A legend in my own living room
Updated: May 6, 2021
It is odd the way an old man’s mind works. Fact is, it's amazing my mind still works at all. Me and my mind, you see. We have been around the block more than once or twice (so to speak).
Here I am then. Awake on the coldest Canberra morning of the year so far -- when the temperature hit zero overnight. Older but no wiser.
If you live long enough the chances are you will surprise yourself. “Who knew?” you ask. Or you utter some disingenuous falsehood posing as a truth. “Well I never,” you might say. Except, if you're like me, you probably did. Several times.
Today, however, this small fact is a truth of sorts.
I have now lived long enough to become the personification of a song released by the Beatles when I was barely ten years old. It comes from the vinyl record with the second most famous album cover in the history of pop music, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But it is not one of the greatest of the songs off that great – groundbreaking – LP by the world’s first boy band (which was, by 1967, already beginning to experiment, fray at the edges and drift apart even before I had the chance to become a reckless teenager).
So now, at best, I personify one of the slightest songs – if not the slightest song -- from an iconic 60s album. I inhabit an idea within a minor parody of music-hall tunes (written by a 14 year old Paul McCartney for his father). And -- to complete my less than stellar link to something interesting – I have become the song that made it no further than the B-side of the single Strawberry Fields Forever which the fab four released in the UK in February 1967 … before I was 10.
So, it's not a truly great claim to fame. Is it?
But you know the tune, boomer. Hum along.
When I get older losing my hair Many years from now Will you still be sending me a valentine Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?
If I'd been out till quarter to three Would you lock the door? Will you still need me, will you still feed me …
You know the rest. Sing along here: https://youtu.be/HCTunqv1Xt4
My life, it seems, has caught up with songs from my childhood.
This, however, is where my opening thought returns. About the odd ways an old man’s mind makes connections across time and space. About how we frame the stories we tell ourselves for purposes that are seldom clear.
A long time ago – by which I mean thirty years ago – my friend Keith (who is into genealogy) traced back through 200 years of my family history on both my mother’s and my father’s sides. At the time I was relieved to discover I come from a long line of ‘solid working folk’– plumbers, labourers, iron puddlers, a slater -- seamstresses, envelope machinists, and cotton factory workers.
There was no tragic or embarrassing descent from minor European royalty or robber barons. Phew!
Anyway, from the outset I was struck by a genealogical factoid uncovered by Keith. It may be mildly less than interesting to anyone except me. It almost certainly means nothing.
Except I am now 64 (like Paul McCartney’s dad was when Paul came up with the tune).
So let’s follow the Herd dads.
James Herd, my father, died aged 44 in 1974.
James Herd, my father’s father, died aged 63 in 1965.
James Herd, my father’s father’s father, died aged 55 in 1927.
David Herd, my father’s father’s father’s father died aged 60 in 1896.
James Herd, my father’s father’s father’s father’s father – who was born in 1831 – died aged 42 in 1873 (the year, by the way, Levi Strauss invented blue jeans).
Two facts leap out at me:
One … first born Herds tend to be male and named James. After Scottish kings. My older brother is a Jim … in case you wonder if my father Jim abandoned the tradition.
Two … not one of the first-born sons, stretching back through five generations across nearly 200 years, lived long enough to claim an old age pension. Apart from my older brother, thankfully. But he's the first. And my father's late brother Harry (who was a second son).
So for me to reach 64 seems like a genetic accident of sorts. An indulgence, perhaps. It certainly demonstrates a disinclination to follow in my many fathers' footsteps to shuffle off this mortal coil before my retirement pension can be claimed. Although I should remember that the universe has a penchant for mischievous irony when it comes to Herd men. Even if I make it all the way to 65 -- an unlikely thought -- the welfare state has already moved the pension age away from me. I'll never catch up.
And then – because I’m morbid, Scottish, raised as Presbyterian and doomed (as are we all) -- my mind went here. To my first brush with Herd death.
It was Thursday, 30th December 1965.
I was seven and a half (because – when you are not yet eight – that 'half' matters). The family was assembled in the kitchen / bedroom of my grandparents' room and kitchen, ground floor flat at 18 Rockbank Street in the east end of Glasgow. Where we all hail from.
Years later, I wrote a poem about that day, that place, about an encounter and a moment of transition that we all pass though. The stark realisation -- aged seven and a half -- that life is not as simple as you'd understood it was; before. Nor as nice.
This is not what you would call a great poem. But that is not the point. It was and is a moment in a life. It really did happen. Our grieving house was visited by a witness to events; an overseas student, reading theology at Glasgow University as I half-recall. Whatever ... it was a day I remember just like yesterday.
So this is what I wrote (maybe 15 years ago). I have no idea what brought it back to mind back then or brings it back to mind right now. But minds will do that to an ageing man.
The first black man in Scotland
What boys we were.
Two innocents. Too young
but not quite young enough
to hide from truth.
And so we sheltered
where we stood,
behind the sideboard
in the kitchen
of that 1960s ‘room and kitchen’
in the grey east end
of no mean city
where my father’s father lived
the first black man in Scotland
came to call.
A man as black as ebony.
Young with tight, black hair.
in pools of white.
And a voice like velvet.
We watched in awe,
eavesdropped from our haven
as he told our father’s mother
how her husband fell;
spoke of legs that buckled
as the old man clutched his chest
and raised a hand, forlornly,
to grasp the outstretched arm
of the first black man in Scotland,
who caught him
as he tumbled down
to meet his God
while others waited in a queue
for a bus that never came.
And as our father thanked
the first black man in Scotland
then showed him to the door,
my father’s widowed mother
crossed the floor
to wrap us in her arms.
all colour drained out
of an empty, ghost-like face,
your granda’s never coming home.
And we were mystified.
But now a lifetime less
for words sufficient
for what mattered on the day
that first black man in Scotland
came to tell his story
of our father’s father’s end.
But this thought, only,
as we held our grandma tight:
I said, that man was black.
And she said, yes,
God bless him.