Spalebone Days



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Six finely written reminiscences which capture the smells, colours, sights and sounds of Stockbridge in Edinburgh in the 1950s, by poet Jim C. Wilson. Whether recalling going on holiday to unexotic Burntisland, going to the cinema to see Elvis Presley in Loving You, or simply going the messages (charged with the mortifying task of telling the butcher that he had sold his mother spalebone instead of silverside), Jim Wilson brings out the character of Edinburgh at a time which, though barely more than half a lifetime away, seems now almost as remote as the Victorian era.



The Messages

A couple of doors along from the roar of shoes being repaired, on an imposing corner site, stood Mr. West's butcher's shop. He was my mother's usual purveyor of all things meaty, unless she was engaged in some disagreement with him or a member of his staff. These differences were usually minor but utterly heartfelt, and often centred around the amount of fat which had been left on some beef. For a few weeks our small custom would be taken elsewhere and 'West', as my mother laconically called him, would be abandoned by the Wilson household.

But when my mother decided it was time to darken West's door again, it was usually I who was sent down the stairs and across the street. The 'display' in the two big lit windows consisted mostly of pink and red carcasses, hooked onto gleaming chains, and suspended from the ceiling: a scene which, to an imaginative wee boy, was reminiscent of scenes from horror comics. I can still smell the flesh. Other inducements to prospective customers might be tins of Le Soleil peas in a neat row at the front of the window, a pyramid of cans of Granny's Tomato Soup, or creamy beef dripping in greaseproof packets. I would stand in the sawdust, often staring at the net Christmas stocking which contained coins for the children's home at Rhu. Rhu! Could there really be, I would wonder, a place with a name like Rhu?

When my turn came to be served, usually after a line of women, it was often not a simple straightforward transaction. There was always embarrassment. My mother saw to that. And I can still remember my lines. The inevitable, 'Three-quarters of round steak'with all the fat cut off, please.' Withering look from butcher. This order would alternate on a daily basis with three-quarters of lean mince. Then on Saturday mornings, the big one: 'A pound and a half of silverside.' This was for Sunday dinner, and would be roasted, then served cold and sliced. But not before the autopsy.

I would climb the stair with my paper-wrapped bundle. Mother would put the change in her purse, then place my purchase on the kitchen worktop, or 'bunker', as we called it. I waited, filled with apprehension. First, the brown paper, with its pencil-written calculations, was peeled back. The bloodied greaseproof was exposed. The budgie chirped his accompaniment. Then'the meat itself, red, wrapped in a sleeve of fat, and tied with string. 'It's spalebone!' Saturday morning crumpled. Mother had pronounced sentence: West was trying to pull a fast one.


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