Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Man in the Green Shed

Nearly thirty years after his death, Ledingham Bayne, the most prolific author in recent Scottish history, remains unpublished and unremembered by anyone other than family members and a handful of close friends. Nearly six hundred of his stories survive, carefully archived by his daughter, Elisabeth, the vast majority of them set in St Bertram's Academy, an imaginary boarding school located somewhere in the Perthshire highlands. Elisabeth, who compares her father to John Buchan and, undeterred by constant rejection, continues to send his stories to publishers, thinks that his writing career was blighted by inverted snobbery. "Glaswegians aren't supposed to write about boarding schools," she says. "I honestly think that if Dad had written about gangs or shipyards he'd have been hugely successful. Throughout his life, he refused to do what other people expected."

Arthur Gibson, Ledingham's agent and closest friend, is less certain. "I'm not even sure if Ledingham was especially interested in being published," he says. "His stories were tightly plotted and well paced but, while he had quite a literary bent, he was writing for a younger audience. The first, second and third rule of writing for children is that you don't kill the hero, but Ledingham was always having his characters bumped off. I remember he gave me a series of stories featuring a hero called John Peerless. I thought, 'Good, Ledingham's finally written something I can let my daughter read.' Unfortunately, I'd skipped the conclusion in which Peerless was ambushed and thrown off a cliff. When I remonstrated with Ledingham, saying, 'you didn't even let him die well' he just shrugged and replied, 'Well, when you throw a boy off a cliff, he screams.' Which I suppose he does. He certainly screamed in my daughter's nightmares. My wife still casts it against me."

If Ledingham Bayne is still known by anyone outwith his immediate circle, it's for the haunting of his home in Glasgow's West End. The inclusion of 12 Cleveden Terrace in on-line guides to centres of supernatural activity has failed to enhance his literary profile: not one, in fact, so much as alludes to his vocation. Most accounts of the phenonema in Cleveden Terrace refer to cold spots, foot-steps emanating from an empty room and the smell of tobacco without a source. Having visited the house at Elisabeth's invitation, I can confirm that all three of these symptoms of manifestation were evident. I can't add my own testimony to alleged sightings of Ledingham's ghost in the shed in which he worked on his stories or Elisabeth's claims that her telephone conversations are regularly interrupted by his voice (an intrusion, frustratingly, manifested as a static hiss for the person to whom she is talking). She is, however, in my opinion, a transparently sincere and honest witness. Doubts persist as to whether the same can be said about her brother, Griffin, whose childhood memoir 'The Man in the Green Shed' might yet accord Ledingham posthumous renown.

Elisabeth has spent the past year attempting to block the publication of a book in which her father is depicted as an overbearing odd-ball. "Dad wasn't perfect, but he was a decent man and he did his best under difficult circumstances," she says. "To me, Griffin's book reflects on its author far more than it does Dad." Aficionados of the Pitiful Lives genre, disappointed by an absence of violent incident within the book's pages, will almost certainly agree. Having spent a life-time engrossed in his own resentment, Griffin has obviously lost the ability to discern between instances of genuine abuse (of which I can find none) and the chasms of incomprehension evident in the relationship between any child and parent. These problems were undoubtably exacerbated by Ledingham's mental illness* (about which both Elisabeth and, surprisingly, Griffin are reticent) but the consistency with which Griffin makes mountains out of mole-hills causes the reader to with-hold any sympathy to which he might otherwise be entitled.

Arthur Gibson attributes many of the Baynes' subsequent problems to the death of Elisabeth and Griffin's mother, Isobel, only months after Griffin's birth. "Ledingham tried, but I always felt that he was giving a passable impression of how he thought a normal person ought to respond to any given situation. Without Isobel being around to prompt him, he was at a loss. He certainly wasn't equipped for fatherhood. While he was always in cahoots with Elisabeth, he had no rapport with Griffin whatsoever. It was impossible not to sense that he was disappointed in him: he wanted him to play football and get into scrapes, but Griffin wasn't remotely interested in that sort of thing. Ledingham would say, 'Oh, when I was a boy...' but I'm not sure if he really was that type of boy. I suspect he was more like Griffin than he cared to remember."

While Ledingham's indifference was to prove a lasting cause of resentment, Griffin found it preferable to the occasional bouts of mentorship to which he was subjected. "I remember Griffin had this terrible black eye," remembers Arthur, "and, naturally, I asked him what had happened. Before he could reply, Ledingham said, quite cheerfully, 'Oh, Griffin's being bullied, but I'm teaching him how to box.' For weeks Ledingham dragged him around the local boxing clubs: he'd stand around chatting to the coaches while poor Griffin got leathered in the ring. It was a typical Ledingham solution: resolve one beating by subjecting him to a dozen more. In fairness, the bullies stopped picking on Griffin, though I'm sure it was pity rather than fear that caused them to leave him alone." While Griffin fails to mention this episode in his memoir, it seems indicative of Ledingham's erratic approach to parenting.

Arthur, who has remained on good terms with both Elisabeth and Griffin, is a helpful adjudicator in the Memory Wars that have persisted between them since Ledingham's death. These are exemplified by conflicting accounts of the puppet theatre, recalled by Elisabeth as 'a treat' and Griffin 'a recurring horror'. "Ledingham's puppet shows were very well done," remembers Arthur, "though my wife always thought they were a little creepy. The children would all be given a part: more often than not, Griffin was the hero, but there was a terrible inevitability that he'd end up in some dire predicament at which point Ledingham say, 'Well, how do you think Griffin's going to get out of that?' and we'd take a break for cake or whatever. I remember my wife saying, 'Ledingham, aren't you going to finish the puppet show?' but by then he'd usually lost interest. To my way of thinking it always seemed a rather strange demonstration of paternal affection."

When Griffin was eighteen, he left home to study English and Philosophy at St Andrew's University where he met his first girlfriend, Ishbel McCauley. "Griffin didn't really talk about his family," remembers Ishbel, "He went back to Glasgow at Christmas, but that was about it. I must have been seeing him for about a year when, quite accidentally, I bumped into them all outside a bistro. Griffin turned beet red but he just about managed to stammer an introduction. Ledingham was very nice and invited me to join them, but Elisabeth just stared at me: it was as if she'd been introduced to a pelican. I remember as we went down toward the entrance - it was in a basement - she actually tried to push me. I managed to steady myself on the railing, but as I turned round, she smirked as if to say, 'welcome to the family!' Griffin had obviously seen what happened, but he just looked away. It was all a bit disconcerting."

Elisabeth, predictably, contradicts Ishbel's version of events. "There was no accidental meeting. She turned up with Griffin, wearing the most ridiculous boots I'd ever seen. She could hardly walk in them. We virtually had to carry her down the stairs to the bistro. If I hadn't grabbed her by the coat, she'd have broken her neck, which would have been no great loss to anyone." Elisabeth's mood was worsened by the appearance of Ishbel's brother with a girlfriend and two of their friends. "We'd hardly taken off our coats when they materialised, cue a great display of astonishment. I remember saying to Dad, 'Are we supposed to pay for everyone?' Ishbel overheard me and rolled her eyes, but, of course, he did end up footing the bill, though he was too much of a gentleman to complain."

While the evening merits a chapter in 'The Man in the Green Shed', no mention is made of Ishbel's boots or Elisabeth's attempted assault. The account centres on an alleged conversation conducted between Ledingham and Ishbel's brother, Malcolm, the latter of whom divulged its details to Griffin the next day. While Ishbel remembers her brother "quite fondly" referring to Ledingham, Elisabeth denies that they even conversed: "Dad was sitting next to me and he could hardly hear what I was saying for the noise. From what I can recall, Ishbel's brother was sitting diagonally across the table and he seemed too engrossed in his girlfriend to bother with anyone else." As the main protaganists are both dead (Malcolm succumbed to leukaemia in 1988), we are left to depend on Griffin's second hand version of their exchange. If this is to be believed, Ledingham, talking to someone he'd never met and with whom, the reader can surmise, he had nothing in common, casually confessed to committing a murder.

"I remember Griffin appearing at the house one day," remembers Arthur. "It must have been shortly after Ledingham's so-called confession. He told me he was concerned about his father: apparently he'd been talking about someone who'd been shot and Griffin thought it was evidence of some delusion. I said, 'Oh no, he must mean Edwin Arnott' at which Griffin turned chalk white, excused himself and disappeared to the toilet for a good ten minutes. When he finally emerged, of course, he wanted to know about Edwin. There wasn't a great deal I could tell him: he used to hang around pubs, cadging cigarettes and draining the dregs of other people's pints. If anyone protested, he'd say, 'Oh, I thought you'd finished.' He was a pain in the neck and a moocher but I was astonished that anyone would go to the trouble of killing him. It was actually Ledingham who told me: apparently someone waited in his close and let him have it as he let himself into his flat. The police established that the murderer used a Luger but I don't think they ever identified a suspect or a realistic motive. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure if they really bothered. It's a horrible thing to say, but he wasn't a great loss."

Elisabeth retains only vague recollections of the man she knew as Eddie. "Every so often he'd turn up and Dad would give him a can of beer or something to eat. He used to do card tricks: I remember shouting out, 'but they're all sevens' and immediately feeling guilty because he looked so crestfallen. Apart from that, he didn't make much of an impression. Until I read Griffin's book, I didn't even know he'd been shot." She has more vivid memories of the Luger Ledingham kept in a locked drawer in his shed. "It was a souvenir he'd brought back from Germany. There must have been thousands of them floating around the West of Scotland after the war. When my cousins visited, Dad would take it out: he used to say it was loaded with one bullet for anyone who tried to break into the shed, but I don't think it had a firing pin. In his book, Griffin makes a great song and dance about the moment of revelation when he found out about the gun, but he used to charge around the garden with it, pretending to be Roy Rogers." The notion that it might have been used to despatch Eddie is, she says, "grotesque and absurd."

"If you read Griffin's memoir carefully," says Arthur, "he doesn't actually accuse his father of shooting Edwin, though he leaves a trail that leads the reader directly to Ledingham's grave. Of course, anyone else could create a diversion with exactly the same evidence. Reading Griffin's account, it's difficult not to come away with the impression of someone adding two and two with the determination that it will make five and to hell with what anyone else might say. In fairness to him, though, he has a better grasp on what people want to read than his father ever did."

Elisabeth is less phlegmatic. "There's such an unrealistic expectation on people," she says "Especially parents: 'They fuck you up your mum and dad' It's a banal sentiment, but it's a very convenient way of avoiding personal responsibility. Griffin sits and watches all of these television programmes and thinks, 'That's me, poor old Griffin.' He should dry his eyes and grow up."

*Griffin appears to have clung to a conviction that his father's occasional absences were necessitated by trips into the future undertaken on behalf of the Secret Service. Referring to the aftermath of revelation when a classmate, tired of his boasts, retorted, "Your dad's not in the future: he's in Leverndale!" he writes, "Whatever else changed, part of me remained forever frozen in that moment. My father was a liar. The world was not as I had thought." As ever, Elisabeth is unmoved by her brother's inner child. "He wasn't entirely backward. He didn't believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, but every day at school, I'd hear him crowing about Dad being a Time Traveller. It was obvious that at some point someone would put him in his place."

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