The Good Biscuits
Of Lions, Mums and Murder
Over the years I've shared many tales about the old mater and pater. Sometimes I'll make a comment about my mum and well-meaning friends will say "Oh she sounds just like me/my mum" and though I always smile, I think I can reasonably say I doubt it.
How do I even begin to talk about a woman who defied description even when alive?
Despite the grinding poverty which haunted much of her life, or perhaps because of it, my mother was the most materially generous person I've ever known. If you've lived amongst the poor, the middle class and the well to do you will swiftly have found, as I have, that the less people have the more willing they are to share. The rich almost never get rich by altruism, hard work or concern for their fellow humans.
My mother worked very hard to ensure we had nice things at Christmas, Easter time and birthdays. Compared to those around us, we received great largesse at those times. At Easter, there was always a surfeit of chocolate. We would also hard boil eggs and paint them in glorious designs. My father made his into Humpty Dumpty one year, to my forthright envy. Then we would go, all of us, to the Pollok Estate and roll them down the big hill till they cracked. Sometimes we had to toss them in the air to achieve this. I don't know why we did this, it was a Scottish tradition and it made sense at the time.
My own children benefited from this by descent - if benefited is the right word - because every Easter they also received so much chocolate they were often unable to finish it all, complete with an Easter egg trail through the house. Even, on a few occasions, a wisp of a bunny tail and powdery paw parks. We also rolled eggs together a time or two.
As I say, mum was a very materially generous woman. One Easter afternoon she visited the local shops. You can see them shuttered and closed in the photo in the link included below. She noted two little boys staring hungrily at the Easter eggs they would never receive. Most of the children in those parts wouldn't receive them and these two grubby little street urchins looked no different.
My mother had to count every penny. There were times even despite her working in the bottle shop that she had to borrow from relatives to pay the rent as father had drunk or gambled it away again. To get us shoes she used to borrow from the Provvy man. The Provvy man (who worked for Provident) would give you a cheque to be used in a store and you would then pay him up weekly at a pittance, when he came knocking. My mother often used the Provvy cheques for our shoes. She did not have money to spare.
So my mum bought two of the largest chocolate eggs the shop had, and as she was leaving handed them to the little boys. Their faces were indescribable. "For me missus?! All of it for me?" said one boy wonderingly. "Aye, aye" with a brisk nod she strode purposefully away.
Both my parents worked, my dad was a joiner and my mum returned to nursing when she felt she could leave us unsupervised a couple of nights a week. By working nightshift, and almost certainly taking years off her own life by doing so, she could get nightshift allowance, allowing her to be home for most of the time that we needed her. My dad certainly wasn't up to the task. I always shake my head in disbelief when people talk about how traditionally women stayed home and men went to work. Maybe in a 1950s American sitcom. I knew no mothers who did this. They couldn't afford to. They would run the house, the kids and also work in low paid crappy jobs. And not for "pin money" either but to make sure if their husband drank or gambled his pay packet mum could still at least feed her children.
So my mum had to stay home for several years after we were born, and took a job in an off-license (bottle shop or liquor store for my Aussie and American cousins). across the road for many years, so she'd be nearby at all times. Sometimes when I was really young I was allowed to sit out on the back step leading out of the bottle shop and feed the pigeons with spare bits of bread. I remember she passed up a job as a social worker, because on the day she went for her interview my brother Jack fell off a wall at the church next to the school, and hit his head. They struggled to get a hold of my mum, and we all ended up with a trip to the hospital. Back then there were no mobile phones, of course. She decided there and then she had to prioritise being available for her children over a career she really wanted and would have been really good at.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.
Working in an off license was, for mum, a bit ironic. She was one of the very few people in that neighbourhood - or indeed that city - who didn't drink. I can recall her having alcohol perhaps a dozen times throughout her life, and by having alcohol I mean a glass of wine. On one memorable occasion, she went out and had three whole Bacardis, and was crippled the next day with a corker of a hangover. Pasty faced and shuddering she could not initially figure out what was wrong with her and feared she was coming down with the feared and dreaded lurgy. I myself was no stranger to being overhung at this point, so was able to enlighten her and speed her recovery with painkillers and hydration. "Oh is this what a hangover feels like?" she quavered. "How do people stand it?!" and with that plaintive comment she was never hungover again.
My mother was a terrible housekeeper and I do not blame her one bit. We were lazy bastards. Also, her standards were askew due to her own upbringing. She grew up in a slum that made the slum we grew up in look quite reasonable. We had indoor toilets and wore shoes (albeit shoes with holes in them, and occasionally plastic bags inside my socks to try to keep the wet out). Plus, we didn't all live in a single room with a rodent problem, as she did when growing up.
My childhood home had hot and cold running walls, mouldy, rotted window frames, peeling wallpaper and subzero conditions inside the house in the winter. We used to get dressed under the covers to try to avoid shaking and shivering with the cold on school mornings, and you could see your breath fogging up the air in the bedroom of a morning sometimes. The high flats were also ornamented with drunken fathers, and occasionally mothers, on many doorsteps. But it was still certainly a step up from the Garngad of my mother's youth.
When we moved from the Shaws to Eastwood scheme off the Thornliebank Road, we felt like millionaires. Three bedrooms for the five of us, no lift and only two flights of stairs. Luxury.
My mother had a temper, which she kept carefully contained. If you were unfortunate enough to earn her ire you'd catch a glimpse of the furnace banked behind her pellucid azure gaze; her eyes would flare like the heart of the sun as they turned on you. I once asked her why she never smacked us, in a time when smacking wasn't just approved of, it was expected. She said "I was scared if I got started I wouldn't stop".
When her blood was up she was afraid of nobody at all. She was one of the few mothers to stand up to Mrs Baird, the monstrous bitch in charge of St Convals at that time. My mum once strode across a playground past all the other huddled sheep parents and brought my jacket from the classroom - after we'd been instructed to wait outside in the cold without jackets in order to look tidier and more uniform for a Royal visit. Once she'd done that the spell was broken and the other women scurried to emulate her. To protect her children she'd face down anyone. She was a lion.
But her own upbringing had not left much in the way of gentleness. Once you were out of toddlerhood she might not actually have said "but what does the other guy look like?" but it was implied. There was a great deal of violence in our neighbourhood and our school. You did not go home and ask for help. When I first read Lord of The Flies I knew instantly what Piggy's fate would be. I know how brutish human nature is. If you think otherwise, you have no idea how lucky you are to be clueless.
Her father, whom I remember very vaguely as a fairly terrifying individual with a harrowing gaze and many merchant seaman tattoos, didn't believe in education for women. So despite her winning a scholarship, she wasn't permitted to go on to St Mungo's. Back then, children were not required to attend Grammary (secondary) school.
Being unable to attend secondary school left my mum without the qualifications to become a nurse, which she desperately wanted. Undeterred, mother pestered the people in charge of these things at that time (sorry no idea who) until they allowed her to sit a test in lieu of the qualifications. Which she sailed through. She was bright, my mum, and when she really wanted something she generally managed it.
I used to hide in mother's skirts when we would visit her dad. Not that he would have harmed a child I daresay, well not unless it was his own and probably not on purpose.
I recall once my mother telling me about a time her father had hit her. He reserved most of his beatings for her unlucky brother, but now and then she and her sister got a few licks too. On this occasion, her father had slapped her across the room. Probably not deliberately employing that much force, at least according to my mum.
Her head connected with the mantlepiece. She told me that everything went red and then little flashes of light appeared. We had been watching a cartoon where the protagonist had been knocked out and I had wondered aloud why they showed little stars above his head. Mum had explained what happened to her and mused that perhaps the cartoonist had had personal experience of it. She told me this quite calmly, even amusedly,
There’s a family legend that my mother’s father literally got away with murder. I won’t share those details here except to say it had something to do with a crime syndicate and there was a cliff involved. But here’s a tale that might shed some insight into the character of Grandpa Jack.
As a young joiner, my father worked on a few building sites with Joe, and once told me the tale of a winter snowball fight gone horribly wrong. They were all sitting around on the building site sipping tea from their tin cups in the freezing cold. Some of the apprentices were playing snowballs. My grandfather, as was his wont, was sitting drinking his tea quietly and ignoring those around him when a snowball landed in his cup, splashing him.
Without a word, he rose like a bullet from a gun and, grabbing the nearest offender, hurled him onto a table and proceeded to try to throttle the life out of him.
I say try, but it would have come to pass and swiftly if not for the intervention of others, including my dad. They tried, unsuccessfully, to pull him from the swiftly expiring lad, all the while yelling "Joe! Joe! It wisnae him Joe!" Their words began to sink in. Slowly, my grandfather released his death grip and looking around challenged the offender to come forward. There was a deathly hush.
These were all hard, hard men existing in a hard environment, but they knew better than to challenge Joe in that moment (quoth my father). After a moment, grandfather grimly returned to his seat and poured himself another tea. The boy staggered off and the men went about their business. Round eyed I asked dad if grandpa Jack ever caught the boy who really did it? Giving me an old fashioned look my dad said "He already had caught him". Their quick thinking lie saved the lad's life.
You might say I come from a long line of mental.
My mum dragged herself up from nothing to become a nurse, and eventually she and dad owned the small flat we moved to when I was in my teens. To many of you reading this, that won't seem like a lot. But it was monumental. It was the equivalent of me becoming a surgeon and moving to the Cote D'Azur. One of the reasons she was able to do this was that she was, as well as bright and hard working, quietly polite and fairly well-spoken in a working-class manner. She forced this upon us too, though like all poor Scottish children we code switched seamlessly from group to group.
Being reasonably polite throughout my childhood caused me endless trouble. I learned early on to swear like a drunken sailor in a Soho brothel as a form of camouflage in certain circles. It resulted in less doings.
Being a snob was one of the most atrocious crimes where I came from and I was regularly labelled one throughout my childhood. Partially because I could use words of more than two syllables, partially because my mother insisted on the please and thank you routine. And partly because mum wouldn't let us be too rough and ready with our words. You couldn't get away with "but" on the end of a sentence. "Ah don't want tae but" means but I would rather not in Glaswegian. We were also strongly discouraged from shoplifting (which didn't entirely prevent me from being peer pressured into that). All of this singled me out as thinking I was a cut above the rest. And to be fair, I did think I was a cut above most of them. It also resulted in a lot of hand to hand combat throughout my childhood.
But what I didn't know until I was well into my 20s was that mum hadn't always been so politely spoken herself. In fact, when she was undertaking her nursing training a well-meaning Matron took her aside and told her that she was obviously bright and hard-working, but that her speech mannerisms were doing her no favours at all. Mortified as only those with extreme self-esteem issues can be, mother immediately worked to rectify this issue. By the time I was born she sounded like a politely spoken working-class Glaswegian. Except on the rare occasion she lost her temper when she descended into fishwifery with the rest of us.
My brother Jack was a shy and bespectacled wee soul when he was very young. Once another child kicked him, in front of my mother. I think he was 5 or 6. My mother looked to the other mum to reprimand her child, as she herself would have. We were given no quarter on such behaviour. When the other woman broke that social contract my mother turned to my younger brother and loudly and clearly instructed him to kick the boy back. He balked. My mum said "Either you kick him back. Right now. Or I will kick you." Jack gave the boy a feeble kick and ran back to her safe insanity. The other woman fled. Mostly, people did.
Parenting Glasgow style was a little different back then. My elder sib once sent me an email with the following memory - I've lifted this verbatim:
"When I was very young, about 4 years old I think, I used to play in the park behind the tenement, Auldhouse park. On my own! Adult supervision!! End of the world!!! About the only advice I got from the parents was "don't play in the stream, don't leave the park and don't speak to strangers or take gifts". One time I was playing and two older lads approached me. To me they seemed huge, probably bout 13 or 14, and they offered me a toy car which, I assume, they had grown out of. I refused because of my instructions and, after a bit of attempted persuasion, they left bemused. I told mum and she couldn't stop laughing and advised me, basically, to use my discretion in future. Innocent days."
Innocent days indeed. We roamed the streets from morning till night. But again, my mother was different because when night fell we were expected to be upstairs and inside. Many were not. And she was always home if we came home. Many of my friends were kicked out of the house in the morning and told not to return until the evening. We could always go home for a piece or to use the toilet if need be.
Mum was of the generation taught that PDAs were not a good thing. When I was about four, I was on a bus with mum and my big brother. Allan is 9 years older than me. He tried to give me a hug and was instantly reprimanded by mother "Not in public" she said sternly.
When my mother was pleased with me, which seemed rarely, she would sometimes call me flower, or doll, or florrie.
This same mum who, one night grew tired of my father’s drunken and often abusive antics. As he sat, munted, on the sofa bellowing demands for coffee, mum quietly went in to the kitchen and boiled the kettle. She emerged holding the steaming jug, stood in front of him and asked very quietly, “Dae ye want it?”. He got up and went to bed.
As I grew older she bought me my first TV for my flat, my first video player. She would come to meet me in Skirving Street for lunch on Fridays and always insist on paying, and also insist on slipping me ten pounds under the table, though I was working and living in a flat by then.
And when you went to my mum's for something to eat, you were always given the good biscuits. My oldest friend Jane remembers my mum's biscuits. None of your McVitie's digestive nonsense. Chocolate biscuits, sometimes even the ones wrapped in foil, were dispensed at our house. We may have had no money for shoes, but if we had a guest we had the good biscuits.
She was most affronted if she went to another relative or friend's home for a predetermined visit and there were no biscuits proferred. Aunt Helen was a serial offender. "Not even a biscuit!" she once declaimed, flabbergasted. "I sat there for two hours and she never even offered a biscuit!" My mother then turned up with a packet of biscuits on the next visit. A not so subtle dig if ever there was one. But not, I might add, the good chocolate ones.
You see, amongst the people I grew up with, the working poor who struggled for every pound and penny, to not offer sustenance to a guest was simply not done. When I first came to Aus and was asked to bring a plate to a barbecue, I was mightily confused. Once I realised they didn't want actual crockery but I was being asked to bring food, I was bewildered. If you came to dinner at a friend's where I grew up and brought your own food you'd have heartily insulted your host. It would have been like saying they couldn't afford to feed you, or their hospitality wasn't good enough.
Different societies, different customs.
Today I read the name of a biscuit from the land of long ago and far away, and it made me think of my mum. Whom I miss more, not less, with every passing year. You've been gone so long now, mum. 17 years or more. You barely even made 70. My children never got a chance to know you.
My mother was a gentle heart who was forced to learn to be hard. A wounded warrior who fought her whole life and stood up for us and for herself time and again. Life was not kind to her, her childhood was a nightmare, her adulthood one of duty, hard work and many sorrows. And yet she almost never complained, and rarely talked of any of what she’d been through. She just straightened her crown and kept walking.
I wish I'd gone to the shops more often and without moaning about it mum. I wish I'd done some of the cooking, I know you hated it and you worked so hard. Every time I prepare soup or a casserole I wish I was making it for you and our family, all those years ago. I wish I'd washed your windows for you and I wish I'd gone back home more and spent more time with you. I wish I'd realised how hard your life was, and how you must have missed your own parents who also passed too young. I wish I hadn't seen you as an impenetrable force of nature who could fight a hurricane if you had to, and seen instead the woman who had had no choice but to face hurricanes. I wish I'd sheltered you and thanked you more.
I miss you, mum. You deserved better. Thank you for all you did for me. You taught me how to be a lion mum too.
And If by some miracle of the afterlife we ever meet again I promise you, I'll break out the good biscuits.
Maybe even the ones with tinfoil.
Alison Tennent, Queensland Australia, June 2021
Copyright Alison Tennent 2021, all rights reserved. Scottish by birth, upbringing and bloodline, Australian by citizenship. If you’re reading this anywhere but The Garrulous Glaswegian, Vocal+ or Medium, this work may have been plagiarized.