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 appetite.”

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 JobCentrePlus.

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 business.

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 limited situation.

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 thankit.”

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.  

 


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