“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.”
Today I honour my mother, Annie Courtney McInnes (15.4.1921 – 23.10. 2009). She brought seven children into the world and six of us survived to adulthood. At one stage there were four under five years – mothering must have been relentless and exhausting.
Thank you, Mum, for helping me when I became a mother – the most definitive life-changing event in my life! For guiding and supporting me and not looking through rose-coloured glasses. For acknowledging parenting is a tough gig, whether you have two children or six. Thank you too, for not lecturing me and telling me how ‘it’ should be done.
Mum – thank you for being one extraordinary wonderful woman!
Dear Mum Mairi Neil
When twilight shadows trees
And evening hush descends
The busyness of the day departs
I still my mind; let silence mend.
Thoughts of living abound
You were a safe harbour for me
I sailed chartered and unchartered waters
You calmed an oft stormy sea.
You launched my dreams
And supported me with love
When I set sail to meet life’s challenges
You were always a guiding dove.
Although I was one of a fleet
Time a commodity in short supply
I never felt unloved or neglected
Your largesse constant as the sky.
You taught me how to cope
When buffeted by gales
Never to abandon ship
Just strengthen ropes and sails.
I carried cargo, travelled far
But always navigated home
You taught me to love and be loved
And the sea of life is there to roam.
I’ve shed barnacles, refurbished decks
Still nurture a manifest to complete
But miss those loving arms and words
Ache to drop anchor at your feet.
Each day before lights out
‘neath twinkling stars and velvet sky
I reflect on a mother’s love
Feel blessed. Legacies do not die.
Mum’s Wisdom (a pantoum) Mairi Neil
Least said soonest mended
A mantra for good relationships
Wisdom from Mum I respected
Especially when ill-feeling grips
A mantra for good relationships
Helps the journey that is life
Especially when ill-feeling grips
And friendship turns to strife
We all face hard choices in life
Dignity needed when mending rifts
No one wants unsettling strife
Or the fear allegiances may shift
Maintaining dignity, mending rifts
Valuing all the views rendered
Shattering of relationships swift
So least said soonest mended.
Valuing each view rendered
Mum’s mantra for good relations
Wisdom I always respected
And a lesson for warring nations!
Shelter from the storm Mairi Neil
Bruised clouds sweep the sky
a gloomy ominous pall.
I remember your voice
‘a thunderplump is on its way.’
Nearing sixty, I wish to be six again
to feel comforting arms
gather me close.
Cushioned against your chest
my anxious heart working overtime
Pit pat pit pat pit pat
Until attuned to your
gentle breathing, and steady
ba boom ba boom ba boom.
I relax, as your hands
usually burdened with chores
keep me safe
in rhythmic caress.
The House Where I Was Born
I sing of a river I’m happy beside The song that I sing is a song of the Clyde Of all Scottish rivers it’s dearest to me It flows from Leadhills all the way to the sea It borders the orchards of Lanark so fair Meanders through meadows with sheep grazing there But from Glasgow to Greenock, in towns on each side The hammers ding-dong is the song of the Clyde
Oh the River Clyde, the wonderful Clyde The name of it thrills me and fills me with pride And I’m satisfied whate’er may betide The sweetest of songs is the song of the Clyde
You can just see the River Clyde from the bedroom window of Number Two George Square, Greenock and in 1953, the year I was born, the clamouring of the riveters’ pistols in the shipyards competed with the noisy steam trains leaving nearby Greenock West Station.
Like most of the buildings in the Square, Number 2 dated back to the 1800s. The three storey, plus attic and basement ashlar building stained with the grime of industry from several shipbuilding yards and sugarhouses, rope works, and a network of engineering businesses.
The George Square Baptist Church nestled alongside Number 2. This simple Renaissance building of squared rubble with Ionic pilasters, erected in 1888, one of several churches adorning the Square and the only one that does not have bells.
However, the bell ringers of the four other churches ensure the Sabbath is not a restful day for the residents of George Square and shift workers like my father often cursed when the various churches announced the different starting times of their services with clanging bells. Clappers chimed an invasive cacophony as they bounced off hundredweights of metal.
The entrance to Number 2 called a ‘close’. Six stone steps lead to a narrow passageway that stretches to the back of the building where more steps allow access to the flats on the upper floors. At the far end of the close, stairs go down to the pocket-handkerchief back garden, referred to as the ‘drying green’ or ‘back green’. The shared laundry with a copper stove is here, and the rubbish bins.
copper for boiling clothes
tongs to remove clothes
The coal cellars for the ground floor flats – Number I and Number 2 – are beside the laundry. My father being a keen amateur photographer converted part of the coal cellar into a dark room-cum-workshop.
Number 2 is the cream of the flats, having a basement kitchen and its own back door. Upstairs on street level, there are two large rooms: the parlour and a bedroom. The entrance has a patch of dull red floral linoleum, scuffed by many feet and in need of replacing in 1953. The bathroom next to the bedroom has a bath, hand basin, and toilet. The indoor toilet a luxury not shared by many of Greenock’s population, who still live in overcrowded housing stock not yet repaired, or rebuilt after the devastating bombing raids of World War 2.
The bathroom’s black and white tiled patterned floor a linoleum, but this hardy floor covering has been replaced in the bedroom and parlour by painted wooden floorboards and floral carpet squares.
Although the apartment is large by the standards of the day, it is cramped living for my McInnes family – especially on the night of August 12th when Mum goes into labour with me. The household consists of my parents, Annie (32) and George (31), their children: Catriona (4), Iain (2 and 7months), George (13 months), and Papa ( Dad’s father, John 78) and Dad’s unmarried sister, Mary (40).
There are two set-in beds, a peculiarly Scottish invention to provide extra sleeping quarters in rooms other than bedrooms. Built into the wall and hidden by dark red crushed velveteen curtains, a set-in bed in the parlour hides above the stairs leading down to the kitchen. Mary sleeps in this bed when she is off duty from the William Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland where she is Matron of the Epileptic Colony.
Downstairs in the kitchen is another set-in bed where Papa sleeps. These set-in beds are unhealthy and cold and have been blamed for the spread of contagious diseases like scarlet fever, measles, tuberculosis and other ailments prolific in days gone by, but less of a problem since the discovery of penicillin’s ability to kill infectious bacteria in 1939. In the bedroom, my parents’ double bed hugs a wall opposite a green settee that folds out to a double bed for Catriona and Iain to share. Beside a large cot where George sleeps, a Pedigree coach-built pram sits ready for my arrival.
Two large wardrobes and a chest of drawers line one wall in the bedroom to accommodate everyone’s clothes. Space at a premium but the parlour always kept tidy to entertain visitors, especially since passersby can easily peek in through the large bay window at street level. The net curtains don’t block out curious eyes and even on cool days the open window lets in fresh air, one of my mother’s obsessions, probably from her days growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, or perhaps her years as a nurse trained in Florence Nightingale’s methods.
Most houses of this era have poor ventilation, the narrow claustrophobic close dismal and designed to capture smells. Few rooms have windows to the outside. Cooking smells linger, along with the smoke from the coal fires in every room.
The winters are long and cold in Scotland. Greenock has the highest rainfall of any town in Great Britain and comedians joke those born in Greenock have webbed feet. Most days washing has to be dried inside, or at least ‘aired’ before being folded away.
The air inside damp as washing hangs from the pulley suspended from the kitchen ceiling or dangles scattered on the backs of chairs, even – tempting fate – draped over the fireguards. Clothes suspended from the ceiling invariably smell of the meals cooked and eaten. Families learn to avoid washing on Fridays if their religion demands eating fish!
The kitchen is the heart of Number 2. A large black cooking range providing warmth, as well as a pot of permanently hot tea. Mum is Irish and in Scottish colloquialism, a ‘tea Jennie’, someone who drinks tea by the barrel. A gas stovetop sits in the scullery, the small open room near the back door containing a sink, workbench and serviceable walk-in pantry. Meals are prepared in the scullery.
Two comfy armchairs sit either side of the cooking range, close enough for stretched legs and feet to rest on the range and be nicely toasted on a chilly day or night. The square wooden table host at mealtimes with Mum’s limited repertoire because rationing still exists in 1953.
Food on the menu, some more frequently than others, includes: porridge, vegetable broth, lentil soup, mince and tatties, slice, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, lamb cutlets, Irish stew, champ (mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions), parsnip and carrot mash, turnips, bacon and fried eggs, black pudding and fried bread, rice pudding and tinned mandarins, semolina and prunes, and bread and butter pudding.
However, when Dad collects his pay on Friday night, ice-cream can be purchased as a treat, from the Tally van, that prowls the streets playing ‘Greensleeves’. Italian immigrants introduced ice-cream to the British as a street food and created the thriving takeaway culture that still survives in cities such as Greenock.
Brought to Britain as cheap labour and sent north to Scotland with a barrow they sold their ice-cream by crying, ‘Gelati, ecco un poco!’ which probably led to ice-cream vendors being called ‘hokey pokey men’ and the ice cream referred to as ‘hokey pokey’. Regardless of their name or nationality, every vendor was called Tony –short I expect for Antonio, and when you asked for an ice cream cone it was a ‘poke’.
My family is fortunate because Papa and Dad work an allotment on railway land and grow vegetables, plus raise prize-winning bantam hens that provide eggs to share with childless Steve and Rita Armour, neighbours and valued friends, living at Number 1.
Dad, a locomotive engine driver stationed at Ladyburn Depot, works shifts two miles away near the James Watt Dock. Most days and nights he walks back and forwards to work because his shifts rarely coincide with public transport timetables. He exchanged hours with a workmate so he can be at home to look after Papa and the children while the midwife and Aunt Mary attend to Mum.
It is a Wednesday evening, the day unusually warm, reflecting the Indian summer Scotland is experiencing in 1953. However, the evening air chills, fires must be lit and Catriona and Iain have an altercation over the empty coal scuttle. At that moment, fifteen minutes to nine o’clock Mum switches off the vacuum cleaner leans on the mantelpiece and declares ‘it’s time’. The labour pains had niggled all day making Mum restless, hence the vacuuming despite Dad’s pleas for her to rest.
The spurt of activity has hurried me along, but she barely gets upstairs to the bedroom before I enter the world at 9.05pm, child number four and the second daughter. Arriving without fanfare I almost deliver myself, according to Mum.
Just as well, because Catriona throws the coal scuttle and it clips Iain on the cheek splitting his skin. Dealing with the drama of Iain’s bleeding face nurse Mary misses the birth. She is further delayed to massage Catriona’s hurt feelings after the bad-tempered attack drew a scolding from Papa – a rare event for Catriona, his ‘princess’, and the only granddaughter (until my arrival) in the rapidly increasing McInnes Clan.
The cry, ‘it’s a girl’ restores joy to the household. Dad and Mum have produced another female offspring, the only couple to do so in their respective families. Mary takes a photograph of me being cuddled by Dad as he sits beside the flickering fire in the parlour. Wrapped in the well-worn christening shawl, a McInnes family heirloom, I’m oblivious to the tap of high heels and leather boots filtering in from the street as couples rush to catch the late movie at the BBC Cinema, two streets away.
Within the house, Gaelic music wafts up the stairs from the radiogram in the kitchen as Papa celebrates with a wee dram of the finest malt whisky, saved for such an occasion. He sings in his native tongue as Dad’s older brother Alex arrives to check I have the right number of fingers and toes before settling by the fire to smoke one of the cigars he has brought for Dad. He joins his father and brother in ‘a wee dram to wet the baby’s head’.
Exhausted, Mum lies back in bed on pillows bolstered by cushions, aware that any rest period she can claim now will be of necessity very short!
Dad begins to sing The Green Oak Treeto me:
I’ll sing about a wee toon that stands doon by the Clyde, It’s the toon whaur I was born and it fills my heart with pride My mother often telt me as she crooned me on her knee, That Greenock took its name from the Green Oak Tree. So here’s tae the Green Oak that stood upon the square, And here’s tae its roots that are still slumbering there,
And here’s tae its townsfolk wherever they may be, For I’m proud that I’m a branch of the Green Oak Tree.
May Greenock, like the Green Oak Tree,
still flourish ‘neath the sun.
Her trade and commerce still increase
for a thousand years to come
And may each son o’ Greenock,
as he battles through life’s storm
Be honest, true and ne’er disgrace
the town where I was born.
Now Greenock’s no’ a bonny place,
I’ve heard some folks complain,
That when you go to Greenock
you’ll get nothing there but rain
But let them say whate’er they may,
with them I’ll no agree,
For aye the name o’ Greenock toon