A continuing tale of life in the boonies


No. 291

Poets who matter: 7. The Bible

FARMINGTON - Laureate, Laureate, wherefore art thou Poet Laureate?

A fair question, since, back in October of 2003, I thought twin announcements were only hours away and that by now New Hampshire would be two poet laureates the richer.

Well, at state level, after much consultation among the poetic elite. a name has been forwarded to Gov. Craig Benson, and it will be interesting to see if he and the Executive Council will rubber stamp the choice, or put it before a firing squad.

Former Rochester Mayor Walter Hoerman, meanwhile, is still wrestling with a decision about the person to crown as the city’s first poet laureate. Who would have thought it would be a half-year process? It took less time to appoint a city manager … but maybe they are more expendable than poets-in-chief.

Anyway, to pass the intervening days (or months) let us revisit Blackhill, a grim housing project in Glasgow’s east end where I served as a police officer in the early 1970s, and where lyrical Biblical passages sometimes sprang to mind when I met with unexpected situations.

(And poetry lovers will surely agree, be they devout Christians or otherwise, that the Bible, and particularly the King James Version of the Old Testament, contains some of the most delightful passages in the English language.)

* * *

Early one chill and dreary Sunday morning, with the sky dripping rain, I leaned on a wooden rail overlooking Blackhill Pond, as the murky pool of water choked with broken perambulators and rusting bicycle parts, was known.

Beyond the pond, in the dawning light, lay the gray tenement buildings of Hogganfield and Craigendmuir streets. The clouds seemed to hang on the rooftops, increasing the air of desolation, and not a creature stirred – even the packs of semi-wild dogs that incessantly trotted through Blackhill seemed to have vanished.

And as I leaned on my rail, thinking this must be one of the most cheerless vistas in Western Europe, I saw something remarkable stir in the distance.

It looked like a small fairy, clad completely in white, and as it emerged out of the mist and drew nearer, I realized the figure was a very young girl dressed in dazzling chiffon and lace.

Then, about 10 yards behind her came another young lass, similarly bathed in white, and then another, and another. The Catholic girls of Blackhill were making their way up to St. Philomena’s Chapel to take their First Communion!

It was a surreal and haunting sight, and as the girls floated silently past me, the words of Judges, Chapter 14, Verse 14 came to my lips: Out of the strong came forth sweetness.

It is a widely known Biblical verse in Scotland, because it appears on canisters of the country’s best-selling syrup, underneath the picture of a lion.

Mind you, the big cat on Lyle’s Golden Syrup tins looks like a rather healthy beast taking a nap, but Bible students acquainted with Judges know that the sweetness refers to honey made by bees living in a lion’s rotting carcass – and in one sense Blackhill was a corpse moldered by post-industrial blight.

* * *

One day I was quietly plodding the beat, bothering no one, when an urgent and dreaded cry came from the entrance to a Maryston Street tenement.

"Hey, polis! Quick! There’s a wuman havin’ a baby."

Glasgow policemen were trained in a very basic way to handle this type of emergency, but most officers went through their entire career without ever having to remove a bootlace to tie, temporarily, an umbilical cord.

"Are you sure?" I replied, hoping against hope.

"Aye, am sure," said a thin, anxious-looking man, "it’s right in here. Ground flat."

I walked into the darkened hallway of the house, where several other equally nervous men were pacing around.

"Wiv nae lights. Wiv been cut aff," said one. "She in there," he added indicating an even gloomier room off the hall.

I opened the livingroom curtains which were presumably drawn to thwart the inquisitive peering of debt-collectors, and saw, lying on a grubby couch, a woman in an advanced state of labor.

I pulled out my radio and shouted for an ambulance.

"There’s a woman having a baby at 8 Maryston St., ground flat right," I told the police operator.

"Oan ye go," came the response, in a tone that suggested suppressed mirth.

I looked up for one of the men to lend a hand, but none of that hapless crew had followed me into the room.

And he saith unto them, be not affrighted … Mark 16:6

But they were terrified and affrighted … Luke 24:37

"Have you any hot water?" I shouted to the hallway.

"Naw, wir electricity’s cut aff," said a voice.

"Well ask the folk next door for some."

"We’re no speaking tae each other," replied one of the men.

"I need hot water. Bang their door and tell them the Glasgow police are commandeering it," I yelled. "And bring in a clean sheet, if you’ve got one, for this couch."

A sheet got tossed into the room, and I spread it under the mother-to-be, who, to her credit, seemed much more relaxed about the whole business, than that gaggle of useless brothers or boyfriends or whoever they were out in the hall.

A basin of warm water arrived, borne by the original thin man, eyes averted. I took it and he retreated at speed to the safety of his companions.

And woosh! The baby suddenly arrived, and as I caught it, a menacing German shepherd darted into the room, and showed a disconcerting interest in the proceeding,

"Get that dog oot o here," I shouted, drawing my baton to protect the infant. "And keep a lookout for that ambulance."

The baby began to cry, which I took to be a good sign. I washed it with a pocket handkerchief and then used my bootlace to tie the umbilical cord in the manner prescribed by Glasgow Police Training School.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger … Luke 2:7

Shortly afterwards, an ambulance pulled up outside the house, and two attendants with a stretcher came in to take care of mother and baby, and rush them down to the maternity hospital.

One of the ambulance men surveyed the conditions of the birth and quietly rolled his eyes.

"Aye, a manger would be a big step up," I murmured to him, out of earshot of the mother.

As I exited through the hallway, the men were already in a state of celebration, judging by the appearance of a popular brand of cheap sherry known as Lanliq.

"Have a wee Lanny, Constable Nolan. Wir gaun tae call the wean after you," said the grateful thin man, who had elected to stay with the herd, rather than accompany the woman in the ambulance.

"That’s a very nice thought – but it’s a wee girl, I think," said I, knocking back the sweet drink, out of a sense of social obligation. "Maybe next time round."

* * *

Glasgow Corporation had a deliberate policy of housing the city’s criminal, anti-social and abject tenants in Blackhill, and it was often suggested by the media in the 1970s, that there was no more incorrigible place in the whole of Europe.

The most lawless and desperate part of Blackhill was Acrehill Street, and so, I reasoned, those persons who lived in the very heart of Acrehill Street - No. 26, by my calculations - must be the most dreadful people in the western hemisphere.

And living in a top flat apartment at No. 26 for a while in 1973, was a family called the Coombahs, who had become a bane of the Blackhill police sub-station from the day they moved into the area.

Mr. Coombah was of West Indian or maybe Australian Aboriginal descent, so it was neither easy for him nor his kids to avoid racial taunts and worse in a housing project almost entirely comprised of Picts and Celts. Nor was it always easy for him to get a sympathetic hearing about his string of complaints from anyone behind the police station desk, because 30 years ago, it must be said, a disturbing number of policemen were racist too, and in Glasgow caustic rhyming slang, Mr. Coombah was sometimes referred to as a "Paddy Malarky," meaning a "darkie."

One day I was dispatched to the Coombahs to take a report of broken windows, and as I approached 26 Acrehill St. I looked up and saw that every single pane in a top flat apartment had been shattered, obviously by a fusillade of stones from a squad of vindictive street urchins.

I climbed the stairs to the top flat and was taken into the house to survey the damage and make out a report. The bedrooms facing onto Acrehill Street were littered with shards of glass.

Who is left among ye that saw this house in its first glory? And how do you see it now. Is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing? Haggai 2:3

I peered down at the sullen group of kids out on the street, and made a mental note of who they were.

He looketh forth at the windows, showing himself through the lattice. Song of Solomon 2:9

"Come into the livingroom, officer, there’s more damage through here," said Mr. Coombah, whom, in my prejudice, I had wrongfully assumed to be Europe’s most rotten person.

I pushed opened the door, and was astonished. The sparsely furnished room was full of cages containing colorful, lively birds – finches and canaries, lovebirds and budgerigars - whistling and singing their hearts out in clean, well-cared for conditions

…and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird and the daughters of musick shall be brought low. Ecclesiastes 12:4

I was swept with guilt at my previous assessment. Here was a family placed in the most trying conditions by local government and harried mercilessly by neighbors because of their skin color, and yet whose humanity was evidenced by their love and concern for those small, trilling birds.

Back at the station, I called the Corporation workshop in Parnie Street, and asked that they treat the Coombahs’ window repairs as an emergency. I feared the cage birds would soon perish with the draughts and gasworks stench blasting through the broken panes, and I don’t know if they did survive, for shortly after that incident, the Coombahs moved out of Blackhill – driven out, in reality - and I never saw them again.

Jan. 1, 2004


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