My ma used to say that our lives are all laid out in front of us long before we are born, that we all have a bullet inscribed with the time and date of our death. I used to really laugh at some of the things ma used to say. She would have said that it was fate that I ended up on board this bus in Cranhill. But I never believed in fate then, and I wasn't laughing either when the bus left for Hull to catch the overnight ferry to Rotterdam.
I was really dreading the 3,000-mile-long journey to Rome. The furthest I had ever travelled by bus was from Managua to Somoto in the most northern region of Nicaragua and the heat coupled with the bumpy roads and potholes made me feel so sick. God only knows how I was going to survive this marathon. I actually felt a bit of excitement and more confident when my taxi pulled up outside the chapel in Bellrock Street and I first set eyes on the bus. It wasn't really a bus, but a brand new luxury coach, which I can only describe as being like a posh hotel on wheels.
Once on board, I was struck by the peacefulness of the interior. Perhaps it was the pews of seats upholstered in a hazy purple pizza-like design that looked so friendly and promised without saying that they wouldn't jag my legs. Blue curtains hung on the windows, which had tinted glass, and halfway up the coach was the toilet and the tea and coffee area with the freezer loaded with cans of cold drinks. That's when it dawned on me that this bus was to be my home on wheels for the next 10 days, and not the overnight hotels in the various countries that we were to visit en route.
Before boarding the bus, a special mass was arranged to celebrate our journey and to pray for our safe return. It was strange being back in the parish church of St Maria Goretti where I was married 25 years ago. My whole life had been turned inside out and upside down since that day, but nothing seemed to have changed about the parish where I grew up. The redbrick semi-oval-shaped building looked more like a grand country manor than a chapel, and so out of place tucked between the harsh four-storey-high brick tenements that housed its parishioners. Although the structure was the same age as me, it showed no signs of the same wear and tear. It even had the same musty smell of furniture polish tinged with stale candle wax, but the atmosphere had changed, or perhaps it was just my expectations that were different.
Mrs Docherty who was the life and soul of the parish in my childhood days was the main energy behind this holiday to Rome, even though she was now 85 years old. I used to be a devout Catholic just like her, until I was confronted with the evil of Thatcherism. My harrowing experience of being forced to try to keep my children alive on welfare made me question why my church did nothing to challenge the human suffering and hardship that I both experienced and witnessed every day. It was then that I started to think that the rich and powerful used religion not only to try and justify poverty, but also to try and pacify the people like me who were forced to live in it. It was only then that I managed to finally break free from the church which had tamed the angry spirit that had been growing up inside me.
There were 50 other people on the bus, including the driver, but when I sat down on my seat next to the back, I suddenly became overwhelmed with a feeling of complete isolation. During the years that I have been involved in my community's fight for justice, I've travelled thousands of miles across land and sea and I had no choice but to travel by myself. Now, for the first time since I became a rebel, I was going on a journey which I thought was for me, and for me alone.
I don't know why the tears that had been locked up inside me all these years should threaten to erupt now. I just knew that I was so relieved when Mrs Docherty moved from the seat beside me. I sensed that she would have been shocked and confused at my forthcoming outburst. This was my first holiday in years and both she and the committee who had planned this trip to the Vatican had done everything to make me feel welcome when I joined them at the last minute. I was glad too for the music and the happy chatter of my fellow travellers as I snuggled up to face the window while the tears were wrenched from my body.
At first I thought it was just the relief from the stress that I had been under these past months. Apart from trying to be both mother and father to my three children, I also had to look after my own father who had senile dementia. I had also spent the summer months trying to construct a letter to Nelson Mandela to coincide with my forthcoming visit to South Africa. My last chance of having that letter published was gone when the computer that I had borrowed crashed the day before, and I had stayed up all night trying to fix it before the mass at 9am.
I just wish that my ma could have had the opportunity to go on a holiday like this before she died. She had never been abroad and I knew that she had been sick to death of the same routine of going to Blackpool every year. Even when they were both retired from work, it never seemed to dawn on my da that they could now take a holiday at any time of the year, instead of waiting for the traditional Glasgow Fair fortnight. Da was such a hard man to live with and it wasn't a holiday at the seaside she needed, but a two-week break away from da! Ma just wanted to retire gracefully but he had her rushing to the pubs and clubs and she always came back exhausted.
She would have recognised quite a few of the women on the bus who still lived in and around Bellrock Street where I grew up.
Ma never went to mass, though after she moved from the Gorbals to Cranhill she made her six weans go to chapel every Sunday. In many ways I was glad that my ma never went to chapel, especially when I started to get taught the catechism at school. It just never made sense to me. Why would God create people only to send them to hell if they didnae go to mass on a Sunday? And if my ma and my friends who were Protestants couldn't go to heaven, then I didnae want to go either.
It was only when I went to Nicaragua and met the mothers of the Martyrs and Heroes, whose children had been massacred while fighting in the revolution, that I realised the wisdom of some of the things ma used to say about God. Those mothers taught me that unless people understand their past history and their present reality, then they could never be free to choose their future. It was then that I realised that my working-class Catholic education was not about teaching me about my world, but about keeping people like me in ignorance.
Oh, I suppose my education wasn't a complete waste of time, although I don't remember being taught much relevant Scottish history. But I must give them full marks for producing an expert like me on the Stone Age. How else could I ever relate the brutality of our lives back to the first social animals? And when I think of the packs of children in communities like mine stabbing and clubbing each other with sticks and stones, I can't help feeling that history is repeating itself full cycle.
I didn't know much about my own family history. I never knew my grandparents and now that my mother is dead and my father senile, I have to rely on my own memories of the stories ma used to tell me about her life in the old Glasgow slums.
It was hard for me to imagine her drab life in the Gorbals while the bus sped down the M6 in the brilliant October sunshine. Those sooty black tenements with fires blazing up the lum and their smoke-filled chimney pots… And I just can't imagine what my grannies looked like. Ma said that women in those days looked like old grannies when they were in their forties, and my granny Brannan always wore a black shawl. Life must have been really harsh in the Gorbals, for both my grannies died before they were 50. I was named after my da's ma, Catherine Hughey Brannan. Both she and my Granda Brannan were Irish Catholics from Donegal and my Granda worked as a labourer on the roads.
My ma said that my Granda's name was actually Brennen, but the registrar wrote Brannan on their marriage certificate. I always meant to ask if they were able to read and write or whether the registrar could understand their Irish accent.
My ma's own ma, granny Campbell, was in the Salvation Army and my granda Campbell was a Protestant and worked as a mason's labourer. He was an alcoholic and ma said that granny spent most of her married life pouring my granda's whisky down the sink, until one day she started to pour it down herself. My granny certainly didn’t have an easy life. One day she lifted a cleaver and split my granda's heed wide open. Ma said she then walked calmly doon to the police station at the corner of their street and gave herself up expecting to be put behind bars, but my granda survived and insisted to the polis that he fell down the stairs.
I suspect that it was my granny Campbell who furnished my own ma with all the sayings about God that still live with me now that they are both dead. Ma said that people used to call my granny Alleluia Lizzy, but I never dared to ask if that was before or after she started to drink. I never really gave much thought to my grandas. Both died before ma and da got married. It is only now that my grandparents have actually started to feel real to me. Before, they were just like ghosts of the past and I have never spoken about them as my 'grannies and grandas' until now. It is only now that I’m starting to feel a real connection between their lives and my life in the modern day slums of Glasgow.
It was only since boarding the bus that I was beginning to really understand the kind of love ma used to have for my da.
My granny Brannan had two sons and a daughter. Da was the oldest and, like his brother and sister, his hair was jet black and his skin very dark. Me and my oldest brother James have got their colouring and are often taken for foreigners. Ma said da was really handsome, and he was. Da lived in 257 Lawmoor Street and ma lived in number 217 in the same street. I have only one photo of ma that was taken when she was young, just before she married da when she was 20. She was so beautiful. Every time I look at that photo of her with her brown wavy hairstyle and her stunning looks, I think that she looks more like a Hollywood film star than a domestic servant.
I only vaguely remember her telling me that when she left school she cleaned the houses of Jewish families. I will never forget the stories she told me about her and da. He started work as a box maker in Buchanan's Whisky Bond after leaving school. Having had an alcoholic as a father, one of the things my ma most liked about da was that he would never put alcohol near his lips.
My ma loved him that much that she wanted to take on his religion as well as his name. She attended St Francis Church in Cumberland Street every week for months, undertaking religious instruction before she became a Catholic. She told me that the priest often said that she was the best convert they ever had. They were married in the same church on 18 April 1938, at 6am, and da and his brother caught a bus to Dundee to see Celtic playing while ma and her best maid went back home to bed.
My older sister Betty was born in February the following year and my eldest brother James was born the year after. Ma said that she was so ignorant about sex that when she was pregnant with Betty, she didn't know how the baby got out of her tummy. She had to pluck up the courage to ask my granny Brannan. All she said was: 'It comes oot the same way that it got in, Lizzy.'
They lived in a single apartment on the ground floor of a tenement in Hospital Street and ma said she kept it as clean as the driven snow. Their happiness was short lived, however, when the Second World War broke out and da was conscripted into the army.
He was sent to the Middle East and trained in Cairo as a gunner to shoot down German warplanes. He said the closest he every came to being killed was the first day in the trenches in Sicily. He was just about to hand the first shell to his mate to load the gun when his mate was shot through the heart with a bullet from one of the planes.
My ma said she was totally shattered when they took my da away. Then both her ma and the two weans took ill. Betty took diphtheria and James took diseased bones and both were in sanatoriums in different parts of the city. Then the bombs came. Ma said that the folk up the stairs used to gather in her ground floor flat if they didn't have time to make it to the air-raid shelters. Ma told me that one of her neighbours was in the outside toilet when one of the bombs dropped and he was blown right over the building into the next street. When she used to tell me the horrific stories about the war, I kept praying to God that there would never be another.
Ma said that she and my da used to write love letters every day, but she couldn't cope on her own with the fear and the worry and she started to really pine for my da. She couldn’t eat or sleep and she became so thin and weak that her ma thought she was going to die. My da kept pleading with the army to let him go home and eventually they gave him compassionate leave.
He was four years in the army and claimed he shot down 12 German planes in the same day. My ma said that the neighbours decorated the street and had a big 'Welcome Home Jimmy' banner that hung from their tenement right across to the tenement on the other side of the street. She said her wee hoose was jam-packed with neighbours and my da was in the hoose 20 minutes and still hadn't recognised her. When the weans saw him they wanted to know what a soldier was doing in their hoose. Ma said he was a changed man when he came back from the army. After the war, he started going to the pub like most of the men she knew and keeping her short of money, and their relationship never really recovered.
After my two brothers Billy and Graham were born, they moved to a room and kitchen in the top flat of a tenement in the same street. By this time my two grannies had died. Ma said that one night my da woke her up – he was hysterical and the sweat was pouring off him. He said his ma shook him oot his sleep and kept saying to him: 'Give Lizzy the money, give Lizzy the money.' Ma was convinced that it was his guilty conscience playing tricks on him.
The impression that I got from my ma about her life in the slums was that in spite of the hardship and the rats, people were very friendly and their community close-knit. Ma said that nearly everybody kept a cat to catch the mice and the rats. She said her cat had kittens and one morning after da had gone to work, she left the four weans sleeping while she went down to the shop at the bottom of the close to get milk. While she was standing chatting to the shopkeeper, her cat came in and started to scratch at ma's leg. She knew that cat was trying to tell her something so she ran up the stairs to find smoke pouring out the front door. Her screams woke the other neighbours on the landing who helped to rescue the weans.
Ma said the only thing they managed to salvage from the fire apart from the weans was a big old fashioned picture frame with a picture of the Pope that was kept under the mattress, and which used to belong to my granny Brannan. The explanation for the fire was that the kittens had been playing with the wire that was plugged into the wireless. After the fire they all had to split up and stayed with the neighbours who took them in.
Then the news came that the slums were being demolished. Ma said they were promised that they would all be moved to a place that was a paradise compared to the one that they all lived in.
She was offered the tenancy of a pre-war house in Carntyne, a back and front door with a garden, but she refused this old house which she couldn't afford to decorate. Word was already buzzing in the streets about these brand new tenements that were being built in the giant housing schemes on the outskirts of Glasgow – places that the government promised would bring good health to the working class heroes, places full of empty spaces, green open land, fresh air, and flats that had inside toilets, a bath and washing basin, kitchens that were big enough to sit in, and which were separated from the living-room and bedrooms.
Ma said she was so excited when she was offered one of the first flats to be built in Cranhill. There were seven other families allocated a flat up the close at 64 Bellrock Street, but they were all strangers, and only met for the first time to ballot for the keys. My family moved into the four-apartment flat on the first landing and I was born two weeks later on 5 July 1952. I will never forget the scene that my ma imprinted on my mind when she told me about the flitting. I can still imagine too, their excitement as they travelled on the open coal lorry with the bits and pieces of furniture that their old community had scraped together. Ma said that their great adventure to the promised land was tinged with sadness when the cat which had saved her weans from the fire took fright as they passed over the River Clyde and jumped off the lorry.
This was the first chapter of a planned autobiography
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