My Dad was born 100 years ago today. This is the earliest known photograph of him, a studio portrait which was sent as a postcard to an uncle who had emigrated to Australia. I know this because of 2 separate messages written on the reverse in my Grandad’s handwriting:
The first inscription, on the left, reads “With much love from Wee James to Uncle Jim”. The second states: “This Photo was sent to Australia, to Uncle James, but he had moved on and the Photo was returned. Is baby anything like it?” So my Grandad must have sent it from Glasgow when Brother 1 was born, in 1957. Around that time, they all posed for this lovely studio portrait: my overjoyed parents with their firstborn baby, and Dad’s equally proud parents, Jack and Alice:
Wee James was born into a completely different life to the comfortable and easy one into which I emerged 48 years later. His family lived in a “room and kitchen” in a Gorbals tenement, all sleeping together in the kitchen. This is how Dad describes it in the memoirs he had just started to write before his sudden death in 1992, aged 79:
“We had two rooms… One of the rooms was our kitchen, in which we lived mostly. It contained the iron range for cooking and warmth and the set-in bed, i.e. there was a recess containing my parents’ bed and, below that, the hurley-bed, made by my father from a packing case and so proportioned that it slipped easily under the main bed. The actual bedding was of straw, a “battle” or bale of straw being bought occasionally from ‘Motherwells’, the grain merchant in Main Street. The hurley-bed could hold four children, two at each end, feet to feet.
When Mrs Torrance and my mother were in Munitions, her two children, Bobbie and Minnie, slept there with John and myself….
Is it simply a feature of childhood that people around one seemed to have strong colourful characters, or is it a fact that people, during the last few decades, have become moulded into simpler types? What I was witnessing, unknown to me at the time, was the tail end of the Industrial Revolution, rather like the scene at the end of a fair, when the excitement is over and only the debris is left behind. In this case, the debris consisted of human beings and the buildings they lived in.”
The industry that surrounded them is described in vivid detail; the ironworks opposite their home, the cooperage at the back:
“Dixon’s Blazes – or ironworks. Great, tall, steel towers reached into the smoky sky, surrounded by a network of steel girders and bridges. The roar was constant. Along the walkways high above us there was a procession of men, to my little mind all exactly alike, each stripped to the waist, expression grim, and pushing a wheelbarrow. As each approached the top of the tower, something opened; the night sky, the man, his grim features, his muscular chest were all illuminated in a great fiery glare- he emptied whatever was in his wheelbarrow into the furnace, the lid was closed and he walked on. So darkness and glare succeeded each other, as the great monster consumed the offerings of its sweating servants, without cease…”
Orr & Co. Cooperage occupied their back yard: “Barrels of all descriptions were the materials of their trade and huge loads of these used to arrive and depart, drawn by magnificent horses, which in turn were controlled by mostly insignificant carters. Of the working of the coopers I retain two special pictures. The first is of their method of unloading. The barrel would be taken off the lorry and set rolling at the top of the lane. Down it would come, a great whiskey barrel, bouncing and gaining speed, enough to kill anyone unfortunate enough to be in its way. At the bottom would stand the cooper, a little man usually, with his cloth cap, white apron, fag in his mouth and one hand in his pocket. At the precise moment, he would kick one end of the barrel and immediately it would stop, rotating violently on its widest circumference, thus using up all its dangerous energy. With the flat of his hand he would then bring it to a stop, roll it, tamed, to one side and await the onset of the next one, halfway down the slope. The second picture could be set to music (and, indeed, has been done in Burns’ poem ‘There was a wee cooper who lived in Fife’). Three coopers would station themselves round an upright barrel, each man equipped with a broad-bladed blunt chisel and mallet – then they would dance around the barrel, hammering down the iron hoop as they went”.
He goes on to describe their daily lives and childhood adventures: climbing those towers of barrels for a playground, and witnessing births and deaths, drunken neighbours fighting and joyful parties at home. They were happy, loved, secure, fed and sheltered: my Grandad having a good job as a tram driver, they were better off than many families in this very poor district of Glasgow. But they still suffered deprivations I can barely imagine, such as the infant deaths of Dad’s triplet sisters (detailed here), the loss of his surviving sister to TB aged just 18, uncles and other loved ones lost to the first world war. Dad was academically bright but formal education beyond the age of 14 was financially impossible, and as the eldest child he had to help keep the family. Even so, he worked for no pay for 7 years whilst serving his apprenticeship as a watchmaker.
By the 1930s Dad was involved in the global fight to end such deprivation, the fight against all poverty and its root cause, capitalism. Having lived through another brutal world war, he and so many of his generation fought and struggled to create all those benefits that their children – my generation – were able to take for granted as our right: the excellent free healthcare of the NHS, our free education, decent social housing, the rights of workers to paid holiday, sick leave, healthy and safe working conditions, pensions, welfare for those unable to work or to find work, publicly owned energy and water supplies and transport systems. The terrible poverty amongst which my Dad was raised seemed a thing of the past as our country developed in peace and prosperity.
Yet today, as I write this, yet more of those rights have been torn away by this government of the rich, as successive governments both Tory and Labour have been doing for a generation. I am enraged, sickened, shamed, and deeply saddened, to see what has happened to the welfare state my parents’ generation fought so hard for us to enjoy. We took it for granted, and now it has been taken from our children. Having had it so easy, maybe there were not enough of us burning with the righteous anger that fuelled our parents’ fighting spirit. Perhaps the next generation will reignite the flame; I hope so. It seems as if, a century on, we are returning to the social conditions which caused the kind of poverty that my Dad was born amongst and dedicated his life to eradicating: apprenticeships (or unpaid “internships”) are back, and the spectre of the Victorian workhouse looms behind savage benefit cuts. But thank you, Dad, for giving us that glimpse of what is possible if enough of us are prepared to stand up and fight for it.
And for being such a wonderful Dad. Here is a childhood birthday card I made for him, that he kept, which illustrates (but does not do justice to) his DIY skills:
Happy 100th Birthday to the best Dad in the world. X