Each year we, in common with all Scottish Charities, have our Annual Accounts approved and published by OSCR (Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator) so that the general public, or more importantly our donors and supporters, can see our annual income and expenditure, and who we are, in terms of Trustees and others who may have made extra special monetary or in-kind donations. We have always been proud of the fullness and frankness of the document submitted, but this year we were somewhat nonplussed to see all names and references to others blanked out: the Annual Accounts now look like some 1960’s James Bond movie! We assume that this as a result of the recent changes in disclosure legislation, and maybe we should have known this, but it means all those people who matter most, can’t be thanked in public!
It seems to me that there will come a time when we are all so afraid of one another, that forming friendships at least in writing or on social media will be so fraught with guilt that they will in time fade away. It is one of my joys that when I went to work in London for the notable architects Chamberlin Powell and Bon, I found myself straight from Dalgarven in a drawing office of more than sixty people.
There were a few from England which you might expect, there were four Scots, including me, South Africans, Americans, Canadians, Israelis, Germans, French and Thai. One of them was the best man at my wedding.
Bien, the Thai boy helped to build my final Diploma model which James Stirling, no less, said was a masterpiece and awarded me a Distinction in thesis.
The German friend, Juergen, introduced me to wonderful modernity, in that in his single room dwelling he had a gas ring on which he cooked: he took Duggie the other Scots boy there and grilled sirloin steak on it – neither of us having seen sirloin steak before! He, like me, is now in his eighties and has had a long illustrious career mostly in Central Africa, but also in German academic circles.
The South African boy and his wife invited us to their flat, where Moira and I had to sit on cushions on the floor as they had no furniture of any kind, but over the three-year period, we saw them buy habitat pieces, one chair at a time until by the end of their three-year stay they had a complete habitat house, which they promptly put into a container and shipped to South Africa.
One of the few Englishmen invited me to share the house he was living in in Surbiton, practically the other side of the world as far as I was concerned, and between us, we bought a frog-eyed MG which was wonderful for getting to work, until sitting behind a large lorry on London Bridge one morning, we watched with horror as the back of it began to rise into the air, and slowly and methodically buried the car in 25 tons of gravel. John still writes and is still practicing in Sussex.
My secretary was a Canadian lady and I stayed with her parents on my twelve-week trip across Canada. Her son now lives and works in London, and visits us at the Mill.
One of the longest lasting connections was with a young South African Boer who also worked with me. When he left to return home, I took his room, within walking distance of the office, in a wonderful Georgian Square called Paultons Square. The house was four stories high and belonged to an astonishing lady called Gertrude Hermes who was a sculptress, and taught at both the Slade and St Martins Schools of Art: she had a studio in the back garden which really was a two storey class, Victorian box, but there she had her working and studio space. I, meantime, the only lodger, was ensconced in a room at the basement street-side, where I worked most nights on College work. Within a week of being there, having mastered the outside toilet with its two bricks on either side which Gertrude told me to use if I wanted to, since they produced the perfect natural position for pooing, I was unprepared for the hammering on my door one evening when she said ‘Robbie, I’ve got an uneven number for dinner, it won’t do: stop what you’re doing and join us‘. The dining room I had already seen: a beautiful elegant oval room on the basement floor with the kitchen beyond it. It has an enormous oval table with wonderful display China cabinets. So I tried to say ‘but I’m busy I’ve got to finish this‘, but nothing worked. So dressed in an old sweater with holes in the elbows, I was dragged into the dining room where thirteen people were afraid to sit down: I was to be the necessary fourteenth. ‘This is Robbie‘ she said, and pointed at the empty chair. As I sat she quickly said ‘that is the Marchioness of Douro on your right, and Lord Sainsbury on your left, and facing you: two of my former husbands‘. I thought to myself, as the wonderful meal progressed, and the ten bottles of red which had been opened and put in the middle of the table, slowly emptied: ‘how the hell did I get here?‘.
The two or more years that we spent with Gert, as she became, were some of the most interesting of our young lives. A cure for Moira’s laryngitis was a twenty-year old bottle of Claret, and since the only bathroom as such was behind the plastic curtain on the landing, she was aware one morning that I was being sick before setting off for work. Without saying anything, she parted the curtain and handed me this tall glass of pink medicine which I drank in one. Only then did I realise it was a large pink gin – too late to do anything about it: I scuttled off to the office!
Having scarcely having had time to sit at my drawing board, a silence fell upon the usually noisy office as Peter Chamberlain, the senior partner, made his way to my drawing board. I was working on physics deck at Leeds University and for fifteen agonizing minutes I had to explain to him what I was trying to achieve. He finally said ‘thank you’ and left. It took about four minutes before my phone rang, and his wife, who was known at the bursar, requested that I go to her office. She was a kindly woman and sat me down, reached forward, took my hand and said: ‘you know, Robbie, you’re not the first alcoholic, what makes you think you have to have a drink in the morning?‘ I explained that the boy at the drawing board next to mine, Alexander, as she knew, had been killed the day before and I had gone out to get drunk, and had succeeded spectacularly, being dragged back to my lodgings and left with head in a bucket overnight. I then told her that Gertrude Hermes who, unknown to me, was famous, had given me what I thought was a large glass of mouth wash. and that ‘thank you but I don’t really have an alcohol problem!‘.
Strangely enough, even when we were married and back in Scotland we would get the occasional call from Gert. Her best friend was Naomi Mitcheson, the author which lived in Carradale on Kintyre, and she was wont to ring us from Renfrew Airport to say hello as she waited for a taxi to take her to Carradale! Although she seemed quite ancient then, it is only about ten years since she died, and her obituary listed an amazing body of bas-relief panels and sculptures, liberally adorning many pre-war arts and cultural buildings. So if anyone says to me ‘do you think I should leave home and go away for a year‘, my answer is: ‘as quick as possible’!