Poetry of earth

3.5.2015 | 23:49

He was practical, where I was bookish. Taciturn, where I was talkative. Where my head was regularly in the clouds, or at least pointed towards the stars through a telescope, his feet were solidly on the good earth. Where I collected books of poetry, he collected soil under his fingernails. Where I was a dreamer, he was a doer.

It was the growing of things. The digging and the planting were in his blood, as they had been since he grew up from boyhood among the machair and the peat in a windward island lashed by the salty Atlantic. The digging, the turning, the planting, the passage of the seasons, the harvesting. They were in his blood, as they were in his father’s before him, and his grandfather’s, and as far back again beyond reckoning.

When the war came, he moved away from the islands, to join the Merchant Navy, carrying supplies through the bitter Arctic seas to Archangel and Murmansk to relieve the beleaguered Soviet Union. During those dangerous convoys, he survived three torpedoings.

He never returned to the islands. Instead, he remained in Glasgow, married, and raised a family, by the docks where once he’d sailed. There was nowhere to dig, or plant, in the built-up dockside tenements, but when, within a few years, he could move his family to the postwar new housing, there was somewhere to dig. So he dug.

I never quite understood. All his life, he was a hard worker, a skilled metal burner, and yet after he came home, and had rested long enough to eat, he went out to his plot, and dug, and turned, and cleared, and prepared, and sowed, and planted. Sometimes I’d go with him for company, and watch him, until I had exhausted all the interest a ten year old boy can have in digging and planting, and wanted to slip off home. Long after his work day had ended, and as dusk settled, he’d still be digging and hoeing and raking. I could not understand why it was that he could continue labouring into the darkness when there were cartoons on television to watch, chairs to sit in, books to read. And windows to shut out the cold night airs.

The seasons passed, and potatoes came. And turnips, and carrots, and more digging, more back-breaking digging. Sometimes I helped with this, shaking the earth from the laden shaws to tumble the potatoes into the sack, wiping the clinging soil from the dark coloured and unwashed carrots. In the summertime, the harvest would also include his favourite growing fruit, strawberries, and it was easier, so tastily easier, to help harvest the strawberries, and harder, so much harder, to resist the temptation to eat more than was bagged.

And as the seasons turned again, so the cycle of digging also turned and returned. The digging, the clearing, the preparing of the soil. And the long afternoons becoming dusk and twilight and then night. And still I never fully understood what compelled him to dig, and twine his hands around the green growths.

He is long gone now. Yet not a day passes that I don’t think of him, and wish that I could once more stand with him as he dug, and sowed, staying this time beside him as the darkness fell, as the rain fell, wiser perhaps than I was all those years ago as an impatient boy too eager to return home and leave him to his digging.

Today, there were weeds outside, and overgrowths of bindweed, and tangles of old greenery that I new needed to be pulled and cleared. I had left it until the builders had finished re-pointing the brickwork, since there’d be dust everywhere anyway ; and now, that task done, I could begin the clearing. So early this morning, I took out my fork, and spade, and rake, and cutters, and began to clear away the growths and the weeds.

I dug. I dug, and turned, and pulled, and raked. As I had seen him do so many decades ago, I piled spadefuls into a riddle and shook out all the fine earth to leave the debris behind. Inch by inch and foot by foot, the overgrowth was clearing away. Some hours later, the grey skies having turned to blue and the air becoming almost stiflingly warmer, I stopped. I stopped because I’d reached a natural break where one full measure of earth had been cleared. And it was time for tea and crumpets.

When I looked out of the window, and saw how neat the borders on the left hand side were, the soil dark and rich and fine, I figured it’d be little extra effort to go out again, bag up the greenery, and take it to the garden waste site. So I did. And I could see that the mossy growths between the paving slabs could be taken out with a cutting tool and a strong wire brush attachment, so I did. Another few hours later, it was done, and there were more bags of green refuse to take away. And another pot of tea.

Ali was just leaving by then, as his band were playing tonight, and before he left, he looked out over my handiwork, and figured it was good. I guess I felt good about it too. I said that I’d make a start tomorrow on the right hand side, to repeat the same cycle of digging and turning and pulling and raking. But for today, I’d earned a rest, and with another brew of tea, I put on my favourite recording of Schumann piano music, sat back with my feet up, and rested.

I could see that right hand section through the window from my sofa. I looked up and the sky was still fairly light, and it came into my head that if I opened the window and the door, I could go out and make a start, and still hear the Schumann through the open window.

So I went out, picked up my fork, and dug. I turned over the earth, loosened it, got down on my knees, and began pulling out the roots, bulbs, and ravelled up the bindweed. I dug some more, and began filling another bag with the green waste. I can’t remember when I became aware that the piano music had stopped, so I kept digging and turning and inching my way along, raking out more weeds and dead shrubs. Nor can I remember exactly when I began to notice the light was changing from dusky grey to an orangey-yellow, till I realised I wasn’t working in daylight, but by the outdoor security light on Harv’s wall next door.

I looked up at the sky, and it was pitch black.

I understand a little bit more about him now. He had the poetry of the earth, after all.

Sugar & spice, and things not nice

1.10.2014 | 15:23

Father Hendry always gave sterner penances to errant schoolboys than any of the other priests. He was by far the sternest looking too, a priest I never remember having a smile on his face, and who evidently took his priestly duties seriously as a temporal and spiritual representative of the Almighty, in charge of the moral wellbeing of every nine year old child in Miss Lynn’s class at Braidcraft Road Primary School.

Where Father Wilson, the rotund and jolly red-faced parish priest, who had clearly been Friar Tuck in a previous life, gave three Hail Marys for every transgression from spitting on a Sunday to just shy of murder in the second degree – and even Father Molumby, the most ancient and ante-diluvian elderly ordained foot-soldier of Mother Church ever to pronounce an ego te absolvo, rarely stretched his penitential burdens beyond three HMs, an Our Father, and a Glory Be – it was other for Father Hendry. His tariff started at five Hail Marys, and even that was unlikely to be pronounced on anyone less blemished in soul than Pope John XXIII.

Yet for all he was stern, most of the pupil sinners of Miss Lynn’s class, when we were marched down to St Conval’s church at mid-afternoon on a Friday, to confess our sins ready for communion at ten o’clock mass the following Sunday, vastly preferred to sit in the pews and wait for Father Hendry’s confessional to become available, over Father Molumby’s. This was because the ancient and ante-diluvian Father Molumby, an octogenarian if he was forty (and possibly even when he was forty), was nearly stone deaf. This meant that the sinner kneeling in secrecy in front of his confessional grill had to raise his or her voice in order to be heard. No identifiable sin = no absolution. And so deaf was Father Molumby that the raised voice had to be a shout. In the pews outside, we would hear the unfortunate who’d been seen go in to the door for Father Molumby …

– Bless me father, for I have sinned, <mumble mumble>
– What? Speak up.
– Father I <mumble mumble>
– Speak up! I can’t hear you!
– Say three Hail Marys, and avert your eyes next time.

No penitential sentence, however, could compare with trying to slither unseen out of the confessional door when all the eyes of Primary V were upon you reprovingly. Especially Irene Hood’s.

So all of us single-digit sinners preferred to line up for Father Hendry’s Ave Marian severities, even though his tariff started at five. And in my case, almost led to the gates of Hell. Father Hendry once handed me down an entire decade of the rosary, and told me that if I didn’t mend my ways (i.e. stop having lascivious thoughts about Barbara MacNamee, viz, wondering what was the colour of her knickers), he’d send me to a Protestant School. Now, I didn’t know then that there was no such thing as a Protestant school, but as any good Catholic schoolboy knew, schools that weren’t Catholic were full of snotty-nosed grey unhappy children of the damned who were doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the pits of Hell with Auld Nick. And the threat of being sent to a school populated by proddies sent tremors of fear coursing through me ; it was tantamount to being given the front seat beside Beelzebub on the ghost train hurtling down the miles-deep lava-lined black and glowing red tunnels plunging through the earth and into the sulphurous vaults of Hades. More than any other, Father Hendry put the fear of Satan, not the fear of God, into me. This meant that I did try to keep thoughts about Barbara MacNamee as clean as I could manage, at the age of nine. Which in turn meant trying not to wish for an updraft of wind as the girls were jumping into skipping ropes.

An aside, however. They were good men, these priests, and in a world where their rank and calling and social standing have fallen in recent years, it is worth taking some moments to point this out. I loved Father Wilson dearly, and still revere his memory, though I once almost killed Father Hendry.

Really. I nearly killed him. It had nothing to do with the sentence handed down the previous Friday. I nearly, accidentally, punctured his cranium with mortally wounding effect. It had been a Saturday night Novena, one of a succession of nights of prayer and devotion and endless rosary recitations. The priest would lead the prayers for the congregation, and the altar boys would undertake the roles accorded to them by the senior altar boy. Duncan Steele was the senior altar boy that night, and the roles were as follows : accie, bell, thurie, and crucie. Other parts were played by minor members of the altar boy cast, which meant standing or kneeling with nothing to do but look holy. ‘Accies’ were the acolytes, boys who were given a stick with a candle on top of a kind of saucer that collected the molten wax. ‘Bell’ was in charge of the bells, one a set of four conjoined bells rung at appropriate moments, and another a larger, solitary bell with a big clapper, rung at More Significant appropriate moments. ‘Thurie’ was my favourite. Thurie carried the thurible, a hollow sphere that opened to contain a piece of glowing charcoal, on which the priest sprinkled incense powder. Thurie then stood motionless at the right hand side of the altar, swinging the thurible from side to side, releasing the burning scents of incense through holes in the surface of the thurible.

This was one of my earliest introductions to physics. With nothing else to do but swing the thurie, the trick became finding out how high you could swing the thurie from left side to right, but with minimal and imperceptible movements of the hands holding the end of the chain. You could start very small, with just a few inches to left and then right, and as time passed, with hardly any additional energy added to the system, have the swing increased on every subsequent stroke until the chain was stretched parallel to the horizontal on every swing. Go above this, however, and the chain would lose tautness. That was my first physics lesson of the pendulum, that no matter how high the thurie swung, the time taken for a complete left to right cycle was always the same.

But I wasn’t thurie that night. Duncan Steele had decided I was advanced enough to be crucie. Crucie was the altar boy who held the crucifix, a large and incredibly weighty brass crucifix perched on top of a tall thin wooden spear, about seven foot high. What I hadn’t realised was that crucie was the least active and most boring of all the roles for a Novena altar boy. Symbolically important as it was, it meant just standing there, in the same spot, for about fifty minutes, entirely motionless, while accies moved their candlesticks from one hand to the other, bell rang a few bells, and thurie re-enacted Galilean experiments on gravity, as each decade of the rosary made its way slowly past. Crucie just stood there, holding a tall and unwieldy stick.

I was incredibly relieved when the last Hail Mary echoed away, and the last Glory Be faded, and all the altar boys, accies, bell and thurie, lined up behing Father Hendry, facing the tabernacle on the altar. Father Hendry genuflected reverentially, the accies genuflected, bell genuflected, thurie genuflected. I genuflected.

Physics. The centre of gravity of the system, already perilously high from the weight of brass on top of the wooden pole, shot up higher as I sank downwards on one knee, taking my controlling hands with it. I lost control of the crucifix, and it hurtled downwards and leftwards, the sharp end of the left hand arm of the crucifix wheeling straight towards Father Hendry’s head. By sheer chance, or a whispered warning from the BVM, perhaps swelled to interventionist attention by the recent waves of Ave Marias in the rosaries just gone, Father Hendry looked round, and then ducked violently. Had the crucifix connected, there is no doubt at all that Father Hendry would have been injured, possibly severely.

I stood up quickly, regained control, and pulled the cross back. Nervously, I followed Father Hendry and all the other altar boys off the altar and into the priest’s sacristy, for the regular inspection and dismissal. I knew I was for it. And from Father Hendry, the penalty was sure to be severe. He put down his chalice, then slowly walked along the line of altar boys, inspecting each one, until he came to me. He leaned forward, and with unexpected restraint and calm, said, in a low voice I have never forgotten in half a century since passed,

“Crucifix. Doesn’t. Genuflect.”

When in my turn, I became senior altar boy, I was never, ever, crucie again. I allocated that to some other boy, with suitable caveat about not braining the clergy. I was always thurie ever after. Rank has its privileges.

But these were later days. In the meantime, my experiences of, and understanding of, matters of human sexuality were limited to the point of ignorance in the absolute. There were as yet, not even the shadows of kicking hormones in a one hundred mile horizon. I knew no more than that girls and boys were different, because they went to different toilets in the school, and that the boys peed standing up, and the girls peed sitting down. Except Margaret Murray, once down on the banks of the River Cart nearby, who under the bridge and away from public view, showed a bunch of us that she could hitch up her skirt, pull her knickers to one side, and pee into the river like the rest of us. Not as far out into the river, but it was still impressive enough to draw appreciative nods from those of us more naturally equipped for the competition.

As for my lascivious fantasies about Barbara MacNamee, the passing of time and experience shows how unlascivious and innocent they really were, consisting as they did of sneaking up at playtime into the field behind the school, and lying on the grass, limbs spread out like two starfishes, holding hands and looking up at the clouds scudding by. The most erotically charged fantasy was to lie there, fingers twined with fingers, wondering what colour her knickers were. When you’re nine, that’s what passes for pornographic thoughts.

That level of innocence and ignorance endured for some time. I can remember the exact moment, and the exact location, when all that changed. It changed in three distinct phases.

I’d been playing down at the River Cart with James ‘Jamesie’ Reilly, whom I’d always admired for his ability to be naturally funny in everything he did and said. We’d been playing by ‘the reeds’, tall but fragile stalks by the river bank, which broke easily with a stick and where we could pretend we were explorers along the Amazon, cutting our way through thick jungle with the dangers of alligators only a row of teeth away in the river. It was long past teatime, the late afternoon turning to dusk, as we headed across the field towards Dormanside Road.

“Dae you know where babies come fae?” he asked, out of the blue. I knew from the way he asked that he was speaking from authority.

“Naw, no really.”

The most I knew was that they were in some way associated with big tummies in older women (when you’re nine, girls who reach double figures are already old), and that God was involved in putting them there. But what happened after that was also known only to God.

“D’ye no?”

“Naw. How dae ye get babies?”

“Well,” he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “ye get a lassie, then ye pull doon her knickers, then ye stick yer dick up her fanny.”

“Dae ye really? Then what?”

“Then,” he said slowly, “ye jist pee intae her.”

My head was swimming with new knowledge, and new questions. Ever the scientist, even from that age.

“But whit if she disnae get pregnant when ye pee intae her?”

“Well,” he said with some disdain for my ignorance, “ye just keep peeing intae her till she does.”

“What if ye’re peeing, and she gets pregnant, and ye’ve loads mair pee?”

“Disnae matter. Wance ye start peeing, ye cannae stop.”

Every boy knows that. In a trice, my harmless fantasies over Barbara MacNamee changed in tenor and nature. Instead of two amorous starfish looking cloudwards at the sky, I began to re-imagine this new sexual adventure, in which I had sneaked up to the field at playtime with Barbara, and had persuaded her to accept a romantic bladderful of pee. Even as a non-scientist, unversed in fluid dynamics, potential problems presented themselves immediately. What if I’d drunk bottles and bottles of Irn Bru, and peed incessantly into her? Jamesie’s warning was clear : once you start peeing, you can’t stop. Barbara MacNamee would start to inflate, and that was confirmation of the peeing-pregnancy theory, since pregant women were self-evidently swollen. And what if I’d peed into Barbara MacNamee, and not stopped, and there was no leak, and then she also needed to pee, and started to pee back into me, reinforcing her own pee pressure with the volume I’d peed into her? Would I start to balloon up? Would I get pregnant instead? Holy Jesus! If it all came back into me, I would swell up and explode, because girls are designed by God to swell up under pee pressure, but boys aren’t.

But fluid always leaks, especially pee, and if girls’ fannies weren’t watertight, then all the pee would start to leak out over me, and the evidence would be all over the front of my yellow-stained grey flannel school trousers, and her pee-stained knickers and frock. I envisaged us sneaking back to school and trying to get back into the classroom un-noticed, only for the tell-tale clypes in the class to give it all away, pointing accusing fingers at our giveaway stains and yelling, “Please Miss, Alex MacPhee and Barbara MacNamee have been up the field doing dirty things!”

From then on, I tried hard to contain my erotic fantasies, and to keep them tamed to cloud-watching from the field on Langton Crescent. This didn’t last long. It got worse.

Phase Two.

It was all because of Malcom Lawler. I never liked Malcolm Lawler, he was the class bully, and we all knew he was going to go to hell. That’s because the previous Sunday, at ten o’clock mass, the children’s mass, around communion time, I’d looked round and had seen him, standing when he should have been kneeling, and eating sweeties from a paper poke when he should have been going for communion. And as every Catholic school pupil knew, eating anything except communion in church was a mortal sin, and even the communion host wasn’t to be eaten, but sucked or left to melt away, untouched by teeth that would, in theological truth, hurt Jesus severely. Malcolm Lawler stood there eating Dolly Mixture from a paper bag. He was hell-bound.

On the following Monday, Miss Lynn had given him a dressing down in class. Miss Lynn, tall, with a long face, a tweed skirt and horn-rimmed glasses that posterity bequeathed to Dame Edna Everage. In order to get a dressing down, you’d to stand upright by the side of your desk, exposed to the collective view of the entire class. He never said a word, either in defence or explanation, but just stook there looking defiantly guilty.

“What’s the matter with you boy, have you no spunk in you?” asked Miss Lynn.

I remember her words as if they were yesterday. There was no sound from the girls, but there was a trace of a murmur from some of the boys, a kind of stifled giggle. I’d no idea what it all meant. At playtime that morning, when all the boys were piling into the playground for ten minutes of kicking a ball, I asked Kenny Booth what it was about the Malcolm Lawler scene that had some of the boys stifling a giggle. Kenny Booth was not destined for greater academic achievement, and his snot-oozing nose suggested little promise of success at job interviews, but he seemed to know something about the mystery.

“Did ye no hear what she said tae him?” he replied incredulously.

“No’ really.”

“She said ‘spunk’. Miss Lynn said ‘spunk’,” he said in slow, low tones.

“Whit’s ‘spunk’?” I’d no idea.

“D’ye no’ know whit spunk is?”


His voice became even lower, lest any of the girls should overhear him.

“Spunk, ‘at’s the slime ye get on a lassie’s fanny. An’ Miss Lynn said ‘spunk’.”

I was reeling with new and disagreeable information. Girls’ knickers, previously holders of nothing but sugar and spice and all things nice, were now full of slime. Even Miss Lynn, whom I’d never thought of as female, but must now be acknowledged one, would have had knickers, big enough to cover a Volkswagen Beetle, and now they too were chock full of slime.


“Aye, like doon at the river, where the frog spawn is.”

Down at the river, there were small inlets where the water accumulated, free from the flow downstream towards the place we called ‘the falls’, where there had been a drop in the river base level and the River Cart tumbled even faster. Algae could accumulate in the still water inlets. Green algae. Green slime. Girls’ knickers were full of green slime. When class ended for the day, I found myself glancing nervously at the chairs of all the girls as they poured out of Room 6, to see if there were any tell-tale signs of green left on the wooden seats.

Now, my romantic interludes up the fields behind the school with Barbara MacNamee deteriorated shockingly. The prospect of peeing inside her, already less erotic than horizontal cloud-watching, became fraught with the menace of cheap horror films, as I became engulfed, from the dick upwards, in green slime. And if the risk of being caught out “doing dirty things” up the field by virtue of urine stained trousers was high, it was absolutely certain we’d be condemned by guilt on appearing in class after the dinner break, covered in pee and green slime. I imagined, in terror, it happening on a Friday when Father Hendry had come to lead the class to confession at the church three hundred yards away. My sinning exposed to all, no mere five Hail Marys for me, not even a decade, but an entire set of the Five Dolorous Mysteries, which everyone knew and took three whole years non-stop to recite, and then he’d have me expelled and into the McGill School in Meiklerigg Crescent, with the proddies and the damned, and where all the proddies would know I was a Kafflik because I had the papal colours, yellow and green, all over my indecently promiscuous grey school flannel short trousers.

I carried on in this state of heightened and disconcerting new sexual awareness until the end of the ‘qualy’ exam, at the age of eleven, when we were all allocated to streamed classes in the ‘big school’, Notre Dame de Lourdes, in Kirriemuir Avenue. The risk of being in the same class as new girls with slime-coated knickers dissipated, as at the ‘big school’, classes were segregated for the first two to three years. So in Class 1A Boys, there were only boys. No girls. No knickers. No slime. No Barbara MacNamee. Only in second-year Latin class, where numbers were so small, was there a girl, the luminously beautiful Antionette Wynne, whom I fell in love with on sight, and so resolved never to think about her knickers in case green slime should appear to contaminate the fantasy, concentrating instead as hard as I could on gaining useful Latin expressions should I ever meet a Roman, like ‘the poets were killed by the arrows of the farmers’. (Sigh nostalgically if you, too, remember ‘Paterson & MacNaughton’.)

Phase Three. One lunchtime, I’d been walking back to school with a new school chum, Jim ‘Chooch’ McHugh.We’d probably been out to the grocer’s shop on the Paisley Road that sold broken biscuits at threepence a bag. Though I don’t recall how the conversation started, it was almost certainly because he’d seen something lying on the pavement, for I remember him saying

“That’s somebody thrown away a jolly bag.”

I’d no idea what a ‘jolly bag’ was.

“What’s a jolly bag?”

“D’ye no’ know what a jolly bag is?” he asked.

“Naw. What’s a jolly bag?”

For a while, he made merry of my ignorance, and feigned that it was obvious I was too young to know what a jolly bag was, so he wouldn’t tell me. At last, enough teasing done, he ‘relented’, and told me what a jolly bag was.

“It’s an FL.”

I felt shockingly ashamed to admit I was no wiser from this. I’d heard Jamesie Reilly mention an FL, but I think it was just a term he, too, had acquired with only ignorance to explain it.

“So, ye don’t know what an FL is either?”

After a bit more making merry at my expense of ignorance, the explanation came.

“A jolly bag is what ye put on your dick to stop you getting a lassie pregnant.”

I immediately thought of it as something that ballooned out like a pee-filled football inside the unfortunate girl, as unromantic an encounter as I could imagine, given my patently experience-limited pre-teen imagination.

“Don’t be stupit. You don’t pee in a fanny.”

“Oh, right, but it keeps her spunk off you then.”


I repeated my bio-sexual ignorance on bodily fluids once again.

Let me gloss over the heap of scorn on my risibly incompetent awareness of matters sexual that followed. My attempt to re-mount the horse I’d fallen from will be no more successful now than it was then.

The reliability of peer-originated sex education is marginally better the older one’s peers, and within the shortest of short spells, I knew that getting girls pregnant did not involve lemonade-bottle volumes of pee, it did not involve pee at all (except perhaps gratuitously or with poor timing), it wasn’t yellow, and there was nothing green in girls’ knickers (unless you were unlucky).

Just as I was taking renewed encouragement in this new found knowledge, and the prospect that I could begin to think again about Barbara MacNamee’s knickers free of the Menace of the Green Slime, Chooch destroyed the landscape with another bombshell. Girls didn’t have green slime, but there was something just as terrifying. They had something known to pubescent boys as The Scary Thing. Same idea, different colour.

Schooldays are not long, and with hope and optimism, ignorance is not longer. The gaps in my knowledge were eventually filled in, until by the time I was sixteen, I was so expert that I knew my parents, and their entire generation, were complete ignoramuses in the subject, which I and my generation had invented last Tuesday. I knew all there was to know about sex, and the opposite sex.

Or nearly everything.

For I never, ever found out the colour of Barbara MacNamee’s knickers.

One more poppy

29.12.2013 | 12:54

Some years ago, I began to research the history of my father’s family, which originated in the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. With the help of the records in the General Register Office of Scotland, which holds copies of all the statutory birth and marriage and death registers, and old crofting records, I made a lot of progress, and traced several hundred ancestors, from the small crofts on the weather-beaten Atlantic coasts of the western isles, across to Aberdeenshire and Peterhead, and the fishing harbours and shipping docks.

I’d had a good start with the MacPhee side, because the islands were sparsely populated, and all it needs is one or two good clues, like a relatively unusual name (there were only two Penelope MacPhees in the whole of recorded Scottish family history), and the links between people and their stories can be built up.

But I’d also been aware for a long time, that I knew very little indeed about my mother’s side, and the history of the Lindsays. I had very little to go on, for there were hundreds of candidates for my grandfather alone in the statutory records, and without knowing anything about his parents, there was no way to home in on my grandfather in the birth registers, which would have given me the further clues I needed to his ancestry.

Yet I have learned that it is sometimes the most insignificant-seeming clues that, taken one with another and put together, begin to unpick the whole puzzle and lead to new discoveries. This is how it happened with the Lindsays.

It started around this time last year, at Christmas time. I had a telephone call from my two beloved aunts, Mary and Margaret. I’d been talking to aunt Mary, telling her a story about my grandmother’s love for Gorgonzola cheese, when she mentioned to me that my grandmother Maggie Lindsay’s birthday was on the 7th December, that it was the same month as my grandfather’s, and he had been born in 1882. A few days later, aunt Margaret phoned, and I’d been telling her how my daughter Lindsay had been named in honour of her great-grandmother, Maggie Lindsay. Aunt Margaret said, “You know, I’m not named Margaret after your granny, I’m called Margaret after my grandmother, and my middle name’s McGill. And my grandfather was a shepherd.”

It took a few seconds for it to dawn on me that this, taken with what aunt Mary had said about grandfather’s birthday, when put together, were the most exciting and unexpected clues. The thing was, I’d always assumed, without knowing why, that although Maggie Lindsay came from Ireland, my grandfather was from Glasgow. But now, knowing that aunt Margaret’s grandmother was a McGill and not a Reid, this must mean that the Lindsay side weren’t from Glasgow at all, since there’s no shepherding in the metropolis. With these clues, I was able to trace a line back to Hugh Lindsay of Argyll, who was born when Bonnie Prince Charlie was still living.

Until I began this research, I had no idea that my grandfather had any brothers or sisters, other than Donald, who had lived with my grandparents in Glasgow in the years up to his own death. I traced at least five, and I have tried to find out what happened to each of them. When I discovered there was a younger brother Duncan, I knew then where the name of my uncle Duncan, the youngest of my mother’s brothers, came from.

The most I knew of him was that he’d been born in Kildalton, on the island of Islay, on the 11th December, 1882, and had been an apprentice blacksmith in Paisley, but there was no record of what happened to him after than, and I could find no trace of a Duncan Lindsay who had been born that year, and who had also died in Scotland. This was unexpected, because the Scottish records system is one of the best and most comprehensive in existence. This could only have meant that he died abroad or at sea. Many months of diligent searching turned up exactly … nothing. This was threatening to become my second genealogical brick wall, a dispiriting prospect, for the first had taken three years to crack through.

Eventually, I traced him through British Army archives when, as the Great War loomed larger, he enlisted in the 5th Battalion the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

On the 10th of May, 1915, he was sent with his regiment to France, and two weeks later, the regiment was moved to Loos, in Flanders, to take part in a huge six-division strong attack on enemy forces that had become known as the Big Push. At 9pm on the 24th, General Sir Douglas Haig confirmed the attack orders, which included secret plans for the first use by British troops of poison gas.

By four o’clock in the following morning, Sunday 25th September, weather conditions had deteriorated, but Haig gave orders for the gas attacks to proceed. Heavy British shelling of enemy positions began, and by 5.50am, a fifty foot high blanket of gas edged slowly towards, though not reaching, German positions, but was virtually motionless in British assault positions. The 9th (Scottish) Division pushed on to attack German observation points at Hohenzollern and Fosse. The 7th Seaforths reached Fosse just after 7am, and on their left, the 5th Camerons, Duncan’s battalion, reached Fosse in the face of fierce crossfire to join the Seaforths. German machine-gunning was ferocious, and their grenades far more effective in close combat than the British. The 8th Black Watch were to join the Camerons and Seaforths as reinforcements, but suffered grievous casualties from the crossfire the Camerons had endured, so that the Brigade could not continue its advance, and some regiments had almost all officers hit within the first few minutes. Although the 12th Royal Scots made progress towards the front with few losses, 11th Royal Scots were entirely wiped out by heavy machine-gun fire. When German artillery opened fire, gas canisters were destroyed, releasing more poisonous chlorine gas. Losses were heavy. It was here, on this day and this place, that Duncan fell, killed in action.

After months of searching, I had found him, at two o’clock one morning, only to lose him again an hour later in the noise and calamity and poison chaos of a battlefield in Flanders. He was 32. When I wore my poppy on Remembrance Sunday this year, I remembered him, my great-uncle, Duncan Lindsay, 1882-1915.

Loos battle


29.12.2013 | 12:46



Casio fx-85GT calculator

9.9.2013 | 16:17



The fx-83/85GT calculator is obviously designed to match school classroom learning programmes.

It is powerful and easy to use, with clear and legible display, and logical entry modes for a range of functions, such as logarithms to any base (though there are also convenience log keys for both base 10 and natural logarithms), powers, and roots. Trigonometric and hyperbolic functions are easily accessible, the latter through a menu on screen. There are nine memory registers, eight of which (A-F,X,Y) are `scratchpad’, for storage only, and the ninth (M) is addressable for addition and subtraction. There is a table function, which can be used to tabulate y-values of an input function for a range of x-values. The table is not addressable, being read-only, and its value is limited, though could be useful in finding, for example, the approximate zeros of polynomial functions.

The fx-83/85GT has a number of useful features for statistical calculations, from random number generation, permutation and combination calculations, 1- and 2- variable statistics, and a range of useful regression types, for fitting curves or straight lines to a series of data points, though no probability distributions. What should have lifted this calculator above the ordinary, or even the very good, unfortunately, has instead let it down with a thud.

I chose this calculator on what seemed to be a promise of useful and practical statistical features listed on the packaging. Especially attractive was the prospect of a list-based statistics data editor. On more conventional calculators, data pairs are entered, and sums and sums of squares accumulated on a rolling basis, for use in calculating parameters like standard deviations, variances, and so on. A list-based editor offers the prospect of being able to easily edit individual data points for recalculation of parameters. This is especially attractive if one is carrying out curve-fitting, say by linear or power or logarithmic regression.

Memory available for data points is limited. For 1-variable statistics, up to 80 values can be entered. For 2-variable statistics (e.g. x,y pairs), this reduced to 40 data value pairs. For school exercise purposes, this might be adequate, but it’s certainly a limitation for more practical applications. Such limitations are manageable. But the worst is yet to come, and is surprising.

Suppose, from an experiment or series of observations, you think there is a linear relationship between your dependent and independent variables (x,y pairs). You carry out a linear regression, having entered your set of data points, to fit an equation of the form y = A + Bx to your data. By inspection, you then figure the relationship is not linear after all, and suspect that a power regression curve might be more appropriate. The moment you leave the fx-85GT statistics editor, and select a different regression model to work with, all your entered data is immediately erased, without warning! Choose a different regression analysis, and you must re-enter all your data all over again. Calculated regression coefficients are not stored in any of the scratchpad memories either, so leave the stat editor, and these too are lost. Every time you leave the stats editor, this happens. Data entered cannot be used for re-modelling under a different regression analysis.

This is an extraordinary weakness in design, and wipes out a major rationale for having a list-based stats editor, which is the ability to re-interpret or re-model the same data in different ways. The stats list is not addressable either, meaning you cannot use an individual data point in a further calculation. All you can do is edit it.

If you need a calculator with good statistical features, the fx-83/85 may not be your best choice, despite its promotion of a list-based stats editor. Although the cost is higher, a far better calculator is one from the Texas Instruments TI-83 or TI-86 family, which have good list-based statistics editors and facilities, and which leave the fx-83/85GT stumbling on the starting blocks. Otherwise, this is an agreeable and well thought out calculator, with much to commend it.

PolarCell Battery (M-S1) for Blackberry

13.6.2013 | 11:10

PolarCell battery for Blackberry

This has been twice a disappointment.

When the battery arrived, it would not charge, either in the Blackberry or on an external charger. After fourteen solid hours of charging it still showed no life, and the Blackberry reported a faulty battery attached. A digital multimeter showed it to be completely dead, with not a single electron passing between cathode and anode. On reporting the problem, the vendor’s less than helpful suggestion was that I was trying to install and charge the battery while it was still in its original packaging!

The vendor, cellePhone e.K. (trading  on Amazon Marketplace), promised a replacement battery and a refund of the return postage. Some weeks later, the replacement battery arrived. For the first couple of days, it held a good charge, but within days of very light usage, the battery’s discharge rate deteriorated markedly, and is now, after only three weeks, worse than the three year old Blackberry battery it replaced.

The battery is an extremely tight fit, and cannot easily be removed by fingertips alone. I have had to use a small lever, such as a penknife, to get it out again. I had exactly the same problem with the first battery supplied.

The battery is dispatched from Germany. Order fulfillment was tardy. It took ten days from order payment just to dispatch it. The phone screen cleaner, originally advertised as packaged with the battery, was not supplied.

This has been my second poor experience with third-party Blackberry replacement batteries. A battery that cannot be trusted to power the phone when you may be miles from anywhere is worse than useless. I cannot recommend this battery (which wasn’t significantly cheaper than an authentic Blackberry battery), nor the vendor, and will not make the same mistake again. Next time, I’ll pay for an authentic Blackberry replacement battery. It’s cheaper in the long run. And safer.

Postscript :-

cellePhone dishonoured their promise (and Amazon obligation) to refund the return postage on the faulty original, despite several polite reminders and a scanned copy of the return postage receipt. The company has declined to comment or respond, and has refused several Amazon requests to honour the Amazon trading terms for marketplace sellers. Take care, if you choose to deal with this Germany-located trader on Amazon Marketplace.

Women want me

21.3.2013 | 00:31

They do. It’s a curse I have to live with.

It’s not a few days since Hazel came to my door, declaring she needed a man, on some pretext or other about wanting someone to lift up her dustbin as it was too heavy for her. Naturally, I went along with her transparent excuse to see my finely honed features and rippling biceps as I lifted the green bins to the top of the road for her. I take these things in my stride, happy to go along with the pretence.

So, there I was, in the deep twilight, pulling the car up to its resting spot by the garage, and got out to lift my evening’s shopping from the boot, when I noticed a young woman come down the middle of the road and into the cul-de-sac after me. She called on me. “Excuse me, but I wonder if I could ask an awfully big favour.” The words “awfully big favour” usually put me on edge, since they’re often followed by a plea for £40 for train fare home to some distant place because of some contrived tale of woe.

But she was pretty, smartly dressed, with intelligent glasses (no, I don’t know what I mean by that, just that some women wear glasses that make them look intelligent but reserved, and you want to ask them to take the glasses off then shake their tresses loose to reveal a stunningly beautiful woman behind the mask, the way they do in films).

“Oh?” I said. “What’s that?”

I was still half en-garde, waiting for a sucker punch.

“I wonder, I know it’s a big ask, but, but, could you give me a jump?”

I would have done a double-take, but of course I get this all the time, though not usually in such direct and relatively unsubtle terms. I had to bite my tongue in case I inadvertantly said, “Your place or mine?” Instead, I raised my best quizzical eyebrow.

“We’re at the top of the road, and it’s my friend, she’s left the lights on all night, and now it won’t start, and we’re stuck.”

Ah. Bubble burst. (I just want you to know, this doesn’t often happen to me.)

“Ah, so you’re looking for a …”

“A jump start, yes. Could you help, please?”

She looked at me helplessly and pleadingly, and after I let a few dramatic seconds pass, I said, “Of course, I’ll just put this back in the boot, and I’ll drive up to you.”

I drove out of the cul-de-sac, and sure enough, there was a car parked opposite, with three girls standing outside it. All in their mid to late twenties, and I figured they looked like post-graduate or PhD students. With short skirts and beautiful hair. I did a turn in the road so that we were bonnet to bonnet. One held out a set of jump leads, and said, “We’ve got these, but we’re not sure what to do with them.”

The last time I did a jump start was over thirty years ago, and I couldn’t remember the rule about which terminals to connect first, but with three beautiful women in distress and looking for help from a knight, this was no time for vacillation. I couldn’t even remember where the battery was in my car, but I found it without looking too perplexed, then connected it to the distressed battery without jump-starting myself into the middle of the road.

“OK,” I said, “just let me start my engine, so that there’s plenty of charge for the battery.”

“Should I start my engine now?”

“Your engine won’t start …”

“Oh, of course!”

“Just wait till my engine is turning, then start your car as normal.”

It burst into life. My reputation was safe.

“Oh thank you! Thank you! We just don’t know how to thank you!”

I bit my tongue again, to stop it speaking out of turn, and let natural chivalry take over, knowing that in days and weeks and months to come, they’d regale their friends with the story of how, in their hour of need, a dashing fellow of striking good looks, immaculate demeanour, and a Scottish accent, came to their rescue and asked not even a kiss in reward.

Sean Connery must get this all the time. He’ll know only too well what it’s like being an Alex MacPhee look-alike.

An unexpected kindness

8.2.2013 | 22:00

A short while ago, I related the story of Aileen, the girl who had teased me as a young lad in the spring of my years and schooldays, and on whom I had such a boyish crush, an affection that has lasted all my life. I was to discover just lately, with sadness, that she had passed away at a young age, before she had reached the summer of her own.

I learned all this from Aileen, her namesake and sister-in-law. At the time of my story, I did not mention Aileen’s full name, for reasons I don’t need to relate but were right at the time. Now, since many will have surmised it already, it’s good to be able to let her have her own full name at last : Aileen Cygan.

Yesterday, a big envelope landed on my doormat. I knew what it should be, since Aileen, Vincent’s wife, had told me she’d sent me a souvenir brochure of the Golden Jubilee of my old school, Notre Dame de Lourdes, celebrated in 2007 half a century after its founding in 1957. Aileen thought I might recognise former teachers in some of the photographs from my time there.

They say you never forget a good teacher, and I was blessed in having so many fine teachers there, men who have influenced my life ever since, and women who were the flower of Scottish spinsterhood (since they were so often spinsters dedicated to a vocation). ‘Big Jim’ Murray, the best English master in history, ‘Wee Willie’ Kerr, of Music, ‘Snolky’ Collins of History, ‘Wee Johnny Bone’ Scullion of Mathematics, and John McVey, our headmaster.

However, there was something extra. Unknown to me, Aileen had anticipated something I had so dearly wanted to ask for, but dared not presume to on such a short acquaintance. She never said it, but inside the envelope, with the school brochure, was a small fold of paper, and inside it, a photograph.

It was Aileen.

This is the girl who stole my sixteen-year-old heart. The picture was taken during a holiday in Poland, some time after she had left school. Yet it is her, just as I have always remembered her, and that impish look I talked of is still there, perfectly captured here.

I had to sit down suddenly. I stared and looked, and looked and stared, and a rush of memories came flooding back. Aileen frisking me at the bus stop. Aileen jumping on the bus after me and sitting beside me and flirting until I was flushed cherry red. Aileen so close that I nearly kissed her then stopped, not because of the slapped face that would have followed, but because she might stop flirting with me.

Time puts unbridgeable distances between us, and moments such as these. Would I have been slapped? Very likely. Though in my idler moments, I have imagined, too, a wry, stern look that added, ‘But I forgive you…’ And if time can never be bridged, at least memory keeps such moments forever vibrant.

Thank you, Aileen. Both.



2.2.2013 | 02:47

I had thought of changing her name, for the telling of this story, but in truth she deserves her own name, even though it’s not necessary to mention it in full here. All that is important to say for this story is that her full name was unusual enough for it to have been very rare in Scotland.

I was a shy lad at school (these were, of course, the days before I became the role model that Sean Connery was to base his whole career on), and my senior school days were spent in a Roman Catholic secondary school in the south side of Glasgow, Notre Dame de Lourdes, under the headmastership of a quietly spoken but astute and delightful man, John McVey. He had been principal of the English department, and his sister, principal of Geography. I don’t think Miss McVey actually had a first name.

Being thrown in to a broad academically cosmopolitan secondary from the relative cocooning of my little primary school, in the parish of St Conval’s, was quite an awakening, and adjustment took a long time. At least, six months to a year seems a long time when you have not yet reached your first teen year. These were the days of the Eleven-Plus, or ‘Quali’, which determined your entire academic career from the age of eleven. I had been allocated to the class 1A Boys, which was the academic stream, in a school where boys were segregated from girls until about third year, at which time classes became smaller as pupils began to take academic streaming options, and the boys’ and girls’ classes merged.

That was an adventure. Boys and girls in the same class, how easy it became to be distracted from lessons, by sneaking a peek at Antionette Wynne, the incredibly beautiful girl with the dark hair and white hair band in Latin class, or Stenia Stelmach, the tall and fair-haired Polish girl who breezed through Chemistry and turned all the boys’ heads, or the McElroy twins, Anne and Marie, who distracted me from my French verb conjugations. Mathematics was a tough call, for Alice Dolan and Cathy McDaid continually had me turning at obtuse angles to throw tangential glances at them. Physics was no better, for there on the front bench were Edith Pratt and Mary Roach. As for English, Lord knows how I managed to pass an exam, seated behind Mary Reid, and two rows away from The Trio.

The Trio. That’s how I always thought of them. Three girls who were always found together : Margaret McCartan, tall and dark-haired, Clare McGonigal, a doe-eyed girl with a shining rosy complexion, and Aileen. Aileen was tall, slim, with bright blue eyes, short bob-style fair hair, strikingly pretty, and an impish smile. In or out of school, Margaret, Clare and Aileen were always together.

Being a relatively shy boy, they naturally homed in on me. They had discovered that I blushed rather easily, and became tongue-tied, so they would come to me in the street, perhaps waiting for the bus home, and tease me mercilessly, but it was always good-humoured. And in truth, seeing them approach would always quicken my pulse a little. I always knew when Aileen was in teasing mode, for then, she always called me “Alexander”, with a musical trill in her voice accenting the third syllable, and I would blush furiously again. Yet for all their relentless teasing, I adored them. I was just sixteen years old, and I adored them in that perfectly innocent way that, once lost, never returns. Once, I remember, standing at the bus stop to take the bus home, and The Trio spotted me. “Alexander!” said Aileen as they crowded round me, “How are you?” And then she frisked me. She went through my pockets, and pulled out the spiral notebook I kept for jotting down ideas about what to write for English essays. And she had a good read through. What did I care? I was a boy of sixteen, and I had been frisked by Aileen!

I had daydreams, in which the four of us would wander through sunlit meadows, and then they’d smother me in kisses while I resisted with every intention of failing.

Those schooldays, which seemed long at the time, were suddenly short. Before I knew it, six years had gone, and so had they. The McElroy twins had married, so too had Stenia Stelmach, Alice and Cathie, and Edith.

And me.

Years passed. Schooldays became a thing of the past, and classmates crept imperceptibly into the history of decades gone by.

Occasionally, I’d wonder what became of those people with whom I’d shared my schooldays. For the most part, it became just an idle curiosity, and there were few with whom I’d kept in touch. Frankie Hart had gone to university to study mathematics, Mike Donnelly entered the world of economics and politics and became adviser to the Scottish First Minister, Frank Berry became a teacher in the same school, but beyond that, I knew little. And my own career was to take me out of Glasgow and, eventually, out of Scotland.

But these memories are precious. They become part of us, part of our history, part of what shapes us, and every now and then, they burst in on the conscious self. So it was, one evening recently, when I found myself reflecting on schooldays in NDL, and my boyhood, and The Trio, those whimsical, mischievous girls, and being frisked at the bus stop in Paisley Road by Aileen. Where were they? How had life treated them? Would they remember me?

I had no way for sure of ever finding out, certainly not for Margaret, or Clare. Girls marry, and they change their names. In any case, what had stayed in my mind, and had become part of my history, might have been forgotten in a fortnight to them.

So, it happened that one day not long ago, reflecting on these days, I thought to see if I might find any trace of Aileen. I had nothing to go on, save an unusual name, that itself would have been no clue had she married. My intention had been simple and uncomplicated : only to see if I could find out what had become of her, and whether she remembered me, and might smile at the recollection. Nothing else.

What I hadn’t expected, on searching for her name, unusual as it was, was finding it within minutes. There, was Aileen. The only name of its kind.

It is very awkward to write to someone you have not seen for many decades. How do you explain why you are writing? What had seemed so obvious, what had seemed would be so fluent before I began to set it down, suddenly left me as tongue-tied as I had been all those years ago. Yet there are few regrets as harsh as those of moments not taken, so I wrote.

I wrote to say who I was, how I had remembered her, how we had spent schooldays together, how she, and Margaret, and Clare, had teased me as a young lad, made me blush, and how, in uncomplicated youthful innocence, I had adored all three of them. In truth, I did not expect a reply.

Aileen replied within minutes. What I had not calculated on, was that this would not be the same Aileen. It was her sister-in-law, who by chance had the same first name, and had married Aileen’s brother.

She told me, with kindness and patience towards a stranger, that the Aileen I sought had died many years ago, in her thirties. She had barely reached half of her three score years and ten.

In that moment, my remembrances of the lovely fair-haired girl with the bright blue eyes and singing voice, changed into an indescribable sadness. Memories I thought I might renew on the re-telling, suddenly became locked in the past, unchangeable, known only to me.

Aileen was kind. She answered all my questions, told me how Aileen had become a teacher, had taught at the school where my own youngest brother had been a pupil, and how she had become overcome by the illness that took her from this world too early.

For all this news was sad, and I wish it had been otherwise, I am glad that after all these years, I found out. I have, as most will know, had my one true love in this life, but Aileen has always had a special place in my memory, and always will.

Tonight, at my accustomed time of nine o’clock for these things, I will fill my glass with my finest malt, and raise it to Aileen, and as I raise it, I will hear her say my name once more : “Alexander!”

Come Prima

25.12.2012 | 23:51

I never learned Italian, and I sometimes wish I had. It is, I think, a language of song, or at least, it is always in songs and music that I associated this romance language.

A week or so ago,  Mary  invited me to a Christmas event that was being held in a local club, about a mile away. And as I never refuse invitations from adorable women, that was an appointment that went straight into my diary. When the Wednesday came, I put my walking shoes on and set off into the night air, cold and frosty under an icy black sky. Mary met me just after I arrived, and introduced me to some people she thought I’d make a good team member with during the quiz scheduled for later in the evening. With a mix of English, Scottish, and Italian, our team name had to be Cosmopolitan.

George was pretty hot on historical topics, I figured I’d be able to field the science and nature type questions, Anna proved good in the geography and politics, and between us, we reckoned we’d be able to make a strong showing during the music rounds. Anna’s elderly father was silent. She whispered to me, “He used to like to socialise, but now he’s, you know, a little …” and she pointed to her head. Age was beginning to tell. But Anna knew that keeping her father involved in socialising with other people would help keep his mind active. “Now, when I take him out, he wants to go home. But he is happy to be here.” Although Anna had lived here many years, it was obvious that great grandfather was still immersed in the Old Country, and sat quietly, his hands resting together on his walking stick and his hat still perched squarely on his head.

When she started the quiz, Sue told us the questions would be easy. Well, they were for those I knew the answers to, but I have to differ on the level of sophistication that was required for some of the mathematical questions. (OK then, at the end of the twelve days of Christmas, how many gifts did my true love give to me?)

There was, in the background, a little light music, played live (oh, do keep music live), from an able musician with a trumpet and a black hat (he had the black hat, not the trumpet), and a musician with an accordion in a broad white hat (same clarification). Tony was, it didn’t take long to determine, something of a virtuoso on the squeezebox, and given the slightest encouragement, would dazzle with magical and insanely fast fingerwork on the keyboard. And just how do they know which of the scores and scores of tiny chord buttons to push without ever looking?

On Sue’s signal, Tony played the first tune. I recognised it straight away and Anna’s eyes twinkled to show that she knew it too. Volare! One down, four to go. Tune number two. I recognised it as instantly as Volare, but could not put a name to it, or even a word from the lyrics. Anna caught my attention. “Tequila”, she said, “it’s called Tequila”. Two down.

When Tony started the third, I began to detect a theme. As before, I knew the tune, and could not get the words to surface, and even Anna had it only on the tip of her tongue, so that I feared we’d miss it before the next piece started. Then Anna snapped her fingers and began to sing as some of the words suddenly came back to her …

#Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa, jammo ja,
#Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa, jammo ja!

Now I remembered! And in an instant, I was back with Frances on a trip many years ago to the Amalfi Coast, in a little theatre in Sorrento listening to an evening of Neapolitan music and song, on a warm Mediterranean evening. The sound was infectious, and now, as then, there was a tingling of the blood, a quickening of the pulse, an elation of the spirit. And I could hear the words all over again from that night.

#Funiculi, funicula
#Funiculi, funicula!
#’ncoppa jammo ja,
#Funiculi, funicula!

Three down, two to go.

Number four. Only two notes played, and Anna had it instantly. “Like the first! Like the first!” she urged. I didn’t get it. It didn’t sound at all like Volare. “Like the first!” she said again, “Come Prima! Come Prima!” I thrust the answer sheet at her and she scribbled the answer. Ah, Come Prima, that’s what it’s called. Like the first time.

With tune number five, the accordionist started to play and as he played, he strode towards us, his intention clear. He was going to serenade Anna. Playing a long opening chord he knelt flamboyantly before her, and began to play. You could tell he was having to restrain himself from breaking into song and giving the answer away, but everyone already knew it and Anna began to sing … “Arrivederci Roma”. There was definitely an Italian Connexion going on here. Anna looked up at me and twinkled.

“The accordionist, he’s-a my son!”

Ah, of course. Tony. Antonio. And I’m with all the Italians, listening to Italian music in the quiz, played by the accordionist from Italy. And I’m sitting opposite his mother.

Time came to go home. I leaned over to shake hands with Anna, and wish her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Taking my hand, she grinned and said something to me I didn’t catch. She said it again. Then she said it a third time, and this time with a look that said ‘You’re not just to listen, you’re to say after me’. She was teaching me to say something in Italian, and I instinctively knew what it would be. I tried to repeat it.

— Bonataly felich ana.

No, not quite, said ‘the look’.

— Bon atally felichy nova.

Not much better, try again after me, ‘the look’ continued. Third time lucky.

— Buon natale e felice anno nuovo!

The smile told me I’d got it at last. As she turned to leave, she helped Great Granddad to his feet. Catching his eye, I leaned over and held out my hand, and wished him “Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo.”

The old man stopped, took my hand, and said nothing, but looked straight into my eyes and the brightest beaming smile crossed his face, and he nodded. I could tell from the wry smile on her face that this had been Anna’s purpose, and I had passed the test.

I wrapped up and stepped out into the chill night. The road ahead was empty, and the frosted grass crunched under foot as I walked the last mile home. High over the horizon, Orion climbed into the black sky, huge and silent. I remembered the first time I ever saw Orion. It was fifty years ago, and I was walking home from the house of my old schoolboy friend Lawrence Winfield, about a mile away. On the way, I’d turned to look back, and there it was, high in the near-midnight sky over his house. Here, fifty years on, on this near-midnight road, there was the Hunter again, sword in hand and the great giant stars Rigel and Betelgeuse. Come Prima.

Antonio’s tunes were still buzzing in my head, and among them, one that was new the first Christmas with Frances, in 1972.

#So this is Christmas,
#And what have you done,
#Another year over
#And a new one just begun

I’d never cared for it at the time, but somehow, over the years, it became a kind of constant, and each time I’d hear it, wherever we were living, I’d remember that first Christmas, in her little flat in Paisley. That was forty Christmasses ago, and this is the second Christmas without her. Yet for all we are without her, there is something of her with me all the time. Not just the lock of her hair that is always with me wherever I go, but the spirit of her, the thousands of memories that are stirred afresh every day. For the rest of the walk home, I found myself remembering that first Christmas, with all the Christmasses that followed, and smiling again. Come Prima.

Buon Natale, e Felice Anno Nuovo.