Hot pants on high (or A bit more of Wee Me)

Buying our outfits for our first plane journey was a major event. These were the days of Vietnam, and the heady, hippy hangover after the Swinging Sixties (I was certainly into swings in the Sixties. And climbing frames and shutes aka slides. Roundabouts made me dizzy and there was always a risk of getting spun off and skinning your knees). The Beatles had not long gone their separate, long and winding ways, and Engerland swung like a pendulum do. Or did...Apparently.
My mother had decided that the situation called for The In Thing. Mini skirts were passé by now, and anyway, as we were growing girls on a budget, mini skirts were both a question of thrift and inevitability anyway. Besides, by this time, The In Thing was hot pants. Which should probably be hotpants, not hot pants, as the latter would suggest that a spell sitting on a sun-warmed pavement would have done the trick. And I guess The In Thing was actually hotpants or kaftans, but my beautiful, fashion-loving Mummy was adventurous where clothes were concerned, and besides, she didn't have to make the outfits this time, so hotpants it was.
In case you missed out on that particular stage in sartorial history, hotpants were shorts, or perhaps they dreamt of being shorts when they grew up, as they were very, oh but very very short. Glorified knickers, in fact. Not for the saggy-bottomed, that's for sure. And my mother was adamant (and not at all saggy-bottomed): we were going to England, world capital of hip gear and trendiness, encased in The In Thing.

The shop was more psychodelic than a yellow submarine or even a velvet underground, with half-dressed girls trying on fabric wisps and fringes which they pulled from shiny, white-and-gold boxes lined with coloured tissue paper. We had never in our short lives seen anything like it, and my sister and I hid behind a changing-room curtain, mortified with embarrassment and transfixed with fascination at the same time. I wanted a box. My two-year-old sister was happy to blow on the tissue paper and turn it into home-made confetti.
A lady not dissimilar to a triumphant opera-singer deposited a tower of shiny, white-and-gold, multi-coloured tissue-paper-lined boxes on a counter in front of our mother. She swooned. No, she didn't; I made that bit up. We raised the lids and the layers of floaty paper one by one as if a cloud of fairies might escape from within, and peeked inside, somehow terrified. Our mirror-plated hiding place in the changing-room was suddenly filled with glowing chrysanthemums, sugar-bright butterflies, vertiginous spirals, swirling paisleys, and exotic feathers. The fashion show began....

The great day finally came. Mummy had gone south some ten days earlier, to make sure that everything was ready for us in our new home in that scary place with the even scarier, English-foreign name of Maidenhead - good grief, what a name! - and we had been staying at her parents' home. My Magic-Puddings Granny had decked us out following her daughter's instructions to the letter: my sister wore a white, broderie anglaise blouse with short, puffed sleeves, and purple, paisley-patterned hotpants of the type with matching braces that crossed over in the middle of her back. Lederhosen without the front panel -and without the Leder, thankfully. I was truly ahead of my time, kitted out like a premature ABBA girl (the iconic Swedish group would leap sequin-clad onto the scene perhaps two years later), in blue, purple and white hotpants with a peacock-feather print. Over said pants, I wore a matching long dress with hundreds of tiny, fabric-covered buttons reaching halfway down the front, then open, rather like a coat, so that the hotpants were on display underneath. Totally vanguard, darling, totally 'in'. The It Sisters were ready to roll!

Daddy, modestly dressed in suit, tie and raincoat, came to fetch us in a taxi. "A taxi! Wow! Can I sit the wrong way round?" "Me, me!" - my sister was still a woman of few words at this point. Our grandparents, brave and proud, waving us off. "You both look very nice, dears. You will write to us, won't you?" Of course I would! There were still a few things I could do that my oh-so-cute sister couldn't; HA! But I was scared. This was it.
We slid past houses, gardens, shops, with their sad stonework and sadder, faded, grey window displays, a landscape of aging shooting stars whizzing past my nose pressed up against the window of the taxi, ghostly visions distorted by - by what? rain? tears?
Bye bye city, bye bye people, bye bye family, bye bye country. I'm going where the people talk funny. I'm going where nobody knows me.

This had been my world for eight years. A world of snowmen, lochs and Hallowe'en, smir and Santa, mashed neeps and Sunday School, rhododendrons and botanic gardens, great-aunts and fish on Fridays. My school, where we had built an Apollo moonshot from Ski yoghurt pots in July 1969; the dance academy where I had surpassed myself as an unconditionally inept tapdancer; the churches we had gone to to listen to my Reverend Grandpas; my cousins' house with the garden where the Easter Bunny lived; the West Kilbride sweet shop with its two counters, one normal height, one kiddy height for those of us with ha'pennies clutched in our fists and eyes only for chocolate spanners and spongy yellow and pink prawns, sherbet flying saucers and red licorice bootlaces; the Italian ice cream shops which were an integral part of Glasgow life. All this and a myriad of whirling, perfumed, stained-glass memories and emotions prior to that fateful day in the summer of '71, when they dressed me up as a gogo dancer and took me to live in England.


Letter to Mum

The other day I found this letter, which I wrote to my mother in June 2005 after she had suffered a stroke that caused her memory to dissolve. Mum died in hospital of a so-called super-bug of the type that has numbers for a name, on 20th June 2005. I never finished the letter.

Tomorrow, 24th September 2009, is Mum's 77th birthday, so this is for her. Happy Birthday, Mom.

Isn't memory a curious asset? We have it from birth, but the early part, the part when we're still displaying L-plates, all but disappears under the weight of subsequent memories. Perhaps it's because, as a baby, we can't really make sense of stuff - of weather-vanes and zebra crossings, hairnets and nests of tables, mangles and window-sills, souvenirs from Sant Pol de Mar and slide-viewers. It's only later that we can sort and code and label. And, of course, that automatically means we muddle our memories, as we superimpose later images onto baby stills so we can actually claim to own them.
For example, I'm almost sure I remember Papa Lawson as being the man who lived in the flat opposite ours. I remember his presence in my earliest days, but apart from a vague recollection of sitting on his knee in a 'parlour'-type room with dark, perhaps green, curtains, the strongest memory I have of him is knowing who he was and of loving him to bits. I think he had a son, an adult son, and either Papa or both he and his son worked in a shirt shop down the hill and round the corner. There is a vague suggestion of a chocolate Santa Claus, or a chocolate Easter egg, a gift from Papa, apart from the book of poems.

I can sit here in the dead of night, with a dog making its presence felt a few houses away, and let one memory take me to another, backwards, forwards, who knows which. It's fun. It's as rich as an intricate, peacock-threaded embroidery, unpredictable. It's like eating dark chocolate and floating away. Stories, clouds of pictures, faces, colours, smells, voices, all bursting to ping out into the open.
That's what memory is. And it just takes a quick short-circuit, a neurological firecracker, to wipe it all or suspend it out of reach. I can shuffle or tint my stories as I fancy, so they look better on the paper, turn my life into a glorious Technicolor saga of yellow curtains and wooden clothes-horses sharing the buttercup morning sunlight with a spinach-green carpet, of shelling fresh peas while sitting on a small lawn, surrounded by blue-purple grape hyacinths, hollyhocks and lupins, lobelia and alyssum.

Another curious thing is Glasgow itself. Rundown, boarded-up, extravagant, decadent, industrial. Staunchly Presbyterian, radically Catholic, wildly Buddhist, Calvinist and Bohemian, haggis and tofu. Famous for shipbuilding, Orange marches, Ian Brady, St Mungo, Taggart, Sauchiehall Street, Kelvin Hall, the Barrowlands, hard humour, head-bashing, alcoholics, the University, Charles Rennie MacKintosh, toughness, tenement buildings, Celtic and Rangers, solid, serious, significant architecture, rainmates, and Glaswegians. Genghis McCann and ice cream. I nearly forgot the ice cream and the fact that a Glaswegian is just as likely to be called Angelo as Alistair. Until relatively recently, "I'm from Glasgow" was a fairly threatening claim which might include the tag "so watch yersel'". On a curriculum vitae, it was almost a liability. No. Strike the 'almost'.
Even the Glasgow names tell a story; they seem to be in harmony with the Glaswegian accents, which range from guttural, rasping thug to gently abrasive, crystal streamwater. Cowcaddens, the Gorbals, Kirkintilloch, Pollockshields all share city boundaries with districts that could easily have been christened by Stevenson or Scott: Drumchapel, Kelvinside, Broomhill, Anniesland, Rutherglen.

Like you, Mum, I find expressing some memories difficult; the words are not always there, nor the mental glass-eye to make sense of the images. Glasgow. Glasgow is a feeling. It is colours, moments of light and darkness, the sounds of Beetle windscreen wipers and cars in the rain, the taste of coal-fires in the mouth, the smells of adhesive fabric eye-patches and leaded petrol on puddles. The yellow of daffodils and the sullen black of the leafless, naked, winter trees near the university.
It is the height and protection of tall, dirty buildings carved from Industrial Revolution rock. It is the stark, terrifying concrete slabs built in curves that make up the mad, urban motorway system that took us to visit Granny and Grandpa Munn on alternate Sundays. It is lemon chiffon pudding eaten in a treasure-trove house by a depot of rotting green and sunflower bus carcasses. It is the lion, the cage, the lion, the cage, now put the lion into the cage. It is the New Seekers and Ken Dodd without the Diddymen. Sleeping Beauty at the ballet and dominoes with Aunt Madge in her image-perfect flat of a thousand textures. It is Papa Lawson.