The Dad’s journey to Africa: the beginning

Last week, had he still been around, we’d have celebrated my Dad’s 90th birthday.  This year, for some reason, his birthday was an emotional day for me.  Nineteen years ago, we celebrated his birthday with him.  It was the day The Husband met him.  They struck up a firm friendship.  Instantly.  Little did we imagine, then, that it would be his last birthday.

This is a little of his story.  I plan to write a second installment, but it’s taking a while.  Not sure why, but probably because I have to be in the right space.  In my head, heart and soul.

James Donaldson Cameron, known as Jim, was born at home, in Auldburn Road, Glasgow, the fifth of five children, in a house like the one below.  He told many stories of the things that happened in the kitchen, including having his tonsils taken out and, somewhere along the line, a gland was removed from his neck.  TB, he said, and that procedure was also performed in the kitchen, on the table.  It left him with a scar and a depression (we called it a hole) just below his ear that in adulthood would inevitably fill with shaving soap sometimes missed in the face-drying process.  Much to the delight of his children.

Back to Jim’s childhood and the allotment.  He worked there with his father and his brother, George:  tilling the land, growing  vegetables, getting frozen hands and fingers picking, among other things, Brussels Sprouts, peas and beans, pulling and eating fresh neeps* and carrots straight from the earth before hurling newly-dug tatties** into the coals of a fire they had built to make a billy can of tea.  The allotments must have given way to the green belt across the road, and were where the seeds of decisions he was to take as a young man were sown.

George, the first-born, of John and Mary Cameron, was followed by three girls, Ruby, May and Belle (not necessarily in that order).  The Dad would laughingly tell that he was lucky to have been born a boy:  the new bairn*** if another girl, was to have received the same treatment as unwanted kittens.  Drowning was averted:  James Donaldson arrived at 1.05pm on March 16th, 1929.

Ten years later, war broke out and, as I’ve mentioned before, the young Jim was evacuated to a poultry farm where they reared broilers.  A very unhappy time in his life:  he was a wee boy with small hands.  It was his job to draw the slaughtered chickens.  Although he ended up being sent home after about six months, it had an indelible impact on the youngster.  Roast chicken – actually chicken of any description – rarely featured on menus I remember from my childhood.  He only ever ate chicken when he had to, and to be polite.

After finishing school, Jim was conscripted and went to Egypt as a member of the Royal Airforce (signals).  Returning home, he didn’t know what he wanted to do and spent some time working in gardens or parks in Glasgow.  I’m not sure.  I wish I’d paid more attention, but I do remember his telling me that one of the men with whom he’d worked, encouraged him to study horticulture.  The Dad was concerned that he’d be much older than his fellow students.

Jim described himself as a late bloomer:  eventually, he was persuaded to follow his dream, and in 1951, at the ripe old age of 22, he headed to London to start his apprenticeship at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

By all accounts, he did well.

The writer of that reference goes on to describe The Dad as “a hard worker with a quiet personality”.  Jim’s own telling of his youthful antics belied this, evidenced by one of the few photographs I’ve managed to find of his time at Kew.  I another, which I’m still looking for, was of him in a pond in one of the hothouses, tending to giant water lilies with leaves that must have been a metre in diameter.

Who knows what was in that barrel.  Beer, I am sure is what they want us to think, forgetting about the bucket of something sure to be unsavoury, about to be dumped over the poor sod!  That said, The Dad was a good sport and game for anything and rarely shying away from a challenge.  I wish I’d been able to ask him about this picture.

To finish his apprenticeship, in late 1953, the 24-year old Jim headed north of London to the Essex city of Colchester where he worked in the municipal parks and gardens.  His favourite story of that time was of his local pub, also frequented by a shepherd and his dog.  The publican, with nary a prompting, would always draw a pint for the shepherd and a half pint for the working hound!

*  neeps – turnips
**  tatties – potatoes
*** bairn – baby
**** Wee Granny – Little Granny:  My paternal granny was always known as Wee Granny because she was short, and my maternal grandmother, Big Granny.

Next:  The Dad goes to Africa

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