four Herald writers share their take on this Scottish tradition,
FROM PERFORMANCE ANXIETY TO UNALLOYED SHAME, FOUR WRITERS RECALL WHAT HALLOWEEN MEANT FOR THEM AS CHILDREN
SOFT PUMPKINS? PAH. TRY CARVING A NEEP LANTERN KEN SMIT
HALLOWEEN was hard in the 1960s. Not so much for us kids, but for our dads. I know that neep lanterns are now taking on an almost mythical status as we revere them so much, but try to make them today.
I look at these soft pumpkins being scooped out and think back to when my mother would buy a large turnip from the fruit and veg van, driven by a rather taciturn man called Gilbert, that came round the street every week.
Upon returning home from work, Dad would then have to carve it in the kitchen. I don’t recall any specialist equipment being used, just the kitchen drawer being ransacked for sharp implements. Thus armed with a bread knife, large spoons, perhaps even a stray screwdriver or a chisel, he would then attack the turnip.
The top would be cut off to form a lid and the insides chipped out one piece at a time like a miner toiling at a coalface. Presumably we lived on scotch broth for the rest of the week.
Finally, while us kids danced around, constantly asking: “Is it nearly done yet?” the insides would be emptied and then three triangles for eyes and nose plus a serrated mouth would be chiselled out of one side for a face. None of these fancy designs you get on the side of pumpkins. Are you kidding? There are houses being built these days with walls thinner than a turnip skin. Dad must have got calluses on his calluses.
Then there was the outfit to think about. You couldn’t just nip to Asda and buy a costume for a few quid. No, while Dad slumped in a chair, no doubt thinking if he never saw another turnip again then life would be fine, it was time for Mum to step forward with costume advice.
We are not talking about fetching out the Singer sewing machine to turn you into a Japanese admiral, but raiding cupboards and then applying a lot of imagination. Cowboys were easy as you often had the guns and a cowboy hat anyway. Wearing an old jacket of your dad’s and a cap, plus a walking stick, turned you into an old man.
Then, like today, you would go round the neighbours, although you couldn’t get away then with just telling a joke purloined from a Christmas cracker. A song was expected, or at least a poem. We used to learn poems at school, often by Rabbie Burns, so you could usually get away with a couple of verses of My Love Is Like a Red Red Rose. And then came your reward.
Mini Mars bars were not yet around so it was mainly monkey nuts, a tangerine, perhaps a toffee or two, and in some houses you found the mother lode – a few coins, perhaps even a shiny sixpence or a shilling. Back home there was dookin’ for apples – sticking your head in a basin of water trying to grab an apple. I think it’s called waterboarding these days. Or for the more middle class, kneeling on a chair over the basin with a fork you dropped from your mouth. Never speared an apple once. H
WITTY WORDPLAY AND BIN-BAG ARTISTRY ANN FOTHERINGHAM
WHEN I was little, my dad was in charge of the Halloween outfits in my house. He was brilliant at coming up with costumes which combined witty wordplay and nifty bin-bag artistry. I just wanted to be a fairy.
There was the year I couldn’t move my arms because they were stuck inside a bodylength cardboard tube which allowed me just enough room to shuffle my feet along the hall. I had a pink swimming cap on my head. I was a Mum deodorant.
Then there was the time he fashioned a Little Bo Peep sticky-out dress and bonnet out of coat hangers and my gran’s old curtains. The hat was fine, but the skirt was so rigid I couldn’t sit down in the back of the car and had to travel to the church hall standing up and leaning forward on the front passenger seat. (This was the 1970s. Different times.)
Another highlight was the time I had to wear a bin bag decorated with moons and stars plus a giant cardboard cage complete with toy bunny on my head (Star-sky and Hutch). That year, we lost out to the Tait brothers, whose outstanding homemade bookworm costume had my dad muttering darkly to himself for weeks.
Back home there was dookin’ for apples. I think it’s called waterboarding these days
And I’ll never forget the look on Brown Owl’s face when I turned up at the annual bash dressed in a black bin bag covered in old electricity bills and riding a hobby horse.
“And what are you this year, Ann, dear?” she asked as I traipsed up to the front to take my place in the parade, sneaking envious glances at the pretty princesses and sparkly fairies beside me. “Charge of the Light Brigade,” I sighed. Give that woman her due, she didn’t miss a beat and kept smiling as I trudged back to my spot, knowing full well I wasn’t going home with the trophy again.
When I got to high school, I put my foot down and made my own costumes – a gold-wigged Cleopatra and Meals on Wheels (me, on rollerskates, carrying a tray covered in stuck-on plastic food) were my favourites. But my dad was so disappointed, I felt guilty.
And the thing is, now I have my own two boys, and my dad is no longer here, I get it. Making costumes is fun (and me and their dad are pretty nifty with a bin bag too, as it turns out. Our newspaper-stuffed black spider legs were a triumph.) It’s a real laugh.
I reckon my dad’s having a good laugh too, out there somewhere, watching me wrestle with coat hangers and cardboard and old curtains as I pull together the latest wizard/pig/gummy bear/Greek-god request from my children.
And who really wants to be Tinkerbell anyway?
IN 1980 GUISING WAS VIEWED AS AKIN TO BEGGING SUSAN SWARBRICK
THERE had been concerned murmurings among some of the neighbours beforehand. It was Halloween 1980 and apparently guising was viewed as akin to begging in our West Lothian street. With none of the other children nearby dressing up, my mum considered simply forgetting it altogether but my dad was adamant we should still go. “It’s tradition,” he protested.
A fortnight shy of my third birthday, I wore a white shawl and matching bonnet as Little Bo Peep, clutching my beloved toy panda in lieu of a sheep.
My dad stuck on my mum’s good fur coat and a thick woolly hat, partly for comedy value but mainly to ward off the chilly night air (and any similarly frosty reception as we knocked on doors).
Then, with a slightly lopsided turnip lantern in hand, off we went. I sang Baa Baa Black Sheep in each of the houses. A short while later we returned with a sizeable haul of treats. My mum filled the old baby bath with water and dooking for apples commenced.
Best of all, the neighbours loved it. Next
I’ll never forget the look on Brown Owl’s face when I turned up dressed in a black bin bag covered in old electricity bills and riding a hobby horse
Halloween all the other kids in the street wanted to dress up and go guising too. My mum was a dab hand with the sewing machine and I had a colourful assortment of costumes over the years.
Among the stand-outs was a Peter Pan outfit made from green felt after the snooker tables at the hospital social club were relined. No matter how many times it was washed, it always had a distinctive whiff of beer, cigar smoke and industrialstrength disinfectant.
Witches tended to be a favoured choice of mine, typically involving a bin bag or two, my mum’s old nursing cape and the kitchen brush.
I once went out guising as a cat wearing the same fur coat that my dad had on that very first Halloween (long since mothballed for ethical reasons) and a collar pinched from the porcelain Siamese cat in the living room.
On another occasion I dressed as Madonna, a layered ensemble complete with fingerless gloves, peach leggings and lashings of attitude.
I imagined it to look the height of sophistication. In hindsight, it was arguably closer to being the love child of Worzel Gummidge and Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
As if that wasn’t pitiful enough, my friends and I jumped around singing Like a Virgin. Ah, for the innocent days of Baa Baa Black Sheep …
I HATED DRESSING UP. THERE WAS VERY LITTLE TO WORK WITH BRIAN BEACOM
TO BE honest, the very idea of Halloween fills me with horror. Not, as you may imagine, because I was a child feartie; the idea of ghosts and goblins and scary creatures wasn’t worrying at all in 1960s Renfrewshire.
Indeed, there were far more scary things for a youngster to be concerned about. There was Billy Forrest, who one Halloween believed himself to be Robin Hood and me the Sheriff, and tried to shoot my left eye out from three yards with a pointy-ended plant stake for an arrow. There was the nit nurse, of course. And there was Mrs Gaynor, who tormented us for playing street football and looked like a century-old Miss Havisham, but before the atonement.
No, Halloween frightened me because of the expected involvement, the dreaded social convention which it brought to my door of natural disquietude each year. I hated the idea of dressing up.
These days you can buy a neat Batman or Wonder Woman costume from a supermarket for little more than the cost of a comic book. But back in the day before the flood of imported synthetic superhero outfits there was very little for the unimaginative child to work with. And there was never the ghost of a chance of me draping an old white sheet over my head and channelling Casper; everyone did that. A pirate was perhaps an option, but the outfit could never be little more than a pair of torn jeans, a stripy Winfield T-shirt and the eye-patch left over from the Billy Forrest archery attack.
I also realised I couldn’t compete with my sisters who, one year, pulled on my uncle’s old jumper, took one arm each, stuck their faces together and traipsed around the doors of Johnstone as Siamese twins. (In the days before the invention of PC, of course.)
But there were other reasons for my dislike of Halloween. It seemed pagan and pointless – digging out a rock-hard turnip with a spoon (which took longer than all three Great Escape tunnels) and burning fingers while setting the candle wax base within. It was about getting your face wet dookin’ for tasteless apples. It was also about institutionalised collective begging.
I had neither wish nor desire to parade myself in a relative stranger’s doorway, offer up some embarrassing performance only to be rewarded with a tangerine, a few monkey nuts (which I hated) and a dry smirk.
Later in life, to be honest, I did latch on to the theatricality of it all, and, daresay, the fun, perhaps thanks to the appearance of costumery and lager. I did once dress up as Elton John and one year Groucho, and even Bob Marley, replete with authentic braided wig and black theatrical makeup (but we won’t mention that). And at one time I arrived at my pal Jim’s fancy dress party in Paisley dressed as a schoolboy, only to discover I was the only one wearing shorts, blazer, cap, the lot – and the fancy dress element had been a wind-up.
The ignominy I suffered that night still haunts me. Halloween is indeed a scary time.
Clockwise from top: Brian Beacom at a Halloween party dressed as Groucho Marx; Ann Fotheringham as Cleopatra; and Susan Swarbrick as Little Bo Peep with her father
In the days before superhero costumes for sale in supermarkets children had to be more creative when dressing up for Halloween