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The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J Macdonald

In The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus, Warner Books, 1988, 187 p. First published 1984.

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This final instalment of the author’s childhood memoirs sees him, having at the second attempt passed the bursary exam, finally off to the “big” school in what he perceives as the metropolis of Tarbert though by wider standards it is little more than a village. In his new school the headmaster “didn’t really expect boys to behave themselves – he had seen too many boys for that – but he did expect them not to get caught.”

Before that, though, the author had time to aid Old Hector, debilitated by malaria contracted in his sole journey away from the village as a seaman, with milking his cow daily – which has the side advantage of providing the opportunity to have a sly smoke without the knowlegde of his parents. Hector wasn’t really old but his infirmity meant he depended on others, a dependency made worse by the death of his sister who had dedicated her life to looking after him. Macdonald, in considering how Hector would have to sell his cow when he leaves for school, conceived of the idea of advertising for a household companion ‘with a view to matrumony’ for Hector, a plan kept secret between the two of them. (Later, however, Macdonald’s father surprises him with his knowledge of Finlay’s part in the scheme. How did he know? “You never could spell matrimony.”) The first replies were unsuitable in various ways but in Macdonald’s absence at school someone did come to fulfil both aspects of the design. These machinations give the opportunity for some light humour as does the visit of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, that particular incumbent being a Gaelic speaker.

There is a more reflective aspect to the text when the author mentions the melancholy of being present when a language goes into its death throes. (Though nearly ninety years on from the times described here the Gaelic language still manages to survive.) The assumption in the village and more widely on Harris and elsewhere in the Hebrides was that to get on a child had to get out, that not to do so would be a failure, a factor which would inevitably lead to a hollowing out of life on the islands. Macdonald’s going to the big school was a first step on that journey. This quality of Macdonald’s memoir is of a piece with one of the perennial considerations of the Scottish novel; the sense of nostalgia, of things lost, of a strange incompleteness. I suspect that is one of the hangovers of the Union of the Parliaments and the formation of the United Kingdom in 1707. Macdonald also has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape description.

Macdonald’s growing to adulthood lay under the shadow of the looming Second World War. There is a grand set piece when the lads who have signed up are piped on to the ferry to the mainland to join their regiment, the ill-fated 51st Highland Division. This was before the actual formal commencement of hostilities when, “Nobody heard Chamberlain’s declaration of war on the Sunday because, in the Hebrides in those days, radio sets were never switched on on a Sunday – not even for the news.” The “wireless” in those days had vagaries of its own which is illustrated by the author with a comparison that is now itself outdated, “the sudden demise of the accumulator tended to have the sort of explosive effect that the telephone bill has nowadays on a house with daughters.” Macdonald’s thoughts on the whole matter are expressed by the sentiment that, “Nobody ever had a ‘good’ war and I can’t imagine how anyody could coin the phrase in cynicism or in jest.” He had a near escape himself when he and his brother unscrewed the spikes from a mine that had floated onto the shore and then hammered them onto their door as a makeshift knocker. His father was appalled when he discovered this.

He himself had been a sniper in the Great War (a conflict to which he never referred) and would not touch a gun since. So its is that on one of Macdonald’s returns home for the holidays he is surprised to find his father kitted out in khaki and with a rifle. He had joined the Home Guard. He allows Macdonald one shot of the rifle (wildly inaccurate of course) but on practice with his platoon merely jerks the rifle instead of firing it.

The drawbacks of progress are illustrated by the demise of the corncrake whose cry is Macdonald’s abiding memory of his childhood and whose habitat was destroyed by the improvement of the soil’s richness by the application of fertiliser reducing their scrub ground cover. Also the local oysters and wolf mussels die out because the run-off from the new internal toilets was being directed straight into the sea. The Lysander in the title refers to an RAF spotter plane which patrolled the waters round the islands in search of U-boats.

It is odd to see words such as ‘carry-out’ and ‘screwtops’ given quotation marks but English was Macdonald’s second language.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) a closing inverted comma where there hadn’t been an opening one, Coolins (a curious Anglicisation given Macdonald’s Gaelic childhood, in most texts in English Skye’s mountains are spelled as in Gaelic, Cuillins,) “since the balances of males to females was totally disproportionate” (the balance … was,) some commas missing before or after pieces of direct speech, miniscular (x2, minuscular,) “honoured more in the breech” (breach.)

Tynemouth Priory and Castle (iii)

Outbuildings looking back towards Castle:-

Tynemouth Castle Outbuilding

Outbuildings as seen from east:-

Ruins at Tynemouth  Castle and Priory

Chapel?:-

Tynemouth Priory Ruins

The prominence on which the Castle and Priory stand made it an ideal point to place military defences.

Remains of World War 2 gun emplacements:-

Tynemouth  Castle, Tyne and Wear

World War 2 artillery piece on wall beyond old graves:-

Tynemouth Castle and Priory Fortification

The gun itself:-

Tynemouth  Castle and Priory Artillery Piece

Markinch War Memorial 2019

Markinch War Memorial and Bench just after Remembrance Day 2019:-

Markinch War Memorial and Bench

Closer view:-

Markinch War Memorial 2019

War Memorial Crosses, Markinch, 2019:-

War Memorial Crosses, Markinch, 2019

Perth Academy War Memorial

Perth Academy’s War Memorial is on the wall of the school hall.

Long View, War Memorial, Perth Academy. The boards above the War Memorial give the names of the various people who were Dux of the school over the years.

Long View, War Memorial, Perth Academy

The Latin inscription to the top of the memorial itself, “Academiae Bertyhanae Olim Cives Bella Caduci Omnia et Ipsos Pro Patria Dederunt,” I think translates as, “To the citizens of Perth Academy who gave up their precious lives in battle.” In 2019 two “ghost” soldiers were on the seat in front of the memorial:-:-

Perth Academy War Memorial 2019

Close View. Great War Names above then, “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.” “MCMXXXIX-MCMXLV” above the lower board – for Second World War.

Perth Academy War Memorial Close View

Soldiers’ Information, beside Perth Academy War Memorial:-

Soldiers' Information, Perth Academy War Memorial

Flowers of the Forest project details:-

War Memorial, Perth Academy

Flowers of the Forest display, Perth Academy:-

Flowers of the Forest, Perth Academy

Memorials, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Last October we again visited the Black Watch Museum in Perth. This time I took better photos of the various memorials in its grounds.

Iraq Cross, 2003 and 2004. Great War anniversary fence behind:-

Iraq Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Iraq and Afghanistan 2007 and 2009:-

Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Great War Memorial. In memory of the 300 men of the Black Watch who died in the Great War. “Their name liveth for evermore”:-

Great War Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Second World War Memorial. “Greater love hath no man”:-

Second World War Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Northern Ireland and Kosovo Memorial:-

Northern Ireland and Kosovo Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

Also at the south end of Perth’s North Inch is a memorial to the 51st Highland Division. It takes the form of a bagpiper being thanked by a young girl.

51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

Dedication:-

Dedication, 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

To either side of the memorial are two cairns with inset plaques.

El Alamein 50th anniversary plaque:-

51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

51st Highland Division final reunion commemoration. Plaque donated by the people of Genner, Holland:-

Plaque, 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

On the memorial itself are several additional reliefs.

51st Highland Division Battle Honours:-

Battle Honours, 51st Highland Division Memorial

Remembrance of our liberators:-

51st Highland Division Memorial Remembrance Plaque

Poem on the Memorial (by Andrew McGeever):-

Poem on 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

Friezes of military scenes:-

Frieze, 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

51st Highland Division Memorial Frieze, Perth

North Inch, Perth

An old joke has it that Perth is the smallest town in Scotland because it only has two inches. The North and South Inches are of course green spaces used for recreational purposes. They both border the River Tay.

We used to park regularly in the South Inch car park when we visited Perth. Nowadays we tend to use elsewhere.

As a result we one day strolled around the south part of the North Inch. A wall separates it from the river and on that wall is a plaque commemorating the men of Perth Co-operative Society who lost their lives in the two World Wars. It is inscribed, “1914 – 1919. To the lasting memory of the employees of the City of Perth Co-operative Society Ltd who fell in the Great War,” plus, “Also in grateful remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives in the Second World War 1939 – 1945,” and, “Their name liveth for evermore.”

Perth Co-operative War Memorial

From it there is this view of the river and Perth Bridge:-

River Tay and Perth Bridge

Perth Bridge:-

Perth Bridge and River Tay from North Inch

On the same visit we popped into Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Among many other exhibits they have this old Pictish stone found at St Madoes/Inchyra in the Carse of Gowrie, Perth and Kinross.

St Madoes Pictish Stone

East Boldon War Memorial

East Boldon’s War Memorial is a stone cross on a plinth set in a memorial garden beside the A 184 near the B 1299 turn-off.

War Memorial, East Boldon

Closer view:-

East Boldon War Memorial

Dedications. “The people of Boldon record in ever grateful remembrance the names of their brothers who gave their lives in the Great War 1914 – 1919. They were a wall unto us both by night and by day.” Below, “Let us also remember those who gave their lives in the Great War 1939 – 1945,” and World War 2 names:-

Dedications, East Boldon War Memorial

The Great War names are on side-plaques:-

Great War Names, War Memorial, East Boldon

East Boldon War Memorial, Great War Names

Passings. John le Carré, Gerard Houllier, Otto Hutter

I was sad to hear yesterday of the death of John le Carré. He dragged the spy novel into the post-Second World War world and elevated it to the status of literature. His early novels had all the relevance the Cold War gave to the genre and he illuminated that looking-glass world of the secret services. In George Smiley he gave the world the epitome of the enigmatic, taciturn thinker.

When the Soviet Union fell the spy novel lost a lot of its wider resonance but le Carré adapted to the new circumstances. A total of over 20 successful best selling novels speaks for itself.

My collection of his books – apart from the omnibus edition of his early works the good lady started to read – is on this shelf.

David John Moore Cornwell (John le Carré): 9/10/1931 – 12/12/2020. So it goes.

Also gone today is Gerard Houllier, one of Liverpool’s more successful managers of the “fallow” period. While he never achieved the holy grail (for Liverpool supporters) of a League Championship he still oversaw an impressive haul of trophies for the club.

Gérard Paul Francis Houllier: 3/9/1947 – 14/12/2020. So it goes.

On Friday I read the Guardian obituary of Otto Hutter. He was one of my lecturers when I briefly (one year only) studied Physiology at Glasgow University back in the day. I don’t think I realised at the time he had been one of those who came to Britain via the Kindertransport. What an incredible contribution to British life those children went on to make.

Otto Fred Hutter: 29/2/1924 – 22/11/2020. So it goes.

War Memorial, Breedon on the Hill

On our September trip last year after we left Calke Abbey we headed for the small village of Breedon on the Hill, Derbyshire, as it featured in a book we have of picturesque British villages and it was quite near.

On the way into the village we passed a quarry entrance emblazoned with the name Breedon Aggregates which I have seen on lorries and up until that point had not connected with a specific place, rather thinking the company’s name had come from a founder.

The village itself is nice enough but not outstanding I’d have said.

It did however have a distinctive War Memorial in the form of a circular stone building surmounted by a dome and cross:-

War Memorial, Breedon on the Hill

The gate to the interior is inscribed, “Lest we forget,” round a metal poppy:-

War Memorial, Breedon on the Hill 2

Behind the inscription is a dedication plaque:-

War Memorial Plaque, Breedon on the Hill,

The written dedication is to the right of the gate, “Erected to the memory of the men of Breedon on the Hill who gave their lives in the Grteat War 1914 – 1919, then 1939 – 1945 followed by two names. The stone at the foot of the Memorial is inscribed, “We will remember them.”

War Memorial Dedication, Breedon on the Hill

Further view:-

Breedon on the Hill War Memorial

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