For Your Eyes Only

These found poems are based on the real letters of Annie Mackay.  She spent her brief life working the small family croft in a remote area of the Highlands.  Sadly, she developed cancer and died at the age of 21 in 1957. Her orphaned six month baby boy was left to be raised by an aged uncle.  At the time illegitimate children were considered social outcasts.  No-one ever discovered the identity of the baby’s father which might be hinted at in these letters.  They were written to Annie’s married sister Violet who had moved to Edinburgh.  I love these letters because they are full of joy and humor even though Annie was already aware of her illness. They also paint a picture of the preoccupations of a country girl and life in the 1950s.

December, 1956.

Dear Violet,

I sold eighteen turkeys
so we can have a night
out in the pub,
going from bad to worse (puff).
Ronald says Ray is a born lunatic,
that was his opinion when he saw
the photos and then the blue jersey.
Your hair looked very nice,
is that a new dress you had on?
I hope it’s nylon
I’m not in favor of wool.

Lots of love and kisses,
from Annie

 

January, 1957

Dear Violet

I can tell you about it. There was turkey for dinner, then at 3 o’clock tea.
I had my cake with 21 candles. All the family were there listening to Lux
and singing The Railroad Runs Through the Middle of the House.
I think its super, don’t you?  Lena brought the record Walking in the Rain.
I like it do you?
Jesse gave me £5 and Connie £2 and Grandad two aprons and Mary a nylon underset
and Margaret a necklace, sparkles all colors and Donald a mohair scarf (awfully warm)
and Sheena nylons and Jane a cameo brooch and Granny a Terrylene blouse.
I’m not in favor of blue.
And from Julie a ‘Le Page’ compact and from Johnny, Black Rose perfume,
very good of him and from Lynn a Coty lipstick, nearly ruby and from Alan a purse.
What a present, not much use with no money and then of course, your presents.
Johnny stayed till midnight… everyone else went off at six.

Lots of love and kisses,
from Annie

 

PS  A Separate Special Instalment for your Eyes Only:-
BURN AFTER READING

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Photograph by the the author

 

Highland River

Everywhere you look in the Highlands there are wild seas, sparkling waterfalls,  crystal rivers and lochs.  Rain falls almost every day.  Northern Scotland is a realm of water.  Perhaps that is why so many people choose to make it their home.  Human beings, like other animals, have an instinct to gather near water.  Water is a source of sustenance, essential to survival.

Many of the novels of acclaimed Scottish novelist Neil M Gunn (born 1891 – died 1973) focus on a watery theme:- Morning Tide, The Silver Darlings, The Grey Coast, The Drinking Well and Highland River which won the 1937 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.  Neil Gunn was born in Dunbeath, a tiny coastal village which is a half hour drive from my home.  His father was the captain of a herring boat and Gunn’s writing explores the harsh lives, isolation and landscapes of Caithness fishing communities.  Gunn was a socialist and a political activist committed to Scottish Nationalism and independence.  His writing has a Zen-like intensity with an underlying mysticism, detailed descriptions of landscape and the slow unfurling of events.

 

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Photo by the author

 

Visitors to Dunbeath harbour today will see a striking bronze statue of a boy wrestling with a huge salmon.  The statue illustrates a dramatic scene from Highland River when nine year old Kenn captures a salmon with his bare hands.  The novel contrasts this childhood struggle for survival and dominance with the brutality of World War 1 when an adult Kenn joins the British army.

Within the first two pages Gunn introduces the novel’s main protagonist, establishes the remote community setting and the landscape whilst building dramatic mood and tension.  It is an example of Neil Gunn’s great skill as a writer.  Here is a short excerpt describing when Kenn on a cold morning, reluctantly goes to the river pool for water for the breakfast tea just before he sees the salmon:-

“Out of that noiseless world in the grey of the morning, all his ancestors came at him. They tapped his breast until the bird inside it fluttered madly; they drew a hand along his hair until the scalp crinkled; they made the blood within him tingle to a dance that had him leaping from boulder to boulder before he rightly knew to what desperate venture he was committed.”

 

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A tangle of creel baskets at Dunbeath harbour where small scale crab and lobster fishing has replaced the thriving herring industry of the early nineteenth century.

Two Fish Suppers

 

Fish and chips is a traditional English dish that has been popular with the working class since the mid nineteenth century.  The idea of hot, fried fish sold from street stalls may have been introduced by French, Spanish or Jewish immigrants.  During World War 2 it was one of the few foods not to be rationed and many believe the availability of such a comforting meal helped sustain working class morale through the intense bombing raids in the cities.

 

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For those of you who have never been lucky enough to try this tasty dish,  it consists of white fish (usually cod or haddock) deep fried with a golden crispy batter together with fried chipped potatoes.  It can be served in a variety of ways; with salt and vinegar or tomato sauce, mushy peas, pickled onions or bread and butter.  Originally the fish was cooked in beef dripping but most outlets now use vegetable oil.  Despite concerns about the health risks of fried food and the sustainability of fish stocks, fish and chips remains one of the most popular take-outs, particularly in the north.  Until the 1980s the food was traditionally wrapped in old newspaper so you could catch up on current affairs while you ate your supper!  A childhood day out at the seaside was never complete without getting fish and chips on the way home.

 

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Photos taken by the author at Reid’s Riverside Chip Shop in Thurso.

 

 

 

Ignition Switch #6

Hope you enjoy my photographs that show the changes in Petrol pump design from the sixties to the noughties.  Note the switch from gallons to litres and the introduction of unleaded.  I took the pictures at disused filling stations in Northern Scotland.  Can you spot the bird’s nest?  Would a bird be faster than an Esso ‘tiger in your tank’?  Someone should do research!

In the final shot I liked the spectral polythene sheeting shredded and flapping in the wind which often reaches 70 mph in the Flow Country.

In the first shot I was drawn to the signs of corrosion and nature taking over.  Turquoise and orange were fashionable colours in the sixties.  The fourth picture shows purple pumps, a colour that is still popular today…the trains and bus shelters are all purple (or the colour of Scottish Heather perhaps!)

 

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All photos taken by the author

 

 

A Tiger in Your Tank

Cars have always played a positive role in my life so the inevitable news that petrol and diesel cars are to be banned in the UK from 2040 fills me with nostalgia.  Of course it’s an essential step towards decreasing air pollution and global warming but the internal combustion engine will be missed by many of us.  Technology keeps moving on with the advent of electric and self-drive vehicles (the latter being a terrifying prospect when I think how often my laptop crashes).  The traditional petrol car has been a cool cultural icon for nearly a century, a symbol of personal freedom, style and aspiration.  It has featured in many wonderful movies:- Rebel Without A Cause, The French Connection, The Italian Job, The Driver, Thelma and Louise, the list is endless.  Can you really imagine an exciting car chase in an automated electric car?  Would Thelma and Louise make their heroic stance against conformity and authority while sitting passively in a car with no steering wheel? Is this new technology a sinister portent of a future where citizens lose control over their lives?

I grew up in the sixties when petrol was cheap and motoring was a carefree, guilt-free experience.  Cars were affordable even to many working class families and it allowed them to escape industrial towns to explore the countryside and the coast.  Our first family car was a second-hand black Ford Consul.  I remember the smooth, comforting contours.  It felt safe and reassuring long before the compulsory seat belts, inflatable air bags and zero tolerance of drinking and driving that we take for granted today.  We lived with a certain amount of risk and people didn’t stress about all the horrible possibilities of what might happen.  That said, there were far fewer cars on the road and people were more respectful of each other.  No-one had ever heard of road-rage.

 

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This photograph was taken by my maternal grandfather on my third birthday.  I am standing by our first family car, a Ford Consul. The dolls were called Nina and Nadia.

 

Nearly every summer weekend we would pack up provisions and our little orange tent and head for the seaside together with numerous friends. In the cooler months we would go for long drives around the countryside and have picnics in the back seat or bravely shivering in a lay-by.  We couldn’t afford garage repairs so my father maintained the car himself and took great pride in his immaculate standards.  It was typical for many working class men to repair their own cars.  Before the digital era and the concept of built-in obsolescence it was relatively easy to replace parts.  Our Ford Consul lived to a great age and was eventually sold on.  We replaced it with a two tone, blue and cream Humber Sceptre with curvaceous chrome trims and sculpted wings.  My father was devastated when the bodywork  was damaged in a minor scrape with a dry-stone wall.  He took to his bed for a week and didn’t speak or eat.  The car had to be scrapped because he couldn’t find a replacement panel.

Now I live in a remote rural area where once upon a time there was a petrol station in every village.  Like the village shops,  the petrol station was a focal point for the community, enabling human contact and the exchange of information.  Buying petrol used to be fun.  There were free gifts such as drinking glasses,  (I still have one chunky tumbler at the back of my cupboard!), coasters, sunglasses, sweets, posters.  As a little girl I remember being thrilled with a free kite.  In the UK there were Green Shield stamps, paper tokens you were given with petrol purchases that you collected and glued into a book.  The books were exchanged for gifts at a Green Shield Centre.  Petroleum companies had jolly slogans such as ‘Put a Tiger in Your Tank’  by Esso.   All that has gone.  In the eleven years since I moved to this area the few surviving petrol stations have closed.  The only remaining one is part of a large supermarket chain.  We now have to drive over fifty miles to obtain fuel and you need to plan ahead.  Life is becoming more difficult and more isolated.  There are no local jobs selling petrol, work that suited many women and students as it was part-time.

It’s sad to see the derelict petrol stations at the side of the road.  In recent years I’ve photographed the decaying buildings, old signs and rusting pumps.  Grass and weeds are reclaiming the former concrete forecourts.  I find them bleakly beautiful.  Many of the old designs had an Art Deco influence.  Will the new electric charging points of the future have the same sense of design? I fear not. The future is less concerned with aesthetics and humanity. There will be no-one to chat to about the weather when you plug your car in to an impersonal machine.

So I hope you enjoy my photographs of the bye-gone petroleum era entitled Ignition Switch.  There are more to come.

And if you are a bit of a petrol-head or have any memories to share of motoring experiences in the past I would love to hear them.  Please leave a comment.  Times must change but sometimes you can’t help wishing they would stay the same!