The House My Father Built

My father was a hero.  The word, of course, has military associations.  The ancient Latins made no distinction between a hero and a man, taking the view that both had one function: to fight.  As a child of the War I was happy to buy into the package.  My foetal brain heard little music, but it heard much of war and my childhood was steeped in its memories: "the Crisis", Scapa Flo, the sinking of the Royal Oak,the Rawalpindi and the Hood and the countless friends who, in the moving Gaelic euphemism had "got in the way in the War" and never returned.  I still have some of those obituaries from the early 40's, kept by my mother in the same black box as protected their insurance policies and other valuables.

My father had been in the War from the beginning, of course.  I say "of course" because he was a Lewisman and in the manner of all his contemporaries he had enlisted in the Royal Naval Reserve at the age of seventeen.  At the outbreak of hostilities, men from the Western Isles (with a population of some 30,000) accounted for a quarter of the Navy’s Reservists.  This had little to do with patriotism, but much to do with poverty.  Not only were reservists paid a small retainer, but they were also required to attend a two-week training course at a naval base every year.  Full travelling expenses were paid and this gave the lads their first opportunity to leave the island and see the world.   Nor was this all.  Your travel-voucher was for the full return journey to and from Stornoway, but the return journey wasn’t strictly necessary.  For many the RNR meant that the Navy paid your fare to Glasgow to search for work or to join a ship.

These reservists were called up immediately.  At the time, my parents, two years married, were living in Greenfeld Street, Govan.  You needn’t go to look for it.  It was obliterated by bulldozers in the 1970’s and never put together again.   My father was having his tea after a normal day at a Glasgow shipyard (Stephen’s, Simon’s, Fairfield’s or John Brown’s: I can’t remember which.  He had worked in all of them).  Suddenly there was a knock at the door.  A policeman:  "Are you Donald Macleod?"  "Yes," he said, knowing what was coming.  "You are to report to Chatham immediately.  Here are your papers."

My mother packed a few things.  A couple of hours later he said good-by to her and their infant daughter.  The following day he was on a naval drill-ground, imbibing a life-long contempt for those in charge of the early war-effort.  No one had thought of buying rifles: they practised with broom-sticks.  I was never sure that that was the literal truth of it, but it was certainly the measure of it.

By the time I was five I was sure my father had won the War.  I used to pester him to find out how many men he had killed, but somehow he didn’t seem to like the question.  This didn’t deter me from boasting about it, button-holing anyone who wasn’t bigger than myself and issuing a direct challenge: "My father killed five men in the War.  How many did yours kill?"  None of them had an answer.

Whether he had a good war I never knew.  He had had a real one and once it was over it had no interest for him.  But it left a bitter legacy: a duodenal ulcer.  On board the cruiser, HMS Glasgow, a naval surgeon wanted to operate.  My father said "No!", taking the view that  with the whole Royal Navy searching for the Bismarck the surgeon’s hand was unlikely to be steady and the convalescence of an Able Seaman even more unlikely to be a naval priority.  His stomach and his ulcer survived the War and made the rest of his life a misery.  In his later years as a self-employed joiner I often accompanied him, passing tools, holding things and doing some of the nailing and sawing.  Many’s the day I saw him waiting for the pain to subside before he could resume the job.

Inevitably, the stomach and the ulcer became a central part of our environment.  Like school, the sky and the rain, they were always there.  The odd thing is that in that world they were universal.  Everyone seemed to have them: not in the sense in which you and I have stomachs, but in some existential sense as if you didn’t have to live by them but had to live with them.  It was the War, I suppose, wrecking lives and stomachs, but cleverly leaving no traces which might burden the state with a liability to provide pensions.

After years of writhings, baking soda, milk, diets, doctors and learned support from the Working Man’s Stomach Society came the Final Solution: a gastrectomy, condemning my father, along with thousands of other sixty-somethings, to eke out their days with only a fraction of their stomachs and not even a fraction of their former energy.

Because, despite the ulcer, there was incredible stamina and energy.  He was a small man, a mere five feet three or four in height and never more than seven stones in weight.  I am six or seven inches taller and five stones heavier, but his life-style makes me shudder.  Out to work at seven-thirty every morning, working an eight-hour day and a forty-four-hour week.  He had a week’s holiday every summer and three days at New Year, but he worked every Christmas.

Nothing novel about that.  It’s the way the world was in those days and had he been able to come home from work and just put his feet up, smoke a pipe and read the newspapers I wouldn’t feel so bad.  But he wasn’t.  He was "working on the house".  He had bought it initially as a splendid RAF hut ("Canadian red pine", he would say) for the princely sum of £90 and decorated it inside and out (especially out) with all the flair and verve of a Hungarian gypsy.  He saw it as temporary.  Circumstances made it permanent.  But permanence meant constant improvements and extensions.

And that became his routine.  Home from work by a quarter-to-six, working on the house from seven to eleven.  Yet it wasn’t the toil that grieved him.  It was the compromises he had to make.  By the time he left for Glasgow in his early twenties he had already served an apprenticeship with the local carpenter and undertaker.  The Navy turned him into a joiner, elevating him to the rank of Petty Officer, entitling him to say, "He’s not a joiner.  He’s only a carpenter!" and giving him an obsession with the quality of work.

But as he worked on the house, quality was a luxury he couldn’t afford.  He had the time and the skill, but not the materials.  Five pounds ten shillings a week was a good wage in those days and he could increase it by spending some of his evenings and holidays working on his neighbours’ houses.  But there was little surplus.  A bag of cement cost eight shillings, a four-inch concrete block cost one shilling and three-pence, a six-inch block cost one shilling and nine-pence: more than a week’s wages for a hundred; and another week’s wages for a lorry-load of sand or shingle.

There was little left for timber.  You had to make do with what you could salvage or recycle and that meant improvisation, not craftsmanship.  He hated it.  "It’s not a proper house."

It stood for fifty-five years and is being demolished as I write.  He would be relieved.

How can the debt I owe ever be re-paid?  In those days, joiners cut their joists and rafters on-site.  They made their own windows and doors.  They worked in all sorts of weather.  Eight hours of that would be enough for any man.  To endure it in your leisure hours as well as your working-day was pure heroism.  The fact that many others were in the same position makes it none the less so; and it has left me utterly impatient with all the tired, whining ministers, doctors, teachers and journalists in the world.   Compared to him, I don’t know what stress is.

How enormous the gulf between the world of a father and the world of a son!  He remembered working as a young lad for the local parish minister, cutting hay for a penny-ha’penny an hour.  The rate didn’t bother him.  What rankled to his dying day was that the minister "broke the shilling", giving him ten-pence-ha’penny for seven hours’ work.  That’s probably what turned him into an ardent trade unionist and life-long supporter of Old Labour.  "Pairtidh an duine bhochd," he would say ("The poor man’s party").

He remembered Action Stations in the early years of the War. He was a powder-monkey, part of a chain-gang passing ammunition to the gunners.  Locked into a narrow tunnel between decks, they had no idea what was going on above them.  All they knew was that if the ship went down they hadn’t a hope.  His didn’t.  Many did.

But these were experiences shared in comradeship.  Other furrows he had to plough alone.  In March, 1940, in Portsmouth, he received a postcard with some scribbles from his fifteen-month old daughter.  The following day, he received a telegram.  She was dead.  Meningitis.  The whole length of a United Kingdom at war lay between him and the funeral.  Afterwards he built, carved and etched a wooden headstone.  The frame eventually yielded to Butt of Lewis gales, but the heart-shaped mahogany core, re-varnished, stands there still.

Thirty years later, in January 1970, he had a phone-call.  Angus, my brother, was inside his caravan and no one could get in.  Not a big deal, in the overall scheme of things, but Angus (aged twenty-eight) was a self-destructive alcoholic.  My father broke in and found him dead.  He had overdosed on barbiturates.  There was no point in asking questions which would never bring him back.

Such crises my father faced with equanimity, doing what had to be done, hiding the scars, seeking no comfort, putting the past behind him and moving on to the next chapter.  He had, too, a quality often found in seamen: an ability to act in an emergency as if time had slowed down and there was no need to hurry.  Where I would run, he would walk.  Where I would shout he wouldn’t raise his voice.  Where I would convey the impression of apocalypse his body-language would be saying, What’s the fuss?

The only thing was: first of all, you must put on your cap.  However dire the emergency, that was the first step.  Once you had your cap on, you could cope with anything.

Maybe that’s my problem.  I’ve never worn a cap.

What do I owe him?

First, the few stories that have survived from my own earliest years.  On one occasion, around the age of three, I went walkabouts.  He eventually found me in the chip-shop, sitting on a bag of potatoes and filling myself with chips.  Asked where I had found the money, I apparently replied, "Oh!  You can get them with money and you can get them without money."  Unfortunately, he didn’t keep that story to himself and it followed me around for years.  I knew nothing about money. All I knew was that in chip-shops (which fascinated me even then) people got a bag of chips when they said, "A four-penny bag, please."  I had said exactly that, including the "please", and when asked something about money I simply looked blank: which was perfectly OK, because by that time I already had the bag in my hands.

The other revelation from my childhood is that I habitually frequented Stornoway’s "Lazy Wall" (the balla leisg, as it was known in Gaelic).  This was the gathering-place of all the local unemployed: a convenient venue for taking the weight off your feet, having a smoke and yarning away the bitter hours of idleness; and an ideal preparation, I’m sure, for a career as a professor of theology.

I also owe him a life-long love-affair with tools.  He had an abundance of these: a huge chest-full as well as various work-shops which were veritable wonderlands of gadgetry.  I cannot remember these ever being off-limits, although my exploits with the Admiralty’s circular-saw were strictly limited to playing cars with the wheel which adjusted the height.  I was sawing and hammering before I was walking. I even had my very own test-bench: a robust stool at which I could hack and hammer to my heart’s content.  Studded with nails and scarred by tenon-saws it eventually fell apart a few years ago.  Modern mums will blanch, but no mishap befell me.  Nor, unfortunately, did I turn out to be a wood-working genius.  My father’s manual dexterity, like his immunity to sea-sickness, passed me by.

Was my father a stern Calvinist?  I doubt if he had even the remotest idea what a Calvinist was.  He hadn’t read Iain Crichton Smith and the word seldom figured in the spiritual vocabulary of Lewis.  In any case, his spiritual history was peculiar.  My mother became a communicant member of the Free Church in her early twenties.  My father became a member only in 1959, by which time I had left home.  He was then forty-eight years of age and had come through a momentous spiritual crisis.

This was linked to a sudden, overwhelming onset of asthma in 1956.  To an extent it was an experience we shared, particularly since my mother was recovering from major surgery at the time. There are few more distressing sights than the victim of an asthma attack.  In my father’s case, it was no mere attack.  For three long months his chest heaved and wheezed as he fought for breath.  You had to convince him he was going to make it.  Some days you told him he was better.  Others you accepted his own view that he wasn’t.  We moved him from room to room, tried spray after spray and medication after medication.  We sat him up. We laid him down.  We went to bed almost sure he’d be dead in the morning.  How could any respiratory system continue in explosive overdrive for three unrelenting months?

For him, it was a long black tunnel of panic and isolation. Death passed so close that he felt the blade miss him only by a hairsbreadth.  He emerged a five-and-a-half stone skeleton, exultant to be alive and aglow with gratitude to God.  He lived another thirty years, physically a mere shadow of himself, his ulcer still intact and his life contracted to a single passion: Christian discipleship.

Professionally, I’m sure it was a second conversion rather than a first and at a purely selfish level I’m glad it didn’t happen earlier.  If it had, he would have come under that ethic of abstinence which in those days defined church members by what they didn’t do.  As a mere adherent, he could go where he liked.  He could take me to football matches; and he could be my minder during my brief career as the Aled Jones of the Lewis ceilidh circuit.

What do I feel, then, fifty years later?  I can answer that unhesitatingly: guilt.  We never realised the scale of his labour and pain.  When asthma (and, later, Parkinsonism) diminished him we forgot the contributions of his prime.  If he was a wreck, it was because he had made himself a wreck for us.

It’s not that I’m guilt-ridden.  Far from it.  My sins are forgiven.  But the practical core of that peace is the assurance that God forgives the way I failed my father.  That forgiveness deprives me of all right to mope over it.

But the first thing I will say to him when we meet again is, "Sorry."

Were we close?  Well, you tell me this: is this article about him or about me?

This article first appeared in The Scottish Review, Number 23, Autumn 2000, Carrick Media, Irvine