Sean Connery’s birthday brought back some memories of life in the Tenements. Sean was born in 176 Fountainbridge Edinburgh in a tenement a few streets up from my Grannie, Meg Buglass. Grannie Buglass lived on the first floor at Number 1 Lochrin terrace, the last in a row of tenements in Tolcross. Sean’s mum, Effie, used the same wash-house in Fountainbridge and they worked together as Cinema usherettes at what was popularly known as the Flicks, doubtless because the still pictures flickered. They sold sweets at half time.
It was a fairly spartan life then. No telly, no fridge, no dishwasher or washing machine, no indoor toilet and entertainment was the flicks if you were lucky and the fitba on Saturday after work if you were a bloke.
My Granddad, Fredrick Buglass, a Sergeant in the Black Watch and a Telecommunications engineer, owned his own apartment in the Tenement – a mark of a prosperous and thrifty working class man – He was a Secretary of Tolcross Hearts supporters club and a fund of tales. His idea of entertainment was telling stories and singing songs. He was a proud and patriotic man and my memories of him are very clear. He would sit for hours at the open coal fire, dressed in a cardigan, smart shirt with sleeves rolled up and brown pants, reading his newspaper and smoking a pipe with hand rolled tobacco. The fire, a source of endless fascination for a five year old, used to heat the boiler above the stove where Grannie would prepare the breakfast in utter silence. For breakfast Granddad had porridge in the morning. While he could crack a walnut with his tattooed biceps, Granddad was incapable of eating lumps in his porridge.
Ganddad’s job consisted mostly of climbing up telegraph poles but he often told me tales of working on the new Forth Road Bridge or invading Germany. Although at times the tales were a little hairy – his friend who had walked off into the mist on the Forth Road Bridge to fetch a tool and was never seen again was pretty nightmarish – the army tales in particular were all fun and laughter. He was a tough bloke but in common with the attitude of the times it was others who would tell you. While he talked of his regiment carrying the little stray dog and passing it from one soldier to the next as they marched through Germany in 1918 others would tell you of the time he went down the tenement stairs to confront a sailor and soldier who were fighting. He picked them both up bodily, one in each arm, banged their heads together and threw them out of the door.
The doors at the foot of the tenement were of course open in those days. They sported huge brass handles. No locks: through you went, thrusting open a huge battered door, up a series of scrubbed and washed steps, hollowed by many, many bare feet.
I can still see the sign that hung on Grannies door that indicated who’s turn it was to wash the stairs. God forbid if you didn’t do it well. Grannie would open the door dressed in the ubiquitous floral pinny, The milk would be there in the lobby, doubtless delivered in the past by Sean Connery along with the great sacks of coal and the papers. Just before you, as you entered the door, was the Glory Hole where all the odds and ends were stored in little tins, chests and cupboards. On the left was the guest room, rarely used, which housed the phonograph and the vast collection of seventy-eights with titles like ‘The British Grenadiers’, ‘The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God’ (with a melody by Milton Hayes & Cuthbert Clarke, 1911,) ‘Abdul Abulbul Amir’, all favourites of my Granddad who would sing or recite them by heart with a humorous glint in his eye. Straight ahead was the toilet with its old iron bath – an innovation which had come about the same time as Goldbergs, the new superstore with an escalator and a cafe on the roof.
It’s probably incomprehensible to most people that I didn’t realise a bath was a thing to be enjoyed until I was twenty. My associations were of four inches of tepid water.
On the right the living room and kitchen with huge high ceilings and windows opened with a massive hooked stick, a gas oven, an open fire and an old railway clock given as a retirement present to my Granddad. When my Granddad was gone Grannie removed the chimes as they had always irritated her. The high windows looked out onto the Green, a place mostly forbidden to me in case the neighbours got annoyed. On the right of the living room was the small bedroom where I would sleep with my Grandmother at the age of nine when Granddad was gone. In the latter days of the 1960’s I was her excuse to watch late night horror films
My mum had been at Brunstfield Primary school and was a year or two below Sean Connery. He left at thirteen and she was off at fifteen to work as a typist before marrying and raising three boys. Often on a saturday in the 1960’s, she would drop me off, the youngest of the bunch, while she went to the shops. I would occasionally be sent for ‘messages’, rolls, butter or the like, but mostly I would play on the floor with a small glass jar which contained about fifteen toy soldiers. The floor was linoleum with a single carpet – wall to wall carpeting was an unheard of luxury. If aunt Jessie came round we would play cards for matches – Newmarket, trumps and patience. Essentially, there was nothing much else to do but as with all social things it was still fun doing it.
The outside toilet had gone by the time I was being dropped off at Grannies but the tenement door was still open. Grannie was still eating calf brain sandwiches with relish. She had all her teeth removed in her twenties in the new fashion for dentures. My mum never fancied calf brain much and was proud of her gleaming white teeth. She still liked the fur coats though, worn with pearl beads but she wouldn’t wear the inevitable little hats. We had moved to a new housing estate in Northfield, near Portobello. There were three cars on our street and much much later a television with a grainy undecipherable picture. Mum still made porridge and I inherited my Granddad’s dislike for lumps.