lasgow didn’t have Christmas, it
Christmas. Even I knew that. A small-
town seasider who would never swim, a child thrilled by beauty who somehow
managed to break every glass ornament she ever touched, I knew the difference
between magic and cold reality. Our town had miles of seaweed and pink rock with
writing through it, cows and rolling greenery. We had industrial-strength downpours of
rain. Glasgow people came to us in the summer holidays, desperate for sunburn, seagulls
and seafood. But sea breezes and face-filing sand counted for nothing in winter. Nothing
desirable, at least. At the opposite end of the year, as the dark descended, people wanted
the city; for dazzle, the warmth of crowds and snowy shop displays. The place for cheer,
therefore, was at the other end of the train line. Glasgow. My sister worked there in a
stockbroker’s office, typing important letters she did not understand, and claimed the city
was what counted. “Our town is a dump,” she’d say, rolling her eyes. “We’ve only a daft
wee tree at the War Memorial. Glasgow’s got hundreds. Lights and everything, George
Square, you canny imagine it. Glasgow’s the works!”
I got to see what those works were for the first time in December, 1961. I was five, and
for the occasion dressed in a red Peter Pan collar coat and white nylon gloves.
“You’ve got to look nice for Santa,” my mother said, scouring the side of my mouth
with a spit-doused hankie till it hurt. “He lives up the stairs in the store,” she explained,
checking my face for further signs of imperfection, laziness and disease. The journey, it
seemed, was putting us on show. “You keep they gloves on and mind they’re new. One
mark and you’re for it, lady.”
Whatever “it” was, I knew to steer clear.
The train was cold and the seats kitted out in dark, shiny tartan. An overhead rack
hung like a hammock on a wooden frame, waiting for luggage. “Touch nothing,” my
mother said. “The windows are filthy.” There was no arguing. Our view was strips of
grass and passing branches, visible in glimpses through grime. Central Station, however,
supplied the journey’s missing sense of space. It was big enough for trains to roll right
inside and from my vantage point, some three feet from the ground, high as cliffs. The
noise of our footsteps over the platform shook waves into puddles as we passed. A
bouquet of pigeons with rose-pink chests opened like roses. That was the size of the
place: there were pigeons indoors, a clock the size of our bathroom. I tripped over my
own feet, staring.
In this passage the writer describes a childhood visit to Glasgow at Christmas.
Outside, Glasgow presented itself: a black city. The buildings were coated with velvet-
deep soot. There were charcoal-coloured statues at office doors or holding up second and
third storeys of buildings. My mother hauled me by the hand down a long corridor of
ash-grey walls and matching sky, my face brushing against the tweedy coats of strangers,
to—my mother’s words—the fanciest shop in the world. There was a Christmas tree
inside the door, a sour reek of adult perfume. The grotto, three floors up, was a room full
of glittery cotton wool and animal cut-outs, with a red-suited man in a squinty beard, the
elastic of which stretched too far beneath his ears. I would not sit on his knee and my
mother was embarrassed. When I resisted two shoves, she lifted me by the arms and sat
me there, whether he or I liked it or not. Santa looked tired, and I felt uncomfortable.
My failure to respond when asked what I wanted for Christmas did not throw him. It
must have happened several times that day. He gave me my gift and released me back to
the wild. The gift itself was a pink manicure set with sequins on the front. It had scissors
and little metal sticks that looked like miniature butcher’s tools. Whatever they were for,
it was lovely. It took a moment to work out this was mine to keep. I did not need to hand
it back for another little girl. The little pink cutlery set was mine.
We shared a vanilla ice cream in the store’s café then stood on the stairs to see their
display of lights and bells from above. “We’re like angels,” my mother said, her mouth
pale now she’d eaten her lipstick off on a scone.
The food apart, nothing was bought. Odd though it seems now, in an age where people
take day trips to shopping centres for pleasure, we had not come for the shopping. We
had come for the promised lights, which we could not, according to my sister, imagine for
ourselves. She was right. I remember still the eye-watering colour strung between high
buildings, the never-ending sky with no stars. But the bit that took my breath away was
entirely natural. It was starlings: thousands upon thousands of starlings in George
Square, a chorus of birds clinging or swooping between telegraph wires, the reckless,
nerve-shredding noise of screaming.
My mother had to pull me away to get the train. All the way back, I knew my sister
was right. I would not have imagined any of it. But what was magic, what stayed with
me and always would, was not the lights or the trees, not the manicure set from a man who
was not Santa at all.
It was the birds. Little creatures making what life they could in the city square, singing
for dear life and thriving. I’d never have imagined the courage, the grandeur of those
birds. I got told off on the way home for making my gloves black, of course. I’d not get
to go again. But it was worth it. In one visit and forever, the noise of a real chorus that
has never lost its volume, its truth.
The starlings have long gone from George Square. No matter. First thing on
Christmas morning, we go out feeding birds. It seems the right thing to do.
Adapted from a newspaper article by Janice Galloway
“Glasgow didn’t have Christmas, it
Christmas.” (Paragraph 1)
What do you think the writer means by this?
of the two surprising things the writer tells us about herself.
“. . . sunburn, seagulls and seafood.” (Paragraph 1)
Identify the technique used here.
Glasgow was more popular than the seaside in the winter. Give
Glasgow could offer in winter that the writer’s town could not.
thing the writer’s sister
her view of her town.
Look at Paragraphs 2 to 4.
details which show that preparing to travel to Glasgow was not pleasant
for the writer.
“Whatever “it” was, I knew to steer clear.” (Paragraph 4)
In what way does the writer make this statement stand out?
Look at Paragraph 5.
8. In your own words
, explain what spoiled the view out of the train window on the
way to Glasgow.
“Central Station, however, supplied the journey’s missing sense of space.”
ways in which the writer shows the “space” of Central Station.
“A bouquet of pigeons with rose-pink chests opened like roses.” (Paragraph 5)
techniques used here.
) Explain what the pigeons are doing.
Look at Paragraph 6.
“. . . a black city.” (Paragraph 6)
How does the writer continue this idea in Paragraph 6?
piece of evidence which shows that the streets were crowded.
Explain the use of the dashes in the expression “–my mother’s words–”.
14. In your own words
, explain why the Santa costume was not convincing.
What did the writer’s mother do to make her sit on “Santa’s” knee?
expressions which show the writer’s confusion about what the gift
17. In your own words
, explain fully how the writer felt about receiving the gift.
Look at Paragraphs 7 and 8.
In what way were the writer and her mother “like angels”?
What was “odd” about the shopping trip?
Explain fully why the starlings made such an impression on the writer when she first
Read Paragraph 9 to the end of the passage.
pieces of evidence from Paragraph 9 which show the writer really enjoyed
“But it was worth it.” (Paragraph 10)
Why was the writer in trouble on the way home and why was it “worth it”?
The visit made a lasting impression on the writer. In what way does she show this
in Paragraph 11?
Think about the passage as a whole.
Do you think the writer gives a realistic description of this childhood experience?
piece of evidence from the passage to support your answer.
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