A Different Angle on a Legend

LEGEND 
1. a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but unauthenticated.
synonyms: myth, saga, epic, tale, story, folktale, folk story, fairy tale, fable, mythos, folklore, lore, mythology, fantasy, oral history, folk tradition; urban myth
2. an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.
synonyms: celebrity, star, superstar, icon, phenomenon, luminary, leading light, giant; Mor

images-2

My older sister came to stay from interstate this week and I took the opportunity to use complimentary tickets for Studiocanal’s latest promotion Legend “the notorious true story of the Kray twins“. The film focuses on the notoriety of identical twin gangsters Reggie and Ronnie Kray, and their criminal empire in the East End of London during the 1960s.

To be honest, I doubt if I would have gone to see this film without the free tickets because I grew up in an era with the Krays forever in the news – and it was all bad as these headlines from UK newspapers show:

I didn’t want to see a film glorifying violence or justifying the appalling behaviour of these would be celebrities. Thankfully, Legend does not do either of these things. There are violent scenes and offensive language, but the movie concentrates on the love affair between Reggie Kray and Frances Shea and a very short time in the life of the Krays London-based criminal empire and gangster status. Frances is the narrator and we know what she wants from the relationship early in the film:

Frances Shea: You could go straight…
Reggie Kray: Life isn’t always what we want it to be.

While there is an attempt to show the human and vulnerable side to Reggie, the ultimate reality and tragic consequences dispels any sympathy you may feel for the main character. Legend is definitely not Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey!

The storyline is almost palatable when centered around the brief courtship and marriage of Reggie and Frances with the criminal activities as subplots. However, trying to make Ronnie and Reggie behave in a loving way towards anyone, even each other, an impossible task if you also depict the documented behaviour of the Krays and the other psychopaths and morons who were their associates. The episodic violence and scattering of references to celebrities, politicians and other gangsters of the time leaves unresolved and confusing subplots, but also destroys any sympathy for the people in their social circle.

However, the acting of Emily Browning as a ‘fragile’ Frances Shea and Tom Hardy as both Kray brothers lifts the film from mediocre to memorable. There are also some solid performances from recognisable British character actors showing good casting from writer/director Brian Helgeland. Christopher Eccleston plays a suitably frustrated Detective Nipper Read who eventually gets his ‘man’ and Tara Fitzgerald is a fearless and angry Mrs. Shea devastated at her daughter’s infatuation with Reggie.

Legend reveals both brothers as paranoid and violent. Their delusions of invincibility divorced from reality, although only Ronnie diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. This quote early in the movie sums him up:

Dr. Humphries: Your brother Ron is violent and psychopathic, and I suspect he’s paranoid schizophrenic… to put it simply he’s off his fucking rocker!
[thrusts a bottle of pills to Reggie]
Dr. Humphries: Make sure he takes these…, or they’ll be serious trouble. 

The doctor’s comment an understatement! Check out Monty Python’s ‘Pirhana Bros’ sketch lampooning the Krays. This pretty well sums up what people of my generation familiar with the real life ‘legend’, thought of creeps like the uneducated Krays who were not bright or smart, but epitomised the adage ‘brawn over brains’.

Perhaps the one lesson to take away from Legend is that there was a time in British justice when murderers were gaoled for life – Ronnie Kray (62) died in prison and Reggie (67), sentenced to 30 years, served 33 because of his prison behaviour and released on compassionate grounds, died 6 weeks later from cancer. The Krays had an older brother Charlie (73) not mentioned in the film. He also died in prison a few months before Reggie.

The film has had mixed reviews since its release and I can understand why. The acting is superb and I loved the soundtrack of mainly 60s music.  The set design offers the authenticity we’ve come to expect from British period productions. Movie trivia reveals:

“The Blind Beggar pub featured in the movie is The Royal Oak on Columbia Road in London. The pub has featured in many British TV programmes. It was the same pub used in ’90s sitcom Goodnight Sweetheart and was also the scene of Victor Meldrew’s failed reunion with friends in the last episode of One Foot In The Grave.”

However, in depicting the truth about the Krays, even a condensed version of their vicious amoral life, there is not much to enjoy. You leave the cinema with a sense of relief it’s over.

We don’t learn enough about the police officers involved or see how the Krays are eventually charged and sentenced to understand what real impact they had on London. Reggie’s dramatic about turn in his treatment of Frances so sudden and out of character it strips away all pretence that the movie is a love story and makes you realise that storyline arc not developed well at all.

Yet, for all the criticisms, I think the viewing public, accepts the film on face value, acknowledging Tom Hardy’s amazing triumph acting identical twins in such a way that audiences are convinced it is two separate people. And, as mentioned before, Emily Browning is stunning as the vulnerable and fragile Frances even though we could have done with more of her backstory. The glimpses of humour mainly provided by ‘mad’ Ron are not overdone and are believable for that character.

“In the UK, Legend (2015) became the highest grossing 18-rated British film of all time, surpassing Trainspotting (1996)….”

Despite the fact:

“Critic Benjamin Lee of The Guardian wrote a negative review of the film, giving it only two stars: a poster for British distributor Studio Canal displayed these, but placed them between the twins’ heads, so that at first glance The Guardian appeared to be one of many outlets that had run four- and five-star reviews (until Lee himself pointed this out on Twitter).”

Fortunately, the violence is not as graphic as it could have been and the film does not glamorise gangsters or criminal activity – you leave the cinema glad the Krays are no longer around. There are many unexplored threads, especially in relation to Ronnie’s mental illness and treatment juxtaposed with the depression (?) Frances obviously suffered and the pills she popped.

There is also a hint that Reggie is psychopathic too:

Ronald Kray: [on his twin stabbing Jack] Why did you kill him?
Reggie Kray: [walks up, so he is pressing his forehead against his twin] Because I CAN’T KILL YOU!

Mind you by the end of the film I think most people in the audience empathised with those sentiments! Perhaps even extended hopes of retribution, vengeance and justice towards both Krays and everyone in their circle of friends who took part in the attempt to build a ‘gangster kingdom’ in 1950s/60s Britain!

Please let me know what you think of the film if you see it.

images-4

How To Write your Life In A Poem

creative-writing-prompts

The start of a new term and the probability of new people enrolling in my classes, joining students who have been attending for months or years. The need to reinvent ‘icebreakers’ or use fresh ‘getting to know you’ techniques after 15 years of teaching had me trawling the internet.

I don’t write from ideas so much as from feelings. When something touches me deeply, I write to capture or explore or understand it. This begins in my journal where it’s just for me. Then if it seems like something I want to share, I move out of my journal and start working on a legal pad. I don’t usually know what it’s going to be or who it’s for when I begin. I write to find out!

George Ella Lyon.

I found a beautiful poem by George Ella Lyon. The many templates based on her poem ideal for creative writing students to introduce themselves.  The poem is an excellent way to record the essence of your life. No remembering of dates required, no intensive research – just pure gut feelings, emotional resonance and recalling memorable images, people, things, those snatches of stories heard from relatives.

Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon, writer and teacher

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

Lyon had this to say about her poem:

In the summer of 1993, I decided to see what would happen if I made my own where-I’m-from lists, which I did, in a black and white speckled composition book. I edited them into a poem — not my usual way of working — but even when that was done I kept on making the lists. The process was too rich and too much fun to give up after only one poem. Realizing this, I decided to try it as an exercise with other writers, and it immediately took off. The list form is simple and familiar, and the question of where you are from reaches deep.

Last week, as usual, I wrote in class at the same time as my students. The template we used encourages honesty and self-reflection, but it can be profound or light-hearted. This poem should be a description of who you are for anyone who doesn’t know you – or at least give classmates a hint of your background or the present.

Students could follow the template exactly – if there were anything they felt like adding, or omitting, they could. As always, in my classes, the originality of the poems and information shared was fantastic.

Here is one of my efforts. Like George Ella Lyon, I couldn’t give up at one poem and this and others are still a work in progress…

What Made Me?
Mairi Neil

I am from ‘wakey-wakey’ for breakfast
Story time books and kisses goodnight.
From hopscotch, skipping, dress-ups,
Backyard games and street delights.

Childish rhymes and daisy chains,
From buttercup tests and bramble jars,
Walking to school or riding bicycles
Streets were for playing – not for cars!

Home deliveries by butcher and baker
Bottled milk  at home and school
Coal man blackened and scary
Clouds of dust when cellar full.

Shouts of ‘any old rags?’ recycled clothes
The buttons and zips Mum always kept
Eager friends traded their Dad’s best suit
Mothers screamed and children wept.

I am from Chinese checkers and chess
Scabby Queen and what card to choose
Roars of laughter, or tears and tantrums
Gracious winning and learning to lose

A migrant family farewelling the familiar
Adjusting to a new home across the seas
On a long ship’s voyage we acclimatised
To be from a house among gum trees.

Hot days of summer and restless nights
Long dry grass and fear of snakes
Mosquito netting to avoid nasty bites
No escaping plum and apple fights.

Blue tongue lizards and pesky possums
A boat full of tadpoles and croaking frogs
Screeching cockies and laughing kookaburras
Our house full of stray cats and dogs.

Huntsman spiders sucked up the vacuum
While cicadas chitter announcing summer
Rabbits and hares, native mice a plenty
Magpies swooping – what a bummer!

I’m from Choc Wedges and icy poles
Long summer days at Croydon Pool
Driveway tennis and park cricket
Trips up Mt Dandenong to stay cool.

I’m from high school softball and hockey
A Holden car swapped for Morris van
Holidays in army tent at Coronet Bay
Shift worker Dad visiting when he can.

I’m from triple-fronted brick veneer
Replacing dilapidated weatherboard
Coloured TV, Phillips stereo and cassettes
Furniture no longer wet when rain poured.

I’m from white weddings and sad divorces
In-laws and several nephews and nieces
Heartaches of friends and relatives
Falling apart and picking up pieces…

I’m from sick and ageing parents,
Death’s challenge not ignored
A houseful of wonderful memories
As bulldozers destroyed James Road.

In the hush of evening sunsets
Imagining childhood with closed eyes
Daily shenanigans, laughter and tears
From that ‘wakey-wakey’ surprise.

I’m from hardworking parents
Love always their motivation
Gifting me ethics and values
I’m a product of their dedication.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here is the WHERE I’M FROM Template:

I am from _____ (everyday thing), from ______ (product or brand name), and _____ (everyday thing).
I am from the_______(describe where you live, adjective, adjective, detail)
I am from the_______ (natural thing like: ocean, lake, flower, plant near your house or that you love), and the________(natural thing)
I am from_________(family tradition such as: a holiday, a place you go together, something you celebrate), and________ (something special about your family), from _______(name of person in your family), from________(another person in your family) and _______(another person in your family).
I am from the________(something your family does all the time) and________(another thing your family likes or does a lot).
From_____________(something you were told as a child, such as: santa claus, tooth fairy) and_____________(another thing you were told as a child).
I am from_________(the place you were born or where your family is from that is important to you),________(two food items that your family makes or that is special to your family).
From the__________(story about someone in your family, who is alive or dead),________________(another detail), and the_________________(another detail).
I am from____________(the place where your family keeps important pictures, keepsakes, things from your childhood)_______________(What do these things mean to you?)

Here is another version:

I am from (a specific item from your childhood home)
from (two products or objects from your past)
I am from (a phrase describing your childhood home)
and (more description of your childhood home)
I am from (a plant, tree or natural object from your past)
whose (personify the natural object)
I am from (two objects from your past)
from (two family names or ancestors)
and from (two family traits or tendencies)
from (another family trait, habit or tendency)
I am from (a religious memory or family tradition)
from (two foods from your family history)
from (a specific event in the life of an ancestor)
and from (another detail from the life of an ancestor)
(Memory or object you had as a child)
I am from the moments…
(continue this thought or repeat a line or idea from earlier in the poem)

Start writing your life in a poem and please share and let me know if it becomes addictive!

writing-tips-best

Memories are important, they help me understand who I am!

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.

Susan B. Anthony

A very good quote, except today it is a “milestone” I’m remembering because if my mother was still alive, she would be celebrating her 94th birthday. Annie Brown Courtney (later McInnes) was born on April 15, 1921, in Northern Ireland, on the border of County Antrim and County Down.

IMG_0007

For Mum
Mairi Neil

I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

This poem was first published in February 2010. Included in the vignette, KitchenScraps: Mum’s Legendary Scones, part of a collection based on family recipes published by Women’s Memoirs, an online site in the USA devoted to women’s memoir writing.

It was also chosen to be included in A Lightness of Being, a poetry anthology by Poetica Christi Press, 2014.

Unknown

In 2008, I wrote the following tribute to Mum when I was lucky enough to have her staying with me for a few days.

MUM’S HANDS

When I hold my mother’s hands in mine, they’re as soft as rose petals; the translucent skin, fragile. The sense of touch is the most important now Mum’s eyesight and hearing have failed and she loves cradling my hand between hers or places her hands in mine, to be held and stroked.

However, a bruise can appear with a minimum of pressure. When she stayed with me recently an ugly purple mark grew overnight, the result of a bump against the unfamiliar bedside table. At breakfast, the dark smudge merged with sun and aged spots, an ugly blot staining pale skin.

Mum’s delicate hands have shrunk like the rest of her body. Not surprising really because she has just celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday. Yet, sitting side by side on the couch, she grabs my hand with a grip reminiscent of my childhood when she guided me across the road, my fearless protector from rogue cars or lorries.

Nowadays, she wears gloves day and night. Poor circulation makes her hands permanently cold but as we sit in companionable silence on the couch, her love is like an electric current. I feel the strength of those once sturdy hands and reflect on how hard they have laboured, how gently they have nurtured, how faithfully they have worshipped.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Mum has always been petite and had to accept that once her six children reached adolescence we could all boast about being taller. She laughed off our bragging, reminding us that 4’ 11” was an easy height to beat. She’d repeat one of the many proverbs she liked, ‘good things come in small packages’ or ‘it’s not what a person looks like that makes them what they are, it’s the intent of their hearts and the good they’re willing to do for others that matters’.

On the back of her hands, I trace the dark blue veins resembling mountain ridges and think of the goodness in Mum’s heart; her long history of helping others epitomised by a William Penn verse that sat framed on the mantelpiece in our family home.

I shall pass this way but once;
therefore any good that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show,
to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.

Mum’s watch slides around her child-sized wrist. Her wedding and eternity rings are too large now for thin fingers; they hang on a gold chain around a wrinkled neck. My fingers look like sausages beside Mum’s thin bones, but with recently diagnosed osteoarthritis, I suppose I’ll develop knobbly arthritic knuckles too. There is no escaping genetics – well not for me. I remember trying on the eternity ring Dad bought for Mum as a surprise, knowing if it fitted me, it would fit Mum’s finger.

I stroke Mum’s skin gently with my thumb, and ponder the changes wrought by a lifetime; recalling the days when her hands were capable and strong. Skilful hands that baked cupcakes, decorating them with a smear of homemade jam and a sprinkle of coconut because it was cheaper and quicker than icing — with six children plus friends, fairy cakes, scones or pancakes rarely had time to cool before being scoffed.

mother-hold-their-childs-hand-for-a-moment-and-their-heart-for-a-lifetime

The cakes filled several tins; enough to feed a gang of children and their mothers in our Scottish neighbourhood when we made our annual trip to the seaside in Dad’s Bedford van. A day trip made each summer, to Pencil Monument at Largs from Davaar Road, Braeside where we lived in a close friendly community. Those tins filled again when we went on a Highland holiday, travelling with the Devlin Family in an old WW2 ambulance Dad and Willie Devlin converted.

Few women worked outside the home in the 1950s and many men in the new housing scheme worked shift work like Dad, especially shipyard workers. Dad was a railwayman, his mate Willie Devlin, a shipyard worker. Summer sojourns planned with precision. The day trip entailed Dad making two trips in the van to Largs, a popular seaside town a half hour journey along curving Inverkip Road. The bends offered thrills to those perched on makeshift seats in the back, but also spectacular views of pretty seaside towns like Inverkip and Skelmorlie.

Unknown-1

The first trip had Willie in the front and children prepared to travel without their mother, in the back. At Pencil Point Park, the back doors of the van were thrown open and there was a mad rush for the sea, or to play on the helter-skelter. Some of us just ran around whooping like Red Indians in what we considered a grand spacious park.

‘What Home do the wains come from?’ asked the park keeper.
‘Ma hame, his hame and half a dozen other hames in oor street,’ said Willie with a laugh.

Dad grinned as the keeper stared at the range of sizes and ages and our uninhibited joy. Dad and Willie understood why the park keeper thought we were from an orphanage. One trip, six-year-old Ian McDonald in his excitement to be at the seaside, kept running, even when he reached the water. Willie fished him out and the poor boy had to spend the day in a spare pair of my knickers, which never bothered him until he was teased about the incident years later in Australia as a ten-year-old!

Willie, left in charge, Dad returned to Davaar Road to pick up the mums, toddlers, and babies –– and the all-important food: Spam, salmon, or corned beef sandwiches, pancakes, scones, fairy cakes and bananas freshly ripened in our airing cupboard. The fruit Dad had got in bunches off the boats– one of the few perks of being a railwayman when the banana boats came in from the West Indies.

There would have been jam sandwiches too, spread with the delicious bramble jelly made from the buckets of brambles we picked from the hillside. We loved blackberry picking – there is something very satisfying about searching through the tangle of thorns for the fattest, glossiest fruit. We often went with the Davaar Road Gang: the Dochertys (Anne Marie, Kathleen and Dennis), the McGrattans (Graham and Billie), Pamela Ritchie and Billy Fleming, the Moffats (Sandra and Margaret), the Devlins (Rose and May) and even Jean Jepson if she had louse-free hair and we were allowed to play with her.

Up over the hill, we’d go, or down to the farmer’s field, searching through hedgerows with our buckets and jam jars swinging from tiny hands. A good picking session a regular feature of autumn half-term holidays because berries thrive in the cooler Scottish summers, where long daylight hours help them to ripen with plenty of flavours. Brambles or blackberries grew profusely in the wild. The scratchy, thorny bushes never deterred us.

Later in Australia, Mum’s hands churned out griddle scones or pancakes at midnight, when as teenagers, we came home with friends, all with the munchies after a night of ten-pin bowling, ice-skating, or partying.

I have lost count of the number of times I sat mesmerised as those hands deftly mixed ingredients in a large bowl – a pinch of this, a handful of that, a swirl, a knead, a pat – to produce scones and apple tarts or pancakes and cupcakes that disappeared within moments and had us begging for more. Mum’s preparation and production of scones legendary, so much so that my daughter Anne, Mum’s namesake and first granddaughter dreams of videoing the process for posterity.

When told of this Mum shook her head in disbelief and laughed. ‘You know I couldn’t cook a boiled egg when I married your father in 1948.’ she said, ‘I was never taught to cook or allowed in the kitchen by old Maggie, my stepmother.’

‘How did you become so good at baking?’

‘Your dad taught me a lot. His mother had a heart condition most of his childhood and he had to help her. When she died at the beginning of the war he was in a reserved occupation and more or less took charge of running the house.’

I laughed. ‘I’ve never seen Dad bake scones or cakes.’

‘Oh, he didn’t teach me how to do that but gave me the confidence to experiment. I learned from the Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend – and I remembered watching my Cousin Minnie and Aunt Martha out on the farm.’
Mum’s eyes stared into the distance, the fingers fussing with buttons on her cardigan suddenly still… and she was back on the farm…

When my Grandmother died in 1927, Mum became motherless at six years old. Her grief-stricken father had a pawnbroking business to manage, plus a three-year-old son, Tom. Grandmother’s family offered to take the children to their farm near Boardmills eighteen miles from Belfast. Mum lost her mother and the same day became separated from her father apart from a visit on Sundays when he could make the trip from Belfast.

Six-year-old hands were soon feeding hens and collecting eggs in a wicker basket, patting the smooth flesh of horses released from yoke and plough, filling a trough with a warm meal for the pigs, and learning to form letters in a tiny country school.

Yet the five years spent on the farm until her father remarried and took her back to live in Belfast were the best years of a childhood shattered by grief. It was on the farm her hands became nurturing hands.

From the first week of her arrival at the farm, she helped look after her dead mother’s sister, Annie, whom she was called after. Annie was grandmother’s older sister and suffered from a debilitating muscular disease that sounds similar to motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. The symptoms were such that Annie lay in bed 26 years, unable to do anything unaided while her muscles gradually seized. When she heard of her younger sister’s death, it was the last time she was able to communicate by words. She murmured through twisted lips, ‘Poor John, poor weans.’ After that, she communicated by eye signals – one blink for yes, two blinks for no.

Mum recalled a day when Annie made the most horrible gurgling sounds trying to speak, her eyes blinking furiously, as she stared in terror at the open window. Paler than usual her skin gleamed from perspiration. Mum thought an intruder had entered the room or Aunt Annie had seen ‘the shadow of death’ that the Reverend Grim talked about in church all the time. After examining the open window, she turned again to the moaning patient and let out a blood-curdling scream.

Those adults within earshot ran up the stairs two at a time. A giant wasp hovered above bedridden Annie, attracted no doubt by the vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. The thought of its sting had Mum in a lather of fear too because she was allergic to insect venom.

Over the years, Mum helped care for Annie by massaging her hands with oil and placing cotton wool between her fingers and in her claw hands to prevent sores and calluses and keep the skin supple. Sarah, a woman from the village came daily to attend to Annie’s toilet needs and to feed her. Sarah cleaned Annie’s room, did her laundry and helped with general housework. She would read the Bible and any newspaper or pamphlet that came into the house, to the poor woman lying trapped in a twisted body in the farmhouse bedroom.

Hands that tended an ailing Aunt from a very young age were called upon at teenage to nurse her father, who died in 1939, a few weeks after the declaration of World War Two and a few months after Mum’s eighteenth birthday.

Mum often talked about returning to Belfast at eleven years of age, when her father remarried. Unconsciously fingering her own wedding ring she said, ‘Daddy died in my arms while I recited the 23rd Psalm, his favourite psalm…’

I squeeze her arm, take both of her hands in mine and think of the many times these hands have been clasped in prayer and how Mum’s faith sustained her through life’s hurdles.

Mairi-Neil-2-mum-and-mairi-300x237  DSC01911

After the war, she nursed patients in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland (Quarrier’s Homes) while training to be a nurse. Later, married with her own family Mum’s hands were kept busy with the relentless tasks of mothering six children – later still caring for twelve grandchildren – even sacrificing retirement freedom to care for two grandsons after my brother’s marriage ended.

Hands immersed in water, hands red raw from hard work and winter cold, hands stained from bramble jelly, hands dry from bleach, hands massaged with barrier cream – nurturing hands, labouring hands. Hands rarely raised in anger, but often dabbing at tears, cuddling and seeking to comfort, and clasped in prayer.

Family_Resemblance

images-1

Royalty for the Day

images-1

I’ve mentioned before how Dad often recited Rabbie Burns, believing the poems reflected life. At eight years old, I learned the meaning of:

The best-laid schemes of mice and men Gang aft agley And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy

When you are the fourth of six children, special moments with either parent can be few, and in 1961, with Dad working over 40 hours a week as an engine driver, his shiftwork, including weekends, made individual attention, rare indeed. However, I remember spending a whole day with Dad – although we were not entirely alone, but shared the experience with a feisty donkey called Hamish. I consider the day a highlight of my Scottish childhood. images-11 One evening, Dad said, ‘The Sunday School pageant on Palm Sunday is going to have a real donkey.’ Dad was superintendent of St. Ninian’s Sunday School, a Church of Scotland parish accommodating the growing population of Braeside, in post-war Greenock. At the elders’ meeting to discuss ways of engaging non-churchgoing families, someone jokingly suggested that a real donkey on Palm Sunday would draw the crowds. His imagination fired by this casual remark, Dad discussed it with a workmate, Archie Barber who agreed to contact a  friend with a farm on the outskirts of Skelmorlie,  9 kilometres away.

The older boys had football practice, Catriona a commitment with Girl Guides, and Alistair and Rita were too young, so I volunteered to accompany Dad to the farm.

‘You’ll have to wear old clothes,’ Mum said, ‘there won’t be a saddle and the cuddy’s hair will  smell and be greasy.’

Normally, an outing called for Sunday best, and I’d wear the pretty dress sent from Aunt Chrissie in Australia, however, reading mum’s mind, Dad said, ‘We’ll look like a couple of tinkers, but we’ll have fun.’

Saturday came and Dad and I caught a double-decker bus and sat upstairs.  I got to sit by the window. We played I Spy, then counted different colours or types of cars. No competing voices, just the two of us; Dad’s newspaper remaining unopened on his lap.

After what seemed like hours of winding road and stops and starts, we reached Skelmorlie. The farm had a large buttercup meadow. Dad grinned as I held a flower under his chin. Pale flesh glowed. ‘You like butter.’ He tickled me, ‘I love butter.’

Meadow buttercup 2 - Kew

A row of silver birch trees framed the whitewashed farmhouse. The stocky farmer stood beside a tethered donkey. Dad muttered, ‘What a bedraggled animal – thank goodness your mum insisted on old clothes.’

The donkey looked more like a shaggy Highland cow; its mouse-grey, grimy coat in need of a wash. Its short, whiskbroom tail rigid; its huge ears twitching. ‘Meet Hamish,’ the farmer said, ‘I’m afraid, he’s become a bit wild.’

Hamish tugged, kicked his back legs in the air, pushed his ears flat towards the back of his head and brayed. I moved closer to Dad, comforted by the squeeze of his calloused hand. The farmer said, ‘Come away inside and have a cuppa while he gets used to the harness again.’

CampZooDonkey2

A woodburner stove radiated warmth; the kitchen table decorated with plates of freshly baked delights. My mouth watered at the griddle scones, soda bread and apple tart. The farmer’s wife offered me a plate of scones smothered in jam and cream whispering, ‘The one on the end is the biggest.’

Dad accepted a cup of tea and a seat on the comfy black leather sofa, nestled against a limestone wall decorated with black and white photographs. The adults chatted about the weather and Dad passed on news from Archie.

I went to the doorway and watched an uncomfortable Hamish try to wriggle free from the post.  He returned my stare with large white-ringed eyes; the only sound the rasping call of a corncrake hiding in nearby nettles.

I offered Hamish the remains of my scone. He nuzzled my hand with his pink mottled nose, ‘Hee haw!’

I jumped; sure, that Mum heard the bray all those miles away. ‘I’ll get you more food,’ and with that promise I skipped back to the kitchen.

Dad and the farmer were immersed in conversation about the new United States Navy base and Polaris nuclear fleet sited at the nearby Holy Loch. Dad campaigned for Nuclear Disarmament and never missed an opportunity to alert people to the dangers of nuclear bases. We wouldn’t be leaving for some time so I grabbed another scone and pocketed plain biscuits.

‘Your coat is magic, Hamish,’ I confided while explaining his part in the Easter play. I  traced the dark cross on his back with my fingers. Dad had told me about the legend that donkeys had unmarked hides before Christ’s entry into Jerusalem.  People believed the hairs from the crosses on the donkey’s back cured some ailments such as whooping-cough and toothache.

I was wondering if the legend and miracle cures were true when Dad’s voice interrupted my thoughts. ‘Now Hamish is calm we better make a start – it’s a long walk home.’

The farmer lifted me onto the donkey’s back. Hamish was four feet high. It felt like I was on stilts. This was so exciting!  I grinned until my face hurt, especially when the farmer’s wife gave Dad the biggest bag of jelly babies I’d ever seen. ‘Take these and use them wisely. Hamish will be no trouble.’

A few sweets coaxed Hamish from the security of the fields. I clung to his dirty coat. ‘Donkeys love to take dust baths,’ Dad said. ‘They choose a spot in their pasture to dig out and bathe themselves daily.’ I looked at several crumbling cowpats. ‘We won’t think too much about what was in the dirt,’ Dad said with a wink, ‘but he’ll need a good scrub before church tomorrow.’

He chuckled and as an afterthought said, ‘ and so will you!’

Hamish stopped. Donkeys hate water under their feet and always avoid puddles. Dad reverted to jelly baby bribery. Hamish plodded on. When he stopped, a jelly baby, or two, or three, encouraged him. I spoke my thoughts aloud, ‘ I don’t think donkeys are stupid!’ Dad smiled and gave me a jelly baby.

He pointed out marsh violets peeping from beneath a granite boulder. I studied the face almost parallel to mine. Black moustache, thick and neatly groomed, long, patrician  nose all ‘McInnes’s inherited. I sniffed his jet-black hair, Brylcreemed beneath traditional tweed cap. His olive skin, not yet summer brown, revealed the legacy of the survivors of the wrecked Spanish Armada who settled in the Highlands in the sixteenth century. Well that was the story Dad liked to tell.

Suddenly, he burst into song, his magnificent tenor voice encouraging me to join in:

Ev’ry road thro’ life is a long, long road, Fill’d with joys and sorrows too, As you journey on how your heart will yearn For the things most dear to you. With wealth and love ’tis so, But onward we must go. Keep right on to the end of the road, Keep right on to the end, Tho’ the way be long, let your heart be strong, Keep right on round the bend.

High hedgerows of white flowering blackthorn and bramble bushes with clusters of tiny blackberries hid houses from view. Dad’s tackity boots a rhythmic echo as metal tips scraped tarmacadam. Hamish increased his pace to our rousing rendition of the Uist Tramping Song:

Come along, come along, Let us foot it out together, Come along, come along, be it fair or stormy weather, With the hills of home before us and the purple of the heather, Let us sing in happy chorus, come along, come along.

The hillside bloomed, a rainbow of shy snowdrops, proud dandelions, wild hyacinths and delicate daisies. As I swayed on Hamish’s broad back, I was an Arabian princess seeking the lost city of Petra; Lady Guinevere meeting King Arthur, Mary Queen of Scots fleeing Scotland … and when Hamish allowed himself a gentle trot – Annie Oakley heading to join Buffalo Bill in the Wild West. All the tales I’d read at school or in the set of  Arthur Mee Children’s Encyclopaedia at home, swirled through my head and fired my imagination.

images-7

Hamish fancied the buds and reddish-purple twigs of the birch tree. Dad gently tapped my shoulder. My hazel eyes followed his outstretched arm. A baby deer munched on a similar feast nearby. Bambi!  What a thrill to be able to boast about this adventurous day when I went to school.

Six kilometres from home, we reached Inverkip village. Although a Saturday afternoon and many shops were already shut, the village was a popular tourist destination for picnics. Dad tightened his grip, rubbed his whiskers into my neck. ‘Watch out; there’s witches here.’

I giggled, spied a bumblebee dancing above a clump of bluebells. ‘No there’s not.’

‘Oh, yes there is,’ Dad said, his brown eyes serious as he gave me a history lesson. ‘In the 1600s many young women were accused of witchcraft and imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t a good time at all.’ I shuddered and must have paled because Dad immediately changed the mood.

‘Not last night but the night before,’ he recited, ‘three wee witches came to my door. One with a hatchet, one with a drum and one with a pancake stuck to her … bum!’ I roared with laughter. Dad had paused for affect and said the ‘b’ word instead of thumb.

A car backfired. Hamish jumped as a truck drove past, then  froze. The jelly babies disappeared at a faster rate. We were stationary for so long passersby thought Dad a gypsy, selling donkey rides. He gave several children short rides, but refused the shiny coins offered. Grateful parents bought me ice cream, Smarties and Humbugs, and replenished the supply of jelly babies when we revealed Hamish’s addiction.

At last the churchyard appeared in view. In fading daylight, I pretended to be Jesus riding into Jerusalem.  Tethered to a railing, Hamish protested with long mournful brays. He didn’t like being contained in the small unfamiliar space.

The adventure left my legs and bottom aching, but I hid my discomfort.  At dinner that evening, the family listened enthralled as Dad, an amazing raconteur, wittily recounted our day.

Next morning, all the children arrived early to see Hamish. I felt a celebrity too as Dad washed and brushed Hamish for a dress rehearsal. However, Hamish refused to walk up the makeshift ramp into the church despite dangled carrots and a jelly baby trail. Bribery, begging, even scolding, all failed.

The church filled with a congregation eager to see the Easter play. Parents hurriedly cleaned dishevelled children and the pageant proceeded without its star. The play was a success even if Hamish didn’t play his part. Or perhaps he did. Donkeys have a reputation for being obstinate and Hamish was certainly that!

Dad murmured into my ear, ‘The best- laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley,’ and shrugged.

images-5

I wrote this story as a response to ‘special moments with dad’, a common memoir writing prompt. There were other occasions, but this one has always loomed large in my memory.

Have you got a special moment, or moments, you can write about?

Copyright Note:

  • Sir Harry Lauder wrote Keep Right On To The End Of The Road shortly after his son was killed in action in World War I. The Uist Tramping Song is a Celtic folk song we learned at school from a regular BBC program played over the classroom radio. The Rabbie Burns quote from the poem To a Mouse on turning her up in her Nest with the Plough