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Early years


Due to the fact that Alastair was an intensely private man and sources of information relating to his life are scarce, much of the biographical information provided within these pages is taken from the wonderful biography Dance And Skylark written by his wife Naomi.




Alastair Sim, aged 4, at a family picnic in Braemar

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At the time that Alastair was born, in 1900, the youngest of four children his father had his own tailor's shop in the Lothian Road, just south of Princes Street in Edinburgh, and the family lived in the rooms above. It must have been a constant struggle to keep going in those days, for Alastair recollected to Naomi, at the end of the day's work looking after her family, his mother had to come down and scrub out the shop floor. It appears that Alastair never forgave his father for this although his mother would have seen it as an absolute necessity. The family would not have been able to afford outside help and Scottish husbands did not scrub floors.

The family fortunes must have improved a little for by the time Alastair was six they were no longer living above the shop but in Bruntisfield, a mile or so away from the commercial area, and the children went to school there. He remembered that he was always in terror of being late, dashing from the house leaving his half-finished breakfast as the school be began to ring, for when it stopped the gates were shut and anyone Ieft outside got walloped.

When he was older Alastair moved to Gillespies School but he couldn't remember at what age he would have been. However, he did remember his father, who was now a JP and a governor of the school, paying a special visit to tell the staff that if they wanted to beat Alastair they must on no account hold back simply because his father was a governor.




Alastair Sim - School LeaverWhen Alastair was fourteen and left school his father put him to work in his tailoring shop as a messenger boy. There came a day when the delivery of a suit had been faithfully promised to an important customer by a certain hour, and his father impressed this on Alastair as he parcelled it up. Alastair set off with it, walking past Toll Cross and over The Meadows, but here he saw some of his friends playing cricket and stopped to watch them. Very soon he put the parcel down and joined in the game and by the time he remembered what he should be doing it was long, long past the hour of the promised delivery. I don't suppose he had any idea of what he had done to his father, who would have been devastated by the failure to keep his word as much as by the loss of his important customer. At any rate, Alastair was now put out of the family business before he ruined it.

I don't know what other crimes he committed but he remembered his father saying more than once, "Mark my words, that boy will end on the gallows". Alastair thought him pompous, hypocritical and unable to appreciate his mother, whom he adored, but his father was also a very kind man and very good to Naomi in later years. Although they could never communicate, his father became immensely proud of Alastair in time. In later years, Alastair's father fixed Naomi with an eye from which one could not escape and said with great intensity, "Alastair has never given me a moment's anxiety"; Naomi remembered the story about the parcel. Alastair could do a very good imitation of him, fixing Naomi with that eye and saying, "Tell me a boy is lazy - and tell me no more".

Alastair's mother could hardly have been less like his father. She had been born on the island of Eigg, and when she came to the mainland in her teens she could only speak Gaelic. She was shy, knowing she had little education, but she would laugh and say, "I'm not clever - but I'm damn cute". According to Naomi, she was better than that: she was wise. She loved people and had endless patience with them, and though she had had a hard life, she was completely without self-pity.

Alastair's mother told a beautiful story of having met an old acquaintance in Edinburgh who urged her to come to tea on a certain day the following week and bring all the children. When the day came she cleaned up all the kids, dressed them in their best clothes, put Alastair in the pram and pushed it half across Edinburgh to the friend's house. When the bell rang the friend came to the door and was delighted to see them all. She stayed chatting on the doorstep for quite a while before she said, "An ye're no comin' in? Aw, what a pity". There was a long walk home, probably with four howling kids done out of their treat, but their mother could only see the funny side. She adored Alastair, who could always make her laugh until she cried, though she never pretended to understand him, while she and Naomi had a relationship that was rare. Not many women can accept the wife of a favourite son without some reservations but Alastair's mother always behaved to Naomi as though she were the best possible thing that could have happened to him, and made it clear that she was forever grateful.




When Alastair's father decided to get rid of his least favourite messenger boy he wangled a job for him at Gieves, the men's outfitters, in Princes Street. Here Alastair struggled for a while but in those days all purchases had to be parcelled up neatly in brown paper and string and Alastair made such a hash of this that soon he was only allowed to sell ties because they could be put in an envelope. Before long his new empoyers and he parted with mutual delight.

It is unclear what Alastair did in the next year or two, but he must have had more schooling of some kind because in 1918 he was at Edinburgh University studying to be an analytical chemist. From there he went into the Officers' Training Corps and the Armistice came just before he was sent out to the front. The experience left him with a life-long detestation of the military mind.

Soon after the end of the war and release from the OTC, Alastair left home and went to the Highlands where he lived rough for a year. He joined a group of men who moved from place to place and job to job wherever their services were required. They were farm workers or foresters or ghillies, and frequently poachers. They slept in bothies or in barns, and every Saturday evening they would walk miles, if necessary, to the nearest pub to fill up on whisky. The first time this happened to Alastair he was so horribly ill afterwards that it gave him an utter loathing for the taste or smell of the stuff and he never touched it again for the rest of his life. That year must have been a very good experience for him and Naomi believes he learned a lot, but when Alastair later recounted stories of this time the impression she got was of someone watching with great interest while the other men did the work.




When he came back to Edinburgh Alastair may have had a number of jobs that he did not recount to Naomi, but before long he was working in, of all places, the Borough Assessor's Office. Naomi could not believe he enjoyed this job but he stayed in it for longer than any other.

It is unclear at what point he became interested in speech-training and considered becoming a teacher, but in his early twenties he went as a student to the Edinburgh Provincial Training Centre at Moray House. Later, when the University advertised the Fulton Lectureship in Elocution and Alastair applied for it, he asked the Principal of the Training Centre for a testimonial. A copy of this turned up years later when Alastair was throwing out old papers; NaomiI kept it for herself because she was fascinated to see what a long way he had come since he was the "boy who would end on the gallows". It is dated 1st April 1925, signed by the Principal, and runs:

From first to last Mr. Sim gave sure evidence of being a student much above average. His attendance was practically perfect: his attention was all that a lecturer could wish: while the highly intelligent, sensible and cultivated part he played in all departments of the work stamped him out as a man of real worth and ability. So struck was I with Mr. Sim's qualifications that I ventured to invite him to join the group of experts who carried out our Demonstration Work and to teach an Elocution lesson for the benefit of his fellow-students. The experiment proved a splendid success, as in an hour which brought to us all both delight and profit, he showed himself to be not only a charming elocutionist but also a teacher with skill of the first rank. Over and above all this, Mr. Sim is a gentleman in speech and behaviour, and he has high ideals which he will not fail to communicate to his students. I sincerely trust he may be successful in this present application: he is just the man for this all-important work, and I am sure that, if appointed, he will give a splendid model, lead and uplift to every man placed under his care.

It is perhaps easy to see why Alastair would have wanted to throw this document away, but it is fascinating because it shows so clearly what effect Alastair had on other people in the days when, to him, art had a capital "A".