, Elsie, and her son my Great Grandfather, Clement.

My Great Great, Grandmother, Elsie (born 1860) was a prolific writer of short stories.  She wrote a book called ‘Recollections of an Old Street Lamp’ which told tales of the comings and goings of all the people in the street. There is a copy of the book in the file.  Sadly, she died at the age of 40, leaving two sons behind, Clement and Richard.  On his thirteenth birthday Clement wrote to a cousin “Greater loss than that there is none … I always loved her devotedly and more so when terrible and incurable illness came upon her … And she is gone and I was empty … but her influence is still around me, guiding me in difficulties, cheering me in sorrow”.

Clement worked on the Glasgow Herald, wrote poetry and was also a talented musician and artist.  He married my namesake, Laura, and in 1915, 4 months before the birth of his daughter, my Grandmother, he volunteered in the Battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers.

Clem eatingOn 9 April 1917 the 3rd Battle of Arras started and from the sewers and cellars of Arras where they had been hiding for three days, the three companies of 7/8 Battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers sallied forth in an attack.  It is thought that this is where Clem received the wound that was to prove fatal.

Some considerable time later one of Clem’s comrades came to the home of my Great Grandmother, Laura, to tell her the circumstances.  Hit during the battle, Clem, with his hip shattered was laid in a shell hole for shelter until he could be picked up; when they came later there was no trace of him and he was never found.

My Grandfather, when compiling the vast family archives, wrote “Aged only 31, a man of talent with promise of better things to come, he shared the fate of thousands who like him went off with high hopes to a World War triggered off by the dynastic pride and vanity of emperors and the aftermath of which brought only misery to countless millions the whole world over.”

 

What planet are they on?

imageThe NASA Hi-Seas (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) project is intended to simulate what an actual mission to Mars may be like with the crew spending most of their time in a structure located in a barren landscape here on Earth. Obviously, on the actual trip resources will be limited and one reason for the project is to explore ways to improve sustainability. Kate Greene, one of the participants in the mission, has suggested the a crew of women only is the best solution as most women burn 2,000 calories whereas a man will burn in excess of 3,000.

A no brainer you may think. But in a spacecraft full of women the calorie issue will be a minor consideration. In my experience women require a lot more stuff than men. A lot more.

Every holiday I have ever been on which involved a woman packing the suitcases meant that there was enough clothes and stuff to last a month, not just the 14 days of the holiday. The cases as tightly packed as the baggage of an ardent Scottish Nationalist’s filled with a loathing of the English. Invariably, I would wear a couple of pairs of shorts and shirts and walk around in the same sandals for two weeks.

imageOne experience remains lodged in my mind. A holiday in Cyprus with Val, her son Andrew and my daughter Laura. In Paralimni to be exact, a hell hole between Ayia Napa and the border with the north of the island. The holiday highlight; a visit to view, fr om a safe distance, Famagusta, an abandoned town with the washing still on the clothes lines after umpteen years, something I could have experienced in parts of any industrial town in the North of England any day of the week.

But enough of the travelogue. The bus that delivered us to the hotel, a concrete edifice that wouldn’t look out of place in Glasgow, stopped at the other side of a vast patio. Mindful of the health and safety issues the bus driver dragged our cases out of the storage compartment and dropped them onto the ground with a dull thud; the corpse of Cyril Smith accidentally falling off the slab onto the mortuary floor. As Val, Laura and Andrew gambolled towards the hotel contemplating the weeks ahead of them I contemplated the two ominously large cases, the distant hotel entrance and the intense heat. This was in the days before suitcases with wheels had been thought of. I grabbed hold of the handles and braced myself for the snatch and lift. Pulling myself upright I just managed to get my knees to lock and like an Olympic weightlifter I staggered slightly to the left and to the right seeking the point of balance. Then, having stabilised myself, I did a slow ,goose step towards the hotel under the glare of the midday sun and the disdainful gaze of the German contingent sprawled by the nearby pool; the main opponents in the clandestine competition to place towels on the sparse scattering of sun loungers. As I stumbled over the into the foyer I received an empathetic welcome from a group of blokes waiting for a taxi. “Well done there, mate!” said one, “right on!” another blowing his cheeks out.

Based on this, admittedly limited research, I would recommend that NASA recruit men of lean wiry stature, sparse hair and a total lack of interest in fashion. Anyway, if the TV programme ‘The Apprentice’ is anything to go by a capsule full of blokes will make a more congenial environment than a group of women in such a restricted space. Definitely a no brainer!

Lost at sea

Ann on bikeAnn Wilson 

Our fourteen year voyage has ended, here in this hospice, in this room. At last you are at peace. I stand at the window looking out across the lawn, across to the trees bathed in thin October sunlight. I stare dry eyed unseeing. I cannot cry anymore.

I imagine, I feel, that I am standing on the deck of a sailing ship that has passed through a great prolonged storm. A storm that engulfed us, that blew in across the horizon, taking us by surprise. 

I  look across the deck of our ship, at the fallen masts and the sails and rigging floating in the now still sea. You, our navigator has gone. Gone too, the charts mapping our future, blown away in the maelstrom, our dreams scattered in the winds. Our instruments of navigation, washed overboard, are at the bottom of this ocean. There are no stars above, no land in sight. I am lost in this vast, endless, sea.

In the distance a door closes, footsteps in the corridor. Noises And movement from this life. I must move, move on. I kiss you goodbye and leave the room. My first port of call. To explain to our nine year old daughter her mother has died.

Many years have passed since this unfathomably sad day. My imaginary ship survived. Fitted with new masts, sails and rigging it has sailed on across new oceans and guided by different charts  visited different shores. The constellations reappeared and there have been a few storms, but mostly days of calm and sunshine. For my daughter Laura, her sister Kate and me, our lives were changed that day. Our lives are different but, under the surface, still sometimes haunted with a hidden grief.

My heart will go on. Not.

When, as a boy, I read the Jack London novel ‘Call of the Wild’ closely followed by ‘White Fang’ I became obsessed about owning a dog. My first was Corrie a Border Collie and ever since I have owned dogs; a roller coaster of mutual intense love, affection and loyalty and, inevitably, intense grief. There was one dog, however, that fail to arouse such emotions. Winston.

This story was first published on my daughter Laura’s blog, www.arewenearlythereyetmummy.co.uk a number of years ago.

Winston is a dog I remember all too well. Laura’s mother Ann, on a whim, bought a dog to replace Winnie our first dog who had died of a brain tumor. This was a big mistake. Bitches, in my opinion, are much more biddable, whereas dogs spell trouble, big trouble. But for some reason, long forgotten, I was not consulted and arrived home to meet the new male canine member of our family. The puppy stage was fine but when, in time, Winston reached puberty my worst fears were realised. In this period of his short life almost all his waking hours were devoted to devising inventive ways to escape from the garden with the intention, presumably, to ravish the local bitches. Keeping him indoors was not the solution as Winston employed his conscious hours causing expensive mayhem. Winston was a dog I could not bond with; would not be my best friend.

Inevitably, due to his total lack of road sense, Winston, on one of his romantic assignations met his end. As I drove home one Friday night I came across the scene of the collision. Feigning the distraught dog owner, I accepted the condolences of the traumatised driver and helped gather the scattered pieces of his front bumper before loading the inert body of Winston into the rear of my Astra estate car. Concealing my relief, bordering on joy, behind a doleful mask I broke the news to Ann and told her I would respectfully dispose of the body at the local RSPCA on the way to my office the next morning.

On arriving at the RSPCA depot I was surprised to find Winston was as stiff as a board. Rigor mortise had set in. This turned out to be useful as it was easier to carry a stiff dog under my arm than the floppy body that I had heaved into the car the previous night. I walked down the steps to the entrance door only to find the depot was closed for the weekend. My first thought was to simply leave Winston leaning, propped against the door hoping someone would deal with him when the reception opened on the following Monday; I could report back to Ann, with a thin smear of truth, that the RSPCA were respectfully arranging disposal of Winston. But, as I turned to leave I found myself under the surveillance of a little old lady with a shopping trolley, a sour expression and an old man. Under their withering and distasteful stares I decided leaving Winston propped up against the RSPCA reception door was not one of my better ideas. Putting Winston under my arm I walked back up the steps to the car, lifted the tailgate and laid the body back in the temporary hearse. Slamming the door shut I wished my startled elderly audience   “good morning” and set off to the office with a new plan.

Winston skip 2In the compound, outside the joinery workshop at the back of the office, there were a couple of skips used to dispose of the workshop waste materials. So, during the quiet of the Saturday morning this was where I eventually, disrespectfully, disposed of Winston with the result that I had to tell a complete untruth when I returned home.

On the following Monday I was talking to my boss in his first floor office, and watched mortified, as the skip lorry, having collected the full skip, rumbled slowly passed the window. Winston stood proudly at the front of the skip enacting a canine version of the film Titanic, his ears gently flapping in the breeze. It was a constant problem to the company; local people disposing of their unwanted household goods and appliances in the skips. My boss looked incredulously at the passing skip with its figurehead and muttered “f***ing hell, I thought I’d seen everything but this takes the biscuit!”  “A Bonio?” I suggested.

The doctor from Peru

StethoscopeYou often read newspaper articles reporting how women, when visiting a doctor about a trivial ailment submit to a very intimate personal examination. You know the sort of thing; a sore throat requires a fondling of the breasts or a case of athlete’s foot leads to a very personal examination well north of the infected area. The doctor involved is patently a pervert but invariably this is somehow not obvious to the victim. You read and ponder on how naive the woman is to allow it to happen. But this story is of a personal experience of how you will blindly obey a doctor’s instructions, no matter how bizarre.

If a doctor says jump most of us will.

We first met Doctor Cueli, when we were on holiday at our newly acquired property in Spain. One night Val’s mother’s partner Cliff suddenly became seriously ill and neighbours recommended calling Dr Cueli. Thanks to his quick attendance and immediate diagnosis that Cliff had pneumonia, fatal consequences were avoided. Although a large medical bill was not. The event evolved into a comedy. An ambulance duly arrived, with surprisingly only one driver who loaded Cliff into the back and shot into the darkness like the Starship Enterprise at warp speed. We desperately followed in our inadequate rental car slightly drunk and disoriented like Keystone Cops for an hour through strange unknown countryside. It all ended well. We eventually found the hospital and Cliff lived.

Years later we moved permanently out to Spain. Leaving behind the safety net of the National Health Service we decided to register with a doctor; who better than Dr Cueli? Cliff’s saviour, the doctor from Peru.

The surgery receptionist explained, in halting English that Dr Cueli would personally give us both a full medical examination. In faltering Spanish we agreed and made the appointment.

On the day of the examination we arrived and sat quietly amongst our fellow expats who would not, I imagined, look out of place in Lourdes. Dr Cueli appeared causing a fission of expectation among the waiting patients. He called my wife’s name and ushered her into his inner sanctum. The ailing expats disappointed it was not their turn slumped back into the uncomfortable chairs in resignation muttering about the lack of air conditioning. Then Dr Cueli again reappeared causing another Lazarus moment in the waiting room. My name was called and I followed the doctor. As I entered the room I was bemused to find my wife sat there in her bra and pants.

“Sit, por favour.” Dr Cueli commanded. I sat.

“Señora, your wife, she is, how you say, in the pink” he said with a smile or in the circumstances could have been a leer. Val was certainly pink, very pink. But things were about to get worse.

Dr Cueli proceeded to question me about my health, for me a wide ranging, limitless subject. After a few preliminary questions and tiring of my rambling narrative about my health issues he decided to move on to a physical examination. I was asked to strip to my underpants and lie on a bench. The surgery was starting to resemble an underwear photo shoot for a catalogue for the overweight and over fifty.

With more enthusiasm than was really necessary Dr Cueli started to prod around, listened to my wheezing lungs and wielded a reflex hammer. The inspection seemed to be drawing to a close when a scar, the result of the recent removal of my prostate caught his attention. We were now about to pass through a portal into a parallel universe.

Peru doc“Por que?” I winced as he poked at my scar with his long finger. I explained about my recent operation and the doctor hung onto every word or at least the ones he understood.

“I look, por favor.” said Dr Cueli. I thought that he was already looking but he had something else in mind, something a little more intimate. Waving his arms around he indicated that he wanted me to roll over and kneel on the couch. “El Perro! How do you say, like a dog?”

Christ, I thought, was Dr Cueli a deranged vet masquerading as a doctor or was this a Spanish version of Rolf’s Animal Clinic? I looked, desperate for reassurance, across the room at Val who sat, still vey much in the pink and in her bra and pants watching as mine were brusquely pulled down to my knees. Her face twitched at the snap of the surgical gloves and grimaced, agog, as the latex clad digit vanished into my bottom seeking the absent prostate.

Our unexpected ménage a trois with Dr Cueli drew to a close and we quickly left the surgery still buttoning our clothes as we passed through the reception watched anxiously by the waiting patients. Perhaps some had had a similar surreal experience.

As I gingerly walked back to our car Val broke the stunned silence. “Why on earth did you allow that to happen?” “Well, he’s a doctor isn’t he,” I muttered feebly.

 

The Order of St Bugs

Val and I had taken the plunge and bought our holiday home in Spain and we looked forward to using it. But there was a problem: what to do with my mother who lived with us? She had no desire to come to Spain with us and to be blunt we could do with the occasional break. Finding a suitable respite home was the answer.

For months we traipsed around endless homes with mother in tow. Either homes resembled Bates Mansion in Psycho or the residents looked cowed or spaced out on drugs. Usually the owner’s high end Mercedes or BMW was parked out the front, flagging up the home’s ethos; profits. Each smelt of money and the faint odour of urine. As we despondently toured each grim establishment we realised that there was no way we could abandon my mother at any of these places and swan off to Spain for a couple of carefree weeks.

One sunny day, just by chance, I drove past the solution to our problem. Out of the side of my eye I saw a large sign reading Catholic Respite Home for the Elderly and Infirm. The home that the sign referred to sat in pleasant grounds surrounded by lush lawns and leafy trees. It looked too good to be true.

St BuggsAs I drove up the winding gravel drive I debated whether or not to conceal that fact that my mother was not a Catholic, was in fact Church of Scotland, the opposite end of the spectrum. Perhaps if I explained that she had slight dementia then her religious affiliation would not be questioned, but although I might have considered her bonkers from time to time I couldn’t rely on her to keep schtum. I entered the dark panelled hallway and, as instructed by a sign, rang a bell and waited. At least it didn’t smell of piss.

 

Footsteps approached and the door swung open to reveal a nun. Disconcertingly, she had the most prominent buck teeth I had ever seen. Unkindly, a vision of Thumper passed through my mind. I looked down expecting a pair of rabbit feet to be protruding from under her habit. The nun returned my greeting with a nod of her head.

“Well now, what can I be doing for you, my son?” She enquired in a soft Irish accent.

I felt like James Stewart with Harvey, his imaginary rabbit as I listened attentively to Sister Agnes giving me the run down on the home. “Well now, no, your mother being of the Protestant faith would be no problem at all, at all,” She reassured me when I confessed to my mother’s religious leanings. “She’ll be very welcome, so she will.” Not so welcome, I thought if Sister Agnes knew about my mother’s appetite for steamy novels. That may have been a revelation too far, especially when I had my foot in the door.

As she thumbed through the diary checking dates, her colleagues passed through the reception bearing trays and bedpans. Each was introduced by Sister Agnes; Sister Bernadette, Sister Maria and Sister Matilda. Each sported the buck teeth. For a brief moment I wondered if I had unwittingly stumbled on a Bugs Bunny convention.

I drove home wondering if somewhere in Ireland a village existed where a rogue gene was producing girls with buck teeth and for whom a special religious order had been created.

Midwife to husband. “It’s a grand wee girl you have, so it is.”

Husband. “Tell me, does she have the teeth?”

Midwife. “Aye, she has the teeth, so she does.”

Husband. “I’ll let the sisters know, so I will.”

The nuns, despite their prominent incisors, were wonderful and kind carers. Sadly, like my mother, the home is long gone but she enjoyed her time at the home and looked on her visits as holidays.

The staff of life

Sometimes you just have to laugh at politicians. Their lives are paved with banana skins. With John Major it was his “Back to Basics”, then Gordon Brown spoke of having a “Moral Compass” and now Ed Miliband has slipped on his very own banana skin, his key policy and mantra, the “Cost of living crisis”. Major’s extra-marital dalliance with Edwina Curry took the shine off his Family Values policy. Brown memorably slipped up by calling a Labour voter, Mrs Duffy, a “bigoted woman”, having minutes before shaken her hand, smiled and complemented her by saying “I can tell you’re a good woman”. Funnily enough Mrs Duffy was on her way to buy a loaf of bread when she bumped into Mr Brown.

Coincidently it is a loaf of bread that caused Ed Miliband embarrassment. When asked in a recent interview what he thought the weekly shop for a family of four cost he said it was about £70, then when quizzed about the cost of a loaf of bread he had no idea. Once asked a similar question Boris Johnson once replied something on the lines of “buggered if I know!” which is the sort of thing I’d say. But if your specialist subject is the cost of living crisis you really should know this sort of stuff. Surprise, surprise, the Daily Mail, as they do, then checked out how much the Miliband family actually paid for bread. The answer: £2.25 for a loaf at his local Delicatessen.

Bread pictureI was pondering on all this as I pushed our trolley around the local Aldi store (our solution to the cost of living crisis) and had a great idea for the opening scene for a Labour Party political broadcast. It goes like this: Ed sits at his kitchen table and on his right is the Deli £2.25 loaf and to his left an Aldi 57p loaf and he says “I like this one,” points to the Deli loaf then pointing to the Aldi loaf says “But I also like this one.”

Of course the film crew would have to bring the Aldi loaf with them as I shouldn’t think there is much call for an Aldi store in the Miliband’s neighbourhood.

 

Relatively embarrassing

I’m sure my family are not alone, not unique, in having an embarrassing moment in a public place involving someone very young or very old. This blog story recounts two such incidents that brought great embarrassment to my family.

 

 

 

My nephew, Mark, aged about 10 years old, embarrassed his parents at a family gathering and silenced the restaurant. Taking advantage of a lull in the adult conversation he announced “The other day I saw mum and dad wrestling”. Then with the timing of a seasoned comic he paused. My mother, unaware that her eldest son, my brother, had an interest in the sport, smiled indulgently. My father, certain his eldest son didn’t know a half nelson from a crotch lift narrowed his eyes. “They were in bed” he added mischievously. Another hiatus, then, sure that he had the full attention of his pink faced parents, his grandparents, other assorted relatives and the diners at nearby tables Mark delivered the coup de grace; “and they were naked!” Many years later my mother, then almost 80, in a second childhood and mildly unhinged, embarrassed me in a restaurant.

Mum with pigeonsSoon after the death of my father we had moved my mother from Scotland to Holmewood a sheltered retirement home near to us in Leeds. One Sunday we took her out for lunch to The Mansion, an extinct country house, at the time a restaurant with pretensions of fine dining.

“Do you remember Doctor Sommerville?” enquired my mother in her loud Scottish accent.

A memory of Doctor Sommerville swam into my mind, sitting on the edge of my bed crying, my father consoling him. I was 9 years old ill with bronchitis and he had called one morning straight from attending a car crash with two fatalities, two local brothers.

“Yes, mum, I remember Doctor Sommerville.” I said, confused, blindsided.

“You know?”

“Know what mum?”

“When you were a child”

“When I was a child, what?”

“What he said about you”

The chit chat and the chink of cutlery was suspended. Everyone within twenty yards wanted to know what Doctor Sommerville had revealed about me.

“He said you had very large bowels”

The lady at the next table quietly choked. Further afield there was a muffled sniggers and suppressed guffaws.

I frantically racked my mind for a change of topic. “How are you settling in at Holmewood mum?” I asked confident that I was skating on thicker ice.

“It’s a grand place” she said, “there’s a nice library. It’s in the conservatory.”

“That’s good.” My mother enjoyed reading. I tentatively skated further out onto the ice.  “Any interesting books?” I asked.

“The book I’m reading is about two women.”

“Really.”

“They’re lesbians.” She smiled, menacingly “And you know?”

My world tilted. The restaurant again stilled. The refined lady at the next table spasmed, choking violently, her face the colour of the wine, slowly spreading on the table cloth as the astonished waiter missed her glass. The maître d was staring across the room, possibly considering asking us to leave but more probably trying to recall the Heimlich Manoeuvre.

“Know what, mum?” I asked recklessly in the silence.

“They were licking each other’s prrrivate parrrrts!” Her clearly enunciated Scottish ‘r’s rolling across the restaurant.

“The bill please!”

 

 

A land far, far away

Many of the people that I teach to drive are migrants from Africa. They are inspiring, gracious people with good hearts. This is a story about Yonas from Ethiopia.

Ethiopia WaterfallEthiopia, the origin of the coffee bean has many claims to fame. It is the most populous landlocked country in the world, the second most populated African state, one of the oldest known locations of human life and the only African country to defeat a colonial power. Named twice in the Iliad and three times in the Odyssey it is the fifteenth poorest country in the world, which is why, I imagine, my driving school pupil Yonas is here, living in the UK.

Yonas a farm worker, made his own odyssey here by way of Italy where he lived and worked for a while to earn the fare for the last leg. I suspect he made the same perilous voyage over the Mediterranean that sometimes ends in terrible loss of life.

Like all the Ethiopians I know, Yonas is a dignified, intelligent and proud person. He works hard, when he can find work and lives in an uninspiring tower block named Scargill Heights. Sometimes I wonder, waiting in the car park for Yonus, if Arthur Scargill has the lifetime use of an apartment here along with his Barbican pad, courtesy of the Mineworkers Union.

Certainly, Arthur would not share Yonas’s views. In one of our discussions he berated the Italians for being a work-shy lot then offered his opinion that we were an idle lot too. “Welfare, it is no good,” he opined, “it makes the British very lazy people.” Perhaps this judgement has been coloured by personal lack of qualification for welfare hand-outs or maybe he had been reading a Conservative manifesto pamphlet that had been pushed through his letterbox.

Yonas is quiet and I don’t like to pry but occasionally during a driving lesson events cause him to open up, to reveal fragments of his life. One day I was covering the emergency stop routines. To teach this it helps to add urgency by asking the pupil to imagine a child suddenly running out in front of the car. Often it helps to make the exercise more real in the pupil’s mind to make the imaginary child their own.

“Do you have any children, Yonas?” I enquire.

“Yes, a son,” he replies.

“How old is he?”

“His name is Louis, he is now seven years.”

“Okay, Yonas let us pretend Louis is the child and you have to stop as quickly as possible.”

We do the emergency stop a few times with Yonas picturing his young son running out in front of the car. I congratulate him on his performance that he stopped well before hitting his son.

“You will be able to tell Louis that you nearly ran him over today!” I joke.

“I cannot do that Sandy, my son he still lives with his mother, my wife in Africa,” he answers in a voice tinged with sadness, “I have not seen them for three years.”

Ethiopia hutsThree years. This is not a fragment of his life, it is a shard. With heavy hearts we drove back to Scargill Heights a continent away from his family, his country, his life.

Like many people I worry, I have opinions about Britain being able to cope with immigration, the practical problems of sharing our land, our lifestyle with foreigners. But this is Yonas my friend. He loves his country which he describes as a place of beauty. His family are real people with the same dreams and desires as we all have. There is no easy answer to all of this.