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Open Features: After The War Was Over...

After leaving the Army Coatbridge wants to resume his university studies where he left off - but the academics set him a formidable task.

Linda McLean continues the story of her father's life.

Things had changed so much since he had last entered the portals of his University. The world had changed – he had changed. The building looked familiar, but somehow not the same.

It was difficult for Coatbridge not to march into the formal interview at the University. Marching had become a part of life. He tried to appear casual, clutching the portfolio of his previous work less tightly. He held himself upright as he walked, aware now of the soldier within.

He wasn't really nervous, he told himself. This was merely rubber-stamping. After all, he had completed three years of architectural studies already, acquitting himself well, and he had the assurance of the Army that he would be able to enter Civvy Street where he had left off.

Thoughts of the Army filled his mind. He had faced a difficult decision. He had loved the life, at long last found a "family". He had been invited to stay on with promotion, but conscience dictated otherwise. His parents had given up so much for his education, and there was now no time to lose.

It was obvious that his father, now 66, would have to get a part time job to realise the dream of his son being a university graduate. His father was beginning to look frail, to look his age, and it was obvious that he could not work for much longer. But it would only be one year. Coatbridge consoled himself with that thought. Only one year to go…

The interview panel thought differently. They told him in no uncertain terms that as it had been five years since he had submitted any work, or indeed lifted a pencil, so there was no guarantee he could still draw. They would be willing to allow him to start in first year. He certainly could not just walk into the fourth.

“First year!” said Coatbridge, aghast. “That is simply not an option. You have seen my work, and the fact that for years I was fighting a war not of my making was not my fault. You cannot penalise me like this!”

“Design has moved on since you were at University. You have been living a very active life. You may find that it is difficult to settle down to your studies again. I think it best that you go back to first year,” was the response from the Chairman of the panel.

This was no unsure youth the Chairman was addressing. This was a man who had seen his share of fighting. As an infantry man, he had covered three thousand miles for his country, taken part in two landings, and fought in twenty separate actions. He had led men. He was not going to accept a "no" from the academics after all he had been through.

So he fought his corner, although it did not come easily. He was very mild mannered, but the thought of his father having to go out to work when he was still seventy to help him complete his studies, made him argue the point forcibly. (There was no old age pension in 1945, and university study was full time.)

Coatbridge powerfully argued his case, He cited his exam results, his previous work, which he had with him, his financial situation, the difficulties his parents would face.

The academics were unmoved and refused to change their minds. Coatbridge was desperate. Eventually, he went as far as he was prepared to go. Being sure of his ability, he threw down the gauntlet.

"If you will simply allow me to attend classes in fourth year, so I can sit the examination, I will undertake and complete any project you care to mention, to prove my ability."

The Interview Board said to leave it with them. He would be informed shortly.

For days he paced, wondering if he had done the right thing in leaving the Army. His thoughts always came back to how much his parents had given. He could not throw that away.
At long last, the envelope arrived. He was invited to join the fourth year, and his project would be “To measure and draw to scale, without access to plans, the whole of Glasgow Cathedral."

Surely this was a joke?

He knew the building, although he had never been in it. It was huge.

When he entered the cathedral and saw the task which lay ahead of him he was overwhelmed. He felt like sitting down and weeping. It was utterly incredible that this extra mile should be asked of him. After all his effort, all the hardship, all the lost friends, all the things that should never have happened to a youth - and now this! What a reward for lost years.

Where and how could he start?

How was he going to achieve this single-handed?

What would he need?

How would he manage to work out the proportions of the roof?
The challenge was overwhelming. He was hurt at the stance taken by the University. He had been a good student - his passes were always more than adequate. He had never failed.
None of it made sense - not one bit of it.

Having spent three years fighting, he was destined to spend the months inside a cathedral. However, he had volunteered for the challenge. They were not going to beat him.

So he went from the din of gunfire, of schu mines exploding and bombardment by moaning Minnies, from the excitement and the fear of battle, into cathedral quiet.

No more the jokes and banter shared with his men. He set about the task alone, lugging ladders around the huge building, measuring naves, apses, pillars, columns, steps, recesses… There was always something else waiting to be measured.

He couldn’t reach the roof, not even when he was standing on his longest ladder. He had to use mathematical calculations of Cos and Sine to work out the length and height.

It all paid off in the end. He was First in his year.


“Can you imagine how hard it was?" he had asked her when she was a child. She had no real understanding then.

"Can you imagine…….?" he repeated when she was a teenager, but then nothing really mattered except boyfriends.

"Can you imagine…?" was put to her again as a young adult. And still the magnitude of the task he had been set was almost beyond her comprehension.

Much, much later the task made some kind of sense when the church burnt down, and its plans were also destroyed in the blaze.

The Presbytery invited him to be the architect in charge of replacing the roof. Though somewhat daunted – he would now have to please a whole congregation – Coatbridge accepted the commission.

He knew how to replace the roof exactly as it had been.

As a test he had already "done'' the work.

Now he would do it for real.

And he did.

The church was ready for his daughter’s wedding.

© Linda Mclean


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