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THE LONG HARD ROAD


The headmaster peered ominously at me over the top of his spectacles; my mother sensed my discomfort and squeezed my hand reassuringly. “Well, boy, what’s your name?” he asked. “Hugh Macinnes!” I said. “Say ‘Sir’ when you address me, lad!” “Sir Hugh Macinnes!” I promptly replied. There was a titter of laughter from the lady teacher and my mother.  

Hugh Macinnes weaves a sometimes hilarious, sometimes serious tale of his life, which began in the early 1920s in the small fishing town of Portsoy on the north-east coast of Scotland . His family life is one of deprivation and hardship, under the iron fist of a father who drinks too much, and the young Hugh is forced to leave school and begin work at a young age. As soon as he is old enough, he joins the air force to participate in World War II as a tail gunner.  

After the war, Hugh has several postings with the air force to other countries including India, Nairobi and the Island of Malta, before emigrating with his wife and young family to Australia as ‘ten-pound immigrants’ and settling in Brisbane.

In Store Price: $34.00 
Online Price:   $33.00

ISBN: 978-1-921240-78-2
Format: A5 Paperback
Number of pages: 386
Genre: Non Fiction

 

Author: Hugh Macinnes
Imprint: Poseidon
Publisher: Poseidon Books
Date Published:  2007
Language: English

Foreword

The places, events and people depicted in the following story are true. Some names have been changed or omitted in order to avoid embarrassment to those who may identify themselves with depicted events.  

It is inevitable that during a service career of over twenty years, there will be cases of distressful intimidation by one’s superiors in rank.  

Over a period of twenty-six years’ service, it only happened to me on two occasions, other than the one described during my early war service in Northern Ireland .  

I have chosen to ignore those occasions as being of little importance, although at the time, they caused a small measure of distress to my family and me.  

However, they have been outweighed by the pleasant times and the people I have had the honour to serve with as a rear gunner in Bomber Command during World War Two, and subsequent service in an administrative capacity in a number of British Commonwealth countries as a member of the Royal Air Force.

Hugh Macinnes

Chapter One         

P

ortsoy is one of a number of small fishing towns strung out along the north-east coast of Scotland on the Moray Firth . The main street running through the centre of town is joined at either end by the main coastal road from Inverness to Aberdeen .

 

The streets leading from the coastal side of the main road slope gently down to the small harbour, which dries out completely at low tide. It is then that the strong salt-smelling air is filled with seagulls, diving and swooping on any morsel of crustacean food left in the shallow pools by the ebbing tide. Whilst uttering their challenging screeches to their competitors, they cover the high, grey, stone walls of the harbour and the pier with copious coatings of birdlime.

Whilst the tide is out, the local fishermen take the opportunity to attend to the hull of their boats. These small fishing boats are sixteen to twenty feet in length, and are ‘clinker’ built (strips of timber overlap each other). At low tide, the barnacles are scraped off and the hull is given a good coating of tar, which will be dry before the next high tide raises their keel above the silt.

It was into this environment that I came into the world in the early 1920s, in a small house, of which there were three, terraced up a narrow close or alley on South High Street. I recall sitting on the doorstep and looking at a high stone wall about eight feet away, on the other side of which stood a very large house with ivy growing up to the eaves, and which turned a brilliant scarlet in the autumn. This was the residence of the local Church of Scotland minister, whom I recall baptising my sister and I in our kitchen.

At the upper end of the close, a narrow arch led into the garden, which, together with one toilet between the three tenants and a shared clothesline, sometimes caused friction.

Each tenant had a key to the communal toilet, but if someone was taken short, and found that they could not get in, they would hammer desperately on the door, and shout, “Hurry up, I’ve got a touch of the  screamers”, and an angry voice from within would shout, “Och, awa’ and shite!” Which was a derisive comment, indicating that they would come out when ready.

I was later to learn that if someone made a statement to another person who did not believe it, the statement was invariably dismissed with the comment, “Awa and shite.”

There was also no such thing as a laundry in those days. I recall that my mother used to put a large wooden tub on a four-legged stand, and using a scrubbing brush and board, lather the clothes with a cake of Lifebuoy soap and hot water, which was boiled in a large cast-iron kettle over a coal fire. The clothes were then wrung out by hand and tossed into a basket ready to be hung out on the communal clothesline.

When I used to accompany my mother to the back yard to help her hang out the clothes, there was sometimes a very obese lady who had just beaten us to it. When she saw that my mother was distressed at the lack of space on the line, she would grimace menacingly and mutter, “Tough shit”, or, “Hard bloody luck.” My mother would diplomatically turn around, ignoring the insult, enter the house and arrange the clothes on a clotheshorse around the fireplace.

When we had a bath, it was done in the same wooden tub in which the clothes were washed.

There was also no such thing as a kitchen sink. The dishes were washed in a basin that sat on a table in a kitchen recess. Underneath the table was a pail, which was used during the night for toilet purposes by our parents. We who slept upstairs had a ‘chanty’ (chamber pot) under the bed for that purpose. The pail and the pots were emptied the next morning into the communal toilet in the garden.

At the bottom of the garden was a low stone wall, surmounted by a length of chicken wiring about six feet high. On the other side of the wall was a large yard containing a mixture of chickens, ducks and turkeys, and a couple of noisy geese! These belonged to a store at the end of the yard, which supplied animal feed to the local farmers.

On the other side of the yard was a cobbled stone lane leading from a flourmill at the bottom of the slope, up to the main road. One would often see a long wooden cart with wooden steel-rimmed wheels, laden with sacks of flour, being pulled by a large Clydesdale horse passing by on its way to the railway station to dispatch its load en route to various bakery distribution centres.

The cart that was used to deliver coal to the inhabitants was of the same dimensions as the flourmill cart, and was pulled through the streets by a large Clydesdale horse. The coal was carried in large hessian bags, and the horse was led by the coal man, dressed in dungarees and a heavy leather jacket with a brass-studded back, on which each bag of coal was carried to his customers. He carried a handbell in his right hand, which indicated his arrival.

The coal man carried the delivery of coal up our close to a shed in the garden, of which there were three adjoining. In the rafters of one of these sheds was a pigeon loft, and I recall many a harsh word exchanged between the owner and our neighbour whose washing on the communal clothesline was frequently ‘shat on’, as she put it, by ‘those bloody doos!’

However, one day, near Christmas, when the snow lay heavily on the ground, the beloved pigeons mysteriously disappeared overnight. The family who had complained about them had gone to the country the next day to spend Christmas with relatives, and it was suggested that pigeon pie might have figured prominently on the Christmas Day menu. My mother said that as we were in the midst of a post-1914-18 war depression, food was scarce so who could blame them if it was true.

Although the coal cart called only once per week, the baker’s van called daily. This was a large box-like structure, also set up on large wooden wheels with steel bands surrounding the rims. Two doors opened at the back, revealing a number of shelves on either side containing fresh crusty bread or hot buttery rolls.

The driver’s seat was a bench type of structure perched on top of the box. It stretched the width of the van, and the backrest was a steel wire frame ending in a circular type scroll at either side.

In order to reach the seat, the driver had to step on a steel pedal-like step and then undo the reins, which were tied round the backrest. The horse, in this case, was a lighter type than the Clydesdale, and was referred to as a ‘shelt’ as was that of the milkman.

The baker’s man always indicated his approach by blowing a whistle. I recall that one day as I was sitting on our doorstep, I heard the shrill whistle of the baker’s van approaching. The van stopped at the bottom of the close and the driver walked up to our house. Seeing a pile of freshly baked Scotch pancakes cooling on a small table, which my mother had placed in the doorway, he hastily grabbed half a dozen and crammed them into his mouth. Without a word, he turned on his heels, walked briskly back down the close and drove off.

I recall that my mother tearfully related the occurrence to my father that evening when he came home from work. My father said that he would deal with the thief the next day. However, the next evening when he came home, he said that the baker was sorry, but as he had five kids to feed on one quid a week, he often starved himself. The temptation to partake of the delicious smelling pancakes was too strong to resist.

The milkman’s cart was an open topped, bright yellow, two-wheeled vehicle with a rear, centrally situated low platform on which the driver stood. The sides were raised about one foot above the wheels and a platform extended from front to rear to accommodate a number of milk churns, each containing five gallons of milk. These churns were encircled by three brightly polished brass bands and they had a brass spigot at the bottom.

The approach of the milk cart was heralded by the driver blowing on a referee type whistle, and the inhabitants of the street would emerge from their front door with their jug, or more commonly, a round pail, which the milkman would fill from a spigot at the bottom of the churn.

A scroll iron bar also surmounted the front of the cart over which the reins of the shelt horse extended to the rear platform, from where the driver took control.

As a four-year-old, the arrival of any of these carts in our street was a fascinating event because in those days there was no other traffic down our street except for a few handcarts.

One of these was the knife sharpener, whose handcart had a large wheel in the centre and was operated by a foot treadle suspended beneath the cart. It was fascinating to watch the sparks fly off the machine as he performed his knife sharpening.

Another handcart was a gaily-painted ice-cream cart, which was pushed along by a squat, dark-haired Italian, who sported a long, black bushy moustache. The centre of his cart had two deep cans encircled by ice, and for one halfpenny he would serve you a large cone, liberally topped with vanilla or strawberry flavour.

Both of these handcart people would call out their service as they walked slowly down the street.

I recall my first sojourn to the bottom of the close. On looking down South High Street, I saw parked outside the butcher’s shop a grey motor car with a black folding cloth hood, its two large circular headlamps looking like an enormous pair of spectacles staring up at me. This, I was later told, was the first Model T Ford in town.

Another innovation was the occasional visit of the silent movie picture man. The movies took place in the town hall, usually on a Saturday night. The hall would be filled with bench type wooden seats, and the projector would be set up on a platform at the rear. A number of white sheets sewn together and pinned high up on the wall facing the audience would form the screen. The pictures were black and white, and appeared jerky.

However, it was quite exciting to see a lady tied to a railway line, being rescued at the last nerve-racking minute, or Charlie Chaplin being chased, and Ben Turpin being chased through a building by a lion.

The town crier announced any event such as a picture show, concert or perhaps a visit by Scotland ’s favourite comedian, Harry Lauder, a few days before. He would stride down the street clad in his kilt, brogue shoes and tam-o’-shanter bonnet, vigorously shaking a handbell, and every few minutes he would stop to shout his announcement of a coming event.

We were now into December 1927. The trees and hedgerows were bare of leaves, covered with a heavy layer of snow. I would look out of the window at the fast falling snowflakes, which my mother said filled the close to ankle depth. She would then stoke up the fire with coal and top it up with a log of pinewood. On the left-hand side of the fire was a cast-iron oven with a heavy metal knobbed door, and inside it were two shelves, only good for keeping food hot.

The main cooking was done in cast-iron pots, which were placed over the hot coals and suspended from a hook at the end of a chain. This, in turn, was connected to a steel bar attached to each side of the chimney.

Since our staple diet in those post-war days of depression consisted of porridge, mashed potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and for a treat, oatcakes or pancakes, our large cast-iron pot was in constant use.

When pancakes or oatcakes were being made, a circular steel griddle with a hoop-shaped handle was suspended from the chimney hook, over the flames of the fire. The oatcakes were made of oatmeal, salt and butter, mixed in a bowl and then rolled out thinly on a floured board. Shaped into a circle, they were cut into quarters before being put on the griddle to bake.

As oatmeal was one of the cheapest food commodities at that time, hot oatcakes and margarine were often one of our staple diets, as was oatmeal porridge. There were times when my mother felt too ill to cook, so my sister and I often had two slices of bread broken up on a plate, covered with milk and sprinkled with sugar.

As Christmas was nigh, I used to gaze at the iron pot as it hung from the chimney and ask my mother how on earth Santa Claus could ever get past it. She said that as we hung up our stockings on Hogmanay night, she would leave the pot at one side containing a bowl of soup for him.

At that time of year it got dark around four p.m. It was fascinating for us to be allowed to go to the bottom of the close as darkness approached and watch the lamplighter come down the street with his long pole, which had a hook at the end, balanced on his shoulder. He would stop at each street lamp in turn, and with the hook, open a glass panel on the lamp, then insert the hook into a small ring attached to a swivel bar beneath the gas mantle. The mantle would then burst into a brilliant white light, casting a myriad of star-like sparkles on the snowy ground.

The Salvation Army would gather around the street lamp at the bottom of our close at this time of year, and sing Christmas carols nearly every night, collecting money to provide food for the poor, of which there was a growing number in the post-war depression. I heard my parents say, it seemed that the further north you got from the seat of government in London , the more poverty prevailed. Therefore, when you got to the north of Scotland , the generous charity of the Salvation Army was a lifeline for many families.

On Sundays, attending church was a must for most families. My family did not attend church, as my mother said that we didn’t have enough money to be able to afford Sunday clothes. As she came from a family that had always attended church, she would silently weep when the church bells pealed out their invitation to commune with the Lord. I would then run into our back yard and look beyond the cobbled lane to the large, stone structure of the auld kirk beyond, which was surmounted by a tall, square turret supporting a large round black-faced clock with gold numbers and hands on all four sides.

Beneath the clock was a series of open arches through which I could see the bells swinging to and fro as they pealed out their melodious call to the churchgoers. The male members of the congregation in those days were mainly fishermen or farmers. Without exception, they were dressed in blue serge or black suits, white shirts, black ties and bowler hats. The ladies all wore dark clothes, and without exception, cloche hats.

The church, in the fishing towns of north Scotland in those days, had quite an influence over the parishioners, and the local minister or priest would make house calls giving spiritual comfort to those in need and offer good advice. Our local minister, Mr. Brown, was a regular caller at our house, and after he baptised my sister and me, his son Michael carved a windmill for me from a piece of scrap wood, which spun merrily when I ran into the wind. I treasured that windmill until the hole where the nail entered got too big with constant use, which seemed a long time. It was the only toy I can remember having before I was six years old.

In January 1928, winter had firmly set in and the snow and ice on the roads were not likely to disperse until the month of April, at least. I was now five years old, and it would soon be time to start school. I recall my first inauspicious entry to school as clear as if it were yesterday.

That morning, my mother clad me in a new jersey and trousers, new stockings and shoes, and warned me that as she was paying for them in instalments, they had to last me until they were paid for.

“You’ll tak thim aff as seen as you come hame fae the squeel, and I’ll patch your auld ones afore you get hame!” My mother then put her coat on, and taking my hand, she said, leaning down and looking straight into my face, “This will be your first day at the squeel, when the headmaster asks you a question, answer slowly, and be polite.”

After a long walk up the main road, we finally entered tall gates to the schoolyard, which we crossed and entered a pair of large double doors. The janitor ushered us into a room to wait our turn to be ‘inducted’.

After what seemed like ages, and a great many mothers had come and gone, leaving in some cases a screaming, spoilt child to be ushered away by a teacher, we were beckoned into the headmaster’s office by a tall balding gentleman wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. He then sat down behind an ornately carved desk. Behind him stood a tall plump jovial looking lady, who I learned was to be my teacher.

The headmaster peered ominously at me over the top of his spectacles; my mother sensed my discomfort and squeezed my hand reassuringly. “Well, boy, what’s your name?” he asked.

“Hugh Macinnes!” I said.

“Say ‘Sir’ when you address me, lad!”

“Sir Hugh Macinnes!” I promptly replied.

There was a titter of laughter from the lady teacher and my mother.

The misunderstanding was soon explained, however the headmaster didn’t laugh, and I was glad when the teacher and my mother led me to the classroom where, to my relief, there were a lot of other children to whom I could relate.

The teacher introduced herself as Miss Joss, and we all felt that she was wonderful because she taught us how to make various things from shiny coloured paper.

What I didn’t like was knitting. We were issued with knitting needles and wool, and had to make a kettle holder for our mother.

My attitude to this school took a dramatic turn a few months later, when the headmaster came into the classroom one day and made the following statement: “It has come to my notice that some boys have been exiting the outside toilets by scaling the wall instead of using the open exit, and this must stop!”

Up until now, none of we five-year-olds had thought of doing that, and moreover, had never seen anyone else doing it at playtime. Now, this was a challenge. The wall was only about three feet high, and at playtime some older boys suggested that we scale it or be labelled cowards.

Six of us did, and I, being the last one over, was caught fair and square by the headmaster.

Grabbing me by the shoulder, he said, “You know what I told you in class the other day? Sir Hugh Macinnes!”

“Yes, Sir,” I said, trembling with the fear of some impending doom.

He hesitated for a moment, then smote me across the face with a resounding smack and walked off with a satisfied smirk on his face. Mr. Johnston had exacted his revenge on me for the embarrassment he had suffered after word got around the teachers of the innocent mistake I had made at his expense on my first day at school.

When my mother came to meet me at the gates after school, she said that the education authorities had complete control over discipline during school hours, and, therefore, we must always do as we were told.

The usual punishment in schools in the north of Scotland for minor misdemeanours in those days was the strap. The miscreant would be called out in front of the class and made to hold out their hand, facing the teacher with palm upturned. She or he would then bring down the strap with a resounding crack upon the proffered hand. Sometimes, the three tongues of the strap would raise blisters on the wrist of the offender. However, some experienced offenders would suddenly withdraw their hand at the last minute.

If the teacher were a male, the resulting wallop he administered to his own lower anatomy would sometimes cause his eyes to cross as the tears welled up in his eyes and ran down his cheeks. A titter of laughter would ripple through the classroom on these occasions. When the teacher recovered, he would instruct the miscreant to put his arm, palm upwards, across the desk, and then successfully administer the punishment.

Sometimes, after coming home from school, my mother would give my sister and me tuppence and one milk pail each. “Go out to Burgess’s Dairy and get the two pails filled,” she’d say.

The dairy was over a mile out of town, and on a windy day it would take our breath away, sometimes forcing us to walk backwards against the wind. There were even days around the windy month of March that we had to squat down in a ditch, or sit under a tree to recover our breath, whilst the wind shrieked in protest through the mass of telephone wires lining the left-hand side of the road for as far as you could see.

When we finally got to the dairy, the cows had recently been milked as it was after four o’clock and therefore the milk was still warm. However, as Mrs. Burgess knew that we had walked a long way, she always gave us a drink of cold milk, which, besides wetting our dry throats, also stayed the pangs of hunger, which rarely abated. Nevertheless, we were always glad to leave the dairy, as the strong smell of cow dung and urine was sometimes nauseating.

On meeting the main road from the cobblestone lane leading from the dairy farm, we were often almost deafened by the wild cawing of crows circling over a pine tree wood on the opposite side of the road. The local farmers, who considered them a pest as they cost them thousands of pounds annually in decimated corn crops, shot them regularly and festooned the fences surrounding the cornfields with dead crows, or sometimes just crows’ wings, as a possible deterrent.

One Friday after school, a few of us were approached by one of the older boys who lived near me suggesting that on Saturday morning we should go to the crow wood. He said that crows’ eggs, if eaten raw, would give you great strength and kept away colds, and he knew how to get them from the nests.

My curiosity was aroused; although I had no intention of eating raw eggs of any kind, I wanted to see how he could climb those tall pine trees. I said that I would ask my mother’s permission. I was not sure whether she would agree to my accompanying this particular boy, as he was the son of the man who had pinched my mother’s pancakes.

Saturday morning arrived, and my mother gave me permission to go. However, she warned me that as the family of that boy seemed perpetually in trouble of some sort, I was to come home immediately after I found out how he climbed the trees. On no account was I to attempt what he was doing, as he was much older than I was and more experienced. I then joined a few of my schoolmates at the older boy’s house.

We all set off for the craw widdie, as it was known locally, the older boy, Jim, carrying two pieces of rope with a loop at each end, which his father had given him. These pieces of rope, each about two feet in length, aroused our curiosity and we asked what they were for. “Ah, just wait and see,” he said secretively.

As soon we arrived at the craw widdie, and without further ado, Jim put one foot into each loop of one piece of rope. He then looped the other piece of rope around the tree, put one hand through each loop and gripped the rope. By pressing the foot rope against the tree and pulling the hand rope, he now had leverage to climb the tree, which he seemed to accomplish with practised and dexterous ease until he reached the areas that housed the crows’ nests, which were built close to one another.

His approach was accompanied by a flurry of wings and loud cawing protestations at the intrusion, as the crows circled the trees in agitated alarm.

He hung the two pieces of rope around a branch and proceeded to collect any available eggs, putting them gingerly in his pocket. The two pieces of rope were then slung round his neck until he reached the lower branch, which was still a considerable height from the ground. He then brought into play his ropes and descended to the ground, after which he proudly displayed a handful of bright green eggs, which he promptly cracked, one after the other, and swallowed their contents. I gasped in amazement, as did my pals.

He then produced one from his pocket, and said, “Who’s going to try it?” We all chanted our refusal in no uncertain terms.

I then asked him, “What if there was a young one inside the egg when you emptied its contents down your throat?”

“Ah, well,” he said, “that happened once, but I said, ‘too late, Milord’, and down it went!”

I asked him how he had learnt to use the two ropes. He said that his father learnt it from natives in North Africa during the war.

We silently left the wood and headed for home. I thought about what my mother had told me about that family, and decided then and there to give them all a wide berth.

Winter was setting in again and my father had contracted severe bronchitis due to working in the cold damp factory, which was situated only a few streets away. The factory sold beer and lemonade, and my father drove and maintained the only Leyland Badger lorry in town, from which he canvassed custom and sold the products in outlying districts.

The pay in those post-war days was barely enough to keep body and soul together for one person, never mind about a man with a wife and two growing children.

My father also suffered occasional pain in one of his legs through a war injury, for which the government of the day paid him a pittance of a pension, which was later stopped because he was working.

My father had joined the army in the year 1915, and was a gunner in the machine gun corps. He saw action in Gallipoli, and I recall his description of the Turks as a “ruthless bunch of bastards.” He had witnessed his mate being shot while wounded and left for dead, and then they shot my father in the leg before running off, thinking that they had finished them both off. However, my father survived and was taken to a hospital in Salonika , Greece , to recover.

However, during my father’s current illness, the factory was closed and the owner went into retirement.

During this period, although I was not at that time aware of the reason for it, we were fed nothing but oatmeal porridge, or pieces of bread broken into a plate and sprinkled with a little sugar, then covered with a little milk mixed with hot water. This was called ‘saps’, and became almost a regular diet in the north of Scotland during the depression years from 1926. My father said that a tramp living in London was better off than a hard-working war veteran in Scotland .

When my father had recovered from his illness, I recall that he had a long and heated discussion with my mother. He thumped the table in anger at the callous disregard the government had for ex-servicemen’s welfare and access to employment, and said he was going to the Labour Exchange to express his disgust.

After he left the house, clad in his customary breeches, leather leggings and boots, similar to his army uniform but probably a lot warmer, my mother sat by the fire, staring into the flickering embers. Looking at my sister and me, she said, “I don’t know where your next meal is coming from!”

My sister and I were not insensitive to the feelings of our mother. I am sure that we secretly built up a feeling of insecurity of which, at that time, we were not aware, but was to prevail throughout our lives. In my case in particular, it took the form of seizing every advantage that offered some degree of security – not so much for me, but for the family I would eventually bring into this world.

My father arrived home very late that afternoon, slumped into a chair and lit a cigarette. My mother fetched him a cup of tea, and after having a few sips, he put his cup down and announced, “We are moving to the town of Banff at the weekend. The Labour Exchange has found me a job in the town of Buckie .”

My mother stopped in her tracks, and with a look of sheer amazement on her face said, “But Buckie is nearer to where we are now than Banff !”

“Well,” said my father, “since I’ve got to stay in Buckie when I start this job, I’ll have to pay for digs, so I took a bus out to Boyndie to see my father, and he is letting us stay in the cottage in Banff until we can move to Buckie.”  

 

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