Party ... like it's 1959
Updated: May 22, 2022
The only time my parents ever allowed me to stand on a table ...
It had been my plan to be in Scotland last weekend. To help celebrate my mother's 90th birthday. But, as our national bard once wrote,
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men
Gang aft agley.
I don't imagine Robert Burns had COVID-19 in mind when he wrote his poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough, November, 1785”. But you get his point. Mice -- as we all are in this inexplicable universe -- are required to adjust at any moment to the unexpected arrival of the cosmic ploughman.
Worldwide, 100 million people have contracted a virus that almost no one had heard of a year ago. And the virus has killed more than two million of us. The number keeps on climbing …
Jeez, who hasn't changed their plans recently?
On the scales of global loss and disappointment in 2020, my irritation that we could not fly 10,000 miles to sing Happy Birthday to my mum -- who lives five miles from the Ayrshire birthplace of Robert Burns – weighs lightly, like a feather. And in a week when I learned a former colleague from my student union days -- the gloriously inimitable Danny Mullen -- had died from COVID-19, my disruption seems slight, my disappointment proportionately tolerable.
Besides – even as I celebrate my mother’s ninety years by writing something -- there is a different sort of sadness (which is to say, not COVID-related). I know, you see, my mother may already not remember without prompting that Saturday was, in fact, her 90th birthday.
So here she is (in nothing more than fragments). My mother.
Elizabeth Green -- Betty as she has always been known -- was born across the road from Celtic Park (the fitba’ Celtic) in the east end of Glasgow at 2:15 p.m. on Friday, 16th January 1931. The area was what some people call the wrong end of town (by which they really mean the poor part). But almost all of Glasgow was the poor part in 1931.
Glasgow is a place of contradictions. It is a left-leaning city. But it is also a place in which parochial sorts boast of how the City Chambers (seat of municipal government in the second city of the empire) has more marble than the Vatican. It is the city where tobacco lords and plantation owners of the 18th Century built their wealth and majestic homes off the labour of enslaved Africans. And it is no accident of mere geography that barely two miles from the Merchant City’s Jamaica, Antigua and Tobago streets, people like my mother and father were born into poverty and raised in tenements of the once-notorious slums of an area called Bridgeton.
But relax. I am not going to recite the Monty Python skit about ‘having it tough when a were a lad’.
Betty, her three sisters and one brother grew up within a mile of where she was born. Her future husband was born in a tenement in the same Bernard Street in which Betty’s mother lived when she married in 1925. My mother and father were wed in St Francis in the East Church just round the corner on Queen Mary Street. I was baptized in the same church in 1957. And it was in the church’s community hall in 1974 that my mother watched her husband collapse from a brain hemorrhage as he made a speech. A second hemorrhage killed him twelve days later.
Glasgow, you see. Small town life in a big city.
When the war came the children and their mother were evacuated to a farm in north-east Scotland to escape the bombing of Glasgow’s shipbuilding yards, iron and steel works and munitions factories. Betty’s father – a carter – remained in the city. To this day I cannot quite get my head around the idea that while the Luftwaffe bombed the city, my grandfather drove horses and a cart through the sheltering streets as part of the 20th Century war effort.
Horses and a cart?
Those are among the stories we were told about our mother's generation as we grew up. We heard others too.
Like how Betty and a sister, both still teenagers, became post-war 'lumber jills' on the east coast. How my mother and her cousin filled out paperwork to become £10 POHMs. How my mother's schooldays' 'sweetheart' returned from National Service at some non-descript army base in England to propose. How Betty said yes and stayed the rest of her life. How her cousin took the ship to Sydney then on to Auckland for a full and happy life as a New Zealander.
I wonder (by the way) if there is -- in a parallel universe -- another me; an Aussie ‘Doug’ who bellows ‘G'Day’ to visiting cousins from the old country, who drinks cold beer from a stubbie and subscribes to the fiction that Australian Rules Football is an actual sport. But I digress.
Beyond the stories we were told, I can put a date on the first event of my life with a proper memory. It was Monday, 17th October 1960. I was three years, six months, and four days old. It was mid-morning in Aberdeen. And it had been raining (of course). Naturally, the memory revolves around my mother.
My older brother and I accompanied my father in a London-style black cab to a hospital to pick up our mother and a new baby brother. Jim and I waited in the back of the taxi while dad went to pick up mum and our brother. I can still see my parents strolling back to the cab. My mother cradled a baby in her arms. She climbed into the back of the cab to sit on the rear bench. Me and Jim stood in front of Betty (wee boys really can stand in the back of a black cab). We stared at the bundle sleeping on our mum's lap. “This is your brother Joe,” said Betty. We were gobsmacked and amazed.
Since then, there have been sixty years of stories to remember. Some good. Some not so good.
But the human memory plays tricks on us.
I phone my mother once a week, usually a Sunday. Our calls are often short because Betty becomes confused if I ask her how her week has been. She does not remember when she last saw Joe (it was the day before). She is not sure if she has had her first of two COVID jabs (she has). Nor can she remember spending Christmas with my partner’s parents -- inland of Wyong -- seven years ago or celebrating her own birthday that year by taking a flight around the harbour in a Sydney sea plane.
Betty can, however, remember the names in the family on whose farm she spent her wartime evacuation. She remembers chasing chickens. 80 years ago.
My mother gave birth to my older brother in 1953. That is the year L. P. Hartley published his novel The Go-Between. The book begins with one of the most famous lines of literature in English, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”
The past, it seems to me now, is a country in which my ninety-year-old mother is more comfortable. As I sang Happy Birthday to Betty over the phone last Saturday, I had mixed emotions about that simple truth.