On the tenth day of July 1934, I was brought into this world at No 1 Cables Wynd, Leith, the home of my maternal grandparents, John and Margaret Patterson. I was later told that the day was a scorcher with the tar between the road setts melting. This phenomenon was often harvested by the children of the time and rolled into balls between the palms of the hand and then popped into the mouth and chewed. Among the drawbacks to reaping this harvest was the long-term stains on the hands not to mention the clothes. It had a certain medicinal benefit it was believed. I would try this out for myself at a later date.
Cables Wynd had once been a bustling thoroughfare with tenement flats and shops of all kinds lining both sides. By the time of my arrival, all that remained of it was the one stair, the rest having long gone. Soon after my birth I was taken home by my parents to 42 Buchanan Street where they resided with my father`s mother for the next five years. My memories of this time are obviously a bit vague, but I do remember being taken in my pram to the King`s Park to feed the swans. Lochend Park was another of my days` outings. It was at the former park where my grandmother used to fill bottles from the well to take home. My father`s own father had died before my parents` wedding.
My other grandad would also take me out , especially to visit sites where he had worked as a stonemason. One of these was the new housing estate of Granton immediately above Granton Square. We would often stop off to pick `rat tails` to feed his budgie, Jocky.
Another time I do recall with some embarrassment was the occasion I was locked in Pilrig Park while I was yet four years old. I had accompanied some older playmates to the park where we had scaled an embankment to watch the steam trains progress from Leith Central Station towards the bridge at Bonnington Toll. I don`t think my parents knew about this. The incident in questions was when, discovering the park attendant had locked the gates and gone home, we had to climb over them to get out.
The older boys had no difficulty, but my age and size were against me. I remember crying with fright, and this manifested itself in me soiling my trousers. I did manage to get out, but to this day I don`t know if it was by my own efforts or not.
The welfare state was still a long way off and my mother reminded me of the time she took me to the Leith Co-operative Boardrooms in Cables Wynd for a dosage of `emulsion`. This concoction was to `build me up` it was claimed. Being three years old, I did not enjoy the taste of it at all.
Among several unrelated memories of my Buchanan Street days was the time I woke up one Christmas morning to find that Santa Claus had left me a pedal car complete with a spare wheel and petrol tank. Another was a model ranch that had been sent from Canada.
On a not so happy note, it may have been the following week, was when I awoke in the middle of the night to find my parents missing. I cried out, wakening my grandmother in the adjacent room. She came through and sat by the fireside assuring me that my parents would be home soon. Seemingly they had gone out first footing, it being the New Year.
Cables Wynd junction with Giles Street . Chimney Stack of Leith Hospital in background. Corporation Buildings on right side (Courtesy of Edinburgh Room, Central Library) Kate McGourty`s Furniture Store eventualy made way for the nurses` home.
Corporation Buildings 1937. All bedecked out for the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Kent to open the Children`s Wing of Leith Hospital
The Second World War was only months away when I was about to be uprooted. My parents secured the tenancy of a one-room flat or, as they were called then, a single end in Bonnington Road. This was in an old tenement building popularly known as `The Bowery`. Although I was their only child, it was felt I would be better off staying with my grandparents who were only too pleased to have me with them. Incidently, this would be the last time I saw or heard from my paternal grandmother until fate brought us face to face 21 years later.
With the call-up of many men folk for military service, there was an acute shortage of labour for homework. My mother took a job with Crawfords, a biscuit manufacturer in Elbe Street.. My father was excused military service by virtue of him being a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service. This was later designated the National Fire Service, and he was recruited into it forthwith. Allied to his trade as a brass moulder, he was permanently exempted from the armed forces.
I moved in with my grandparents just prior to the War`s beginning in September 1939. There were six houses in the stair; two on each flat with their doors opening in from an open balcony. The balconies led off from the communal stair. The house itself consisted of a kitchen/cum bedroom, the bed being contained in a recess, a small room that contained a double bed, a wardrobe, and a chest of drawers. There was also a lavatory off the small lobby.
My grandfather and I shared the bed in the kitchen while my grandmother and my two aunties, Chrissie and Peggy had the other bedroom. On the wall at the foot of their bed hung other clothes that had a permanently draped curtain over them. No space was wasted. Even the beds stood on blocks that enabled storage room beneath them.
The walls were colourfully distempered to within two feet of the ceiling where they were topped by a narrow border of floral paper. Above this the frieze and ceiling were whitewashed.
In the kitchen the ceiling soon lost its light hue because of the rising vapours from the old gaslit mantle. On the wall at the foot of my bed hung a faded picture of my uncle George who had died at the age of 11 years old. Alongside it was an old wall clock with its distinctive tick-tock that seemed to get louder when the light was extinguished. Many were the times when I lay awake counting off the seconds along with it. I should point out now that the kitchen was the only room that had lighting. The others were completely in darkness as night fell.
The old -fashioned cast-iron fire was never short of its homely warmth with the black soot covered kettle ever singing away to itself as it nestled in the glowing embers. This was our only source of hot water apart from the gas ring. To the left of the fire was an oven and on the other side a water boiler with its brass draw-off tap still in place. I used to be fascinated with this and always wondered why it was not used. Seemingly the tank had a crack in it.
In front of the fire was a blue enamel hearthplate to catch any hot ash that might have fallen from the fire. Surrounding this was an expanding kerb with its companion stools. These contained all our polishes and shoebrushes as well as dusters. You did not dare sit on them next to the roaring fire or else you were in danger of suffering from `tartan legs`. Above the fireplace the gaslight jutted out from the wall. The fragile mantle was protected by a glass globe. The distinctive pop as it was ignited and the continuous hiss as it burned, I still recall. I was never allowed to touch it.
We had one window in the kitchen that was fronted by the sink and the scrubbed wooden bunker. Many were the times I sat on this with my feet in the basin as my legs were scrubbed to remove the day`s grime. The other window was in the bedroom. The toilet had its WC and no more. A small window from this room looked out on to the balcony. This was kept secure by a large nail that could be inserted or withdrawn to allow it to be opened or shut.
Both main windows were in two halves and were opened with the assistance of two lead counter weights housed in the side casements. Often the ropes suspending these weights frayed and broke making the opening procedure more difficult.
My mother regulary washed these windows for my grandparents. She would sit out on the sill with her legs to the inside and pull the bottom half of the window down onto them. After this she would pull the top half down and likewise wash it. Considering we were one flat up she was quite fearless in doing what she did.
The building was old, and as it turned out, only had another twenty years to stand. Mice were always a problem, and as cats were not a favourite pet, mousetraps were the only means of keeping the vermin at bay. Lying in bed at night, I could often hear the trap being sprung. Another blighter had been caught and I took my turn at emptying the trap the following morning.
I should point out that this in no way reflected the house`s standard of cleanliness We were in no way alone in this fight against vermin. Sometimes the problem got so bad that the sanitary fumigation officials had to be called in. This was the last resort for it was seen as a lasting shame to have to do so. The conditions prevailing at this time were atrocious, and it was a credit to those families in making the best of them.
The open coal fire was our only source of heat although a certain amount was generated from the gaslight. With the single glazed windows, wax cloth covering the floor that was partially relieved by a hearth carpet, and constant draughts permeating into the room, the cold was never far away. I remember well my grandad standing with his back to the fire and being warned, "get away from the fire and let the heat out!" This was the warcry of everybody in the house. The old adage purporting that what you never had you would never miss. Central heating was only for the well-off.
Each house had its own coal bunker at the end of the balcony. It was capable of holding about 6cwt of coal. As time wore on, the dust from the coal settled on the bottom and gradually the storage capacity decreased. What dust you didn`t use for backing up the fire soaked with water, was sold to a dealer who manufactured briquettes. These in turn were sold back to you as a substitute for coal. Being wartime, nothing could be wasted.
The balconies overlooked a scrap metal yard owned by `wingy `Robertson, so called by him having a withered arm that was bent upwards across his chest. Much of his work was dealing in wrecked cars. My grandmother was given an old car seat from him that she had placed on her balcony. He would replace this at intervals. This was greatly used during the summermonths
As we were without electricity (no house had it in the stair), we depended upon a high-tension battery to operate our old wireless. As well as this, an accumulator was also required. How many children like myself had to carry an accumulator to the local radio shop for re-charging? A large oblong re-inforced glass containing a cell and acid, it was carried in a metal frame and swinging handle.
"Mind how you go," I would be warned. Wearing short trousers, no jeans in those days, I had to be very careful in not spilling the contents onto myself as I swung it in its frame. Often the acid would lap over the top and trickle onto my legs. I didn`t suffer anything more than a tingling burning sensation, but often holes would appear in my woollen stockings.
The radio was our only domestic entertainment during the long dark nights of the blackout apart from our box of dominoes. I recall yet the old couple sitting back and chortling at what was coming out of the speaker. I would be sitting on the carpet playing with my toys or else reading my Beano or Dandy comics. During other evenings we would play dominoes or snakes and ladders. I would sit on the table during these games.
My grandmother, or as I affectionately called her grandma, was a very stout person with long silver hair done up in a bun. Her dress was ever of the type that draped around her ankles, mainly of a dark hue and this was topped off by the ubiquitous pinny, so typical of the time.
How I loved to stand behind her on a chair by the fireside and brush her hair as it fell down her back.
Meanwhile my grandad would sit at the other side of the fireplace and spit at the fire as he puffed at his pipe.
"Will you stop that?" demanded she. "Never miss," was the reply.
Even as young as I was, I would chuckle at this repartee. I could detect neither malice nor grievance in these exchanges. The affection they showed for each other even after forty years of marriage was obvious even to me. I loved them both.
My favourite reading matter at the time were copies of the Dandy and Beano. My mother used to collect them from McEIvogues, the newsagent in Great Junction Street. She would drop them off each morning on her way to her work.
I remember that even during the war, we always had plenty of reading matter about the house. `The Peoples Friend`,`The Weekly News`, `Peoples Journal`, `Edinburgh Evening News`, `Sunday Post`, and the `Kelso Chronicle`. The last named kept the old couple in touch with their hometown that they had left at the turn of the century.
I don`t think I ever gave cause for concern that required a strict discipline regime. However, I was often threatened of being sent to Dr Guthries Ragged School if I was `bad`. This did the trick. Dr Guthries was a remand home at Liberton where the boys were dressed in grey tweed battle blouses and shorts. Often on Saturdays they could be seen in town in their few outings from the Centre.
My aunts, Chrissie and Peggy were still resident in the little house for the first few years of the war. Both worked in the Wireworks at Granton. They were active in the Salvation Army that had a great influence on the family. Chrissie to her dying day in 1982 would continue to wear the uniform. She was never to marry. Peggy did leave it when she married in 1942 and went to stay in Newhaven. I was very close to my aunt Chrissie. Although she would give me a hard time if I ever gave her cause for concern, she was an angel on Earth. Her motto in life was that it was better to give than to receive. I could never understand this. I would later discover that this was the case. I have practised this myself. When she died in 1982, I was heartbroken. God had taken her home.