"Cowardice asks the question...is it safe? Expediency asks the question...is it politic? Vanity asks the question...is it popular? But conscience asks the question...is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must take it because it is right." ~Dr. Martin Luther King

Wednesday 14 October 2015


Thanksgiving Sunday was a lovely day outside at Heather and Andy's house. The backyard extends the indoors with a tiny wooden house on the grid, comfortable chairs, tables, a rippling fountain, John Denver music and logs smouldering in the fire pit. 

Family offspring are grown but unlike Ladybird's children, none of them have flown. 

Except for Heather and Adam, family members are exceptionally tall. With friends added the house does not easily accommodate all. Many evenings, in and out-of-season, are spent around the fire under the stars. Camping families are familiar with the magic. Memory sustains one summer to the next.

My big old sweater smelling of wood smoke is seldom washed. It harbors the scent of burning driftwood from Georgian Bay, trees that grew in Aurora and Newmarket and logs gathered from round and about the Bay of Quinte.  

As day closed the families from a distance had to leave, the circle gathered closer  and the crackling of burning wood added to the ambiance. Smell of wood smoke ,flames, glowing embers,a clear starry night sky  and pleasant company is as good a way to spend an evening. 

Memories stirred.

Number three son Martin agreed.....fire-watching in silence is enough to generate a sense of place as much as anything.

wondered about my  influence on this particular family tradition. 

My children have all visited the town but not the place I came from. The municipal library occupies the space formerly known as Friar's Croft in Irvine, Ayrshire. I was born at Number 22.  During early Christianity a Friary accessible to the Auld Kirk by stepping stones, crossed the river near that location. Now nothing  is left to mark that part of its long history not even a name. 

U.K.tourists are guided to palaces, castles, stately homes,historic monuments, and among others, the cottages of Robert Burns and Ann Hathaway.

In Irvine,little if anything, is left of homes that accommodated families at the time of the industrial revolution. Nothing to show we were ever there although we were for a couple of hundred years.

Flagstone floors  in the common areas were hollowed out by foot traffic. Dry brittle plaster had fallen out from passage walls .Windows had been blanked out to avoid a window tax imposed in the 1700's

Gas street lamps were lit by a  bicycling lamplighter carrying a long pole. He stopped, rested a foot on the curb, opened the lamp door with a hook at the end of the pole pulled a knob to light the gas, closed the door and proceeded to the next light. Lamp standards were for climbing. Kids made it a competition. 

Cooking was done  on a small coal range. Wash-house and lavatory were outside.Familes averaged seven or eight children. 

Buildings were blackened and  inside and  out, the air was hazy with coal smoke.Depending on wind direction, smoke might be back-drafted down the chimney. Chimney tops were fitted with "grannies" ...short round fat metal shapes, that spun continuously to disperse the smoke. 

Nothing  different was  known. 

The chimney sweep was another bicycling tradesperson. His  back laden with long poles ,circular brushes and his face blacker than coal . 

On rainy evenings,a family gathered  around the fire in the circle of light from a lone gas mantle above.

Guessing games occupied us. For example " My granny had a sweetie shop and in it she sold ???"   Varieties were endless. The craving for sweets was universal. Songs had endless verses and a chorus led by my brother Patrick, a Boy Scout. 

Neither electricity, radio and certainly not television existed in our world. 

A gas meter under the sink alongside the range had to be fed with pennies. Bedtime was early. Depending on pennies available. My mother ,myself and two sisters slept in the set-in bed in the kitchen. My father and brother occupied the bed in the room,never otherwise occupied because only the  fire in the kitchen was ever lit.

Older rentals known as a "single-end" existed on the same street. One room only.

Some buildings "condemned" as unfit for habitation were already crumbling. Overgrown ruins  were not unfamiliar. Families unable to pay rent moved in  as "squatters" when previous tenants vacated to new  municipal housing with electricity and indoor amenities. 

As new homes were built,the oldest and worst of condemned housing was eventually demolished.
The second World War intervened and the social housing program was deferred.

Nothing in my children's experience compares .How could I describe it to them? 

Hardship was not an issue any more than the air we breathed. 

Great winds, rain and heavy sea fogs meant  the  town was comparatively clean as opposed to major industrial cities and towns with living conditions much worse than our own. 

The mournful sound of a foghorn, screech and clangor of steam trains stopping and starting at the station  at the end of the  street, a  3pm. daily detonation at the  Blue Billy, church bells on a Sunday morning were all familiar.

Blue Billy was a high coal-colored stone outcrop close to the shore which exists no more . Expunged   with the sand dunes that made Irvine a natural ,wild and wind-swept, unspoiled and non-commercial shore.

Craig's the butchers, east of The Cross, had a set of horns high on the wall behind the counter.

At three or four years old, I figured that all horn noises tcame from that single pair in the butcher's shop. I remember gazing up at them wondering where the sound came from. 

An early example of word association. 


Anonymous said...

How some of us, once children, remember when Toronto had a winning major league athletic team.

And now the city has something to remember for years to come, and the sport of baseball has one of the most bizarre innings in history, the 7th.

Read Cathal Kelly in The Globe and Mail, on line now and tomorrow's front page lead story.

Toronto is happier tonight following the Blue Jays' 6 -3 victory. It may not last: enjoy it while you can.

Anonymous said...

When I read about the memory of a "window tax". I had to google it to find out if you had possibly fell off your chair and hit your head. But lo and behold, there was a tax called a "window tax" that England, Wales, France and Scotland imposed on its cotizens.

Anonymous said...

"Nothing in Canadian experience compares."

Nothing in your Canadian Experience perhaps. There are a lot of Canadians that had similar hardships after moving to this country. I would also hazard a guess that in some impoverish areas, similar situations exist today.

Anonymous said...

amazing, E. thank you so much for the trip in time

Anonymous said...

" He made the night a little brighter
Wherever he did go
The old lamp-lighter
Of long, long ago. "

Anonymous said...

7:46 - Evelyn doesn't say anything of the sort. She does say "Nothing my children's experience compares".

Anonymous said...

Cathal Kelly used to be with the Star. The Globe hired him & turned him loose on their sports section. He has done extremely well.
I had not thought to see another really good sports writer after Scott Young and Roy Mac Gregor.
A terrific diversion from thinking about the election,

Anonymous said...

Very true, 07:46 (i.e., First Nations communities).

Anonymous said...

Evelyn edited her original post because I copy/pasted the quote directly.