I started my last book 'I'm Beginning To Forget What I Look Like' by reflecting on my working life. I now think the time has arrived for me to reflect, hopefully without too much emotion, on my personal life - after all, it started more or less 15 years before my working life and is continuing for, well only time will tell, hopefully, some years beyond.
To begin at the beginning, I joined the world on the 10th October 1931, the tail end, so to speak, of a large, and in many ways, remarkable family. The country was struggling to throw off depression with innocence and naive thoughts that Europe was slowly recovering from the horror and devastation of the First World War. Europe was indeed hungry for peace but, in truth, as we now know, the powers that be were already making preparations for the next war. Even eight years later we were being somewhat naively promised 'peace in our times.'
One of my mother's little verses comes straight to mind at this point: 'What a wonderful world we live in, its wonders will never cease, when civilised nations are at war, and savages are at peace.'
I suppose I could claim quite an unusual childhood, not unique, but certainly far from mundane, with uncles, aunts and cousins and lots of relations in Tuscany, and elsewhere in Italy, and as many throughout the United Kingdom. My mother and father bridged the 19th and 20th century and took part in the tremendous social, political and economic upheavals of the times.
My father, who served in the Royal Scots Fusiliers in the first war, was wounded and gassed at Passchendale but that and many other stories of these times were of course only handed down to me and are not really mine to tell, or at least not at this stage. I will wait for another day.
I was still a schoolboy when the war came to an end and I have my own, as I see it, very eventful life and childhood to remember and recall first. I was shunted around from place to place as a evacuee which was disruptive certainly and inconvenient but it brought its own rewards. I place myself at the centre of events in the unfolding of my story but the reader should know that I was more often than not an observer on the fringe.
My parents' first child was my sister Marcelita, (known as Madge), and 18 years, three brothers and four sisters separated her from the last child, me. I was certainly not at the core; but in fact at the tail end; of a large and full-of-life, Victorian-type family and, in spite of the war, and the inevitable destruction it brought, we were a very close clan and I have some fascinating tales to tell.
Being the youngest I could sometimes get lost in the crowd, playing quietly in a corner in my own little world but absorbing all that was going on around; never allowed to be precocious, too much coming and going for that, but nevertheless putting my own interpretation on events. Oh yes, I got to know lots of secrets when growing into my teens, secrets of my eldest sister when she was taking care of some of us as evacuees on the island of Bute, of another sister who was helping to make Rolls-Royce aero engines in Hillington, of two of my brothers, one in the army and the other in the Royal Navy, of two very attractive and sophisticated sisters who, I think it could be said, had a good war.
The house was always filled with one or other of their many boyfriends, home on leave, a sprinkling of writers and poets, a communist trade union leader, a conscientious objector, a highly decorated Royal Naval Lieutenant, (but more about him anon), a Spitfire pilot, later lost over the North Sea, to mention but a few. My other sister who, in a rush of patriotism, joined the ATS, didn't like it and came home after the second day offering to return the ‘King's Shilling’ only to be taken away by two big Red Caps, (Military Police), and thereafter had a very successful military career. My other brother did National Service.
These were fast times; exciting and full of events, both fact and fiction, eagerly absorbed by a young fertile imagination.
There is one thing however, in spite of this passage of time, and some inquisitive effort, one mystery remains. I have failed to break the conspiracy of silence as to why my father, during the war, had 24-hour transport always available and, when we moved from various houses, the first thing installed as immediate priority was a telephone, which could not, under any circumstances, be used as a party line. This becomes much more mysterious if the full position of his wartime situation was made known, but the official records are not available and none of my remaining big brothers and sisters can throw any light on the matter.
I propose only to relay the stories that affect me directly. Other family members’ secrets are theirs to tell and, in any event, one cannot be sure of the validity of impressions made on a young, fertile mind, absorbing excitement and drama in a sometimes fantasy world. Looking back, it does not need much imagination to realise that my mother, having five daughters, three of them unmarried during the war, must have had a worrying time which probably explains why I, to my annoyance, was often thrown into the company, not to be a chaperone, but more of a gooseberry.
From an early age I seem to have realised the importance of a public image. I first experienced it when I was about five years old. At that time Glasgow had a sophisticated electric tramcar system with the trams coloured red, blue, green, yellow and white etc. depending on which routes they travelled. I knew that the white tram took one to Glasgow University and one day I boarded that tram to impress people that I was not going to my Primary School class but rather to University. The truth is I got lost. I had to be picked up from the police station, but the humiliation was relieved when the Desk Sergeant told my big sister, (I cannot remember which one), who had come to collect me, that I was brought in, not because of being lost, (certainly not), it was because I had no money to pay my fare and, if I was prepared to accept that I owed Mr Fitzpayne, the General Manager of Glasgow Corporation Transport Department, one farthing, (to be paid sometime in the future), he would release me from custody.
Was this, at the age of four or five, me already awakening to the importance of public image and relations? If so, it was no more than what would be seen later as an all-round family dictate.
Thoughts are rushing back of a young child, in a big family before the war, during the war, with his disrupted education until he left school at the age of 15. This was much to the great annoyance of his family who always thought a good education was the keystone to life. He argued that he left because he felt intellectually and intelligently superior to the teaching he was receiving but, then quickly found, that he had to work very hard, night and day, over the next few years to gain University entrance qualifications, five Highers (present-day A Levels) - he got seven, and furthermore discovered what hard study was all about
It is all coming back; the joys, the sorrows, the excitement and drama and tension, as one passed from childhood to youth, to manhood and to parenthood. I must tell it all, hold back nothing - well almost nothing - along the way. I have much to tell and now the desire and time to tell it; the noise and odours of the bustling city, the crack, spark and flash and then the smell as the tram cars changed points, following the steam road-roller and breathing in the tar fumes to help you avoid something called catarrh, the earthy scent of the subway, the music and smell of the fairground steam engine, the hot oil fumes from the engine room of the paddle steamer, taking us on holiday down the Clyde, the sound of the seagulls and salt taste of the sea, the noise and smells of the country, the cattle, new cut hay and the taste of hot milk straight from the cow.
It is all coming back. These were my wonders years; the time when terms and conditions of living were being established in my young mind. It was complicated. If one wanted to survive one had to fit into the behaviour pattern. These rites of passage had to be followed. The grown-ups could never understand.
For instance, one of the many local ‘must dos’ I was faced with was, in getting to, and leaving, primary school at Janet Gill, we had to pass the cancer hospital. To do this, and survive, we had, at all costs, to avoid stepping on the cracks of joints of the paving slabs on the pavement, and to hold our breath as we passed the entrance. This all made sense; having been told never to drink out of a cracked cup as the crack could be filled with germs, and again, since colds and sneezes spread diseases, we mustn't breath in when passing the hospital gates. Life at that time was certainly not easy. A child had a lot to take account of. Our elders hadn't a clue. They were too busy being adults.
You can imagine then, my surprise, dear reader, enthusiastically opening up to start this chapter only to hear my computer say, just after the usual loading up preamble, "I am sorry, so very sorry. I have waited with mounting frustration to make my apologies."
I asked him to slow down and tell me what the devil he was talking about and he went on, "I know I am not supposed to have feelings but, as a human, you must be able to imagine the anxiety within, when mistaken or otherwise, by word or gesture, if you have hurt the feelings of someone you hold dear. Having read and reread your chapter nine I realise that is what I have done, albeit unwittingly."
I was taken aback and totally surprised by this outburst of emotion but immediately thought, frustration like this, for whatever reason, may explain why my computer system has been performing so badly over the last few days. I know, of course, that in humans such pent-up frustration can so easily lead to confusion, even stomach ulcers, indigestion or a nervous breakdown. I sensed this needed wary handling and, choosing my words carefully, said, "My friend, please calm down. You are supposed to be incapable of emotion; such self-criticism is rare, even in humans. Be that as it may, whilst you are my 'good companion'. I admire and respect your independence but there is no room for sycophancy in our relationship and, in any event, at times my views were becoming somewhat polemic. But there is no need for you to worry. Certainly I was a little hurt at your lack of sensitivity at times but so what, you are young, and from a generation that does not do guilt nor recognise shame.
It seems that we now live in an age that has no time for compassion or finer feelings. It is no longer fashionable to admit that humans go through life regretting many of their past actions and wishing they could have an opportunity to put right some of their hurtful and tactless behaviour. The chance to rectify matters is rarely given and, more often than not, we are forced to live throughout life with a conscience that reminds us of the deeds we could have done, should have done, for our family, friends or even just fellow human beings. Most are quite oblivious of the hurt they do to others.
For my part, my conscience continually brings to the front of my memory incidents in which I fail to measure up to the standards expected of me - if only by myself. It is a sad fact that one rarely gets the opportunity to apologise and start again. Don't you worry, there is nothing to say sorry for and I do not want to sound like William Shakespeare's Hamlet, in his long and famous soliloquy, you know the one I mean, every schoolboy does… 'conscience doth make cowards of us all' etc. etc. After all he was a mixed up, sad fool and had good reasons for questioning his conscience. I, for my part, am thinking of only small misdemeanours. Yes it is important to..."
I was about to go on but the thought suddenly struck me, he has done this on purpose. I am beginning to recognise what lies behind his self-depreciating manner. His intended point, I am quite sure, was to bring to the surface of my mind, little incidents on the journey through life, which could, on reflection, have been better handled.
I do not mind him acting as my conscience occasionally but I will draw the line when he takes on the role of devil's advocate. I am fully aware of my shortcomings and I am alive to the many, or lost, opportunities that life presented me with. As time goes on my memory becomes more and more determined to bring to mind little, and sometimes not so little, incidents from the past, which I am ashamed of or could have handled better.
But damn it I will have to leave my private reflections for another time. Did my computer sense what I wanted to talk about? Surely not. I have no illusions, no false pretences, and if there ever was a need for a devil's advocate, I would be the star witness for the prosecution. I need no warning from him! I will continue my story. I have no diary, no notes, only a memory that reflects, if not events, then the impressions they made in my mind.
No pretences. I can say no fairer than that so, let me go on.
Posted 28th October 2007 To Begin at the Beginning.