Among John Logie Baird’s old papers are some pages from a magazine called “Scotland” in its 1936 summer edition. He was asked for recollections of his earlier life and he recalled school and social life in Helensburgh, with a few comments on politics as the world drifted towards World War Two.
Talks with Great Scots 1. – J.L.Baird
(Of his Youth and the Northern Character)
“I remember, I remember, the place where I was born ...”
It was known as Helensburgh with a capital H to the aristocrats and the county, Elensburgh with a capital E to the middle elasses, and eelensburgh with two small e's to the working classes. I lived sometimes in Helensburgh and sometimes in Elensburgh, hoverIng between the two, Helensburgh at school, which considered itself aristocratic and county, and Elensburgh at home.
Class distinction at that time—twenty-five years ago—was almost as pronounced as it is said to be in India. We had first of all the "county " who flitted about on the margin of my range of vision, vague figures seen occasionally robed in kilts, or going to open bazaars or other public functions.
My boyish impressions of them are of a stand-offish, superiority-complexed, and aggressive type. These were, of course, boyhood impressions and very far from true.
Below this stratum of the elect came the big business men - the professional classes, the doctors, the ministers, the lawyers, and merging into this class the less successful business men, merging again into the tradespeople, shopkeepers, and at last into the labouring classes—jobbing gardeners, chimney-sweeps, and tramps.
I have been away from Helensburgh for many years and things have, I expect, changed as they have all over the world. One thing about the place remains, and that is the extreme beauty of its surroundings. Those who live in the town have probably become blinded by custom to its beauty and charm, but revisiting it after many years spent in London, it came as quite a revelation to me.
I remember the school where I had most of my education. This was Larchfield, and at that time it was run on Public School lines. The masters were of the healthy outdoor, strong-minded strong-voiced, sporty type, known nowadays as "hearties," and they did their best to make the boys into hearties also. Some of the material was not very suitable. and I think I was a particularly unsuitable specimen, being very delicate, thin-skinned, small, and with anything but a hearty outlook on life.
Still, like all the others I went through the compulsory games and to this day shudder when I remember churning about in a muddy field, the thin cold rain falling, frozen to the bone and, worst of all, having to appear as if I was enjoying every minute of it. The game over, we went back to school at the double where, blue with cold, I was pushed under an icy spray.
The result of this Spartan treatment was a succession of violent chills and probably the undermining of what little constitution I originally possessed, However, it may have done good to the more robust members of the school, and the exceptions should not grumble.
Helensburgh was laid out at a time before motor-cars were thought of, and is planned in a number of criss-cross roads so that it is made of squares of houses intersected by the roads, forming a kind of chess-board. The result is one continuum of, dangerous crossings, and as motor traffic increases, what was at one time an excellent plan must be developing into a succession of death-trap.
At the time of which I write, however, the, place was eminently peaceful. Motor-cars were a curiosity and it was possible for children to play on the road with complete safety, and for old gentlemen to enjoy country walks without inducing nervous breakdowns,
Our own little circle of schoolboys paid little attention to beauty and quietness, and I remember one of our favourite outlets for activity was careering from the top to the bottom of one of the main roads on soap-boxes mounted on wheels. These “bogie" races down the steep slope on which Helensburgh is built were dangerous enough even in pre-motor days, but no serious accidents ever occurred,
The town had a character of its own, and although only half an hour's journey by train from Glasgow, was by no means a mere suburb or, as someone once called it, a dormitory for Glasgow business men. lt had its personalities. I can still remember some of them. There was Scliffing Nancy, a queer old woman who went from door to door trying to sell china. Another old man with a large beard and whiskers, who went round begging, or selling bootlaces, was known as Hairy Jock.
I expect by now the local character of the town has changed, and it will be as lacking in individuality as Golders Green or Ealing. But in those days, not only the local characters and the local colour, but the life of the town was active and individual, centring chiefly round the churches. Sunday then was a reality, and a stern reality; Sunday cinemas were undreamt of, and their possibility would have been regarded with a horrified unbelief. On Sunday the great centre of social life was the church, and although, even in those days, many stayed at home, practically everyone at least belonged to a church.
I find it difficult to believe that all our modern improvements have done very much to increase happiness. Personally—and I think I am far from alone in this—when I want a rest, I am only too anxious to put as wide a distance as possible between myself and motor-cars, telephones, cinemas, wireless, and many of the other amenities which are supposed to make modern life worth living.
Although I have lived in London now for many years, I still find the Londoner's outlook on the provinces rather strange. They are regarded as of little or no consequence in the scheme of things, and it takes an event such as the appearance of the Queen Mary from a Clyde shipyard to make the Londoner realize that the Clyde really exists and is of any consequence.
The tendency of trade and industry appears to be to flock south and to gather round London. This may be inevitable, but it appears to me very regrettable. Home Rule for Scotland has been advocated as a possible fillip to Scottish industry, but Home Rule does not appear to have been too satisfactory in Ireland, and whether or not it is wanted in Scotland is a debatable question.
I do not want, however, to drift into a discussion of anything of a political nature, but the fact remains that the Scottish character is very fundamentally different from that of the Southern. "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet" might be paraphrased a little and applied to north and south. Although they meet, they never completely merge.
The northern character has in it something forbidding, something distrustful of pleasure, something hard and persistent, which the southerner as a class does not have. On the other hand, those who come from the north have all the disadvantages arid disabilities which come with a severe outlook on life. Whether this outlook is a result of the climatic conditions, or of religious teaching, or something deeper, it is difficult to say, but there is no doubt as to its existence,
To bring about peace we do not want to accentuate national differences; certainly not to create them. It would seem to me, for example, to be a step completely in the wrong direction to try and introduce the Gaelic into Scotland as a national language, it is the difference in languages which has been the cause, I believe, of most international troubles.
If the English-speaking nations united there would be an end to war, and I think this union is inevitable although it may he delayed. It is perhaps our only hope of avoiding another great war. Nobody wants another ware but everyone is preparing for it.