Billy McCulloch's rosesBilly was born in 1911 in East Belfast. He became our most wonderful friend when we moved into Norfolk Drive. We saw him for the last time in a nursing home in Newcastle, County Down, on 9th May 2003. He died on the 18th May, 2003. The family home was not lost: his granddaughter Terry, daughter of Rita O’Hare, moved in and lives there now. When she was getting an extension done we asked could we dig up the rose bush that Billy had planted and cherished a millennium earlier!

Each year it blooms in our back garden. The story below is from my book All The Dead Voices.

Billy McCulloch comes to our house for his Sunday dinner and some nights he and I sit in his living room and drink and talk about poetry, which he loves, or he’ll recall certain historical events which impressed him, such as the race for the South Pole, of life in Belfast during the blitz, or about all the people he knew in his life. Splashed on his table before him are poetry books that he is reading and letters he is writing and we have to make room for the glasses and the gin. Often he mentions an old friend, Gibbie, about whom I have heard so much that I feel we are acquainted. Billy is eighty nine but had to give up driving some years ago. He lost his balance and became shaky on his legs, had to use first a stick and now this past year a frame.

I don’t own a car but my son, Kevin, who was holidaying in Mexico for a fortnight had left me his. Then, over a few gins late one night we planned that in Kevin’s car to Gibbie’s, to Cumbria, England, we would go! On a sunny May morning Billy and I packed our cases like excited kids and drove on to the Stranraer ferry.

Billy was born a Protestant in East Belfast in the year that the ‘Titanic’ was launched, 1911. He describes his nationality as left-wing or sans frontier. His father, John William, came to Belfast from Birkenhead as an iron moulder during the engineering boom in the 1880s, bringing with him his new wife, Mary Francis (whom he addressed as ‘Polly’) from Conah’s Quay, Wales. She had worked as a domestic servant. At first they lived in a single room but later managed to move into a new house on working-class Rosebery Road, most of whose menfolk worked in the nearby shipyard.

Rosebery Road, built in the 1890s, was named after Archibald Philip Primrose (who became the 5th Earl of Rosebery after the death of his grandfather in 1868) and became British prime minister when Gladstone resigned in 1894. He caused mayhem when he made his first speech as premier and said that Home Rule for Ireland could only come about when England, ‘the predominant member of the three Kingdoms’ agreed to it. Primrose had left Oxford after he came into conflict with the university authorities over his ownership of a racehorse. Despite not having a degree, he was considered to be a distinguished, young intellectual. He declared that he had only three ambitions: to marry an heiress, to win the Derby and to become Prime Minister. He achieved all three. When he resigned as leader of the Liberal Party, Gladstone made an assessment of Rosebery’s character: ‘I can say three things of him: One, he is one of the very ablest men I have ever known; two, he is of the highest honour and probity; and, three, I do not know whether he really has common sense.’

Half way up the Lough I looked back at Belfast and imagined how the formidable shipyards, linen mills and rope works must have looked from the boat through the eyes of Billy’s young parents, about to put down their roots in this part of the world.

Our sailing took just over three hours and the weather and conditions were perfect. We disembarked just after lunchtime and began the long drive to Cockermouth in Cumbria, across the border. The road had been improved since I remembered being on it last in my teens, almost thirty years ago, furiously driving late through the night, my girlfriend beside me, as Stevie Wonder’s song ‘Superwoman’ kept fading in and out on Radio Luxembourg. Billy is naturally garrulous and kept me occupied but in between the silences memories came to me, about old friends, what had happened to them in the Troubles, who had and had not survived, and the journeys we have all gone through.

We were short on petrol but there were no petrol stations (bar two family ones that looked permanently closed) on the seventy-mile stretch between Stranraer and Dumfries. And, when we did stop to refuel, across the English border, the garage accepted our Northern Irish sterling notes, though I had expected objections. At that garage and, later, when we were to ask for directions or order coffee and sandwiches in a cafe or dinner, we found the English to be gentle, kind, warm, and helpful, without being ingratiating, in sharp contrast to my experience in Ireland of their uniformed sons, and, I believe, to the experience of other subject peoples around the world, who found them repressive, pompous and self-righteous. I wondered, how could such a cultured and law-abiding people dramatically change personae when they stepped onto someone else’s shore?

Throughout our journey there were to be many literary reminders. We passed through Dumfries, where Robbie Burns spent his last days, drove past Eccelfechan, birthplace of Thomas Carlyle, the historian and essayist. It was Carlyle who introduced to the English language that brilliant German word schadenfreude, to express the perverse pleasure we experience from someone’s misfortunes. He used it to describe the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Benjamin Disraeli’s delight in mischief when proposing the Second Reform Bill in 1867 which extended the franchise to many city workers and small farmers. (In his younger days Disraeli wrote trashy love novels which received terrible reviews. It was he who also said: ‘There are three kind of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’)

We arrived at Cockermouth around five o’clock, stopping off at a shop so that Billy could buy some flowers. Gibbie’s and Billy’s eyes lit up when they saw each other. Gibbie is very nimble for eighty-six, and helped Billy with his things. Gibbie, a Scotsman, was born in Coatbridge in 1915. He says that although his town’s population was divided fifty/fifty between Protestants and Catholics he never met a Catholic until he went to university. Billy had married Maureen, a Catholic from Ballymacarret, East Belfast. Maureen’s mother was a convert from the Protestant faith, and had come from Farnham Street on the Lower Ormeau Road, an area which during recent decades has experienced a complete demographic shift and is now wholly nationalist. It is one of those areas which the Orange Order demands a ‘traditional’ right to march through several times each year.

Billy worked as a weaver in linen factories in Belfast but devoted all his holiday time to hostelling. One day, sixty-five years ago on a July day, in the Scottish village of Balloch, at the bottom of Loch Lomond, he stopped to look in a shop window. Another young man came up and looked into the window, then said to Billy, ‘Where are you going?’ Billy replied, ‘I haven’t decided, but I’ll go wherever you’re going.’

So they hostelled together, were sometimes mistaken for brothers, and forged a lifelong friendship, writing to each other when Gibbie was in the British Army during WWII, and visiting each other, even after they were both married. They met their wives, Maureen and Sadie, whilst hostelling, Billy in Slievenamon in the Mourne Mountains and Gibbie in the Cairngorms. Both Maureen and Sadie died three years ago, and Billy and Gibbie hadn’t seen each other in twelve years.

It was a glorious evening so we sat on a bench in Gibbie’s back garden and I listened with fascination as they reminisced about their hostel days, trekking mountains and bogs, about all the characters they went about with, about the ‘code’, quite chivalrous, that operated in the Youth Hostel Movement in the 1930s, and the respect that young men had for women. Every person lives through a rich history and every story is different, is told from a different, if even marginally different, angle.

Billy is self-taught and has an amazing grasp of poetry and an impressive repertoire. Although his father read a lot, Billy attributes his interest in books to several influences: his neighbours, the Boyces from Rosebery Road, whose house came down in books and whose sons were among the working-class few who went on to university (Billy remembers John Hewitt being a regular visitor to their house); and Joe Walker, ‘an ingrained socialist’ from Newtownards, a moulder in Harlands, just like Billy’s father. Walker bought a book every Saturday and the books crept up the walls of his sitting room like ivy, as he had no shelves.

Gibbie has a degree in English from Glasgow University and worked as a teacher before retiring. He never expected to end his days in Cockermouth. When the Second World War broke out a friend of his from Coatbridge, a law clerk who was working his way up to be a solicitor, refused to serve and declared himself a conscientious objector. He was sent to Barlinnie Prison in Scotland where harsh treatment eventually broke him. He then agreed to join the Army but when he went for his medical he was turned down – due to a mastoid infection in his ear from childhood.

Instead of going to war he relieved an employee from a legal practice in Aberdeen who went off to fight. On one occasion the clerk was sent to investigate a claim in the Lake District and whilst there he met a nurse from South Wales, fell in love and eventually married. He always spoke to Gibbie about the beauty of the Lake District but Gibbie was too proud or too Scottish, he says, to take it in. Then, when Gibbie’s daughter Margaret got married and moved to Cockermouth, he and Sadie to be near her, ironically, came to live here, the place about which he was once dismissive. Although millions have experienced displacement due to war and conflict, or have had to emigrate from their native country, I suppose that the majority of people in this world live and die close to the land or village or street where they were born.

On Wednesday the three of us went for a drive through part of the Lake District, lakes whose names I, as a kid, had to learn in Geography Class, along with details of the British coal and steel industries. The scenery was breathtaking but the countryside was fairly deserted of livestock and visitors due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which had hit Cumbria quite hard. We drove past many roadside inns and hotels and I often wondered if this or that one was where Roy and Vera had stayed, thirty years before.
Whether it was a reference to nature or the elements, love or life, Billy or Gibbie would recite part of a verse from Wordsworth, who was born in Cockermouth, or Burns or the Bible, and the other would finish it. I couldn’t keep up with them and I wished I had had a tape-recorder.

Early sun on Beaulieu water
Lights the undersides of oaks,
Clumps of leaves it floods and blanches,
All transparent glow the branches
Which the double sunlight soaks

I asked Billy where he got that from and he replied, ‘Betjeman, “Youth and Age on Beulieu River, Hants”.’ Later, I looked up the poem and learnt that it was about mortality and the envy of an old woman for a young girl. Over the past year Billy has been increasingly talking about death. He becomes emotional when talking about his son Bill, a talented craftsman, who died suddenly of a heart attack three years ago. He says how much he misses Maureen who died from cancer, about her deep Catholic faith and belief in the afterlife, which he could never share. He talks about his youth, about Rosebery Road to which I’ve offered to bring him, but which he does not want to see. And he wonders whether he’ll make it to ninety.

Billy was the youngest of three sons and four daughters, all of whom are now dead (John, Alexander, Molly, Edith, Nellie and Mamie). He said to me once: ‘All the sisters got married and left. It was a tremendous regret to see your family diminishing like that. Everything changes so horribly as you grow up. All of them are gone…I am the last of the Mohicans,’ he joked.

He pointed to an old family picture on the wall, taken around 1919. ‘There’s my father sitting there and you can tell by his attitude that he was the disciplinarian of the family. My mother was a very, very soft person. I can never remember my mother chastising me in any way. I was a spoilt skitter! But I loved my oul mother and you can see by the photograph that I’m hanging on to her there.’

I had asked him some questions about his parents’ courtship, the type of detail that a child often picks up from innuendo or light banter in the home, but he couldn’t recall. ‘I can’t even ask my sisters, who are bound to know a hell of a lot more about my mother and father than I would… Damn it, it’s bloody awful when they’re all gone. They used to live over in different parts of East Belfast and you’d go over there and you’d say, I’ll go and see Molly. Ach Christ, she’s dead. Bloody awful,’ he whispered through clenched teeth.

Driving around Derwent Water Billy and Gibbie had the cheek to sing and exchange hymns and I joked with them because they are both atheists. In St George’s Church in High Street, Belfast, Billy’s father had been an ‘official’, that is, he organised the collection at the Church of Ireland services, and through him Billy and his brother, John, became members of the choir. However, Billy claims that he himself was ‘a crow’, and bluffed his way for some time. Then, one day at school, an inspector came into his class and asked his teacher, Miss Freebourne, if she had any good singers. “I knew right away what she was going to say. She said, ‘Willie. Could you sing something for the inspector.’ Well, I fell from grace after that.” Nevertheless, he dates his love of classical music from that time.

His brother John was known in the family as ‘a joiner’ – not by trade but because he would have joined anything. He was an engineer at the shipyard, joined the Merchant Navy, then joined the Orange Order on his return. Billy joked that he must have taken after him. The parents of Billy’s companion Robert Boyce were members of the Plymouth Brethren and Billy used to go along to the meeting hall with them. He recalled one preacher, a bread server, who used to get up and do his stint, by beginning, “Dear Brethren and Cistern…” which had Robert and him wetting themselves.

Billy, as a young boy, also had the distinction of marching down the Lower Ormeau Road with the Orange Order. An Orangeman called Jimmy, who was dating Billy’s sister Mimi, asked him would he like to carry a string of one of the banners on the Twelfth of July parade. ‘Says I, “Do I get paid?” “Certainly, you get paid,”’ he was assured. And he did.

Gibbie directed us to Pendle Hill and showed me the rock where George Fox, the founder of the Quaker Movement, had preached to thousands of people in the 1650s. ‘When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered. As I went down, I found a spring of water in the side of the hill, with which I refreshed myself, having eaten or drunk but little for several days before.’

Fox had been imprisoned eight times between 1649 and 1675. He met Cromwell in 1656 and advised him not to accept the Crown which was being offered to him and which he eventually refused. Fox argued against the formalism of the established Church and all social conventions: ‘The Lord forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low… neither might I bow or scrape my leg to any one.’

Billy, Gibbie and I had our last supper together on Wednesday night, I cooking, as they again sat outside in the warm evening, close together, retelling events from forty and fifty years ago, cracking open small epiphanies to reveal what one or other had perhaps forgotten, and I heard the occasional laugh and confirmation.

On Thursday morning, Gibbie and Billy came out to the car and I asked them to stand for a photograph. Then they shook hands for a long time and said goodbye. As we turned the corner from Rose Lane, Billy said with finality and a passion, ‘That’s my old friend Gibbie, who I met in 1936.’

Thus far, O Friend! have we, though leaving much
Unvisited, endeavoured to retrace
The simple ways in which my childhood walked;
Those chiefly that first led me to the love
Of rivers, woods, and fields…

O Friend! O Poet! brother of my soul,
Think not that I could pass along untouched
By these remembrances.

– William Wordsworth