Well, as you know, there's nothing yours truly likes better than a friendly chat with anyone who'll pass the time of day with me. Yes, it's great life. All sorts of people come up to me in the street and tell me they love the music. One of the really big, unexpected perks of my solo efforts has been getting to meet so many people after the shows. It's never a dull moment but there's one recurring theme in the conversation. “You must have nerves of steel to walk out onto the stage with all those people just looking at you”
Now, as you are also aware, I'm an amiable sort of fellow. Not the type to argue or correct the other person's viewpoint. As a result, it's become a habit for me to agree with those lovely folks on just how brave I am to be able to do my thing. But it's also got me thinking and that little voice up above – you know, the one up above the eyeballs that tells you how it is – has been putting me in my place. “Brave?”, it sneers. “Don't make me laugh” And I have to admit. That voice has got a point.
So, here's a story I'd like to tell you. It's about my Granpa.
Granpa Blackwood worked as a turner and fitter. The company he was part of supplied parts for those world-class ships my forefathers built on Clydeside. As a nipper, I spent a lot of my spare time with him in his flat in Yoker, on the edge of Clydebank, watching all sorts of ships being launched and sailing away down the River Clyde to another world. He was full of stories and memories of some of the greatest ships ever built. But this man was special in another way. He was a musician. Me and my mother would go down there. She would clean his flat, and I got my first musical performances in the back-room where his Bechstein Piano was. That's how we grew close. And that's where my music came from. yet, there was an enormous piece of his life I knew nothing about.
A few months back someone had a terrific idea to look into my Granpa's army record. Why not? After all, perhaps climbing part of the family tree would offer up a view that I hadn't seen thus far. It's 2014 – 100 years after the start of The Great War and all across the continent people have found themselves trying to discover their relative's war experiences. Maybe we'd find out something of interest.
It wasn't long before the tales of my dear Granpa started to unfold. The story passed down in my family was that he ran away to join the army when he was 16. Not quite. Granpa actually enlisted in The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as an 18 year old. Private John Blackwood took The King's shilling on 19th January 1918 but it was against the wishes of my great grandparents. I'm liking him more already and I'm wondering if that's where my rebellious and sometimes argumentative nature comes from. Not only that - I'm knocked out that he was a World War One soldier.
Well, that could have been the end of his military history. But no. There's another few chapters to write. Fast forward to World War Two and he's back in the frame. At the relatively mature age of 39 he was called up to serve because he had a set of skills that were needed. This time it's Lance Corporal Blackwood who's enlisted with The Royal Engineers.
September 1939 sees him shipped out to France as part of the British Expeditionary Forces. Granpa is right in the middle of what's known as The Battle of France. Apparently this was an intense and mentally gruelling fight inside French Lines with Germans on all sides leading up to the British exit from France. It was being fought out by excitable young men with guns who must be terrified at the prospect of dying. Somehow it's difficult to get the head round this in our comfortable and safe world but my bet is that I'd have been scared stiff.
Against this backdrop, Granpa's army record shows him going Absent Without Leave at this time. Surely not? Not my Granpa. On the other hand I was thinking “good on you”. Part of me thinks that I'd want to leave it behind. Back then I have a picture of Generals sitting in comfortable, warm offices enjoying a cigar and a single malt as they encouraged Granpa's comrades to “dig in lads and fight until you can fight no more!”. Could you do it? I don't know if I could and it certainly puts a new light on bravery where a stage is concerned.
But a second look at the documents reveals that the AWOL incident is scored out. The family folklore that got passed down to me was this - he arrived in France and, in the ensuing chaos, he got separated from his battalion on 17th February 1940. Rather than hiding away, he stole a motorbike and set about trying to find them. Along the way he manages to get taken in, fed and watered by a sympathetic French family, and then, on 22nd February he turns up ready for action. From then on, he keeps his nose clean and his battalion are shipped back to England in July 1940 as France falls to Germany.
A simple war record has really got me thinking. His story is no doubt very similar to thousands of others who endured horrors, hardship and worse in the wars. . The only difference is that this is MY Granpa's story. The personal story of a man I knew so well. The man who sat me on his knee and showed me piano notes, made us all laugh hitting a glockenspiel and tapping biscuit tins with drumsticks. The man I have always admired because, in working class Clydebank, he was a musician who could play piano, bagpipes and almost any instrument he chose to pick up. Yes, it's really got me thinking.
I've spent most of my adult life promoting myself or the band. Just as we hit the heights we were bundled onto a plane, Memphis bound to record with Willie Mitchell. We were so pleased with ourselves when we came back to Glasgow. I felt I'd really achieved something and perhaps that we were a little bit special. I hope I've kept my feet on the ground but you just never know how others see you, or how your perception can be changed. But looking at what I've done – the hits, the music, the travel – to me it's all in the shadow of Granpa. He was prepared to give up his life for a cause. He showed bravery and courage that only I can imagine. Yet, unlike me, he didn't feel the need for newspapers to tell his story, or to go on Top of the Pops.
There's a big lesson to be learned from Granpa and his generation. Aren't we all just a little tired of those familiar faces that are always on the front of magazines, newspapers or certain tv shows? Is anyone newsworthy because they've had their eyeball tatooed, split up with their equally shallow partner, or been seen in the ASDA carpark without makeup and looking like a badger's arse? Do we really need anyone else on the planet to write a story about themselves and their fame?
So, take a look around you and look for your very own Granpa Blackwood and listen to their story. It will surprise and inspire you. I promise.
Meanwhile, I'm still trying to be a musician. Those early years left a track right through me. Granpa couldn't be a full-time musician so he got a man's job, supplying components for Clydebuilt ships, fought in two wars and made a better life for his kids. His sacrifices created a world that allowed me this wonderful life.
Next time you think the school run is a “nightmare”, or that slow service in a restaurant has ruined your birthday, take a breath and have a think about it. It might try your patience for a wee while but you won't need a kindly french family to see you through and you won't have it on your record if you hide away from something you don't like. Just remember Granpa Blackwood.
© Graeme Clark