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Jack Cowan

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Sorry I have been absent from the board for so long, At the start of the year I had a spell in Falkirk & District Royal Infirmary, firstly for a hernia operation (3 days) followed by food poisoning (3 weeks) - all I can say is, if you are ever stricken in the Trossachs avoid the haggis and neaps "Taste of Scotland" menu alternative. During those dark days my tobacco consumption was of necessity curtailed, and other than a quick whiff of Black Jack on Mrs. Woodley's Harris Tweed skirt during visiting hours I have been a stranger to the pleasures of the pipe, with nary a furtive puff in the urinals to keep me going.

But – to my text – before ascending the management tree in the world of Labels and Labelling Technology I worked as a simple engineer on one of the early machines to produce self-adhesive labels. This mighty beast – we called it "The Mule" – churned out a fearful number of labels but required periodic dousing with benzene to keep the adhesive from gumming up the works entirely. The operations manager at that time was a large bearded man, broad of back, firm of jaw, and glass of eye (the left one). I shall call him Jack Cowan, because that was his name. At all times "JC" (as no-one called him) had a lit briar clenched between his teeth, and he kept it going even when anointing "The Mule" with benzene – not as dangerous as it sounds as benzene, though flammable, is relatively difficult to ignite. However, prolonged inhalation of benzene vapours can lead to hallucinations, loss of consciousness and death.

I recall one day when a rhythmic clanking in the machine room indicated that trouble was afoot. Shaking his head grimly JC arose, grabbed the can of benzene and, drawing heavily on his briar, went to investigate. He was away longer than normal. After some considerable time the door slowly opened and in came JC, on his hands and knees, his briar still in his mouth but with the bowl pointing downwards. He crawled uncertainly over to a workbench and grabbing a compressed air hose directed a stream of air over his face and (possibly incidentally) up the now empty pipe bowl and into his mouth.

Eventually he spoke:

"Ay laddie, The Mule nearly had me there. Don't ask me what I saw. It was terrible. Terrible !". We never did.

Though my tale may enable you to picture what the works looked like I doubt you can imagine the smell. The Labelling Hall was based in an old Victorian wooden warehouse which it shared with a haddock smoking company - at times the heady aroma of smoked haddock, benzene and Jack's Old Jamaica Shag became overpowering - in fact to this day when I encounter this combination of smells I am transported back to those far-off days. The downside to this arrangement was that the waste sluice from the haddock factory crossed the path in to our works, and when a trawler docked the frantic activity next door resulted in a torrent of foetid water (and worse) blocking our entrance.

I recall one time when we were being visited by a high-level delegation from the European Labelling Directorate led by some pompous big-wig from Brussels. Sadly, their visit co-incided with the docking of a laden trawler and the resulting activity next door. After picking their way uncertainly though the raging torrent outside our works, Jack ushered the delegation into his office and, ever the considerate host, gestured expansively at ten rolls of toilet paper arrayed on his desk and said "Before we begin discussions, gentlemen, you may wish to wipe the fish guts off your shoes". Their expressions were a joy to behold.

Sadly, some years later JC was killed in a bizarre kayaking accident on the A72 between Peebles and Glentress, but that is a story for another time.

---- Continued ----

The other evening I was yarning on the electric telephone with my old buddy and fellow labelling enthusiast (and long-time member of ASP) Mike “Sticky” Gervais. After a heated hour debating that perennial question of the labelling world “Self-adhesive envelope address labels: scalloped or square corners ?” we “agreed to differ” with no firm conclusion being reached. Sticky mused “You know Woodley, you have a tendency to leave things unfinished, for example you never told us how Jack Cowan met his end !” ( see above ). For once, he was right, and so I set the record straight here. 


Jack Cowan’s nephew was a great sportsman, and in particular a keen kayaker to a high standard. To be competitive in that sport you need excellent equipment and after saving for many months he purchased a top-of-the-range kayak made from the latest composite material. Sadly on his first time out on the Tweed he experienced a whitewater broach and the craft was holed. Repair with a small sheet of the same material was possible but a strong adhesive was needed to affix it. It was at this point that his Uncle Jack suggested doing the repair himself using the industrial adhesive used in the labelling behemoth “The Mule”. So Jack made the repair, making extensive use of benzene to remove surplus glue from the craft. The only problem now was to deliver it back to his nephew’s boat club as young Rab Cowan himself was away competing in a borrowed craft in Lichtenstein.


This was many years ago and Jack owned a Morris Minor car. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, imagine Shakespeare putting the finishing touches to Hamlet, thoughtfully sucking on his quill while looking out of the window of a typical half-timbered black-and white Tudor house. Now direct your attention to the driveway; what sort of car would Will have parked there ? The mighty Morris Minor, tiny, box-like, and also half-timbered, was later to become an ironic design classic but in those days was simply an affordable way of getting from Arbroath to Bon Accord. Road safety was also in a primitive stage of development then, so Jack simply strapped the kayak lengthways onto the roof rack of the car, with a foot and a half overhang at bow and stern, and set off.


So far the facts of the case are common knowledge, but for what happened on that fateful journey we must rely on the sole testimony of a lone rambler called (I seem to recall) Mr. R. Clarke, whose eyewitness account appeared in the local newspapers. Both the other potential witnesses to the tragedy did not live to tell the tale.


The road Jack was travelling on at one point ran steeply straight downhill to a hump-back bridge crossing a small swiftly flowing Lowland stream, normally black with peat and cold as ice. It seems at the top of the hill Jack noticed the kayak had come a little loose from its moorings and to fix this he took the fateful decision to clamber up onto the roof of the car and sit in the vessel the better to tighten the binding. The inevitable happened – the car’s handbrake slipped and it set off downhill at gathering speed with Jack a-top unable to influence its progress. So far so bad, but fate had another trick to play. Half-way down the hill a stray cow from an award-winning herd of Highland Cattle was apparently startled by the sight of a large Scotsman riding a kayak/car combo (and who can blame it ?) and it stampeded across the road immediately in front of the car. The impact was considerable and  brought both car and cow to an immediate halt. The cow was killed instantly (and was later served up to great acclaim at the Peebles Tartan Bar and Grill, in addition to furnishing several juicy dinners for members of the rescue services over the next several weeks – and who would begrudge them that ? Not I !)


But, back to Jack. The momentum of the car had been stopped so suddenly that the kayak sprang forward, snapped all its retaining straps, flew over the cow’s carcase, hit the road, and continued downhill under its own power with Jack sitting helplessly in it – his liberal dousing of the hull with benzene had apparently resulted in excellent lubrication between composite and tarmac and the speed increased ever more. Showing excellent presence of mind, Jack grabbed the paddle stowed inside the boat and began to use it to try to control the direction and speed of his descent, scraping it along the road when necessary to turn the craft. This seemed successful for a while. His last problem was the hump-back bridge – it was unclear if the kayak would become airborne as it went over and a damaging crash might result on the other side. It seems Jack conceived a brilliant plan. At the last minute, before he reached the bridge, he slammed the paddle onto the road surface and managed to turn the craft sharply sideways. It slipped smoothly off the road, over the grass verge, across some gravel, and down into the river the bridge was designed to cross.


Jack clearly planned to have the water cushion his descent and halt his progress. Sadly it was the hottest Summer in living memory, the river was dry, and Jack met his end on boulders which normally would have been six foot under water. Was Jack, then, the first victim of Global Warming ? We shall never know.


Happy Days,


Many thanks,


Ted Woodley




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Many Thanks, Ted Woodley