Sunday, 24 February 2013

A life in letters: If the BMT

If the BMT put :  A rather abstruse puzzle relating to punctuation and coal fires which my mother showed me when I was about nine and wrote in a little red-covered notebook. It involves referring to a capital B as ‘great B’. Being interpreted, the puzzle reads  ‘If the grate be empty, put coal on.’ This word of domestic advice concluded ‘if the B. putting :’

A life in letters: Westerton Primary School

I was among the first intake of pupils at the new Primary School in Westerton which opened in January 1960. I spent the second half of Primary 4 there (still taught my Mrs Robertson who had moved from the Bearsden school with the class) and the bulk of my Primary 5 year, until my parents and I moved to Carluke in May 1962.
I liked the new building with its well-lit classrooms overlooking the village. The playground was an oblong of tar – the natural slope of the hill had been built up to create a flat playing surface, at one end of which the ground sloped steeply downwards. When covered in thick snow, the playground was ideal for rolling enormous spheres of snow bigger than we were. When they’d grown so enormous that we could hardly move them with our breathless shoulders we shoved them over the edge, and watched with cold-palmed satisfaction as they disintegrated among the bushes below.
I also remember enjoying the crafts we were given to do.  There were sheets of card with outlines on them which you could cut out with blunt safety scissors and then score and fold and paste to make various models which you could be painted or coloured. I remember my disappointment that the aircraft I laboured clumsy-fingeredly laboured over did not turn out as successfully as I had anticipated. My chicken, on the other hand, I judged to be a success despite it being moderately skew-whiff. It was made from pieces of yellow felt, cut out using a template for guidance and then stitched together, stuffed with cotton wool, and finished off with an orange felt beak, and orange circles for eyes. My mother preserved this cheerful creation for many years.
My 18-months sojourn at Westerton Primary School was the only time during my primary education when I was unhappy at school. Partly my unhappiness was due to my Primary 5 teacher, whom I didn’t find sympathetic. I noted with satisfaction that the word ‘Horrid’ alliterated with her surname in pleasing symmetry. The main source of my unhappiness however, was the head teacher (whom, I noted, had the same surname as our milkman.)
My parents had possibly raised some issues about the teaching style at the school – I know they were concerned that I was never given anything to memorise, and their concern was valid: I recall the struggle I had to learn times tables and poems by heart  when I moved to Carluke Primary School where lessons were still taught as they would have been half a century earlier.  Anyway the head called me down to his office, on more than one occasion I think, sat me down in a chair and without explanation fired mathematical and factual questions at me.
For some now inexplicable reason I had been conscripted into (or had volunteered for) what was known as the ‘Special Art Class’ despite having few discernible artistic skills (fragile monoplanes and slightly unstable chickens excluded.) Before Christmas 1961, the Class was assigned the task of providing seasonal decorations, and it was decided that we should create a small crib at the very front of the stage in the school hall, with a number of camels approaching in dignified processions from either side of the stage. I have no doubt that there were shepherds and sheep as well, and a Holy Family, but it’s the camels I remember because my skills, such as they were, were deployed  on the camel design team.
It didn’t seem to occur to the teachers in charge of this project that the appearance of wise men from diametrically opposite directions might be at variance with the biblical narrative. The star must surely have carried out some spectacular celestial gymnastics in order to keep on track both contingents of wisdom seekers. I quickly discovered that while it is difficult to draw camels travelling from left to right, it is close to impossible (for me at least) to draw them travelling from right to left. And so my time in the Special Art Class was not a season of unalloyed glory.  But I still felt it was hurtful and uncalled for when the head said to me, sneeringly, during one of our tête a têtes ‘What were you doing in the Special Art Class?’
I don’t know whether I was eager to please, or just thoughtlessly signing up for everything on offer, but I was also a member of the school choir at along with my friend Douglas Anderson. I wasn’t a very conscientious chorister  - I remember my mother had to write the words of our pieces out for me in a small black-covered notebook in her clear, blue script. ‘All in an April evening, April airs were abroad.’
My musical experimentation extended to taking violin lessons. I was lent a child-size fiddle by the school and had regular lessons from a visiting teacher, but it must have been immediately obvious that my potential as a violinist was minimal.  I don’t know whether I was subconsciously doing things which would get me out of the less-than-sympathetic teacher’s class. I do recall asking if I could ‘be excused’ at about the same time each morning, and relishing my few moments of freedom as I walked along the bright, empty corridor and down the stairs to the toilet below (which reminds me that I also have a recollection of accidentally dropping one or more empty glass jam jars down the same stair-well at some point.) But the teacher cottoned on to the regularity of my escapes, and I never asked again.
This teacher’s classroom, and the violin case led to my saddest interaction with the head teacher. I am sitting at my desk, the violin case innocently laid in the aisle beside me. The head  is in the room. My violin case falls on its side with a clatter – I presume someone must have taken their foot to it. The head takes me to task, and as I am protesting my innocence, an electric train passes the village, and sounds its horn. In the quiet classroom someone vocally echoes the sound.
The head is indignant. ‘Who made that noise?’ No-one owns up. He asks each child to point towards the source of the sound. Many fingers point in my direction. ‘It wasn’t me!’ I say, but he doesn’t listen. I have no sense that my classmates are betraying me. My anger at the injustice is directed solely against the head. I am told to follow him downstairs to his office, where he produces his belt. I do not cry. I go home, violin case in hand with my right shirt sleeve pulled down over my wrist, afraid that my parents will catch sight of the red weal.
One day in spring 1962, I sit at my bedroom window and write on dozens of small pieces of yellow paper, about the size of a business card,  the words ‘The Dempster are leaving.’ I take these to school with the strange idea of broadcasting them around building and playground. But soon I take cold feet, and stuff them in a bin, from where someone, curious, retrieves them and brings them to me. ‘How strange!’ I say.

Saturday, 23 February 2013


Last week I went to see the new film version of the musical Les Misérables. I was delighted to discover how powerfully it expresses some key Christian beliefs.
Roughly-translated, ‘Les Misérables’ means ‘The Wretched ones’ – a reference to those in early 19th-century France where the musical is set who suffered from grim political and social conditions, injustice, and sexual exploitation.
The character Fantine’s famous song sums it up: ‘I dreamed a dream in times gone by when hope was high and life worth living. Now life has killed the dream I dreamed.’
I suspect many of us have some experience of this level of anguish, that behind our carefree façades we know the haunting of despair.
But into the sadness of Les Misérables comes a springtime of transformation, best described by the Christian word ‘grace.’
Jean Valjean has served 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf to keep a hungry relative from starving. Upon his release, he finds himself still ostracised because of his criminal record, welcomed by none until he meets a priest, the Bishop of Digne who graciously offers him hospitality.
Valjean betrays this trust, and legs it in the middle of the night with the church silver. He’s caught, and protests that the Bishop actually gave him the valuables. Astonishingly, the priest not only agrees with this version of events, but hands Valjean another candlestick which he had ‘forgotten’!
He tells Valjean that he should ‘see in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God.’
This mad, wild forgiveness is Christian grace. We have all messed up seriously, we all fall grievously short of God’s standards, but God freely offers us forgiveness and the gift of on-going transformation no matter the story of our past. To the Bishop, the price of forgiving Valjean was the church silver; to God, the cost of forgiving us is the death of Jesus Christ.
When we fully appreciate that we are accepted and forgiven by God we realise what a priceless, liberating gift grace is.  To grasp the wonder of God’s grace is to be inspired and empowered to show grace to others, as Valjean repeatedly does throughout the film.
And Les Misérables also reminds us that as we show grace to others so, often but not invariably, we receive grace in return. For instance, Valjean is blessed immeasurably as a result of his grace in adopting the young Cosette.
Javert is another character in the musical, the law enforcement officer, to whom grace is a foreign concept. His approach to morality is severe – you must face the consequences of your actions. He misunderstands Christian teaching, saying ‘It is written on the doorway to paradise that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price.’
In fact, the glorious message of Christianity is that the price of all our faltering has been paid by Christ, so that we can freely enter paradise. Not grasping this, Javert is unable either to give, or to receive grace.
Despite all we know about grace some of us may feel we want to get through the doors of paradise by our own efforts, believing that to accept grace is somehow demeaning. And some of us may feel that while grace may be enough for others we ourselves must always be struggling and striving to have any chance of acceptance by God.
In fact, grace is the only way through which forgiveness is found, and when we entrust ourselves to God’s grace, we are accepted by a love which will never let us go, no matter what may do, or leave undone.
God’s law, the ten commandments, shows how far we fall short, how much we need grace. Grace lifts us up, and in receiving grace we love God, and love others and so more completely fulfil the commandments.
‘Life has killed the dream I dreamed,’ says Fantine. This week, I read a book on God’s grace which referred to God is the restorer of dreams. Like Fantine’s, our dreams may have withered and died, and crumbled into despair.  God often restores our dreams, or enlarges them, or transfers them to a new context, or births new dreams in us. Everyday, life-transforming dreams, fulfillable through grace.
The most enduring dream is the dream of a new earth in the dimension beyond, a dream which sustains us through darkness. The dream with which Les Misérables concludes: ‘They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord. They will walk behind the ploughshare, they will put away the sword.’
And in everything God says to us, as to St Paul ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 24 January 2013)

Thursday, 21 February 2013

A life in letters: Bearsden Primary School

My Primary 3 year (which began in August 1959) and the first half of Primary 4 were spent at Bearsden Academy Primary School to which we were ferried by ‘bus every school-day morning. It was a two-storey Victorian building of traditional design at Bearsden Cross.

The classrooms were ranked round a central hall which was surrounded at first-floor level by a balcony which gave access to the upstairs classrooms. The playground was divided into two halves, one for girls, the other for boys, but my only recollections of play-times are (1) the war-memorial on the other side of the railings. The angel, bearing a wounded soldier, impressed me as it towered high in its magnificence, wings spectacularly outstretched. (2) the building squad constructing a brick flue up the back of the school, in connection presumably with an upgrade to the heating system. I watched their handiwork as, play-time by play-time the chimney rose higher. (3) the day I fell and cut my knee. When I reported this to my father in the evening he told me that, at work, he’d had a sense at the time of the accident that something had happened to me. This seemed uncanny and impressive.

There was a reproduction of a painting hanging on the wall which we passed on our way to and from Miss Johnstone’s classroom – it showed an inspiring building with a tall, solid-looking tower dominating a park. I was curious to know the identity of this edifice, and when I described the picture my parents recognised it as Glasgow University, with Kelvingrove Park in the foreground. It was I guess the school’s destination of choice for its abler pupils.

Miss Johnstone taught Primary 3 in her bright classroom on the ground floor at the front of the building. She was a Canadian, a warm, caring woman whose disappointed wrath I incurred only once when I tugged the pony tail belonging to the girl sitting at the desk in front of mine, which was snaking invitingly in front of me. We studied Canada: Miss Johnstone brought in a bottle of Maple Syrup and went round the class, crouching by each of our desks and spooning into our mouths a sample of the delicious elixir. I don’t recall her wiping the spoon between its visits to our eager lips. We studied Christopher Columbus, compiling a jotter with pictures of the famous navigator, information about his relationships with Spanish royalty and about his spectacular voyage, and drawings of the Santa Maria and her accompanying vessels. We learned the song, never thereafter to be forgotten, ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two.’ Our take on the indigenous North American peoples was emphatically traditional.

My other recollection of Miss Johnstone’s class was of one of the craft projects. Each of us was given a round piece of robust card about eight centimetres in diameter (supplied by Dryad, I think) with cardboard spokes radiating out from the centre. On a cupboard door at the front of the classroom, Miss Johnstone hung a rainbow of brightly-coloured lengths of wool, with many strands of each shade. We got to leave our desks, come and choose a length of wool, sit down again and weave it in and out of the spokes on the card. Once we’d come to the end of one piece of wool, we could get another –  of the same or a different colour – and repeat the process. The end result was that each of us had a mat decorated with a bright spectrum of colour, each mat unique. I still recall the thrill of going to the cupboard door,  free to choose wool of whichever colour I wanted.

Mrs Robertson was our Primary 4 teacher. Her classroom was in a hutted annexe at the side of the main building. My only recollection of the five months spent there was the collection of rose hips, which I believe was to be turned into rose hip syrup, and sold for some charitable purpose. Each day, kids would turn up with bags of fruit which were duly weighed by the teacher. I have a feeling that this rose hip project was competitive – but whether individual pupils were rewarded or classes I can’t recall. I cheated, because all my rose hip collecting was carried out by proxy. My father kindly stopped the car on his lunchtime journeys between two hospitals and gathered the fruit to help a small son who sadly took this expression of love almost totally for granted.

I remember my excitement when I heard that a new petrol station, selling what to me was an unfamiliar brand  – Mobil – was to be opened not far from the school, and it was rumoured that freebies, highly attractive to eight-year-olds were to be dispensed on the first day of business. That evening my father drove home via Bearsden, filled up his tank, and on his return home poured into my outstretched hands a cascade of surprises.

At the end of the school day those of us from Westerton scrambled on to the buses for home. One day I climb up the curving stairs and sit down on the top deck. Accidentally my bare leg touches a girl’s bare leg. I feel the warmth of it and shiver. That shiver was the first sign of a childhood illness. The next day, I am in bed with a fever.

My last day at the school was just before Christmas 1960. At the start of January, the new Westerton Primary School opened.