DOWN THE LINE

Uncle Ivan

From: Stories from Other Places by Graham Bathgate

Turn off that wireless, would you? The man’s talking nonsense about the workers. He’s talkin’ rubbish and anyway I cannae bear the sound of his voice. People are working as hard as they can. So-called experts on the wireless shouldnae be allowed to speak their mind that way, saying bad things about the workers. The experts should try havin’ a go on a building site or down the mines sometime … I’d like to see how they get on. Oh, it’d be a different story then. They’d see what the ordinary fellow has to put up with, no trimmings, no fancy work places, no fine clothes – well, except on a Sunday or to go to a wedding – aye, there’d be an understanding let’s say, maybe even an appreciation of what the man who gets his hands dirty has to do day in, day out ….. the 48-hour week, eh? I’ll bet some o’ thae experts havnae worked 48 hours in a week in their lives. Well certainly no' in any back-breaking sense. Oh, god! The man’s still goin’ on about getting people to work harder … Ah cannae stand it!… Turn the man off! He’s a fool! Dad! Turn that rubbish off, will ye? D’ye no hear me? Ocht, ye cannae hear me for that awful man talking nonsense. Joey, come and listen to this rubbish! An’ close the door! There’s a draught would slice you off at the ankles. Good god, musta been born in a field. Ho, ho! That's a good one!

In this vein Uncle Ivan would ramble on and on, showing a personality and manner that he either possessed before the Second World War or came back with, severely shell-shocked. He would be talking to his father, Charlie, my Grandpa, a political man who had worked down the mines since he was 14, or to his sister, my Auntie Jo, a cultured woman who loved languages, books and travel. She would deal with the tirades in silence or the odd comment, “Oh, that's rich coming from you!” or she’d just leave the wee living room with its open fire and its alcove bed us lads, my cousins and me, loved to climb up into, never thinking our parents were conceived there – Auntie Jo would go through to the kitchen and sigh, probably recalling the last time she was walking some lavender-lined lane at the Mediterranean or dreaming of the next time she’d see the sun through vine leaves. There was no point in arguing with someone who could shout loud enough to be heard several doors down the street of houses in their miners’ row.

Ho, ho, that was a guid one, eh? Eh? What d’ye think o’ that? Ho, ho, ho!!

It would have been some joke or other, something Ivan had heard on the building site or in the pub or dredged up from wartime camaraderie in the army. He spoke with a deep booming shout, as if a cannon was firing all the time. His sisters, one of whom was my mother, would tell him not to shout but it was useless if he was in full flow.

“That’ll do now, Ivan, we’ve had enough,” my mother would often tell him. “We’ve heard it before.”

For most people that withering silencer would indeed be effective, but it served as fuel for Ivan’s wild tirades.

Here’s one, boy, here’s one. Here, listen to this now!

And he would grab at me with a hand like a shovel, me a pre-teen angular lad and an occasional visitor to see Grandma, Grandpa, Auntie Jo, and yes, yes, always Uncle Ivan. I knew there would never be a dull moment.

Here’s one, here ye go now, I heard it from some boy the other day there, where was it now, och, maybe on the building site …

His sister who had heard all this every day most of her 50-odd years would say in expasperation: “You mean pub?”

Ocht, never mind for that, Joey, never mind, I’m just telling the boy a joke here. Eh, son? Nothing like a laugh, a joke, eh? Now, where was I? See, Joey, you’ve gone and made me forget, now. The lad’s waiting for my joke. Och, well, never mind for that, what was it? See, now it’s gone. Well, here’s another yin ….. you’ll like this one. OK. There was this boy said,

‘How do you spell weather?’

Weather, you know, weather, like the word, aye, you know ....

Joey said she and “the lad” had probably understood the word perfectly.

A’rright, Joey, y’re ruining the joke, will ye no’ be quiet now! Good god! Can a man not have his say? ... So he asks how do you spell weather? And the other boy, well, what do you think he says? Come on, now, what do you think?

Joey muttered something about getting on with it, we were all in such a state of high expectation and tension, and couldn’t wait to be told …

Well, he said w-e-t-h-e-r, see, you get it, the wrong spelling, he said w-e-t-h-e-r … see … Aye, well, we’ll not go into that, forby, now. And the other boy, what do you think? Eh? Well, he says,

‘That’s the worst spell of weather we’ve had in ages,’ he says, ‘the worst spell of weather,’ … you get it? That’s a good one, eh? Aye, well, ah don’t know what the other boy said, not sure that he got it, you know, they’re not very intelligent down the road there or on the site, you know what I mean, not very astute, not overly intelligent, not much going on, you know whit ah mean …

Joey couldn’t resist:

“Not like you, you mean? Intelligent?”

And Uncle Ivan would wink at me, his face a great smile, his eyes bright with the telling, either still enjoying his joke or pleased that he had annoyed his sister with his battering banter:

Ho! ho! ho! That's a good one, eh? Worst spell of weather in ages!