When I was a student I lived with four friends on a farm about seven miles out of Aberdeen. Our landlord, who was the uncle of one of the friends, lived on another farm, a few miles away, and we shared the place with a Polish dairyman called Jozef and his family.
Jozef had come over during the war and stayed. He had picked up the Doric, the Scots dialect of the North-East, which he spoke with a heavy Polish accent and minus his front teeth, the effect of which was to render him unintelligible except when he was swearing at his dogs or the cows or the milking machinery, and only then because he did so so frequently that we came to grasp what he was on about.
Jozef had a Scottish wife whom I don’t remember ever seeing, and a lank-haired son called Vicky, who wouldn’t have looked out of place as an extra in The Revenant, and whom we referred to as ‘the loon’ – quite unreasonably since in the Doric we were all ‘loons’, or lads, together.
Although the farm was no more than a 20-minute drive from the centre of town, this was the rural hinterland. Oil first came ashore to Aberdeen in my last year there, 1971, but it would be many years before the effects started to be felt in the outlying countryside, and Jozef must have been typical of the many farm workers who still led a hard and pretty basic existence in those days; not least since Dyce, which was a couple of miles down the road and owing to the small airport had its own meteorological station, consistently recorded some of the lowest winter temperatures in the UK during the three years we spent there.
Characters such as Jozef featured prominently in our life since we frequented country pubs just as much as student bars in town. One night my friend Dougie Ford and I came up with an imaginary character who we thought epitomised the dour North-East farming type. We christened him Webster, and 4 February we nominated as Webster’s Day (which is what has summoned this particular memory). Webster didn’t do very much except mutter and look grim. It’s enough to say that his day marked the nadir of the year…
At this point I left off – somewhat in relief since I had no idea where I was heading with this story – to go to see a play at Birnam Arts, our community arts centre, a stone’s throw from the house. I had booked the tickets a while ago, having heard of the play and knowing that it had had rave reviews, but not knowing very much at all about it.
That play, from which I have now just emerged, is The Tailor of Inverness, Matthew Zajac’s beautiful telling of the story of his search for the truth about his father, a Pole who ended up at the end of the war with a small tailoring business in the north of Scotland. It’s an immensely powerful one-man show whose underlying theme is the struggle for survival and the misery of displacement in times of conflict. It could hardly be more topical as we watch the desperate tide of refugees trying to find a way into Europe.
It could also hardly have been more serendipitous, given where my thoughts had begun today – Webster’s Day of all days. The Tailor of Inverness, the Dairyman of Aberdeen … It never occurred to me when I was 19 to wonder what Jozef had left behind him, what he had forsaken for his life in Scotland. I’m wondering now. Thanks to Matthew Zajac I’m thinking of that eccentric, angry figure from my past, to whom I’ve hardly given a thought in 45 years, in a wholly different light. Such is the power and purpose of art.
On 4 March we’re running a very light-hearted The Stories We Tell taster morning at Glendoick Garden Centre, on the main Perth-Dundee road. Click here for more information and to book for What Plant Are You?