Sir Walter Scott

When I was young, Ramore House was the oldest dwelling in Portrush.  It was at the lower end of Main Street, on the corner of Ramore Street, overlooking the harbour.  I remember it as a building having external wooden stairs and a shop selling second-hand books.  After I left for Canada, in 1965, the building was demolished, together with the local fishermen’s cottages on Ramore Street, and all were replaced with a ‘modern’ block of flats.

I remember my primary school headmaster, James Bankhead (see Jimmy), telling us that a famous writer once visited Portrush and stayed at that house.  I remember the writer he spoke of as being Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) who wrote Gulliver’s Travels and many others.  But search as I have several times, I have never found any evidence that Swift had ever visited the area.  So, when I wrote my article, Early Memories of Portrush, I omitted mentioning Swift and my memory of the oldest house.

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Jonathan Swift 1667-1745 (photo from internet)

But I was not happy with that omission, for I was convinced that I could not have imagined the visit of such a famous writer.  I contacted a friend who had attended the same primary school as I, to see if she had a similar recollection.  She referred my query to her husband, Hugh McGrattan – journalist, retired editor of the local newspaper and author of three books about local history.  Hugh was able to correct my confused childhood memory.

According to Hugh, there was indeed a shop at Ramore House, an antique shop, full of old books.  It was owned by a Mr Cochrane and outside there was an imposing coat of arms.  The distinguished visitor whom I recalled as being Jonathan Swift, was actually Sir Walter Scott, many of whose works remain classics of English-language and Scottish literature.  And at that time the house was occupied by a Dr. Hamilton.  Hugh mentioned that Thomas Carlyle, the writer, historian and mathematician, was another distinguished visitor to Portrush during that era.

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Sir Walter Scott 1771-1832 (Portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn)

 

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Thomas Carlyle 1795-1881 (photo by Elliott & Fry c1860)

Once knowing that the visitor to Ramore House was Sir Walter Scott, I searched and found a book called Sir Walter Scott’s Tour in Ireland by D. J. O’Donoghue.  In it there is a brief reference to his visit to Portrush, but there are several references to Jonathan Swift and Sir Walter Scott’s reverence for the man and his writings and his desire to visit any place in Ireland associated with him.

As a child, I had read Scott’s Rob Roy and Ivanhoe and part of Swift’s Gulliver’s travels.  When James Bankhead was telling us of the oldest house and the famous visitor, and perhaps the visitor’s great respect for Jonathan Swift, I must have confused the two writers.

So after more than 60 years and thanks to Hugh McGrattan, the fog has now cleared.

Now if only I could find a photograph of the old house before it was demolished….

 

 

 

 

Gabriel García Márquez

I can recall the morning in 2012 when I read in a BBC report that Gabriel García Márquez was suffering from dementia. His brother, Jaime, spoke of it in Cartagena, where he was giving a lecture to students. It is true that García had not often appeared in public in recent years and there had been several unconfirmed rumours of his ill-health, but the latest news left me feeling quite saddened to know that there would probably be no more writing from the great man. He was then 85, and according to his brother, he would write no more.  He died some two years later in Mexico City.

I first came across Gabriel García in 1996, when I was participating in a French course at Alliance Française in London.  I was brushing up my rudimentary French, with a view to starting a venture in Europe, or at least obtaining a senior European position.  As it turned out, it was the latter, as MD of a small Swiss company.

In the class we were asked to frame a general knowledge question, in French, relating to our country of birth.  A young Colombian student asked us to name the Colombian author who had won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.  None of us knew the answer.

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Gabriel García Márquez (1927 – 2014)

The first of García’s books that I read back in 1998, when I was based in Neuchâtel, was El General en su Laberinto (The general in his labyrinth), recounting the last days of Simón Bolívar. Years before I had been to Bolívar’s home in Caracas and the story left me with a lasting impression of how even the great can end in ignominy.  Later I followed on with García’s collection of short stories, Doce Cuentos Peregrinos (Twelve Pilgrim tales), his great love story, El Amor en Los Tiempos de Cholera (Love in the time of cholera), his masterpiece, the mystic Cien Años de Soledad (One hunded years of solitude) and several others.

When I later learned of his death, sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be picked up, was Vivir para Contarla (Living to tell the tale), the first part of his autobiography, covering his early years in Cartagena.  When I eventually read it, I recalled that I once knew a Señora Garbàn and her family in Caracas.  She was a talented artist and I attended one of her exhibitions in the late 1970s.  I am almost certain that she was from Cartagena.  And I sometimes wonder if she ever knew García, for he was a journalist of her era.

When reading García’s autobiography, it is obvious that many of his writings were based on his own intimate experiences: the small town, Aracataca, where he grew up, both his close and extended families, local and national historical events. For a ‘wannabe’ writer like me, there are rich lessons to be learned from his work.

But what a pity that the sequel to his autobiography will never now appear.

 

 

The Wall of Death

In my previous blog, I wrote of some of my earliest memories of Glenmanus and nearby Portrush.  I wrote of a couple of stunt motorcyclists and their act, ‘The Wall of Death’, and how they boarded with my grand-parents at Seaview Farm.  My memory of their act is so vivid, but I could not recall their names, despite my mother often speaking of those years when they returned for the summer season.

I posted the article and next day I received a comment from Australia, from Iris, who like me, also grew up in Glenmanus.  She recalled the couple and said that she remembered their surname as being Goosen or similar.  The name sounded Dutch or perhaps German but rang no bells for me.

The Northern Irish marriage records over 75 years old are accessible for a fee, so on the off-chance that they married in Ulster, I went to https://geni.nidirect.gov.uk/.  And in 1938, I found a Theunis Christophel Goosen who married an Ena Birmingham in Saint Patrick’s Church of Ireland, in Ballymena.  And both had their profession as ‘Amusement Caterer’.  It looked as though I might have found them, but I wanted more evidence.

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When I searched on the internet, I found a site focused on the Goosen genealogy (http://www.goosen.nu/index.php/documents/192-wall-of-death) and in it was an article about Chris and Una Goosen.

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Chris and Una Goosen (from the Goosen genealogy site)

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I am almost certain that I have found the couple and how thrilled my mother would have been to read my little account.

Perhaps the warm and contented feeling I am experiencing tonight is a reflection of her approval, and maybe also that of Chris and Una Goosen.

 

 

Early Memories of Portrush

What is your earliest memory?

Are you certain that your earliest memories are genuinely your own memories, or are you remembering and imagining what your parents or others have told you?  I confess that I am never quite certain of the authenticity of mine.

My early years were spent in Glenmanus, a small village now totally enclosed and obliterated by the relentless expansion of Portrush.  Until I was five years old, my parents lived in a small wooden hut, at least I recall it as being small and wooden.  It was just up the road from the farm of my great-uncle Bill Douglas, and great-aunt, Letitia.  I can clearly remember going down the steps to the stream that flowed in front of Bill’s farmhouse and falling in the water.  And in an out-building, Titia making butter in a large churn, paddling up and down. And offering me a ‘piece’, a thick slice of bread, coated in butter and jam.  Delicious it was.  The stream has long since been piped and covered over, and the farmhouse demolished and replaced with modern houses, owned by two of my cousins, Hughie and Brian Douglas.

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A butter churn, similar to that of Titia

And one freezing morning in winter, when the older boys came flying down Loquestown Hill on a sled, and one of them crashing into a hedge, and injuring his cheek.  I remember it as being Maurice Elliott who crashed, but he has no recall of it. One of us is correct…

My mother contracted TB when I was very young, and for some six months she was interned in a sanatorium in Derry.  It was Louise Wilson who looked after me, while my father worked on the farm during the day and played piano with his dance-band at Barry’s Ballroom at night. My only clear memory of that era was sitting at the table, having breakfast and my father telling me that a fox or a badger had broken into one of the hen-houses and killed all the hens.  He could probably have ill-afforded the loss, as he was just starting out on his new farming venture.

And there was the day when my mother took me down to Portrush, through the archway under the railway embankment, and we sat up on a sandhill, waiting for the ‘mock invasion’ to start.  In those days there was no seawall, only sand dunes leading down to the west strand.  Out in the bay there was a battleship and it began to fire its guns and then several landing craft were launched.  The troops were disgorged just offshore and there was lot of firing of machine gun blanks, as they charged up the beach.  Predictably the ‘enemy’ soon surrendered.  For many years after, until I was about 16, I dreamed of joining the military, despite my father’s lack of enthusiasm.  He had had enough of war after six years of fighting in WW2 and wanted me to join him on his farm.  I ended up doing neither farming nor military.

In those days there was a tram that ran from Portrush to the Giant’s Causeway and I remember seeing it setting out past the gasworks, down Causeway Street.  It was probably one of the last trips, as it stopped functioning at the end of the 1949 season.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, my father’s dance band played every night in Barry’s Ballroom.  My mother took me to see him play one evening, and afterwards, we went outside, to an exhibit called ‘The Wall of Death’.  It consisted of a circular wooden tower, inside which a couple rode motorbikes.  We stood at the top of the tower and looked at the bikes going around and around, horizontal to the ground at dizzying speed.  I later learned that my mother knew the couple.  During the war, in the summer season, they used to board at my grandparent’s farm in Glenmanus.  I wish I could remember their names.

So few memories, but so vivid are the few.  I sometimes wonder which vivid memories of their early years my four sons will recall, when they are older.

 

 

Jonathan Livingstone Seagull

Cape Town, Saturday 5 May, 2018

Most Saturdays, after a long walk through Green Point park and along the promenade, we stop off at the Radisson Hotel (https://www.radissonblu.com/en/hotel-capetown) for a thirst-quenching beer.  We have become so well-known by the staff that we rarely have to order: they well know our preferences.  And even when busy, the regular staff drop by our table to quickly say hello.  We always feel most welcome there.

Unless all the tables are occupied, we normally sit close by the pool.  It is comical to watch the seagulls washing and drinking, when there are no bathers.  If somebody passes by, they reluctantly scatter, only to return seconds later.

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The Radisson pool and the seagulls, with the kelp forest beyond,  and the ships in the far distance

Today, watching the ever-present seagulls, I had a flash-back, to about 1973, in Australia.  With some friends, I had gone to a little cinema down George Street or nearby, not so far from Circular Quay, in Sydney.  Neil Diamond was all the rage at the time and a new film had been released, a relatively short film, with incredible scenery, a beautiful sound track, and the voice of Neil Diamond.  I remember sitting, thoroughly entranced with the story of a seagull, constantly challenging it’s boundaries and it’s capabilities.

For a short time after, I was that seagull.  I wanted to be proficient in Spanish, I craved the opportunity to explore and live in South and Central America, I wanted to spread my wings and reach heights that I had never before envisaged reaching.

That feeling never left me, and over the next few years, I progressed with my modest ambitions. It’s a work still in progress.

And today I was reminded of that era.

Are my ambitions now satiated?

Not a chance.  There are many more yet to come… 🙂

 

South African Sunset

As I sit at my desk in our apartment on the hill above Green Point, I can see over an apartment complex below. Further back is another slightly elevated building, which does nothing to intrude on my overall view.

To the right is the clock tower of Reddam House, a rather exclusive private school, the clock of which recently only told the time accurately twice a day. And slightly further to the right there are three elevated palm trees, whose fluttering of fronds would indicate to me the wind force I could expect on my daily walk through the park and along the coast. When the trunks of the palms thrash and bend, I know that I will have to brace myself.

Below, all day long pass huge tankers, container ships and smaller vessels, pass on their way to and from the Cape Town harbour and around the Cape of Good Hope. If they are early for their berthing, they anchor just off the coast.

The sun sets to the left of the apartment complex, behind the steep slope of Signal Hill.

On a frequent clear day, the sky is a piercing blue. It reminds me very much of the sky that I used to experience in Sydney, so any years ago. It is a blue that one seldom, if ever, witnesses in Northern Europe.

I am usually at my desk in the early evening and I am a frequent witness of the setting of the sun. The line above the blue of the ocean first starts to turn a mellow yellow that gradually become more golden. And it spreads across the sky. When there are light clouds around, the sunset can become quite spectacular.

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The sun setting behind the opposing building
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And further up the hill…

It is dark now and I draw the curtains on another beautiful African day.

111

I was 42 when my first son was born and six and a bit years later, my fourth son took his first breath.  I felt myself to be a very fortunate man, a feeling that persists to this day.

A few years ago, it occurred to me that if I ever had grandchildren, it was likely that they would not remember much, if anything, of me and my ancestry.  I decided to write down what I could remember of my parents and their history, of my own travels, of people that had been a great influence on me, of places where I had lived, of some of my experiences.

But how to go about publishing it without boring the pants off a poor reader.  I recall discussing my aspiration with my good and learned Chilean friend, Laín Burgos-Lovéce.  He suggested that I write it as a blog.

Do you know the meaning of the word ‘blog’?  I certainly did not, so I looked it up.  It turned out to be a web-log, or a form of shared on-line diary.  I learned something new, but I still did not have a clear idea of how to go about formally writing my memoirs.  My aspirations marked time.

It was later, when I read Camilo José Cela’s classic, ‘La Colmena’, that I realised that I could write my thoughts in stand-alone articles, and later piece them together in chronological order.  It is a lot like a seanchaí, a traditional Irish story teller, comfortably seated by the fireside, a drink in hand, entertaining his audience with his tales.

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Ireland’s greatest poet

Initially, I restricted publication to family and close friends, but eventually, I opened it up to the public; it was pointed out to me that somebody that I once knew, but with whom I had lost contact, might stumble upon my writings and contact me.

And that has now happened several times and I am so grateful for the opportunity for the renewed acquaintances.  With each has come a flood of nostalgia.

It has now been two years since I published my first article, and to date there have been 111 of them.  And there have been viewers from 46 countries.  It is humbling to evidence the power of the internet to connect people.

So what’s next?

Well, I still have more than 50 articles that I have yet to write and no doubt there are a plethora of others that have not yet surfaced.  Every time I finish writing one, I get at least two new ideas.  Sooner or later, I will put then into a book form, to gift to those of my relatives and some friends who have no access or no desire to access the internet.

So, now for number 112… 🙂