Mindin’ o’ James – Travels Ragither (Expurgated)

Yeh, “Expurgated” … you’d understand if you saw the “Unexpurgated” version! (A’ ye hae tae dae is ask! Then ah’ll decide if yer up tae it.)

James’s Travel Advice: James wid tell me afore we left for France or Greece or some exotic place, “You need tae get a burrd tae travel wi’, somebody to share wi’, a great wye tae travel is wi’ a burrd. You need a burrd, man!”  Ah aye thocht guid advice, wad be nice but ne’er achieved sic a relationship.

Killiecrankie Cottage:  A lotto’ wur trevels in Sc’lun were simply frae Perth aboot twa ‘oors drive north tae Pitlochry and oan tae Killiecrankie (Aye, famous furra Soldier’s Leap). Lynda’s parents kindly allowed us tae ging often, at least half a dozen times or mair while we were at school an’ university. We lo’ed hikin’ aroon’ the hills an’ endin’ up in the Blair Atholl Arms or the Killiecrankie Hotel, aye managin’ tae arrive at openin’ time o’ 5.00 p.m. Here we are among hills an’ heather.

The Man (with Pipe), Ewen, Lynda, John, Maggie, The Writer!  Ben Vrackie in background.

In London as teens with James and Lynda … they wanted to go to a strip club. No’ me, didnah wannah ging, being 17 or so an’ mair’an a wee bit virtuous, but I was happy for them to do it. Ah said ah’d dae summin’ else, prolly walk ra streets. James turned oan the persuasive bit whilk he could dae … awfy persuasively. I gi’ed in. The place they chose was a dive, a wee den, crowded. It was awfy! Men in raincoats in dry weather. We stood up the back. Afterwards I think James said something like, “Winnae be fung daein’ that again.”  I said, “Ah fung didnae want tae dae it at a’, ya fukkah!”

James and I bided wi’ Polish friends of James’s father, and I recall having to curb our tendency to laugh uncontrollably when the wife kept saying over breakfast, “Eat! Eat! Eat! You must eat!” I suppose it was the Polish equivalent to the Scots custom and saying in drinking whisky – “Get it doon ya!”

Going to France in May/June 1964:  So we were aboot 16, a couple o’ weeks aff school to dae mind-expanding travels, amazingly wur awfy academic Perth Academy allowin’ us to miss classes.  On the train tae London, James proudly produced an eldritch device, an electric breeks presser tae pit a crease doon the legs o’ his awfy stylish Levi jeans. James was fair vauntie o’ his Levi’s and wore ’em seriously pressed baith back and front like a pair o’ suit troos. Ah huv nae memory of him ever using the electric tongs oan wur trip because maybe he didn’t have the right plug for French sockets. Strange that a few years later he would appear looking like a scarecrow at Edinburgh Royal Hospital, an’ be upbraided fur his appearance by the professor.  This was the visit tae France we bided wi’ a woman freen’ o’ Felix, James’s dad. Her name was Lucienne, ah forget her surname. She was bidin’ oan her ain maybe in her late 30s, ancient to us! We wad joke she was a former mistress o’ his dad … James loved outrageous stuff even if it was a wee bit at his and connections’ expenses. We shared a small double bed at the tap o’ the narrow hoose (three floors) and each night at licht oot of course we’d say the likes of, “Keep yer fung hawns tae yersel’ ” and “Nay fung fartin’.” We wad joke we wur fraternal farters!

Lucienne made us a special lunch yin time, onion soup French style. There was grated melted cheese in it with the result that it came up tae wur mooths in long strands. We thought this was the funniest thing since haggis, and went into uncontrolled giggles. Fortunately, Lucienne thought it was amusing, too. We blamed the fortified wine she gave us with the meal! I remember her great coffee, made in one of those Italian jugs, first time fur me tae hae a gander o’ yin.  

We also visited several times other family friends of James’s dad. They had three of a family, two sons and a daughter. It was the beautiful Irène we were mainly interested in – a snod bit lassie! – although we were impressed by the elder son, Henri Witkowski who was a concert pianist at the ripe old age of 26 or so.  His teacher had been a student of Paderewski who in turn was a student of Chopin, so we were fairly conscious of being in the presence of very close-to-greatness when  Henri sat down at the upright piano in his parents’ modest coal-mining home in Marles-les-Mines in north-west France. We often joked later how he had sat perfectly, stretched his fingers and announced, “Une petite étude de Chopin.” If that was something of an ear-opener for us young lads, there was also an eye-opener when Irène was going to sit one of her Baccalauréat exams at school ae mornin’. Before leaving home, there was a ritual opening of a bottle of champagne to wish her guid luck.

In return for our school allowing us to go to France for a couple of weeks during term time, I wrote a piece about it for our English teacher. He read it out to the class, I guess as a wye of broadening their horizons. Ah cannae think that it was because it was sae weel written. James didn’t care much for that kinna’ public sounding off, as he thought of it, no’ muckle time for the limelight hissel’. Ah didna’ mind, it was a way of sharing about our travels, aside frae which it was a chance to show some writing skills on real live experiences.

Irène and Henri outside their home in Béthune, NW France, 1964

Summer, 1966 before going to university: James, Dave Blair and I decided to go to the Lake District for a short holiday.  At the time I think there was some reluctance on Js’s part to join but perhaps his reason for delaying was real: his father kept giving him work to do at the hotel, so he was needed and that took always took precedence.  We waited three days and then had to go without him as it was getting close to going to university – it was only a three-day holiday, but I know James was surprised we’d gone without him.

Summer, 1968 – A visit to France, in Paris, maybe the one with Tom, the three of us in my parents’ mini-van. Certainly Dennis Eden was there (He was driving Alan McDonald around in his E-Type). We were all at a restaurant. Someone, surely not James, suggested we do a runner, an’ leave withoot piein’. We managed it – Dennis gallantly and rightly went back the next morning and paid.

On the same trip in 1968, staying a night in Caen, four of us in one room. James and I went out to have a drink, while Tom and Dennis stayed in the room. We chanced on a nightclub where a great American blues singer, Champion Jack Dupree was advertised as playing – he had been living in Europe since 1960, as one of the great number of Mississippi and Louisiana bluesmen who found audiences for their music in Europe. We had listened to one of Champion Jack’s LPs regularly at home, along with Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson … no, no, I mean they were blues singers, we had their LPs! We were desperate to get in and we succeeded. It was great standing so near at the musician’s upright piano while other clubbers danced around. I recall Champion Jack wore gold and silver rings on his fingers. Here is a photo of him, a fair bit older than when we saw him in his mid-50s.

 Champion Jack Dupree, about 1985, in his mid-70s

Summer, 1969:  We went to Lake Como from our holiday chalet in Switzerland, found a fine wee village with a lovely square and ate a good lunch under the shade of the ancient arches. Dennis and Tom headed off to see something of the lake, saying back soon. James and I were quite happy ordering up a few more jugs of red, with the result that we needed to sleep it off on a grassy knoll in the middle of the square. Some children gethert roon’ us to wonder at our prostrate state.

Travel Memories by Alan McDonald:  It was about the Summer of 1968, I think, that we had a trip to France – especially Paris. I had been travelling with Dennis Eden in his E-Type – rather posh blessing France with our presence! I think you had a maroon Mini Van and had had a bit of an accident but it was still going all right. James and you were there, don’t recall Tom, perhaps it was before he joined “The Perth Men”. Anyway, there was a trip to part of Paris, Maisons Alfort, to see a childhood friend of my mother in Auchterarder. She had married French/Polish gent, name of Boris Levine. He took us out to a nightclub just off the Champs Elysées. He had last been there in 1945! I recall a couple of “likely ladies” trying to get us to buy them drinks and cigarettes, not singly, whole packets! We must have looked right suckers –Boris rescued us. We were very glad to get out of there alive.

France, Late 1960s: We jyned up wi’ mah cousin, Billy in the South of France. Got a great photo of me lying on a dyke, James’s foot on my chest. Dave Blair was with us that time. Dennis and Alan McDonald jyned us, tae.

Billy, Writer, James in South of France (No idea where exactly!)

End of 1960s – Driving from Paris to Béthune (3-4 hours) one night after dinner and drinks …  no idea why not staying another night in Paris, but I’m sure this was the time we went to Paris with Irène and Stephanie and we stayed in  Hôtel du Théatre on Rue Jacob – possibly they had to be back to go to school on Monday. I recall well being able to drive safely back, unworried in the days before police checks and breathalysing. James slept all the way, occasionally waking for a Gitane! We were in our early twenties, I think … maybe the end of the 1960s. Can’t think we were any younger driving like that. Funny, I recall the drive back from Paris, not the drive there. The car must have belonged to Irène’s folks … or someone related. Who on earth would allow their car to be driven to Paree by a couple of very young blokes?

1970 – Going to Greece:  Hygienic Pants? Before going to Greece I think the first time, probably 1970, James recommended paper underwear. I duly went to a chemist and bought a packet, happy with the idea of travelling clean, no’ huvvin’ tae wash underwear. It sounded good on paper, so to speak. In practice it was a total disaster. They were uncomfortable, maybe all the train and bus sitting, dinnae ken. Anyway, they would fall apart so you ended up with bits of paper a’ ower the place, no’ nice. We were glad we had the sense to carry the real things, proper Y-Fronts.

Getting to Greece was an ordeal – first, it was an overnight train to London/Dover for the Channel Ferry; then train to Brindisi, South of Italy; ferry to Patras, bus about 200 kms to Athens. On the overnight “sleeper”  to London I said to James I was going out of the compressed compartment to lie on the floor at the end of the carriage. James said, “No fung way ahm pittin’ mah bahookie on that fung dirty floor.” (Mair like he said, “Mah fung erse” but bahookie’s more poetical.) He climbed up into the baggage rack and curled up. I doubt if it was much different to the floor, actually prolly a damn sight mair uncomfortable.

This was the time we gave blood for money in Athens; it was great to get some extra pocket money tae add tae wur savings frae wur “Neat Grun'” work, making sure that rural Perthshire graveyards had well-cut grass, creating tidy plots with mowing and clipping. (See “Blood Money, Blood Oath!” story).

Greece, Rhodes, the first visit in 1970:  James was all set up to do a month’s medical “thing” after his 4th year I think, on the island of Rhodes, but on visiting the hospital and finding it not to his liking he decided not to bother and we enjoyed the rest of the time sunning, swimming and drinking Retsina. He had to do the hospital time later back in Edinburgh.

We ended up on the island of Crete after 15 hours on the deck of a ferry. We took a bus to Malia along the north coast and stayed about ten days sleeping open-air in beds with a dozen others on rooftop verandahs. At the beach aboot a 20-minnit donner awa’ we had dooks many times in huge breakers rolling in every five seconds. Sic a poowur ahint them, I got dunted seriously from ahint by a fung wave twice my height.  James helped me oot an’ hauled me up the beach. We joked later tha’ although ah was the Life Saver (did heaps of training and exams at school to gain the Duke of Edinburgh awards) he had to save my life! It was braw being wi’ a han’some chiel like James at a seaside resort, although he stole a’ the looks frae the bonnie lasses.

We met a couple o’ lassies Sue and Janet at Malia, and promised to visit them in Newcastle where they were doing teacher training, Newcastle only about 2.5 hours drive from Edinburgh. At the end of our month on Rhodes and Crete we had a few days in Athens. I spent them going to the beach and eating out at night; James got sick and slept for 48 hours on a rooftop bed among maybe 30 other beds. He would later blame “Fung Greek tomatties”  he’d eaten on a ferry from Crete to Athens.

Getting back from Greece, I’ll never forget James asked me to buy a bottle of wine for the overnight bus trip at the start.  I must have said, “A Retsina please” at the shop because the bottle turned out to be what’s known as “Aretsina”. The common Greek wine “Retsina” is resinated to improve the flavour, making it more drinkable. The one I managed to buy was without resin, making it almost undrinkable. James wasn’t very pleased but I noticed he drank it anyway! 

Greece, Aug., 1971   To Greece, the island of Ios with James and Claire / Tom and Ailie. We took the ferry to Santorini, a huge volcanic lake. I went on next day to Crete for two weeks more holiday, the same place James and I had been the year afore.