Of course, my father was convinced he had a backward child — another burden I had imposed on him — and he sought to resolve the problem by sending me, aged seven, to his own elementary school in Barnton. He was on the board of governors of the Barnton village school. As its most celebrated former pupil, he had no difficulty placing me there. For some reason he had a perverse faith in its ability to reproduce in me the same rigid self-discipline and unwavering ambition that had secured his own swift elevation to academic heights. He was wrong. I failed as dismally there (in all but one subject) as I would have elsewhere.
His truculent conviction that the Barnton village school held the answer had the irritating side effect of a long daily journey there and back by train. Every morning I would catch the 6:42 from Waverley Station to Barnton (whence I had a fifteen-minute walk to the school) and in the evening, if I was lucky, I would catch the 4:30 train back. Thompson had a ten-minute ride on a cable tram to handy Regent Road, while I spent up to two hours a day commuting to and from school. I was a lonely commuter too, moving against the tidal flow in and out of the city. More often than not I sat solitary in smoky third-class compartments as the train puffed slowly through the banal suburbs, on its meandering branch line.
Donald Verulam lived in Barnton and once or twice a month, if he had been working at home and was going into town to dine at his club, or attend a University Photographic Society meeting, we would encounter each other on the station platform in the afternoon. It was Donald — not my father, not Oonagh — who told me about my mother.
“You have your mother’s nose and eyes,” he said once, a singular expression on his face. He pushed my fringe back. “Yes.… She always wore her hair back.” He made a slight pursing movement of his lips; his Adam’s apple bobbed.
“A gentle spirit, Johnny.… A terrible, terrible tragedy. You’d have—” He broke off and looked suddenly out of the window.
He often had his camera with him, in its stout brown-leather, velvet-lined box, and sometimes buff envelopes of photographs and plates. He would tell me of the elementary principles of photography, of the carefully registered exposure of light to light-sensitive paper. And one summer evening as we rattled through Blackhall, he unpacked his camera, extended the lens on its leather bellows and allowed me to look through the viewfinder. I stood by the window, the bulky instrument heavy in my hands, and looked at the world through a camera for the first time. It was only the back gardens and allotments of Blackhall, a view I had observed innumerable times, but something about the mediation of the lens, the constriction of the frame, changed all that. It no longer seemed the same. It looked strangely different, somehow special, instinct with some potential.… The gardens and houses chased past before my eyes.
“Go on, press,” Donald said. “It’s easy.”
Which moment would I choose? I hesitated. Click. That instant frozen in time. My fate decided.
A week later when he came to dinner, he gave me the print. A skidding blur of houses, light and shade, a tepee of runner beans, a diamond spangle from a greenhouse.
“Not bad,” he said. “Good impression of speed. You’d think we were going fifty miles an hour.”
I showed the photograph to Oonagh. She turned it over; her tongue bulged her cheek.
“What is it?” she said.
“It’s my first photograph. I call it ‘Houses at Speed.’ ”
“It’s no very good. Cannae see much.”
For my tenth birthday I asked for a camera. I was given a tiny Watson’s Bebe, a hand or detective camera, as it was known. My father, happy to see some kind of interest growing in his son, gladly purchased it. I took very few pictures, from choice, not necessity (Donald’s darkroom was always available). This parsimony of image making seemed to suit me. I would go out and about in Edinburgh with my camera and often return home without having removed it from its box. So, what pictures did I take? I photographed a cabman’s shelter in Balcarres Street, decorated with two stuffed marionettes. I photographed the lugubrious, mangy camel in Corstorphine Zoo. I took a picture of my father, in full academic dress, shaking hands with Queen Mary when she and George V visited Edinburgh in 1911. I caught Thompson dozing on a sofa in a sunny room, his mouth gormlessly open, one hand cupping his balls. I took a portrait of Sandy Malcolm, a blind man who sold bootlaces on the Waverley Market railings. Round his neck hung a placard: “Please buy. Am blind from dynamite explosion in Noble’s works, Falkirk, 1879.” I snapped Oonagh with four other women and their children in the Canongate one day as they gossiped outside a milliner’s. They all wore tartan shawls, even Gregor, five years old and barefoot. I was not interested in landscapes, streets or panoramas. I took living things.
Our shared hobby brought me closer to Donald Verulam. In 1912 he showed two of my photographs (Sandy Malcolm and a stonemason at work) in the University Photographic Society exhibition in the Trade Hall on Leith Walk. On the evening after the exhibition closed, a Friday, and as a kind of reward, I spent a night at his home in Barnton. We planned to go out to Swanston the next day with our cameras to watch the haymaking.
Donald lived in a large stone semidetached house with a long neat garden at the back. I remember it as dark inside, with walls the color of brown paper and with hard carpets of deep maroon and navy blue. After his housekeeper had cleared away our dinner dishes we went into the library. Donald smoked a pipe. I examined his new Ross Panross stand camera with its patent lens tilt. Donald seemed thoughtful, vaguely melancholy.
“How old are you now, Johnny?”
“My God. Thirteen years. Is that right?”
My father never mentioned my age. I knew what Donald was thinking. He looked at me. He had not changed much in the six years I had come to know him, except that he was now almost completely bald.
“I should’ve shown you these ages ago,” he said. He got up and went to a glass bookcase and took down an indigo leather album. He handed it over. I opened it.
Pictures of my mother. Close-ups, studio portraits, casual snapshots. I looked at her as if for the first time, as if I were a groom in an arranged marriage contemplating his distant bride. I saw wavy fairish hair, a slim small-breasted woman with eyes and eyebrows like mine. She had a hesitant smile in the portraits, her top lip tensed rather over her teeth. The reason for this was revealed in a snapshot where one saw small white teeth set in a wide gummy smile as she leaped down from a pony and trap into my father’s arms. It was strange too to see my father with a woman, his face somehow decades younger, his posture more supple and limber.
Donald explained that my father had asked him to take my mother’s portrait. They had had several sessions, which explained the number of studio shots (he had used an empty upstairs bedroom as a makeshift studio, he said).
“You mean she came here, was in this house?”
I felt an odd tautening of my spine. I looked over my shoulder. I tried to see my mother in this room. I felt strange. I turned back to the album. The other pictures came from excursions and jaunts they all three had taken as friends. There must have been fifty or sixty photographs in all. (Donald gave the album to me. It became one of my most treasured possessions and I kept it with me through all my travels and ordeals over the years, until a thief stole the suitcase in which it was contained from my hotel room in Washington, D.C., 1954.)