Today’s literary offering is the 2,500th blog I’ve written and published on my website strachan.blog . To celebrate this achievement I enclose a trio of pieces from the scores I’ve penned about my recently passed mother Maggie during the six years since yours truly started scribbling these journals.
The trinity of essays below are partly fictional observations based on fact and hopefully portray mum as the funny, larger than life lady so deeply loved by friends and family alike. I know I’ve already written a tribute to Maggie (She Was Beautiful), who passed ten days ago; however, deeming you could never have too many reverential essays about Maggie Ann I offer you the following:-
This piece was written and posted on 17th February 2019, titled Balaclava Days in NE9……..
“In numerous previous literary offerings I’ve written whimsically of northern English summers past. In particular the mid to late 1970’s, years when meteorological gods bequeathed us Brits almost unbroken sunshine during the warm season.
Helius and Zeus working in conjunction with Karma to recompense the UK proletariat for 1974’s power cuts and 1976’s Great Spangle shortage. Events contributing towards such discontent amongst the electorate a General Election was called – A ballot resulting in the further confusion of a hung parliament.
Despite achieving the majority vote (buoyed by his more generous Spangle rationing quotas), Ted Heath’s Conservative party failed to secure coalition support to form a government. Subsequently allowing the minority Labour Party of Harold Wilson, who were able to form a coalition, to take the reigns.
During the mid-1970’s, those hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer were a time where I enjoyed my first experience of dining alfresco. In the Strachan household, an experience commencing with the kitchen table’s haphazard shifting outside to the back garden. Ending with an equally slapdash return of the table into our Gateshead residence.
If my younger brother Ian and me were press-ganged into the role of table shifters it ordinarily resulted with our dad redecorating the scrapes where we’d collided with the wooden doorframe on exit. If by some miracle we managed to avoid scraping the frame with the table, you could guarantee we wouldn’t miss with one of it’s accompanying chairs.
Unintentionally, the table was generally located within the eyeline of my Breckenbeds Form Tutor Mrs Holmes, who overlooked the back of our family home. Giving her full access to the questionable table manners of the Great Spotted Strachan and his brood.
That being said, even in the unlikely event she engaged in food voyeurism, Mrs H was too nice to mention during class “I see you had frozen pizza again for tea, Gary.”, or “Does your Ian always pick his nose during dinner?”
Outdoor barbeque grills in the UK were a rarity back then, consequently domestic outdoor cooking was almost unheard of. However, that didn’t negate against the opportunity of the alfresco consumption of indoor cooked fish fingers, chicken Kiev or Findus Crispy Pancakes.
Anyway I digress….. Today’s intended narrative topic was my mum’s (Maggie’s) obsession with her offspring’s sartorial elegance during their Low Fell upbringing.
My preconceived badinage including the existential childhood angst experienced at being forced to wear a balaclava for walks along Durham Road to Bert’s Pie Shop, the Chowdene Post Office or King’s newsagents.***
*** – My brother and me were made to wear balaclavas when visiting other shops, however I’m not inclined to included every store on Low Fell within the narrative….. Even if I could recollect them all, which I can’t.
In my blogs I’ve often attributed Maggie with comments relating to scruffy attire and haircuts during my fledgling years. An example of which is Neil Fraser’s Cricket Boots.
In that particular narrative I relay the tongue-in-cheek jibes of a lady portraying the caricature of the miserable Yorkshire housewife. Expressing words scripted into her self-parody role as the Les Dawsonesque gossip, airing neighbourhood tittle-tattle while airing their laundry.
Despite experiencing many dreadful existential intruders she’s been stoically confronted with since her mum’s passing from cancer when Mags was only 20, remarkably my mothrer bears not one ounce of bitterness. Frowning upon negativity as a wasted emotion serving no tangible purpose for the perpetrator.
Our Ian, sister Helen and I were immaculately turned out as kids. Our wardrobes including more wool than a shepherd’s barn, courtesy of the multitude of sweaters Maggie’d knitted her offspring. The click of knitting needles a regular sound in the lounge/diner of chez Strachan; along with mum’s sporadic muttering of “Knit one, purl one.” and her counting of stitches.
Every so often, we’d be startled by the sound of mum exclaiming across the living room “Bloody hell, I’ve miscounted the stitches on this line!….. I’ll have to flaming unpick it all!”
Ordinarily, this the consequence of a rare error following the pattern. The result of a seemingly sporadic tick causing concentration loss when counting her stitches. A foible that ruled mater out of ever becoming a surgeon……. Well, that and the fact she’s no medical training.
The woollen end products weren’t always gratefully received by my siblings and me……. Although that’s probably being unfair on our Helen, who I can’t ever recall whingeing about mum’s handiwork with needle and wool.
In our defence, though, Ian and I didn’t wish to be ungrateful about the results of mum’s woollen ‘artwork’. However, unlike Helen who didn’t have the ignominy of wear the damned things, the balaclavas she knit back then weren’t received well by either of us. Not only did they look ridiculous, but they were so tightly fitting that removing them required assistance from the Low Fell tug of war team.
When we finally gained our liberty from the balaclavas the damage done to our ears during removal meant our kid and me spent the next hour with impaired hearing.
Looking back, I don’t recall many things more embarrassing in childhood than wearing a balaclava. Well, apart from perhaps running into someone you knew while wearing a balaclava.”
This piece was written and posted on 17th June 2019, titled Taking Off The Foxgloves……..
“A decent bottle of Bordeaux, a device which decanters wine prior to its onward journey into the glass, along with a hardback book titled ‘Grumpy Old Git’s Guide to Life’. Tokens of love bequeathed by my two adult children, showing their appreciation for the unconditional love I’ve bestowed upon them for almost three decades.
Yesterday’s Father’s Day gifts, not only indicative of my offspring’s gratitude towards the secure, warm, loving environment I provided in their formative years, but just maybe also a hint they deem pater to be an addled old misery!
These three gifts delivered by their own fair hands at my mum’s Wakefield home, where I’d been residing over the weekend. These tokens of appreciation presented to me prior to a splendid roast dinner mater and me cooked for Rachel, Jonny and his fiancee Jenny.
This presentation a low key affair, bereft of pomp and circumstance apart from a kilt clad lone piper who kicked the ‘ceremony’ off with a lament so out of tune it led to my mother telling Jonny and Rach “What a bleeding racket!!….. Hurry up and give your dad his presents and then we can get the Jock out of my house!……. By the way, I hope he’s wearing undies under that tartan skirt!“
Consequently, my offspring all but threw their gifts at yours truly. Not the most affectionate delivery of trinkets I’d ever received. However, I’m told it’s the thought that matters and consequently I was grateful of my Father’s Day haul.
The wine, decanter and book far more appreciated by GJ Strachan than last years offerings, one of which was a dreadfully dull aerial photograph of my car***. The set of gifts also including a factually incorrect globe showing New Zealand just off the coast of Skegness and a Australasian satellite country labelled Kylie Minogueland.
*** – At least I think it was my car. The photograph so blurred it might’ve been a Sherman tank parked on the driveway of my humble East Leeds abode!
I’ve got to say the roast beef dinner my mother and I prepared was top notch. Unlike some of the ludicrous banter while chopping veg to accompany the meal. One verbal interaction along the following lines of:-
Scene – Me looking out of the kitchen window at the achromatic view bestowed by the garden. My mum stood a few feet away washing pots as I butchered two broccolis ready for steaming.
Me (proud of my part in the aesthetic beauty of casa Strachan senior’s garden) – “Those foxgloves I put in last year have come out nice this year, mum.”
Mrs S (not wanting to give me too much credit) – “They’re ok….. Foxgloves are poisonous though, aren’t they?!”
Me (put out at the maternal ingratitude) – “Well, yeah they’re poisonous if you ingest them….. Just don’t flaming eat them and you’ll be reet!”
Mrs S senior (ungrateful to the last) – “But you’ve gotta be careful the kids don’t eat them!”
Me (bemused) – “Well you haven’t got young kids, so that shouldn’t be an issue!”
Mrs S – “I don’t know if I’m happy having plants in my garden that are poisonous!”
Me (trying to reassure my idiosyncratic mater) – “But surely it’s only the same as having Domestos bleach in you cupboard. If you drink that you’ll likely poison yourself, but you’re sensible enough to never do that. Follow the same health and safety strategy with the foxglove and you’ll be fine!”
Mrs S – “Yes but Domestos has a label on it!! ……. The foxglove hasn’t as you put it in from a cutting!”
Me (despairingly) – “But you already know foxgloves are potentially venomous, you don’t need a warning label!”
Mrs S (still not appreciating my point of view) – “Yep, but what if I get dementia and forget the foxgloves are dangerous to ingest?”
Me (growing ever more disenchanted with the stupidity of the conversation) – “Do you anticipate dementia will trigger an urge to start eating the shrubs in the back garden?!”
Mrs S (sheepishly) – “Probably not, no!”
Me (agitatedly) – “Well you’ve nothing to worry about then have you!….. You silly sod!”
Mrs S (still not wanting to let the discussion drop) – “Yes!…… What if the dog eats the foxglove leaves?!”
Me (exasperated) – “You haven’t got a bloody dog, mum!!”
Mrs S (still arguing her corner) – “What if I get one, Gary?”
Me (in utter despair) – “You hate dogs, mum!…. You’ve never had a dog in the 79 years you’ve lived on this planet!”
Mrs S (idiotically) – “Never say never!……. Madge Crabtree was 91 when she got her first Staffordshire terrier!”
Me (losing the will to live) – “The was a terracotta garden ornament, mum!….. That was as likely to eat foxglove leaves as you!”
Mrs S (at last changing the subject) – “Now you’ve finished chopping the veg, will you make me a cuppa, Gary?”
Me – “What do you want, mum?…… Tea, coffee or Domestos?!”
This piece was written and posted on 6th November 2018, titled Maggie Anne, Tin Can……..
“Now Delaney had a donkey that everyone admired
Temporarily lazy and permanently tired
A leg at every corner balancing his head
And a tail to let you know which end he wanted to be fed……
Introductory lines of a traditional Irish folk song that late entertainer Val Doonican jokingly credited with turning him into an overnight success after sixteen years of trying. This particular tune, titled Delaney’s Donkey, a catchy Celtic ditty which as I write is repeat playing on my cranial jukebox.
Music hall songwriter William Hargreaves’ toe-tapping refrain was recorded by Doonican in 1964 – It’s lyrics delivered in an amiable Irish lilt by the Waterford born songster. Poetically painting a picture of having craic with mates over a pint of Guinness, Irish village pub in situ – Laughing at a local man’s trials and tribulations at the hands (or hooves) of his obdurate equidae.
Hargreaves, an Englishman by birth, is probably more famous for penning music hall song Burlington Bertie from Bow, in 1916. A whimsical ditty in the vein of his offering about Delaney’s stubborn ass, which entertained UK audiences during the final two years of WWI.
When I stood knee high to a grasshopper, these catchy tunes were part of my mum’s ‘entertain the kids’ strategy. Whimsical rhyming flights of fancy she sang to my siblings and me during our fledgling years, bearing a beat and joy of delivery that never failed to attract our attention – Consequently calming some of our early childhood meltdowns.
At the time my brother, sister and me probably didn’t understand the words Maggie (mum) was imparting in her adequately tuneful Yorkshire tones. However, witnessing the joy she seemed to derive from singing them led to us responding in kind with likewise grins.
Emotions rubber stamped into our sub-conscious which’ve stayed with me for half a century. Subsequently, never failing to manifest an inner warmth and nostalgic smile if I ever hear refrains such as ‘Oh, Mr Porter’, ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter On The Stage, Mrs Worthington’ and ‘Burlington Bertie From Bow’.
As most of the songs were written before her birth, I’m unsure how she had such a wonderful insight into these older melodies. I’m assuming mum’s fondness of these uncomplicated musical arrangements was born from her own mother’s indoctrination in Maggie’s childhood.
If truth be told, though, I’ve never been inquisitive enough to ask. As her mum sadly passed before my birth, I never gained first hand exposure to my grandma’s ‘songbook for toddlers’. Consequently, unless I one day acquire a more inquisitive nature, I’ll never be able to confirm my theory.
Of course, these old traditional laments weren’t an every day occurrence. In my young childhood (mid/late 1960’s) the songs my parents ordinarily exposed their kids to included a wealth of refrains from The Beatles, Merseybeat bands, UK pop and latterly Motown. Rich musical pickings that would’ve made jukebox tune selection at the time as difficult as comprehending the findings of the Warren Report into JFK’s assassination.
The old music hall songs only appeared when triggered in mater’s mind during random family discussions. For example, if the household chat turned to a train related subject there’d be was a good chance of Oh, Mr Porter being warbled by mater. If the talk was of the London district of Bow, Burlington Bertie would be our maternal musical accompaniment….. Not that we talked much about the London district of Bow I hasten to add.
All very straightforward stuff, unless conversation turned to a train journey to the London district of Bow, in which case mum was forced to improvise, leading to a mash up of both songs called Oh, Mr Burlington Bertie!
No big drama, though, as spontaneous re-writing of rhyming music hall classics was all in a days work for our Maggie Anne, Tin Can, Copper Kettle, Brass Pan.”