The Summer Between and Before
On Monday the 27th of July in the morning, I left Kilburn and London for Donny in my Fiesta, and hung tight on the tails of an Audi who knew where the cameras were. And over the next two weeks or so of summer I drove up and down and back and forth across the island.
As you go from Donny into Sheffield you hit the sudden rise, and your phone-come-satnav jumps out of the gap you’ve jarred it in between your windscreen and dashboard and you crawl up the hill and guess where you’re going.
And on the crest of the rise you come to the old ruined manor where Mary Queen of Scots was kept all larmes rouleés and joie infinie in a mess of rosary beads at the pleasure of the Dukes of Norfolk, and you pass the old tavern where the gentry stopped from the coursing of deer.
And as though you emerged from some ancient wood so you rise sudden from the terraced houses into Norfolk Park, and see the bonny basin city below around Bramall Lane and the windows of the thousands of little houses shimmer in the early evening’s sun and spume and spit of rain.
And as you course through the wheat fields and the pheasants flying low over the Humberside on the road to Gainsborough so you see a moment when the morning’s sun is obscured by a little wood, the great sentinel of the West Burton Power Station, low in the haze of the morning’s pollen clouds, and the distant stink of a sea.
And back into Donny through the little market towns all decked with flowers, boxes and troughs and rigs of them in the summer. And through the green Pennines to Chorley the bigger market town, with its Union Jacks daft and everywhere, the pubs and the puggies, an old Peugeot 406 sedan covered in the filth of its knackered exhaust and the words scored out on its rear in finger, ‘I wish my wife was as dirty as this’.
Chorley’s old manor where some pathetic Stuart scion of Mary knighted a steak and Manchester: Moston in the wet and the monument to the Martyrs, austere, turreted, the great Tower of some Irish legend on the rear of its Cross, the aghast faces of the eroded three on its other flanks.
And all around, as far as the eye can see, the paupers’ graves of the immigrant cemetery. Each stone an inventory of names, all that is left of the wretches that fill them, mostly Irish, here an Italian, a Slovak, a Lithuanian, a Jew; the odd name highlighted here in white paint by whomsoever cares so much to do so much for their forgotten forebears, the pity of the bleak stone names of those others, who mean nothing to none.
And in Liverpool we looked amazed at those same nothing people turned out in their living thousands to the sound of the twee man from Islington with his posh Shropshire voice, the Beard and the Raincoat. Jeremy Corbyn took the crowds as though they were party to a great constituency surgery: grave and earnest he scribbles in his notepad the answers to the questions put to him by the queue of folk lining the middle of the Adelphi hall, sweltering; palatial.
“I’m sixteen… by the time you’re Prime Minister I’ll be nearly graduated, and tens of thousands in debt…” The reply: “Well of course it’s not enough to get rid of tuition fees. Of course we will have to take measures to compensate those who have been saddled with this unfair debt…”
The last time I was briefly in Liverpool I’d such a thing as a pie dinner, no battered pie in the scud with chips and vinegar such as you get in Scotland, but the whole hog in your plastic takeaway box, mushy peas and gravy the works, for the same price.
So I’d a laugh to myself when our company took us to a vegan café to eat quiche and pasta salad for three times the price. But of course who should waltz in but Corbyn himself, as much the stereotype as the rest of us. And the students I was with fumbled for questions and asked what books he was reading, and the answers were obscure enough, though he finished with a pause and said ‘…and Machiavelli.’
The Old Valley
On your long drive up to Glesca from Gainsborough you hope to yourself that mibby he’ll have read Sun Tzu and all. And with Yorkshire and Scotch Corner behind you, you see the great fortress hill of Catterick to your left where the old Britons by the Angles were finally crushed; where the British Army still lies encamped to this day, as though the old Anglish axemen had never surrendered the watch of their otherwise forgotten conquest.
You wouldn’t know they were there, for low above Catterick’s hill is a sentinel cloud of dark foreboding, like some living god guarding the road to the old Welsh lands, the same names, the same folk, now called English and Scots. This mighty god envelops you first in spume then mist, and a fierce storm as you speed through the lakes doing battle with trucks on single-carriageway roads, till you are at that plain part of the country then suddenly in another one.
Scotland opens ahead like the ancient leather bound Y Gododdin, its chapters rustling violently in the wind. The weather changing with each page, you pass the sign for South Lanarkshire and yet it still doesn’t feel like your home county, the burns and the shadows of wet hills, till you see the farmer’s welcome to Scotland, the Great Boaby still there, giant phallus planted in trees on the valley wall for all travellers to behold, and you smile that you’re home in amongst those feckless folk no giving any which kind of a fuck.
All sick of your rollups, before you know it you’re in Glesca, and the Yes signs are still in the windows, and so after a night and you’re off again away from that city you lived in for years and all. I picked my mother up at my sister’s fancy flat on Wilton Street and we headed back up the Clyde.
We stopped in Motherwell till I stocked up on bumper stickers and claret and amber polo shirts and pin badges and replica tops. I bumped into the club captain Keith Lasley outside the Cooper stand but didnae want to bother him, that London way you get.
So we drove up through Craigneuk and got spraffing about my old man and this other-worldly, once-Communist bit of Scotland he’d grown up in almost a century ago that looked much the same now, though the steelworks are all gone; grown over with the pretty summer copses of poppies and buttercups and daisies and thistles.
The bottom of Wishaw was shut off to traffic so we went right through Gowkthrapple and I barely winced to notice for the first the old tower blocks now gone, for I hadn’t been up that way in ten years or more, and I’ve crow’s feet now to hide those dread wee shocks you get at change; all the folk I once knew who stid in thae blocks. And in driving that way we came up the Pather end of Wishae by the station and the miners’ club and I thinks bollocks to it, we’ll take a turn.
So we drove up East Hamilton Street to the corner of Pather Street, there just opposite where the first Irn-Bru factory had been at the start of Wishaw; the sugary honour.
There the old tenement. Still, and the ground floor single room they all lived in, the washhouse long since torn down where my gran would scrub the forgotten cottons of her two sons and daughter and man, somewhere the tomb of a budgie dead before ere flew Hindenburg; a nicely kept lawn now where she’d sometimes plucked nettles and grass from which to make soup to keep her family barely alive in those famished times. Two boys on that poverty-stricken little road had gone hungrily to Spain to fight Franco.
The robust dyke, then as now no more than two feet in height for the iron railings had been stripped from it back in the first war. And on the dyke my old man in calipers a blondey-heidit polio-stricken bairn sat swinging his legs in a clatter of steel and singing a child’s sweet songs of the ancient nightmares of the grim Valley folk, those rhymes and ballads of Mediaeval horror his mother reared him on.
The old Douglas cattle thieves of the Valley still raping their way south, Wallace still burning the five hundred souls alive in Lanark with bloody-bearded smile, the lilting at the ewe-milking of the lassies that the flouars o the forest now lie cauld in the clay in their tens of flattened thousands; and that most grim of all the children’s songs:
Wee choukae burdae, TOL-LOL-LOL!
Layit an egg on the windae-sole;
The windae-sole, agan tae crack,
Sae the wee choukae burdae, ROART an GRAT!
You shudder a bit. Then you look at your mother and she looks at you daft and yis crack up both, the ghosts of bairns to hell, or wherever they may be.
The New Valley
She’s sic a quare wummin, for she’s from a different world, a desert place, and when you’re alone with her you’re talking all the while in that desert language about these Scottish things. And mibby the desert language is the better for it, such that the Scots language is now subsumed in English, and languages die hard in deserts, and speak well about grim things, of history’s dead horror.
The next day as you’re running up the back roads through the mining towns to the Pentland Hills to see your brother in Falkirk, so she tells you all about which of your father’s cousins and second cousins lived in which village and what fate befell them; what Jehovah’s Witness, what suicide, what alcoholic, as though you were driving through some hidden mountain valley of your family on the other side of the world.
And the day after that I was up the back roads again, my mate Murdoch had his birthday so we drove up to Livingston to eat overpriced and shite food at Frankie and Benny’s, which is the Lanarkshire thing to do.
We got talking politics, about the Islamic State, and my mate who’d just gone over to Syria to help the socialists there in their struggle against ISIS, much like a local lad from Newmains had done the year before, whatever his reasons for doing that, we’re doing it now for good reasons, and folk can see that. Murdy says, ‘Ah wis hinkin aboot this, right, and see really, ye could say that Man City is tae Man Uninetied whit ISIS is tae Al-Qaeda, right? Hink aboot’t.
“Ferguson wins the Premiership in 93, right? A few year afore Bin Laden gits intae the big leagues wae thae embassy bombins. Ferguson wins the Champion’s League in 99 and, weil, hit’s two year letter but Bin Laden hus ehs Barcelona moment wae 9/11, in’t hit no?
“Onywey, Ferguson can see whit wey the win’s blawin right, sae e bows out, and Bin Laden gits kilt aboot the same time, right? Then pure oot the blue like, naeb’dy sees hit comin, dae they? Man City gits bote up bae some Sheikh and turnt intae this superclub… ISIS, right? Probly they’re eftar gittin bote aff ae the same Sheikh! …they’re awey conquerin hauf ae Iraq, an aw’s Uninetied can dae right? Well, aw’s Al-Qaeda can dae, is go an shoot some cartoonists.”
On a braw sunny day’s way back, we detour, and smoke fags in the swing parks of all the wee touns up the Valley where Murdy’s father had taken us on weekends as weans twenty year before. Though we’re big men now; me the railwayman, him the roadsman; he who stayed behind, me who went away; him the more rightwing, me the more left; it’s the same gig.
And on the way back down the Clyde from Biggar rises again the great sentinel of the lowlands, the summit of Tinto – or Tintae Hill – for no one calls her Tinto, but the likes of the ill-educated folk who call green Glesca by the name of Glasgow.
Tintae burns black and solemn and purple above the green grass and hedges and peaceful oaks and willows of the Valley; the elderflowers and buttercups, the red and yellow kye. The invading Scots called her Teintach, the place of fire, and she was some holy place for the old Welsh, that they lit her up so, in a great beacon, perhaps in times of war.
Their name for her now forgotten, the local folk still climb her and commemorate their old Prince of Lanark in his resting place by taking with them each a stone to the summit, not that they know why they do it. It is the old rumour that Redrech Hael lies buried there and guards the Valley still from Scots and English alike, like no vanquished Catterick is Tintae Hill.
The cairn above her some fifty feet in height sticks out a great nipple from the wisps of cirrus and pollen of the horizon, for 1500 years of climbers have dropped their stones on his grave; different languages, the same folk.
We stop back at Murdy’s parents’ house where his old man is working as ever on his old Norton bike that he always wants to remind me is the same model that Ché Guevara rode around Latin America in the early fifties.
And he’s chuffed to see I’m still wearing my Motherwell gear, for he remembers how he bought me my first season ticket and brought me into the club. My auld man was there, right enough, when Motherwell won the league in 1932, but he’d been owar lang an ex-pat to care anything much about football by such time as we were ever back in the Valley.
So it was Murdoch’s da that brought us up with the Steelmen and it was fair too, being that in days of foundry he’d been a steelworker himself, just as Murdoch’s maw was the daughter of one. And just as Murdy is himself the quiet supporter of Corbyn, so when he’d driven off to go see his wummin in Wishae, so his parents sat me down with a cup of tea to sing the praises of the Beard and the Raincoat.
Though not all of the town’s Masons voted No in last year’s great Referendum – some even played leading roles in the local Yes campaign – Murdoch with his Irish name saw himself as a more traditional kind of Mason, and did what he had to do.
Afterwards he was in a state of shock: ‘Aw ye seen ivrywhere wis Yes stickers and badges and flags… Onestly, onestly ah didnae hink hit wis gonnae be a Naw, right. Ah thote ah wis castin likesae, a kindae protest vote, ken, fir us Prodisants.’
And Raymond and Margaret Murdoch, like their only son, also voted No. And though maybe a fifth or so of those No voters voted SNP in the General Election, part in regret, part in thinking this was their Yes moment, part in thinking they might make a better social democracy so, a Miliband in thrall to Sturgeon; though many voted SNP, Murdy and his parents were of the type of folk that voted Labour, still, and probably will, forever. Small-c conservative folk.
They sat me down and asked me about London, about the EU, about housing, about what Corbyn meant, though they already knew the answer to that, they had already paid their three pounds, like my mother had, independently of me or anyone having anything to do with it. They are auld people, from a small town, and the revolutionary process that began with the Referendum has found its way down to them.
What the Yes Campaign was partially successful in doing, was turning the Yes/No question from a debate about statehood into a different question: How best to fight austerity? In this way, the SNP won the hearts of Scotland at the General Election.
But besides all the talk of hope and change that surrounds the possibility of a Corbyn victory, something tenuous and fraught with danger from the start, in Scotland it means another thing. The Yes/No question is again changed to a new question: How best to build socialism? And so history moves forward, unstoppable.
‘Ken, William’, says Raymond, ‘me and Margaret… ye might no hink hit, but when we were young we votied Communist! Ah mean ah did, but aye, right ye are, so did you Margaret, right. Ah mean, we even went giein oot leaflets for Jimmy Sneddon, the cooncillor, didn’t we hen? Ah did onywey… Aye! You and aw. Ah mean ye git aulder, o course… But ye’d dae hit again. He wis a great man, Jimmy Sneddon, so e wis, wisn’t e Margaret?’
And ye laugh and kick stones your way up the road, the summer’s evening still bright, and you think to yourself what a great truth it is that no original thought was ever your own.
The Other Valley
But with that gladdening thought, this comfort that you’re only part of the part of what was once the whole and will be again, nothing more, nothing less… With that thought I’m minded, sudden, rueful, of a great regret, of my da’s auld mate still alive, whom I haven’t seen for twelve year mibby, for each year on the one or two occasions I’d been home I’d avoided him like the plague, a burning shame about me, and a sloth that he lives on the other side of the town.
But this time I’ve the car I thinks, and the air is right, so no regrets. My auld dear and me go chap his door later that night and the old Dublin man hobbles about after us with tea and scones, the tray shaking in all eighty-five years of his hands.
His wife Kathleen sits tormented and emotional all swaddled in covers, blind as a bat and half as deaf. She looks permanently on the point of tears, her anguish the worse that she can no longer play the hostess, and can no longer even witness her husband’s efforts to scrutinise them. ‘Josie! Josie! Git William and Helena a scone!’
And Joe hobbles about and shakes and looks barely able himself, so I goes to help him and he goes through the motions of shooing me away till I’ve the chance to look him in the eye and we can grasp each other by the arms with a braw smile both, and he was all right, was Joe.
Joe’s old man had been a Wild Goose who survived the first war. A guilty-feeling Jackeen he suffered Joe a Gaelic education, and in the atmosphere of such a school where the son of a Goose was learned the hardness of life in the quickest way, so it had the effect of making a Rebel of him, a socialist and a republican.
It did so to the point that his godlessness took him in his maturity into the arms of Óglaigh na hÉireann and the Border Campaign, during which he helped in the smuggling of guns, guns doing whatever guns were doing in Dublin, and of whatever else that he wouldn’t speak.
But one night when Joe was already at least 27 years of age, on the point of settling forever on the man he was to be, there broke a terrible storm over the city. Terrible at first only so that the young man wouldn’t notice so much as look up from the book he was reading, but soon cataclysmic, cathartic: a fire and brimstone storm punishing the city for its wickedness.
Joe watched in growing fear as lums exploded in rapid fire bursts of lightning, as an horse was struck in the wrath and lay suddenly charring on the wet cobbles; and he turned his eyes away in shame and fear as though he himself would next be turned to pillar of salt.
And he roared and grat and tore at his dark hair, petrified, like he might have beat his breast and ground his teeth, and in this mess of tears he began to murmur the words of a prayer, first to Christ, and then His Mother, on finding the Lord otherwise occupied, presumably with the orchestration of the mayhem without.
And Joe promised if only Herself would intervene, that Her belligerent Creator-son might listen to Her and not Joe’s own slovenly, human mess of red and weeping eyes, Joe promised he would renounce his wicked ways; all that he knew in his heart was bad for it was not godly, all these things; that he would pledge his own life to Herself.
Suddenly the gloaming night light shone gold and red above smoggy Dublin and through Joe’s window, the birds all a chatter and a mad flight as they are upon the sudden break of such a terrible tempest. Though the horse was still knackered, Joe joined the Legion of Mary, gave up the drink and the IRA, met Kathleen in Lourdes and came back with her to join the beleaguered but determined Catholics of Carluke.
The navvies and famine refugees first began construction of St. Athanasius’ Church all the way back in 1849, but it took them eight years to complete it, for each night the local Protestant Scots would come and undo the brickwork.
My auld man was of those folk, those Clyde Valley Calvinists. But he hated all that stuff; hated the Orange Order and the Freemasonry and Glasgow Rangers, and hated it even more seeing it still alive returning home after half a century. When he found religion in his old age and infirmity, he decided to make it the Roman Catholic religion, and this was how he met Joe Martin.
So Joe would come round and preach and I’d listen and all, a bored wean. But try as he might, Joe could not be shot of his demons with the fear of a storm. I was the son of a Boer mother, and I’d then as now the same childish hatred in my heart as Joe for the Union Jack, he could see it well and vented off at me the great and terrible history of sorry Ireland, her heroes and her woes; taught me some dozens of her thousands of songs.
And when my auld man died the Catholics of the town were very good, and made a terrible fuss over him and all of us, and made the power of mumbles of prayers and melting of wax and rattles of beads in his honour. And partly out of gratitude I took up the Catechism and joined the Catholic Church myself, when I was sixteen, a peculiarly religious teen, though within two years I was every bit as religious the communist atheist zealot.
Many years have passed since I was last able to make a confession and take the sacrament in good faith, just enough for me to face up to Joe Martin. I knew the question was coming, ‘How’s yer Fait(h), William?’
As I paused to answer the annoyingly vague question so the phone rang, and Joe ambled over to answer it, poor Kathleen all in a panic, and the news scunnered us all, for Father Naughton the Parish Priest had finally decided to retire, and had announced it that same night at the evening’s mass.
My mother, like Joe the descendant of Huguenots turned back somehow to the Catholic faith, had been his housekeeper for a time, and I’d looked after his dog when he went back to Limerick a few months each year.
Now he was going back for good. Kathleen’s shock was probably the only thing stopping her from roarin and greitin the house down entirely, and just at this point Joe somehow managed to ask the question again: ‘How’s yer Fait, William?’ I answered with a simple shake of the head, that blind auld Kathleen mightn’t hear.
‘Ah it’s terrible’, says Joe. ‘Whit’s that, Josie?’ says Kathleen. ‘All dis Moral Relativism, in the yout’, he ignores her, shakes his head, and looks fierce, of pointed brow. And my mother, God love her, chimes in to say, ‘Ach Joe, but he’s a socialist, änd you know the socialists are only doing Christ’s work on earth’, and Joe nods and says well of course, Christ was the greatest socialist of them all, and my mother goes off on one about the grand job we’re doing with the union there and all that stuff that mothers are wont to do. And Joe in his Jackeen drawl as low as ever says:
“Dat’s great, dat’s a great ting ye’re doin, and Our Lord agrees wid ya, oi know he dóes! He júst wants a look in, is all. Júst tink! How am-a-zin it would be, were you to be doin dat work, for de greater glory of Our Lord…” Flattery will get you everywhere, I thinks but does not say, and Joe was like any desperate Trotskyist in pursuit of the sale of his ideological wares, only the opposite thing; prepossessed with moral authority, and genuine honesty.
“Did ya ever hear about James Connolly? He said, ‘De great only appear great because we are on our knees; let us rise…'” I told him it was written on the back of the Paddington No. 1 branch banner, and not that it was really a quote of Larkin, and smiled that sad way, for one thing that it made him as happy, for another that the auld man was old enough to have forgotten everything he’d ever taught me of Connolly.
“He was a great man, a great Scottish man! And true to de Fait till his doyin day… dey shot him, toyed til a chair… and Chorch-hill, called a standing ovation, in de Briddish Parliament…” and Joe looked sad a minute then bright again, “And did ya know he learned Polish? Fluent Polish, and Italian, júst to org-a-noise de workers?”
And while despite his protests I’d managed to collect all the empty cups and fletts and take them to the kitchen, he came out from the room and surprised me, with an Ár n-Athair card for the motor, and a little Crucifix he impugned me to wear, and I swore I would wear it till it fell off, and he said it would never, never fall, it would only be broken off, and it was a nice thought, and a vain one.
I went through to the bathroom to try and clip it on in the mirror, the chain small and tight, and stopped a minute to clean the mess from the toilet, with its zimmer frame high-chair, and sighed… Joe, 85, half blind himself, and the only carer for poor Kathleen. And Kathleen finally roart and grat as we said our farewells, and that was the end of that, and surely the last we will ever see of each other.
For even if Joe’s God were real, and though God’s house has many rooms; such a heaven is not for the likes of us, some holiday home in the Land of Cockaigne. Us folk with bad days, bad luck, good craic.
And in the morning I was anxious, anxious that I was leaving again, perhaps never to return for six months or more, and as I tried, and failed, repeatedly, to snap the little cross on, and tried again, I cried JESUS FUCKING CHRIST and cursed heaven, and alarmed my mother, and immediately felt ashamed.
Not for Greitin Jesus glowerin up at me, but for all his subjects, and the peace, the dignity, that is all his cross can offer them, those people of ancient indignity; the old people who mean nothing to none but themselves and God, they hope, in the graveyard, in the hall, in the mirror.
And I bade my mother farewell and farewell to Carluke, old Fort of the Welsh Light-God. And I coursed off into the fine blue-grey light of the morning, and saw again the monument of those nothing people above Tintae Hill guide my way to the south, place of the morning’s blue fire.
And through the little bits of their houses in all the other towns of old Welsh names, from Carluke to Kilncadzow (Kilcaigae), then right avoiding the road to Carnwath and Dunsyre and Dolphinton and Quothqhan, right to Carstairs and her Kirk.
And in the green before her the monument those people built to their young men that fell in the first war: austere, Protestant cross, those forgotten thousands of farmers, miners and steelmen and wee boys from this Valley alone, cauld again in other clay; nothing people, as we must be.
And down to the Clyde through Ravenstruther (Renstrae) and Strathaven (Straven), finally fording the river at the Hyndford Brig, where you gurdled trout and cut your hands on barley as a wean. Carmichael and the deer, past the house where MacDiarmid wrote of drunk men glowering at purple weeds and white flouars; everywhere here, midst blue kye and dirty sheep.
Through Dougae Wattar from whence my great-great-great-grandfather had once emerged to walk down the Clyde, Rigside and her army of migrant railwaymen somehow there alongside me in London.
So the radio changes and fizzles out as Lancashire fails you and you hit the Midlands. So you find the next station, and eventually it fizzles out too, and you hear the sound of hip-hop, and it’s been six hours and, as from a dream, you awake in London.
And as you’ve raced down through great England early on the Sunday morning all the nothing people are awakening, as though they had never been awake before, finally, into the light of this last August of darkness.