Ex Student Alban Pinkney
In 1943, Alban was one of the first boys to attend St Columba's as junior seminarians. At that time, the College functioned as House of Theology for students returning from occupied North Africa. Consequently, Alban and his fellow-students were housed in nearby 'St Helen's', separate accommodation that was situated in an adjoining field.
I was to make ready for entry into the Seminary of the White Fathers, situated at Newtown St Boswells, Roxburghshire. But before final preparations were made, we had an horrendous electrical storm to live through, A flash of lightning occurred just about every second. This situation didn't particularly help the dermatitis of which I was suffering, which had apparently threatened my inclusion into the White Fathers. The storm continued well into the night and thankfully no severe damage encountered. My blotched face gradually improved so I would be on my way as planned a few days later.
At the London main line station I met, as arranged, two lads about the same age as me, Anthony and John. These two knew each other quite well; their families lived fairly close to each other in the towns of Carshalton and Thornton Heath in Surrey. We three were quiet and subdued as we boarded the train. It was the first time any of us had been away from our families, Our gaze was set against the window as the steam train pulled out of the station and when slowly gathering speed, my heart sank. Watching through the steam creating its many formations, I could see mum smiling with tear drops wetting her welcoming face. But of course they were my own tears I saw in the reflection, tears of emotion and yet in a kind of way tears of anticipation and tears of dread all engaged at the same time, We did our best to cheer ourselves up. Nevertheless it was a little easier for the other two in knowing each other, it must have helped.
After what seemed an eternity, we chugged slowly into the station of St. Boswells. It was dark now. We were met by Brother John, and with the three of us trudging behind carrying, and sometimes dragging, rather heavy suitcases out of the station, past 'Featherstone', the baker, who will feature now and again later in the story — along a gravel lane boarded by a tall hedge either side, until at last in view, we spied an entrance to a farm.
We were well fed; meals were beautifully cooked and presented by Nelly, the cook. Food was always on our minds, growing lads, you see. Before 'lights out', sitting on my bed, cogitating, I could hear tapping sounds. Gosh, that sounded like Mum tapping the chip container against the pan, Oh, how I wished for a few chips. I must pull myself together! But I did think it was Fr. Taylor having a sneaky feed-up in the kitchen below. This exercise of tapping continued always at the same time each evening, However, after a few nights I realised exactly what it was. There was no chip pan. As I stood up to change into my bed clothes I heard this noise again, it was 'Fatty Davis' tapping his toothbrush against the washstand, My hunger pangs ceased there and then. How stupid I felt! I told myself that this fact of the mystery of the chip pan must stay at the back of my memory and only brought forth for resurrection if I should ever write my memoirs.
One of our long standing parishioners was a Miss Knight (a member of the Knights Coal Tar soap family) who left a generous legacy for the future training of priests and the religious life. I would like to think that a sum of money was made available to my parents in alleviating the burden which befell them when the decision was made to send me to join the White Fathers' Seminary.
Fr Francis Walsh and Fr Bernard Gaffney (Right)
I must confess that at the time our Superior was very unkind and I resented him holding this matter over our heads for such a long time. I suppose in those days discipline was of a different nature; maybe sometimes it works but not always. Anyway, the outcome arrived on St. Stephen's day with Fr. Gaffney addressing the gathering of impatient young men, impatient because we were all standing astride our suitcases in readiness for the holidays.
But happy to report that all was well upon our return in January. I must admit therefore that my previous experiences had sharpened my senses somewhat.
On one such afternoon, four of us had decided to climb the three hills named the 'Eildons'. These hills could be seen from far and wide, but sometimes were enveloped in a not very inviting mist. However, the time seemed perfect for an ascent. Now this climb of three hills had to be achieved in one attempt in order, according to native folklore, to be called a true 'Boswellian.' We were eagerly informed that a short walk was needed then to reach the starting point — but it was more like a country mile or five. Nevertheless, after a lot of huffing and puffing we reached our objective.
The climb was mostly of slate and shingle I remember. It was really difficult because of the nature of the course. You would move forward three steps and return two. "Will we ever make it?" was the cry! Oh Heck, we thought, there were still another two peaks to conquer. But if any Scotsman can do it, then most certainly an Englishman can. I gave little thought to the fact that our party consisted of one Irishman, one from Jersey, my pal George, one Englishman and even a Scot.
I had mentioned earlier the craft we engaged in, in order to obtain time off from our studies. Well we learned very quickly that the Superior was one step ahead of us in this battle of wits. This particular feast day, which coincided with one of our tutors, was to be a working afternoon. When it was fully explained how we should be employed we looked forward to it with great anticipation.
Brother John had decided to clear up the rest of the now depleted hay stacks situated opposite the cow byre and barn. Thinking back, they did make the place a tad untidy. Now to accomplish this onerous task we were each handed either a hayfork or spade in order to catch the varmints that lay hidden in their nice warm beds. One unlucky lad only had a broom to use. We did not realise at the start of operations that there would be so many rats and mice to catch and stab. We lads were poised to attack as the first of the hay was lifted clear, but then still no sign of any movement from within. Suddenly all hell broke loose; these creatures were hitting the fresh air from all parts. There was stabbing, stamping, shouting and squealing for ages, and just as suddenly, silence. This was now a
non- haystack and where it had been, stood a neat row of dead rats and mice, all displayed in a soldierly fashion i.e. from the smallest to the biggest.
The two stacks remaining were demolished in no time. The line of 'deceased' grew ever long. I believe we thoroughly enjoyed our afternoon off. Of the 'lately departed', well they were given a burial, a deep one, with due reverence, I don't think.
Nelly, the cook, always a wonder at the oven —and ably assisted by Fr. Taylor, — brought over a pile of jam scones and a great jug of lemonade, all of which were devoured with amazing alacrity.
A priest with a penchant for the outdoor life and fresh air 'to boot' had a sudden thought whilst gorging on a large plate of porridge, at an early Saturday breakfast. "Paper- chase" he uttered loudly. "Oh dear, oh dear" we all muttered. "He wants us to go out again for extreme exercise."
A Scottish Spring was not always a mild Spring, as we were wont to find out. The day chosen for this exertion was no exception. Shorts and thin tops were the only clothing allowed, apart from footwear, that is. "What about gloves?" someone had the temerity to enquire. Sometimes the best answer given, is to ignore the question. So it came to pass as we all lined up in front of the chapel awaiting orders. Well it was better than sitting in classroom at study, (yes we had lessons or study periods even on a Saturday) but this still beats it any day.
Further down the lane we found our first clue, a cryptic one I remember; not very helpful I have to report. However the youngest in our party, a bright spark if ever, conceived the notion that the next clue could possibly be, by or on the bridge, a swing bridge in fact, which spanned the very fast and shallow river beneath.
This river Tweed, what a beautiful stretch of water. In particular, I can recall, especially on the Dryburgh side, where there was room to laze and dream by its bank. However, enough of day dreaming, must get on. It is a salmon river and of course a keen fisherman can be seen in waders with their rods and nets and standing sometimes precariously, in the centre of this fast moving waterway. One may actually spot the fish moving swiftly between the massive rocks embedded below and dodging just as swiftly from the eager would-be captors as well, a sight to behold.
Sure enough, on the bridge was the next clue, tied to one of the massive hanging wire beams holding this huge structure in place. Upon absorbing the meaning in the clue we reached the old abbey of Dryburgh, which incidentally looked magnificent through the rich foliage which surrounded it. (Alas, now in ruins). The abbey was founded in 1150 by The Canons Regular of the Premontre, an ancient order, which in fact still survives to this day. In fact this spot was known as a sacred place as early as the 6th or 7th century.
In the 1940's and possibly until recent times, anyone could saunter around at will; no one was there to relieve you of your money. Those were the days before 'get rich quick merchants' had spotted an opening to our wallets. This was in order to 'support,' their words, the upkeep of ancient monuments, etc. But in so doing many of our treasures may not be seen by the majority on account of the extortionate amounts of cash required to get through the turnstiles. "Turnstiles" mark you. I would never pay any such fee to enter similar ruins or indeed cathedrals. A donation is fine but not if the request for such, as in many instances, is thrust at you on entering.
I remember a few of us lads on our infrequent half-days off would nip over to the ruins. On occasions we would still be clothed in our farm-workers smocks. The colour of such I suggest would be described as off-white with a bold red cross emblazoned on the chest, and when a group of school children were being shown around we would hide in the many darkened alcoves, which were a main feature of the cloisters.
There was the time when we challenged the local Home Guard (Dad's Army) to a game of football. They were not sure if there was an ulterior motive afoot for this sudden gesture of goodwill. However, in keeping with the good old British spirit they accepted the challenge, so a match was arranged to take place in early evening. The only field large enough for a match had recently been deprived of thistles, which had abounded. Pupils like myself spent many 'penance' hours as punishment for our misdemeanours working as unwilling slaves in the harvest — for inattention at class, for lateness, lack of lacuna or for even more minor indiscretions.
The big day arrived and all of us were dressed in various outfits. At least the away team kept their uniforms on. Their goalie was told to stop playing with his rifle, it made us, the home team, unnecessarily nervous. So having persuaded him to abandon his provocative stance and stay between the sticks, we commenced proceedings.
The evening ended with beer and buns distributed, and eagerly consumed, by the brave soldiers of the village. I and the other boys, each had a glass of lemonade. What fun!
It was on a Friday I recall when we were told that a chicken had been chosen for our Sunday lunch. It was suggested that one of us brave chaps would catch one "And then what?" we asked of Fr. Taylor.
The following week features Brother John again. He explained that one of the heifers in the right frame of mind (well that is one way of putting it) was to be introduced to Dan, our one and only Jersey Bull. Dan was growing quite quickly and getting a little scarier to be with. Until recently it had been quite safe in crossing, with confidence, the small field which housed him. He would practice butting us with his horns, about the size of thimbles; it had been great fun for a while. But this particular day he ran up from behind and chased us to a corner by the awaiting gate. The scaling of the escape route was performed with such speed, not previously exhibited. We now decided to treat our one-time 'pet' with a bit more respect. On our return to the barn we related this happening to Brother John. "I know, he tried to mount me" said he. We, being a little naIve were not sure what he meant. Hey, Ho.
Brother John had already decided to put Dan to work. So a makeshift staging was put in place in the barn to assist the still small Jersey daddy-to-be. This was made clear to us because the heifer in question was older and a goodly bit taller than her impregnator-to-be. All of us, to a man, were waiting with great anticipation for this lesson (in birds and bees). But no such luck; we were all 'shooed' away. Anyway before the barn doors were shut against our excited eyes we had all noticed that Dan too was excited, bless him.
We were informed later that day that all went well and to plan — these words coming from our Brother John. We knew he was correct in his assessment, because returning down the cart track from St. Columba's nearby, the senior college, we couldn't help but admire the aerobics that Dan was performing. My, he was a happy chappy.
They had managed to get together a varied set of musicians and singers, one of which was my own sister, Veronica. She sang two evergreens, 'The Last Rose of Summer,' being very apt for the season, and the old favourite 'Cherry Ripe'. She sang them very sweetly I remember. The world famous virtuoso Leon Goosens was for a short time a member of our parish. He very kindly entertained us all by playing various pieces on the oboe, Father Ward, adept in the art of cello playing, complemented the evening's proceedings. There were other artists displaying their skills to varying degrees,so a good time was had by all. Ginger Beer and biscuits were freely distributed.
But in being so incautious it also happened to be a learning curve for the more adventurous. But in some cases a few daft 'birds' got lost in this shroud of frenzy, which by the nature of things landed them with a short holiday in the local infirmary. All this in order to reward their undoubted energy in the search for sexual enlightenment.
I understand a bit of frantic movement by the American personnel was put into motion as a result of their recent unlicensed fusion. However, now many American forces were gathered to fight bigger battles elsewhere and mostly overseas. Bigger battles 'for all of us' in this insane world of ours. God go with them!
Lo and behold, I believe the real bonus came from Mrs. Rogers, the Cook: she wanted blackberries. Who could resist blackberries? I remember we ate as many as we handed over to the kitchen. It was work we attended to from time to time to supplement the larder, and was better than sitting in a cold classroom anyway.
There were occasions when soccer was the order of the day. The games against the R.E.M.E. were usually explosive. We treated these matches as 'payback-time.' In one memorable match we won by 7 goals to 3. The opposition had at least two professional players, one from Aberdeen and the other from Preston North End. During the war many club professionals played for the Services, and when they could, for any nearby F.A. League sides.
It was a cold, very wet afternoon and indeed very muddy, especially in the goalmouths. I was the centre forward for the White Fathers and my moment of glory came late in the game. The ball was hurtling towards the enemy lines and stopped on a 'sixpence' by the penalty spot. Then happened a scene from the Keystone Cops. The Aberdeen goalkeeper and I raced through the sludge, slipped and fell headlong, 'A' over 'T'. But then I found myself erect once more but in a state of shock; this was the first time I remember being active. However I pulled myself together, faced the empty goalmouth, kicked for goal. I had to lift it for fear it got stuck again. I scored. But the memory of the goalkeeper stuck fast in the mind with his arms flailing — a memory still fresh in my mind. But I scored and all of a dozen spectators cheered. What bliss!!
With Christmas holidays done and dusted, we returned once more to our seat of learning. But one certain activity had to be attended to. The indigenous 'yobs' from the village had pelted us with scores of snowballs already piled up like cannon balls not far from the entrance to the Seminary. It would be true to state that we were totally unprepared for this attack. However there was always another day which those youths found to their cost, or rather their pride.
For the following fifteen minutes it was 'Even-Steven'. Then happened a signal from our team captain. "Charge!" he shouted. We did. Panic ensued, the enemy were running in reverse and eventually only mist was evident where once an active yokel army had encamped. We won, we drove them back. Wonderful feeling!
This situation did distress both my parents and I know I did wrong by leaving without their knowledge or permission. Dad must have written to Fr. Lea, the Superior, for an explanation of the circumstances but he never let on to me about the content of his letter or of the letter of reply from Fr. Lea. I had often wondered about this.
Nothing further was said about my untimely visit. The long awaited cup of tea and egg on toast went down a treat. I believed Mum was softening up but I still had to face Dad! Silence did last for a few more minutes and then Mum came out with a 'peach'. "You and I are going to pay a visit to the Labour Office (Job Centre) to get you into work in the real world" she warned me. "Do not think you will have an easy time at home. You will start earning straightaway."
However the induction into office work wasn't too bad, apart from being called 'Holy Joe' and 'God's spy', isn't it amazing how word can get around about one's earlier employment so quickly. Did someone closer to home 'help'? If that was so, I believe the intention was to toughen me up.
(Extract from "Endless Tide" by Alban Pinkney)
Memory joggers—to help identify people featured below: