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Sing Your Life

Stuart Bailie | 17:17 UK time, Friday, 28 May 2010

If you're a bit fortunate and if you have some gravity in your soul, then the world might afford you a theme song. Frank Sinatra signed off with 'My Way', John Peel took 'Teenage Kicks' to the grave with him, and my grandfather had 'Far Away Places'.

hammy.jpgHe would sing it at Christmas parties, times when the family was together and the company was fine. The other folk would do parlour songs like 'My Old Irish Home' but when my granddad sang, it was different.

Hammy Simpson served 27 years in the Royal Irish Rifles. As a Sergeant Major, he took on the Nazis in North Africa and there were tours of India and Burma, the Middle East and Europe. He would occasionally talk of the Eighth Army, or Montgomery and Rommel, but mostly he kept his own counsel and we didn't hear nearly enough.

So when he sang 'Far Away Places' it was a hint of his life. The song had been released by Bing Crosby in 1948, as the dust was settling from the war. It's about the call of the exotic, about Siam and China and Spain. It's the story of a guy that has lived a rich life. His roaming days might be over, but still there is the romance of the journey.

I remember my granddad as he prepared to leave the shipyard. He had bruises on his shins and the tattoo of a lady on his arm. He was a big-hearted fella and he watched me play with my Airfix soldiers with some amusement.

Then one day he presented me with a little Bakelite tube. The top came off and there was a thin spoon attached to the lid. This, he explained, was for greasing his rifle. And then he told me a bit about a place called Dunkirk in France, and how the allies had to leave from there to escape the advancing Germans.

Everyone threw their weapons away before getting onto the relief ships. But Hammy kept his little tube and here he was, 30 years later, giving it to me. I was probably 10 at the time and I understood little of the significance of that moment. And my heart is sore because I lost that gift some time after. A priceless reminder from a far away place.


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