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Recounting Blessings

Chapter 4



Banknock Village – ‘Grist tae the Mill’


I made passing reference to food and drink in the previous chapter, but I did not confer the accolade of ‘blessing’ on these as vital commodities for a healthy life, far less for fuelling people’s sporting inclinations, including my own. To a certain extent I am going to rectify that omission now, at least for this period in my life, but, as it is a recurrent theme in all our existences, I make no apologies for the times when, with the appearance of innovative culinary provisions and novel beverages, not to mention their potential for delight, nourishment or abuse, this topic may re-appear in subsequent reminiscences on these pages.


War-time, to put it mildly, did not make things all that easy for our parents to ensure a supply of essential vitamins for themselves and their offspring, as first came survival, and then much further down the list of priorities came having the well-being and energy to play any sport, far less the variety of games in which I, for example, became involved during my boyhood. However, it was soon realised that most folks could, with a little effort, stimulate appetites and satisfy needs in basic and imaginative ways - yet still have a bit left over to participate in recreational activities - despite the shortage of some resources in the shops, if they only chose to gather Mother Nature’s reasonably abundant offerings scattered across Scotland’s landscapes, as well as the fruit and vegetables that could be grown in wisely tended allotments or gardens in urban and rural areas alike.


I was indeed fortunate to be living then in a rural environment with ready access to milk on the farms, berries on gentle hillsides and sheltered valleys, fish in clear running streams, garden vegetables, and even eggs from the proliferation of hen-runs that appeared, as if by magic on many spare bits of ground around the village. One major problem of course was long-term storage to see folks through the bleak winter days, but even then, before refrigerators became common-place, our temperate climate blessed us through allowing lots of cold air to pass through the wire-meshed windows of arguably the most important room in any house – the larder. I can still picture the white lidded-pails containing carefully placed eggs all heavily coated with rich layers of white grease – lard I now presume – and how tasty these were, when, albeit reluctantly de-greased, they could be enticingly scrambled, boiled or fried. Compared to the vile powdered stuff that the government issued as egg-substitute for all, and especially to city dwellers, this was an occasional pleasure to be savoured and, even then, to be knowingly thankful for.


Meat as I remember was severely rationed, as were, to the continual chagrin of us children, sweeties – ‘Bad for your teeth anyway’, my mum would whisper to us in normally unsuccessful mollification! But she never failed to get a fair helping of sausages or mince from the butcher, plus a wee bit extra from her sweet-talking him and always having tea and home-made short-bread ready when his peripatetic van drew into our driveway once a week. Indeed this was a typically enduring and endearing feature of both my parents, Jim and Nancy. They had the kindly charisma that seemed to get the best out of all folks they came into contact with – but not without sacrifice – for what they gave out were not just mere words, but always, without exception, true hospitality, a helping hand in time of need, and a genuine impression of ‘love thy neighbour as yourself.’


The Dominie departs to acclaim – Kilsyth Chronicle 1949


My dad, as befitted one whose paternal grand-father had been a jobbing gardener on the Couston Estate in Newtyle in the 1890s, Forfarshire, and whose father in turn had been a humble ploughman in Leslie, Fifeshire in the 1860s, had a real feel for the soil. Thus, although his flower horticulture was ordinary at best, apart from his wonderful sweet-peas, regularly dosed with diluted ‘not-so-sweet pee’ from under-bed chamber-pots, his growing of vegetables and fruit, especially his rasps, strawberries, black and red currants, were a delight to behold and ‘grist tae ma mither’s jam an’ jeelly makin’ mill’.


Dad toiling to make a front flower garden


Nancy, following in her mother Lizzie Telfer of Falkirk’s footsteps, and her recipes, was a wonderful baker, an enterprising cook, and an extraordinarily talented needle-woman. I know my dad did not marry her for her money as, by the mid-1930s, the early-widow-led Telfer family lived very modestly. Other matters apart, which wee boys were not supposed to know about (!), a clinching factor must have been, ‘the surest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach’! Thus good house and children-keeping abilities built on these skills were well to the fore as Nancy got the best out of the ‘Janus’ stove which ‘nodded’ into both our schoolhouse kitchen and living-room, as she knitted and crocheted necessary woollies, and darned our clothes well past the time when normal mending would have been considered possible. That indeed was where I first heard the phrase, ‘A stitch in time ……..’!  She was, like most of the Telfer family, a talented musician – she a pianist, Uncle Willie a violinist and Uncle John a pleasant baritone who led the unaccompanied singing in the family church in The Pleasance, Falkirk. Seldom a day passed without us having a ‘session’ round the piano in the lounge – ‘the holy of holies’ – ‘On your best behaviour in here,’ mum would warn, ‘but you can make as much noise as you like as long as it’s with singing or learning to play the piano.’


Mum and Dad did get out of the house together now and then to local functions and that offered a brief period of comparative freedom from normal discipline for Elizabeth and me. Not that we didn’t love our regular ‘child-minder’, school-cleaner Maggie Johnston, a great deal…. She was unique – smelt of carbolic soap, always …. was exceptionally hard-working and dedicated to the primary school and her caring boss JNK …. But she had such a ‘soft-centre’ that she spoiled us two stupid. Nothing untoward really happened on any of these ‘sit-ins’ until bold and inventive me – armed with an experience of table-tennis at Belmont Camp School, Meigle that dad had head-mastered the previous month, and that I had been allowed to attend (under-age) – decided that the living-room table with its lengthening leaves out would be a challenging, if relatively short surface for ‘ping-pong’. Having no net was easily overcome – similarly sized books from an adjacent shelf would serve well enough. Having no bats was also circumvented – thick cardboard dinner mats grasped at one corner were deemed ‘just the ticket’. My stash of cheap ping-pong’ balls hoarded after the camp yielded three usable little white spheres.


So a match commenced between two siblings, each of whom was always determined to be the victor in any competition between them. Maggie, nodding-off comfortably in the armchair by the fire, was blissfully unaware of the potential hazards in the ensuing conflict. Elizabeth was in her element on this size of table to which I was not accustomed – she was also much taller than me – so she duly won the first set with ease. The normally victorious me at most games between us was, to put it mildly, crestfallen – nae not so – I was fuming – and in a fit of pique picked up what I thought was a spare ‘ping-pong’ ball out of my toy-box and thrashed it right across the room, narrowly missing the dormant Maggie en route, then travelling onwards and upwards until it smashed a framed and glassed wall photograph of the pair of us that hung on the corner wall. Flabbergasted, we, including a now wide-awake Maggie, searched around the floor for the errant missile. An old chewed-up golf ball then appeared in sight, gaily rolling its way out from under Maggie’s chair. Immediately I felt more pity for Maggie and her being likely to be reprimanded for apparent failure to supervise us properly, than personally worried about the spanking my temper tantrum might justifiably earn me.


‘Dinnae worry Maggie,’ I said. ‘I’ll tell a wee fib that you told us to be careful and that I just made a wee mistake.’ Later, Dad appeared to swallow my story, but gave me one of his special tellings-off that were always more likely to make me cry than a spanking ever did. And he was well aware of this … so it was an extra specially eloquent and brows furrowed admonition that I received that night … for even Elizabeth came out in sympathy as together we were unceremoniously bundled up the stairs to bed.


‘Ping-pong’ John’s ‘come-uppance’ – Mum still smiles though!

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