There Must Be Better Songs to Sing than This

Yesterday I watched the movie Educating Rita.

It’s written by Willy Russell who also wrote Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers. I love his work – it’s rare to see a man who can write so well for women.

I last saw the movie around 1984 or ‘85. I remember it because I watched it with my mum.

As the movie unfolded before us we became uncomfortable to a certain extent. While I wasn’t married like Rita in the movie, I was attempting to move from having no qualifications to speak of to studying first some O levels and Highers and then gain entry to a degree course in Communications. (I’d been taken out of school as soon as my parents could do so after I’d turned 16 in Australia to return with them to Scotland).

I’d been successful in that, despite the intake for my chosen course’s year being only 18 places and only two places in the UK offering the course – Liverpool University and my own uni, now grandly called Glasgow Caledonian University – back then it was just Glesga Tech.

So, there’s me and mum sitting and watching the movie, the irony of it all not escaping us (she had also had her ambitions thwarted as a young woman, denied the chance of study and steered towards tailoring as it would bring in money).

There’s a scene where Rita has joined her husband and family in the pub. It’s at a moment where she feels she belongs in neither world – not that of her working class roots nor that of her new world at University. Everyone in the pub is having a sing-along, including her family, about how content they are and how they have everything they need. Rita feels she can’t join in. She turns and sees her mum who also seems unhappy, and has also stopped singing.

Her mum says one line. “There must be better songs to sing than this.”

At that point both my mum and I looked at each other, and both of us were in tears.

How true that had been for both of us. We were each in our own way spending our lives looking for better songs to sing than those we’d already become familiar with. I was still in that stage of studies where it was easy to be made to feel I was getting ‘above myself’. Apart from my cousin Kathleen, no one in our family had gone to higher studies or chased academia in any way. My dad would ask why I couldn’t just be like everyone else and get a job in a factory.

I was the daughter of trades people – my dad a baker and mum a tailoress. They in turn had been the children of unskilled labourers and I’ve traced my ancestors back far enough to know that my grandparents were the first in their own families to be able to read and write. In gaining that ability they were able to begin to exert choices, and tracing that skill all the way down the generations to tertiary education it was still all about the same thing – choice and the right to exercise it.

At 17 I’d been coerced into a hairdressing apprenticeship for four years by my parents. They thought it was for the best but it was never what I really wanted to do. However in doing it I’d got mum off my back to a certain extent. It was something ‘to fall back on’ but the day my apprenticeship finished was the day my hairdressing career finished, and after a brief stint in retail and a bout of depression it was academia that saved my sanity.

Watching the movie again reminded me of that pivotal point in my life, where a seemingly mad choice (the first of many) had been the right choice, where the courage had been supplied from somewhere to take a step outside of the known into the unknown.

I have a picture in my office of Frank Zappa with his hair in bunches. There’s a quote attributed to him on the bottom that says “Without deviation from the norm progress is not possible.”

There’s a little bit of Rita in all of us who want something better than we have been dealt. When was the last time you gave her a bit of attention? Maybe it’s time to let her free and have her way.

Here’s to all of us to continue to have the courage to deviate from the norm, to discover new worlds and to continue to progress throughout our lives.

A flask of tea and some sweeties

 

Easter Monday. The words have been in the back of my mind all day like a reminder

Ben Lomond Winter Sunset - across the loch from the south

that wasn’t quite working. What did they mean? Or to be more exact what did they used to mean? I pushed it to the back of my mind and got on with a pretty busy and productive day (I love days at home) but still it eluded me.

I’ve just lain down on our bed for a few minutes of doing nothing and it all came flooding back.

For a few years between 1978 and 1983 Easter Monday was a tradition held by my mum and I. Normally dad would be working (he was a bread baker and had to get the stocks ready for the hungry hordes the following day, already deprived of three days of bread shopping!).

Back than I couldn’t drive so Mum and I would book a day trip – a bus run – for Easter Monday. Our favourite destination was Oban, a coastal town further north on the West Coast of Scotland.

Leaving Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow between 8 and 9am the bus would take the road north and west that remains to this day one of my favourite road trips.

Heading out of Glasgow and along the northern banks of the Clyde we’d pass through the affluent west end then Coatbridge and Dumbarton before veering north just past Ballantines Distillery with it’s security geese in the grounds. A curious coincidence is that this is the favourite whisky of my husband who I only met a few years ago!

As we came close to Loch Lomond the countryside became much more lush. That was one of the things I loved about Glasgow – within half an hour you could be up at Loch Lomond and be in an entirely different world to the great city. Lomondside, if you’ve never been there, should be on your bucket list. It’s possibly one of the most beautiful areas in the world. There is more remote eastern side that’s much harder to access, and then the easily accessible western side with its stops like the Village of Luss for sheer picturesque beauty, Cameron House hotel, Duck Bay Marina and towards the top of the loch the fantastic and ancient Drovers Inn at Inverarnan where all the male bar staff wear kilts ;o).

By this time we’d be well and truly in the Highlands and I’d marvel at the mountains -ancient monoliths, often still capped with snow at that time of year – and then the bus would turn west and take the high Rest and Be Thankful pass  before going through the pretty town of Inverary and heading north again, then west and landing in Oban about three or four hours after departure.

There would be time enough there for lunch and a wander along the harbour before returning to the bus and setting off homewards.

One thing about Oban was that it would always rain. Even if it wasn’t raining anywhere else, you could come over the top of the hill and descend into the town only for raindrops to greet you. I remember heading off there for a weekend with a bunch of pals. We were dressed for summer as there had been a heatwave in Glasgow and there hadn’t been rain for about six weeks – unheard of! Nevertheless, the bus got to the top of the hill, started to go down towards the town and on came the rain! I can confidently predict that Oban sells more umbrellas than any other town in the UK – I know we always had to buy one.

My mum loved the country versions of the city chain stores and the tourist souvenir stores. We always had to take a tacky present back for dad and the obligatory stick of rock that had ‘Oban’ written through it. There was some bloke who was an artist who had a shop that sold all sorts as well as his art. The shop always had stuff about ‘the bridge over the Atlantic‘, which was actually a bridge to the island of Seil, if my memory serves me right, which wasn’t that far off the mainland, and not as exciting as it seemed. The shop would always have some right ‘heedrum hodrum’ tourist Scottish music playing too.  The town had also gained some fame in the early 80s as well as it became known that Princess Diana’s mother lived close by and so all the royal paraphenelia also started to infiltrate the shops.

After a lunch of fish and chips we’d be quite happy to get back on the bus, tired from all the fresh air (as we told ourselves) and head back home. It wasn’t the most exciting time on earth, but I’m glad we had that time together, me and mum.

These days I live on the other side of the world. My mum passed away in 1995. My son is practically grown and we celebrate Easter Australian style with my Aussie husband and my family.  I’m a million miles away in time and distance from the Easter Monday bus runs. And then a nudging in the back of my mind makes me sit down and Google our routes and sends memories back to me of how I learned to love the Highlands. Just me and my wee mammy sitting on the bus with a flask of tea and some sweeties for the trip. Good times.

Happy Easter!

Shaping Journeys

Our lives, particularly in our early years, are moulded by external factors that create, shape and imprint memories of our places and our journeys. For me it was the three bus routes that travelled out of the housing scheme where I lived in as a child to different destinations. Starting with the number 31 route, here’s some reminiscences.

Part 1: 31

31, 22, 37.

No, not someone’s vital statistics, but the route numbers of the buses that linked our particular part of the satellite housing scheme in 1960s Glasgow to the city itself.

They were numbers learned from early childhood in a place where no one really owned a car and the concept of ever owning one wasn’t really in the orbit of most folk. However, as long as you knew to catch the 31, 22 or 37 it would bring you home to Castlemilk from wherever you might be.

The 31 started its journey from the village called Carmunnock, a few miles up the hill from our place. Carmunnock seemed magical in my childhood. In the summer we’d set off on a walk up Carmunnock Road (carrying the obligatory mik bottle filled with water in case we died of dehydration, and the pieces n jam wrapped in wax paper for a picnic), and once you cleared the Council housing flats you’d hit what was colloquially called the First Farm. I think the people there actually bred Clydesdale horses, those beautiful gigantic beasts with hooves that looked like someone was wearing flared trousers with platform shoes.

Once past there the road wound through fields, and the bitumen changed colour to red. There was always speculation as to why this was – did it mean that we were now in another county? We never found out but it added to the exotica.

Then when we got to the village itself it was a world away from Castlemilk; ancient romantic little cottages and a seemingly even more ancient churchyard with graves bearing skull and crossbones and dating back to the 1700s. There was also a small park where we’d play that seemed to have an air of being right out of Alice in Wonderland. We could dream that we didn’t live in a Council housing scheme; we could dream that we lived in one of the little fairytale cottages with doors that led onto gardens, not up two or three stories in a close. That we were like the other kids in the park whose parents spoke to each other like the people on telly – as if they actually liked each other – and didn’t fight all the time and seemed to have enough money for nice things.

So, the 31 would begin its journey there and make its way down the hill to the stop just past our street – Lainshaw Drive. From our kitchen window you could see up the hill slightly and one of my brothers – I think it was John – would prefer not to wait at the bus stop in the cold but wait at the kitchen window til he spotted the bus coming down the hill and then sprint to the stop, racing it to catch it into town.

The 31 would then make its way further down the hill to Croftfoot and then through Simshill, Cathcart (where there were bought houses, not council houses) and then Mount Florida and Govanhill with its Victorian tenements (and where I lived for many years much later in life), then through the Gorbals which changed as the years rolled by. First it was a warren of old blackened tenements. Just before I

the old Gorbals

started school my mum, who was a tailoress, went for a job in a small operation up one of those closes in that maze of streets. She had to take me with her as there was no babysitter available and I’d play on the floor of the factory. I remember the grimy unpolished floorboards, the harsh lighting and the piles of offcuts littering the place, all accompanied by the smell of oil from the sewing machines.

Then all the old tenements were knocked down and in their place they build multi storey flats and new tenement buildings called maisonettes. It wasn’t long before the nice white concrete went grey, and then was covered in graffiti, and eventually even these had to be demolished as their damp conditions did nothing to improve the residents’ lives. Nowadays that part of the Gorbals is a pretty smart looking place with nice flats and a sense of renewal.

Once clear of the Gorbals the bus would cross the river Clyde and make its way down Clyde Street, past the ship berthed there named The Carrick, but which we

The Carrick / City of Adelaide, berthed at Clyde Street

found later to have the original name The City of Adelaide. It was called that because it originally brought migrants to the new colony of South Australia back in the 1800s and returned to the UK with cargos of sheep fleeces; from my old home to my new home.

It is ironic that as I devoured the vision of it from the top deck of the bus, with its glass-encased naval club dining room showing the white linen, silver cutlery and crystal glassware in a golden lamplight, it seemed to show me a new world that was unattainable at that time. The remains of the ship are to be brought back to Adelaide this year, to much excitement on myself and my sister’s part, and something I’ll write more about later.

Finally the bus would reach it’s the terminus at St Enoch Square. This was another place that seemed magical.

It was a gateway to the treasures of the city centre. It had the most romantic buildings that fed a young imagination – the old disused but grandly gothic StEnoch Railway station;

St Enoch Station and Hotel

the almost indescribable but aesthetically pleasing GlasgowUnderground station

St Enoch Subway station

and opposite the bus stop was Galloway’s the Butchers with its lame neon double entendre “Meat at Galloways”.

For many years the whole square was cobblestones and with the shops behind it including RS McColl (sweeties!) Peacock’s the Bakers (great little cakes) and a seemingly exotic fishmongers in Howard Street, all seemed a fabulous backdrop.

And there was also the back way into department store Arnott Simpson, where my auntie Jean was one of those ladies in the Berketex ladieswear department who wore a brown dress and cardigan uniform, and had a gold chain to keep her glasses around her neck when not in use. As such she was the epitome of ‘posh’ to my young eyes.

When waiting for the 31 back to Castlemilk I remember standing at the railing which was just the height of my nose. The strong smell of that steel, through boiling summers and freezing winters, stays with me. Its harshness was the smell of the city, a two finger salute to the visual aesthetic care taken in the design of the buildings around us; and it was the smell of going home.