Friday, 31 March 2017

AC's War, Part 3

Part 3 A. India and Burma

[The troopship] was called the Stirling Castle. More Indian Ocean then the Arabian Sea and onward to Bombay. We had a couple of hours to wait for our train so we just wandered round the streets and ended up in the red light district. Women in cages. Boy what a baptism. It was out of bounds of course but we did not know. What a baptism for us poor innocents. At length from Bombay to Karachi by train, stayed some time at Karachi, and thence to HQ Signals Command at Delhi. I spent between two and three years there as Sgt. i/c [sergeant in charge of] workshop.

   As I remember it I had two corporals and eight a/c or l.a.c. mechanics, one civilian mechanic – a Sikh called Jagut Singh and a Hindu called Shungloo. He had two wives and was always late in the mornings.  The section C.O. (Commanding Officer) was F A I Reid, ex-headmaster of Kyle of Lochalsh school… 

   While stationed at Delhi I can recall two very pleasant periods of leave spent in the Himalayan foothills, one at Nani Tal (Nainital), the other Simla. There was a short detachment when I travelled with a portable direction finding trailer first on a train to Barrackpore near Calcutta, then it (and I) were shipped to Cox’s Bazaar and then onward to Ramree Island in Burma. Thence back by air to Delhi. On my return I was posted as Sgt. i/c transmitting station. A nice little self-contained unit five miles outside New Delhi, where I remained until final repatriation.

The story of the Burmese trip

   There are two systems of direction finding: Adcock, a system with four masts like the one at the Cockle Ebb (on the outskirts of Stornoway); the other is the Bellini-Tosi which has one central mast to support four aerials, north, south, east and west. Bellini-Tosi was the system I had in my two-wheel trailer. I was first sent to the factory where they were made where I had to assemble and calibrate it and the whole thing was packed into a two-wheel trailer. I had to get MV (Motor Vehicle) Section to supply a vehicle to tow it. Then I had to put it on a train to take to a Signals Unit at Calcutta.

   Would you know how to put up a 60 ft. mast? I didn’t but I do now! First you lay it assembled on the ground, attach the aerials and support, then you attach a 15 ft. pole to the base of the 60 ft. one. You then raise that one to the vertical position. It has a block and tackle on it and as you lower it to the ground, it pulls the main mast up. You will of course need sufficient helpers to man the guys. That is a piece of brilliant information I’ve never had to use again. When it is all assembled you have to calibrate it using a single generator and compass.

   The interesting part was getting it there. It was at the time when the Japs were retreating and the unit it was for had moved on. Then I headed for Chittagong and found they had moved again. Next I headed for Akyab to put it aboard a tramp coaster to take it to Cox’s Bazaar but again they had moved on and I eventually caught up with them at Ramree Island in Burma where I eventually assembled and calibrated it.

   While I was there we had a Jap air raid but it was just small bombs which did not do much damage. An interesting thing I saw there was a Buddhist temple with about 100 Buddhas of all sizes all with their heads chopped off by the retreating Japs.
Map showing area of the trip, as published in 1943.
(Calcutta, Chittagong and Akyab are marked.)
   All this time while I was away from my unit I did not get paid so I had a nice little nest egg to get back to. After the war I got the Burma Star medal but it was not down to this adventure, all the troops in Burma got that.

To follow: Fast-forward to the slow boat home.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

AC's War, Part 2 (C)

Part 2, C. To Zululand and back

29th (November 1942) continued.      We were to be flown up country by catalina to man a radio link station at St. Lucia in Zululand. When we got to Congella we found the plans had been changed, and we will now be travelling by train, leaving at 2300h. tonight. We had a lot of time to kill so we went back to Durban. On Marine Parade we saw a miniature railway and from there we went to the Club. There I met Murdo Morrison from Laxdale (the Crackan’s* son). In the evening we went to a concert by the Durban Municipal Orchestra. Then to the YMCA and then to the station to catch our train. We travelled all night and at o630 we stopped at Empangeni for half an hour. It was just a small wayside stop, nothing much to see. When we started off again, progress was very slow, we stopped about every five minutes.
As we progressed into Zululand, I could see signs all around of primitive native life. The countryside is wild but picturesque. Here and there we saw native Kraal village; sometimes bullock carts drawing loads of logs or sugar came to the railway.
[* "The  Cracken" was a baker; "Crackan's biscuits" were well-known onthe Isle of Lewis]

30th      At 1030 we got to Mtubatuba, where we got off the train. This place consists of the station, a post office, 3 shops and some 7 or 8 houses. From there we have to travel by lorry to St. Lucia. The road must be the worst that anyone has ever driven on. It winds through jungle all the way. Nothing more than a track, and for us in the back, that 18 miles was torture. At times the 60 gallon drums of petrol in the back jumped up a good six inches.  By the time we reached the St. Lucia Estuary, we were absolutely covered in dust. The estuary had to be crossed by pontoon bridge. When the lorry was duly loaded, we were slowly pulled across to the other side by a gang of scantily clad natives, who chanted songs as they heaved at the ropes. When we got to the other side, we started off again on an equally bad track. On the way we passed a native village of 8 or 9 kraals surrounded by a stockade.
After a short time we stopped at the Estuary Hotel, where we had tea and generally cleaned up. From there we went to the Anglers Hotel, about half a mile away, where we were to live. It is almost unbelievable. Here in the heart of wildest Africa is a real European civilization. How pleasant it was to have some really good food and to have it served up to you on a table with beautiful clean linen and glistening cutlery. To have a nice hot bath and go to bed in a snug little room with a wardrobe and dressing table, snuggled between beautiful, white sheets. It made me realize how much I missed these things. What a marvellous war this is! How pleasant, at the end of the day, instead of going back to a rough and uncomfortable tent, to just go down to the lounge, there to listen to anglers’ tales or tales of a narrow escape from a croc or hippo. To listen to the radio from the depths of a massive armchair, or read a book on the verandah. Yes this is the life for me. The romance of the whole thing fires my imagination, so that I feel I am at last a real “pukka sahib – by gad sir”. Indeed so I am as far as the natives are concerned, they have had to treat whites with the utmost respect all their lives.  (31st here according to typescript, although this is supposed to be November; probably still 30th)  Went to the wireless tender to scout round, then Mtuba to do some shopping. Later went for a walk around the banks of the estuary, and found much of interest. Fruit grows in abundance here. All one has to do is just pluck it off the trees. I always thought pineapples grew on huge trees but now I see they grow almost on the ground.

1st Dec. (First mention of a month – AC).       Went rowing on the lake. It is a huge expanse of water, 60 miles long, I understand. I saw an occasional crocodile on the bank but they did not bother. When I saw some hippos in the distance, I turned and beat a hasty retreat.

2nd        It may seem from all this that we did no work at all on this detachment but we did actually work some of the time. We operated from a mobile wireless tender at the south end of St. Lucia Lake to act as a link between Durban and a base camp at the north end of the lake. Radio conditions were sometimes very difficult in the jungle terrain. We operated a Canadian Collins transmitter while at the base camp they had a TR4. Today we were able to work Durban OK but not the base camp, because of an electrical storm. This evening there is very heavy rain and lightning.

3rd        It is still raining very heavily. Today we have received word that we are to rejoin our unit at Durban. That was indeed a very short detachment. I’d have been happy to have stayed much longer. Obviously the movement orders arrived sooner than expected.

4th        We were flown back in a Sunderland flying boat which landed on the lake. On the way back we saw a lot of flotsam and wreckage from a ship which had been sunk. There were also some bodies in the water. This brought home to us forcibly the fact that there is a war on. For the past two months it has been more of a holiday for us. One plane circled round and then carried on. Obviously someone else is dealing with this situation. We landed in Durban outer harbour and arrived, very subdued, back at Clairwood camp.

I have no record of events after Durban, but obviously it was troopship again…

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

"Lovely War" Part 2, continued

Part 2, B. Durban Interlude

14th (Nov. [1942], continued)           Parade with full kit at 0945 hours. We then march to Retreat Station and thence to Capetown docks by special train. There we board an antiquated looking ship of some 7000 tons called the Oscanius [Ascanius]. On going below we find that the accommodation is very bad. We are a little consoled, however, by the fact that we only have to stick it for five days. That’s the time it is going to take this hooker to get to Durban. Actually it takes three days.
On her last trip this ship had to make a run for it at full speed, to escape a U-boat, and damaged one of her engines. At 1015 we have set sail with remarkably little fuss and we are soon out of the harbour. I feel sad to be leaving Capetown and its many happy memories behind. Since we have no escort and speed is considerably reduced, we are hugging the coast.

16th      We have drawn level with the Cape, and a destroyer has joined us. We are now heading out towards open sea. Already a huge queue has gathered for the canteen. As we round the Cape, Table Mountain and the Lion’s Head are again visible, this time from a different angle. We have now joined a convoy of 13 ships. They all appear to be cargo ships, showing the usual patchy colouring of the tramp. The nearest ship on our starboard side, which is about the same size as ours, is carrying four railway engines on her deck. For escort we have two destroyers and a Lockheed Hudson, which puts in intermittent appearance. Off to our starboard side (I imagine in case our engine breaks down) is a tug. The weather makes for pleasant sailing and, apart from the discomfort which troops must endure on a troopship, everything in the garden is lovely. All day we sail peacefully further and further into the Indian Ocean, all the time keeping well in to land. As night falls and land becomes less and less visible, the majority of the troops seek the dubious comfort of their hammocks. During the night a ship passed with all her lights ablaze, signifying that she was either neutral or a hospital ship.

17th      Today the weather is much more stormy, and the ship is tossing about like a mad thing. Those who are not sea sick direct a hear-rending appeal to the Chief Engineer to keep the ship still. The canteen, to my surprise, is quite good, and in addition to those things which were available on the Andes they also sell tea. It’s amazing how a cup of tea helps to keep up the morale of the troops. They will put up with all sorts of discomfort if they can have a cup of tea and a cigarette.
[Probably still 17th although "18th" here in typescriptAt 0900 passed a lonely lighthouse. To the crew that means that beyond that point of land on the shores of the bay is Port Elizabeth. It is a big naval base. Here we slowed down, and the tug drew closer, so that for a minute I thought we were going to put in there. The thought was soon dispelled when in a few minutes we picked up speed again and joined on to the port flank of the convoy. All the while the tug is having a rough time of it... She takes on board a lot of sea…
It is possible at times to see objects on the skyline. It may be houses or trees but the general opinion is that it is Zulu or tribal villages. The countryside, as far as is visible from the sea, is very desolate. It is now evening, the sun has gone down and it is quite chilly. We’re still sailing north… So to bed to be rocked to sleep in a swinging hammock while the lads sing softly as is their wont, when time hangs heavily. It’s funny how songs bring back memories or the atmosphere of the past It is very pleasant to drift off to sleep with these memories.

18th      [Second entry with "18th" in typescript; this one seems to be a new day.]
About 0730 we have reached East London. We’re still ploughing into quite a heavy swell and the tug is still having a hard time of it. The wind decreases a bit towards evening. All afternoon there were signs of habitation along the coast, sometimes scattered houses and now and then a small township.

19th      0600 hours. We’re in sight of Durban. This, unlike Capetown, is built on a fairly low stretch of land, sloping gently to the sea. It seems to stretch for miles but here the buildings are modern and high rise. The pilot boat comes alongside and we head slowly for the dock, hitherto hidden by a headland. As we passed through the narrow entrance to the dock, l was surprised to see such a number of large ships and about a dozen warships. On landing we were taken to a tented camp on Clairwood race course, about 7 miles from Durban. Bags of sand and ants! Went to Durban about 1700 but didn’t get a very favourable impression. The city was deserted.

20th      Went to the city again at about 1400 h. In the daytime it looked much more inviting. It is a more modern city than Capetown but the people are not so hospitable. We went to the open air baths at Marine Parade, then came back in to town and had tea at the YMCA.

21st      Went to the baths again and progressed a bit with the swimming. In the morning went to the baths again and managed a few more strokes before sinking. In the afternoon we went to see the Zulu dancing. “Shorty” took some photographs of it. Then we went to the snake park where we saw all kinds of snakes including pythons and cobras. I was surprised to learn that snakes can swim. In the evening we went to a concert at the Durban Jewish Club. A nice place and the concert was very good.

23rd – 25th At the baths. I can swim quite well now. The evenings were filled in by a picture show or a concert. There was a very good one by the Durban Municipal Orchestra. Very heavy rain in the morning, and everything is wet and soggy, including the blankets. In the afternoon we went to Sons of England Canteen then to the museum. In the evening we went to a City Hall concert.

28th      Went to a dance at the Academy Studio of Dancing. 

29th      I was detailed to go with Jim Lowe and two w/ops (wireless operators) also another sgt. and f/sgt (sergeant and flight sergeant) to the RAF camp at Congella. 

[To be continued]

Monday, 27 March 2017

AC's "Lovely War" Part 2

Part 2 South Africa
A. Cape Town and Onward

I can’t remember if I kept a record of the outward trip in the troopship “Andes”, but now, more than fifty years on, I can’t remember much of the details. I do know, however, that we were bound for Singapore, but while we were at sea Singapore fell to the Japanese. [AC’s chronology goes a bit askew here, see note below] As a result of this, we were diverted to Capetown, where we stayed for seven weeks, while they decided what to do with us. It was the most marvellous holiday I ever had,. We were billeted in a tented camp called Retreat Transit Camp. We had no duties to perform, and most of the time we were free to enjoy ourselves. I did start to keep a record of events in Capetown. Unfortunately, the first few pages of that record also have been lost. I think the year must have been 1942, but what month? Reading the references to the flowers in the botanical gardens makes me think it must have been summer (in the southern hemisphere, of course), and certainly my recollection of the weather bears that out.

3rd (the first date recorded)
Visited the public gardens and saw what must be the most beautiful garden in the world… It seems to me, between the flowers and the birds that this country really is the home of colour. I certainly have never seen so much colour. We went from there to the national art gallery… From there we went to the public library. A good selection of books, including some British publications, but they were of a somewhat ancient vintage. In the evening went to a dance at the “Good Cheer Club”. There I tried dancing for the first time! The victim, called Ruth, to my surprise was not unduly incapacitated. 

4th        Heavy rain, but by 0930 it had cleared away, leaving only a wraith-like shroud of mist clothing the crests of the hills. I was orderly corporal, so I stayed in all day. In the evening went with Taffy to the YMCA and had tea and cakes. Nearby in the shadow if Devil’s peak was a solitary tent, in front of the tent blazed a huge camp fire, the ruddy glow lighting up the faces of the four men who sat around it. In the distance I can hear someone playing a banjo, and a choir of lusty voiced troops singing hill billy songs. It all seems so unreal. More like the sort of thing you see on films. 

6th           Went to Muizenburg and met Ruth with whom I danced on Saturday. She went in swimming but I couldn’t – no trunks. I lay on the beach and watched. Then we went back to the Good Cheer Club, tried dancing again.

"Snake Charmer"
7th           Went to Capetown and the pictures, then to Observatory and had supper at Ruth’s home. Met her mother and sister. 

8th           Went to the museum, saw all kinds of stuffed animals as well as Hottentots and Bushmen who used to inhabit these parts. Then on to the library and on to the Soldiers’ Club to meet Jim Lowe. From there we went to the Good Cheer Club. (8th - this date twice in typescriptVisited the city park and at the entrance saw a snake charmer giving a display. From there went to a concert by the Capetown Municipal Orchestra. 

9th           Went to Capetown then to Observatory, then the cinema.

10th      Stayed in camp.

11th      Went to Capetown shortly after 10 a.m., from there to Observatory and then up to the Rhodes memorial. After that to the zoo, had tea at Ruth’s and went to church with her and her mother.

12th      Went to the Good Cheer Club and heard that a convoy had been attacked just outside the harbour. According to rumour, twelve ships have been sunk also three German subs. The survivors from our ships are at the Union Jack Club.

13th      Capetown again and a round of the clubs, first the Mayor’s Club, then the Soldiers’ Club, the Ritz Bio Café, the Union Jack Club. And then the Plaza Cinema. The town is absolutely teeming with Yanks. They came in in the Aquitaine which is now lying in the harbour.

14th      Nothing of interest to note, went to Capetown and then to Observatory.

15th      Got a lift to Wynburg. Went to the new canteen there. It really is the most luxurious canteen I’ve ever seen. The car in which I got the lift was an Austin Chevrolet. We did 94 m.p.h. on the way! From there I went by bus to Capetown, had dinner there and then came back to Wynburg and had supper there with some South African friends and came back by train.

22nd      Swimming at Muizenburg [AC's spelling]. 

26th      Went to Capetown with Taffy and Mike to take some snaps in the gardens. There we met an old lady who asked us to come and have tea with her. She lived at Victoria Flats. There we had tea and scones and cakes. We listened to her talking for hours. I could have listened longer for she had such a delightful manner and was well versed in anything and everything you cared to mention. She had such personality and a fascinating voice. I didn’t feel the time passing. She had ten sons all of whom were away either in the forces or married; her daughter (I presume she only has one) has the highest possible position for a woman in this country, in the High Court of Justice.

The rest of my stay in Capetown was very pleasant, never a dull moment. Ruth L who seemed to adopt me when I arrived took me to see all the places of interest: Rhodes memorial, Kirstenbosch, the Zoo… the list is endless. I don’t think it was a romance. She was older than me and I was very naïve. I seem to have stopped writing dates… until –

14th (Nov.)      We now have orders to pack and get ready to move.

Note: Calendar dates for 1942 bear out AC's retrospective deduction that these diary entries begin in October that year, with Saturday the 3rd, when he went dancing. The Fall of Singapore, however, was much earlier in the year, on 15th February – he may be thinking of another destination/event, and/or he and his comrades may not have been accurately informed, for security reasons.
(26/8/42: Battle of Milne Bay begins: Japanese forces land and launch a full-scale assault on Australian base near the eastern tip of New Guinea...)

Saturday, 25 March 2017

A Stornoway Cove’s "Lovely War" (Part 1)

Adapted from a memoir written initially for the author’s (AC's) family, and later copied to old friends, at least one of about 80 years’ standing.

Part 1 Starting in 1939 (when the writer was 19), the year of the war that changed everything...

“Oh What a Lovely War!”

 On joining the R.A.F. I was sent to West Drayton to be kitted out. I little thought then that many years post war, I’d be back there… The next move was to Cardington in Bedfordshire for “square bashing”. There I saw the R100 Zeppelin anchored to its mooring mast. Not many folk can say they have actually seen a Zeppelin. The R101, her sister ship, was destroyed by fire in France with the loss of many lives. 

After Cardington came the serious business of training at the R.A.F. wireless school at Yatesbury (Wiltshire). We were probably the last to train there because they then moved to Compton Basset. After attaining the required aped of 20 w.p.m. I was posted to Sullom Voe in the Shetlands. During the night, before we left, some nasty bugger stole the ration money from our uniforms (including mine – simple Simon). All that way with no money, and only the unconsumed portion of the day’s ration (one corned beef sandwich). That was the first time I ever experienced real hunger. On the St. Clair sailing from Aberdeen to Lerwick, an officer who heard of our plight bought us a meal. It tasted like nectar. 

When we arrived at Sullom Voe, the camp had not been built, so we were billeted on a troop-ship anchored in the Voe. At that time the R.A.F.’s strength in Shetland was two Gloucester Gladiators based at Sumburgh plus two Londons and two Sunderlands moored in the Voe. I recall one incident when a French destroyer was anchored nearby. The Gladiators were flying their normal patrol, when the French opened fire, thinking they were enemy aircraft. The pilots were not amused. The Shetland workmen soon built huts for us, including a radio room, an ops room, and a transmitting station. There was one other Stornoway lad there with me. He was dead keen to be a w/op air gunner. After his air gunner course and on his first mission, sadly his plane was shot down.

After the Shetlands, believe it or not, my next posting was to Stornoway! I’ve got to say it twice – Oh What a Lovely War! Billeted in the Nissen huts on Anderson Road, across from where the market garden is now and working as NCO i/c (in charge of) the transmitting station at Plasterfield…

A view of Stornoway, late 1930s

Lewis Castle Green, with Second World War structures

Nothing lasts for ever. After a few months there I was sent on detachment to Benbecula and then came my overseas posting. Ah well, at last they are sending me to fight the Hun and the Jap. Back to England for tropical kit out, thence on to the troopship, one of many ships in a big convoy escorted by the Royal Navy. Through the North Atlantic and its sub-infested waters without incident. Then the South Atlantic and of course the weather is getting warmer until at last we disembark at Capetown [AC’s spelling, consistently, as one word].

            1. John Bull.
At Yatesbury my pal was an English lad from Windsor and believe it or not his name was John Bull. There we were allowed 48-hour passes. That was OK for those who lived in the south of England, but of course it was no use to me. John invited me back to his home in Windsor. I cannot remember much about it now but one thing has always stuck in my memory. When we were helping out with the washing up John’s father said to me – You obviously have not had much domestic experience, if you always dried your knives with the blade turned that way, your dish towels at home must be in ribbons.
After we passed out at Yatesbury we went our separate ways. John went to somewhere in England and me to the Shetlands. Some time after that, I learned that John was posted to Malta. Malta of course was British, and a very important naval station, but after Italy joined in the war it was bombed over and over again by enemy planes flying  from Sicily and Italy. John Bull was badly injured in one of those air raids and lost both his legs.

2. “Converted” in the Shetlands
In the newly built radio room, the communication receivers were R77s… Stone age stuff when you think of today’s communications. One of our receivers had been to the workshop a few times but it came back with the mechanics saying it was working OK. We at the sharp end would agree it was working, but not OK.
One nightshift I had a go at it, and using simple logic, found one of the valves was faulty. After that the signals officer called me in to ask what my experience was in radio, so I told him about Kenny Bain’s [shop in Stornoway] bikes, gramophones and radios. After a few more questions he said, I’m going to recommend that you be re-mustered to W/om (wireless operator mechanic). That was OK with me because w/om and w/ems were on a higher rate of pay. Normally you needed to go on a conversion course to re-muster. I was then transferred to workshops and transmitters – much better than sitting with earphones listening to dots and dashes..

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Stornoway schooldays: More on the Nicolson

Adapted from correspondence between two former pupils of the Nicolson Institute, Stornoway (Primary and Secondary), both born in 1920 (excerpts)

School 1925-34 [aged 5-14]
The old Nicolson Institute school provided education which was second to none in all of Scotland. {Origins etc.*}
The curriculum of the school would be the envy of many schools today. There was English, History, Geography, Maths (arithmetic, algebra, geometry), Languages (Latin, French and German – no Gaelic), Music, Wood- and Metalwork, Science, Domestic Science, Art and Gymnastics. 
After the Qualifying Exam we were divided up into three groups for our Secondary Education – classes , B and C. The bright ones were in class A. Guess which class I was in. The only subjects I was interested in were woodwork and art. At that time I fancied being a woodwork teacher. The art teacher Mr Chalmers said I should get a job where I had to use my hands. Was there an implication there that I would be no use for anything intellectual?
Most of the female teachers got their title of “Miss” like Miss Black, Miss Cheyne or Miss Stobo (she was music teacher) but the men got names like Cloggy, Soup, Vecan, Big Uggie, Little Uggie etc. [Aeroplane story here too - see below]
Not all the pupils on the “C” classes were dunces. Many went on to very distinguished careers not only in this country but all over the world.
Cloggy used to say – don’t use nice because it is not a nice word, and don’t use that word awful...
Mentioning Cloggy brings to mind a picture of him cycling from Seaforth Road to school on a wet and windy morning wearing leggings cut from an old boiler suit or dungarees, one was brown and the other was blue. The poor soul did his best but he was never able to teach me to spell properly… 
I found some more bits you might be interested in as well. I hope you've got plenty of room in your paper recycling bin. I blame Cloggy because I've been writing doggerel for years. 
How lucky we were to have a good Nicolson Institute education… The NI of course taught languages – English, French and Latin but not Gaelic, it was very taboo at that time. Do you remember the pseudo Latin verse about Cloggy,
Amo Amas Amat, Cloggy wears a hat
Amamus Amatis Amant, he wears it on a slant.
  There’s another language (or should I say lingo) in which only those within walking distance of Perceval Square were conversant, called SY as she is spoke.
Examples of "old SY" (Stornoway), the "lingo" of street and playground
[... which is, being interpreted (more or less): Cove = mate, man; "a place in Inverness" refers to the (former) asylum, Craigdunain, as in "There's a place in Inverness for the likes of you!"; the hoil = harbour (water); okrach (spelling varies) = municipal rubbish dump]
Did you see the picture of the seaplane that was wrecked in Stornoway harbour? I remember I was in Vegan's class [aged 10, c1930, probably Primary 6] when we heard the sound of the planes. The whole of the clock school rushed outside and there was what looked like two model planes in the sky. Of course we had never seen an aeroplane before so we didn't know how big a plane was. I still have a souvenir from that plane, a bit of one of the aerolens which I made into a paper knife which I use almost every day. 
{AC told this story more than once, in slightly different words]:
  Do you remember the first time aeroplanes came to Stornoway? We were in Vecan’s class so with a little mental computing that would make it about 1930. We heard the noise of the engines and the whole class ran out en masse and we saw what looked like two model planes overhead. We had never seen an aeroplane before, so we did not know size they were. One of them came to grief, its outer right float was knocked off and it finished up on the beach between the Battery and Lower Sandwick (that’s where the ocroch was in those days. It was a Write-off. I still have a souvenir from it which I use almost every day, a bit of an aileron which I made into a paper knife/letter-opener. 
You will remember Vegan of course. I have a copy of a book he wrote called Peat Fire Memories ([ISBN given] by Kenneth MacDonald). He also wrote poems and Gaelic plays. I remember one of the songs he wrote called “An Cabar Suidhe” which means “sooty rafters”, a derogatory term used to describe an old thatched house with the fire in the middle of the floor… I wonder if you know how Vegan got his nickname (quite sure he was not a strict vegetarian)... Another thing about V-Kan; if it is from the Gaelic, there is no V and no K in the Gaelic alphabet…
"Veecan" (spelling varies) from his book as above.
(In Calum Smith's book, Around the Peat-Fire, "Kenneth Macdonald, Sandwick" is on the list of "Names that spring to mind" from among the "goodly band of socialist propagandists operating in and around Stornoway" in the interwar years (p.111 in 2001 edition).
One incident I remember was when I tried to follow (big brother) Calum to school. I was of course chased back…
In spite of my early abortive attempt I did eventually go to school.
With everyone else I had my eyes tested by the school optician, but when Miss Reid, primary one, called me out to collect them [glasses] I told her just to keep them herself because she needed them more than me.

The next attempt at getting me to wear glasses was a couple of years later in Miss Montgomery’s class. She said [AC] Collect these glasses at the end of class. Then the wee clipe (tell-tale) next to me put his hand up and said, “Please Miss, AC says he is just going to break the glasses.” She sent them round to Miss Bell Morrison’s for Calum to take them home. They did live for a while but I remember using the lenses for windows of a model boat I made. I had a bad squint in my left eye in those days but it seems to have cured itself without glasses.
The Clock School: some primary classes were still being taught there in the 1950s 
* AC's version of the old school's origin and ethos, as carried in memory and conveyed in his memoirs, runs thus
   The school was instituted and founded by the five Nicolson brothers, hence the name. The school badge is in the shape of a shield depicting five entwined burning torches and underneath the legend "Sequamur" which is Latin for "Let us follow". This to imply that we should go forth into the world and make a success of life as they did. The school colours and tie are dark blue and yellow.

A survivor from the Nicolson in the 1930s
(owned by AC's friend and correspondent),
And certificates (1929 and 1934) showing subjects studied at Junior Secondary level: 
English, History, Geography, Mathematics, Science and French

English, History, Geography, Mathematics, Science, Latin

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Grand Girls: Heroine Helen, Responsible Riona and others

A diversion for (not from) International Women's Day.
What the school-age girl was reading, or being given to read. 80 years ago.

A Christmas present from an aunt, 1937

The Grand Book for Girls published by Juvenile Productions in the 1930s appeared in more than one edition, possibly for the Christmas market. (There are similar titles from other publishers at around the same time). It contains a mix of stories by anonymous authors, interspersed with short outbreaks of information pieces, 'interesting facts' and the like. The style is generally readable and in correct English, apart from half a dozen misplaced apostrophes. There are few concessions to children's reading age or young persons' (let alone'feminine') supposed sensibilities. 

Most of the stories are adventure yarns involving peril and rescue, often of males by females, or the averting of disaster by quick, courageous action. The rescued are generally younger than their girl saviours, but not always. 'The Climber' finds 'the youth who had treated her with such contempt', and considerately saves his face into the bargain; a daughter (‘Where Angels Fear’) seeks out her father in the Himalayas where they both face 'Truth', no less, for which 'the world is not yet ready'. 

Apart from this 'ancient wisdom' religion is largely absent (unlike similarly targeted works of a generation or two earlier|), except in 'Influence' where an orphaned girl brings about a rapprochement between her rough frontiersman guardian (who rescues her from the 'Cath'lic Mission' of Quebec and is prone to indulge in 'strange and horrid oaths') and the local minister (whom he calls 'that perishin' purple sky-pilot') - this one being also of the minority among the collection in emphasising home-making skills, and limiting the girl's role in the foiled-hold-up adventure to alerting the rescuer, leaving the real action to the men.

Elsewhere girls, fortunately hardy and self-reliant, aged about 15, frequently find themselves alone, needing to decide on and take risky action without help. Parents are seldom in evidence, generally relegated to background or periphery with teachers and other adults. In most cases, not quite all, the heroines confront the danger rather than being merely instigators or auxiliaries. This may involve being 'headstrong', breaking rules and flouting convention. 

A minority of the stories are more banal, taking place in boarding school or holiday settings where misunderstandings are resolved and behaviour improved. There is a certain expectation of quasi-maternal attitudes, although these may vary. Riona has brought up a large brood of brothers and sisters almost single-handed; Una is determined not to be included in children's company rather than with grown-ups, but responds appropriately in a crisis while still insisting it should not be a children's party that celebrates her action.

Male characters may be father figures, villains, brothers or cousins, even friends. There is no hint of romance, still less mention of sex (but see below), although at one school exclusive female friendships tend to get out of hand, loyalty to one's chum nearly leading to a mean action. Apart from pervasive, occasionally explicit assumptions that British is best, the Empire a good thing, and the ruling class benevolent, politics are avoided. Main characters are not socially of the lower orders, but devoted servants may play a useful part.

The oddest tales, unlikely to endear the book to readers 80 years on, are possibly the second last and third last. The thoroughly unpleasant ‘Greta Makes Good’ describes in disturbing detail how an Australian wins acceptance in English county society (in which 'beauty did not appeal greatly', much less her refusal to get up early to go 'cubbing') by breaking in a new 'hunter' (stallion): she 'felt a tremor run through the powerful body which was gripped between her slender thighs', proceeding via 'a smashing blow between the ears from the hunting crop she carried' until finally she 'had so established her mastery that she hunted all that season upon the horse she had conquered'.

'Katinka Goes Back' is the most complex and serious contribution, written by someone who clearly knew the background and was putting across a political message - an unequivocally counter-revolutionary one. Not political in the sense of discussing the issues: the heroine is rescued as a baby by a devoted servant from 'red ruin and revolution' in Russia, with no word of what led to revolution nor acknowledgement that a situation where one person might have a quarter of a million pounds worth of jewels while others were starving might have anything to do with it. Until the baby, Katinka, grows up the action is carried by the servant, Anna, and her fiancé Ivan, who devote their lives to the cause of her imprisoned mother. He is a descendant of 'countless generations of moujiks broken to service', so that's all right. When Katinka is 17 she takes over, organising an expedition to rescue her mother from a 'terrible penal settlement' with the aid of Anna and Ivan, her fortune from the smuggled jewels, a cunning plan, and British sailors eager to have a go at ‘the Bolshevik beasts’ although the enterprise is 'clean outside the law'. They succeed after a sentry is disposed of 'with bare hands' by Ivan in a 'pretty beastly' fashion, with a final bout of (welcomed) hand-to-hand combat in which all the Bolsheviks who have boarded the ship (flying the Union Jack) are 'finished off', the reader being left in no doubt that this is what they deserve. 'No question was asked afterwards'.

After all this, to end on a feel-better note, 'Breaking the Bounds' is a reassuring return to familiar territory with its mild subversion of rigid rule-keeping, advocacy of doing the honest thing, and beginning  of a firm schooldays-long friendship.

The book's owner at an early age
with her older sister at Lewis castle, Stornoway

What Irma (and other young readers) may have made of such examples of potboilers, precepts and propaganda can't be known for sure. At any rate she did not treat the volume with undue reverence and certainly made use of it: the covers of her copy are missing, pictures are coloured in, and many of the (very thick) 156 pages are embellished with drawings, scribbles and word-games. All in all Auntie Kate might have made a worse choice of gift.