Sunday, 22 January 2017

Her Last Encore

Tidying out some boxes of papers, I come across this poem. I must have written it about 10 years ago, at a guess, though I don't remember much about it. Thought it might raise the odd titter.


She did not cry or scream or shout
that day she cut her finger;
she pulled the glassy fragments out
and sang - for she's a singer.

The bloody puddles stained her score;
the notes could not be read.
Yet still she sang her last encore,
ad-libbing words instead.

Alas! She could not stem the flow.
Red gore poured all around.
She faltered, weakened by the blow,
and slumped towards the ground.

The crowd, in horror, rose as one,
to see the diva dying,
"I fear that nothing can be done!"
the tenor whispered, crying.

So still the prima donna lies,
right there, where she did drop.
the crowd files out, with sorry sighs,
and the cleaner brings her mop.

ally McGurk

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

ME - the horrible, hidden disease

I have friends who suffer from ME. Most of them, I haven't met, even those who live nearby, because it's so bad that some of them have to live most of their lives cloistered in darkened, soundproofed rooms.

People don't know about this disease, or if they do, they only know a little about it. Until recent years, my own perception was that it was characterised by an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, making it impossible to do very much, and the more you did, the more exhausted you felt. And yes, there is that. But there is so much more, that I knew nothing about.

I've asked some sufferers to describe their own experience of living with ME, in their own words, and I'm going to reproduce what they've said on some new pages on this blog. Please read at least some of this, especially if, like me, you weren't aware of some of the symptoms.

I'm a musician, and I have a lot of friends who are also musicians. Last Christmas we did a fundraiser in our local village hall for those who'd been affected by the Cumbrian floods. It was a great success, and the audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves, telling me they'd be happy to come to more events of the same sort. I've been meaning to do another one ever since. Well, now I have a charity that desperately needs funds - ME Research.

Please have a look at their website and consider donating to research for this poorly-funded, and little-understood disease. You can read the official explanation  here: WHAT IS ME?

I haven't set the date for the fundraiser yet, but the first one should be at the end of September if things go to plan. I'll print out our sufferers' statements and plaster them round the walls, and make sure everyone who comes along knows exactly what we're fundraising for.

In the meantime, please read. I'll copy and paste patients' statements as I get them.
You'll find links to these pages on the right --->

Thank you.


Monday, 28 March 2016

Things from our attic (1)

I was up in the attic over the Easter holidayss, trying to sort out the jumble of boxes and stuff. Here are 4 bowls which belonged originally to one of my ancestors - one of the many James or John Robertsons - not sure which one. Probably an uncle rather than a direct ancestor - my grandfather's brother was James Robertson, and he also had uncles James and John. The bowls are made of ebony with engraved ivory inserts; they live in little bags, one of leather, and one tough brown cloth with a leather handle.

The leather bag was lined with a piece of hessian sacking, and although I've often taken the bowls out to look at them, I've never examined the sacking before. It's quite interesting, as you can see from the 3rd photo. I don't think there's any particular connection with the bowls - I think my granny (Allison Robina Robertson), to whom it's addressed probably just used it to line the bag for whoever was using the bowls at the time. Can't help wondering what was sent from Melbourne to Edinburgh, wrapped in hessian sackcloth. I recognise the name "Newcombe" - I think she was a friend of my granny's, and of course Granny's twin sister Hellen had married an Australian and moved to the antipodes with him, so there's a connection.

My Perthshire Robertson ancestors (the male ones, anyway) were keen curlers in winter, in those long lost days when the lochs used to freeze solid in winter; in summer they'd take to the bowling greens.

Saturday, 26 March 2016


On Friday - on this Friday, of all Fridays - I was punctured, twice, by thorns.

First thing in the morning, up the veg garden with with the dog, my peace was disturbed by the next door geese (those big white farmyard geese - they have a large flock of them) having a bit of a barny, and making even more noise than usual. So I nipped up on top of the dyke, where there's a hole in the hedge (this is where we stand to take photos of auroras) to get a better view of the local Goose War. It was interesting watching several of them ganging up on another one, chasing it with wings flapping furiously. Fine. Curiosity satisfied. But on the way up on to the dyke, I very slightly lost my balance, wobbled a wee bit, put my left hand out to steady myself, and managed to puncture it on a big thorn in the hawthorn hedge. It hurt! It bled! I took it back into the house, cleaned it up, put a plaster on it, and more or less forgot about it.

And then, thorn attack No.2. Later in the afternoon, on a walk with the dog, we were crossing one of those impossibly narrow footbridges that cross drainage ditches in Lakeland fields. I put my right hand out to brush aside the overhanging vegetation, only to discover too late that it consisted mainly of brambles. So: thorn injuries on both hands now.

Only then did the significance of the day occur to me. Good Friday - crown of thorns. Hmm... Was somebody up there trying to tell me something? Maybe I was supposed to be in church on Good Friday afternoon?

Well, I dunno. But the injury on my left hand is still hurting, and I think it may be infected as it's swelling up a bit, and the doctor's surgery doesn't seem to be open at weekends, and since Monday's a bank holiday I may have to wait until Tuesday to get it seen to. By that time my hand may be the size of a balloon, which will make playing sax for the morris dancers on Easter Monday a bit tricky. I'll try doing some phoning in the morning and find out what one's supposed to do in these circumstances. It's not bad enough to go to A&E, (not yet, anyway!) and besides I think I've heard the A&E at our nearest hospital (Whitehaven - not really near at all!) has closed now. You can see I don't have much to do with doctors or hospitals - I'm very much out of touch with procedures.

Guess I should have gone to church....

Tuesday, 8 March 2016


It's a while since I wrote a poem (as opposed to a song).  It might end up with music, but right now, it's a poem. Click here to see it.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Ally's Bizarre Mishaps: Nos 2 & 3

Ally's Bizarre Mishaps - No.2 (29th March  2014)

While gettting a teaspoon out of the drawer this morning, to make a cuppa, I was unexpectedly attacked by a larger spoon, which, having somehow got itself entangled with other bits of cutlery, suddenly extricated itself and sprang with some force out of the drawer, landing very firmly, handle first, upon my bare toe, causing what feels like a cracked or at least chipped bone. Can't bear the touch of a sock on it at the moment, although it doesn't hurt so much with shoes on, for some reason. I suppose I ought to go and wrap it in frozen peas, but it's probably a bit too late for that now.

 Ally's Bizarre Mishaps - No.3 (1st April 2014)

Lovely evening, so I decided to go for a run along Hadrian's Cycleway, which is a new path that runs sort of in between, and parallel to, the main Maryport-Allonby road and the sea. I parked at Allonby and went off, jogging westwards. Realised it was too long since I'd done this, and felt a bit out of condition. By the time I reached the wooden footbridge across the stream, I was ready to stop and drink some water, so I leaned on the rail, gazing across to the sea, and took a few good gulps out of my nice aluminium water bottle. And then the bottle cap, that rather important thing that stops the water from falling out, slipped out of my fingers and dropped into the stream below.

My first thought: shoes and socks off - get into the water and retrieve it! But the stream's in a deep cutting, maybe 4 feet down, and although I could probably get down there, I'd never get back up again. Managed to stand on a few nettles with my bare feet, though, before I'd figured this out.

At least the cap had got stuck behind something in the water, and wasn't moving downstream, which gave me time to think.

Oh well, - find a stick! The stopper has a round hole in the top, so it should be easy to catch. Unfortunately, as there are no trees around there, there are no sticks either. I fiddled about with long plant stalks but they were too flimsy and too short.

The only solution was to run back to the car, drive up near the bridge, and use one of my telescopic walking sticks (which live in the car boot) to rescue it. This almost didn't work, as my first attempt just moved the stopper away from the thing it was trapped behind, and it started floating downstream. I had visions of it disappearing into the sea ... and I'd probably have followed it, so determined was I by this time not to give up.

Second attempt, though, worked! Hurrah! I triumphantly brought my walking stick up out of the stream with the bottle cap hanging on it like a bead on a necklace.

It's fine now. I've given it a thorough wash. My feet and legs are stinging though, from those nettles ...

Sunday, 26 January 2014


My dad - Thomas Morgan McGurk (better known as just Tommy) - grew up in the early years of the 20th century in the Old Town of Edinburgh, which was pretty rough in those days. I don't know when he scribbled down the following memories, but it was probably in the 1970s sometime. Really fascinating stuff!

[N.B. I own the copyright on this piece. If you want to use it for research, that's fine, but please ask before publishing anything, either online or in print. I'll almost certainly say, "yes," but of course I'd expect my father's name to be credited.]

And who today remembers “Jack Paul’s?” It had a shop, a modest little business, at the foot fo the West Port facing the Salvation Army Women’s Hostel, which marks the Vennel. He sold sweets and sweet, small wares, if memory is right. All the young ones knew him, and loved him. He was avuncular in a matey sort of way. I have a blurred picture of him in my mind, but who knows? Time smudges the memory, and in its whimsy, creates false memories. Jack Paul! I feel very young again!

The “Head o’ the Port,” where the Irish lads and lassies assembled on Saturday evenings, the new ones who were newly “across” gathering together at the end of the week to hear friendly voices and talk of familiar things, and go to Confession in the Sacred Heart in Lauriston Place in preparation for Sunday’s Mass and Communion, and be introduced to the domesticity of getting their groceries at Rogan’s shop at Lady Lawson Street corner, so often as the talk had it “on tick”, to be redeemed the following Friday or Saturday when they had some money. Rogan - do I remember him rightly? Big enough, unmistakably Irish, with a florid countenance, more fatherly than paternal. I cannot seem to recall a smile on his face. I doubt if he died a rich man. God rest his soul.

There was a small greengrocer’s on the opposite side of the street, where polite children could get a few discarded cabbage leaves for their pet rabbits. The Main Point Pubic House and Stalker’s at the corner of Lauriston Street. [And the fabulous tale of the rum and the whisky!]

The Victoria lodging house on the same side, lower down. And the “lands”, and the “closes” through which you could nip down, for a variety of reasons, into King’s Stables Road.

There was also a lodging house on the opposite side, facing Portsburgh Square. The building is still standing, looking very derelict, a lodging-house for ghosts. And the Police Station. In the basement there was rigged up a boxing-ring, where Paddy Fee was the focus of a motley club. “Nippy McDermid”, Bob Watson. You didn’t need a strip, you just took off your jacket and waistcoat (not everyone had the latter), and climbed in, and under the eye of the omniscient and unsmiling Paddy, you got stuck in. Some well-known names of the time came and talked, and exercised - at least one Scottish champion honoured that spartan gymnasium.

The Grassmarket - this is during the First World War - the Corn Exchange - Mrs Croan’s dairy: where are Molly and Jimmy today? The Castle Lodging House, since euphemistically titled, “The Castle Trades Hotel” - Pat Loftus’ Lodging House up one of the closes on the same side, less pretentious but an Irish labourer’s home. Father Power knew them all, as they knew him and his zeal for temperance and the saving of their souls. On the other side, up one of the closes, lived the “Mother of Sin”: as the media of the day told. Who was she? What? Why? The ears of a child are an open door for words to enter. By the grace of God, very little of the junk in his attic mind is explored. She is a name in the mists of my memory - no doubt others can unlock the riddle.

Tommy Peebles, Boot and Clog Manufacturers - have I the title aright? A large, impressive emporium in the midst of one of the busiest and most densely-populated thoroughfare-cum-market-cum- community-spots in that quarter of Edinburgh, where poverty and squalor and sin and ribaldry and drunkenness and crime were the next-door-neighbours of craftsmen and small businesses and decent underfed housewives and clean children, morality and a quiet gentility striving to keep their heads high, and the rest, all close nurtured in an involvement of living and loving and dying, unsuspected even to this day by the cosy property-owners not hundreds of yards away in Lauriston and Spittal Street and the Lonsdales, where drama has been, and still is, enacted on a more dignified and salubrious stage.

The West Bow - George Henderson, butchers; “ Willie” Main, the tin-smith; Lumsden’s Dairy (don’t you remember the beautiful “Henny” Lumsden?); the Bethany hall Mission; Mrs McGrath’s smallwares shop; she was a widow, small, buxom, motherly-looking, more critical than loving in the eyes of the child customers who brought her so much unprofitable custom (who had much pocket-money in those school-days?), the barber’s shop with the Mission above it; the “close” at 112 which was the gathering-place for most of the shcool-children; A.M.Russell, Wire and Rope; Barnie’s Grassmarket Mission; the house at the corner of Grassmarket and the West Bow where, as D.K.Broster in The Flight of the Heron has it that the Young Pretender clandestinely visited in the dead of night on his first evening in Holyrood Palace after Prestonpans.

What more does the inquisitor, Memory, summon to the bar? The busy streets of a summer evening, where, while the sun made long shadows down the Candlemaker Row across the Cowgate Head, and the high tenements drew closer in the approaching twilight, as children shouted and played, and jostled for leadership, and screamed their brief quarrels up and down the pavements and through the closes” and even young women athletically took their turn in the long “jumping-ropes”, where the nimblest could jump in the cocoon of a flying rope, held at both ends by two who vigorously “cawed”, until they eventually had to trip the rope in the hurricane of a “perrigay”[?] - and the ball-games, where the quick of eye and hand could catch a long thrown ball with a cry of insolent pride - and “kick-the-can”; and the inevitable drunks, of both sexes, and here the female of the species was indeed a degraded specimen, who so often fought and scratched with a venom never exhibited by the most besotted male - she could dishonour the character of her adversary with a vocabulary that could ignite coldest fires of a fellow-whore - and the friendly “polis” with his mailed fist, and his persuasion towards peace - who remembers “hand-me-down-the-moon”? He was taller than anyone the eyes of a boy had ever seen, and the same eyes never saw him other than unflappable and victorious - then, of course, there was PC Johnston, the police boxing-champion, who, legend averred (and to this day I don’t question it) would give the largest drunk the choice between being escorted to the “office” or hiding up one of the closes! Let us not forget the poor, foolish “meths drinkers”, or the “red biddy” men - a fill up of the bottle from the well at the foot of the West Bow, and they were a yard or two into one fo the stairs, where they - very often two of them - emptied the bottle, and got the bonus of a second “drunk” for nothing! There were the street buskers - though that would not be the name they were known by - who sang, or gave selections on an accordion, or got tied up in ropes and escaped, (not many pennies would drop into theri caps, for who had pennies to spare?) -  and the band from Barrie’s Mission, and the Salvation Armyh Band, which I’m afraid made more diversion than conversions. How memory regilds the scene!

Next to the Lumsden’s Dairy, on the lower slope, was the workshop for Young’s, the surgical
instrument makers; and on the upper slope, at the same side of the street, was the post office - so commerce and officialdom did much to reliever the drabness of one of the least colourful byways in the centre of the city, albeit its function, which was as a thoroughfare for convenience between George IV Bridge, Melbourne Place, the Lawnmarket, the High Street and all that activity of Edinburgh civic life, and the Grassmarket to the limits of squalor marching upon Lothian Road, and Tollcross, to the genteel world beyond, the Warrender estate, and Marchmont, and the big mansions even beyond that, where the retired nabobs from the trading in the Far East had embattled the grandeur of their retirement, and sprawling around even to the hills the discreet homes of the opulent burghers, whose proud independence and respectability was expressed in a blend of a conservatism of estate and a chilling awesomeness in the eyes of any of the children who, [?]ing to the recreation which the Blackford Hills offered, passed by in silent wonder and secretly coveted, without understanding why.

The West Port - West Bow and Victoria Street - Candlemaker Row - the Cowgate - Guthrie Street - Blair Street - Niddry Street - the Canongate - Holyrood Road (“The Back Canongate”) - the Dumbiedykes - the Potterrow - the Pleasance - the pubs - there were, if my memory is right, 5 in the Grassmarket: O’Rourke’s at the foot of the West Port, the Beehive, the Gothenburg, Hare’s near Barrie’s Mission, and a fourth, the name I’ve forgotten, but it was smaller and its fa├žade was a window of small, old-fashioned squares, framed, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more were of “bottle glass” - there was on one pub in Victoria Street, Menelaws I think, where, ‘twas said of the owner, old an acidulated, was said to be his own best customer - it was taken over by an ex PC from Edinburgh City Police, David Murray, I seem to remember, who eventually died of double pneumonia - a man of  commanding stature, “one would have taken a lease of his life” - Orroch’s, the bookbinder, Dongles the newsagency shop - and let’s not forget Thomson the violin-maker in the Upper Bow, over the Terrace, where one was always welcome to go in and talk music, especially violins, and be given a violin to try out at the counter - a delightful man who belonged to an earlier era, and who left happy memories - the Original Secession Church on the enclosed reaches of the Terrace - the mind is now searching at random in the dim corridor of memory, and the ghosts are unwilling to return - there was, or course, at 96 West Bow, I think that would be the number, for some time, a shop premises used for the sale of coal and paraffin oil, and firelighters and the customer could buy coal by the pound there, according to her means - the place was an ante-chamber of Hades, with dim lighting (gas or oil?), coal covering a large area of the floor at the back, the walls stained by coal-dust and dross, but - the smell! - oh joy! - what a rhapsodic mingling of aromas, coal and paraffin and firelighters - no florists in the Edens of Princes Street had anything to compre what titillated the nostrils and strangely excited the senses of an impressionable boy, who had no reason to enter other than to satisfy his seducible nose! To be young, to be very yung, is to create ones’ own Aladdin’s Cave - the imagination of a boy is the Magic Lamp, the Philosopher’s Stone, the True Elixir, the Mountain of Gold, the lands-beyond-the-horizon, the Pot of Gold at the foot of the Rainbow!