Conversations and Childhood (1 of 2)

Posted 1 year ago by Catherine Colwell

I USED TO CANNA, BUT NOO I CAN 
 
Conversation in Childhood
 
Christine de Luca
 
Dad could speak Norwegian and enjoyed conversing with them.  Once they brought a piece of shark; another time a slab of whale meat. 
 
My childhood home in Shetland could be described as linguistically combative: huffs were unacceptable and arguments were expected.  I was unconscious of the fact that, conversationally, we slipped between English and Shetlandic.  It took me well into adulthood to appreciate that animated conversation and debate are the lifeblood of emotional and intellectual development and that bilingualism is a joy.
 
One of my earliest memories of ‘conversation’ was on my fifth birthday.  I had had an exciting outing to Lerwick: my first haircut; my first school clothes purchased.  Mum was driving us home and bringing our widowed grand-uncle to stay for a week.  I remember clearly, as I wakened from a nap in the back seat, a conversation between the two adults: my grand-uncle remarking about my snooze and Mum’s response –She lives on her nerves, that one.  I’d no idea what she meant, but it sounded interesting.  Another remembered snippet, time and place as clear as a bell, was probably about the same time.  I was helping Dad mix cement (yes, I thought I was a great help but was probably a considerable hindrance), when my shoe lace came undone.  Having lately mastered the art of tying them, I announced to Dad that no help was needed as I used to canna, but noo I can.  His gentle laugh signalled that, although I had mastered one art, I still had a way to go with my verbs.
 
Many of our childhood conversations were perfunctory: all those don’ts; scoldings, warnings… but mumno ‘buts’  … 
 
Conversations with siblings and friends were sometimes conspiratorial – girls arranging a crab-catching syndicate to outstrip the boys – and frequently competitive: the number of sticklebacks caught with a jam jar; the length of the conger eel spotted in the burn; and which sledge was best.  Our play was generally outside and summertime seemed to last for ever. 
 
So much of our practical learning came from conversation around chores.  I had favourite tasks and perhaps that was as much about the associated chat as the actual task.  Rather than the daily household tasks – the cooking and cleaning – or the repetitive tasks of garden, field and peat-bank, or the ubiquitous knitting, I enjoyed time with mum when she helped me learn to sew a garment: to select and adapt a pattern, choose material, cut out and fit, work a sewing machine, improve hand finishing skills.  Or when I could share Dad’s company before school, all but running the half-mile up the hill to feed hot mash to the hens and learning the expertise of that particular husbandry.  I can hear my own voice half-way up the steep Kloss o Voe, Wait for me, Daddy …  Our walk was punctuated by birdcalls which he recognised and could imitate.
 
Winter was more challenging especially as, until I was eight, we had no electricity.  We gathered like moths around an Aladdin lamp, near stove or open fire.  I loved evenings when Dad played cards with us – whist, 500, bridge, cribbage, euchre – probably to give Mum a break and stop us squabbling.  That taught us when to speak and when to guard our tongues.  Sometimes our old grand-uncle, by then going blind, would be staying with us.  He would get Dad to read for him and, simultaneously, one of us to play draughts with him.  A game seemed to last for hours.  He sipped his whisky, discussed Albert Schweitzer on theosophy and the meaning of life and, very occasionally, moved a piece on the impatient draughtboard.  It drove my sister mad but fascinated me.
 
Mum was expert at lunch, Dad at breakfast as he liked getting up early.  The porridge pot would bubble gently as he shaved at the scullery sink.  Holidaying cousins assured him they didn’t like porridge but he had the power of words to cajole (to cöllie roond): left-handed porridge (his speciality) was much more palatable than porridge stirred by a right hand.  They swallowed it!  Sunday lunch was white tablecloth and napkins and the minister’s sermon dissected like the roast chicken. (Yes, one of our own which Dad had dispatched when I wasn’t looking.)  He might tell us about the recent Althing debate on issues like ‘Should Capital Punishment be abolished?’  Discuss!  And discuss we did, vehemently.
 
As I grew older I loved conversations about our parent’s childhood and their young unmarried lives.  Mum hadn’t married until she was thirty and was already a head-mistress and had her own home and car.  Dad, on the other hand, was a year or two behind and still a temporary teacher.  By the time of their marriage, WW2 had started and the first German bomb – which only killed a rabbit – hit Scatsta, in Shetland.  (We liked that story).  And later, at one or other of their wartime locations in England, Mum told of her delight in getting an onion or a fresh egg.  Dad talked of mending aircraft, and looking after Italian prisoners of war and being demoted when he was caught smoking; and why he didn’t like marching on Remembrance Sunday.  His brother – a much loved uncle – had joined the Army and his vocabulary was Jerry, Rommel, wadi and mortars, but he still couldn’t help recounting jokes (tell us that one again!)and pulling funny faces.  He had the art of conversation. 
 
Shetland could be surprisingly cosmopolitan during the 1950s: groups of Norwegian fishermen (da Norskis) would be invited in as they passed the garden on their way to the shop.  (We had a good pier in the village and sometimes half a dozen of the shark-fishing boats would berth there over a weekend.)  Dad could speak Norwegian and enjoyed conversing with them.  Once they brought a piece of shark; another time a slab of whale meat.  I can still see it, firm and without gristle and darkish in colour.  Tusen takk for mat they would say as they left after supper.  We would echo that to our parents for days afterwards.  
 
Once a Russian trawlerman sought asylum in Waas.  He had escaped his ship and swam ashore from the fleet of klondykers, the lights of which lit the night sky behind the isle of Vaila.  Conversations then were very hush hush, even among children.
 
Summer time brought the tinkers to rural Shetland.  They would encamp at Da Punds, just beyond the hill dyke and from there their children would come occasionally to school.  We didn’t engage them in conversation, never realising how hard it must have been for them.  Nelly Newland (we pronounced Nyowlan) was the matriarch and got to know everyone.  Conversation and transaction were simultaneous, as was stuffing the money down her bosie (bosom).  Sikh salesmen with their old brown suitcases were just starting to arrive and, while most people tried to avoid them, including Mum, Dad enjoyed the chat and talking about their culture and religion.  I’ll never forget Mum’s face as the handsomely turbaned man, held up, like a magician with a white rabbit, a large pair of ladies’ pants Fine silk knickers for your missus?  I don’t know if it was the word ’knickers’ or the term ‘your missus’ that got Mum’s dander up; I suspect the latter.  She was well able to buy her own!  Another conversation with a Sikh about religion ended rather abruptly when he brought out beads and tried to suggest luck was attached to a somewhat over-priced purchase.  These were interesting encounters and conversations and I learned a lot from them especially the richness of engaging with people who come from a different background or culture. 
 
But there were non-conversations too.  Later, we would hear that we kept those few sheep so that we would learn about sex.  But our parents had kept up the pretence that, every November, our sheep needed a holiday at a nearby croft, forgetting to mention the important fact that we didn’t have a ram!  And one Saturday morning, when I was about eleven, my mother unexpectedly offered to wash my hair for me.  I’d been doing it myself for years.  It didn’t dawn on me till my face was deep in the kitchen sink that her awkward conversation about menstruation had been pre-planned.  Of course I knew all about it by then – no doubt much to her relief –
and the whole preposterous mechanics of sex.  
 
And death, that was another almost taboo.  Wear black.  Pull down the blinds.  Least said the better.

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