Interviewer: Don McCauley of The Authors Show, an internationally-acclaimed professional book marketing audio program in which selected authors are interviewed.
Interviewee: Ian Moore-Morrans, Scottish-Canadian author of an autobiography entitled: “From Poverty to Poverty: A Scotsman Encounters Canada”
The recorded version is presently being aired for 48 hours (March 4 and 5, 2013). It will be available on this blog as soon as we receive and upload the MP3 copy. The Authors Show audio version is much shorter and less detailed than these prepared answers; in addition, several of the questions were not asked in the recorded version which very soon can be accessed on-line 24/7 for 12 months. The website is http://theauthorsshow.com. (Access to the audio version of the interview is on the “Non-fiction writers” page.)
I, the interviewee must admit that I became a bit flustered when the interview was taking place and being recorded. Instead of following the carefully prepared answers to the questions which the interviewer had furnished ahead of time, I scrapped my notes and “ad-libbed” the answers. My editor wife, who worked alongside me to formulate the answers and carefully rehearsed me through the scenerio several times beforehand, was a bit disappointed that I didn’t follow the script a bit better. Ah well, listeners will be able to hear my Scottish burr and hopefully understand the sincerity, if not the clarity, in my answers.
Q. Tell us about this book.
A. “From Poverty to Poverty: A Scotsman Encounters Canada” is the first volume of my autobiography. It begins with my childhood in Scotland during the 1930s and ‘40s—years of the Great Depression and World War II. I’m certain that my fatherless family was the poorest one in Campbeltown, a small fishing town in the Scottish Highlands. I describe our level of poverty as “abject” meaning “utter, hopeless, miserable, wretched, dismal and horrible.” Four of us lived in a 10-foot-by-10-foot attic room—Mother, Granny, my older brother and me. Life was a constant struggle to find food and keep ourselves warm. Often there was no money for both food and coal so we had to choose between the two.
My schooling was finished when I turned 14. Around that time my mother married a man from Northern Ireland and our lifestyle became a bit better. We moved from the lowliest of slums to a slightly-less-lowly slum. My teenage years were spent working as a blacksmith’s apprentice, joining the Army Cadets and playing in a Salvation Army band—and sometimes quitting the band because I got tired of not being able to go to movies or dancing.
At age 18, I joined the British Royal Air Force and served as an aircraft engine mechanic and bandsman in Britain and Egypt. My time in Egypt coincided with the first rumblings of the Suez Canal crisis and I was one of those unfortunate enlisted men who was ordered to learn how to make decent drinking water from the inaptly named “Sweet Water Canal”—after the Arab workers who had been treating the water for the entire British military force walked off the job.
After I returned to civilian life as a machinist in Scotland, I married and fathered two daughters. Then, I got itchy feet and considered immigrating to Australia. However, encouraged by two of my wife’s relatives who had earlier immigrated to Canada and misled by an unscrupulous Canadian official, my family and I immigrated to Canada in 1965. A promised job didn’t materialize and, naive me soon found out I’d been told a boldfaced lie about how inexpensive it was to buy a house in Canada. Misadventures in finding and keeping jobs and suitable accommodations lead me to conclude that we had only moved “from poverty to poverty.”
Q. Who did you write this book for?
A. For my descendants, friends and anyone who wanted to know what made me tick. My principle reason for writing my autobiography was that I had met so many people on the Canadian side of the Atlantic whose backgrounds were Scottish, Welsh, Irish or whatever, who had no idea who their grandparents or great-grandparents were, what they did or how they lived. Thus I decided that my descendants, friends and even strangers should get to know me, if they so desired.
Several times I had found myself checking out through a grocery counter and spoken a few words to the clerk. Upon hearing my Scottish “burr,” she would invariably ask me if I was Scottish and then tell me that her grandfather (or grandmother) was Scottish. When I asked her where the grandparent was, she would then tell me the relative was dead. When I inquired where in Scotland they came from, she didn’t know. She didn’t know anything about him or her—and that happened more than once. On arriving home one day from a little bit of grocery shopping, I told my wife, “I’m going to write my life story for my descendants to read—they should know who and what their grandfather did while he was alive.”
Q. Is there a central message in the book?
A. Yes, I think so. I’ve found that it is possible to overcome a negative lifestyle like poverty but, in order to do so, one has to have a lot of grit, perseverance, sometimes luck and even humor to get through it all.
Q.What is the most important idea you share in your book that will add value to the reader’s life?
A. Perhaps it is that one must look for humor in each and every situation. When all else fails, a good laugh and then, determining to pick yourself up and start anew, will help you deal with most things that life throws at you.
Q. If you could compare this book with any book out there we might already be familiar with, which book would it be and why?
A. When I first submitted my manuscript for critique by a few people in my Writer’s Group, several remarked that it reminded them of “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank McCourt. I had not even heard of McCourt’s book at the time so quickly bought a copy. They were certainly right in that we both had appalling early lives of poverty—he in Ireland and me in Scotland. One could also say that we each, in our unique ways, were able to overcome our impoverished beginnings.
Q. Why did you choose the title “From Poverty to Poverty” for your book?
A. When my story started, I described living in appalling poverty in Scotland. Thirty years later I found myself again in poverty because of the misinformation about the opportunities of immigrating to Canada that I received from a Government of Ontario official in Glasgow. (Yes, by the time we had finally settled in Canada, we had a lot more “possessions” but they sure weren’t paid for! We were in debt up to our eyeballs!) I chose the title “From Poverty to Poverty” as I found it a perfect description for my life’s journey from 1932 until my first years in Canada. There I certainly found myself right back into poverty and, to make matters even harder to overcome, I had added three dependents!
Q. For readers of your book who have not experienced poverty in their lives, what one word do you think they would choose to describe your book?
A. (On the audio recording, Ian used the word “horrendous.”) “Eye-opening.” That’s the word my present wife and editor used after she first read my story before we were married almost 10 years ago. She was not brought up in poverty and was astonished and taken aback by all that I had experienced.
Q. You claim this book is an autobiography. Are all the stories in it true and all the characters taken from real life?
A. Yes, all of the stories are true. They, of course, are filtered through my own eyes and my own experiences so another person may interpret happenings from a different perspective. I’ve told of my own observations, experiences and occasionally things told to me by others or that I learned from school or research. In certain instances, I’ve chosen to change the names of people because I felt it necessary to protect their identity or maintain their privacy.
One prime example is the character I’ve chosen to call “Jock Campbel.” (In Britain, “Jock” is perhaps the most popular nickname for a Scotsman, just as “Mick” is for an Irishman.) As far as I know there never was a Jock Campbel who lived in Campbeltown during my time there or any other time. However, when I was a wee lad and our financial situation at home was even more dire than usual, my mother would occasionally ask me to go to that man and ask him to lend her ten shillings. This was about a dollar and a half, but it had a lot more buying power then than now. But before I would go she always cautioned me to wait until he was on his own. There never was any hesitation from him. Out would come his wallet and a ten-shilling note would be handed to me. As far as I know, my brother was never sent on a similar mission and I never thought to discuss it with him or even ask Mother why. That man was an upstanding member of the community and a married man with children. I never thought much about this strange mission until years later when some things my mother said about the man led me to wonder whether he could have been the man who sired me. I deal with that wondering in the sequel to this book which I call “Came to Canada, Eh?”—not yet published but in the editing process.
Q. You describe your early family life as rather disfunctional with no one showing affection to the others. How has this affected your adult role as husband and father?
A. I know my mother and grandmother cared very much for both my brother and me. We lived on welfare and Mother worked at degrading odd jobs on the sly to get a wee bit extra. She also put our hunger ahead of hers when there was little food to share. But none of us showed or spoke of any affection or caring toward the others. When we were growing up my brother was almost always either ignoring me or beating me up until I got big enough to defend myself.
Perhaps Mother and Granny had never been shown affection and didn’t know how to do so. And if they didn’t know how, my brother and I didn’t have a chance to learn by example. I don’t know where I learned it, maybe showing affection was something that just was innate in me and eventually came out when I had my own wife and children. As an adult I’ve made special efforts to tell my family members that I love and honor them and have always been ready and willing to take care of and help them to the best of my ability. I’m pleased to say that my brother and I were able to enjoy a cordial, though distant, friendship later in life.
Q. What role did your membership in the Salvation Army play in your early life?
A. It taught me how to live a respectable and God-fearing life. It gave me a place where I knew I belonged, was respected and valued (although I rebelled off and on at a lot of restrictions it placed on my choices of entertainment). Most importantly, it gave me an opportunity to learn to sing and play several instruments. Because of that I can truly say that my real avocation in life is music-making.
Q. Who influenced your early life the most and why?
A. A man called Jock McMillan. He was the band leader and music instructor at the Salvation Army in my hometown. Along with two of my pals, including his son, George, Jock taught us to read music and to play instruments. I learned to play the trumpet and trombone and spent a lot of time in my youth playing with the Salvation Army brass band. Then, after I joined the Royal Air Force, I played trumpet in military bands wherever I was stationed. For a period of almost sixty years (in Britain, Egypt and later in Canada) I played in military, dance and concert bands as well as in combos. I’ve continued singing Scottish folk songs for various festivals, parties and competitions even into my eighties, although my voice isn’t anywhere near as good now as it used to be.
Q. What was the greatest single decision in your life that started to lift you out of a life of poverty and how did it do so?
A. Quitting my apprenticeship to a drunken, cruel blacksmith and enlisting in the British Royal Air Force. Overnight I had three decent meals a day, a decent-paying job, a bed with sheets on it, all the decent clothing I needed and future prospects. Plus that, I could continue to play in a band and had money left over to send home to my mother to help her out a wee bit.
Q. I understand you use humor in your writing. How does this connect with the tragic circumstances of poverty?
A. Poverty is bad enough. If you can find anything humorous in whatever day-to-day happenings you encounter, then you should celebrate those things. Laughter can elevate you from the depressed hole of poverty – at least a wee bit. If you really look, there are comical aspects to a lot of things, even those that are essentially negative.
Q. What is your favorite humorous story in your book?
A. Soon after we immigrated to Canada, my wife Mary and I were at a dance in Toronto. A group of us were standing and chatting at the edge of the dance floor when I announced that I was going to the bar for a drink. When I returned, a young, good-looking woman put her arm through mine and I understood her to say, “I like the way you roll your arse!” (What we call “arse” in Britain is referred to as “ass” or rear end in North America.) I hesitated a little and looked down at one buttock and then the other, wondering what it was I did with my “arse” that got her attention. It wasn’t until I thoroughly thought about it that I realized that she was saying that she liked the way I rolled my “RRRRs!” I guess she enjoyed the Scottish accent. Boy, what a relief!
Q. You claim that musicianship is integral to your life. How is that reflected in your book?
A. When my wife/editor first read my story, she was struck by how much music was woven into the narrative. She encouraged me to expand on those instances, leading me to quote from songs or to fill out descriptions of the song connections with my own story. For instance, when I am describing my hometown Campbeltown, I mentioned the folk-song made most popular in the ‘60s by Scottish folk-singer Andy Stewart: “Campbeltown Loch, I Wish Ye Were Whisky.” We were unsuccessful in getting permission to quote the whole song in my narrative. So the next best thing was to show how it impacted my life and then paraphrase the verses.
I eventually wrote the following: “As we were growing up, three or four of us boys would go arm in arm down the street singing the first few words—‘Campbeltown Loch, I wish ye were whisky’—that’s all we knew at the time. I like to think that Andy (Stewart) heard those few words sometime in Campbeltown and created a song around them. ‘Oh, Campbeltown Loch, I wish ye were whisky, Campbeltown Loch, och aye! Campbeltown Loch I wish ye were whisky, I would drink ye dry!’
“The verses cleverly have the singer imagining how nice it would be if the loch were full up to the brim with whisky and he could anchor a yacht in the whisky-filled bay to go in for a nip and a dip ‘by night and by day.’ Clan gatherings would feature wading into the loch with toasts of ‘slainte bva’ (meaning ‘good health’). The only problem would be the police showing up in a boat and shouting, ‘Time, Gentlemen, please!’
“I find this a fitting tongue-in-cheek ode to a town that once boasted of 30 distilleries and still produces at least two very fine brands of single malt whisky – Springbank and Glen Scotia.”
Q. Your book is permeated with “Scottishness.” Why would someone who has no Scottish connection want to read this book?
A. Lots of people like to read biographies or hear stories of other people’s personal experiences, especially if they are out-of-the-ordinary. It also seems to me that a lot of non-Scots show a curiosity about and interest in Scottish things like tartans, kilts (or what is or isn’t worn under them!), bagpipers, Robbie Burns suppers, Scottish parties called “caleidhs”, Highland games and the like. I hope they’d enjoy a first-hand account of one Scot’s unique experiences. We Scots are known as folksy and sometimes blunt people who put our own colorful slant to our language. I attempt to reflect that in my writing.
Q. I understand that you didn’t begin to write down your stories until you were age 63 and nearing retirement from years spent as a machinist.
A. Yes, I was too busy trying to make a living or playing in some band somewhere so I never took time to sit down to write until I was close to retirement. I quickly realized then that I’d have to learn to type and use a computer if I wanted to get anywhere with my writing. So I bought a used computer and a “teach yourself to type” tape and went to town on it. That’s me, though. I usually get enthusiastic about something new and go whole hog, plunging right in and damn the torpedoes!
Q. Have you always been a storyteller and what made you think you could be a writer?
A. When I tell about my early schooling, I bring up a memory of my English teacher, Miss Sharpe, telling me a couple of times during my school years that I should become a journalist after I finished school. (She had remarked often about the quality of my essays and compositions.) Huh, I thought at the time—‘me a journalist—me who had just about no clothes on my back! What a picture that would be—me in an office with holes in my shoes and no underwear!’
After I left home I always liked writing letters, telling of my latest experiences. I’ve always enjoyed relating stories and jokes— to anyone who would listen—most of which somehow related to something Scottish. Many people over the years have remarked, “You should write a book, Ian.” So now I’ve written several.
Q. Other than selling your book, what do you hope to accomplish with it?
A. I hope to give my own unique spin on understanding an impoverished life in the Scotland of the 1930s to 1950s; of the pre-Suez Canal crisis atmosphere in Egypt; of the joys of learning to play an instrument and joining a band. I hope that the reader will move from seeing me as a victim of poverty to seeing me overcome that life and also overcome the challenges that an immigrant faces.
Q. Who should buy this book?
A. People of any age from teens to seniors, especially those with interests in Scottish history, Scottish life, music-making, biography, and understanding the causes and consequences of poverty and immigration.
I might also add that lots of people enjoy books with pictures. “From Poverty to Poverty” is full of old photos taken by myself or others during the period of which I write. I’ve also added a few simple maps and drawings of the slum accommodations in which I first lived.
Q. Where can people buy your book?
A. Online at Amazon, or Friesen Press. – Links to these sellers are on my WordPress blog (ianmooremorrans.com). The book is also available for sale at the Highland Scottish Gift Shoppe in Calgary, Alberta, and at the Gallery Vertigo in Vernon, British Columbia, Canada or from most book sellers by special order. I also offer signed books for sale at book readings. The book is available as an e-book in PDF or Kindle format, as a paperback and also in hard cover format. The photos and maps are included in all versions.
On March 3, 4 and 5, Ian will be interviewed on THE AUTHORS SHOW, an internationally-acclaimed professional book marketing audio program in which selected authors are interviewed.
The holiday season has once again returned to our house. Gayle and I are planning two more book readings before the end of the year. She chose this coming Thursday, December 13th, which just happens to be St. Lucia Day, the start of Christmas celebrations in Sweden. Since her family heritage is mostly Swedish-American, she likes to do the day up big and invite friends in for some good Swedish Christmas baking. She’s been baking and decorating for over a week. We’ll be combining her Swedish Christmas atmosphere with two book readings for friends, acquaintances and the public at our home: one at 2 p.m. and another at 7:30 p.m. In contrast to her candle and ornament laden decorating and entertaining, Gayle has chosen and assigned me several readings that have to do with my unique and unusual memories of the holidays. My memoir, “From Poverty to Poverty: A Scotsman Encounters Canada” which was published this year doesn’t contain the usual fond and nostalgic accounts of Christmases past or holidays celebrated up big and fancy in the midst of large family gatherings. (I leave that to my wife/editor for her writings on her childhood memories.) One probably notices from the title of my memoir, that an impoverished childhood and a Scottish upbringing puts a certain slant onto many of my reminiscences.
From Chapter One, “The Cold and Hungry Years,” – (My Non-Event Christmases of Childhood)
“Speaking of winter, that brings up Christmas. Ah, Christmas! That time of year was a “non-event” for us. The day would come and go–and I didn’t know a thing about it for years! Then I found out that there were kids who would get a toy cowboy outfit that had a cowboy hat, a belt with a holster for the shiny revolver and maybe spurs. The poorer folks would share the things among the family members. Using the above for an example, one would maybe get the hat, another, the gun-belt, another would get the gun and the spurs and then they had to take turns with them!
“I was about six or seven when I learned that there was a man dressed in a red suit who would come and give good children a present and I wondered why it was that I didn’t get anything as I didn’t do anything bad. Gradually I learned that the man in the red suit was only a story—a farce—a great big lie. Then I didn’t feel so bad. It’s no wonder that I still don’t have a great deal of love towards the occasion, or Santa Claus, for I know there are still lots of kids around today who get the very same as I got back then–nothing!
” Today, my heart goes out (not really!) to people reminiscing about Christmases long ago and proudly stating how they didn’t get very much compared to the kids of today, that they only got a little doll, or they only got a children’s bake oven or something simple like that¾or maybe that their parents could only afford a chicken for the Christmas dinner as a turkey would have cost too much. (I don’t think I knew what a chicken was at that age and if I did, I would probably have thought it was food for a king!) If I can remember right, my first Christmas present was an orange¾and that was from the Salvation Army Sunday school when I was eight or nine years of age! Yep, some people didn’t know they had it so good!”
From CHAPTER SIX, “Back to ‘Dear Old Blighty'” (This chapter told of my return to Britain after serving in the Royal Air Force in the Suez Canal Zone, 1951-3. I married my penpal Mary and we eventually had two daughters. This New Year’s Eve story tells of my youngest daughter’s birth and how her life was saved by a bottle of Scotch whisky.
“Two years later our second daughter, Shirley Christina Morrans, was born. She wasn’t due until February 1959 but decided that she couldn’t wait and so arrived at around five-o’clock in the morning of the 31st of December, 1958–seven weeks early. She was born at home, as this is what Mary and I decided (we could do that—our choice) after the carry-on we had at Motherwell Maternity Hospital during Audrey’s birth. At that time, technology wasn’t anywhere nearly as good as it is today, and apparently it was dangerous for a baby to be that premature.
“It was fortunate Shirley chose the 31st of December which is New Year’s Eve, called Hogmanay in Scotland. Hogmanay is about the most important holiday for us Scots. It was tradition for everyone to have a bottle of Scotch in the house at that time of year so as to be able to offer a ‘wee dram’ to any ‘first footers’ who may appear at the door to wish us a ‘Happy New Year.’ If it had been any other time of the year I wouldn’t have had any whisky in the house as I didn’t normally drink the stuff then!
“The midwife was sent for shortly after midnight. She arrived, checked things and left again, saying that she would be back in two hours. She returned exactly as she promised. The midwife then worked with Mary while I did all the hard work (again!) of walking the floor downstairs! When Shirley finally arrived, she was blue—and that was not good. The midwife asked me if I had any whisky in the house. I said “yes,” that I had a bottle. She ordered it and a basin, too. When I had brought her both, she laid the baby in the basin, opened the bottle of Scotch and poured all of it over the baby, massaged her with it. The midwife then told me I had to rush to the phone to call for an ambulance and oxygen immediately.
“It was a one-minute run to the nearest phone kiosk (call box). There I found a button that could be pushed in case of an emergency. A male voice answered and asked me what I wanted. I told him I needed an ambulance and oxygen immediately for a premature birth as the baby was struggling for life. This idiot told me to go and find a policeman to verify my story. Well, I think I called that bloke everything under the sun and told him that if my daughter died I would hold him personally responsible!
” The ambulance arrived at the house, took the baby away–not to Motherwell Maternity but to Bellshill Hospital, where she was put into an incubator. Mary was fine, as the afterbirth came away just before the ambulance arrived. Shirley came home after two weeks in the hospital and remained in excellent health.
“(For many years I kidded Shirley about owing me a bottle of Scotch.) One day–maybe around 1995–she and her family were spending a vacation with us when Shirley came to me with a bottle of Ballantyne’s. I asked her what that was for. She gave me a nice wee kiss and laughingly told me, “This is the bottle of Scotch I owe you, Dad.”
“Well, I gladly accepted it, not only because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings but also because I had learned to appreciate a good whisky by then!”
Copyright © 2012 Ian Moore-Morrans