the golden trowel
I’ve been telling stories all my life. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve always done. It must have started with the squiggles and scribbled drawings I made of what I could see around me when I was very young. And as soon as I learned to speak – at least, that’s how I remember it – I began to tell myself stories as I drifted off to sleep each night about what had happened that day. It was, I guess, my childish way of securing my place in the world – bringing things into focus, giving them some shape and colour, making sense of what was going on around me.
When I was five years old, I started school and discovered letters, those strange black characters that fascinated me and that I painstakingly copied onto lined paper until I could reproduce them perfectly. Then I learned to join them together to make words, words that could be written down on a page, formed into sentences and set in paragraphs. Words that could be used, not just to tell a story, but to keep hold of it, so that I could read it again and again and not forget it. Words, words, words. They fascinated me, became an obsession that got me into all kinds of trouble. My teachers shouted at me for daydreaming and not paying attention. My parents hid my pencil and notepad, hoping that would force me to ‘live in the real world’ and behave normally. By which they meant behave like the other kids. But the other kids knew better than the adults. The other kids knew instinctively that I was different. Sometimes they ignored me and carried on with their games, sometimes they regarded me with a detached and uncomprehending amusement, sometimes they teased me. But sometimes, if I showed them what I’d written, they’d get interested in my stories.
That’s when I began to realise that telling stories wasn’t just something you did for yourself. Even people who weren’t exactly like me – people who didn’t have the irresistible urge to make up their own stories – still wanted stories, wanted them as much as I did. They just needed someone else to find the stories, put them together, write them down. Other kids established their place in our competitive childhood world by being talented on the sports field, or smart with their schoolwork, or natural leaders, or better-looking than the rest of us. I carved out my own niche as the boy who could write stories. And, as I grew older and more confident, I learned that telling stories could have unanticipated outcomes.
When I was fifteen, I wrote a short story about our history teacher, known to us as Potty Potter. He was what from the perspective of adulthood I would now describe as an endearing eccentric. Back then, with the unthinking cruelty of youth, we just called him a weirdo, and he was the object of our endless and merciless ridicule. Mr Potter was a gentle, somewhat melancholy man who gave the impression that teaching was for him a wearying chore and that he would rather be anywhere else on earth than facing thirty fidgeting and distracted teenagers in a classroom. He must have been in his early sixties, short and tubby, with a shiny bald dome of a head circled by wisps of grey hair, a gap in his front teeth, glasses that were constantly slipping down his nose, a frequent twitch in his left eye, and a squeaky bicycle that he insisted on wheeling along the corridor and parking in the staffroom every morning, much to the annoyance of his fellow-teachers. Those were the facts. Everyone knew them. And I made good use of them in my tale. The more interesting bits of my story – the thirty-five-year-old former fashion model to whom he was married, his derelict house with no electricity or running water, his five children and six cats, and his previous life as the lead singer in a rock ’n’ roll band – came straight from my imagination.
Ronnie Hobbs, the closest thing I had to a best pal in those days, read it and laughed until he couldn’t get his breath. It deserved a wider audience, he insisted, and he knew how to reach that audience and make some money in the process. He managed to get into the photocopier room at lunchtime, run off a couple of hundred copies, and sell them to eager readers for 20p each. We shared the profits between us, although Ronnie, arguing that he’d done the real hard work of publishing and distributing this masterpiece of wit and satire, kept 85p from each pound for himself. However, when the three A4 photocopied pages covered in my instantly recognised handwriting inevitably ended up on the desk of our form teacher, I was the one who, as the author of the ‘scurrilous tale’, faced the ire of the headmaster and the threat of expulsion.
In the end, common sense prevailed and the severity of the punishment meted out to me was rather more proportionate to the gravity of the crime. I had to make a written apology to Mr Potter and acknowledge my wrongdoing before the entire school in the weekly assembly. The headmaster also informed me, in the sombre tones of a judge pronouncing a lengthy custodial sentence on a career criminal, that my name would definitely not be considered when they were choosing class prefects for the next school year. Since there had never been any likelihood of me being appointed to that exalted position anyway, to my mind that didn’t really constitute a disciplinary procedure. The letter that was sent to my parents upset my mother and gave my father yet one more opportunity to tell me that it was time to stop retreating into a world of fantasy and fiction. Time to face the truth that the odds were stacked against me ever making a career out of writing.
‘Buckle down and prepare yourself for a proper job,’ he’d say, banging the table with his fist to emphasise the point. ‘Nothing good ever comes from chasing unrealistic dreams.’
Despite the censure of the school authorities and the customary disapproval at home, that very first published story of mine – the first that people actually paid to read – brought a positive reaction from the most unexpected quarter. It was an encounter that would set the course of my life.
A couple of days after my public act of contrition, I was walking home from school on my own when I heard the sound of squealing brakes and a familiar figure on a bicycle pulled up beside me. It was Potty Potter. I braced myself for the torrent of angry condemnation that I was sure was about to roll over me. It never came. Instead, he got off his bike, shook his head and gave a slow half-smile, and fell into step with me. I’d have known how to deal with his anger. I’d no idea how to respond to this. I looked down at my feet and started to mumble an apology.
‘It’s alright, Binnie,’ he said wearily. ‘I’m not about to tell you off. I’m sure it’s hard for you to believe, but I was your age once. And I’m not that old now that I don’t remember making fun of teachers, though you were just a bit cruel.’
The unmistakable hurt in his voice left me in no doubt that what I’d written had bruised him. There was nothing I could say that would ease the situation and for the first time I felt the sickening bile of shame in my mouth. It was a bitter taste that I would experience more than once in the years to come.
He walked beside me without saying anything further for another two or three hundred yards until we reached the point where our paths diverged and he prepared to get back on his bicycle. He stopped for a moment and, as he began to speak again, the habitual look of weary resignation on his face changed. In all the hours I’d sat in his history class I’d never seen him with an expression like this. It remains as vivid in my mind’s eye all these years later. His features came to life and his eyes lit up with a look of genuine interest and even hopefulness. It was as if some magic potion had instantly released him from a slumber-inducing spell that had kept him too long in its grasp.
‘There’s a reason I wanted to talk to you, Binnie.’ Even his voice had lost its customary dreary monotone that Ronnie Hobbs had imitated to such effect when selling my photocopied manuscript to our eager customers.
‘Listen, lad. You can write. It’s a pity you’ve never shown me that in any of the history assignments you’ve handed in to me.’ There was just the hint of a chuckle when he said that, and I realised that I’d never actually heard him laugh before.
‘Your story might have been more than a little unkind to me, but I’ll be the first to admit that it shows signs of real talent. Now, don’t waste that gift. I’ve been trying to be a writer all my life. I’ve worked hard at it. Got some of my stuff published. But I recognise really good writing when I read it. Even when it’s a bit rough at the edges with too many nasty jibes and a few grammatical errors. From your recent effort at my expense, I suspect that you’ve got the potential to be a proper writer. Better than I’ll ever be…’
He paused long enough to dig a brown envelope out of the bag that was slung over his shoulder and pushed it into my hand.
‘You might want to read that,’ he shouted as he began pedalling down the road that led off to the right. ‘And it might help you to make better use of your talent.’
He rode off, a fat, short, bald man balancing precariously on his bike in a way that seemed to defy gravity. I stood stock still watching him make his slow and unsteady progress, and wondered what on earth had just happened and what I should make of it. I put the envelope in my satchel and began walking home feeling thoroughly confused.
It wasn’t until I was getting ready for bed that night that I opened the envelope. I’d been putting it off because, for some reason I couldn’t quite explain to myself, I was nervous about what I might find.
Inside were half a dozen pages paper-clipped together. At the top of the first page there was a couple of sentences in Mr Potter’s handwriting: ‘Binnie, you might find some of this interesting or even useful. Keep writing!’
I sat on the edge of my bed reading through the pages slowly and with growing interest. There was a photocopy of a short story he’d had published in a magazine I’d never heard of. But I guessed he’d chosen it deliberately because it was about a teacher who was the constant butt of his pupils’ jokes but who managed to come out on top in the end. It was funny and clever and made me smile. The rest of the pages were filled with examples of well-written passages that he’d culled from a variety of sources and even some of his own observations on how to write well. I fell asleep that night thinking that I’d seriously underestimated my history teacher and resolved that I’d never call him Potty Potter again.
It was the beginning of a relationship that became a friendship to which I owe an unpayable debt. At first, from time to time he’d send me bits and pieces of helpful stuff he’d picked up in his reading. Then, when I discovered some other kids who had an interest in writing, we went to him and asked if he’d be willing to set up an after-school Writers’ Club. He was initially reluctant, telling us that the demands of work and family left him with little time or energy for such activities. But we pressed him until, with the permission – not to mention to the relief – of the headmaster, who hoped this might be the means of transforming me into a model pupil, he agreed to our request.
Those late Friday afternoon meetings of seven or eight of us in Mr Potter’s classroom formed the keystone of my education as a writer. And he was at his best. He lacked the assertive, larger-than-life personality to control and motivate a class of thirty pupils who had little or no interest in the subject he was employed to teach. Put him with a handful of enthusiastic students who were eager to learn, however, and he came alive. He became our rabbi and we his committed disciples who hung on his every word.
But I learned much more from him than how to begin my apprenticeship as a writer. In my last two years at school before I left for university, I got to know the man whom I had lampooned with all the insensitivity of a fifteen-year-old boy who thought he was clever but who knew nothing of real life. At Christmas he would invite the members of the Writers’ Club to his home for an evening where we would each read a 500-word story we’d prepared for the occasion. That’s when I discovered that his wife was not a former fashion model in her thirties, but a charming white-haired lady in her sixties who provided us with a supper that would have done justice to a major literary award ceremony. And he was father, not to five children, but to one physically and mentally disabled daughter called Amy who was in her thirties and to whose care he and his wife were devoted. They were as proud of her as they would have been of a daughter who was a talented athlete or a gifted scholar. The house in which they lived was humble but scrupulously clean and tidy and, above all, welcoming, a place in which I learned that many others had been the recipients of their generous hospitality. If there is any genuine humanity in the novels I have written, it is all down to what I observed in the home life of Mr and Mrs Potter.
He was very proud when, at the Annual Prize-giving in my last year at school, I was presented with the inaugural William C Potter Short Story Award that he’d set up and funded to encourage young writers. I’ve been the recipient of a number of literary accolades over the years, but none of them has meant half as much to me as that first award. The certificate, embellished with his spidery signature, hangs above my desk to this day.
We kept in touch regularly after I’d left school and graduated from university until his death at the age of seventy when he was knocked off his bicycle by a speeding motorist. Even then, the link between us wasn’t severed. His widow gave me the opportunity to take whatever books I wanted from his extensive library and entrusted me with all his papers and manuscripts. I’ve been earning a good living as a writer and novelist for years now. But without the encouragement of Mr Potter, a gentle and open-hearted man who saw past my teenage arrogance and encouraged my undeveloped talent, none of that would ever have happened.
It’s more than two decades since his death, but I’ve been thinking about him more than ever recently and reflecting on one of the things he said to us over and over again until everyone in that group of youthful, would-be writers could repeat it like a mantra.
‘Uncovering truth. That’s the writer’s main business,’ he would tell us, looking at each one of us in turn. ‘Not just giving the facts, but uncovering the truth. And your imagination is the golden trowel. Like the archaeologist’s trowel, it will enable you to dig for the truth that lies just beneath the facts.’
In a few short years I’ll hit fifty. I’ve had more success as a novelist than I ever dreamed possible. I could have retired by the time I was forty, never written another word, and I’d have had enough money to live comfortably. I might even have done so, had things not taken a sudden and unexpected turn. But living comfortably isn’t enough. I know that now, after what’s happened. It isn’t the same as living… living how, exactly? I’ve spent my working days sitting with a pen in hand or in front of a keyboard trying to find precisely the right words that will capture my thoughts and communicate my meaning.
But I’m struggling to find the word that expresses what I want to say right now. The closest I can come is one that feels old-fashioned, flowery. One that isn’t part of my normal vocabulary, either in my speaking or writing, but that’s somewhere at the back of my mind from a visit I made to my grandparents in Scotland, a time that now seems very long ago. It’s the word abundantly. I want to live life to the full. Break free from the prison I’m in. Find whatever it is I will need to walk free in the world and live a life that’s generous to myself and to others. And I fear – no, I know – that I will never live such a life unless and until I examine the facts and uncover the truth that I’ve been afraid to look for – the truth about who I really am, the truth about why I am who I am, the truth about why I do what I do, the truth about what I have done and about what I haven’t done. I’ve been putting it off for too long, maybe all my adult life, because I’m nervous about what I might uncover.
But I know it’s time to take up the golden trowel that Mr Potter spoke about again and again. Of course, I want to handle the facts as carefully and as sensitively as an archaeologist would handle the stones and soil through which they were sifting so as not to damage the precious object they were seeking. So let me present the bare facts of my story. A story that’s rooted in my family history.
I’m the fourth-generation male of my family to be named Alexander Binnie, though none of the first three generations were ever addressed by their legal name by those who knew them best. My great-grandfather entered the world on New Year’s Day 1883. Growing up in the industrial belt of Scotland, he was known by everyone as Sandy, not only because that was a common abbreviation of Alexander in that time and place, but also on account of his shock of sandy-coloured hair. His oldest child, my grandfather, drew his first breath in 1903. Like his mother’s brothers, he was taller than the average for that time and place and, at five feet ten, he stood a good three inches above his father. He also inherited his complexion and dark hair-colouring from his mother and thus avoided the fate of being the second Sandy in the family. Throughout his life he was known by the simple abbreviated form of the name, Alec.
My father was born in 1941. He favoured his grandfather in his colouring and in his physique. From childhood and through much of his adult life most people who’ve known him have referred to him as Ecky or even as ‘Wee Ecky’ – though rarely to his face, I should add – on account of his stocky muscular build. I arrived on the scene in 1971. Even before I reached my teens, according to my parents, it was clear that I was destined to be the tallest of the male line in the Binnie family. Since I’m just a touch over six feet, I console myself that there is at least one part of my destiny that I’ve fulfilled. At my mother’s insistence I was always called Alexander at home. Everyone else abbreviated that to Alex and that’s how I was known well into my twenties. My publishers, however, weren’t persuaded that Alex Binnie looked sufficiently impressive on the cover of a book. So, for professional reasons, I became Zander Bennings and, to be honest, I rather like how that sounds. It’s got a ring of confidence and competence with just the right touch of sophistication. And that, of course, is how my readers and the public know me. It’s become so much part of my identity that some years ago I changed to that name by deed poll. Now even those closest to me, apart from my parents, never think to call me anything other than Zander.
I give you that brief genealogy because in order to uncover the truth about myself, I will have to tell the truth as accurately as I can about them. If changing my name to Zander Bennings emphasises the distance between me and those three generations that have gone before me, there are other things that go much deeper than a change of name, things that link my story to theirs, things that have made us what we are and things that have stopped us being what we might have been.
We are bound together by cords even stronger than ties of blood. I cannot tell you my story truthfully without telling you their story as accurately as I can. I need to take that golden trowel that Mr Potter recommended to us and dig carefully and imaginatively into the story of my family and my relationship with that family. Only then, I suspect, will it be possible to expose the truth, the reality that would otherwise remain hidden just beneath the surface…
marching as to war
Sandy Binnie knew nothing of the complex geopolitics of Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. The bewildering tangle of ever-changing alliances and never-ending quarrels between empire-building nations jockeying for power and prestige on the other side of the English Channel meant little to him. Even the newspaper headlines a couple of months previously, informing the people of Britain of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria by the nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, attracted only his passing interest. It was a tragic and senseless murder, certainly. But such dark deeds in faraway countries involving people with strange-sounding foreign names were of no lasting concern to a young man trying to make his way in the industrial belt of Scotland, a young man with a wife and children, a young man who felt that life was just beginning and for whom the future was full of promise.
At a quarter past twelve on this day, however, his mind was filled with pressing matters that required his immediate action. Normally at the close of the service, having marched his Boys’ Brigade company smartly out of the church and made sure that each lad had been returned to the care of his parents, he would have gone straight home with his family for lunch. But Sunday 13th September 1914 was definitely not a normal Sunday for Sandy Binnie. Today he knew exactly what his duty was and what had to be done. He made a hasty excuse to his wife about having to attend an unexpected meeting before heading for a side door where two of his fellow Boys’ Brigade leaders, both of them some years younger than him, were waiting to follow his lead. The three of them stood for a moment, shook hands with each other to affirm their commitment to the action they’d agreed on, pushed their Glengarry bonnets firmly on their heads, and strode purposefully out of the church. They caught a bus into Glasgow and then walked briskly for ten minutes through the streets of the city, laughing and chatting excitedly until they turned on to George Street and found themselves standing in front of the imposing sandstone edifice that was their destination.
They pushed open the heavy ornate door and entered the spacious hallway of the Glasgow Technical College. A message chalked on a blackboard directed them to a gloomy passageway where they took their places sitting on long wooden benches behind fifty or sixty other young men, two-thirds of whom were also dressed in the same Boys’ Brigade uniform. One by one, those at the head of the queue were summoned through a door at the far end of the corridor. It was a wearyingly slow process and the clock had struck three in the afternoon before the summons came to Sandy Binnie. A soldier, whom he guessed was a few years younger than himself, beckoned him into a room where a man in his fifties with an impressive waxed military moustache sat behind a desk with a large stack of papers on his right-hand side. Without bothering to look up, he slid a sheet of paper from a smaller pile on his left and poised, pen in hand, ready to write.
‘Name,’ he said abruptly.
‘Alexander John Binnie,’ came the slightly nervous reply.
The recruiting sergeant glanced up from the desk with an expression that changed instantly from boredom to irritation.
‘Alexander John Binnie, sir!’ He shouted that last word at the eager but anxious would-be soldier standing in front of him. ‘We’ve a war to win, young man, and we need soldiers who understand respect and discipline. I would have thought your Boys’ Brigade experience would have taught you that. Now, what’s your age and present employment?’
The chastened volunteer apologised for his failure to address his interviewer in a fitting military manner and replied that, having been born on the 1st of January 1883, he was thirty-one years old and had worked as a grocer’s assistant since leaving school. He could see immediately from the manner in which the officer sitting in front of him sniffed dismissively and shook his head that his profession was one for which he had nothing but contempt.
‘Well, the army will give you some real work. We might even manage to make a man of you.’
He moved quickly on to a series of routine questions before adding the sheet of paper on which he’d been writing to the stack of papers on his right, pointing to a man in a white coat standing at the far end of the room, and shouting, ‘Binnie, Alexander John: put him through the medical and check his eyesight.’
The perfunctory medical examination lasted no more than ten minutes. The formalities of signing his name and enlisting took even less time. And by six o’clock that evening the Boys’ Brigade leader, now a prospective private in Field Marshall Lord Kitchener’s army, was back in the single end, the one-roomed dwelling that he proudly and gratefully called home, sharing his usual Sunday tea-time meal of bread and jam and home-made biscuits with his wife, Peggy, and their two sons, Alec and Bobby. Despite his wife’s curiosity as to where he’d been all afternoon, he waited until the boys had been settled down for the night and the curtain had been drawn across the recessed hole-in-the-wall bed where they slept. Only when he was sure they were soundly asleep did he tell her what he’d done earlier that day. She was shocked by the news that in less than two weeks he would be reporting for duty with the Second Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry.
‘Why do you have to go?’ she asked tearfully. ‘You told me yourself that you’re doing well at work. They’ve talked about making you assistant manager. And the boys will really miss you.’
He looked up at the calligraphed, framed copy of the Object of the Boys’ Brigade that was hanging on the wall above the fireplace:
The advancement of Christ’s kingdom among Boys and the promotion of habits of Obedience, Reverence, Discipline, Self-respect and all that tends towards a true Christian manliness.
‘It’s right there, Peggy,’ he said quietly, making sure his voice didn’t disturb their sleeping children. ‘We’re at war and it’s only right for me to serve my king and country. It’s the manly thing to do. It’s the Christian thing to do. I’ve been teaching those things to the lads in my company. If I stayed at home, I’d be a hypocrite.’
The household chores that normally occupied the last hours of a Sunday were forgotten as they contemplated the challenges that the future might bring. They sat quietly until the daylight began to fade, holding hands and feeling no need to say more than a few words to each other. It was ten o’clock by the time Sandy carefully eased their mattress from under the bed where the boys were now fast asleep, unrolled it and covered it with a sheet and blankets. Then, before lying down on their makeshift bed on the floor, husband and wife knelt to pray as they always did last thing at night by the armchair they’d inherited from Peggy’s parents. They thanked God for the blessings of the day, sought his forgiveness for any wrongs they might have done, and asked for His presence and protection through the night.
‘We’ll be alright,’ Sandy assured his wife as he extinguished the flickering gas light. ‘Our faith has been enough for us in the past. It’ll see us through these days.’
That was all he needed to say and all that Peggy needed to hear. They slept surprisingly soundly, secure in their simple trust in such eternal certainties.
Two weeks later, Private Alexander Binnie was living under canvas in the Ayrshire village of Barassie. As autumn began to give way to the chill of an early Scottish winter, the bracing wind that blew in from the east shore of the Firth of Clyde sharply reminded him that the comforts of the life he’d known, such as they were, had been left behind. Despite his longing for home and family, those early days of military service were not without their consolations. He was confident that he was doing what was right as a loyal citizen and a faithful Christian. And the repeated assurances of the men around him that ‘with a bit of luck it might all be over by Christmas’ gave him hope that his soldiering days might be a brief and uneventful interlude before he resumed his normal life. Most of all, he enjoyed the comradeship of the other volunteers. So many of his fellow Boys’ Brigade officers had enlisted that the Second Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry quickly became known as The Boys’ Brigade Battalion or, less respectfully by some cynics, as The Holy Second. It was a great relief to him that he hadn’t found himself in what had equally swiftly been labelled The Boozy First, a battalion made up of hard-drinking, working-class Glaswegians whose company he would certainly not have found so conducive.
The oft-repeated prediction that hostilities would last no more than a few months turned out to be one of the most inaccurate prophecies ever made. As the weeks passed into months and 1914 slipped into 1915, the battalion moved south and Private Sandy Binnie, who’d never before travelled distances of more than forty or fifty miles, found himself in places far from home. From a camp that he was told was in Shropshire – though it seemed to him to be in the middle of nowhere – they relocated first to a village on the outskirts of Sheffield for firing practice, then on to Wensleydale on the east side of the Pennines for further training, before proceeding to Salisbury Plain where they linked up with the two other battalions that had been formed in Glasgow – The Boozy First, who were doing their best to live up to their description, and the equally appropriately nicknamed Feather Bed Third, so called because their numbers comprised mostly middle-class professional men whom senior military leaders hoped would be officer material and who consequently were living in comparative luxury compared to their less-favoured brothers-in-arms.
If the good-natured banter and the peaceful rural settings in which the naïve volunteers found themselves in those early days had lulled them into a mistaken sense that this would be a brief but happy adventure from which they would soon return home to regale their loved ones with interesting tales, they were quickly disillusioned. A few weeks later they were on the move again, this time to Southampton where they were each given the additional equipment of a life jacket before being herded onto a crowded ship in the middle of the night. Nine hours later, almost a thousand men, most of whom had never previously been to sea, and half of whom were violently seasick, disembarked unsteadily at Le Havre on the Normandy coast. Within a couple of days, they were heading north-east on a slow, dreary railway journey in cramped and cold cattle trucks. Their uncomfortable transport eventually came to a halt at the end of the track near the town of Amiens.
That was when the marches started. And that was when they began to understand what being soldiers in the British Army really involved. The train journey had meant long periods of unrelieved boredom, but the discomfort of trudging for seemingly endless hours was enough to make them yearn for the relative ease of the crowded cattle trucks from which they’d been so glad to escape. Trudging up to eighteen miles a day on roads jammed and blocked with all kinds of heavy military traffic would have been tiring enough in itself. Carrying the kit with which each man had been provided – rifle and bayonet, ammunition, spare boots, blankets, waterproof sheet, holdall bag, canteen and basic cutlery – made it an exhausting exercise for which they were ill prepared. Once every hour they were allowed to halt for five minutes’ rest. The first instinct was to lie down at the roadside, but wiser heads quickly learned to resist that temptation. The weight of the kit they were carrying made it all but impossible to get up again without help from others and the effort involved in standing to their feet meant that beginning to walk again required an almost superhuman effort and only increased the weariness they already felt.
After several days of marching, they arrived in the village of Bouzincourt, just a few miles behind the trenches on the frontline, where they camped and rested for four days. Private Sandy Binnie, utterly fatigued by the exertions of the previous weeks, woke early on the first morning having managed to sleep for more than five hours despite the constant noise of the military vehicles that rumbled past throughout the night. It was already light and he made his way to the long pit that was filled with stagnant mud and equipped with large biscuit tins where he relieved himself at the hastily constructed latrine. There was a nauseating stench of human excrement mixed with the pungent odour of chloride of lime. Unable to find any clean water with which to wash, he spat on his hands and tried to wipe them with a rag he pulled from his pocket in a futile attempt to clean them. He looked at his grimy fingers and a feeling of utter revulsion, the like of which he’d never experienced before, swept over him. Tears welled up in his eyes as he longed for the safety of home, for the love of Peggy and the boys, and for the blissfully ordinary routine of life in the grocer’s shop where he always wore a crisp white freshly laundered apron and his hands were always clean.
He was rubbing the back of his arm across his face to dry his tears when something glinting in the distance caught his eye. He squinted in the morning sun, unable to distinguish exactly what he was looking at, when a corporal about his own age came alongside him.
‘You’ve seen it too, Binnie? Strange sight, i’n’it. Some of us noticed it yesterday afternoon when we got here.’
‘What on earth is it?’
‘It’s a golden statue of the Virgin Mary. And she’s holding the baby Jesus above her head. Don’t ask me why she’s doing that, but it’s on the top of the cathedral in Albert, less than a couple of miles from here. A bit of a local landmark apparently. Seems the German artillery had a pop at it a few weeks ago which has left the whole thing leaning over at a crazy angle. Nobody can understand why it’s still managing to hang on.’
The corporal patted him on the back good-naturedly.
‘Wouldn’t be surprised if we all end up a bit like that, Binnie, before this bloody war is over.’
He hurried off with a wry chuckle, leaving Sandy to ponder the bizarre sight. The corporal’s words disturbed him even though they’d been intended as nothing more than a light-hearted comment. His Scottish Presbyterian upbringing had instilled in him an instinctive suspicion of religious icons, but there was something about the sight of the wounded Madonna and Child that moved him. Something that troubled him deeply. He’d enlisted in the conviction that he would be playing his part in a battle in which right was certain to triumph over wrong. But what if victory was not certain? What if everything he’d believed since childhood was not as straightforward as he’d imagined? He’d seen enough since crossing the English Channel to disabuse him of his idealistic notions of life as a soldier. The further they’d marched into France, the coarser and more bawdy the conversation of many of his fellow-soldiers had become. The easy banter of those first nights under canvas often gave way to cursing and blaspheming. Arguments and fights sometimes flared up among the men as tiredness drained the strength from their bodies and the truth of what they’d let themselves in for took shape in their minds. Maybe, as the corporal had implied, they’d all end up with their humanity and decency shattered. Maybe even he would end up with his hitherto unquestioned faith as broken and skewed as the statue that was hanging so precariously and uncertainly from the basilica he could just make out in the distance.
He turned away and hurried back to get his equipment together ready for the next stage of their march to the front, telling himself that these were just dark thoughts, inevitable temptations to doubt and despair that could be overcome with regular prayer and an effort of the will. But, as he fell into step with his comrades on their way to the front line, he knew that something in him had changed for ever that morning. It was less than six months since he’d kissed his wife and his two boys goodbye and assured them of his safe return. Now he suspected that if he was fortunate enough to come out of this alive, he would go home a very different man from the one who’d set out with his confidence high and his simple faith intact.
Just a few weeks of front-line soldiering was more than long enough for him to discover just how much things had altered and how radically he was being changed. Nothing in his previous life or in his military training had prepared him for the sheer soul-destroying discomfort of life in the trenches. The filthy mud and water that permanently swilled around his ankles meant that he suffered terribly from trench foot. His feet would swell, become completely numb and, when they eventually recovered some sensation, the agony of the returning feeling would be unbearable. The nagging fear that it might lead to gangrene, as it had done with some of the men around him, contributed to a near-constant and exhausting state of anxiety. Rats, some as big as domestic cats, were an ever-present menace. It required an unceasing vigilance to ensure they didn’t gnaw through his ration bag, though it was a standing joke among the men that the bully beef, dry bread and rock-hard biscuits that formed their staple diet were more suited to vermin than humans. Then there was the excruciating itching from the lice that infested the trenches and made their home on every soldier forced to serve there. His previously cheerful personality was slowly but surely submerged in repeated waves of irritability and resentment.
Everything else was a mixture of boredom – long days spent doing nothing but waiting, filling a few sand bags to shore up the trench, or writing letters home to reassure Peggy that ‘things aren’t too bad’ – interspersed with periods of intense danger – the ping of a sniper’s rifle or the terrifying noise of a shell from a German field gun whizzing through the air only to be followed by the unmistakable thud as it landed somewhere too close for comfort. Even the rhythm of combat that was intended to provide some semblance of rest and the opportunity to recuperate – four days in the front-line trenches broken up by some time in the reserve trench or in the rest camp behind the front line – offered little respite. The sounds of battle, just a couple of miles away, made sound sleep all but impossible and the knowledge that he would have to return to the fighting was never far from his mind. What made things even worse for Sandy was the sense of guilt and hypocrisy that stalked him relentlessly. His awareness of soldiers who made no profession of faith, but who coped with the pressures of life at the battle’s front with a stoic acceptance and an enviable good humour, served only to highlight his own inability to deal with the pressures. He was forced to the conclusion that either he was a very poor Christian or everything he claimed to believe was meaningless. Or, even worse, both conclusions were right.
The end of his time as an active soldier came on a July morning just over a year later. The previous evening, when the battalion had moved up to the front line following intensive training, Private Sandy Binnie had carefully written a letter to his wife, parcelled it up with a few personal belongings, and carefully addressed the package to Mrs Peggy Binnie, 15 Calder Road, Bellmill, Lanarkshire, Scotland. He handed it, with the request that it should be sent to her if he didn’t survive the next day’s battle, to the corporal who’d pointed out to him the damaged Madonna and Child tilting so incongruously from the top of the cathedral in Albert. So much had happened since then. It seemed a lifetime ago since that morning shortly after his arrival in France. But he’d never been able to get that image out of his mind. Everything about his broken life – his faith, his confidence in himself as a man, his place in the world as a husband and father – was summed up in that image of the shattered icon, barely clinging on to the pedestal mounted high above the cathedral. The only thing of which he was now certain as he drifted off to sleep that night was that he would have to accept whatever fate might decree for him in the battle that awaited him in a few hours.
At exactly 7.30am on Saturday 1st July 1916, each man having been fortified by a larger than usual tot of rum, the order was given to advance. The Battle of the Somme had begun. The men of the Second Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry followed each other on to the fire-step and climbed up the short ladders propped against the wall of the trench that took them over the parapet and into the hell of No Man’s Land. They walked slowly and deliberately as they’d been instructed, taking care to avoid the deep craters made by the enemy shells that had been blasted in their direction for many days. The unnatural silence that greeted the first troops over the top lasted for only a moment or two before the quiet was shattered by the sound of rapid machine-gun fire and the deafening noise of exploding shells all round them. Within a short time, the bodies of British soldiers, both wounded and dying, littered the battlefield.
Sandy Binnie just kept walking, his bayoneted rifle at the ready, with no real sense of where he was supposed to be going or what the point of the exercise was meant to be. The soldier to his right, whom he’d met and spoken to in the corridor of the Glasgow Technical College when they’d enlisted and whom he knew only by his first name, was hit in the face by an explosive bullet. Sandy looked with a horrified fascination at the sight of the man’s jaw hanging loose. He knew that it shouldn’t be like that, and somewhere in the back of his mind the thought began to form that he should do something to help relieve the man’s suffering. But he could neither figure out what was to be done nor summon up the energy to do it. All he could do was to continue steadily and mechanically picking his way through the carnage until he became aware of a searing pain in his right leg. He glanced down to discover that his trousers were torn and saturated with blood. He stood still, staring at the gaping wound and wondering what to do next. Then he lost consciousness.