War and Piece
There was a war on so I ate a piece. This was
my Granda Higgins’s advice to me when I was a child.
“Eat a jeelie piece and you’ll have an
Good old Granda. I have his Army-issue New
Testament. “To Pte James Higgins, on active service 1918.”
That fine gentleman went out to France and did his duty and returned
safely to have a wife, Agnes, and family of four and I could enjoy life at
Forrester Quarter as his grand-daughter.
Now the war is in Afghanistan and the coffins are
borne draped in the Union Jack flag and grief abounds.
If Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown and their opposite
numbers would have eaten a jeelie piece, their blood sugar levels to the
brain would have prevented this unending bedlam. The supply lines
are so distant we are taunted by the television images. We see the
arid desert in Afghanistan, all dust and rock and then the image is of
beautiful English Wootton Bassett, Tudor buildings, shop fronts,
limousines, green trees.
Now a line to the Bonnybridge Co-operative would
provide you with enough preserving sugar to add to the blackcurrants,
gooseberries, strawberries and brambles to fill your jeelie pan.
Your Granny’s sideboard would have pristine labelled jars ready for
all-year eating. A Co-op Gold Medallion loaf and some butter and the
piece is beyond compare. No need to buy in Robertson’s jams when
you have all this in-house.
There was a war on so I ate a piece and rejoiced
that I personally was not away to war. War was the imperative of
Kings and Kaisers. Where’s your democratic politician noo?
I could not jump over the high-jump bar in the
small-windowed grey concrete school gym in my teens so I am no battle
fodder. I’m just an older woman trusting for the future, seeking
to gain paid employment. I could console myself at how inexpensive a
diet of jam sandwiches would be if I don’t succeed at interview.
Restaurants set out their enticing tables for the salaried classes.
I don’t really mind because I know we all have our cross to bear and
must persevere like Job, don’t look back and sigh.
Sugar levels are important and next Monday I have an
appointment at the renal clinic of Stirling Hospital and in the afternoon
it is my thirteen week review of my job search at Heron House
JobcentrePlus. When my Granda Higgins was my hero and my mentor I
didn’t anticipate either misfortune. I’m still not so frustrated
that I have decided to invade Afghanistan but I do make the point that our
leaders will send in the troops, machinery and possibly two helicopters
for less provocation. Granda had a very civil way of talking but he
did describe some people as “bliddy gawkies.” I don’t want to
give offence but decide for yourself if “the cap fits” those in the
highest office. This way I am as an academic helping you to think
and not guilty of printing the wrong thing. I can sense the benefits
of literary analysis tutorials of poetry although at the time it was
getting a row for not looking up an unfamiliar word in preparation.
I accepted the shame of being found out without recourse to barricades.
I seek to conform and fulfil what is required and this is a useful
principle for those embarking or prolonging wars. Try to have
everyone safely in the canteen for set hours of civilised living. My
thinking is that this should be printed on House of Commons notepaper and
it would instil values not warmongering. Invite some Afghanis for
dinner and discuss the merits of peace and, of course the variation in the
jeelie piece served in such distant lands.
The Mujahideen and the Taliban and the ranked
battalions of the West all need to eat and have peace to eat a piece.
Think about it and you will acknowledge the wisdom of hospitality to
replace hostility. A battle tank assigned to an orchard and some
smart mechanical tinkering and you’ve a jam-bottling facility worthy of
the war reporter being impressed.
Back in civvy street and I can’t depend on my
Jobcentre interviewer having eaten a jeelie piece so I must make sure I go
there well-sugared and not ready to go to war. I’d be the
casualty. They don’t give out lines in the schools now as
punishment but you must write down six lines per fortnight about your job
search efforts. If you wrote “I ate a piece on jam” x 6 then you
might be in for trouble. No, you have to look in the local
newspaper, recording the title in inverted commas. You must apply
on-line yet again for pre filled posts and you will get no help to find a
job, but you will need to wait until the clerk decides you may step
forward and sit at the wrong side of the desk for a few minutes. But
then you can walk down to Morrison’s supermarket and enjoy a jeelie
piece or a Kid’s Meal. So there is the chance of a temporary piece
then a lasting peace as it is two weeks before you return to the
I shouldn’t be jobless but I am and the cause of
it is low sugar level. I had temporary work in Central College to
photocopy personal documents accompanying bursary applications, file the
bursary forms and enter the information on a spreadsheet. I was
working hard at it in a friendly office thinking I might have succeeded in
finding a place to work. My chickens hadn’t hatched before
disaster struck. I was due to finish at 12noon but carried on
working at the photocopying to clear a backlog when at 1.45pm in walked
the Principal to show around the newly-appointed Depute Principal, Elaine
Petrie, whom I knew from Jordanhill College in-service teacher training in
1985. I smiled and Elaine said “Oh, hello,” but then she asked
me how long I had been there and I had to say I didn’t have a post yet.
Something welled up inside and I tried to regain the situation by
explaining that I had done the NQ in Legal Administration at Central
College. Then the exocet missile, bomb fell, eagle landed, fatal
drowning took place. I called out that I needed to do the NQ at
Central as the teaching at Falkirk College on the HND had been so bad.
Elaine was coming from her Assistant Principal post in Falkirk College and
she didn’t reply. She made sure single-handed I was out of the job
– by then I had a 16 hours per week temporary contract- by the end of
January and threw in some sarcastic wanna-be-a-help letters into the bad
There was a bad memory of being wrong done-by so I
ate a piece as Granda Higgins recommended. I mean I liked having a
job at Central College and the staff were good company but hey, I don’t
need to travel on the crowded morning Larbert to Glasgow Queen Street
train. Maybe the swine flu won’t be so able to reach me in my
We ate well when I was a child. We had tea and
a jeelie piece at 8am then out to the byres and the hen houses and back in
at 10am for bacon and eggs and tea. Granny’s folks came from
Forfar and they believe in eating plenty meat, potatoes, soup, bread,
scones, cakes and a lot of butter. On Tuesdays a fishman came in a
van from Kilsyth so we got fish and Midnight Sun butter from him.
Granda sometimes said Granny would have needed two backsides but Granny
wasn’t even offended to hear this. The Co-op butcher came in a van
and his name was Gerry and Granny would go out eagerly to get her parcel
of meat. Gerry had twin sons who both became local councillors so
they likely learned that work as an itinerant Co-op butcher wouldn’t
have been something to aspire to for their life work. Gerry wore a
white coat and he had short grey hair set back in Brylcream and a handsome
face with a lined forehead. Gerry seemed to always appear at the
counter in his van over the years, never changing, a matter-of-fact
purveyor of Co-op meat, sausages and pounds of lard in the white paper
with a bull’s head illustration.
Granny’s brother Jim lived with her and Granny and
Jim liked meat for their tea being of the same Forfar heredity:
“Some hae meat and canna eat
Some wad eat that want it.”
Good old Robert Burns defined the situations of
eating. Granny had meat and she could eat “sae let the Lord be
Post-modernism is of interest but traditional
Scottish verse is more relevant here. On the black and white
television there was the daily entertainment by the One O’Clock Gang
with Larry Marshall and other Glasgow stars. We would have our lunch
at 12noon and so we would be well-fed and relaxed in front of the
television by 1pm. The jeelie jar would have come out onto the
dining table after the soup and meat and potatoes. Cups of tea
rounded off this nourishing meal. On a Saturday night the
entertainment came from a farther studio as it was the “Val Doonican
Show.” “Walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the
eye.” Val Doonican was always well-dressed in a knitted designer
sweater and he was as sensible a singer as you would ever listen to on the
television. He sang a final song set against a bed with iron rails
so there was every attention to traditional arrangements.
There was a Dansette record player in the other
corner of the living-room and again this apparatus belonged to Uncle Jim.
I mean if it hadn’t been for Uncle Jim then I am in no doubt Granda
would have entertained us with his thoughts and observations all placidly
expounded to the puffing of his pipe. We had the Dansette record
player and I enjoyed:
“There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier, and he
went far away…”
I enjoyed the tempo of this song and its fine spirit
of the Scots rigging themselves up to go away and sort out matters in
lands less organised than our own.
I was just a child on a diet of jeelie pieces so I
failed to recognise it was men going away to war as they could not earn a
crust locally. This was the case with my great-grandfather James
Love Halkerston- my Granny Smith’s father. He was a stonemason in
Perth and a father of seven children but then bricks were invented and
stone masons were out of work. So James Halkerston had to take the
King’s shilling and set out for South Africa as a Black Watch soldier in
the Boer War. James was a kind man and he returned safely and said
that South Africa was God’s own country. Granny said that the Earl
of Mansfield “employed James to talk about the war.” The
housekeeper at Scone Palace gave James a basket of provisions when he
finished for the day and James visited his sister first and gave her the
pick of the basket before he went home. This irritated his wife who
said the basket should be given to her first, but James merely muttered
“Vitriol, vitriol,” and continued his preferred route with the basket.
My aunt Margaret is in a very good nursing home in
Auchterarder, Glencairn House. Margaret is 88 years and has recently
recovered from an operation in Perth Hospital to repair her broken left
hip. In the home there is an old gentleman, Jimmy, who is 95 years.
Jimmy was born in 1914, the eldest of nine children and so he had to
follow his father into the mines. There was a big pit disaster in
which his father was killed and Jimmy was the last man out alive.
Jimmy’s two daughters call in to the home to help Jimmy at meal times
and after lunch his daughter wheels Jimmy out to have a smoke at his pipe.
When it is raining they shelter under an overhanging arch of roof and the
daughter does well to get Jimmy’s pipe lit with a lighting device.
My own grandfather, also Jimmy, had been a miner and smoked a pipe.
I remember how he lit the pipe with a match and kept hold of the lit match
as he puffed the pipe into action. Granda got 2oz of tobacco from
the Co-op line which came every Friday morning. But when Granda was
in his seventies he developed a lump on his lip which became cancerous.
Granda had to spend a week in the Beatson Cancer hospital in Glasgow for
treatment and that was the end of his pipe smoking pleasure.
It so happened that on the day my uncle James and my
mum went into Glasgow to bring Granda home, that James’s wife Maureen
met two old ladies on the country
road and they gladly accepted Maureen’s offer of a
lift – they wanted to visit their cousin Agnes, my Granny.
Maureen made off quite quickly in her blue Ford
Cortina as the two cousins came in, one elegantly attired in beige and the
other with a shock of black hair. They were very convivial and sat
down in the living-room. They were pleased to see their cousin Jim
also whom they said they had wanted to match up with a wife in his young
days. These cousins had travelled up from Manchester.
Sensing the occasion, I opened the press in the
living-room wall and took out a tin of salmon. Granny told me to
“Pit that back. Tissy’s making them toast and cheese.”
My aunt Betty – the “Tissy” referred to – was preparing the food
in the kitchen. Such was my security in my grandparent’s home that
I felt no embarrassment at returning the tin to the cupboard. I took
more interest in the visitors now as I realised this was no welcome social
call but that Granny could handle any such matters.
Good old uncle Jim was trying to be pleasant to the
women. I don’t remember my aunty Betty speaking at all but she
brought through the toast and cheese. Granny wanted them on their
way before Granda got home so we all walked to the side of the house where
uncle Jack, Betty’s husband, would drive them in his Morris Minor down
to Bonnybridge for a bus. The two women showed their true colours
when they declared that they hadn’t a coin between them although they
would have liked to give one to my cousin Ralph, then aged seven years
old, playing in his shorts and the son of Betty providing the toast and
Jack the lift. Granny surprised me by being keen to impress on her
cousins how well her family was doing, her two sons being engineers and
one also running a farm. The car wasn’t any way out the dirt track
road when Granny lamented the cousins’ wrongdoing. Among which was
the fact that on a rainy day Granny would count out the gold sovereigns in
a big tin her Granny kept. These sovereigns and a lot of good
furniture were all stolen away on a goods train from Greenhill to
Manchester by the cousins’ mother when her Granny died. Granny
said the station porter at Greenhill said he would have put a match to it
but it was more than his job was worth. Uncle Jim tried gallantly to
get his sister to forget the grievances but all became well when James and
mum drove home with Granda. He got the hero’s welcome he deserved.
I even remember Granny saying she would give £10 in an envelope as a
thank-you to the Beatson Institute.
It seemed Granda had befriended a black woman nurse
who told Granda she liked Glasgow because the people were always willing
to take the time to give you directions about the city. Granda was
the sort of decent, hard-working man who respected other working people.
For instance, when a cattle float was driven down the stackyard, reversing
between buildings, Granda would be out there in his long beige coat and
bunnet, saying “Right, Sir. Right you are, Sir,” to the driver
– true courtesy in his voice and expression.
A simple way of life growing up in the fifties and
the sixties is just a memory or maybe it makes me who I am and how I
think. Either way the world has much more clamour about it from
television output and from the business of people’s lives. In some
ways there are more opportunities to explore different courses and to
travel freely abroad. Looking at the television schedules since the
recent digitalisation programme, you might believe there was a wealth of
provision to suit every taste. The reality is a bit more restricted
because if you enjoy the main television soaps such as “Eastenders”
and “Coronation Street” you will recognise there is a lot of vying for
extreme storylines which so not meet the needs of most viewers for some
humour and gentle mishaps for the characters. It becomes wearing to
constantly shift attention from tragedy to crisis within a half hour of
evening viewing. Compare these programmes with their forerunners,
“George and Mildred” and “Heartbeat” and the humour and homeliness
of the earlier programmes is very satisfying indeed.
I am happy enough now to be an older adult because I
do remember the insecurity of being a child and having very limited
experience to work things out. Of course with the years I have piled
on the stones so I need the reverse advice – some way of feeling like
eating less. There seems no end to the wars and conflicts and I do
know it involves more than adequate sugar intake. I’m glad of the
literature available to explain and recount how others seek a way through.