Thursday, 7 November 2013

Tales From the Not Too Distant Past - a Station Hotel in Scotland

Memory is so puzzling - or at least mine is. First there is its method of selection. It is as if a very poor photographer, perhaps a small child or, more probably, an idiot, (ie me, or some aspect of me), were handling a very cheap instamatic.

Instead of what I think are called the 'money shots'* - eg, at a birthday party, the image of the person who is celebrating the birthday blowing out their candles - my memory might choose a corner of the room where I've noticed a chair with a small piece of braid peeling from one corner, standing beside a table on which there is an abandoned plate bearing a piece of half-eaten quiche, a smeared fork and a crumpled paper napkin.

Second, there is the way it releases a memory from its cache at unexpected moments. Thus, I was wandering about yesterday evening, inspecting my vegetable garden, when out of the blue I thought of the hors d'oeuvre, (hors d'oeuvres?), trolley in what I think was the Glasgow Station Hotel, which I last saw in about 1964.

We were on our way to Scotland. My parents had not long been divorced and our father was taking my brother and me away for the summer, possibly on our first holiday without both parents. Our destination was a house that had been rented by a group of his friends, all with children, way up at the northern most tip of Scotland, (although not actually John O'Groats), where wonderful trout fishing was to be had.

Of that holiday, I have a few quite vivid memories - being given Club or Penguin chocolate biscuits in my packed lunch, an unheard of treat, as my mother, wisely, if somewhat austerely, barely ever included anything involving sugar in our diet; watching through the window as a goat ate a petticoat off the line of the house nextdoor; being taught how to make a fly for fishing, (I particularly remember this, because it was so amazing that any adult would take the time to bother with me, the youngest of all the people in the party - in those days, at least in my experience, no-one felt the faintest need to engage the interest of the young in any way. In fact, I was told more than once that Pascal had been locked in an attic with nothing but a set of keys and a lot of dust and had, using only these materials, worked out the whole of mathematics, the implication being that demanding more than Pascal had been offered was evidence of my shocking frivolity - oddly, I've never been able to find any trace of this Pascal story in the years since then).

However, the memory that came to me yesterday was not of the holiday itself but of a stage upon the journey. The interlude that I remember is reasonably vivid, but everything immediately before and after it is gone now. This gives it a slightly dreamlike feeling. It is a single bright event, surrounded by shadows, a flash of old cine film, the jerky images flickering up between lengths of damaged footage, scratchy, fleeting and dimly lit.

Presumably we'd made the train journey to Glasgow - or Inverness, or Edinburgh? Presumably we'd set out from London in the afternoon? I have absolutely no recollection of that, nor of whether we stayed the night in the station hotel or merely ate there while waiting for a train to take us onwards, (although I have a slight idea the latter may have been the case - but, if so, where did we sleep? Surely the journey on from Glasgow, Inverness or Edinburgh couldn't have involved a whole night's travel?)

But enough. What's important is what I do remember - the hors d'oeuvre trolley, as I've already mentioned. I was only small, but it made an impression.

We were sitting at a table that was covered in starched white linen and shining cutlery, in a high-ceilinged, gilded dining room, its plush tasselled curtains and deep carpets providing a kind of underwater sense of insulation, not a scrap of plastic anywhere in sight. A waiter approached with a gleaming trolley. There was the faint sound of gently vibrating china as he rolled it through the room.

When he'd drawn the trolley up beside our table, he went round to the side and began to pull glass oblong dishes from its interior, offering each one to us. There was asparagus, there was egg mayonnaise, there were herrings in oil, there was smoked salmon, there were tomatoes in dressing, there was that odd thing the British used to call Russian salad, there may have been pate and a fish mousse of some kind, possibly cucumber salad - or perhaps that was the mousse, and maybe there was even something involving olives.

There was such variety and there were so many colours. It seemed to me the most wonderful thing I'd ever come across, especially when my father explained that you could choose more than one thing and the waiter would put a bit of all the things you chose onto your plate.

I suspect it's completely a thing of the past, the hors d'oeuvre trolley, but I'm glad I remembered it. It's been replaced, I suppose, by yum cha and meze, but what both of those alternatives lack is the sense of occasion that came with the grand dining room and the courteous waiter and the sparkling trolley.

The surprising thing is that it can't have been terribly expensive, because my father was constantly worrying about money and would not have chosen anywhere that cost a lot, (an afternoon at Battersea Funfair appeared to have thrown his finances out for weeks, which gives you an idea of how badly off he was - or possibly indicates that Battersea Funfair was an extraordinary rip-off, which was what he implied at the time). 

A place of that station hotel's splendour would these days be not only swankily self-conscious but hugely, absurdly, frighteningly expensive, so that, even if they had an hors d'oeuvre trolley, as they steered it toward you, rather than excitement, all you would probably feel would be dread about just how much it was all going to cost.

*Ah innocence: I have been alerted by kind, concerned George, (his 20011 blog had already confirmed his erudition, but I had no idea quite the breadth of his reading and learning), has directed me to the Urban Dictionary's definition of 'money shot'. No, if you don't already, you really don't want to know - however, if you're brave, it's here. [And I'd have to say that, haphazard though my memory is, those are sights I would not have forgotten, had I ever had the misfortune to come upon them - but I lead a very sheltered life].


  1. Thanks for an enjoyable and evocative post. It revived several dormant memories of 1960s rail travel - the Nestle chocolate machines, the make-your-own-record booths and the dying embers of an age of which men wore hats.

    I can quite undestand why the trolley must have seemed so magical (and in Glasgow, the home of haute cuisine!)

    As for Battersea Funfair - I think that was closed down after an accident on their big dipper.

    1. Battersea Funfair closed down? I can't believe it.

  2. This is really wonderful stuff. Thank you for sharing it. We don't have a trolley at home but my children especially love meals made up of various tidbits and tea.

    1. I wonder if those degustation menus, apparently so sophisticated, are really just a way of appealing to our childish greed and desire to try everything.

  3. Beautiful story. Please reveal more of your wicked past to us, as charmingly written, it goes without saying. [Isn't "it goes without saying" a silly turn of phrase? Can someone please pull me out of the hole I just dug for myself?]

    1. It is silly, but I suppose it's a kind of "I know I may sound like I'm gushing a bit here" disguise? Re more from the past, I'll have to wait for the next missive from the recesses of memory to arrive while I'm tending the broad beans