The Samson Sisters and Joan Eardley

Here’s a link to the piece I wrote for the Daily Record. Only getting round to posting it now.

When I went along to interview the performers taking part in Scottish Opera’s community opera, I was astonished and delighted to meet sisters Pat McLean and Anne McKenna who as wee lassies were painted by the great Scottish artist Joan Eardley

It’s a familiar scene – a lone figure standing outside Glasgow’s Theatre Royal, paper cup in hand, hoping to pick up some spare change from opera goers.

The chances are that this person’s life has featured all the dramatic twists turns of an opera as tragic as Madame Butterfly or Carmen, except that the desperation usually stems from not having a roof over his or her head.

(pic Robin Mitchell)


reasons why people become homeless, vulnerable and socially excluded can be complex, but whether you are Lady Gaga or the fictional Walter White in the TV series Breaking Bad, we all need to feel good about ourselves.

Now thanks to a three-year arts project which gives a voice to people in tough situations by helping to build confidence and develop creative skills, that solitary figure may well have swapped the sidewalk for the stage.

Spearheaded by Scottish Opera, the LHM (Lodging House Mission) and a choir from the Gorbals called Givin’ It Laldie, the grande finale of this extraordinary project takes place on 4 May at the Scottish National Youth Theatre and features a double bill of community operas created from scratch and performed by the participants.

Rehearsals are in full swing at the LHN building in East Campbell Street where dozens of men and women are having lunch in the dining hall, while upstairs, the cast and creative team are going through their paces. The cast is includes professional opera singers, Marie Claire Breen and baritone Anders Ostberg.

The creative team of director Lissa Lorenzo and composer/musical director Alan Penman, have been with the project from the outset, as have Givin’ It Laldie choir director Shelly Coyne and the LHM’s Trina Gibson.

Lorenzo says that the cast’s commitment and passion make her job easy.  “These are full-on productions and we’ve been rehearsing every week since January. It’s a challenge for the performers to sustain that over two fully-sung shows.

“The group is made up of people who are daily service users at the LHM and others who have chosen to come along each Friday. It can be stressful, as people come on a voluntary basis and of course life can get in the way.

“We recently lost a couple of people for various reasons, some positive, some negative, but everyone in the group is supportive and ready to step in.  For some it’s about personal development and increasing confidence and self-worth, while others go on to study more seriously.”

William’s story

That’s the path William Leadbetter from Dennistoun is following and what with playing the title role in Who Killed John King?  and studying at North Glasgow College, he’s come a long way from his days of binge drinking and rough sleeping.

“It started with being in the wrong crowd and drinking a lot which caused friction in the family,” he explained, “so I thought it would be better to go my own way and be independent than cause any more trouble.

“I drifted from hostel to hostel, binge drinking on Frosty Jack and Buckfast until I was unfit for any work. Then four years ago, I got involved with the choir through Shelly Coyne and for the first time in my life I realised that here was something I could do.

“Singing and performing bring out the best in me. Last year they gave me a lead part and the fact that they believed in me gave me a lot of confidence. Although I was terrified before the performances, when I saw the lights and heard the audience, I felt electricity flowing through my body.

“Now I’m at college, writing my own music and I have just been given my own tenancy, and it’s all down to this project. On reflection, I know I went through some bad times, but we’re only human and we’ve all made bad choices. My mum and dad are happy for me and I’m hoping they’ll come along to the show.”

Charlene’s story

Even as a homeless schoolgirl sleeping underneath bridges on the Clyde, Charlene McKellar tried to create a home for herself. The twenty-five-year-old, who has been involved with the project for all of its three years, became homeless at 16 due to family problems.

“During that time, I kept going to school,” Charlene recalled. “I’d get my sisters and brothers to wash my clothes and I’d come to LHM to use the shower room and started using the services here regularly.

“Everything became easier in a strange sort of way, when my sister became homeless too. We’d sleep under a bridge near the Nautical College, but we tried to make it homely. We even had a bed and wardrobe -stuff that was left over from the Barras. Nobody knew we were there.

“But I was all over the place in my head and not focused on schooling or anything, so in the end I told a teacher and a social worker was brought in to help. The worst thing about being homeless is not being able to lock your door.

“When I first came to the hostel, I was given the opportunity to do a class – music is something I’m passionate about.  I’m a big fan of Adele and love the words or her songs. When I was at school, I hated sports and wanted to study music and was bullied for being different.

“Being involved in this helps me with self-esteem and confidence. Here, I am who I want to be. For the past seven months I’ve had my own tenancy in the Calton – and I have a job working with young people who have a history in care. It feels so good to have my own place.”

opera2 (2)

The Samson Sisters

Watching Sisters Anne McKenna (59) and Pat Mclean (60) rehearsing Who Killed John King? playing a murderer and an aunt respectively, few would guess that their story rivals that of any opera.

Childhood images of the sisters feature in private and public art collections across the world, paintings so valuable that they command five figure sums on the rare occasions they come for sale.

For Anne and Pat, who are no strangers to homelessness, are members of the Samson family whose hardscrabble childhood in Rotten Row was captured for all eternity by the artist Joan Eardley (1921-63). Eardley worked from a studio in St James Road in Townhead, something quite radical for a young woman in the 1950s.

Their story is well documented and the Samson name is forever linked with  Eardley who sketched and painted them over a seven year period, and is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most popular artists.

“I was born in Rottenrow and stayed there for the first eight years of my life,” Anne explained. “I was the youngest girl in a family of 12. My brother Andrew was the first to meet Joan Eardley and she used to paint him a lot.

“Eventually my mother said ‘let me see this woman’ and when she came to our house my mother told her – ‘I’ve got 11 more if you want to paint them too’. We loved going to the studio and Joan would make us treacle and cheese sandwiches.

“Each time she painted us we got 3d and we’d go straight to the sweetie shop with it.  Any paintings she wasn’t pleased with, and there were lots, she’d give to us and we’d make paper aeroplanes with them or they’d be used to light the fire.

“I always remember going to her studio from school one day and her telling us that she didn’t want to paint us anymore. Of course my mother headed straight down to find what was happening, but was very quiet when she came home.”

Joan Eardley died of breast cancer when she 42, just as she was reaching the height of her powers. The sisters wonder if the artist had confided in their mother that day.

Almost three years ago, Anne, became homeless for 18 months, arriving home one night to find that the locks had been changed and her furniture dumped round the back of what had been her home of eight years in Royston.

“After spending the night at my daughter’s house (Anne has two daughters 26 and 36), I went straight down to the Housing the next morning before the doors had even opened.

“They told me I’d been evicted as they had got word that my house was unoccupied, in spite of the fact that there was money in the electricity and gas metres. When I went back to my house, all my stuff had disappeared.

“I didn’t want to bother my daughter and told her I’d go to the homeless unit, but as I’d had a drink problem in the past, she didn’t want me to risk going in case that would start me off again.

“So I lived with her for a time, then sofa surfed at my brothers and sisters places, until it got to the stage where I wanted to end my life.” Anne makes no attempt to embellish this stark statement.

When I asked how it felt to be homeless she is unflinching: “It’s a nightmare.  You’re eating out all the time so all the money is going on that. You’re depressed. You don’t know what to do with yourself. If this place LHM hadn’t been here, I wouldn’t be here.”

Pat is the more fragile of the sisters added: “We’ve both been coming here for 14 years. That started when we were looking for our brother who’d gone missing. We just thought ‘we’ll go to Trotters’ as we called this place; he’ll be in there.

“We’ve been coming ever since. Our brother George took ill with drink and died. I worked as night cleaner but I gave up my house three years ago when I had stroke; it’s left me quite anxious and nervous.”

But that didn’t stop Pat taking part in the community opera performances as Anne explained. “Neither of us are singers and we thought there’s no way we could join in with Scottish Opera – all thae big voices.

“But we joined in and have performed in all the productions over the three years. Before this project I was down there and now I’m up again. I’m sorry it’s coming to an end and hope there can be funding for the future.”

Both are interesting women in their own right, but given that it is their childhood faces staring back at visitors to the National Galleries of Scotland and galleries across the world, they are also iconic symbols of their native city frozen in time.

Pat and Anne are quite matter of fact about not having even a rough sketch themselves. Pat recalled that when the artist was painting her ‘she said I had red hair, squinty eye and a face like a turnip’! If they have one wish, it is to track down of a video that was made about Eardley and their family.

As well as their feisty mother, Jean, who is still going strong at 93, nine of the original 12 siblings are still alive; three of the Samson brothers have died.

The Samsons were also photographed by Oscar Marzaroli, whose work caught the look and life of Glasgow old and new. The two sisters are still as close as they appear in images which often feature a protective arm round one another; the closeness that Eardley captured endures to this day.

What matters to the sisters is that they are no longer homeless and both happily settled in a house in Royston. “We knit kid’s toys to sell them at church fairs and give the money to the Lodging Mission House.

All may have their different stories but are united by music, drama and this performance. When choir director Shelly resumes the rehearsal and Alan plays the opening chords, everyone starts to sing in harmony.  The mighty and melodic sound they collectively create is nothing less than a force of nature.

On my way home, I see a figure in tattered trackies raking in the bins behind a supermarket and hope he can find his way to East Campbell Street. In the words of Eric Clapton, who has successfully overcome his own demons: “For me there is something primitively soothing about this music, and it went straight to my nervous system, making me feel ten feet tall.” (Clearly this wasn’t the case at Glasgow Hydro last weekend – but a potent quote nonetheless)



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