Thursday, 18 May 2017

You left your scarf here

You left your scarf here -
the one that’s soft, woollen and blue
will you be back to pick it up?
ah it’s one you didn’t care for
never kept you warm
it smells of you
I’d cherish it more
if you were coming back
but you’re not, are you?
You shouldn’t have left me here.
I’m not competent to deal with it 

but you couldn’t help that.

Written after reading William Trevor's Love and Summer

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

I will be the new man at Dens Park

Following what I believe to have been the premature dismissal of a man who was only trying his best I am putting myself forward as the person who will be the next manager of Dundee Football Club. My playing achievements at the club some seasons ago when - ably assisted by my grandsons - I was largely responsible for  Dundee winning the Scottish Premier League make me the most apposite candidate for this post. 

Let’s make it clear my contract will stipulate that I am in sole charge of the entire club even though I may still allow the Yanks and the other members of the board to sit on their comfy seats in the grandstand. 

To be further sure I will be in charge of all financial matters. There will be no more season tickets. Spectators will gain admission to the stadium on a match by match basis by cash payment at the gate. This dosh will be collected after each home match and given to me to dole out as I wish.

Forwards will be on zero goal contracts. If they don’t score they won’t get paid. Similarly defenders will receive nothing if they don’t keep a clean sheet and midfielders will go home penniless if they don’t both score and keep a clean sheet. This is the way forward. It is a man management method to introduce fear in order pour encourager les autres. Reserves and youth players be warned. 

I guarantee these methods will assure us of our place in the Scottish Premiership and will ensure not only a place in the top three of next season's Premiership but also the capture of the League Cup and/or the Scottish Cup.

Dundee FC's  future manager as a young man

I await the phone call from the board of directors with certitude.

Post Script
Unbelievably the call never came. They have offered an interim post as manager to Neil McCann. No doubt they have me in mind for a longer term more permanent situation. Naturally I wish Neil all the best in making sure Dundee FC is in the Premiership next season.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Polo mints and garaged cars

My back’s been bad. I am in pain.
Don’t want to go through bad things again.
Polo mints and garaged cars;
how random objects tag my scars.
Not that you would know or want to find out
things that tell what I’ve been about.
The generous gestures, the cruel and the quiet pains -

huh! back to my back and what remains.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

My wrist watch and holding out too much hope on superstition

Yesterday morning I went to Wellington's the jewellers in Totnes to arrange for a new battery to be put in my ten years old Timex Expedition wrist watch. I told the jeweller that I always wore Timex watches because my father had been an engineer for Timex from the time it opened a factory in Dundee in the late 1940s. His job took him on working visits to  - what were for me exotic sounding places -  Waterbury, Connecticut,USA, and Bescançon in the Jura, France where Timex also had factories. 

In those days Timex made  children's watches with Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and Hopalong Cassidy on their faces.  For some uncanny reason these are important memories for me. Timex watches are inexpensive and certainly not in the Rolex league but I’ve found they do the job asked of them and seem to last forever, though the Timex factory in Dundee didn't. It closed in 1993.

Hopalong Cassidy, who he ? A big deal for kids in the early 1950s

The charcoal shade of the canvas strap on my watch had faded away as a consequence of all the time it had spent with me swimming in pools and in the sea so I asked the jeweller if I might  purchase a new strap. He showed me a selection from which I decided upon a dark blue one which replicated the colours of Dundee Football Club whose team I support. The team were playing an important match last night against Ross County and I hoped that my purchase might bring the team luck following its 7-0 trouncing at the hands of Aberdeen last Friday evening. 
Sad to say my dark blue strap had no magical properties and Dundee lost 2-1 to a second goal scored in the very last minute of the match. Unless my team improves dramatically it will be in danger of losing its place in the elite league of Scottish football.

The watch with the dark blue strap has brought no luck yet

Still, I like my watch and its new strap but perhaps from now on I will eschew superstitious purchases. 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

This long time boy

The other night a song came into my mind. Its haunting melody captured the sad longing for times past that I was feeling. Its first lines are "This long time boy I never see you, come let me hold your hand boy, come let me hold your hand."

I remembered hearing the song on the radio as a teenager. I was curious about it. What was a “long time boy?”   At first I didn't cotton on, until the sadness of the melody eventually gave me the clue, that a "long time boy" was a boy, a man, a lover that the singer had not seen for a very long time.

I sought the song out on YouTube and learned that the name of the singer who had recorded it in 1961 was Nadia Cattouse . She had been born in Belize City in 1924 and in 1943 she was one of a group of forestry workers from Belize, then called British Honduras, who, risking a perilous voyage across the Atlantic, had volunteered to support the Empire in its war effort by working for the Forestry Commission at Kinlochewe in Scotland.These workers were treated cruelly by the British government which for a long time denied any responsibility for its heartlessness toward the Belizeans.

Nadia Cattouse

By strange coincidence  -  but perhaps not so strange as I may think -  from 1989 when I first came to live in Totnes in Devon I’d often meet a man over a pint of beer in the Bull Inn. His name was  Amos Ford. Amos had also sailed across to Scotland from Belize in the 1940s to work for the Forestry Commission.  When the war ended, Amos worked for a time at a brewery in Newcastle upon Tyne before moving to London where he became a civil servant at the Ministry for National Insurance until he ultimately settled in Devon.  

Amos was a kind man, a sagacious polymath and an excellent musician.  When I met him first he taught Spanish guitar at Dartington College of Arts and had just published a book, Telling The Truth: The Life And Times Of The British Honduran Forestry Unit In Scotland (1941-44) about the treatment of the Honduran forestry workers during the war. 

Amos Ford, 1916-2015

When the song came to my mind on that recent evening and on discovering that both Nadia and Amos were from Belize and had shared a similar wartime experience I felt sure Nadia and Amos would have known each other. On researching further I was excited to find that Nadia and Amos had been colleagues during their forestry days in Scotland and knew each other. Like Amos, Nadia married and still lives in England but sadly in 2015 Amos died in Devon. This long time boy I never see you. 

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

My first visit to the doctor's, Lochee, Dundee, 1950

The NHS was only 2 years old in 1950 when I -  a boy of five years - was first taken to see a doctor in Lochee by my Mummy. We walked to what looked to me like a big stone-built mansion and after stepping through its entrance my Mummy led me by the hand into a large room around which many people were sitting on benches. They were waiting, my Mummy told me, to see the doctor.

Every now and then from one or other of two doors in the room the word, "Next!" would be called out and one of the waiting persons sometimes accompanied by another would get up and walk towards the open door, cross the threshold into a smaller room and close the door behind them. They had gone in to see the doctor. 

It seemed as if everyone knew whose turn it was to go through the doors though there wasn't an obvious queue like the ones at the Pictures or at the Lochee Tram Terminus at the back of Liff Road School. 

After what seemed ages another "Next!" was called out from one of the doors that had been left open by a person who had just departed one of the smaller rooms. It must have been my "Next!" for my Mummy led me by the hand and drew me to the room and we entered. We closed the door and a voice invited us to sit on the chairs situated in front of a large wooden desk. "And what can I do today for this little chap?" said the voice. The voice was owned by a man who sat facing us behind the big desk. He had reddish brown wavy hair which had a hair oil sheen to it. His face was adorned by a moustache, the same colour as his hair,  but twisted to a point at each end.  He wore a green tweed jacket and matching plus fours with beige woollen socks and on his feet were chestnut brown leather brogues but his dress was not the aspect of him that has bemused me over the years. No, it was that in his left hand he held a cigarette holder into which was inserted a lit cigarette while in his right hand he had a thick glass tumbler with an amber liquid in it which I now understand to have been whisky. This was the doctor.

After my Mummy talked about me to the doctor,  he wrote a note and passed it to her. We now walked out of the room leaving the door open for the next cry of "Next!" I was told later that the note was a prescription for medicine that would make me better. We would get the medicine from the chemist's and it was free!  And, unlike sweeties, it was "aff the coupon."

I suppose at that time we were moving from the culture of a private medicine system towards that of a National Health Service which was being provided free for everyone in the United Kingdom. The doctor I met that day may not have been representative of what went on in health care prior to the establishment of the NHS and I imagine doctors have changed a great deal and no doubt are now generally better informed since medical science has, we are told, advanced. What was different in 1950 was that I did get an appointment with the doctor on the same day. Now you're lucky if you see a doctor at all. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Grandad Sharpe shaving and Independence.

Thinking back to my childhood I can only remember one occasion when Scottish independence was talked about in my family.

In the early to mid-1950s  every other Saturday we would drive over from Dundee to Forfar to my Grannie and Grandad Sharpe’s house, a stone built bungalow on the Dundee Loan. We would spend the rest of the weekend there and return to Dundee after tea time on Sunday.

My Grandad Sharpe was a diesel engineer of some repute and whenever a local transport contractor’s lorry broke down some out of breath youth would knock at the front door with a message sent out for Geordie Sharpe to repair a broken down lorry . This often happened on a Sunday and the memory I am about to recall was of one such time when we were staying at Grannie and Grandad Sharpe’s over the weekend.

My Daddy and I are sitting in the room behind the big room of the bungalow. My recollection is that this room acted as a kitchen and a washroom. My Grandad is standing, preparing to go out to work following a plea from a road haulage company asking him to fix a lorry which has broken down on the lang stracht near Edzell. Grandad stands in front of a mirror which he is using to guide his shaving. He is wearing only his vest and trousers. While shaving he doesn’t have his galluses over his shoulders. They are hanging down the sides of each of his trouser legs and somehow during the whole shaving ritual his trousers never fall down but remain, albeit precariously, in a respectable position.

In order to shave Grandad heats water in the kettle.  He pours the boiling water into an enamel mug. He unfolds his lethal looking cutthroat shaving razor and dips it into the water. He takes hold of the bottom end of a leather strop  which is suspended on a metal hook on the wall. With quick up and down strokes of the blade he sharpens it against the leather.  He puts his razor down on a wooden shelf fixed to the wall by the mirror where he has also placed the mug, his brush and shaving soap. He picks up his shaving brush and his mug dips his brush into the hot water, and he vigorously rubs the brush on a cylindrical stick of shaving soap and by doing this he  builds up a lather which he applies to his face using his shaving brush. He repeats this operation about three or four times before he is satisfied that he has sufficiently covered his face with the soapy lather. He puts the mug, soap and brush on the shelf, picks up his frightening razor and deftly applies the blade at a fine angle to his face with an elegant sweep. Each sweep of the blade removes a section of the lather along with Grandad’s whiskery stubble which the lather has softened. This done the blade is stirred clean in the hot water in the enamel mug and he removes any remaining lather by wiping the blade on a towel hanging on a peg by the mirror. This ritual is repeated about 5 or six times until all his whiskers are shaved off. 

Grandad shaving: from a contemporary illustration

The blade looks intimidating and dangerous but I am so fascinated by this ritual that I am always able to watch the whole process though I am anxious when Grandad shaves his throat. It seems to me I have watched Grandad’s ablutions many times and yet I have never  seen him draw blood but on this particular morning I sense he is trying to draw blood, but not his. Between each sweep of the blade to his face, he is also addressing my Daddy, his son. He is making short remarks about “home rule” for Scotland. “Of course we can rin oor ain country”. He says it in a plaintiff way as if he is imputing that Daddy doesn’t agree. There is silence as he shaves more foam off his face, rinses the blade in the water and wipes the blade dry. “Why should we believe everything they tell us?” Silence again. More foam is removed from Grandad’s face. The blade is cleaned again, “If the Irish can dae it, if Norwegians can dae it,” more beard is removed, “then there’s nae reason why we cannae . Naebody can tell me that Scotland is no’ a viable country.” The last of the beard has been removed and the last rinse, shake and wipe of the blade takes place. All his utensils are cleared away.

Daddy says nothing in response. I sense too  – though of course I am only 7 or 8 years   - that Daddy is not sympathetic towards Grandad’s views. For some reason, I am.

Grandad puts his galluses back over his shoulders, dons his dark blue boiler suit and says, “I should be back by denner.” He leaves the house.

Daddy remains silent.  Is choosing not to argue with his father  a seemly message for me?


Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Holy Willie's Prayer : Robert Burns defines "the unreflective."

In writing Holy Willie's Prayer Robert Burns created an insightful and entertaining satire about the hypocrisy of the self-righteous. The poem is the prayer of a person who  - convinced of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination which declares that from birth only a chosen few are elected by God to go to heaven while the greater multitude is eternally damned -  assures himself that he is one of the elected heavenbound minority.

In relation to the religious bigotry we experience in the world today the barbs of Holy Willie's Prayer still hit home. The poem also retains immediate interest for the hypocrisy portrayed in the prayer is evident in so many of the actions of this century's "democratically elected" political leaders.

Holy Willie is no fictional character. He was Willie Fisher, an elder of the Kirk in the parish of Mauchline, Ayshire  who, on observing what he considered the misdemeanours of his fellow parishioners, would report, at great length, to the minister on their misdeeds while making insistent proclamation of his own righteousness. In Scottish language and culture a "Holy Willie" has come to represent a hypocrite who lives a life free of self-reflection and humour. I wonder which of the world's political leaders he brings to mind?

A manuscript of the poem, handwritten by Burns may be read here on the National Library of Scotland's website.


Holy Willie was a rather oldish bachelor elder, in the parish of  Mauchline, and much and justly famed for that polemical chattering, which ends in tippling orthodoxy, and for that spiritualized bawdry which refines to liquorish devotion. In a sessional process with a gentleman in Mauchline-a Mr.Gavin Hamilton-Holy Willie and his priest, Father Auld, after full hearing in the presbytery of Ayr, came off but second best; owing partly to the oratorical powers of Mr. Robert Aiken, Mr. Hamilton's counsel; but chiefly to Mr. Hamilton's being one of the most irreproachable and truly respectable characters in the county. On losing the process, the muse overheard him [Holy Willie] at his devotions, as follows:- 

Holy Willie's Prayer

O Thou that in the Heavens does dwell!
Wha, as it pleases best thysel,
Sends ane to Heaven and ten to Hell,
  A’ for Thy glory!
And no for ony gude or ill
  They’ve done before Thee.—

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou has left in night,
That I here before Thy sight,
  For gifts and grace,
A burning and a shining light
  To a’ this place.—

What was I, or my generation,
That I should get such exaltation?
I, wha deserv’d most just damnation,
  For broken laws
Sax thousand years ere my creation,
  Thro’ Adam’s cause!

When from my mother’s womb I fell,
Thou might hae plunged me deep in hell,
To gnash my gooms, and weep, and wail,
  In burning lakes,
Where damned devils roar and yell
  Chain’d to their stakes.—

Yet I am here, a chosen sample,
To shew Thy grace is great and ample:
I’m here, a pillar o’ Thy temple
  Strong as a rock,
A guide, a ruler and example
  To a’ Thy flock.—

[O Lord thou kens what zeal I bear,
When drinkers drink, and swearers swear,
And singin’ there, and dancin’ here,
  Wi’ great an’ sma’;
For I am keepet by the fear,
  Free frae them a’.—]

But yet—O Lord—confess I must—
At times I’m fash’d wi’ fleshly lust;
And sometimes too, in wardly trust
  Vile Self gets in;
But Thou remembers we are dust,
  Defil’d wi’ sin.—

O Lord—yestreen—thou kens—wi’ Meg—
Thy pardon I sincerely beg!
O may ’t ne’er be a living plague,
  To my dishonor!
And I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg
  Again upon her.—

Besides, I farther maun avow,
Wi’ Leezie’s lass, three times—I trow—
But L—d, that friday I was fou
  When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, thy servant true
  Wad never steer her.—

Maybe Thou lets this fleshy thorn
Buffet Thy servant e’en and morn,
Lest he o’er proud and high should turn,
  That he’s sae gifted;
If sae, thy hand maun e’en be borne
  Untill Thou lift it.—

Lord bless Thy Chosen in this place,
For here Thou has a chosen race:
But God, confound their stubborn face,
  And blast their name,
Wha bring thy rulers to disgrace
  And open shame.—

Lord mind Gaun Hamilton’s deserts!
He drinks, and swears, and plays at cartes,
Yet has sae mony taking arts
  Wi’ Great and Sma’,
Frae God’s ain priest the people’s hearts
  He steals awa.—

And when we chasten’d him therefore,
Thou kens how he bred sic a splore,
And set the warld in a roar
  O’ laughin at us:
Curse Thou his basket and his store,
  Kail and potatoes.—

Lord hear my earnest cry and prayer
Against that Presbytry of Ayr!
Thy strong right hand, Lord, mak it bare
  Upon their heads!
Lord visit them, and dinna spare,
  For their misdeeds!

O Lord my God, that glib-tongu’d Aiken!
My very heart and flesh are quaking
To think how I sat, sweating and shaking,
  An' pish’d wi’ dread,
While Auld wi’ hingin lip gaed sneaking
  And hid his head!

Lord, in thy day o’ vengeance try him!
Lord visit him that did employ him!
And pass not in thy mercy by them,
  Nor hear their prayer;
But for thy people’s sake destroy them,
  An' dinna spare!

But Lord, remember me and mine
Wi’ mercies temporal and divine!
That I for grace and gear may shine,
  Excell’d by nane!
And a’ the glory shall be thine!
  Amen! Amen!

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Graham Taylor, a good football manager and a special man

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I played rugby for Old Merchant Taylors whose ground and clubhouse was at Durrants, Croxley Green, near Watford and on Thursday nights after training I’d occasionally see a man sitting quietly at the club bar drinking a half pint of beer in the company of one acquaintance or another. It was Graham Taylor, the manager of Watford Football Club. At the time I imagined that Durrants was a place where he could escape the glare of the football world.

Taylor's first reign as manager of Watford FC was glorious. In what seemed next to no time the club climbed from the fourth division of English football up to the first division (now the premier league), finished runners up in the latter, reached the FA cup final and qualified to play in Europe. During the time Graham Taylor was manager of Watford, I watched one of the finest football matches I’ve ever seen. It was an FA cup tie in that famous run to the cup final; a midweek replay in January at Vicarage Road played against Watford’s great rivals at the time, Luton Town, was then managed by the future Spurs manager and now radio pundit, David Pleat. The result was 4-3 in Watford’s favour. Paul Walsh, Luton’s great striker scored that night, but John Barnes, who was soon to move to Liverpool, scored a magnificent winner with a powerful, low, 20 yards shot.

Graham Taylor had attributes other than his football expertise - indeed though it proved so successful, he was often criticised for his long ball style of football -  and these spoke of him not just as a man of football, but also of his stature as a man. I would mention but two of these special characteristics here. Firstly, family was important to him and I think this quality was evident in the way he turned Watford Football Club into a community resource, a football club where families could feel comfortable. Secondly, he had dignity and courage. He showed this in the face of despicable press coverage during and at the end of his period of managing England. It was all you could expect of a good man. Good men are rare. 

On reading what I've written here, I realise that as much as I am acknowledging the loss of a good man in Graham Taylor, I am also grieving for that time in my life, for how things were as I recall times of happiness with family and friends and times of regret. For better or for worse the past cannot be changed and the best we can hope for is acceptance and understanding.