Friday, January 08, 2021

Can I help you? Working 9 to 5, in the Gift Shop of Life

It's 2021! 

Here we are, in a full-blown Covid crisis. Honestly, I can barely look. Time to deploy some Memoir Nostalgia, as a distraction. Let me tell you about my first ever job.  

I was a Saturday assistant in an island shop. Can I help you, Madam? I was way too shy for that kind of chat, but here is my tentative 80's grin.

It was a shop of lovely things, for locals and tourists. We sold Wrangler jeans, Lopi jumpers, silver jewellery, chunky pottery - painted with puffins, books and cards; waxed green jackets and carved walking sticks (bring your own Labradors).

The shop smelled of new books and clean wool. The door made a ding. Postcards poked from a revolving rack. (Photos of our island, looking almost tropical).  There were big windows to stare out of,  and a secret kitchen at the back, full of shoe boxes and coffee mugs.

My early tasks included making Camomile tea with honey (for the boss) and arranging the Hallmark greeting cards, via price codes. I was only 14; nervous about getting things wrong. 

On the first day, I gave someone too much change.  An extra pound note from a fiver! I was shaking, as if I'd accidently killed someone's dog. 

The other shop assistant was called Janet, or at least, I'm going to call her that - in case she is embarrassed at me celebrating her, years on. That's the thing about memoir - maybe people don't want a cameo role. 

Anyway, 'Janet' reassured me that my incorrect-change-catastrophe wasn't a handcuff situation. I think she dipped into her own purse, to make the numbers add up. Aww, Janet.

Of course, I looked up to Janet. She had long curly hair, a curvy figure and she oozed capability and  kindness. She twirled her curls in her fingertips, and gave wonderful throaty laughs. She wore a diamond ring that clicked on the counter top. She was great at helping all the customers. 

I was the opposite. My number one goal was to avoid 'pestering' customers. I stood at the side of the shopfloor, trying to look available, but not pressurising. A key distinction in my 14 year old mind. I hid under my 'Lady Di' fringe.

Beside shelves of denim (of every size), there was a small changing room. Inside, a window looked out, far over Loch Indaal. The window had no curtain. Seals and seagulls would blush.

One time, a local scuba-diver guy was back from the oil rigs. He was famous for owning a speed boat. Janet was doing brilliantly, trying to help him choose a present for his girlfriend, or his 'fiancé'.

'Money's no matter!' he announced,  as Janet offered him an array of  jumper and jewellery options. 

Money's no matter! He repeated, waving his generous arms about the shop. 

Money was a matter for me. I got paid £5 per Saturday, and it felt like a fortune at the time. My mum encouraged me to save, so I stashed the cash in my Bank of Scotland hippo. 

After a few months, Janet mentioned that I'd be expected to work right through the school summer holidays. What? I was practically winded. Give up childhood summer to work 6 days a week? Indoors? 

Call me spoiled, call me a work-shy fop, but at fourteen, no amount of money was going to be worth the sacrifice.

'You'd better tell him,' said Janet. 

The boss seemed surprised. Frustrated. 'I've trained you, you have responsibilities,' he said.

I don't know where my Jane-Eyre audacity came from, but I replied plainly -

'I'm too young to have responsibilities.' 

Today, I can see both sides. It was a privilege to be offered a job, so young, in this shop of lovely things; to have the chance to learn; to watch Janet in action and have her watch over me.  

'Which boys do you like?' she'd ask me, as we stared out the window at cars driving up and down Main Street. I'd confide. She'd concur,  'Oh, he's a nice boy. And he's lovely too.' It was sisterhood. 

There was a dress in the shop that I used to adore.  It was displayed prominently, on a spotlit hanger.  Black satin with a red sash around the waist. Imagine Lady Di at a Gala ball. Madonna in a Material World.  

I knew I would never own it. It was £60. Twelve weeks wages!  But I loved projecting myself into it. A secret Cinderalla dream. How blessed I would feel. Surely it was made for me?

Or maybe, it was made to teach me patience, when things I longed for, were just outside my reach. 

I don't rememember the day that I left the shop for summer, I just remember that I had to. I won't forget the joy of summers on the island, on those postcard beaches, string bikinis and 80's slogan T shirts. Ce'st L'ete! Joe Cool. Choose Life. 

But I won't forget working in the shop either. Tea break and biscuits in the tiny, yellow kitchen. Christmas shoppers blown in from the blustery cold. The glass revolving jewellery case, the tartan carpet.  Growing up slowly, in hush of the upstairs fashion floor. Wide windowsills to watch the world from. A gift shop, it certainly was. 

So, after lockdown, if you're lucky enough to be on Islay, pop in to the gift shop for a few postcards. Or maybe a new dress: glorious in the spotlight, the perfect fit, waiting for you... still.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

A Different Kind of Christmas


In our garden, there is a 15 foot hedge. An evergreen laurel, to be precise. 

Every couple of years, I pay 'a man' on a ladder to trim it. I don't trust myself with a chainsaw. Who does? Yesterday, on the darkest/shortest day of the year, I began to attack it with a £3 saw from Lidl. (Try cleaning the Titanic with a toothbrush). 

There is something addictive about hacking through a forest (I can see how Sleeping Beauty got her prince). I was getting all my 2020 anger out. Take that, you stupid thicket! You dumb plant! Rampant growth, Out of Control.., you Pandemic Metaphor, you! 

The saw made pulsing noises, like electricity down a train track. It was rhythmic and soothing, in the still winter air. The sawdust fell, pale and petite as snow in a snow globe.

I have missed you, readers.

I have wanted to 'talk' to you more frequently, but poor Tess has been off school again, since early December, and that means I am immersed in stay-at-home Mummery. Her chronic cough just powers on (like the hedge) and she needs soothed to sleep after 11pm. 

We are waiting for more tests, more advice in 2021, though doctors are kinda busy right now. She's cheerful enough, between coughs. 

Doctor Sita, checking Lung Function. 

If 2020, has taught me anything, it is this: my kids need me and I should drop the vague 'guilt' or 'not enough-ness' that comes with being a Stay at Home Mum. I have carried that  feeling for a decade, like a wee battered suitcase.

I'm generally in a minority. Most of my pals have jobs and children. 

I feel like my writing is not a 'job'. It's something I attempt to do, when the kids are at school and coasting.

But this has been a year like no other. And it continues to be. Often, I think this is just the beginning of massive planetary turbulence and climate emergency - something I have to try to hide from the kids.  

I've enjoyed writing a few memoir type posts - escapist nostalgia - and I hope to get back to that, maybe at a time when the kids aren't constantly asking, 

Are you excited for Christmas, Mum?

On a scale of 1 to 10? Are you 10 YET?!


The jury aren't convinced. I'm guilty as charged, for having an inner Greta Thunberg.  But I am proud of my hedge trimming, instead of hedge funding. 

Have yourself a different kinda Christmas. Put that chainsaw down.  Love the ones you're with.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

You Must Be My Lucky Star

 It is 1982, and I'm head-banging to AC/DC at the Islay High School disco. I'm wearing a pleated flowery skirt with a puff-sleeved blouse. My Lady Diana haircut, normally flat as a cow pat, is mildly electrified. I feel stupid and invigorated, comical and earnest. Why am I doing this?

A semi-circle of spotty kids face the stage, in race-start position. They wear denim jackets ('den jacks') covered in patches, sewn on by their mothers; patches that say Motorhead and The Scorpions. On one patch, an embroidered, naked woman writhes astride a snake. Hair flails, air guitar wails.  Teachers look on, bemused and bored, shirts still tucked into slacks. The air smells of wood floors, hair gel and longing.

 It was one of those nights, when you turn out the lights, and everything comes in to view, scream AC/DC.

 'Did you know head-banging eventually causes brain damage?

We said this to each other, earlier in the day, during maths. We assessed the risk, with an inhalation of air through the nostrils; a serious nod of the head, a dip of the Lady Di flick. Yup. Live dangerously. That's what teenagers do. 

A few school dances later,  Madonna burst into my life, to let me off the hook, and guide me away from Heavy Metal. Step away from the potential brain damage. Crop your vest tops. Brandish your crucifixes wisely. 

Madonna, oh, Madonna. As soon as I saw your videos - ogled them, over and over, rewinding the heck out of that clunky VHS cassette, I knew I needed to follow your Lucky Star. 

It wasn't just that Madonna was bendy and gorgeous and dressed like... no one ever before, it was the spectacular way she carried herself. She made self-control look easy. Anything was possible.  

Admittedly, I got confused when she married Sean Pean (why not Matt Dillon?).  Then, Sean Pean left her - left Madonna?!- and she poured out her heartbreak to the press. It said so in Just 17, so it was 100% true. 

I was equally discombobulated, when Jean Paul Gaultier strapped 'Madge' into that ice cream-cone bra.  Are you sure, Madonna? Are you sure you want to poke fun at your femine prowess? Are you sure it's even attractive? Who was I, her mother?

But that was the whole point. She didn't care. She rocket-fuelled herself out of our comfort zone. She made mankind (womenkind / every kind) come to her - not the other way around. 


I am tone deaf. Some people say, there's no such thing as 'tone deaf' and anyone can learn to sing, but I'm not fooled.

When we were kids, we were asked to 'perform' for visitors. With resigned practicality, my mum used to announce -

'John can sing, but the girl's can't.' 

Family Von Trapp. Not.

It sounded cruel, but at least I had no delusions from a young age. I was never goning to be an embarrassing audition in the X factor. 

Mind you, in high school, a music teacher was looking for kids to sing a few solo lines, in the pantomime. I put up my hand and announced:

'My brother can sing, but I CAN'T!' The confused woman shook her head. 'But your brother's NOT HERE is he?'


I have always liked 'uncool' music. I refuse to be ashamed of it.  I will dance round the kitchen to Lionel Ritchie, Hall and Oates, Radio 2. 

In the early 90's, a boy called Neil Roberston visited my small basement flat. Neil was the talent scout who brought Belle and Sebastian to Jeepster Records. He flicked through  the CD's and commented - 'You're lucky this isn't a first date, because you wouldn't get a second date on this collection'. 

I knew it was tongue-in-cheek, but it reminded me of an exchange at school, one of my  historical clunkers. I cringe at my lack of tact. I told a girl I didn't like (a girl I didn't know how to connect with)  that I 'hated' Morrissey, and he was 'rubbish'. Gladioli on Top of The Pops?!  Pardon?

My supposed enemy had the nuance and the savy to appreciate Mozza. She kept a straight face and reiterated that she liked him, she liked his voice. I was too young to 'get it'. If I had a time-machine, I'd apologise, or at least keep my neon Smash Hits views to myself. 

But, back to scouting for Belle and Sebastian. 

In 1997, they'd release their second album - If You're Feeling Sinister. I'd be on the cover, reading Kafka. Years on, I'd be more famous for this, than for anything else. It comes up in conversation, and strangers say, 

'No Way? That was you? Coooooool!' 

And the best part is, I can still keep my uncool taste. 

I'm still best pals with Stuart, lead singer of Belle and Sebastian. At a B&S gig,  I met Francis, my partner of 23 years. We have two kids, a garden, a milk frother and a Romanian Rescue dog. Life is good. Francis drums for Teenage Fanclub and writes music for Film and TV

So far, nobody's asked me to sing backing vocals on their tracks. Lucky, that. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

Coke, Chocolate and Cornflakes. Mix with Love For The Very First Time

There was an advert in the 80’s that compared drinking Coke to being in love. For the Very First Time. A stonking power-ballad advised teenagers everywhere, especially me -


It’s an uncharted sea, it’s an unopened door,

But ya gotta reach out, and ya gotta explore


Only then, do you know, you’re in LOVE

For the very first time, for the VERY FIRST TIME


I don’t drink Coke now, I haven’t for decades. (Hark, is that a puritan smug alarm?). 


But COKE and LOVE and ADVENTURE were all one to me, on the fateful day we left Ireland to move to Scotland. Next slide please: Young Family Emigrates From Civil War.


For some unknown reason, Mum and my 3 younger siblings flew to Edinburgh. Probably Aer Lingus, my mum breastfeeding my baby sister at 400mph, mid-air, shamrock on the tail fin. Dad took me on the ferry. He led me straight to bar, where he ordered a Guinness.


“What dy’a want to drink, love, a can of Coke?’ he asked me, casually, completely unaware of his power. 


A CAN OF COKE? TO MYSELF? I am 7 years old. 


As one of four kids, I never, ever, had anything to ALL to myself.


Every Mars Bar or Crunchie was gently sawn into 6 pieces, and arranged in semi-circle: a chunky chocolate necklace, on a side plate, passed round the sofa with reverence. Bless Me Father. 


Weak Quosh orange squash was poured from a plastic jug into doll-sized glasses.  Once, I tearfully refused a pancake that  my sister had tried to grab, because I would, ‘feel her feel.’ 


The status of having an iconic can of Coke raised to my lips, in a smoky bar full of truckers on a Stena Link ferry, as it crashed the waves of the Irish Sea, was a lightning strike moment in childhood. 

I was the advert, years before the advert existed. 


What would Scotland be like?  Narnia? Switzerland? Land of Highland cows and Edinburgh  rock in a tartan box?


The flat surprise of the blue Motorway signs. They are the same! The roads are the same, the cars are the same. The weather is the same. The fields are bigger and ploughed bare. The fields  look more lonely; less like a childhood jigsaw of The Farm.


But I would not be dissuaded. This was an adventure. 


And, true, on the very first night, my sister and I watched from the bedroom window of our new Wimpy House near Edinburgh. The local kids put on a Cul-de-Sac circus for us. They cycled in circles on Chopper bikes, doing wheelies, and 'no hands' as we clapped furiously. 


Here were the kids, here was the street, where we would share sweets, love and life.


The Cola Bottles, the Fried Eggs, the Dolly Mixtures, The McCowan Toffees, the Penny Chews. 


The Penny Chews became a standard metric measurement. If something cost £100 – say, a lawnmower or a new carpet – we’d say, ‘IMAGINE that in Penny Chews! A bath full of Penny Chews? A Kitchen, filled to the ceiling with Penny Chews!’ 


In the late 1970’s my brother, John went to our new, Scottish village shop and asked the shopkeeper –


Excuse me please, how much are your Terry’s Chocolate Orange?


Eighty-nine pence, she replied.


‘I’ll just have a penny chew, then,’ said John. 





Maybe I had a sheltered upbringing, but it seemed as if sweets were more of a Scottish thing. There were always kids clutching white bags of pick and mix on the street corner.


At eight years old, I thought the pinnacle of adult freedom and liberty, would be the ability to eat as many Cornflakes as you like. Seriously. I have always loved Cornflakes an unreasonable amount. More than sweets, or ice cream. They hit the bliss point in my brain. I think a bowl of Kellogg’s ‘Sunshine Breakfast’ Cornflakes with soya milk would be my last supper on death-row. Philistine or no.


In 1980, we made another big move from Edinburgh to the Island of Islay. It’s a horseshoe-shaped island, half way between Ireland and Scotland. As if the Mull of Kintyre was kicking a football to Ireland, trying to land a decent pass. Oi, Paddy!


 My Dad drove our family on to a Cal Mac ferry, this time, no Coke-to-Myself glory.  At first, we lived in a council house, perched on an outcrop of rock, overlooking the bay. 


The house had chip board floors and no carpets. It was pebble-dashed, the colour and texture of a Bourbon biscuit. On a clear day, we could see Ireland across the sea. 

My dad had warned us that the island was so remote, ‘there’ll be no television.’ He was trying to toughen us up. Lower the bar, so we weren’t disappointed. But there was television, of course. Coke adverts. 


And there was a High School of 350 kids, where my dad took up his new job, as Principle English teacher. He wore an M&S tweed suit jacket with two toggle buttons like polished, wooden mushrooms. I was embarrassed about those mushrooms. What’s with the mushrooms, I used to think. Whose idea was that?


After a while, Dad recruited two 14-year-old girls from his class, called Ann and Caran – to babysit while he took my mum to meet the locals in the pub (the glamour of the Ardbeg Inn). 


Ann and Caran always brought us sweets. From the pockets of their matching fleece jackets, they eased out packets of Maltesers, Juicy Fruits, and Caramac bars; placing them on the sofa, as if setting down a family of baby birds. 


 To my 11-year-old self, Ann and Caran were impossibly beautiful. Caran was blonde and shy, soft as cotton wool, a hint of fabric softener, or baby powder.  Ann had chestnut shiny hair WITH A FLICK! Ann knew how to deploy that flick. Her smile and her cute white teeth. Ann and Caran. Caran and Ann. They were white chocolate and brown chocolate. So mysterious yet, so incredibly real. 


They turned the green dial on my Dad’s Hi-Fi radio to Radio Luxembourg. They danced about the living room, in front of the fire, laughing and being generally spectacular. They talked about kissing boys, late at night, in the red telephone box.


But how did you BREATHE? I asked.


They fell about laughing. They taught us to dance, by rolling our pelvis like Elvis. They knew all about Being in Love for the Very First Time.  I lapped them up then, and I raise a glass to them now. Or at least a golden spoonful of Kellogg’s Cornflakes. 



Saturday, November 21, 2020

Sam Teddy Sugar Lump

The sheer luck of a happy childhood can’t be underestimated. You can dance your way on to the dance floor of life.


I was a lucky, happy kid. I want to write about growing up, but I don’t know where to start. Then I thought about objects, as markers of time and place. I thought about Sam Teddy Sugar Lump.


Even now, I love the rhythm of it. We stood in the back garden, my sister, Claire, and I, chanting in sing-song, Sam Teddy Sugar Lump!  Sam Teddy Sugar Lump!


On the other side of the wire-diamond fence, a huge Alsatian dog came bounding up, in a frenzy of barking. We clapped and danced like Rumpelstiltskin.


Sam Teddy Sugar Lump was the name we gave him, and he could bark a storm and wag his brush of a tail. Who knew if he was piqued or delighted?  We were safe, luxuriously safe, on our side of the fence. We presumed he liked us. 


A child who presumes they are liked, is a lucky child. They have no evidence to the contrary. 


Aged 7, I was walking home from school (in a civil war, in Belfast!) and I got lost in a different housing estate. Two older girls speculated I must have been a ‘feckin fielian’. 


I had been casually identified as a rare species of butterfly and was generally unperturbed.  Later, I asked my mum was a ‘fielian’ was. She recounted the story to my aunts and uncles, with much head shaking and general knowing. 




In our small kitchen, with buttercup wallpaper, my pregnant ‘Mammy’ was rolling pastry. I asked her, how the baby got inside her tummy. 


She placed her words carefully; a story about, ‘the man putting a seed in the lady’.  I had a clear vision of an apple pip being carefully positioned into a belly button.


But when did Daddy put the seed in? I asked. 


Eh, one day when you were away at Colin Patterson’s house, she replied. Nice one. 


It seemed odd to think of such clandestine ceremony, when I was digging for treasure at the back of Colin Patterson’s garage, or practising ‘Commado runs’ (your feet have to hit your bum!) or listening to Rolf Harris sing Two Little Boys in Colin Patterson’s back room, my bare legs imprinted by the wicker stool. Look at us!


These were the ways we passed our days. In 1972, Mark Spitz was a swimmer who won 9 gold medals at the Olympics. We lined up on a knee-high wall, taking turns to shout ‘Mark Spitz!’ and make a spitting sound. We threw our bodies through the air, diving into the ‘swimming pool’ of grass, below. 


Back then, everything was a soft landing. 


We tried to catch bees in jam jars at the Fuscia hedge. We knocked at back doors, and once, when neighbours were out, we entered the kitchen and stood on a chair to reach the biscuit tin.  We took a biscuit each, thrilled at our audacity. My mum made us go back to apologise. 


No wonder then, I still remember, ‘the Judas ice-cream.’ 


My mum, nee Madeline McGuckin (yes), insisted on, ‘no eating too close to tea time’ (i.e. dinner time). I heard the ice cream van, as Mammy juggled with saucepans and fried sausages in the small kitchen. 


I ran to ‘Daddy’ in the ‘front’ room. He was reading on the leather sofa, in brown slacks, George Best hair, and a white cotton shirt. I asked for 2pence for an ice cream. He rummaged in his pocket, and dropped a copper coin in my palm. It was that easy.


One lick of the ice cream, was all I could take, before I threw it behind the ‘Mark Spitz’ wall. It sank like a deflated clown, in a pointy hat, streaked with strawberry sauce. The wave of guilt!  Through my whole body, turning in my stomach. I went inside for tea. I told no one. 


Memories are like a hall of mirrors. Years later, you only have memory-of-memory. All my life, I’ve never really liked ice cream, the way other people do. But I liked it as an early life lesson, a twitch on the moral compass.


 ‘The past beats inside me like a second heart’ said author, John Banville in his novel, The Sea. Indeed.  All praise be, to the luck of a childhood played out on a sunlit street, to the distant bark of a dog we liked to call, Sam Teddy Sugar Lump. 



Wednesday, November 18, 2020

I wish I had a river, I could skate away on

I like Tess's drawing of the Skating Minister. As metaphors go, it's quite apt. We slide forward, oh so precariously, fuelled on faith. What else is there?

Well, science obviously. My post on Covid in Schools Risks, got more views than other posts, and I'm still  preoccupied with that concern. 

My mum has decided I'm bugging ScotGov too much, and warned me (in brisk, motherly tones):  'They will never shut schools, no matter how much you campaign'. 

But, Lo! What's that on the horizon? I see the EIS, Scotland's biggest teaching Union put out a statement, insisting that schools in Tier 4 must move to blended learning for the protection of all.  I agree. Let's see.

Time will tell. Obviously, I have to reiterate - I'd much rather kids were at school - but it HAS to be safer than it is now. 

Talking of the future..., Scottish Book Trust and Edinburgh City library are running a wee poetry project about 'The Future'. They want anyone and everyone to write a quick, 4 line poem about what the future is.

I operate from the Say What You See method (remember Catchphrase?). So here is mine:

The Future

comes to those who wait,

it's my dog licking the white table cloth

her paws at ten-to-two, a priest saying mass

to crumbs that fall astray. 

What else people? Honest-lee, Honest-la. Not much!? Punctuate your days with cups of tea. 

I need to get started with my online 'Santa' shopping. Something I don't excel at. Last year, Tess set out 'booby traps' for Santa - taught skipping ropes, tied to the bed leg. 

She heard me stumbling about, filling stockings at midnight, trying not to swear when I tripped. 'Very Ciara MacLaverty', she said. Yes. 

Keep Skating, look ahead, chin up. 


Thursday, November 05, 2020

Nothing, pure nothing in the middle of the day

This is the first moment I can sit down. The first moment not devoted to other things. 

It reminds me of a poem called DAYSTAR by Rita Dove. It's a poem about the vast immersion of motherhood and those small moments coming up for air. 

It is 12 years since I gave birth to my son. Happy Birthday, Hugh! Sometimes known as Hugo Boss or The Hughster. He's a cracker, and how we love him.

We've all aged well, and know how to dress appropriately. The kids can be suitably embarrassed by this photo. I'm suitably embarrassed by this photo. It was a game called, 60 seconds to raid the dressing up box, on Halloween. 

Tess was off school for 2 days. Her infuriating Vocal Cord Dysfunction cough relapsed. 

The online nutritionists seem to cost the same as a fortnight in Majorca for a family of four.  Who knew? I expect they also require a lot of dietary commitment (euphemism for giving up wheat, dairy and sugar). Easy for any child?! 

I haven't given up trying. I'm just researching down more rabbit holes* ( *with organic lettuce and carrots). And the price would be worth paying, if it helped to heal her. 

I remain very concerned about the Covid risk in schools. You don't have to be a scientist, to see the massive potential for aerosol spread in the classrooms. Studies are emerging to this effect. This is a very important article about the school scandal.

The kids do enjoy school and they will be bored silly if schools close, but I can't really see HOW countries can get the 'R' level below 1, with schools open. None of this talk of  'some progress'...we can't argue with the R number. It's like running UP the 'DOWN' escalator. 

If the R level is even 1.1, that means exponential growth (click on this video)  which inevitably leads to medical and moral catastrophe. 

Righty-ho, if there are readers out there shouting 'cheer up, hen, don't mention the war', then I'll let you win this time. I'll savour this brief moment of suspended peace, in the middle of the day.

 The dog is lying in a pool of carpet-sunlight. Behind our garden, I hear the JCB diggers knocking down the old people's home that was, 'surplus to requirement',  according to Glasgow City Council. But there are always old people, needing homes....(?!)

The leaves are falling from the trees. 

The world is doing what the world does. And we are breathing. Let's not underestimate it.