Today is Mayday, the day on which trade unions and the labour movement are celebrated around the world. So it seems an appropriate time to feature this object from the Usmeum: Dad’s commemorative piece of coal from his visit to Sokolov, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) in 1950.
Like many socialists of his generation, he travelled there to help rebuild the country after the ravages of the second world war. (Like Mum, in fact, who did the same thing, although they did not meet until later, in London). Dad attended a trades union congress there, where he was presented with this parting gift by the ROH (the Czech Trade Union centre, Revoluční odborové hnutí). He had some trouble getting it home through Customs, as any object brought from behind the Iron Curtain was treated with the utmost suspicion at that time. He succeeded, and the decorated piece of coal became a prized possession which was proudly displayed in our home. However, it also served another purpose, on another significant day of the year.
Dad never showed any regret at leaving his native Glasgow to settle in London, but there were certain times, when the contrast between the two cities was keenest, that he missed his home town deeply. One such time was Hogmanay. When he was growing up, Dad’s neighbourhood would come alive on the last night of the year: neighbours and strangers thronged the streets, in and out of each other’s homes all night, a party glowing in each window and no doors locked. Young men, preferably dark-haired, were required to “first-foot” their neighbours: to bring good luck in the new year by putting the first foot over the threshold after midnight, bearing whisky, shortbread and – a lump of coal. Dad had very happy memories of these times.
London in the 1950s and ’60s, however, was a very different story. Hogmanay was a Scottish tradition and the new year was rarely marked in England then, especially in the quiet leafy suburban corner of London in which Dad had settled. Scottish ex-pats like my Dad, uncles and aunts had to make do with watching the White Heather Club on the TV (and making the expensive long-distance phone call to those relatives left in Scotland early in the evening, to be sure of getting through). At best we would all gather together for a family celebration, when there would be songs around the piano, whisky, laughter, and much misty-eyed reminiscing (these are my own special Hogmanay memories). Dad or one of his brothers would have to go outside just before midnight, in order to be our first foot as soon as the bells rang out (and before the Bells ran out). But by the early 1960s we had converted to central heating, so there was no coal to carry across the threshold with the whisky and shortbread. Luckily Dad still had his souvenir of Czechoslovakia, which was duly carried instead.
In later years, we would all go first-footing together. The streets of Barnes were still mostly dark and deserted, as people slept through from the old year to the new. But Dad would have phoned around all his local friends earlier, to see who might be up at midnight, and we would visit them with the requisite provisions: whisky and shortbread to share, but the special piece of coal was just a token and always came back home with us. Now it has come home with me, to take its place in the Usmeum: a souvenir not just of Dad’s visit to post-war Czechoslovakia, but of all those happy Hogmanays of my childhood.