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Morag's house within a house

IN 2012, my wife Morag, in her early 60s, saw a large old doll's house in the window of a Byres Road charity shop.

Top, the album Alasdair Gray made for Morag, capturing the beauty of her doll's house. Above, Morag and Alasdair together.Previous pages, Morag's album is on display as Alasdair works at homePhotograph: Kirsty Anderson
Top, the album Alasdair Gray made for Morag, capturing the beauty of her doll's house. Above, Morag and Alasdair together.Previous pages, Morag's album is on display as Alasdair works at homePhotograph: Kirsty Anderson

On a sudden impulse she bought it, perhaps because she never had one as a child. At ground level was the usual door with a window on each side, three windows on the floor above, attic windows in the roof. The whole front could open to show that the ground and middle floors had big central rooms, with a smaller room on each side. A stair with a landing led from the ground floor to the middle, another from the middle to the attic. The only furniture was bookcases fixed to walls in a small ground-floor room, and two or three-hundred tiny, balsa-wood models of books that fitted the shelves, but were in a plastic bag. The books were differently coloured and, amazingly, many had minute but readable titles.

Since leaving the firm where she had worked for 25 years, Morag's hobbies had been writing crosswords for the Lennox Herald (she had been born and lived a long time in Dumbarton), also second-hand book collecting and dealing. She now started furnishing her new, smaller home.

A model shop on Maryhill Road was her main source of furniture. She also got some from charity shops, with items not designed as toys. Decorated thimbles became vases and wastepaper baskets, remnants of patterned cloth were carpets. She had always shopped thriftily for herself, but for the house she shopped recklessly, sometimes forgetting what she already possessed and buying more because it seemed nicer. Mistakes were made. She bought a grand piano that was far too big before finding one the right size. Friends gave her toy furniture that was also sometimes too big. She acquired enough spare furniture, she said jocularly, for another house.

She did not put model human beings inside, but bears on their hind legs dressed like men and women, sometimes grouped like husband and wife or mother and baby. She acquired a bulldog in gaiters and clothes that suggested he was either a brutal country squire or a gamekeeper, and called him the master of the house. I did not like the look of him. There were two unclothed cats whose size, in relation to the house, seemed normal. I liked seeing her working with that house. If I offered any suggestions I am sure she ignored them.

I should here explain that the spacious two-room-and-kitchen flat we lived in was hers. She had finally paid off her mortgage on it in the year we married. I had been living in a smaller, rented flat, so she had invited me to share her home by putting up enough shelves to hold my own big library, and bringing in other furniture my work needed. She gave no sign of resenting this until late 2013 when our 22nd wedding anniversary was approaching, which was also her birthday.

I bought an album, wrote on the cover "Morag's Museum" and stuck into it good photographs of her doll's house with views of the insides of each separate room, taken by a professional photographer. As these did not fill the album I added photographs of the rest of our home, with her collections of ceramic cats and paintings. These photographs were taken when she was out of the house, because I wanted her to know nothing of them until I surprised her with the album.

Alas, a day or two later she angrily declared: "You have been moving things around in my doll's house!" I had to admit she was right and explain why, saying I had only moved some things slightly to give the photographer a better view, hoping she would not notice. But I had also put some of the little books in the cases, which she had not got round to doing, so I must have known she would see I had worked on it. She said: "Am I never to have a house that is completely mine?" All I could do was apologise.

I suspect from that time onward she lost interest in her wee house. With the help of the friend who had electrified it she had got miniature printouts of paintings, but never got round to putting them on the walls. When I gave her the album on her 64th birthday she said with a sigh: "When enough time has passed I'll probably come to like this."

She died in May this year. I wanted the doll's house to become a plaything of children who could not afford one, and fixed above the front door a sign which said: Morag McAlpine's House. Please Come In. I could not use the internet to find a place that might accept it, for I cannot work a computer, so like other lazy people I invited friends to "ask around" for me. Finding that hospices for sick children cannot accept second-hand gifts, which might pass a virulent germ to those with damaged immune systems, I hoped an orphanage might accept it.

Orphanages are not mentioned nowadays in Britain, because they were mostly funded and run by local authorities, and supported by ratepayers' and taxpayers' money. Since the 1970s, most of these have become registered charities and are called carehomes. Someone told me that a poor children's carehome accepting such a present would almost certainly sell it to support the charity itself, because children would only break it.

Perhaps I was stupid to be shocked by one person's opinion, which may be wrong. I might have had better news if I had contacted a children's home in person, and spoken to the working manager. I hope all such homes have a playroom for the very young supervised by an adult.

I imagine Morag's doll's house in a corner of a playroom, and two children friendly with each other being given the chance to play with it for a day or two. Two other friends could be given a chance to play with it on other days. As little chairs and tables lost an arm or leg they could be replaced from a box of extra furniture I would also give.

That is how I would hope responsible managers used the house. But nowadays it is hard for an outsider to contact the working head of an institution. Nearly all seem forbidden to answer any proposal from an outsider before it has been placed before a committee which will consider the matter at its next meeting, or the meeting after that.

I imagine the committee of a children's carehome charity discussing my gift in this time of serious economic crisis. It must be serious, because the wealthiest folk with the most political power keep telling us so. They use it as a reason to hold down the wages and increase the working hours of employees, without changing their own.

I can imagine a committee discussing whether the playroom in their home had enough supervisors to prevent wanton damage, as it had too many children whose main pleasure in Morag's house would be destroying it, as the airborne soldiers in Apocalypse Now destroyed a peaceful village.

They might therefore decide that Morag's house could best help their charity by treating it as a saleable asset. I had a nightmare vision of it being auctioned by a firm which (after deducting a percentage) would pass it to a wealthy parent as a gift for a child who had never lacked toys.

To those who have shall be given more, and those who have little, even the little they have will be reduced. This is now the policy of national and local governments. Two years ago, I believe Glasgow's Labour council began preparing for Commonwealth Games events by cutting grants to care centres for the disabled.

My friend, Nellimeg Hind, now 56, has not grown mentally since the age of three when she was struck by epilepsy. She has been unable to walk since she was five. Like many with such disabilities, the luck of having loving parents, one of them a breadwinner before retirement, made her life happy. Her mother, as elderly as me, needed social workers to get her to bed each night, dress and put her in a wheelchair each morning. On weekdays a bus collected Nellimeg with other disabled folk and took them to a care centre, which she enjoyed until brought back home.

Two years ago, the bus did not arrive. Shortly after, the manager of the care centre phoned Nellimeg's mother, and through tears explained that Glasgow City Council had told her that morning that the care centre was now closed. She said that with a day or two of warning she would have told parents to prepare for this, and even given a farewell party for those she and her staff had been helping. But Glasgow councillors are crafty wee buggers! Even a day's warning would have given time for the families of the handicapped to protest. How wise of the buggers to cut them off quick. So Glasgow councillors took their part in funding the Commonwealth Games jamboree by turning care centres into saleable assets by starting to privatise them.

This essay has wandered far and miserably from its first subject, but can end more hopefully. My friend James Kelman tells me of a Glasgow refuge for abused wives where they and children dependent on them live safely, sometimes for many days. Kelman thinks the manager will accept Morag's wee house without selling it or giving it away, unlike most managements in nations where bosses are turning all that was once publicly owned and managed into saleable assets.

Glasgow City Council confirmed that the Berryknowes daycare service referred to in Alasdair Gray's essay was closed as part of the Learning Disabilities reform programme in January 2014. It added that the centre remained open until alternative arrangements were fully in place for service users and those arrangements were developed hand-in-hand with the service users themselves and that the closure is not connected with the Commonwealth Games.

A spokesperson said: "We cannot comment on an individual case without the express consent of the individual concerned. However, following a reform agenda set and subsequently confirmed in legislation by the Scottish Parliament, the council has introduced personal budgets for service users with disabilities in recent years. This has allowed people far greater freedom and flexibility in the way they receive support and the new system is being increasingly welcomed by service users."

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