I wasn’t supposed to live when I was born, with Mars and Saturn straddling the midheaven at 6AM on the 7th of December 1949. That is what my father told me – for some weeks I hovered between life and death because of gastroentiritis. That meant that I escaped baptism for some three or four weeks. Saturn and Mars – the two great malefics of astrology – have passed by to say hello several times since in my life. I quite like them really, they rule Saturday and Tuesday respectively. I got baptised two months after I was born, according to my birth certificate. Didn’t they want me to go to heaven? Was Limbo an option?
My father was a civil servant in Aberdeen – he was in charge of the National Assistance Board at Regent’s Quay, close to the trawlers that sailed in the North Sea and beyond to catch the then plentiful herring and cod in those waters. He was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne – his father was born in Dublin. As the IRA blew up the Public Records Office in 1922, I am unable to substantiate my father’s claim that the Magees are descendants of the kings of the Hills of Tara. A friend of mine, much later in life, also had a father of Irish descent who claimed descent from kings – wittily, but rather cruelly, she said his royal antecendent was the most successful of royals, the King Edward.
My mother was born in Aberdeen and loved the city. She loved the Scottish traditions too – there was nothing she loved more than the sound of the pipes, dancing to Scottish airs. Her father was a seedsman, not that far from Regent’s Quay. He died in 1928 but was accomplished in bee keeping – he won medals in apiculture. I never knew my grandmother on this side of my family either – she died the year before I was born. My mother said she herself was the seventh born of a seventh born – this is supposed to bestow psychic abilities and she did profess to read tea leaves and the like, as well as allowing the possibility of fortunes being told.
I was the second born – my elder brother is three and a half years older and my earliest memory is easy to date. Her Brittanic Majesty Queen Elizabeth the IInd was crowned in June 1953 – just three days later my younger brother was born. I remember the coronation as it was celebrated in Aberdeen, with flags, floats and large fires and just a few days later remember that I was kicked out of my cot to make way for my younger brother. I didn’t resent it in the slightest – I was just slightly surprised. I was told I fell out of my pram when I was 18 months old and my head hit the deck. I don’t remember this. I have often been accused of throwing my toys out of my pram. I remember what my pram looked like, because my younger brother took it over – a beautiful perambulator of the 50s kind.
During the Second World War, my father was in the RAF – shipped first to Skye where he told me later the inhabitants all spoke Gaelic and had never seen a bus – he later got shipped to India, where he described the flying fish before he tipped up in Delhi. My mum was a Wren – working for the Admiralty. Her brother-in-law had run the Indian North West railways but after independence had moved to Ballater, not far from Balmoral. He owned a garage “by Royal Appointment”. I stayed at their lovely house, full of Indian curios and memories. When my father went to India, he used to tell me and my brothers of how “Uncle Mac” had hired an entire luxurious carriage for him, shunted around the Presidency, as Maharashtra was known in the pre-Independence days.
I never went to nursery school – instead one day my mother took me down to St Peter’s School in Aberdeen and told me that this was my first day at school. The day was heaven – we were given heaps of toys to play with, and I was given paint and a brush which I used to create my first and probably best painting ever, a red jug. Unfortunately, the paint was not yet dry when the teacher put it up on the wall. Fortunately, the paint dripped from the lip of the jug so it looked pretty OK, almost as if I’d intended it.
Day Two at St Peter’s was a different kettle of fish. We started to learn our ABCs and our 123s, using slate, chalk and an abacus. I also had my first taste of school dinner – the teacher told us that if I closed my eyes as we said grace, I would see Jesus. I closed my eyes and couldn’t see him. And said so. Trouble. My mother was forced, as a Presbyterian, to adopt the Catholic faith when she married, and bring her children up as papists. Somehow or other, she managed to imbue me with some scepticism for the Catholic faith.
It’s 1956. My Uncle Mac is driving me and my elder brother around some sights not far from Aberdeen, including a statue of the hated Rob Roy. As an owner of a garage in Ballater, he was obviously rather upset by the Suez Crisis. He threw a newspaper into the back of the car, where Ian and I sat, not far from the Devil’s Elbow, and said “look at that, Michael”. The newspapers, all under D Notices, had decided to print blank spaces where their stories had been censored.
This was my first introduction to journalism.
Pre-oil Aberdeen was most interesting. Based primarily on the fishing and the granite industry, I saw most of it. Over in the fishing part of the town, there were basking sharks hung up to dry. The granite industry was in some ways harder than the fishing industry – the poor buggers had to grind stuff into shape and determine the “Silver City” – Aberdeen. Grinding marble and stuff into shape is not my idea of a job of work, but that’s what needed to be done and it was.
My father promised me early on that he would take me out on a trawler into the treacherous North Sea but regularly in the newspaper called the Aberdeen Press & Journal there were reports of what happened to the trawlers. On their way to catch cod, herring and other fish, the masts of the ships would ice up, and all hands would be lost.
This happened so regularly when I was at St Peter’s School in Old Aberdeen that several of my schoolmates lost their fathers at sea. I could not help look on and sympathise and empathise.
My father took me to see what happened when trawlers came back to port, successfully. Their chapped hands were only matched by the chapped hands of the women in the fish market. As the trawlers disgorged the fish into the docks, a whole army of women set to work to gullet the fish, empty the intestines into the waiting maw of numerous gulls, and despatch them south, for people to liberate the fish by eating them – probably with chips.
I have an undying memory of seeing these women work in the fish market, not very far from Regent’s Quay. My father said, look, look at what these people have to do to live. The women would slash the throats of the fish, gullet them, and despatch them into crates for distribution southwards.
They were always kind to me, a slight observer, and showed me what happened to the herring, rather than the cod. The women would separate the fish, and the herring would go to a place full of brown paper, a cancerous place, said my father, where they would become “Aberdeen Smokies”.
The men on the trawlers were hard working men and needed a tot or two when they hit the dry land of Aberdeen. They, I think, were on shift rates, so could only earn money when they trawled in the sea. Sometimes there were off periods, so they applied to the National Assistance Board (NAB) for assistance. My daddy said in the 1950s that the work was so hard that they would resort to shoe polish for a drink. Quite a few of the kids in my school lost their daddies as trawlers toppled in the search for fish. I never did get taken out on a trawler.
Aberdeen was hit very hard by the Nazis in the Second World War, as I saw when I was a kid in the 1950s. For some reason, the bombers rained huge explosives on the city, probably because we were the nearest thing to Norway. For some reason, some Germans hated Norway. It was then, with some interest, that my dad said when I was seven, come down to Regent’s Quay, son. There I was escorted onto a Norwegian schooner, all made of wood, and we were piped aboard. Perhaps Norway and North Scotland do, after all, have something in common. The schooner was beautiful and the Norwegian sailors delightful, in the extreme.
Aberdeen, pre-Oil, was beautiful in the 1950s. Forget Ballater, and forget Balmoral, the city between the Don and the Dee was delightful. The beaches were fine too. In the rock pools, you could find every species of fish known to man and woman. The museum in Aberdeen showed you how beautiful Scotland was, by demonstrating fowl, fish, flora, fauna and animals native to Caledonia and Alba. The summers now, seem to me have been warm and pleasant. The winters were a bugger. Snow fell so hard that we often had to dig ourselves out of the house, with high walls of snow separating us from the rest of the community. Coming back from school one day, all the buses stopped because of a dreadful blizzard. I had to walk back from school but in between times laid down in a drift. A guy lifted me up, I managed to tell him where I lived, and he took me back home to Hillcrest Place. A grateful mum gave him a tot of whisky. Lying in a snow dirft is not unpleasant – I guess if I’d lain there much longer, I’d have been one of the casualties, rather than a guy kissed by Saturn.
Culture, too, was not unknown in Aberdeen. We had the example of the Aberdonian witches burnt at the stake to remember. We even once caught sight of the Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen, and Marischal College, a centre of culture. Maybe.
Let me tell you how beautiful Dyce was in the 1950s – then it was an airport but a pre-oil airport in Aberdeen. My mother took her three sons brambling then, we collected a huge amount of berries which when washed and the grubs were washed out, made an enormous amount of very beautiful jams, all carefully labelled so we knew when and how and where the brambles were collected. The streams were clean, in Ballater, on the Dee, you could even guddle trout, you could see the Cairngorms from my house, and walk a few miles you would be in the middle of a rural idyll – well, it’s Scotland. But the Red Admirals flew, the summers were sunny, and the light was pure and free, without taint of American missionaries in the Western Isles.
Dyce is now a nightmare of helicopters and international frights.
In my childhood there was a lot of conflict between the Presbyterians and the Catholics. The Boy’s Brigade was the Protestant version of the Cubs and Scouts. As I had been brought up a Catholic, therefore I was expected to adhere to the Catholic Cubs and Scouts. Guess what? I got expelled, actually framed. This was an East Coast version of the war between Protestants and Catholics in Glasgow, Liverpool and Belfast. As I was a hybrid, I could never quite answer the Aberdonian question. “Fit are ye?” – my mum was a proddie and my dad a Catholic. A beating up always ensued as I attempted to cut the Gordian Knot.
I learned gang warfare in Aberdeen. There was the Mastrick Gang, our gang, and another gang based in the estates. We were the hunted, we learned to fear the gang from the estate because it had no chivalry, nor beauty. They just wanted to hunt us through the beautiful parts of Aberdeen. We were the Cummings Park Gang. We saw what Old Aberdeen was like, complete with Gypsy caravanserai. We were just kiddies, but gang warfare in the 1950s in Aberdeen was far, far more vicious than in Central South LA today. There was little mercy, and far less compassion. The mean gang not only tortured kids, but tortured animals. When I saw the mean gang roasting a tortoise to the sound of skylarks and peewits, I realised Aberdeen was no paradise.
England was a very very rude awakening after the sort of very but not so beautiful Auld Aberdeen. ♥