Radical Family History

A Family History from Berlin to Glasgow: Memories of Dumbarton Road by Martin Chalmers

Martin Chalmers was born in 1948 in a small town in Westfalia where neither his mother – a young German woman from Berlin – nor his father, a Glaswegian service man, belonged. Bünde was part of the British Zone in postwar Germany, a place that hardly left a mark on the Chalmers family history, with the exception of a fiddled birth date for Martin, owing to a lengthy wait for permission for his father to marry a German.

Martin grew up in Glasgow, where his father had returned to his job as a typesetter, while his mother learnt English, worked at the Singer factory, and nursed her disappointment with a life that was far removed from her expectations. Growing up in interwar Berlin, she had absorbed the lessons of migration – her parents had come to the city from East Prussia in an interwar wave of unemployed migrants from the rural Northeast, making a living as caretakers in a fancy Charlottenburg apartment building – and eventually she made a decision to start training as a primary school teacher.

Martin Chalmers in 2011, at the Scottish Cemetery in Kolkata

Glasgow was the formative city for Martin, though Berlin was always a presence in the stories and histories told by his mother and, above all, his grandmother, who came to Glasgow to look after him while his mother studied and worked. She spoke German to Martin, encouraged his first practise as a translator when he had to serve as her whispering interpreter on their frequent visits to the cinema, and she was largely responsible for Martin’s awareness of his two identities – German and Scottish.

Martin attended Glasgow High School, much to his working-class father’s chagrin, and went on to study history in Glasgow, then Birmingham and Bochum/Ruhr in Germany, focusing on oral history and popular life after the First World War. However, Martin never opted for an academic career and instead became a translator and occasional writer, contributing to magazines and periodicals, writing about books and film – cinema was his enduring passion. As a translator of German literature he promoted a number of as yet unknown writers, such as Herta Müller, Hubert Fichte and Erich Hackl. Together with Pete Ayrton he edited the series of Extraordinary Classics for which he also translated Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss.

In the late 1990s Martin, who was an admirer of Viktor Klemperer’s groundbreaking work LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii – committed himself to the translation of his Diaries covering the years under Nazi Rule (I Shall Bear Witness) and two decades as an academic in the GDR (The Lesser Evil). It was a huge task in terms of sheer volume of text to translate and of research to undertake, taking up the better part of five years. Both the translation – which was awarded the Schlegel Tieck prize – as well as the comments, footnotes and introductions of both books, are a wonderful testimony to Martin’s skills and talents as translator, historian, and writer.

In the early 2000s, perhaps encouraged by his work on Klemperer, Martin began to write himself on a more regular basis, with a view of a kind of memoir about his family, his upbringing, and his experience of grappling with two very different histories. Wreaths and Pebbles, the compilation of autobiographical texts focussing on Glasgow and Berlin, from which ‘Dumbarton Road’ is taken, is what Martin left behind when he died on October 22, 2014.

Dumbarton Road

by Martin Chalmers

Corner of Dumbarton Road & Haylynn Street, Glasgow, in 2014. Leslie Barrie, CC BY-SA 2.0.

The route the Number 16 bus took to Temple was quite the long way round. And on Saturdays in autumn or winter, when we came back from town in the late afternoon or early evening, teatime or a little later, it was already dark, or as good as. After Argyll Street, the 16 continued down Dumbarton Road – a long, long street of tenements and shops, that began at the Kelvin Hall and ran for long stretches without a bend or a curve, through Partick, Whiteinch, Scotstoun, Garscadden and Yoker, by which point the street numbers had passed 1000, to Clydebank, where it became the Glasgow Road, before turning into Dumbarton Road again at Singer, where the big sewing machine factory used to be, and where my mother had her first job after coming to Glasgow, and then on through Dalmuir. Eventually, below the Old Kilpatrick Hills, where the River Clyde was already broadening into the Firth of Clyde, it joined the Great Western Road, which would indeed – after several more name changes – take one on to Dunbarton (not Dumbarton).

All that distance, running east to west – or more precisely, south-east to north-west – the road was parallel to, and a few hundred yards from the river, which in those days was lined by shipyards, wharves, warehouses and silos. The Number 16 bus, however, didn’t follow the river all the way to Clydebank, but turned north at Whiteinch, past Victoria Park, through the respectable inner suburbs, before reaching Anniesland and Temple. And along Dumbarton Road, as far as Whiteinch and beyond it, on the ground floor of the tenements were not only shops – grocers, hairdressers, newsagents, haberdashers, drapers, as well as a library (Partick), dance halls and cinemas – there were pubs.

I remember that there were more pubs on the south side of Dumbarton Road than on the north side, but that may be because, on those evenings when we came back from town, the bus went along the south side. I always liked to sit next to the window, downstairs, looking out, with my mother or grandmother beside me, hoping that the bus would not fill up and my mother would whisper to me to stand up and offer my seat to the lady or the gentleman. Or maybe it was so, because the southern, left-hand side of the road was closer to the poorer streets leading down to the docks and shipyards and the south side was nearer for the workers when they came off their shifts. The pubs had names like The Partick Tavern, The Lismore, The Victory, The Hayburn Vaults (at the corner of Hayburn Street), The Ettrick, The Stirling Castle. There was one every few yards, it seemed to me, and as I sat on the pavement side of the bus, slowly moving from stop to traffic lights to stop, the pub doors would open, swing open, and a customer would enter or leave. And perhaps I was already at the High School and wearing the belted brown gaberdine raincoat and the two-tone brown cap with the school badge at the front, which could only be bought at the school office and then had to be sewn on, consisting of the arms of the City of Glasgow together with the school motto, sursum semper – ever upwards.

The doors of the pub bars opened directly onto the street, the entrances to the lounges where ladies were allowed to sit (though even then often only if ‘accompanied’) were more secluded. And when a door opened or swung open and shut, the light shone out of the pub on the damp or wet slippery pavement, the damp or wet cobble stones of the road, the gleaming metal of the tram lines. And, briefly, framed by the door, sometimes interrupted by the swinging of the door leaf, I would see the bar itself, with its brass foot-rail (no carpets, dark scrubbed floorboards). And along the bar, it was early evening, early Saturday evening and there was a palpable anticipation, of meeting friends, or at least getting into a conversation, of going on to the dance hall or to the pictures and then the dance hall, a row of men, each with a glass, or two glasses, a larger and a small one, in front of him, looking straight ahead, one foot on the rail, or reading the evening paper, the pink or green Saturday sports edition, the City Final of the Evening Times or the Evening Citizen, the football results already printed, which had been bought on the way and folded or rolled up in a jacket or coat pocket. Each man, so it seemed to me, at a distance from his neighbours, and somehow mysterious and admirable in his self-contained manhood. And then the door shut again, stopped swinging to and fro, cutting off the light, and red changed to amber then green and the bus moved forward.

I saw something similar decades later (and that again is decades ago now) in Wattenscheid in the Ruhr, a few years before the last coal mines and iron and steel works in the city centres were shut down. I had got on the single-decker tram in front of Bochum railway station, and now the tram was making its way down another of those long main roads that run through nineteenth-century industrial towns and cities, joining what had once been rural villages and pit villages with an endless double row of buildings and shops. The frontages of the tenements and houses were not as uniform as those along Dumbarton Road had been. Here and there were three- and four-storey buildings, old cottages, flat-roofed workshops, but it was night or evening – dark at any rate – and the tram was continually starting and stopping before shoogling and rocking along at speed again. And every so often there was a bar, a pub, and this time it was summer and the bar doors were simply left open, and men stood at the bar, each man for himself, staring ahead and drinking or smoking or reading the newspaper or involved in one of those conversations which men sitting or standing at bars conduct, each at a distance from the others, by way of the barmaid or landlord, without looking to right or left.

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