In recent years, several friends of mine have lost loved ones. I have too. They come to me for soothing advice and, after decades of bemoaning the usual clichés at such moments, I... spout off the usual clichés. I don’t think we can help it. Death is such an abrupt turn for all of us.
And losing family members really sucks. Losing loved ones. About as bluntly as one can put it. Dreadful. Ought to have been made illegal.
So, feeling I ought to say something of note, I’ve taken the ten family members I’ve known who have passed on, and come up with my thoughts on them, and reactions to their deaths. This is a long piece, over 10k words, but some of the folk mentioned deserved the word space. Others don’t get what they would deserve, purely through this being a catalogue of memories, and them dying when I was very young, or far away.
It’s a collection of very old age, tragic early death, long-term illness, cancer and sudden deaths. I miss them all, they’re all family. As The Doctor said in Tomb of the Cybermen, (would this be me without a Who reference somewhere?) “they sleep in my mind”.
(PS: There are some pics, but I only pics of Dad's side of the family. Hopefully, sooner than later, I'll have pics of Mums side too, and we can share those)
Great Uncle Tommy (c.1937-1990)
I remember when Tommy died. I remember his funeral, at St Helens in the south of Glasgow. Well, I remember standing outside before it. Granda Bob in his suit and tie, and Aunt Myra, some time before I connected that she had been Tommy’s wife. Dad took me away once we had dropped Mum off for the funeral, as I was too young to be at a funeral, being only four. Granda Bob used to mention Tommy a lot though, they got into enough hijinks as kids to rival Tom and Jerry, and Tommy always seemed to get the blame! Mind you, what else are younger siblings for? He mentioned many of their adventures as kids growing up, I always got the impression he missed his wee brother terribly.
Gran Cameron (1900-96)
I am one of those few fortunate’s who met a great grandparent, and while they were still of sound mind. Mind you, The Great Cameron, as she was known by all, was of sound mind right up until about six weeks or so before her death, when she had her strokes. My grans mum, she was born in the dying embers of the Victorian era and lived to see Tony Blair as Labour party leader. Her husband, the much-admired Duncan Cameron (1895-c1968) had in fact worked for Kier Hardie as an errand boy one hundred years ago. I always thought she reminded me of the Queen Mum, and she had a similar role in the family, complete with a suitable mad sense of humour. Of all people, it was she who introduced me to The Simpsons, her fascination with the Saturday morning Chart Show giving me the first glimpse of Bart Simpson and co doing the Bartman around 1990.
It is from her genes we can blame my wrestling passion too. The Great Cameron was a vociferous wrestling fan back in the World of Sport days. And never one to follow the common belief, her favourite was Mick McManus, who was only the biggest heel of the day! So you see, my 90s love for Curt Hennig had a genesis a long time coming.
By my age, I came to know my great gran towards the very end of her long life, but, besides a rather notable hardness of hearing, and a slight forgetfulness (as exampled by the Great Chicken Incident, an obscure thing you’d be surprised I’d remember so well), she remained in fine independent means. She lived alone in a small house near Anniesland, though she was rarely alone for she had so many family visitors!
One of my first memories is of going to visit her, when I was only two or three years old. Aunt Theresa and Uncle Mark were taking me to see her from their allotment, and it was a very untraditional Glasgow winter for the late 80s. Snow had fallen very heavily, and we were surrounded on all sides by massive mounds of the stuff, swamping cars and streets, and in many areas I had to hold onto Theresa’s arm for dear life as the snow was nearly higher than me! Eventually we got to the Great Cameron’s house.
“Sorry we’re late” said Theresa. “It’s very snowy outside.”
My great-gran signalled she couldn’t hear.
“It’s at least four feet deep out there” said Mark, louder.
Great-gran mentioned tea and Theresa went to make some. The topic was over, until we got up to leave, at which point The Great Cameron said:
“You’d best wrap up warm. It’s been snowing heavily.”
The mischievous look that followed told all!
I know she was a wee bit frail near the end – she was meant to come to my first communion in 1994, and the church were going to hire a minibus to bring her, but she was too weak to come to it. This upset her, but she’d appreciate the drama of that day (more to come) later, on video. I still have her gift from that day, a statue of St Patrick, at mums for safekeeping. Hey, I may have lapsed from religion, but these things hold sentimental value.
She was ill for several weeks, had several strokes, and though I didn’t know it at the time, it wasn’t a case of “would she pull through” but when she wouldn’t. My primary class prayed for her every day for two weeks, at least, but in early 1996, around March or April, her very long life ended.
I’d like the record to show my nine-year-old stiff upper lip came through and I was a bastion of smarts at the funeral. But that would be a tissue of lies. I’ve very rarely cried harder in my life. Everyone cried, from little me and Alex and Cat, to ninety-year-old parishioners. The funeral mass was given by my cousin Harry, who was a leading priest.
Of the funeral, I remember Dad having to pull me out of it for a bit as I was too upset, at which point I said that “I’d rather be watching Batman” and Dad said, to be honest, so did he. Like father, like son, neither of us is much good with funerals. And after the mass, to try and cheer us up, gran’s older sister Margaret (or Margaret 2, as there are three generations of Aunt Margaret in mums side of the family. Confusing, yes.) pretended to steal my sister’s teddy bear, Ginger, who had been a guest at the funeral. The sight of four year old Cat suddenly twigging that Gingers head was popping out of the blue coat walking down the path way is one of my abiding memories of that day.
Harry Farrell (1951-98)
Harry is the only relative of mine I know of who got an obituary in the Herald. He was well known in Glasgow, as the second in command to Cardinal Winning! (Yes, I have known cardinals, bishops, journalists, politicians; I am the least likely lefty around apparently.) Harry was a priest who worked in deprived areas, with a special interest in trying to help the vulnerable and the needy. Unfortunately, life being what it is, this, and his status as a Catholic priest, made him a target for hate groups. One time he was nearly shot in his car. Activism and religion made him a sitting target.
His heart couldn’t take it. After an encounter with a hate mob outside his church in 1998, he had a massive heart attack and died. He was only 46. Heart ailments ran in his section of the family as his mum, my grans elder sister Mae, died before I was born of the same.
I was aware of how important his work was, but also of the sheer volume of love the community had for him. Even today, people come up to my mum, strangers at that, and tell her “Fr. Harry was a great man, we still love him.” His support for the vulnerable in all forms knew no boundaries and is still remembered. Had he lived, he’d have become an indispensable ally for Unity and all other kinds of Glasgow charities that have grown up since his death.
He was a great lover of model cars and trains too, but unfortunately, his priceless collection went walkies soon after his death when a much loved and therefore anonymous family member didn’t realise their true value.
He was involved in the Sofa Breaking Incident at mums, though I can state, for the record, that poor old Harry didn’t break the sofa. Someone who shall remain nameless (not me) did five minutes before Harry arrived, then placed it back together hoping no one would notice!
He had a good sense of humour, and when he found something very funny, a loud booming uncontrollable laugh would be let out. I unwittingly encourage this once when, as an innocent ten year old, I enquired about the Confirmations. My years were to be carried out by Cardinal Winning. Harry was one of the Cardinals confidantes, so presumably he would know when they were.
“You’re big up with the Cardinal, when are the Confirmations?” was ten year old me’s question.
Looking back, I could have phrased it better. And once he stopped choking on his drink through laughing so hard, he didn’t actually know anyhow!
(Don’t worry – the Confirmation happened. Then so did the atheism period, and then whatever it is I am now.)
He gave the funeral mass for The Great Cameron, and I remember how much his voice started to crack during parts of the service for his dear old granny. Everyone cried at that one though, the people at the back of the church were drowned.
The funeral was memorable for three things. First, every priest in Glasgow, maybe even Scotland, attended. The altar area was full of priests, all joining in the mass. With my life as a child of my mothers, I even knew who half of them were. Later, one priest mentioned in a eulogy how he’d been out of the country when Harry died, and could scarcely believe the news. He thought it was a cruel practical joke people were playing.
Until he read The Herald obituary, which referred to Harry’s “portly figure” being sadly missed. “Nobody will dare call Harry portly if he was alive” said the Priest, “so it had to be true.” Cardinal Winning, who gave the service, started his homily with some comforting words for family and friends. The elderly Cardinal said: “Always remember in these times of great grief, that it is said that God takes the good young.” At which point followed a Pinteresque pause, before he added: “Oh dear”. It got a hell of a laugh from everyone, and you need laughs at a funeral, really. If you can’t laugh at a funeral, when can you laugh?
He also had an extensive rare model Corgi car collection, which we no longer have as one person, who shall remain anonymous due to the love I have for them, didn’t realise their worth and gave them to Oxfam!
I regret not getting to know Harry better. From the little we met, we got on well. It’s only as you get older, the full scale of how important and wonderful he was becomes. He worked harder than his physical health could take, but kept going until his premature end. For asylum seekers, the homeless, recovering addicts, single mothers, all those victimised by society for their vulnerable status. People tend to have a bad image of Catholic priests, because of legitimate trouble with a minority and the hierarchy. For all the hoohaw about sins and hell and that, I wish more folk would be like Harry: men of charity, kindness and the unending desire to help people, who would have been great men regardless of religion but who used their status to further their charitable causes.
Great Uncle John c1929-2007
John was the husband of the senior Aunt Margaret, who is one of the four Cameron daughters of The Great Cameron and The Great Duncan (whose death in the 1968 meant I never got to meet Keir Hardie’s errand boy, though I was related to him!). Not an extensive family at all, and I only talk about the ones we are close with! We didn’t get to see John a lot, especially in his later years, as he only had one lung due to TB and was thus often quite weak.
Last I spoke to him was the 30th December 2003, actually, when he and the Great Aunt Margaret came to see Gran after Bob died. Apparently, I managed to cheer him up quite a lot discussing history and the war but I remember little of this, bar both of us wheezing due to our respective breathing issues! I was sorry to see him pass after a long period of ill health, but it wasn’t utterly unexpected, and I felt bad more for my Great Aunt (the same great aunt involved in The Great Ginger Stealing Incident, if you were wondering). I didn’t go to the funeral, either I had just been to one I’ll mention later on, or we knew it was on its way, and I could only cope with the one. Funerals can be difficult to sit through.
Ann and Pat 1930-2011
Ann and Pat were the mum and dad of John, the husband of my mum’s youngest sister, Mags. There are a lot of Johns and Margarets in our family! Anne and Pat seemed inseparable through my time knowing them, and in fact, died with a month of each other. Though after years of very serious ill health for Pat, it came as a surprise when Ann predeceased him. I hear this kind of thing isn’t uncommon though, if one has to look after a loved one who is very ill in later life. But sad none the less.
Pat had survived a number of strokes in his last few years that turned a mountain of a man into a shadow that I never saw after 2008. Ann kept stoically on in public and was invited to our wedding, but couldn’t make it due to not feeling too well. At the time, I didn’t think this meant the sort of future news we’d get 5 months later. In January, when Mum told me she’d died, it took me a few minutes to twig who she meant, as Ann wasn’t someone I’d considered that ill, though she apparently had been.
Lovely couple, the both of them.
First time I met Pat, he asked me what my name was. I said Michael, to which he replied “My name is Pat, but you can call me Sir!” with a knowing twinkle in his eye. Ice well and truly broken! A good sense of humour and a hearty laugh, mixed with a capacity for great acts of kindness, summed him up. Summed them both up. Out of respect for the younger family they leave behind, who are still saddened by the double tragedy of their deaths, I shall leave the stories to a minimum. Let it be said by this man, incapable of mincing his words, that they were good people, who helped thousands beyond their call of duty, and will be remembered long after they passed.
Sadie O'Rourke 1927-2010
Sadie died when I was an adult (though I use the term loosely) yet I recall very little of her in person. The last time I met her, I’d been a small child. The reason for this is very sad, for Sadie had suffered for most of my life from dementia. An illness you wouldn’t wish on your own worst enemy, a formerly vivacious and intellectual stalwart became a shell of herself.
Aunt Sadie and her husband Jimmy. On the right is Granda George, about my curent age!
So I remember little of her raging Socialist principles and great charity work, though stories of both live on. (In one, she was to be photographed for her charity work, but woe betide the photographer who tried to take a photo of her next to a portrait of Maggie Thatcher!) I was definitely too young to remember her being the first young woman in Barrhead to ever wear high heel boots, which made “quite a mark on the town... and church floor!” And the day as a fourteen year old she showed solidarity with her soon to be imprisoned elder brother Richard and announced herself as a conscientious objector... brings a smile to my face, and I can picture it well, even though it was more than forty years before my own birth.
I like to think in just a few small sentences there I can paint a picture of what a gift Sadie was to this family, and how horrible her lengthy illness was to all who loved her, Uncle Richard and Aunt Marion and Granda George (her siblings) most of all. It’s the kind of illness that makes someone cry for their parents dead thirty years, not knowing where they are.
Aunt Sadie, photo dated 9th June 1946
She had been in decent health physically over her last Christmas, but early in 2010, she caught a bug and never recovered. No one speaks badly of Sadie. They often laugh at the memory of little things she used to do, or smile at her great kindness and charity. Sadie certainly comes across as someone me and Cat would be blessed to have known as our Auntie. I have everlasting rage against the dreaded dementia for preventing it. She was there for most of my life, yet she wasn’t.
Aunt Sadie with her brother John at a family wedding in the 80s
Richard Collins 1924-2009
My Uncle Richard was Aunt Marion and Granda George’s eldest brother. When I was a kid, he’d play football with me. We couldn’t afford an actual football, so he made one up from newspaper. We’d play games of Pass in Aunt Marion’s house, in the short hallway between her living room and the long staircase down to the front door. I remember his fake pass; he’d aim to throw the ball in my direction, then flip it over his head and the ball would go rolling down the stairs. I’d run down after it, and he’d have a seat! Eventually, he’d tire out, and so drew a scary face on the newspaper football. I then wanted to hide from it, so that was that over.
There is an elongated gap from childhood to the age of twenty-one here, when I next saw Uncle Richard. I confess he was out of mind for most of that time, despite living within reach: I’m sorry to say that if you have a large family, and you don’t see certain members in a while, it is easy to get in the habit of not recalling them. That’s not an excuse at all, and you can well imagine my regret at that now.
After George died, we met at the funeral, and a few weeks later at Aunt Marion’s birthday tea. He was eighty-two then, and as fit as a fiddle. Well, he did complain a bit about his cataracts, and attempts to take his driver’s licence off him for that problem, but other than that, fine. He was fit right up to the end, even. Two days before he passed, he made dinner for Marion, and complained bitterly that they WERE taking his driver’s licence away! Then he went into hospital feeling a bit unwell, sat down in a chair after breakfast felling tired and passed away from a heart attack in his sleep.
It was completely out of the blue. I don’t think anyone saw it coming despite his age: indeed, he’d still been an active part of Neilston community right up to his death. It was dreadfully sad for Aunt Marion, as Richard had kept her company a lot after George’s death, and now he was gone too. A large litter of siblings, and now she is the last one left.
There is more I’d like to say about Richard though. Aged eighteen, he was called up for the Second World War, and refused to go, citing conscientious objection. He was thrown into prison for this, but was reprieved after six months when his friend, the Red Clydesider Jimmy Maxton, wrote several letters demanding his release. The family stuck by him – I mentioned Sadie’s reaction above, and Aunt Marion has a fierce pride in her voice whenever she speaks of it – but the wider community at the time and his own parish priest did not.
Richard, the conscientious objector
After all, my great-grandfather, George Collins Sr, had been badly wounded in the First World War, and had preached pacifism ever since (In fact, his life had been partially saved on the battlefield by a German soldier!). Later, when Richard’s dad died, he successfully fought for his mum to get a war widows pension, arguing George Collins Sr’s death had come as a result of his World War One injuries (and truth be told, it probably had). That’s the kind of war heroism that never gets made into a blockbuster film, but it took courage and helped lives none the less. He did countless bits of community work in Neilston over five decades.
There’s a BENCH in Neilston dedicated to him!
I never got to speak about any of this with him, though he’d have been happy to speak about it if I’d asked him. But I didn’t know of it, until it was too late to ask him.
I remember him as someone who was great fun when I was a kid, and someone who looked after his large family – he had twelve kids, and many grandchildren – and wider community till his dying breath. Him being a hero in a wider sense doesn’t make me find him great, for I already knew he was.
A rare pic of Uncle Richard and his wife Nora (who predeceased him by decades) in later life.
Bunnet, glasses, false teeth, check. Granda George as we all remember him.
The problem with grandfathers is that you only get two, and because they are so much older than you are, you only get to know them for a pittance of time. Twenty-one years in my case, which is far better than most, I know, but still a rubbishy small period of time.
When George died, I wrote the following on my then blog:
“For those who have not heard, my grandfather George sadly lost his fight with cancer a fortnight ago at the age of 73. The two weeks since have at times dragged and at other moments swept past, and yet here I am facing that great predetermined fate of every one: that which we fear the most, our finale companion of Death.
I believe John Cena (yes, let me quote the WWE Champion for a second) put it best when, asked about Eddie Guerrero's death, he said "We are all thankful that he's in a better place now, where he is no longer in pain, but there is not one single person here who is not selfless enough not to wish he was still with us." And that's exactly how I feel about Granda George. His suffering is over, of that we can be glad. But, at the same time, there is always the selfish part of you - that wants it not to be over, that wants a trip to Aurs Road to that little house to see the old man one more time.
One soul-defining thing that can be taken from this whole affair is that, in death, nothing ends. As long as memories live on, so does the person. And believe me, there is enough memories of George that exist to fill a book series. And we will meet again. It's one of the few things that keeps society together, the idea that we will meet our loved ones again. We will, don’t worry. I can look to my Mandy, to the GSFWCers, to Shimmy and Iain, to Jo and Louise and Thistle and Joe and Simon and iO and hell, everyone who exists in my life now that simply didn't before.
When I was younger, lonely before the birth of my younger sister (don’t tell her that though, she has a reputation to keep!), I use to spend a lot of time with my grandparents. Gran and Granda Bob, and George and his sister Marion (George's wife Ellen sadly died before I was born). To the four of them I still have strong emotional bounds. When Bob passed, I was so gutted I couldn't speak to anyone for ages. Even now, I have trouble speaking about it too many people without crying over it. My grandfathers were essentially my best friends in a time of my life when I was never the most popular or accepted person amongst my peers. And they were so alive, they seemed invincible to me.
They seemed invincible to me. And now they're but shadows.
I seem to be doing better this time around. I think it’s because this time we were prepared. Bob died suddenly of a heart attack. Despite his bad health, I don’t think many of us were really expecting it so suddenly. One minute, joking with the nurses, next dying, the third, gone. For a man who we labelled "Lazarus", this sudden capitulation rather rocked every viewpoint I had in the world. Bob was gone...snuffed out. It seemed impossible. It still does. Help my bob, so to speak.
With George on the other hand, we knew it was coming. Cancer gives that forewarning, especially when it was as advanced a stage as this was. I could get angry with people and play the blame game - if only the doctors had spotted it earlier.. But that would be pointless. In truth we know that my grandfather died because he had an over fondness for the cigarettes and alcohol. 60 years of abuse will do that to you. But even then, with the dreaded C, you still think: "It's not going to happen. He's going to beat it." It never even occurs to you that your loved ones can be capable of dying until they do it, and even then, it never really sinks in.
Cheers, Granda George. Let us gracefully forget your minor flaws as we wish our own to be forgotten in death, and let us remember the many amusing and definitely happy memories. Until we meet again!”
It’s funny, a late night phone call from George used to be treated with a round of “Oh no” for he’d often start asking you about random Jesuit philosophers he loved. Mostly de Chardin, whom he would always quote and then ask for your opinion, which I didn’t really have many of, not being an expert in Jesuit theologian philosophers!
Course, now I’d love a late night call, with him randomly wittering on about Saint Augustine or his latest favourite Hillaire Belloc anecdote, or further proof in how Darwin had been discredited. I even kept his phone number in my phone for years after, just in case it happened. It never is though. You don’t realise how much you enjoyed something you convince yourself at the time is an annoyance, until you can’t have it anymore.
He wasn’t perfect by any means – his continual belief that Darwin had been utterly discredited, or was about to be, is one of the more amusing ones. He had his cigarettes and alcohol – “I stayed abstinent for fourteen years, then I left school” he said – which couldn’t have helped the liver cancer which did for him. He was a man of his time, and had all the personal demons and regrets to go with it. But that’s not what I want to remember him for, nor how I’d want any reader to go away thinking badly of him. He was a great grandfather to hang out with growing up, and he never once gave up on his atheistic, Thistle supporting, classical music hating (at the time), utterly tone deaf grandson who couldn’t draw for toffee, despite all of that being the complete opposite of all his greatest passions! He was the type of man who had the decency to laugh himself hoarse at your joke, before admitting he hadn’t gotten it.
George in his army days
One time we were crossing Glasgow Road – a notoriously busy road in Barrhead – when he just walked out into the middle of traffic, taking me with him. “Don’t worry”, he said, sensing my alarm, “I have fantastic reflexes.” “But isn’t the cars that need the reflexes?” I asked. “Ah, they have brakes!”
His fondness for quoting Confucius sticks in the mind, as does his hatred for all things Richard Dawkins. If there is an afterlife, then George is waiting up there right now to say “I told you so” at us all. He loved his quotes, but one night improvising a radio show on his microphone – the tape of which is sadly, or thankfully lost – he somehow mangled up his thoughts and we got the gem: “As Elliot George once said many times, “Rumours of my death were gradually exaggerated.”” For the record, I haven’t a clue who Elliot George is, why he was trying to quote Mark Twain, or over how long those rumours were ‘gradually exaggerated’.
One day he went into Paisley, to the HMV there. This doesn’t sound like it now, but it’s the start of one of the funniest stories of all time. George starts looking at these strange bigger CDs, and asks the guy on the till about them, and so finds out about DVDs. On the spot, he buys a DVD player, several DVDs, and rushes home to tell everyone about his new fangled invention he’d discovered. This was in 2004. Even mum had a DVD player by then! But anyhow, we went to see him demonstrate his new favourite toy. He’d bought several DVDs, a few Operas, classical music stuff. Loud things with violins, his favourite kind. Then he said: “I got a film too, really glad I found a copy of it, it’s quite rare.” He went into his bedroom to pick up the copy of this DVD, and me and dad assumed it was an old black and white film, or a John Wayne. Granda George came striding out of the room with his new prized possession and showed us it.
His words – “Stephen King’s Carrie! That’s a rare film, that is, love it!” – were the last spoken in the house for at least ten minutes. Dad and me are terrible for getting into hysterics over jokes, and both of nearly fell over laughing. Cat started laughing looking at us. George was never one to be able to hold his laughter in and started giggling away at our reactions. Ten minutes passed, and every time someone tried to talk, the giggles would start up again. Genuine tears and tightened chest from laughing so hard. The whole scene was the reason the word “juxtaposition” was created! Even now, typing this, I’m starting to giggle uncontrollably, and it might wake up Mandy if I’m not careful, but then I’ll just point out “Carrie, that’s a rare film” and she’ll start giggling, despite not even being there at the time!
I mean, this very orthodox Catholic, slightly old-fashioned man, maintaining his favourite film was Stephen King’s Carrie. You couldn’t write something that amusingly timed to perfection. I have that very DVD now, one of the things I picked up. And you know what? It IS a rare film, that is.
George had helped paint the QE2. He painted the wee bits in the windows, or as he once put it: “I painted the QE2 for two days, then I got tired and they realised I needed help.” He loved painting, and he had a great talent for it. Not just paint jobs, he’d painted a marvellous mural that hung over St John’s Church, Barrhead, and it was only himself that prevented him becoming a massive success with the brush, or the violin.
Sketch by George
He’d served his country during the Korean War, and was stationed in Singapore, though he never saw front line action. On a rare day off during that service, he went for a bicycle ride around the island, swerved to miss a child who ran out in front of him, got KO’d and came to being looked after by a young Singaporean family, who made him soup! On my trip to Singapore, we saw a strange black worm type creature, which on returning home and describing it, George announced with a horror that they’d called those the Bootlaces, they were a form of snake, and they’d killed a few men he’d known!
He found great humour in the misfortunes of Thistle, a job Mandy is taking great pleasure in succeeding him in.
One time, when he was going cold turkey on the booze, he asked me if I wanted some of his excess to take down the road. This was when I lived with Shim. “Does Seumas drink Guinness?” George asked. I said he did. George went into his bedroom, and was gone sometime. Dad was about to check to see if he’d fallen, when he re-entered the living room with thirty cans of Guinness under his arm. “Do you think Seumas will mind this then?” He didn’t.
I remember exactly when I found out he was dying. It was 5th April 2007, and Mandy and me were having a drink with Colin (Mandy’s dad) when dad called. I know the date, because Osasuna were thumping Leverkusen on the pubs big TV screen, so I can trace the date via Wiki. Bloody cancer. He seemed the least upset of all of us about it. It was his “big adventure”, though he was determined to hang on for the Scottish Cup final. Which he did get to see, then promptly told everyone how boring it’d been! Celtic beat Dunfermline 1-0 on 84 minutes to a Pierrer-Doumbe goal, and yes, it was as memorable as that sounds.
Last time I saw him, he was in his hospital bed. It was weird seeing him in hospital, I could only recall him being in before once, and that was for the varicose veins. He was very gaunt and sickly, but his sense of humour stayed strong. Surrounded by family and friends, he was still taking the mickey out of all of them, me included. After the Glasgow Airport jeep attack, he and dad watched the hospital TV, to hear the BBC announce “The bomber was taken to Paisley’s Royal Alexandria Hospital, which has been evacuated.” George was in this same hospital. He looked to his left, to his right, at dad, and bellowed “They went and forgot about me!” (There was no evacuation, for those wondering.)
A day later, he was dead. I’d phoned dad on the Sunday night, but his then girlfriend had told me he had had to go to the hospital, as “your grandpa’s not doing too well”. I just knew then. You know these things. Mum phoned in the morning to let us know, and I think we spent that day watching Doctor Who to try to cheer up. It was the 2nd July 2007, and it was my first grandfather less day on Earth. A feeling that hasn’t gotten any better over time.
He tried to help channel my talents as much as he could, and always wanted to read my latest articles, even though he admitted “he wished I’d write on a topic he was more interested in than Doctor Who”! We used to go for walks around Barrhead all the time, and he would be left amused as the incident when we found one long ago burned out car in the woods was transformed on the phone to dad into a saga of flaming wreckages, hundreds of police and fire engines, and we were to be questioned for it. (I’ve always had a bit of an imagination, truth be told.)
He never once scoffed at my attempts to try to invent a new colour, and would tell tales of exotic lands from his experience for bedtime. He did try to get me into rhubarb, but on finding I couldn’t stand it, muttered how tragic the event was whilst eating my serving too. And he was very fond of radishes, he’d toss three into his mouth at once and munch them like sweeties. He walked badly due to knee problems, and his house was often like a chimney from all the cigarette smoke. He made great soup too.
I was worried writing this that people would get the wrong impression of him. They’d just see the flaws and think I was hiding them. I spoke to dad about this, and he said you could show the negatives as well as the positives. He was an alcoholic who smoked vigorously, and those demons did shorten his lifespan over all, and prevented him making the most of his many talents, and sadly causing frictions between father and his three children. Despite several tries, he could never kick those demons, and he often spoke of the regrets involved. He also had many of the views of a pre-WW2 orthodox Catholic. But he was never deliberate malicious, and he loved his family dearly, even if he sometimes had no idea how to show it. The flaws didn’t make him a bad person, they made him so utterly human.
He’d outlived all his teetotal friends, and his best pal Hilgie. He was always surprised he’d outlived his peers. “There are people dying today that have never died before.”
At his funeral, clearly he’d had enough of all the fussing, as when it came near the end, the priest had suddenly misplaced his Prayer for the Dead. So the priest goes rushing into the sacristy to find it. Only thing, he’d left his loop mic on. And he had the broadest Irish accent you could hear. So in loud booming tones we heard “Where did you put the bloody thing? I thought you had it.” Finally, he came back out, with said Prayer, and announced “Have you ever done a foolish thing in your life?” The church was in hysterics. I like to think George had a hand in that, it was like a scene right out of Father Ted.
He’s missed. Such a larger than life character, it seems barely credible they could be unalive. Life doesn’t feel like it ought to work like that. And yet it does.
Granda George, outside his "ancestral home" in Barrhead
Bob was born 1st June 1935. He survived being bombed by the Germans during the Blitz, and being called up during the Korean War, which he avoided dying in through a literal lottery. He came home, married my gran, and had five children, the eldest growing up to become my mum. In 1986 I was born, 91 Cat. In 1992, he had three heart attacks, with weak health for the rest of his life until MRSA and pneumonia in 2002 and a final heart attack in 2003 killed him.
I guess you can sum up anyone in a paragraph like that, but the mere history snippets don’t get anywhere near the heart of the real person, and you can’t come close to it with Bob. He was one of my favourite people I’ve ever known, and not one week has passed since his death I don’t rage at the complete unfairness of him not being there to see us all.
I was born at possibly a slightly inconvenient time for mum. Slap bang in the middle of her PHD, in fact. (I have been warned of being murdered should history repeat itself with Mandy and I. Heh.) Gran deciding that over her dead body was mum giving up her uni because of said child – Hi! – it was left to gran and Granda Bob to look after baby me if mum was away. (Dad, for the record, spent most of this time on long running nightshifts – there is very little love in work hours for nurses!) When I turned four, mum got her PHD: I kind of slowed it down a fair bit. She got that degree on my 4th birthday incidentally, and most of the attention seemed to fall on me instead. Retrospectively, I feel a wee bit guilty about that. At the time, I just went “YUS! CAKE! PRESENTS! BRILLIANT!”
So mum became a lecturer, and dad was still stuck doing shifts at all hours (usually an early shift went from 6am to 4ish, or a late shift which went from 1pm to 10pm, or even the dreaded overnighter). Babysitting duties were left to Gran and Granda Bob, with help from mums various siblings. Most family gatherings were, and still are, held at Grans. With mums work continuing while I was at primary, the people who picked me up at school tended to be either Granda Bob or Robert, mum’s only brother. When mum had to go down to London to do research, dad would pick me up from Gran and Grandas when his shift was over. When mum became ill (and it took me ages to twig how ill she’d been), we often spent whole days or weeks camped out at Grans so she could look after Mum.
The picture I am trying to paint here, is that we spent a LOT of time at Grans house growing up, and I spent a lot of that with my Granda Bob. It is hard to overestimate the massive influence he had on my life, and continues to.
Take books. That’s all his fault, you know. My mum’s a ferocious reader, and she got me my library card when I was three, but that’s because HE got HER a library card when she was three. Reading was pivotal to an education, he’d say, and “just because you may be poor in money, doesn’t mean you need be poor in spirit.” Get them hooked on reading from the start, and they’d be hooked for life. So to the library we’d go. Knightswood Library no longer exists, despite the two-person effort of Bob and Nicola Sturgeon to save it. But when it existed, it seemed a magical place. It was twice the size of our then local library, and had a higher turnover of books, so there was always new things to read.
This sometimes led to moments like The Oz Incident, where pictures in books led to nightmares and grandfatherly complaints at the help desk. But it did succeed in gaining lots of WW2 books, which we would geek over for hours.
Bob was a massive war film and history buff. We watched The Eagle Has Landed seemingly every year. He had a whole shelf of history books, mainly on warfare, which he loved to read, though his eyesight prevented him reading in later life. One time, on a bus, we were discussing some more graphic detail of the Second World War, when a fussy old woman turned round and said to me: “now, young man, you shouldn’t be bothering that old gentleman with such horrid talk.” Bob replied: “Excuse me, I am having a discussion on history with my grandson.” The woman bristled and got off the bus at the next stop! It was probably the old reference that done it, years before after another bossy woman had yelled at my mum being too slow to get up to offer her a seat on a bus – due to mums arthritis – I replayed the scene to Bob, finishing with “All folk born before the Second World War have no manners”. After several telling coughs from him, I changed it to “before the Boer War”! And for all our concepts of old as a child, he was never really that old – he’d only be 76 now, which I don’t classify as all that old either. I mean, Uncle Robert was only ever thirteen years old than me, but as a child he was an ancient GROWN UP. Words that he will never forgive me for if he reads. Heh.
He’s also responsible for this Doctor Who lark. Happened to catch the first episode, then another, then most of them before the 1980s. His watching left indelible marks on at least three of his children, who became avid fans themselves. One was, as you’ve probably guessed, my mum. Of course, Granda Bob was the right age to have seen the missing episodes, which I would pester him about as soon as I realised what a missing episode was. In one occasion, he walked into the room, hearing Cat and I discuss the Troughton era – Cat became a Who fan very early – and said “Oh, is that one missing? It was good.” Later, on trying to find out what he remembered of the episode – Fury from the Deep – he merely smiled and said “I just remember it being brilliant.” Well, that’s good enough for me.
I remember his great love of Cadfael, as it links into Doctor Who. One particular rumour that was printed in our local papers in the 90s was that Who was to return, complete with Derek Jacobi as the Doctor! I rushed to tell Bob, who was a big fan. He digested the news, frowned, and said: “He doesn’t strike me as a Doctor type actor. More the Master.” Something like a decade later, he was proved completely right! He just wasn’t around to see it.
We would go for walks up by the canal, to see the horses. There was actual horses in a small farm in Knightswood, this is not the type of fact I would make up. It was on the other side of the canal, where Westerton railway station is. The horses, and the bridge to cross over to the small farm, as well as the farm itself, are all gone now. A few months ago, Cat texted me to ask if I could remember Bob telling us about a monster hiding in the depths of the Canal! I did, it was the Pike! He’d seen this Pike, massive thing, attack ducks, and there was several people out to kill it before it could attack anyone – don’t forget this place was common for children. Eventually tales of the pike died down, so I assume someone caught it. The canal stretched way past Maryhill, but we only walked up and down the Knightswood end of it.
Then we’d walk back to Grans, via the newsagents so we could get “granny’s papers” and one Milky Bar. If you’ll allow me to break into a god almighty cliché here, those were the days. Later, when Dad would show up, he’d walk very slowly to the front door, while Gran popped in the kitchen, so he could announce “Oh hi Chris, we’ve just put the kettle on for you” and we’d stay a bit longer!
Bob was a great model maker. He made clay models of all of the Thomas the Tank engines, in his shed workhouse at the bottom of his garden. He made hinges and work instruments from scratch, and made all kinds of models – including one to scale of a sailing ship, which I think he was still working on until he couldn’t. All of this is still in the shed, as far as I am aware, which hasn’t been opened up since his death. He loved trains, we used to go to the annual SECC model train exhibition (which I went to with Shim last year for the first time since Bob died) and just geek out over the trains. Always watched Thomas the Tank Engine because, hey, it had great model work. (Still does.)
Every year for Gran and Bob’s wedding anniversary, the whole Barton clan would be off to Rothesay for the weekend. This would include the annual putting competition, where Bob once literally got a birdie, when a seagull flew off with his ball. We’d also wind up having the annual Barton family pool competition, which I sat out, finding pool boring, but at which Uncle Mark would every year comfortably predict victory, then lose.
He did have such a way with his tools. He could fix anything. One time, at Christmas, the Christmas tree lights weren’t working. Not to worry, away went Bob and he got his toolbox out, ready to check every fuse if need be. Before he needed to, Robert pointed out that the lights weren’t on because the plug wasn’t in! But had that not been the case, Bob would have checked every fuse, and you know, he’d have found the broken one, fixed it, and the lights would have worked. I believe the phrase is a “handyman”. It was an extension of his model making, he just loved to potter about with wee bits and sods and put them together, or find out why something wasn’t working and place it together again. I was never any good at these sorts of things, so I’d just sit back amazed at the kind of gadgets he’d piece together out of nothing. It was like magic. Often in between puzzling hard on a particular clue in that days crossword puzzle, which he loved to finish off religiously in the late afternoon.
He was also one of the finest cooks I’ve known. People know about my mum’s cooking, it’s widely regarded as brilliant on about three continents now, but Bob was where she got the cooking genes. His vegetable soups were the stuff of culinary legend, as where his French toast and porridge. I only found out the other week that there is no such dish as Muckup, and it was a Bob invention: eggs, bacon, tomato, bread, all the leftovers about in the one scrambled eggish dish. An innovation from his time in the army.
Ah, the army. He’d got into a lot of trouble getting a job, as he got one without the equivalent of the Job Centres help at the time (they weren’t happy). Within a week of getting it, he was called up for National Service. This saw him stationed in France, then Germany (where he once fell asleep on a train and wound up awoken at the East German border). The trip to Germany is the reason I and the rest of us are here now. While in France, the Radio Operator in Stuttgart fell badly ill, and needed replaced, so Germany needed two ROs to move to that base. All the ROs names were placed in a hat, and Bobs name came out, so he went to Germany. The rest of the France group went to the front line in Korea, and I am sad to say all died in the line of duty. So a literal lottery saved our family. On such moments of fate life rest.
He’d choke it up to his Guardian Angel. Of all the people I’ve known, Bob was the most religious, and spoke of his religion quite often. He’d go to Mass every day until the latter points when he was house ridden. Not to say he was overbearing, he’d never try and convert you to his way of thinking. Indeed, it seemed to comfort him and make him a more tolerant person than he might otherwise have been. His reasoning usually summed up - “As far as I see it, God has a plan for all of us, so I love you for being you” - would be used to express his support of everything from my mental health issues to homosexuality. He also pointed out, with a clarity repeated by Vonnegut (though I don’t believe Bob read Vonnegut) that a person doesn’t need to believe in the religious parts of religion to take on the actual messages about charity and respecting your fellow man and all that.
Even after all his health issues, instead of boasting about his faith, he’d just sit in his little armchair upstairs and say: “I’m just thankful for every second extra I get with my family.”
I remember once it was his 60th birthday. I was eight, and the family were planning a big surprise birthday party at grans for him. So to get him out of the way, Mum sent him to pick me up from school, and take me home so Dad could pick us up. Except someone forgot to give either of us a key, so we wound up sitting on the steps outside mums for ages! When he was waiting outside the school gates, child me ran up, gave him a big hug and said “How are you?” “Not too bad, given it’s my birthday and I’m a bit older!” At which point young me blurted out: “Oh they told you, it was supposed to be a surprise!”
Later, for his 67th, we had another surprise gathering. He was pottering about in his garden when he came in and saw Cat and me there. The image of Bob diving forward for a big hug of his grandkids with the most absolutely delighted look on his face will stick with me as long as I live. He loved his grandkids all equally as they loved him.
Always pottering away in that garden, like Geoff Hamilton. Sections for each vegetable. His own greenhouse.
His health hadn’t been too hot for a long time. A onetime pipe smoker and lover of the drink, he’d had a triple bypass in 1992, after which point several of his favourite snacks were permanently off the menu. His angina medication mixed badly with his asthma medication. At points he was on so many pills (about 30 a day) he’d refer to himself as the “one man pharmaceutical company”. He was in and out of hospital several times.
A recent discovery of one attempt at a 1998 diary shows Bob in and out of the Western Infirmary 5 times between December 97 and March 98. Sometimes this would be overnight checks, over times he’d be in for weeks at a shot. Sometimes it looked very bad, other times he’d be up joking with everyone, but needed observation. Sometimes he’d get very ill indeed, but then pull back from the brink. He was nicknamed “Lazarus” by the Western Infirmary staff for his repeated recoveries!
The end stemmed from a cut, of all things. A small cut he got in his garden he didn’t cover up properly! That day, he went into hospital for observation, and caught MRSA. For want of a bloody plaster! But we don’t think of these things at the time, do we, or we’d all still be here. MRSA KO’d him, we were warned it was probably the end. Family vigil outside ICU. Yet he pulled through again. Just about.
He was much changed though. His ability to get out and about on walking sticks was gone. He was confined to the upstairs bedroom at grans (so he could get to the loo) and needed carers to come in and help him get in and out of bed. For weeks after being discharged, he was in bed, and reminiscing about his life.
Boxing Day 2002 he was in hospital and on the wane, though he then perked up a lot when the nurses brought in a TV and he got to watch Rangers lose to Motherwell! Later (or earlier) that year, they let him watch a Cup-tie between Thistle and Celtic, assuming it would be an easy defeat for our team, so he wouldn’t stress out. That game ended 1-1 after extra time and went to something stupid like 12-11 on penalties. Celtic still won. Somehow, he just about survived that.
Later he’d improve enough to sit in his armchair, by the window, and wave to passersby. We’d often go to chat with him. Looking back, I realise he must have known he was getting to the end, and was doing his best to prepare me and others for it. At the time, that went right over my head. The “I’m grateful for every second God gives me” meant decades, not weeks to me! But I’d sit there and listen to him imparting his knowledge and wisdom, and bad jokes.
December 28th 2003 was the day he died. About thirteen months after the MRSA incident. You may be surprised after the last few paragraphs, but none of us expected it. He had looked a bit weak and delirious on Boxing Day when we had seen him briefly – he’d slept through most of the day – but again, didn’t twig. He went back in hospital for observation on the 27th, but was doing well, so Gran went home. She was at Church, so Mum got the phone call the next morning as Next of Kin. Then we all rushed to the Western. Me bickering badly with Mum – still didn’t twig how bad things were.
It was only when Cat and I saw him in the hospital that we realised how bad things were. In the middle of joking with his nurses that morning, Bob had suddenly had a massive heart attack. Even so, he was still just hanging on. There was blood patches on the sheet, his hands were shaking badly, and his eyes glassing over. Only at that moment did I twig you can tell when someone’s on the way out. He couldn’t even tell we were there then, his mind was fogging over. Later I went up to him, they gave him a private room for his final hours, and took his hand and whispered “Hi Granda Bob, we all love you” and he managed to clench my hand, so he knew we were all there with him.
Then I left, unable to take any more of it in.
Bob died around 8pm.
Yes, even after the fatal heart attack combined with weakened health from MRSA and pneumonia, asthma and angina, he still hung on ten hours! The family even had to comfort some of the medical staff, who’d been looking after this wee old man for the best part of a decade, and were crying they were so sad he was gone.
The next day, Mum tried to cheer us up with the tale of how she went to Grans, but everywhere she went, the billboards read “LEGEND BOB IS DEAD”. Not whom you think, it turned out to be for Bob Monkhouse who died at the same time. On telling us this amusing anecdote though, at the punchline, the response she got from Cat and me was: “Bob Monkhouse is dead too!!!”
The Evening Times did cheer us all up though. Their obit notice was meant to say: “Bob Barton, beloved husband of Patricia, father of Patricia, Theresa, Mary, Mags and Robert.” There was a bit of an unfortunate typo though. They missed out the “father of” bit. So it read: “Bob Barton, beloved husband of Patricia, Patricia, Theresa, Mary, Mags and Robert.” Mum had to phone into complain. They assumed Gran wouldn’t come on the phone because she was too angry about it. In actual fact, she couldn’t because she couldn’t keep a straight face for ten seconds. Even now, the famous Evening Times typo brings her out in hysterical laughter. The bit we all love, is the assumption that after five marriages he turned gay!
His funeral I only remember for the recently departed Owen Gallagher, a priest of the very old school, mentioning his love of Purgatory, but adding on that “As far as I can see, Bob lived his Purgatory with his health here on Earth, so is with Jesus now.” An unexpected break from the script from that man, made many rather teary.
Thistle dedicated their match on the day of the funeral to him. It was against Hibs. Thistle went 2-0 down, equalised, then lost to an injury time own goal. Truly, it’s what he’d have expected!
In 2006, in the playoff final, we were losing badly. I looked upwards and said “C’mon Bob, give us a sign you’re with us today!” On the very next break forward, Peterhead miss an absolute sitter. A sitter where the keeper was missing, the goal was open, and the ball bounced over a pivot in the ground right over the net at the last second. From a corner, the exact same thing happened. The impossible miss happened twice. “Thanks Bob” I said, and knew we’d win. We did.
It is what Dad would call a marvellous coincidence. Either that or he is still following us all somehow!
We’ve lost other family members, but before my time. So I never met the Great Cameron’s husband, The Great Duncan (c1895-c1968), whom Mum is the youngest person to remember. Never met John (yes, another John!), the second eldest of George Collins Sr’s children, who passed away in 1989. Nor Gran’s elder sister Mae, who passed away around 1987, but was well regarded for her cooking, or Harry, Bob’s older brother, who died after being hit by a tram in the mid80s.
Worst of all, I never met George’s wife, my dad’s mum, my granny Ellen. She died from the Tonner family heart problem, aged only 52 in 1983. She was the boss that held the Collins family glue together, and despite a harsh life, had a great sense of humour. Sounds like we’d have got on like a house on fire! My Aunt Marion has always been the surrogate gran type on dad’s side, and we all love her to bits: eight-three now, and her health is still probably better than mine is!
From left to right: The gran I never knew, Aunt Marion, and John Collins's wife Anne.
Gutted to a person they are no longer here, in the present with us. Even believing the “next room” Death is nothing at all sentiment, it’s still the next room, not this one here!
And you can’t say really it gets better with time. It doesn’t. Talking about Bob and George being dead, not here being themselves, hurts as much now as it did in the weeks after their deaths. What time does is tamper with our memories. Those moments we were annoyed are edited out. We are left only with the good times. And so many of those! When I think of George, that rare film comes to mind. Of Bob, his cooking, his history love, his big beaming smile. They all passed on life lessons and I’ve tried to learn from them. Learn from their errors and their triumphs.
When things go wrong, I stop and think “What would Bob do?” or a similar thing, and talk through it internally. Not the same as being able to talk to the actual living person, but, like the Doctor says, they sleep in your mind. As long as you live, your memories live, you pass on the deeds of the missing loved one.
As long as that goes on, no one ever dies. Even if they have to leave us.
*All pics from family archives, copyright Christopher Collins, reproduced here with dad’s permission.