How many cousins have you got? We’ve got 30 – and that’s just on my mum’s side – the Murrays.
When my aunt Maureen died, my wee brother took my mum and dad to her funeral down in Devon. Funerals – that’s where you tend to meet your cousins later in life (unless you all live in the same town).
At my aunt Maureen’s send-off, once the ties were loosened the Murray cousins clustered round my mum and dad, taking photos, topping up mum’s gin and tonic and ferrying over extra sausage rolls. It was like my parents were the last of a family dynasty. In a way, mum was. She’d outlived her brother and her five sisters.
The chat bubbled up in the room as the alcohol took hold and everyone was saying the same thing: “How come we only ever get together at funerals?”
“Your mum’s the only Murray left. When she dies is that going be the last time we all hang out together.” A plan was hatched and we gave it a name.
Our first Murrayfest saw 25 of us crammed into cousin Fran’s kitchen (she’s now our official founder), and spilling out into the back garden where her man Chris was keeper of the sacred barbecue flame.
It was voted a runaway success when the neighbours on one side complained about the smoke from the burning burgers and the neighbours on the other side complained about the racket we made singing Bohemian Rhapsody. Long-suppressed family secrets rose into the night air like whisky fumes. Did one of our Catholic aunts really have a fling with a Polish airman? My lips are sealed. So was the future of Murrayfest.
Murrayfest2 was noisier and longer. There was less small talk and the party started faster. We weren’t just given the run of cousin Lorna’s house, with its outdoor-furniture-strewn front garden and back garden.
Instead of complaining, Lorna’s lovely neighbours buggered off on holiday and gave us their house so there was extra free accommodation. Lorna’s Mick was keeper of the sacred flame but it wasn’t a barbecue, it was a fire-pit which we sat round till the sun came up, singing Proclaimers songs – demanded by the English side of the family.
Including “Oh Jean, you let me get lucky wi’ you”. Including all three minutes of the notorious chorus “ I love . . . and I love and I love and I love and I love . . .” etc.
This year, my brother Michael stuck his hand up early and said he’d host Murrayfest3 at his gaff in Fife. The Facebook thread started earlier and the in-jokes came thicker and faster. The pull of Scotland was magnetic and cousins flew in from Boston and Madrid.
Several brought their children. Emma and Roo arrived with six-month-old baby Rosa. Mike commandeered the village hall, his sister-in-law’s home, and Melville House, an old stately home and former List D school, now offering self-catering accommodation as “Melville Escapes”.
They gave us carte blanche to do what we liked. What we liked was sitting round another firepit doing karaoke, making up rude words to hits from the 70s and 80s and teaching everybody all the words to Sunshine On Leith.
Next night was the Aftermath Party, a full-on Letham Night in the village hall, with cousins staffing the bar, trestle tables groaning with home-made grub and a stage with three microphones and a full PA.
We had to leave early but it turned into Murrays Got Talent – I’ve seen the phone footage. Our cousins, their partners and their offspring are amazing, each in their own loveably eccentric ways. My brother and his missis get the Goldenballs trophy for putting it all together.
The Murrayfest4 chat has already started – will we really all make it to Dublin? The ties we loosened at my aunt’s funeral have turned into the ties that bind.
Dunkirk hits close to home
It’s one thing watching a film called Dunkirk. It’s quite another watching it knowing your father was there. That was my friend’s experience of Christopher Nolan’s historically accurate, gut-wrenching disaster epic.
Two officers have a conversation: “The enemy tanks have stopped. Why waste precious tanks when they can pick us off from the air like fish in a barrel.”
“There are 400,000 men on this beach. How are we going to get them home?”
As your brain begins to take that in, Hans Zimmer’s grim, ticking-clock sound design and Nolan’s frantically intercut, three-stranded storytelling pull you right to the edge of your seat for the full two hours.
My friend’s father was a captain in the King’s Scottish Borderers at Dunkirk. I asked him how his dad made it out alive. “He was in the rearguard, in the sand dunes with his company, waiting for the Germans. He told me he was lucky. He went down to the beach to see what was happening. When he scrambled back, he told his men they were better off where they were; the troops on the beach were lined up in their thousands like they were waiting for the last bus home – which they kind of were. Except with German Stukas bombing and strafing them. My dad decided it was safer to stay put.
“On the last day, a colonel in full uniform cantered up on a white charger. He told them they should leave now and try to get off the beach. He galloped away and my dad never saw him again. Two of his sergeants found a rowboat in the dunes. When they launched it into the waves, water started pouring in through two gaping holes. They took off their tunics to plug the leaks. The boat sank anyway and they had to swim for it. Eventually they were picked up half-naked, dumped on a battleship then home.”
And what did he think of the film? “Apart from being brilliantly made, it was good there was no fake jingoism, none of that awful, clichéd Dunkirk spirit stuff.
“My father was always matter-of- fact about his experiences; I think like most officers, his main concern was the welfare of his men. The film has a matter-of-fact quality too. There are no star turns or grand heroics, just ordinary people trying to survive.
“After watching it, you realise how momentous an event your father was caught up in. And of course, I wouldn’t be here if it had gone bad for him.”
And the best picture award goes to...
….my sister-in- law, the outrageously talented artist Claire Heminsley, commissioned by my brother and sisters to do one of her famous scraperboard cityscapes of Edinburgh for my 60th. They presented it to me at Murrayfest. At first I didn’t notice the Scottish Cup-winning Hibs cavalcade in the corner. And then I spotted me, with a big ginger afro, on the top deck of the #Persevered bus.
Glory, glory to my family!