Towards Better Democracy

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The plaster came off eight weeks later. Eight endless, excruciating,
interminable weeks in the life of a six year old boy. I was my mother’s child
so I am sure I was not spoilt for attention.

I had suffered a greenstick fracture in the right leg. Roddy had left the green,
wheeled base of his white pushing horse in the middle of the living
room floor. Now, I am not blaming him. The family said he did. After all,
it was I, the great taker-apart of watches and other assemblies, who had
separated the wooden horse from its mobility platform.

There is was; two strips of green painted wood connecting four black painted
wooden wheels, set invitingly in front of me. An experiment perhaps. Did
I place my right foot on it in an exploratory fashion? To see what would
happen? Or did I not see it? Was I running, chasing and playing with my
brothers? It was an accident, said my parents. I am not sure. I wasn’t in for
taking everything apart after that. Or, at least, if I did, I did so carefully.

Mind you, I didn’t take everything apart. At least, not the other horse. The
very large one. A tall Victorian rocking horse. Previously at home in a
manor house, I’m sure. High enough you had to be helped onto it. Dappled
grey, real horse’s hair mane and tail, with red and brown saddle and bridle.
It rocked in a horizontal fashion due to it being mounted on a parallelogram
of bars and rods, all mounted on a firm base. It had a wooden slat on either
side so that your feet firmly planted as you rocked it too and fro. It wouldn’t
go fast, it was too heavy for that.

We had a wealth of expensive toys in that house, not all of which followed
us in our descent into genteel poverty three years later.

One evening, early on in this childhood confinement, I was allowed to stay
up late. Roddy and Jumbo, four and two, were already long abed. I lay, a
slightly inert prince on the couch in the living room, surrounded by my
mother’s artist friends, being cooed and fussed over. Baxter was a large,
prematurely balding man, a loud American, completely out of place among
these effete, skinny Scots and English bohemians that constituted my
mother’s milieu. I imagine he was jealous of the attention this supine,
immobile child was receiving. Since my mother remained a girl who never
grew up, I am sure that her friends were at a similar stage of development.
And that this man suddenly felt he had to return to being the centre of
attention. The cooing and teasing was suddenly sliced by Baxter’s
unnaturally loud bark.

“Get up and walk,” he bellowed, doubtless intending this to be funny,

“Get up and walk, or I will throw you out the window.”

“I can’t,” I said plaintively, “Doctor said I mustn’t walk on it for six weeks.”

Silence followed. Nobody moved. I felt trapped by that hollow log encasing
my leg. Held my breath. Everyone, including me, stared down at the newly
applied plaster, gleaming, white and stiff, from just below the knee to just
above the naked toes. Slowly, the billing and cooing began again. I sighed
a little apprehensively but didn’t take my eyes off this looming, booming
monster until it was time for bed.

The plaster, when it came off, left small white hard lumps clinging to the
slightly discoloured flesh of the right leg, it seeing light of day after being
encased in its darkness for what had seemed like half a lifetime. The flesh,
not able to breathe, looked feeble and unathletic. I am sure the nurses
washed the clinging plaster pieces off. But for a while, I was absorbed
picking at them, scraping my new, sound leg clean. No more could you
knock on its mummified wrapping to get that dreadful hollow sound.


Childhood is filled not just with the incidents and events we remember, but
the incidents and events we were told of, that happened at earlier times, or
at some place else. These later stories are told and retold; they become part
of the family myths that every family has.

I have a small round burn mark on my left hand, alongside the thumb and
just behind the digit and second finger. So faint these days, I am certain
nobody notices it. I got it when I was two. I had been left unattended in my
paternal grandmother’s house. In my black buffer chair. This doubled as a
high chair when folded out and up, which accounted for its odd appearance
when folded down. Did it have wheels? Either way, I maneuvered close
enough to reach out to the inside of the open oven door. My father told me
he never dared leave me alone in the care of my mother again. I don’t doubt
this. I have memories of earlier, being in my cot, at Constitution Street in
Leith, standing howling, my cot bars covered in excrement.

On one occasion, the neighbour’s cat was yowling in the stairwell. I, being
a kindly, solicitous soul, brought her into the flat. My mother discovered
me trying vainly to sit the cat on the loo, while flushing it. I was scolded for
that. But I didn’t really understand why. I was potty training the cat.

My father would often recount to me with wonder at an incident from that
period, still two years of age. He wondered how it was a child of that age
could successfully dismember a favorite pocket watch of his. He was too
amazed to get cross with me, he said.


“The rabbits were wiped out by myxomatosis,” said my mother
authoritatively. I had wondered aloud as to all the rabbit warrens.
According to Peter Bartrip (1) shortly after its arrival in Britain in the
autumn of 1953, ninety nine percent of all rabbits in Britain were dead.

We were, my two brothers, my mother and I, on Cramond Island which lies
just offshore in the Firth of Forth. It can be reached only at low tide by a
causeway which is then exposed. The Firth of Forth, you will remember,
is an estuary despite its great width. Cramond Island is one of the more
desolate places I have, during my lifetime, visited, although at the time,
with the joy at being out with my mother, I didn’t think so. It is featureless
and deserted. It can be walked end to end in about 15 to 20 minutes by an
adult. The fun, I guess, is getting there.

“Where are all the rabbits?” I had asked, looking with amazement My
mother’s explanation came in response to my wondering  at the maze of
rabbit holes which lay in front of us as we climbed the beach onto the
island itself. Everywhere you looked, there were rabbit holes bored into the
scrub covered sandy soil. But not a rabbit in sight. Instead, large herring
gulls soared into the air in front of us, squawking with their noisy cry,
flapping lazily with their broad white and grey wings, their yellow beaks
plain as they peered down at us intruders. Their plaintive, haunting call
only serving to emphasize the desolation of the island we were on. They
appeared to hang to the mud flats and were not on the island itself adding
further to its lifelessness.


It is strange to reflect. When I visited my mother in 1967 at her home in
London, after an absence of eleven or more years, she seemed listless and
took little interest in anything at all. I did not then know of the human
condition known as depression, and I hesitate to say that that would
describe her’s. I eventually gave up seeing her.

She had showed no interest whatsoever in her grandchildren, and there
seemed little point in continuing to see her. She had made little effort to see
me during the earlier absence of eleven years, and she made no effort from
that point on either.

This contrasts so very greatly with the vital, energetic woman I had known
as a child. Of course, she was younger then. She was 27 at the time of that
visit to the rabbit-less island. Had she visited it prior to that occasion to be
so knowledgeable on myxomatosis, I doubt it. Rather, I think this was an
intelligent, informed woman speaking. I don’t doubt that the plague
affecting rabbits was news. I fail to be able to picture my mother as a
Scotsman or Edinburgh Evening News reader. Radio, perhaps. My father
more likely. That walking, talking encyclopedia. I further don’t doubt for
one minute that she worshiped him.


I go back and forth in my mind to place it. But a later outing took my
brothers, my mother and I again walking out into the Firth of Forth at low
tide. This time we had no nice solid concrete and stone causeway to walk.
I hover over photographs of the islands in the Firth of Forth to identify
which one we might have walked to. Cramond Island you can rule out.
At low tide you don’t need to get your feet wet, never mind muddy.
Burntisland? Can’t have been. Burntisland is not an island so need to walk
through low tide to get there. The Bass Rock? Too far. I don’t think low tide
would ever allow its reach on foot. Besides, the Rock soars sheer out of the
water. No point in walking there.

I feel most strongly that it must have been at South Queensferry, under the
shadow of the Forth Bridge. The first pier of the railway bridge sits on
Inchcape Island. When I look today at photographs of the island, I know I
have never been on it. It is populated with a forbidding set of pill boxes and
gun emplacements used to protect the waterway of the Forth during WWII.
Besides, it is separated from the shore of South Queensferry by a deep
water channel. No tide evacuates that.

So I am at a loss to explain why my mother and the three of us sailed out in
bare feet to tramp the thick, black, sticky mud of the tidal area adjacent to
the ferry ramp. It is not picturesque. Perhaps there was a sensual pleasure
for my mother, the gooey tar-black clay socketing and sucking at her feet.

Whatever the reason that took her and us out into the mud flats with the
towering railway bridge above us, the indelible image is in my minds eye.
Walking behind my mother, not a slim woman, a knee high skirt flaring in
the wind, the black mud splattering on the back of her gleaming, ivory
white calves. This was a woman who treasured silk stockings, who always
dressed up, who most often could be found sitting with us at Fuller’s in
Princes’ Street eating chocolate eclairs and sipping tea. And here we were,
out in the windswept wilderness plodding along in the mud. Don’t get me
wrong, I enjoyed every minute of it. My mother’s company was always to
be enjoyed.


Queesferry was served at that point in its history, before the building of the
Forth Road Bridge by ferries which plied their trade under the shadow of
the vast railway bridge as they wallowed their way across to the other shore.
They would load with vehicular traffic on one side from a sloping ramp
which served to cope with the changing tide, only to disgorge from the
other side when offloading. The cars and other vehicles would be crammed
on the deck, every precious inch taken up. I don’t recall the passenger
accommodation but I doubt it was very commodious. They were strange
looking craft to a boy’s eye, their bridge jutting out either side so that the
offloading ramps could be seen. Black to just above the water line and
white for the remainder. Squatting low on the water, like a fat lady astride
a bidet, I hesitate to think how they were in rough weather but they
probably never sailed in such conditions.


It is strange too to reflect on those two levels of energy. The young,
vivacious person there alongside me at Queensferry and the same woman
twenty years later who seemed nothing so much as a forlorn, lost child,
albeit she didn’t in the least look like one. Believe me, she certainly acted
like one.

But I can’t put myself in her shoes to know the devastation that took place
in-between. Her husband had thrown her out, she had given up custody of
her children, she had gone to live far away in another city. It took the
couple seven years to complete the whole nonsense with a divorce. I say
I can’t make sense of it because my own divorce is intermingled with their
divorce. My separation from my wife, the wife my mother met and took no
interest in, is inexorably intermingled with my separation from her. I am
unable to separate whatever pain I felt at my own marital failure from the
pain I felt and retained from hers.

But clearly she was devastated. We cannot be privy to the likes of such
pain in others. We can only look to ourselves for a parallel. When I look
around me, I think that the only expression of such pain as I see when I
look at that woman, the young pretty vital being at Cramond, at Queesferry,
and that simpering sponge of a woman who I found twenty years later in
London, only bereavement in others that I have know matches the pain I
witness when I view her. Only the death of loved ones affects others that
I have known in the way that the loss of her husband affected her, my
mother. It is quite clear that my father did not realize the depth of her love
for him. That she had behaved in a childish fashion which gave him cause
to throw her out of the house I don’t doubt. I can well understand that there
were previous incidents which injured his sense of self. But did he consider
that if he held her to a higher standard of behaviour, would that have made
a difference? Could he have demanded of her a higher sense of
responsibility? What part did he play in the failure of the marriage? After
all, she had been a wife in Abedour in Fife, a wife in Constitution Street,
Leith, and not gone running around with other men. She only did that when
we moved to Rothesay Terrace. Why did the behaviour on her part begin
then? Did he withdraw from her? That, surely would have been fatal
for a woman like my mother.

But we shall never know. Unless letters survive from the period that
give insight into the events and thinking of the two, the events leading up
to their separation remain unknown to us.

I still, nevertheless, shake my head in dismay. It is hard indeed to
comprehend, to even grasp, the scale of the suffering that each of them felt.
My father, it is true, reconciled himself and died, as far as I can be certain,
a peaceful man. My mother did not.

I further reflect that we do not.


A year or so earlier from that visit to the desolate Cramond Island, when
rationing was still holding the British in its python stranglehold, we had
rabbit for supper one evening I suppose my mother had cooked them in a
pot. At the end of the meal, she expressed great surprise. “You ate three
quarters of a whole rabbit,” she exclaimed. To you and me as adults, a
rabbit, even those bred for cooking, are not large. But, I suppose, for a four
year old, to have consumed such a large portion was apparently remarkable.
I cannot suppose it came from being hungry. More likely I ate so much
because it was delicious. This obviously was before the spread of

(1) Peter W J Bartrip, Myxomatosi: A History of Pest Control and the Rabbit

Malcolm D B Munro
Sunday 16 June, 2012

Filed under: poetry

The Poetry of Dylan Thomas

Reader of Towards Better Democracy will be aware, and
if not already see:

Our Heritage

this writer feels of the importance of knowing, as poets, our
forebears. To not educate oneself as a poet is remain illiterate,
To this end the writer both translates into English those poems
written in other languages which are not readily available and
posts poems in English , even though they may be available elsewhere
on the Web.

Discerning readers will have noticed how important this writer
feels both about protecting his own copyright and that of others.
No copyright material is presented on Towards Better Democracy unless
copyright permission has been obtained from the copyright owner.

Be that as it may, while Dylan Thomas’ work is worth exploring
in its entirety, two are of particular note:

Do Not Go Gentle Into that Sweet Night
The Force that Drives t
he Green Fuse Through the Flower

Dylan Thomas is a notable reader of his own work. Do a search on YouTube.

Malcolm D B Munro
Saturday 23 April, 2016


Filed under: poetry

Meeting at Night, Robert Browning

The grey sea and the long black land;
And the yellow half-moon large and low;
And the startled little waves that leap
In fiery ringlets from their sleep,
As I gain the cove with pushing prow,
And quench its speed i’ the slushy sand.

Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!

Robert Browning, 1845

Filed under: poetry

How Do I Love Thee? Elizabeth Barrett Browning,

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
I love with a passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Sonnets from the Portugese, 43; 1846

Filed under: poetry

Ode on Melancholy, John Keats

Though you should build a bark of dead men’s bones,
And rear a phantom gibbet for a mast,
Stitch creeds together for a sail, with groans
To fill it out, bloodstained and aghast;
Although your rudder be a Dragon’s tail,
Long sever’d, yet still hard with agony,
Your cordage large uprootings from the skull
Of bald Medusa; certes you would fail
To find the Melancholy, whether she
Dreameth in any isle of Lethe dull

John Milton, 1819

Filed under: poetry

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun, William Shakespeare

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Fear no more the frown o’ the great;
Thou art past the tyrant’s stroke;
Care no more to clothe and eat;
To thee the reed is as the oak:
The scepter, learning, physic, must
All follow this, and come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning flash,
Nor the all-dreaded thunder stone;
Fear not slander, censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan:
All lovers young, all lovers must
Consign to thee, and come to dust.
No exorciser harm thee!
Nor no witchcraft charm thee!
Ghost unlaid forbear thee!
Nothing ill come near thee!
Quiet consummation have;

And renownèd be thy grave!

William Shakespeare, from Cymbeline, 1611

Filed under: poetry

On His Blindness, John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

John Milton, 1673

Filed under: poetry

When the Romans Were Here

When the Romans were here
Life was different
It was better then.

Life was organized
Drains worked
Roads were paved
You always knew where you were
With them.

Now they have left
Everything is a mess
We fight amongst ourselves
The currency has disappeared
The denarius is worthless
No money, we have to barter.

The Romans kept out the invaders
Now they are pouring in
And taking over everything
And they are worse than
The Romans could ever be.

They don’t talk straight
They don’t have laws
And they’ll kill you in
The blink of an eye.

Malcolm D B Munro
Friday 22 April, 2016

Filed under: poetry

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