Melbourne, city of family.

If you’re looking for a City that buzzes, then Melbourne is for you. A population of 4.5 million, construction cranes and boring drills reflects a city that has no intention of staying static. We stayed on William Street at the Carlton Suites Gateway just on the banks of the Yarra River. The thing that many of us were anticipating most about this city visit, wasn’t the historic sites, the museums, the sporting arenas. No this visit promised us the sheer unadulterated pleasure that only the presence of washing machines in our rooms can bring to errant and sweaty travellers. Although only 10 days into our 4 week trip this was a critical requirement.

For me Melbourne was all about people; meeting up with family whom we hadn’t seen for over 50 years. Two members of my fathers family emigrated to Australia in the 1960’s; the Hastie’s and the Cruickshanks relocated to the suburbs of Victoria but close enough to retain contact with each other. Our visit to the area reflected a lot of Scottish heritage in the Victoria address book but there were also elements of Irish, Dutch and Aboriginal names on the roads and highways we travelled. Melbourne was a penal colony built by convicts, unlike the free settlers of Adelaide and Perth. The £10 fares encouraged many hard working honest people to relocate to the area. This included my family.

I was excited to be able to catch up with the Hastie’s on our first night in Melbourne. Only 3 of the original 4 who arrived in 1964 remained, but they had added 6 children and 3 grandchildren to the brood in the interim years. My Aunt, now in her 86th year had not lost one ounce of her West Lothian accent, other than her grey hair she had the same smile and was instantly recognisable when I emerged from the elevator. Both of her children, my cousins, had Australian accents but proudly claimed they still had British Passports. My eldest cousin, a tall, beautiful woman with golden brown hair and instantly recognisable eyes, I had not seen for over 56 years. She had never been back home. Married now to an Australian with 3 children and 2 grandchildren. She was a bit of an enigma to me when we were small, I was always looking up to her. My lasting memory of her was playing on the swings the week she was leaving for a better life and how I cried. Behind her beautiful blue eyes, however there dances a dark shadow, a heartbreaking loss so raw and so personal it threatened to destroy her family.

At the age of 19 her daughter Brodie took her own life, subjected to workplace bullying. This tragedy, when it happened was a mystery to us in Scotland since no-one could articulate the story without a guttural pain chocking back the words and us too polite to probe. Since that time my cousin has campaigned for Brodie’s law to make bullying a criminal offence. And she has achieved it, now running the Brodie’s Law foundation she tirelessly works to improve organisations and highlight the impact of workplace bullying. If I looked up to her as a child, I was even more impressed now with the strong, powerful woman before me.

My other cousin, her brother, bore an incredible resemblance to his dad, even as a baby I’m sure he had a moustache, I can hardly recall seeing him without it. He struck me as the one holding the family together, stepping into his father’s shoes. He held family dear in his heart and had organised this reunion, despite being awful at managing messages the importance of maintaining links was not lost on him. He clearly played a role when he lost his niece; the entire family had been impacted. And he was also out to see the newest Hastie currently residing in Brisbane when she arrived to cement the family ties so necessary when you first move here.

The Cruickshanks, dad’s sister and her family moved here from East Lothian in the 1960’s too. My cousin, his wife and their daughter met up with us in the Yarra Valley. My cousin and one of his son’s had visited Scotland recently but it was still great to meet his wife and daughter. Still resident in the same place they arrived to all those years ago they took us out to the Dandenong’s to provide us with an ariel view of Melbourne’s skyline. However the poor weather put paid to that as the mountain was swathed in mist and rain. We needed umbrellas for our visit and for a bit it felt just like being at home. Once the mist cleared however, we had an amazing panorama of the central business district’s high rise blocks in Melbourne.

The Sky Centre also boasts an English garden and play area for kids with a restaurant and banners celebrating the location as a wedding venue. Large totemic sculptures by the famous artist William Ricketts stand proudly around the gardens and are truly stunning examples of what you can do with a chainsaw. On our drive out to the Sky Centre the depth and sheer density of the woodland was a stark reminder about the threat my family live with at the time of fires. My cousin pointed out homes within the forest with debris on the roofs that made them vulnerable to fire. He explained that you need to put a tennis ball in the gutter to block the down pipe and fill the gutter with water to stop fire spreading.

We made up for the delay in commencing our sight seeing caused by the weather by sharing family stories, of our grandparents, aunties and uncles and cousins now living elsewhere in Australia; Newcastle, Airlie beach and Rockhampton. This cousin played Australian rules football and was good at it, we had newspaper cuttings to prove it, sent by a proud mother to my father over 50 years before. I had intended to bring them with me on this visit but forgot them. As his wife and daughter are currently logging the club’s history they were delighted we had kept these and I have promised to send them on. My second cousin I had already met through Facebook so it was wonderful to meet her in the flesh, say what you like about this form of social media but the connectivity to family across the globe is a truly wonderful thing. I knew what her son looked like, how he was doing in school, the family time they spent together. We bonded over a short ride to a local village and she filled me in on the family and how they were all doing. Proud of her roots she had wonderful stories about her grandmother (my aunt) and the close bond they shared, we drove past their old home in Coldstream and I could imagine them living there. We took a stroll to Olinda where the shops and restaurants are individual, quirky but friendly. The Lion, overhearing a Scottish Accent stopped to speak to the gentlemen only to discover that he was from Edinburgh and his brother lived in our town!

Melbourne gave me a great feeling of belonging, not so much with the city. It did however give me family time, so precious on this trip and it’s also the place where I made new friends……………

Adelaide, Queen of King William.

After Perth our next stop was Adelaide, the city of churches. Called after King William’s wife, Queen Adelaide, We learned it was noted for its religious tolerance at a time where tolerance was hardly invented. Adelaide had welcomed the Lutheran followers from Germany who were escaping religious persecution in the 1870’s. At a time when benevolence wasn’t high on the agenda in many places, Australian’s in Adelaide were welcoming everyone to join them and live harmoniously. We didn’t get to church in Adelaide and if it is a city with many churches we did not see too many of them. Having said that the liberal feeling here was evident, the welcome and warmth of this quirky city apparent on our three days living here.

Adelaide is a lot different from Perth it is not dominated by Glass and Steel columns and Corporate buildings. It does have a more colonial feel and is the capital of Southern Australia, becoming so when the country was initially divided into South and North. The city itself is contained within 1 square mile, surrounded by trees that are quite distinctive if viewed from the local panoramic viewing station for the city; Mount Lofty. Of course there are suburbs beyond the city boundary that Adelaide incorporates but the city itself is distinctive and contained within that one square mile. The general surveyor in the early 19th century, William Light, was responsible for the development of Adelaide and it was his vision that was responsible for the city layout as it is now. He is buried beneath his theodolite in the central area of the city reflecting his influence and standing. Well William, thank you I thought you did a pretty amazing job.

As with other major cities, there is a Chinatown here, albeit a bit small in size, but providing the city with the must do touristy bit (although I must admit we didn’t do it). Most of the restaurants are on Gouger Street where you can wander among the aromas of fusion spices and Italian garlic, enticed in by flickering candles, white linen silver cutlery and the forlorn empty wine glass, all the while containing the grumbling of a very hungry stomach as you try to agree on where to eat that evening. A vibrant market where fruit, vegetables, wine, cheese and cakes were aplenty, was located on Victoria Square. This is a spot where you can buy most things including fly nets, a must for the outback. They are cheaper here than they were in Perth where we paid almost $11 Australian.

The excellent thing about a lot of cities in Australia is that the trams in the city are free and Adelaide is no different. This is a huge bonus in searing temperatures but the Lion does like to walk so it was highly unlikely that we would even use the tram on any of the trip. Never the less you can take the tram all the way to Glenelg beach or if you prefer you could cycle there, its a short journey outside the city. The free trams are plentiful and easy to identify. There are also lots of places where you might board and disembark as you navigate this tight little city.

Glenelg beach on the city limits, was a vibrant seaside town, with a funfair, big wheel and lots of children. Along the esplanade there was a flume swimming pool and arcade accommodating the number of children visiting so they were at least contained. Volleyball nets lined the beach near the entrance with several young men playing giving the tourist without purpose something to focus on. We took off our shoes and sat on the sand watching over 30 kids of all ages learning to surf. One of the team, obviously with some kind of responsibility, had ‘Age Group Manager’ emblazoned on his back suggesting this was an organised tournament perhaps. Kids as small as 3 were participating. I couldn’t really see this working on Portobello Beach, Edinburgh- the temperature would be an inhibitor for a start. One of our fellow travellers, braved the waves and went in for a swim. We looked on enviously as the warm sea swept its waves over the golden sand and we wished we had brought our swimmies. Actually I wished, the Lion would not contemplate any activity that might involve getting wet. He didn’t even paddle.

After all this we finally checked into our hotel, Peppers, located on Waymouth Street and this, to date had the most comfortable of all the beds. I’m slightly behind in my account of all things Australia so have slept in two other hotels since. Adelaide and can say with some confidence that the Peppers bed was by far the most comfortable to date. We have been living out of suitcases so the wardrobe was defunct for the trip and although the bed was comfy, space was limited with all the bags open and spewing outfits onto the floor as we tried to identify suitable attire for the regular evening stroll.

Adelaide also had a festival fringe going on. Now in its 60th year this was identical in spirit to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, in fact many of the acts were advertising the fact that they had been there. Some of the street acts, and notably a Swede, performing juggling and acrobatics, I recall from the High Street in Edinburgh. He was just as pleasing to the crowd here as he was there. The Fringe is free to enter and was teeming with families, friends and participants in full costume wandering aimlessly or with purpose among the lively crowds. The sun was streaming through the leafy glades overarching the grounds as we took in the various street food and free performances.

We watched as young people received a trapeze lesson. I contemplated this for a nano second, that was until I saw that they had to pull their legs up, hang them over the bar and then drop their body and dangle their arms where the more experienced guy would catch them as they swung some 30 feet above ground. The antics of those willing to try it out kept us mesmerised for ages and my initial enthusiasm for trying this out waned as a flurry of participants missed the waiting hands and fell 30 feet into the safety net. Food and drink was on offer everywhere and there were shows for adults and children alike. It was good humoured and fun giving us a warm fuzzy holiday feeling. We left there wandering aimlessly from side street to side street like commandos back to our hotel, dodging buggies and couples unwilling to split the pole. Something to note is that shops don’t open on Sunday, and many restaurants were also closed. So it was good to find some places were open because of the festival.

We only had two full days in Adelaide, but it was a city I felt at home in and welcome. Not as big and bright as Perth, but a warm welcome awaited us and it was certainly a highlight of the tour. But then there were so many of these as we would find as we wandered around Australia.

Perth, the Australian one.

We arrived in the dark of night in Western Australia. The level of excitement at finally getting here was momentous, not dampened in the slightest by the fact that it was at night and we might not actually see anything of the skyline or surrounding landscape. The dimly lit arrival area was host to a plethora of tour operators or drivers waiting a little bit patiently and looking a big bit bored for the passenger arrivals to finally make it out through immigration. Our particular tour guide- the Tigress introduced herself and welcomed us to Australia. I let that welcome sink in for a few minutes, that we were actually here given everything that was going on was truly amazing and I couldn’t help smiling with complete happiness at the reality of this moment. We were directed to a waiting bus and the remaining 17 people who would be joining us. In Singapore we had yet to introduce ourselves widely, so while some faces were familiar we wouldn’t really know anyone until much further on in this tour. In any event those who had also undertaken the tour of New Zealand were joining us in Perth and soon 19 would be 28.

I made a couple of mistakes about Perth, or misplaced assumptions perhaps would be a better way of describing it. I believed Perth was on the southern coast, this particular assumption (despite having a higher Geography I might add) was based on the writing of Perth on the Australian Map, going from left to right, its position was something of a confusion. I thought this positioning of the name placed the location on the south coast, when in actual fact it was on the west. Secondly, I thought it would be a bit of a backwater but once the glimmers of sunrise flickered through the curtains and I looked out on the vista, I realised instantly how wrong I had been. It is a beautiful city, bordered by the river, spotlessly clean, a mixture of old and new and uplifting in every aspect of its being.

The Rough Guide to Australia puts the population of Perth around 1.5 million people. Built along the banks of the Swan River, famous for its black swans and dolphins, early Western Australian settlers arriving here were free, that is they were not criminals, instead these immigrants travelled because they wanted to relocate. The reality of spending 150 days on a boat meant many of these intrepid travellers ditched their hopes of making it to eastern Australia and disembarked in the West as soon as the boat docked here, glad to be free of the confined conditions and squalor.

The large expanse of the Swan River dominates this City, it is perfect for boats, canoeing, fishing and a range of water sports, all of which was regularly going on while we were there. The City, built on a grid system, is easy enough to navigate so a trek around it takes no time really. The newly developed Elizabeth Quay is a popular place for visitors, with play areas for the children and assorted seating, sculptures, cafes and bars for the adults. I loved the design, the views and the welcome of the whole area. The famous Bells of St Martens are housed here, a centre piece of the Quay, that invites you to visit for more information.

We were shown the City by our guide on the bus to help orientate ourselves, then we were driven the short distance to nearby Fremantle. Now this was a hidden gem. Quite hip, a university town, with loads of buildings with iron fret work balconies that reminded me of New Orleans. Beneath were unique little shops, secondhand bookstores and coffee shops. Each one alluring and inviting to everyone, except of course the Lion. Along the front we could take our pick from the coffee shops in Cappuccino Strip and watch the flood of tourists from the nearby Queen Mary swarming the streets and browsing the wares on offer. From Freo, as the locals call it, we boarded the Captain Cook, and headed west back to Perth via the Swan River. No sooner had we moved away from the wharf when two dolphins emerged from the water and tipping their fins playfully in the water. I screeched with delight at their appearance, much to the shock of those seated around me. Seeing these mammals in the wild in the proximity of the boat was truly unexpected, but we were unable to snap them as they caught me off guard. As the boat chugged its way hurriedly back toward Perth I kept my eyes peeled on the River for more Dolphins.

Before Fremantle we stopped momentarily for a paddle in the Indian Ocean at Cottesloe. This small but beautiful sandy beach was littered with families and seniors enjoying the warm weather in the high 30’s. The sea ebbing and flowing on the warm golden sands and me dipping my toes in the Indian Ocean and feeling like I was five years old again. It was idyllic and so far Australia was living up to my expectations.

On our final day in Perth we wandered around the City streets, locating London Court; a shopping precinct with a Tudor facia standing out among the glass and steel of its neighbouring buildings. On exploration this quaint lane was gaily swathed in colourful bunting, covering little shops and coffee houses bringing a little feel of England with a lot of Australia on offer. It was a lovely place to spend an hour or so idling before we set out striding around the grids of Perth looking at the mix of buildings and people before heading back to our hotel. The Tigress had us up early the next morning for the next trip to Adelaide so the cases were packed up, the pictures edited and organised, the family updated and before long we were off on our travels again.

Corona virus- not in my back yard.

In Singapore, Coronavirus was the main topic of concern and just about everyone local acknowledged this by wearing a mask. Whether this was mainly due to the large number of Chinese in the area (somewhat misplaced, but nevertheless that is perception) or not the fact was it was a real and present danger to the people of Singapore at the time of our visit. On our tour some people felt they had to cancel this stopover as the risk, in their opinion, was just too high. It also emerged during our visit that tourism had been hit significantly by the threat of the virus. Those whom we had contact with in Singapore, playing the party line, were at considerable lengths to explain the Government were doing everything in their power to halt the spread into their country. That, at the end of the day, might be futile.

On our arrival into Singapore we were health screened at the Airport. Several university students, presumably having agreed to undertake this onerous role, were masked and seated behind several wires and multiple cameras to initiate mass screening. This involved taking temperature readings. They observed the travellers arriving into the country en masse with microscopic thermometers to identify those individuals with high temperatures while they filtered their way through the airport. Our main purpose as travellers was to move swiftly past this crew without as much as an atichoo or a cough and so continue with our trip.

If you had a cold when you left Scotland (and lets face it who doesn’t) you needed to disguise it. Instead of wiping your mouth after dinner, you had to use the napkin in such a way as to disguise the real reason for its use; to conceal the tissue wiping the stream of snot from your nose. This had to be done surreptitiously in order to disguise the fact you had this common Scottish ailment that might be misconstrued by foreigners. Scotland is after all a world heritage site when it comes to colds, it was one ailment we were well accustomed to but at the moment might be seen by the rest of the world as potentially fatal.

I was also glad I wasn’t in the throes of my usual flush as I sauntered through the airport rather nonchalantly. Trying to disguise my runny nose was bad enough without trying to conceal a sudden rise in my temperature caused by a flush. Otherwise I’d have been swept up, turned around and booted right back to where I came from. The menopause cannot fool thermometers because when it begins it feels like a furnace has started burning in your skull and the only way to release this heat it is through your hair and skin pores. Thus any remote thermometer is likely to identify you sooner rather than later. While this less than welcome intruder is making its mark on your temperature you find yourself praying it will subside soon and no-one will notice it. You could try to conceal it by waiving your passport frantically like a fan to avert the emerging heat and hope that you look as if you are just slightly harassed from finding your luggage. The reality of course is always different; most people notice your flush and then try to avoid looking at you as you disintegrate into a sea of scarlet, all the while trying to maintain a level of cool, that everyone knows is fooling no-one.

Every shop in Singapore had a hand sanitiser, every toilet had a public safety message about the Coronavirus, and making sure you washed your hands was plastered everywhere. Singapore was worried about the spread of this virus even though the corporate messages were clearly meant to reassure you. The mask wearing public took no chances while we tourists, well we worried about it from a distance with ambivalence. No-one else felt the risk was low and were keen to prevent any opportunity to contract the virus or allow it to spread. The world, in Singapore at least, went about its business at this stage not too inhibited by Coronavirus. It was clear that keeping its threat at bay was going to take a lot more work than hand sanitisers and masks. Singapore was sending a message; almost impertinently that the virus was not welcome here, while all the while knowing it was only a matter of time before it arrived.

As we continue on our trip the Coronavirus dominates the headlines. We keep our masks close at hand but have as yet had little cause to use them. Let’s hope that good fortune continues as we venture into the unknown.

Slinging back to Singapore

Singapore was to be the first stop on this epic tour. By epic I mean we are away for five weeks and by any stretch of the imagination, with the Lion loving travelling (NOT), this is no mean feat. I have family here so in advance of our arrival I had made contact in the hope we might meet up. Despite our 18 hour journey he proposed to meet us on the day of our arrival in an Irish pub to watch the Scottish Football. It was such a Singapore thing to do. Least said about that, in travellers terms, the better. The Irish pub was a haven of football fans, suitably attired, singing anthems creating an atmosphere as if we were actually in Paradise. The game being shown that evening required considerable tolerance by my family member since he supported our arch rivals, but nevertheless he demonstrated real restraint. You could say he went well above and beyond what was expected, as we trounced this team and claimed the three points putting us closer to winning the league.

This partisan activity gave our first night in Singapore an air of celebration and left us completely available for the next two days to see and experience the rest of the City. First impressions were that it was a magnificent, austere and bustling city. Singaporeans proudly claim they are the most westernised city in Asia and our guide appeared considerably smug about this fact. It was a spotlessly clean City in every aspect. One of our fellow travellers commented that it was too clean, the Lion was dumfoonert (incredulous) by this statement. How, in his opinion, can anywhere be too clean? This traveller had yet to experience the Lion and all his idiosyncrasies and so had limited insight as to what makes a good holiday, in the Lion’s view. The Lion’s idea of a good holiday would solely be based on his assessment of the cleanliness or otherwise of the City.

It is really difficult with globalisation to articulate what makes one place so really different from another. Globalisation means that there are MacDonald’s in every city, town and village wherever you travel. The giant retail kings and queens can be found in most modern cities across the world. And everywhere has an Irish bar, at least one anyway. Singapore was no different. Its unique selling point, in my view, has to be something about the culture, which on the surface appears western but has subtle but tangible overtones of Chinese, Tamil and Malay, remnants of the early settlers here. This Asian fusion provided us with tourist attractions in Chinatown and Little India which we visited to experience first hand the 4th and 5th generation Chinese and Tamil people’s culture. Religious places of worship to Chinese gods and Tamil deity were colourful and aromatic as the incense and jos sticks permeated the air inviting you inside to experience calm and peaceful prayer. Colourful wreaths with yellow and red flowers heralded a pungent mix of cumin and turmeric in Little India soliciting your taste buds as you wandered through the market stalls.

Chinese dragons and tigers adorn the doorways on the way out of the Temple. The tiger symbolising the elderly and it’s cub, the young person, and how the two must work together to achieve balance through youth and experience. Much to be learned about this symbolism. Entering on the right and leaving the Temple by the left was important for Karma, with the key difference in this Temple that we could keep our shoes on for the visit. In Little India we learned, in days gone by, moneylenders would be found by the riverside offering new business funding to the early settlers. Clad in little more than a loin cloth, the money lenders would purview their investments and hurriedly pull out if they considered the business unviable. Nothing new there then, if you have experience with the banking system we have nowadays.

The Singapore River is beautifully lined on either side with walkways offering a warm evening stroll with a variety of eating places and watering holes along the way. You will find mostly tourists in this area and the prices reflected it at $12 Singapore dollars for a pint and $10 for wine. There are a variety of fusion restaurants as you might expect from a city built around Asian influences, so we had Italian. Now that is a frustration to me since the Lion, another of these idiosyncrasies, rejects spicy food as it might upset his tummy, so Osso Bocco it was for the first night.

A must do visit in Singapore is to Marina Bay Gardens at night. The light show dances and delights the eyes, you feel like you are in the movie Avatar. The beauty of the show enveloped us before we travelled 36 floors up in the lift to the Viewing Platform. This area created in the form of a huge surfboard sits atop this magnificent hotel which hosts a bar, food and swimming pool. Only residents might experience the latter, but the $23 dollar entrance price is deducted from your food and drink bill so it makes for a reasonable trip if you don’t mind the height. At night you get a real sense of the dazzling splendour of Singapore; glistening with lights, the tall buildings peppering the horizon like giant columns, the view allows you to experience this beautiful city from a completely different perspective. On our way up in the lift we met a couple of people from Dundee, of course we did this is a cosmopolitan city. They were experienced travellers now living in Gibraltar and they had been to the city before, filling us with recommendations we were unlikely to ever manage given the short nature of our trip.

After an expensive but much appreciated and must do Singapore Sling, we descended into reality and headed off in the general direction of Raffles. We wanted to experience first hand the most traditional element of any visit to Singapore . We had stopped there on our travels around the city earlier in the day with the guide but wanted an uninhibited experience. Our visit was more out of duty than want if we are honest. So we set off confused by the darkness, down one street, along a tree lined avenue, in the underpass, back onto the river and soon realised we were lost. By 11pm we gave up our quest to be hip tourists at the famous bar which was most likely to be closed anyway (things close about 1030pm there). Instead we found our way back to the river, strolling hand in hand, back to our hotel. Ah well let’s leave that for another night, yeah…………….

An Epic journey

As those of you know and have read earlier blogs, we are not the luckiest travellers in the world. We’ve had dramas, disasters and even missed holidays altogether. You will recall that in September 2018, when I booked the Very Best of Australia Tour with stopovers in Singapore and Bali, I mistakenly booked it for February 2019! It was a cock up before we even got started. Having realised this mistake, I ate humble pie and contacted the tour operator who rebooked the right date for our trip to coincide with my 60th birthday in 2020. I was assured that nothing else could possibly go wrong, right?

The bushfires in Australia had ravaged the country in the summer of 2019/20. Nowhere was safe apparently and the country had suffered horrendous loss of life; people lost homes, wildlife and woodlands were decimated. People were picking through the the ashes trying to salvage what little the fires had left them and we were going there on holiday. It was hard to be ambivalent to their suffering. As the fires continued air quality became an issue and media coverage did little to quell the rising levels of anxiety here in our household. Tennis players participating in the Melbourne Open were complaining bitterly about the air quality there and Melbourne was one of our stopovers. We might not be able to visit any of the places at this rate. We watched with more than a passing interest as the impact of the devastating fires became all too real in every day life in Australia.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office became our new best friends. We favourited them on our browser to assist us getting to the information quickly and efficiently. Our insurance company also suggested that unless the F&C Office stated that it was unsafe to travel, they would not refund the costs if we cancelled. Having paid a telephone number in cash for this trip; the dream holiday was suddenly becoming a nightmare. My antenna was raw monitoring the situation. The news continued to sound concerning, I know we have coped before with such threats and risks, however this was a major set back.

And it was not over. Kangaroo Island, where we were to spend two nights, was removed from the tour itinerary. Anyone who watched the fires on TV could see the horrific impact on wildlife there. Other trips on our tour were also under threat, but daily updates continued to pour oil on troubled waters and as time went on glimmers of hope began to emerge. I turned to prayer, only to hear that Trump had started an offensive in Iraq. The thought of a war in the Middle East filled me with dread as we were passing through Dubai on our travels and might be affected. Those chances increased tenfold when, in apparent retaliation, some angry men shot down a passenger jet (admittedly mistakenly) nevertheless taking out everyone on board. I was weak at the knees, finding solace in my sofa as I watched incredulous, and contemplated the impact of these latest developments. And it was about to get so much worse.

Two weeks before we were about to travel, news of a deadly virus in China was beginning to filter onto our news channels. Wait, we were heading in this direction, with a stopover in Singapore which had close links to China where the virus originated. This was the third calamity to hit the holiday. We watched with horror as the World Health Organisation declared the virus a “global problem” and instigated widespread measures to attempt to constrain the spread of a deadly Coronavirus. Our favourite website was red hot as we searched for guidance and information (again) about whether we should travel. Our cases lay empty, no real packing had even begun with this latest development hanging over us. During all of this, quite innocuously my sister mentioned that there had been a plague of locusts in Africa that had devastated crops, described as giant locusts, the like of which had never been seen before. This piece of information began ringing alarm bells, religious teaching suggested fires, floods, plague, locusts and shooting planes down could mean only one thing; the end of the world, imminent annihilation, the apocalypse was coming. Our holiday was doomed.

Never say we are not positive though for despite these threats, the risks mounting on a daily basis, we started to pack the cases, buy the currency, book the driver and buy the guide books. It is called faith. Looking on the bright side we purchased masks to wear when we arrived in Singapore and ensure we were protected from the virus. A little bit of excitement was beginning to take hold the morning the driver arrived to collect us. We threw the bags (well maybe we dragged them-they were quite heavy) into the boot, sat in the sumptuous leather and breathed a sigh of relief we were on our way. Two miles into the journey an accident on the M8 forced us off the motorway and re-routing our journey added a half hour delay. We breathed a sigh of relief as we rejoined the M8 only to hit a second accident at Charing Cross. A further delay here meant we arrived a little late into Glasgow Airport but we managed to drop our bags without fuss and head to the Emirates lounge for the first champagne of the day. That is when the Lion said “ These accidents they usually come in three’s don’t they?…………….”

Storm Ciara threatens the party plans.

The final event in the birthday celebrations was for family. This is no mean feat; between the two of us we have around 54 people in our immediate family. So we often find that restricting these events to family only, works very well. A family party when the family are as plentiful as ours does place a serious amount of pressure on the organisers. You have to tread carefully since you don’t get to refresh the crowd that often obviously, unless there is a new partner (possible with some of the young crowd) or another baby has arrived (and they generally have no idea what’s going on anyway, as long as there is milk).

The party, if left to chance, could prove calamitous since there is a danger of creating a “Groundhog Day” with the same people always in attendance. This means that not all parties are attended and there is a danger that, with no preparation at all, no-one would come; this is social suicide for the family member hosting. It has become vitally important in these circumstances that a big hitter makes a commitment early on, according to Kevin Bridges anyway, and so in our family we have our very own big hitter- Marilyn. No party is complete without our funky, funny, adorable Marilyn. She works shifts so getting her to the party can be critical in terms of the timing of your event. And given the volume of people in the family, there are likely to be a few family parties in a year. No-one should underestimate the challenge of pulling this off as a straightforward gig, complacency is not an option.

Of late there has been a recent trend of fancy dress parties, usually the younger crowd drive this, so it has been 21st birthdays or birthdays at Halloween. eBay and Amazon, thankfully, accommodate such events and have enabled us to get our hands on pretty much any outfit for any occasion at cut price. People arrive in sharply coutured (albeit weird and wonderful) outfits. On the downside however we seem to have lost a bit of the creativity for outfits with the easy to access and disposable outfits, gone are the bunches of grapes from balloons kind of costume. Nevertheless, costume parties are a trend and one that required me to put a little thought into the planning of this party. If it was costume AND Marilyn could come then success was inevitable. Seeing as this was the big 60 birthday extravaganza and this combo was necessary, in addition for success to be ensured it needed to be an untried theme and so the sixties choice evolved.

What I hadn’t planned, given the intricate nature I have explained in pulling this party off, was that behind the scenes my sister and daughter were also planning the event. While well intentioned they have no idea of the nuances of such a big occasion in a family like this, nor the social implications. As a bit of a control freak and as my reputation as a hostess was at stake I didn’t want to renege as much control as they might have liked. I needn’t have worried and couldn’t have been more wrong. I assumed control of the food, (as Gayle says “you’re a feeder”) as my future reputation as a hostess may well hinge on this. Therefore I gained control of the food planning early on. This was a bit of a strategic coup, since once I had control of the food, the organising twosome saw it as a defeat and let me in on their plans. AWESOME as they were.

On the day before the party, a surveillance team were deployed to ensure I was not around. Conveniently celebrating a birthday with my friend ( after all other people were also having birthdays) I was out sufficiently long enough for three Gazebo’s and 1800 lights, bunting, chairs, tables, a juke box and cocktail bar all to appear on my patio area. I was actually moved, it looked stunning and my only regret is not taking pictures of all the hard work that went into this. It looked so inviting, so colourful and bright. I began to feel excitement stirring in my veins. Storm Ciara had other ideas. The lion’s wee brother dropped off a bright orange 60’s TV and we had other props that were strategically placed for optimal experience after all many would not recall the 60’s.

On Saturday morning the double-glazing in our bedroom had worked its magic and drowned out the fiercest of winds and rain overnight. But imagine my horror when I looked out to see half of the gazebo’s missing and brightly coloured bunting, napkins and cups scattered around the shrubs at the edge of the garden. Once outside it was worse, the sandbags holding the gazebo’s in place, were futile in the clutches of Ciara’s gusting winds, they jostled about like chicks looking to hide inside their mother’s wing. I raked around the street and surrounding woodland and recovered some of the missing gazebo, then I started to look at ways to ensure we didn’t lose any more. The weather forecast was not promising and drastic action was needed.

A bright spark led me to Hobby Craft where I bought 6 meters of Velcro, hoping this would ensure the flapping side panels resisted the winds and were kept in situ. That made little impact, I gathered large stones, boxes of tiles from the garage, concrete slabs, to no avail nothing could hold the three gazebo’s in place. Ciara was relentless and wining this battle – perhaps if I had invited her she might have given up just a little more. After 2 hours of battering against the elements and 20 minutes before my make-up appointment. I gave in and summoned the construction team back to remove them. Defeated I felt the party might be a disaster after all.

Following the transformational work of Fiona at Fabulous on my ageing and withered skin, I emerged luminous with the Mary Quant look, complete with beauty spot. The strong winds just managing to blow the wrinkles away. I returned home in time to see the gazebo’s, defeated by Ciara, laying desolate on the ground folded up and awaiting the imprisonments of the bags, no longer colourful and inviting but lacklustre and unwelcoming. The patio was remarkably bare.

Unstinted by this setback the organisers had taken over the house which had been transformed with the lights and bunting, the 60’s props and a VW Beetle photo booth erected in the snug. Photographs of me at various stages of life were peppered around the room along with balloons, banners and colourful ribbons. With 560 60’s tunes downloaded, snowballs with maraschino cherries, pork pie, cocktail sticks bearing sausages, cheese and pickles the scene was set for the party to get off the ground. As a final touch, and one of complete self-indulgence, I printed some old pictures with my name below and taped them to the Tennant’s lager cans in a fit of nostalgia, they never had a Tennant Girl with my name before. Now we can get this party started ………………………

For she’s yer mammy’s mammy

The problem with getting to 60 is that your try to find relatable women to work out how you might behave in this new decade. One woman who’s been the basis for my transformation into a ‘Granny’ is intrinsic to my own experiences of Granny’s in my past. I became a Granny at 50, my mother was 45 when I made her a Grandma so we have experienced, in our family at least, being a Granny at a relatively young age ( speaking contemporarily). But the only actual tangible experience of being a 60 something Granny, the provider of the framework for my future role, is the only one I had, my mum’s mum.

Jemima Henderson Mark was born in 1900, so when I was born she was 60. You can see why I’m drawing these comparisons as I approach the Golden Girls era. Obviously I don’t remember her when I was born, but my earliest memories do start when she was probably around 65years of age. I called her Grandma; I don’t know why that particular name was chosen but that is what she was to me and my sisters. I was not the first grandchild, so perhaps the first two had determined what we would call her. I know that my son named all his grandparents by different names while his words were still forming and the 14 or so grandkids that came after him followed suit. I myself have chosen Gran. I feel this reflects the sophistication of what I am trying to achieve as the older person in my grandchildren’s lives and tones down the ageist commentary that is commonly associated with status and responsibilities. My mother is GG (GreatGran) typically reflecting her personality, but more of that later.

At 60 my Grandma was deaf and wore a hearing aid. None of your minute concealed microscopic ear pieces, oh no this was a full on draw attention to your disability apparatus that, despite being stealthily coloured beige to blend with the skin ( if you were even beige in the first place) and therefore conceal it, was of monstrous proportions. This less than discrete apparatus, (Tena the brand of discrete was yet to be discovered- remember this was the 60’s) was operated through a clip on box designed to be worn on your dress like a brooch, however it measured about 6 inches by 2, and was the size of a small radio. It often dangled down in the creases of her bosom, which was ample and could swallow it up threatening to disappear forever. This box then connected to an ear piece, exactly the same as that used by the NHS today (things haven’t moved on much), by a slim but obvious lengthy wire. I know quite a lot about this hearing aid because it whistled constantly like R2D2 and you could not avoid looking at it as she fumbled with the volume to turn you up and it down. You couldn’t play hide and seek because you would hear it whistling giving away the hidey hole she had managed to squeeze herself into. It was constantly a source of inconvenience for her.

I experienced great sympathy for my Grandma, she seemed so vulnerable, probably due to the hearing aid, and she was so embarrassed about her disability, particularly if it whistled. When she went to Church she wouldn’t wear it because it threatened to squeal and she’d get embarrassed about that. Instead she’d go without the hearing aid and of course not hear a word that was preached, sung or whispered. I also knew she wore bloomers, but not the ‘Gone with the Wind Southern Belle’, style with ribbons and frills. In fact these were pre-Tena brushed cotton and elastic and beige that covered the leg from the hip to the knee. As a youngster I wondered if this was linked to the fact that my grandad had died in 1961 so she lived alone, and perhaps bloomers had sadly replaced the satin knickers that might have been worn if he was still alive. Or perhaps it was because there was no central heating and she just wanted to be warm. What ever the reason these memories were the realities, the very foundation for fearing my impending age.

On the other hand I often went to spend the night with her. I loved that. The big feather quilt puffed in pink satin squares floated on top of the bed, which was a big double. There was a stone water bottle that was filled with boiling water and laid into the bed about half an hour before you were due to bed down. On the fireplace you were guarded through the long chilly night by 2 magnificent Wally Dugs proudly asymmetrical at the fireplace ends, spooking the life out of me in the dark. The sleepover bed was a joy because I had a bedroom all to myself and didn’t need to share the bed with either of my sisters. A sleepover at Grandmas always meant smarties and dumpling with tanners in greaseproof paper and tomato soup for tea. I’d snuggle up along side her on her small two seater sofa and watch TV. In the 60’s that was a small square about 10ins x 10ins screen contained in a walnut cupboard. We watched the Titanic on that set and I broke my heart when it started to sink, going to the back of the TV to try and salvage a lifeboat or two. I remember she was worried that I’d get bad dreams from that experience so she sat beside me on the big comfy bed till I fell asleep.

My Grandma was a member of the Eastern Star, a female version of the masons. She had an orange sash, with brocade and embroidery, laced with golden tassels that swung in time with the music as she marched. I saw her walking with it on once, she wore it with pride and I thought how grand she looked in her smart coat and sash. In Lanarkshire you were generally one thing or the other, Protestant or Catholic. The pathway of my birth took me down the blue route. But she was not a bigot, her heart as big as a lion’s she embraced everyone whatever side they were on. When I was 7 while walking past Carfin Grotto on the way to her house, she took me in to show me Mary and all the other statues and grotto there. I loved that place and begged her to take me on a picnic there the next time I visited, its a memory that stuck with me when as an adult I made the decision to become Catholic. I know she’d have approved.

My Grandma’s brother, James, affectionately known as Shemi, came calling one night I was staying over. I knew when he arrived he’d been drinking, it was probably the half bottle of rum hanging out of his pocket that gave it away. Grandma loved her big brother and welcomed him into the sitting room where she provided a glass for each of them to share the rum. Before long, something I had never seen before was brought out from the depths of the hall cupboard. It was a fiddle and Shemi put on a green velvet coat covered with badges and ribbons and they started to Irish jig. It was a side I had never experienced of my Grandma and what a delight it was to see her so happy and playing her fiddle with such fun in her eyes. Just as well that hearing aid was lying in the bedroom, there were a few notes not quite what they needed to be with all that rum!

She died when I was 10 years old, I was devastated. I never knew pain like that before that moment. The loss was more than I could bear. Not the whistling hearing aid, or the bloomers, her grey wiry hair, her spectacles, the stone hot water bottle or the big comfy bed. The enduring thing I learnt from her was love; relationships and family were all you really need to help you develop your behaviour in this next phase of your life and as the song goes there is no way I’d shove that Granny off the bus. I hope my grandkids spare me that delight now I have my bus pass!

Deconstructing the Wardrobe when you are 60

As 60 approaches I am deconstructing my wardrobe. Looking to switch to the M&S Classic range in keeping with my age and infirmity. After all it’s a range I have yet to experience and the thrill is immeasurable. The problem with making space for this new range is I am such a hoarder and have outfits and shoes befitting a much younger woman. The good news is most still fit hence the bulging wardrobes, the bad news means it’s harder to throw away. And I’m moving increasingly in to flatties, hence I cannot justify retaining the 30-40 pairs of 6-7 inch stiletto heels, currently in boxes along the top shelf of my wardrobe, any longer. Apart from the fact I might fall off these heels,Granny’s teetering about on platforms and stilettos is not a look I am keen to develop.

I am including in this deconstruction, my jewellery. If clothes are hard to remove then jewellery, annotated with memories and sentimentality, means it’s unlikely that any of them will make the charity shops. Pride of place is my engagement ring minus the solitaire diamond. And the substitute rings never living up to the symbolism of the lost stone engagement ring but the Lion thought they might help. I can still remember the day I lost it, running a terry nappy under the hot tap to slough away the contents of my baby’s breakfast, the force of that water also carried the diamond with it, deep into the heart of the sewage system, never to be seen again. The deconstruction of this jewellery has resulted in it being strewn across the bedroom furniture for a week now and with each memory I am no closer to getting rid of any of it.

There are 32 pairs of shoes in boxes, this does not include the summer shoes in the storage box in the wardrobe and the winter shoes/boots littering the carpet at the foot of the wardrobe. Trying to look organised but nevertheless cluttering up the limited space and certainly not with the original neighbours. Now there are several reasons for this Imelda Marcos behaviour, none of which is blog worthy but nonetheless needs to be justified. I can hear you draw a sharp intake of breath at the sheer decadence of it, but I can assure you these were, to the last pair, absolutely essentialbuys. The oldest pair I have are 40 years old, bought for £9.99 in a long gone shop in the local Shopping Centre. The interesting thing, and I know the Economist readers among you will find this insight invaluable, you can ( and I have) 50 years later buy shoes for £9.99 from shops in the same Shopping Centre (Quiz, for instance). It is pretty clear to me that manufacturing in this area has not witnessed much in the way of economic growth, therefore I have made a significant contribution through these purchases to the economic development of my country.

Everyone knows that 2 of the three items you wear to a wedding need to match or coordinate. I’m not saying I had new shoes for every wedding, that is silly, but I did need to buy new ones for my children’s weddings. Although I could have gotten away with wellies, since I wore long frocks both times, and no one is likely to recall the shoes in any event. In fact I did wear the same shoes to each of their weddings and not an eyelid was batted. Between 2011 and 2018 I attended 12 weddings. There was an issue in so far as the guests were largely attending the same weddings as me, give or take a few independents and everyone knows women have the memory of an elephant when it comes to remembering what you are wearing. It was a chance I just could not take. The 2 out of 3 matching items rules accounts for at least 8 pairs of the 32 in boxes. And rules are rules.

By far the most extravagant pair of shoes was bought in NYC, on a visit with my daughter who spent most of our time there throwing up. She suffers from Hyperemesis Gravidarum; a condition of pregnancy our future Queen Kate also has apparently, and this awful illness meant most of our sightseeing was limited to toilets and washbasins. Nonetheless we did manage a trip to Bloomingdales where incidentally the toilets and washbasins are far superior to those of similar stores. I was seeking a pair of orange shoes. And after the helpful assistant brought me over 30 pairs. I left with the orange leather Michael Kors sandal, 7 inch stilettos safely in my grasp. I was filled with fear at the price I had paid, actively encouraged by my daughter who was exhausted by all the vomiting and had given up the will to live at the 22nd pair. She was agreeing to anything in the hope of moving onto the next washbasin, after all there were so many to see. After this purchase I was immediately gripped by the fear of bankruptcy which required me to consider how I would explain everything to the Lion. I absolved myself of all responsibility in this purchase convincing myself categorically that the purchase had been essential to my daughter escaping the shop floor and being able to throw up outside the store.

Despite their vintage status, the personal stories attached to each item and their enduring importance to the history and insight of fashion choices of the 20th century woman, most of these wonderful clothes, shoes and jewellery are going to end up in some charity shop at best or some clothes bin at worst. And it is that thought that is shouting at me to keep it for another 10 years at least. By the time I am 70 it should be much easier to throw it away since I won’t remember why I had it in the first place. There; decision made I am off to tidy up and put it all back in the drawer, boxes and wardrobe……………. and the Classic range can wait.

Nashville and the American Superhero. Chapter 10 Book of the Lion.

So how does a West Lothian lad come to be in Nashville Tennessee? Irrespective of the story we were so glad that he was there. Our sister-in-law’s big brother had many years earlier gone to St Andrew’s University and met a girl from the other side of the world. I don’t know much about their love story, but I do know that it was about love and he followed her there, they married and had three beautiful children. Had we never landed in the hospital in Atlanta, we might never have met them. And that would have been sad. Instead it was this American Superhero who offered us a warm hand of friendship that was made all the more meaningful because it was from family, something we so badly needed at this time of crisis, even when your family links are as tenuous as this.

It’s not even that we were in as much need as we had been when the crisis was at its height; when we were alone and isolated in Atlanta, or vulnerable on the Greyhound bus. It was because we were miles away from home, that the Lion was not out of the woods yet and there was an inherent need for tactile family connections. We were with a crowd of holiday hungry tourists, hell bent on fun and frolics that our unfortunate turn of events had disabled us from being able to take part. We had talked about and longed for a trip to Nashville, because we love our country music, finally we had arrived in our most wished for location and all we really wanted was a little bit of home. Isn’t life funny.

We checked in to downtown Nashville to our hotel with the other guests, a quick resume of what was important and what our trip entailed with the tour guide and we were able to head off to explore on our own.

Nashville is synonymous with country music every street, every hostelry is linked to its musical history, The Ryman Auditorium was the original Grand Ole Opry which offered us the imagined experience of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton all standing on that centre stage gazing out on the church like pews to audiences hungry for something different. The gospel songs that so underpinned their religious life were at the heart of this music which, with that all important influence, not only sated but justified their satanic lust for entertainment. Me and the Lion sat on the pews staring at the stage, the two of us alone with our memories, sitting in silence but filled with loud imagined performances of those famous names that had filled our early lives. Memories of the Lion’s Da in the kitchen mending and making to ‘Cold Cold Heart’, or my Mum and Dad’s parties and their radiogram loaded with well thumbed vinyl albums blasted out at parties, enticing a sing-a-long to ‘ You’re my Best Friend’ by Don Williams or DIVORCE by Tammy Wynette.

The Lion told me when he was little and living in Glasgow, family parties were common and since they were the only ones with a radiogram it was hoisted precariously down the close, balanced evenly on the babies pram and guided, wobbling across Glasgow to bring Country Greats to the rest of the family and be shared by those not able to afford a music player. But country music had changed and we now had our own favourites among the legends and we headed to Legends and the Stage to hear new country from Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, Terri Clarke and Toby Keith. We were in music heaven and this was also complete with the four hours we spent in the Country Music Hall of Fame. A veritable trip down memory lane peppered with auditory treats when we opened a gold disc that stirred our hearts and minds to days gone by. We loved it, it was our dream venue what was not to like? In fact we loved it so much we have now been to Nashville five times and had a real life country star living in our home ( a blog for another day).

On day one of our two day stay in Nashville we were contacted by our American Superhero at the hotel. A message left at the desk suggested he would pick us up that evening to meet his family for dinner. The Lion was still struggling with intermittent pain, but like me equally excited to be linked with family to home. We waited in our lobby for someone we had never met before, not knowing what to expect, or what they might look like. About 6 o’clock we ventured outside to wait when a blue corvette pulled up alongside our hotel, we were seated near the door taking in the evening sunshine and eyed this beautiful car with envy. A lone man slid out of the low slung seat with all the style of a man confident with his life and location. He walked toward the hotel. Whether it was intuition or just simply the timing I was drawn to him and called out his name. He stopped, turning toward us with a smile exactly the same as his sisters and I knew he was our man. The Lion eased himself up from the chair as we ventured toward this family stranger so glad to have someone in common with him that we both loved and that had brought us together.

After our celebratory introductions he beckoned toward his beautiful car, roofless there was clearly no other way to travel in such glorious sunshine. But I noticed very subtly the Lion hesitated as the journey flashed before him and he contemplated how he might go about getting into such a low lying vehicle with his sore back. This seemed lost on our host, and reaffirmed that unless you have lived it and its happening to you its not really going to penetrate the conscious activity of others. It was not lost on me and I looked at the Lion sympathetically hoping he wouldn’t make a fuss and be able to make it into this fabulous carriage without upsetting our Hero, despite his back limiting injury…………………………….