‘This boy knows that he’s found something he’s always going to love: holding onto a rope, and starting out on an adventure.’
Extract from Don’t Look Down: An Adventurous Life With MS
By Roger Chisholm
Published by Scotland Street Press
Made in Scotland
Officially at least, I belong to Glasgow. You wouldn’t have been able to tell that from my accent for the last 50 years, and I haven’t worn a kilt in Chisholm tartan in ages, but “born in Glasgow” is indeed what it says on my passport and birth certificate, even if I am one of that rare breed of Glaswegians who don’t particularly mind if England beat Scotland at football, rugby or indeed anything else. For it was in a Glasgow maternity hospital that my lungs first breathed in air on 21 October 1951, and the Chisholms’ first family home to which they brought me back was a three-bedroomed pebble-dashed semi on Lindsay Road, East Kilbride.
It’s hard to imagine now, but back then East Kilbride – eight miles south-east of Glasgow – was one of the most forward-looking places in Britain. In 1947, it became the first “new town” in Scotland, and the following year the Mechanical Engineering Research Laboratory was built there. Although it soon changed its name to the National Engineering Laboratory, it didn’t change its purpose – to be at the cutting edge of British engineering research and development, with a budget overshadowed only by those for similar establishments in the US and the USSR. It was there, my father hoped, where Britain’s second industrial revolution would be forged, where research scientists like him would open up our future as a science superpower. Armed with a hard won first-class degree in engineering that he had taken at the Royal Technical College, Salford while working as an apprentice at Metro Vicks, he moved north to what looked distinctly like the job of his dreams.
At the National Engineering Laboratory, if nowhere else, he found somewhere that implemented his belief that Britain should honour its engineering heritage and build on it in the future. Each of the NEL’s huge research laboratories was named after a British pioneer in the field to which it was devoted. Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, William Rankine, Joseph Whitworth: why weren’t they every bit as famous, my father would have wondered, as, say, Trollope, Wordsworth, Dickens and Austen? I can certainly imagine him making the case. “Look Roger,” I can hear him saying, “they’ve changed our lives so much more. Machine tools, the hydraulic press, thermodynamics, mass production: each one of those four men has revolutionised industry – and yet the way we ignore engineering, you’d be lucky to meet anyone who’s ever heard of them.”
I am, you’ve probably gathered, leaping ahead of myself, because my Dad almost certainly wasn’t saying this to his swaddled new-born son held in his wife’s arms in the back seat as he drove from the maternity hospital to our East Kilbride home. It was only in my teens when he started putting pressure on me to study engineering at university. Apart from the job, there were other important reasons my parents had looked forward to coming to Scotland. I’ve already mentioned their love of climbing and walking, but my father also adored sailing. He may have failed to pass on his passion for engineering to me, but there’s one transference that did work: I’ve always been happiest messing around on boats. Indeed, it’s been the one consistent golden thread in my life. Whatever else has disappointed me in life, that love of being on a boat surging through water with the bow wave singing, never has.
Where did that start? In our family album, there’s a photo of me standing on the bow of a yacht, holding onto the shrouds (the wire ropes holding up the mast), and looking straight ahead, my three-year-old head with its back to the camera. It’s 1954, we’re on the Clyde, a slight breeze is coming over the beam and gently filling the heavy tan-coloured canvas sails. If I were Proust, I’d be able to give you five pages about that boy and that moment, the way it now seems so timeless and dreamlike, a colour shot from a usually monochrome decade. It might be something to do with the fact that you can’t see my face, but you can see where we’re heading. There’s a gentle wind, a calm sea, clouds clearing or gathering (clearing, I think) in the distance at the head of the loch. This boy, I think, as I look at the picture, knows that he’s found something he’s always going to love: holding onto a rope, and starting out on an adventure.
Don’t Look Down: An Adventurous Life With MS by Roger Chisholm is out now published by Scotland Street Press.