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Hurricane Low Q: A Personal Recollection

15 Jan

It is astounding to think that Hurricane Low Q, which devastated Central Scotland, occurred 50 years ago.  Back then, to my child’s mind, a period 50 years earlier (a time when the Great War was still being fought, which with hindsight my grandparents remembered) was, like the Battle of Trafalgar, ancient history to me.   Now, of course, 50 years ago is within my living memory.

Some memories are indelibly graven and one such is that hurricane of the night of 15th– 16th January, 1968.

I remember that the 15th, a Sunday, was unusually mild and very calm without any hint of a breeze, and that we were able to play out in my Grandparents’ garden at Ardoch without coats.   But there was otherwise nothing particularly noteworthy about the day.  I’m sure that my sailor Grandfather would have noted the fall in both temperature and barometric pressure and expected stormy weather, though not even he expected the hurricane which rampaged across our region during the night.

My brother and I slept in a room in the attic of our 300 year old Mill Cottage and we were awoken by the howling of the wind, which lifted and dropped the skylights every few minutes with a loud crash.  In a short time, the howl changed to a shriek and the lights went out.  The sound of hurricane force winds is not something one forgets – and so I knew exactly what to expect when it heard it again almost 20 years later in Worthing during another great storm that was supposed to pass Britain by.

Not unnaturally, we were both crying with fear of the noise and the dark.  My father came up and, surprisingly given the scale of the damage inflicted on so many buildings, did not move us downstairs but gave us a torch, told us to be quiet and to go back to sleep.  We decided to share my bed, probably because I was the elder, but we didn’t sleep again until after the wind had dropped to gale force.

In the morning, we awoke to see the devastation that winds of over 100mph (160kph) had wrought during the night.  There were fallen trees everywhere.  Houses had lost tiles and chimneys – in some cases whole roofs.  But, amazingly, our cottage sustained next to no damage at all – just a few tiles.

My father’s egg business was not so lucky.  He had about 100 hens in Nissan huts in a field near my grandparents’ house.  Bits of twisted metal were found several miles away and dead chickens all over three counties.

I rather think that my mother tried to take us to school, though that may be a false memory.  It maybe she had merely been told that the road from Cardross to Helensburgh was blocked by fallen trees just past Geilston.  Either way there was no school for us that day.  So we spent a happy time playing, childishly oblivious to the tragic loss of homes, possessions and lives that had taken place just a few miles away.

I don’t remember how long we were without electricity, or for how long the petrol station was closed, such things being less important to children who are content providing they are warm, fed and allowed to play, but I suspect it was short in duration or it would have left a greater impression.

A final memory: in my youthful ignorance, I thought the hurricane was –  like the biblical flood – universal.  Accordingly, I remember asking my American relatives in Vermont, where I was spending the summer of ’68 on my own with my Aunt, how the hurricane had been there.  I was very surprised that they didn’t know what I was talking about, while they were bemused by my question as, of course, there had been no hurricane there, it having originated off Bermuda and moved eastward across the Atlantic.

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Musings on Home and Identity

23 Mar

It is our history and ancestry that whether we want it or not, creates a large part of the cloth from which we are cut.” (Anna Jauncey)

The above quote from a blog exploring the relationship between home and self-identity struck a chord with me and set me to thinking about identity and its relationship with home.

Let’s start with some thoughts about identity.

While I agree that the cloth from which we are cut is formed out of our ancestry, family history and our inherited culture, it is our experiences (our personal history) which form the myriad threads, be they bright or dark, that make up the tapestry of our lives.  Unfortunately, many of us try to make sense of the emerging images, which will ultimately make up the story of our lives, from behind.  That, of course, can  only  lead to a sense of confusion and dislocation.  While this is common in youth, it is by no means exclusive to it.

It is only when we move to the front of the tapestry that we can examine what has already been woven.  Then we can see whether we want to (or should even) continue the pattern or change it – and we alone have the power to make those decisions – if we but have the courage.

Sadly, there are some who never learn to change the perspective and so see nothing but prejudicial patterns that were never meant to be; some are so horrified by what they see that they flee from facing it; some are trapped by the expectations and explanations of others, and lacking either the strength or the courage to escape, live a life interpreted by another.  None of them attain the self-awareness necessary to find their own identity.

But even for those who do find the way to view their tapestry from the appropriate angle, the path may be strewn with riddles and paradoxes that have to be solved before we can move on to the next panel.  This becomes easier with experience and knowing who we can trust to help us interpret and solve the enigmas that confound us.  Age helps, but of itself is insufficient.

But let’s change the metaphor: life is a book.

In this conceptualisation, the cloth, rather than forming the canvass on which our lives are delineated, forms the covers of the book so that the story being written is wrapped and bound in our ancestry and inherited culture, but not necessarily dependent on it.

Just as some never move to the front of the tapestry, some are content never to open the book but to rely on the cover to tell the story for them; others never even glance at the cover but rush past the preface to the story they want told; others want to read the final page first, in the hope that it will  provide the clue to their path through life; others are content to entrust the work to the “Author of Life” who will transform the tale from pulp fiction into a bestseller; yet others are determined to write their own masterpiece unaided.

But does our understanding of home depend on our understanding of our identity? Or is the matter more complex than that?

For some, clearly, it is simple:  identity and home are inextricably entwined. In my experience, these are often people who have never left their homeland and, thus, are submerged in their culture and history without ever examining it or having had it challenged – it is as natural as the air they breathe.  For others, it is more complex: identity and home are (or maybe have become) entirely separate.  Such people have usually been displaced from their own culture and history and so have had to construct a new concept of home that may be independent of their heritage.

When one has been transplanted to another culture (albeit even one very close to one’s own) the sense of home, I think, depends on two factors: the willingness of  the incomer to surrender their existing identity, jettison the past and adopt the local culture (to a greater or lesser extent) and/or for the natives to accept the immigrant (providing s/he at least  respects the local culture) as s/he is.  This view may, I admit, be limited as it is a case study based on my personal experience along with my interactions with refugees and other immigrants to the UK, USA and Spain.

In my own case, I tried for many years to adopt the new culture and discard my past, but the unshrunk cloth from which I was cut would not patch onto the new culture without one or the other tearing.  This was in part because the new culture was unable to comprehend my established cultural identity as being subtly different from theirs and so could not accept me as I was.  Consequently, though I had homes there, they always seemed temporary and neither the towns and cities in which I lived, nor the country, ever became “home” for me.  Yet on the other hand, I am almost as much at home living in Spain, where I am fully accepted as Scot, as when I was living in Scotland despite the culture being patently different.

So where is home?  Is Scotland still my home after so many years away?

I’m not sure.  I still identify myself (and am seen by others) as a Scot; Scotland is very precious to me; I have a deep love of Scotland, its landscapes, people, history and culture; I am passionate about Scottish Independence; and, above all, I feel at home whenever I return.  But I don’t know how it would be to live there after so long away.  Would I still feel as at home as I do when I visit?  Or has Scotland, like an express train (The Flyng Scotsman springs to mind) sped away from the place I knew while I have stood stranded on the platform?  What is clear to me is that it is still my homeland – and always will be – but perhaps no longer my home.  And in that, I think I am typical of the Scottish Diaspora – we have been successfully grafted onto the new tree of our adopted land but without losing our own Scottish identity.

Perhaps my ramblings are best summed up by Zyriacus, who is older and wiser than me, in his comment on Anna’s blog:

The only place you are really at rest with this world will be in yourself. All places, all people you meet on your way through life will be but points, where your self-understanding may take a turn that directs you this way or another. In the end the only safe harbour you will find in your own self. So make you[rself] feel at home there, furnish this place as cosy and comfortably as possible.

Before the Telly Came to Dominate the Room

15 Sep

Alexander McCall Smith, on his recent birthday, wrote a little piece talking about reminiscences.  It made me stop and reminisce a little too.

In spite of the threat of global annihilation, of which during my childhood I became increasingly aware (culminating with my reading of Neville Shute’s On the Beach when I was about 12), I grew up in a good time.

It was a time in which, unsupervised, we roamed freely up the lanes and across the fields; rode our bikes up and down the streets; foraged along the shore for discarded fizzy drinks bottles – glass in those days – to make a bob or two from the deposit; and got the messages for “auld Nellie Jones”, who would reward us with a tanner for sweeties.  And when it rained, which in the West of Scotland it did (and does) frequently, we passed the time playing games we had invented for ourselves; fiercely contested board games (L’Attaque was my favourite); creating things out of Lego (which, Merete, our Danish au pair, had brought us long before it ever commercially reached British shores); making drawings; or, in my case, by burying my nose deep into yet another book.

In those days, much to the horror of the youth of today, television didn’t start until about 5pm and finished with the National Anthem well before midnight.  The sets were black and white, 405 horizontal lines, on a 10 inch screen with mono sound.  There were but two stations, BBC and ITV.  Most action took place in a small number of indoor locations and relied more on dialogue than on action.  It was a family activity so Saturday nights would find us all glued to Dr Who, Jukebox Jury and Dixon of Dock Green.  As the telly was in the sitting room we never ate in front of it – meals were always family events eaten at the kitchen or dining table – even though my American mother had experienced the delights of TV dinners and snack suppers on trays in front of “the box” in the States before she came to live in Scotland.

Back then, despite Tomorrow’s World, we had no idea of the advances, all of which have taken place in my lifetime, that have led to flat screen, Dolby® surround sound TVs (some as massive as 60 inches!).  Such TVs, once again a status symbol, dominate the modern sitting room as did the large fireplaces in my childhood home.  How different it is now from back then when the old television set, which sat in the corner, was in a cabinet that had doors which could be closed when it was not in use.

Strom_TV