Summy passed me working in Kerr’s garden in Shakespeare Avenue. It runs parallel with our horseshoe shaped street—and he stays in McGrath’s old council house, a few houses down—from home. He was taking his two sons down the road. I imagined it was to school or nursery. One of the boys fell behind, and he was acting up. Summy was firm, but loving with him.
Summy’s mum was an alkie. His step-dad was away working for the Shah of Iran. He spent a lot of his childhood looking after his wee sister, whom we labelled Janey Mongo. A version of Summy pops up in lots of my stories. Summy joined the navy. He signed on for twenty years when he left school. I remember him coming home in dress uniform and into Macintoshes Bar. We were going to the Oasis later. We told him he couldn’t go with that thing on him, but he went with us, anyway. None of us scored, but that was normal. I don’t know what ship he was on, or if he was a Falklands’ war veteran. That was normal too.
David Cruickshank’s life in Glenrothes in Fife was a version of ours. Some of my favourite books are coming of age and autobiographical: Cider with Rosie. Growing up in the Gorbals. This Boy’s Life. In the Mind’s Eye. All Quiet of the Western Front. War and Peace, arguably, bridges both genres. He claimed to have read it aboard HMS Fearless, on the 8000 miles journey to the Falklands. The loss of over 200 British lives came after the sinking of the ageing Argentinian ship, ARA General Belgrano. Anyone that reads War and Peace should have a medal pinned on his or her shoulders.
That’s not a very good joke. I read David Cruickshank’s book in almost one sitting. Putting one word in front of another can be harder than it looks. We become word blind.
‘I awake feeling like someone is prising my eyes out of their sockets with a rusty hammer drill, which is not as bad as I thought I would feel.’
‘I awake,’ should be I wake up, or I waken. A minor quibble. My da’s bigger than your da. But I don’t like the editing. The author, as a comedian, tries for a jokey tone. But too often no cliché is left unused. Descriptive phrases become puffed out. Adolescent lust, for example, becomes dreams about ‘motorcycle girl’. We all have them. I could tell you the names of all the girls I fancied from the age of around five. They all had Barbie hair and faces. Readers don’t need to hear about them. Strip to the boner is not always better.
‘Wee George is emerging from a sleeping bag like a maggot
from a cow’s swollen belly.’
Similes that strain should be abandoned, especially if they are visual images that mix metaphors. A map of how did we get to this, with a gasp at the end.
My mum asked me to shave my da, before he died. She knew I didn’t want to do it, but I wouldn’t refuse her.
Lucy Easthorpe, When the Dust Settles, uses the Welsh notion of Hiraeth. A longing for home. A place that no longer exists. An innocence lost, but we can still hear the echo.
I wonder if my da had post-traumatic-stress disorder. David Cruickshank’s book is timely. We have war in Europe, again. The Belarusian writer, and dissident, Svetlana Alexievich The Unwomanly Face of War tells of a young girls surviving the collectivisation of Ukrainian farms by eating horse shit. Around six million died. It wasn’t so bad, because it was frozen and she could break parts off. Girl soldiers, during The Great Patriotic War, who carried no weapons because they weren’t enough, and men carried them. Their job was to lag behind Russian tanks, and when they were hit, try to save the men inside, by pulling them out of the burning shell.
It’s difficult to imagine. But not for David Cruickshank. When his ship was bombed and strafed, he was entombed in a stinky room, not much bigger than a tank. If the ship had sunk, he would have died. Stress doesn’t always leave a mark on the body. But our bodies don’t forget. We have lost that innocent non-awareness. Hiraeth. David Cruickshank writes from a place of knowledge. In joining the dots, he’s too many dots. But hey, it’s a cliché, but none of us are perfect. And if I see Summy again, I’ll need to ask him about his war. Ironically, Summy was always writing a book. We thought he was a fucking idiot. Don’t get above yersel. Stayin Alive and making do are staple relatives of Scottish working-class life.