A Series of Essays by Erik's Daughters

The Great Glasgow Welcome ~ by Fiona Chisholm

Erik Chisholm, my Dad, was a bit of a bullshitter, but in the nicest possible way. Ever since his 1946 arrival by seaplane from Singapore to Cape Town, he'd conned his friends and three daughters (or at least me) into believing that using public transport was way beyond his intellectual capabilities. Perhaps in his mind it was because of his intellectual capabilities that he was not prepared to be bothered with buses and trains! Whatever the reason, he claimed he couldn't read train time tables…he wouldn’t know what bus stopped nearest to our York Road home…he’d get hopelessly lost. His excuses were endless.

Picture of car and the family dogs

Of course, my mother Diana knew better from their carless, courting days in Glasgow in the 1930s but perhaps she was glad in South Africa to be needed again by him after their many years of separation during World War II. She willingly taxied him to orchestral rehearsals, senate meetings, concerts and night-after-night opera performances, usually at the Little Theatre in central Cape Town.

Whenever possible he would insist on taking along a couple of our undisciplined dogs. The result was that every car we had, including our beautiful 1948 Studebaker bought for us by Grandpa Chisholm, ended up a tip. The seats were torn by sharp claws; the windows smeared with wet noses, the paint on the outside doors were scratched from bounding dogs welcoming home the arrivals when they had been left behind.

Well, on a driech1, damp, dark winter’s evening in January 1957, I discovered my father’s "big fraud" when we arrived by train from London at Glasgow’s Central Station. The two of us had come ahead of the body of students and performing lecturers from the University of Cape Town (UCT), who had successfully staged a "Festival of South African Music and Musicians from South Africa", from December 28 1956 to January 19, 1957 in London. The daring programme of concerts at the Wigmore Hall and operas at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre had been surprisingly well reviewed and publicly followed.

Now the second part of the festival was to take place in Glasgow, and Dad and I had come in advance to help Bill McClelland, husband of the well-known Scottish pianist Agnes Walker, with drumming up pre publicity and checking out that the rehearsal and performance venues, particularly for the operas, including Bartok's "Bluebeard Castle", were suitable.

Picture of Erik and Fiona, Glasgow 1962
Erik with Fiona, Glasgow 1962

Dear Bill was a charming fellow. By day and night he always wore a kilt, the same one by the familiarity of the stains. Perhaps this feeling of being in the Highlands made him over-optimistic and airy-fairy, so Dad wanted to be sure that everything Bill had promised would indeed happen.

It's said that Glasgow on a Sunday night is a rehearsal for the grave. We arrived for the Final Dress Rehearsal.

I had left Glasgow aged seven with my mother and big sisters Sheila and Morag to grow up in sunny South Africa. Returning to the city of my birth I was appalled at the gloomy orange glow of the platform lights, the filthy black stone walls of the station, the dark rows of nearby tenements and people, huddled under umbrellas looking as miserable as bantam hens with wet tail feathers, as they waited for friends to arrive.

And the rain! It pelted down with a sort of fiendish determination not to leave anything or anybody dry that night.

All I wanted was to get to our hotel close to the station, jump into a hot bath and then into bed. Foolishly, I assumed my father did too.

Not a chance. As the train screeched to a stop, he was suddenly animated. Stuffing Bartok’s opera score into his music case, he hauled down our bags from the rack and said cheerily: "C'mon Duckie. Let’s get out of here. We’re going to see Uncle Jack."

But it's pouring," I whinged. "You don’t mean to drag us out to Uncle Jack on a night like this?"

"You’re not fussed about a wee bittie rain, are you? I told you in Glasgow it's either raining, about to rain, or about to stop. That’s if you’re here on a good day. Besides, you’ve got that fancy mac." A dig at my classy, reversible raincoat bought in an early January sale in London. One side was grey. One side blue. Experience would show that neither side kept out the Glasgow rain.

In peeved silence I followed him out the station (today a grand one now the walls, impressive steel girders and acres of glass have been cleaned) and into the empty Sunday night streets. I hoped that when we reached our hotel Dad would order a taxi. But no such luck. "No dearie, we’re not wasting money on a luxury like that. We were going to Uncle Jack by bus!"

Dad was NEVER on a bus or a train all his years in Cape Town. Now here he was leaving me guarding our luggage while he bounded off to find where to catch the correct bus to take us to the south side of Glasgow on a Sunday night.

He was soon back with a scrap of paper listing all the bus times, choosing one that would give us half an hour to check into the hotel before chugging our way to Jack and Margaret Chisholm.

Before long the friendly conductor on the near empty bus recognised us as strangers and wanted to know what we were doing out on such a miserable night. When he heard we had come from South Africa and were on the way to visit Dad's elder brother, whom he hadn't seen since for over 10 years, he was astounded.

"My, you’ve come 6000 miles ta see yer brrutha! My, but he will be pleased ta see ya and the little lassie with ye."

This cheered me up. Maybe Jack’s wife, the aloof and angular-faced Aunt Margaret, would unbend and sit us down before a roaring fire and ply us with a late night tea of home-made scones and Tip Tree Black Cherry Jam.

Picture of Jack
Jack

Possibly – although it was stretching things a bit – she might even insist we stay overnight rather than trudge back by bus to town. Spurred on by these hopes, I didn't complain too much as we hoofed it in the unstoppable rain from the bus stop to Jack Chisholm's house.

Dad had no difficulty recognising it. It was an imposing double-storied home in handsome pale stone, with wide windows overlooking the winter bare garden, kept with almost military precision. There were lights on upstairs and a small one burning in the passage.

He was almost quivering with excitement as he rang the shining brass bell at the front door. It could be heard clanging through the house. There was no answer. I felt like shouting: "Is there anybody there?" as in Walter de la Mare's poem.

He tried more insistently. There were sounds of a door opening, footsteps and finally the front door was unlocked top and bottom, and Uncle Jack stood there in his striped dressing gown.

"Oh hallo Erik," he said with as little enthusiasm as though we were a couple of Jehovah's Witnesses with a handful of tracts. "It's you, is it? I'm afraid Margaret's in bed with a cold. Will ye no' come back tomorrow morning?"

And with that he closed the door in our faces. Our Great Glasgow welcome.

***

Down the years I’ve relived that night a thousand times. The way the hall light was switched off the moment the front door was shut. The wet and dispirited trudge back to the bus stop. The return trip in silence. The droop of my father’s shoulders.

Our little hotel came up trumps. The night porter greeted us with the cheerful news that the housekeeper had put two hot water bottles in our beds, and there was a thermos with hot water and the makings for tea or coffee in the television room. He was sure we would need a warm drink after being out in that awful weather.

I was equally sure that any warming drink Dad had in mind would have to contain something stronger than tea leaves. Thanks to my mother, this was possible.

In her last letter from Cape Town she had enclosed a postal order for £5 saying:

Dear Nona,

I don’t know how much whisky costs these days, but please use this to buy a bottle for Dad. I think he might need some cheering up in Glasgow. It’s not a city that has been particularly kind to him. And I’m not sure he’ll find kindness and respect even now in spite of all his success with the festival in London.

How right she was. In London Dad’s Festival of Music and Musicians from South Africa had brought him acclaim. But Glasgow proved a much harder nut to crack.

A combination of factors came into play. Mid-winter at the beginning of a new year. The unfamiliarity of much of the music. And the painful truth my father had learnt in the 1930s when running the Active Society for the Propagation of Contemporary Music. Back then he said it was hard enough to find in Glasgow 100 music-liking people, let alone 100 music lovers.

Hopefully it has changed for the better in the past 60 years.

1 Dreich (Old Scots origin)
A combination of dull, overcast, drizzly, cold, misty and miserable weather. At least 4 of the above adjectives must apply before the weather is truly dreich.

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