Monday, 31 August 2020

Interlude 10—Otzy



The cold eats through your bones,

the blinding snowflakes freeze your beard,

and leather straw and wool have lost their power to warm.

You stumble on on feet of lead

a roaring fire, a waiting wife 

the only impetus

for that next agonizing step.

A feather bed of snow 

beneath the wind,

you lay your quiver knife and axe aside 

and rest 

Fifty centuries of calm blue ice

muffle with equal ease

an army's thunderous tread, 

the whisper of a thought.

Asleep you lie 

as Hannibal passed by

fooled by Rome's eternity

and Christ fished

in waters deeper than your sleep.

Your changeless dreams 

a simple hut on legs beside a lake

a hearth

a meal of fish and grain

a family to pass your memory down.

Poor fool

even the lake has long since gone.

The ice withdraws

and leaves you naked

in our questing glare,

an ancient man so primitive

and yet so much like us. 

We probe in awe 

the arrow in your back,

the sacred marks upon your skin,

each tiny seed of gruel from your final meal, 

and catalogue your trinkets tools and garb

as through those hollow eyes

you watch our petty quarrelling

I want to touch your face

feel the skin's dark leatheriness

let you know I am alive

and care.

Maybe then you will awake

and forgive us

for killing you.

Monday, 24 August 2020

Sex. drugs and rock 'n' roll—part 2

The only surviving stone from the original Paisley Grammar.

Paisley Grammar School was universally known as the Grammar, although its full title, Paisley Grammar School and William B. Barbour Academy, was much grander. The pretensions of the Grammar didn’t help its reputation for snobbishness. Founded by a royal charter in 1576, the Grammar charged fees, the students played rugby and cricket as opposed to football, which was what everyone wanted to play, and had a school song, the Oriflamme:

The torch of our yesterdays

Was kindled by a royal hand.

To bear the Oriflamme always,

And keep it splendid and ablaze,

Was his command.

The torch has ever burned with light

Inspiring, down the days of dust.

They held it sacred in his sight.

To pass it on, a beacon bright:

It was their trust.

The torch, long borne of storied fame

Our eager hands are grasping now.

That we shall tend its vital flame

In loyal service to his name

This be our vow.

Despite singing it on numerous occasions, I was never eager or inspired and made no vow. 

The Grammar also had a Latin motto inscribed above the front door. It was “Disce Puer Aut Abi.” This translates as “Work boy or get out”, which I didn’t find particularly encouraging.

Franz's car turning, moments before the shots.
To be fair, the Grammar did, overall, provide a decent education. Of course, there were good teachers and bad. I had two favourites. Colin Campbell taught me history for two years. He made it come alive and was influential in giving me history as a source of the stories I now tell, so much so that I reconnected with him in 2004 and dedicated a book to him (The Flags of War). I can still visualize the lesson he gave on the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. I was so impressed that I went home and wrote the story down, complete with a map of the route the Archduke’s car took and crosses where the assassins stood. 

It helped that Mr. Campbell was closer to us in age than many of the teachers at the Grammar and so we could relate more easily. He also had a cool story about his brother who was in the RAF and told us, through Mr. Campbell, how, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vulcan bombers loaded with atomic bombs had been distributed to civilian airports around the country and sat, fuelled and armed at the end of the runways with a pilot in the cockpit 24/7 for eleven days.

The story resonated because, like most teenagers in the sixties, I really thought the end of the world was round the corner. Our grandparents generation had had a war, our parents had had a war, pretty soon it was going to be our turn. I was hugely impressed and scared by Peter Watkins’ movie The War Game, which in 1965 depicted in documentary style the run up to and consequence of a nuclear war in Britain. I even did a school project on the coming nuclear holocaust and went to talk to Civil Defence experts in the local government. I still have the faded and rather quaint brochures they gave me complete with instructions on how to build a “safe place” out of mattresses in the centre of your home. 

I kept a diary during these years of living on the edge and make several references to the possible start of World War Three. For example, on Monday, May 15, 1967, the day I sat my last O Level exam and recorded that today “everything goes back to monotony”, I finish the entry with “I am of the opinion that if the war in Viet-Nam does not stop it will lead to Chinese intervention and an inevitableWorld War 3. It’s pretty frightening but true I’m afraid. Cold sunny day.” Two days later I sadly registered that Colin Campbell was leaving to become head history teacher at Greenock Academy.

My concern with the world and its end dovetailed perfectly with the second of my favourite teachers. We had him for only one year and he taught Religious Instruction. My experiences learning First Corinthians and a burgeoning atheism didn’t encourage high hopes but the teacher overcame those impediments. We were encouraged to research and discuss topics like the morality of having used nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945. The complexity of moral issues that I had always thought simple fascinated me and every scene I have written where a character wrestles with a problem that those around him see as straightforward owes a debt to that unfortunately nameless teacher.

The other side of the teacher coin were the teacher who got into a fist fight with a student outside the lunch room and the chemistry teacher who, for a strap had a narrow, wickedly flexible strip of leather that left angry, painful weals on your wrist if you couldn’t drag your shirt or jacket cuff far enough down your arm.

Oddly, within the culture of violence surrounding us, we admired both of these teachers. The first because he was one of those who had taken us to Austria and because we agreed that the student he hit had deserved whatever was coming to him. The second, his slightly sadistic streak notwithstanding, was a good teacher and, in any case, getting six of the strap from him gave one status in the strangely disturbing competition we boys had to suffer to prove our budding masculinity.

Other incidents stand out in isolation. There was the time I was tripped running along the school corridor and smashed my jaw into a door, loosening a front tooth and causing me to faint at morning assembly. One year a teacher came in from outside to give a lesson on Sex Education. Bizarrely it was only given to the girls and we boys were left hanging around outside fantasizing about the mysteries that were being revealed behind closed doors. 

The school library had two bookshelves on one corner containing titles that only fifth and sixth year students could sign out. In fourth year I asked for a dispensation because those shelves contained treasures by some of my favourite authors, Hemingway, Orwell, Maupassant, etc. I was told no, so I got around it by stealing the books I wanted to read. It wasn’t really stealing because I returned the books when I had read them, but I doubt if the school would have looked at it that way had I been caught.

At the breaks during the day, we played a fast and vicious version of poker, three-card brag, for pennies behind the sheds. We played football with a tennis ball in the playground, often with more than twenty-a-side and long arguments about whether a shot was inside or outside the chalked goalposts on the gym wall. We hung out in the covered walkway between the school and the gym, which was the only place we were allowed any interaction with the girls who had a separate playground on the other side of the school.

We also hung out off the school property half a block down Mckerrell Street outside a tiny convenience store. The creepy guy who ran the store sold single cigarettes and it was here that all the serious business was carried out. Forbidden literature was exchanged. For a while, Lord Russell of Liverpool’s two books on the Nazi and Japanese war crimes, The Scourge of the Swastika and The Knights of Bushido, held sway and we huddled round in groups reading and shuddering at the graphic descriptions of torture. It was not that we were young monsters preparing to perpetrate these horrors on others, it was more that out lives and experiences were so well-controlled and bland, that we were naturally attracted to anything that gave us a glimpse of a darker world than the one we were supposed to believe in. Yet, even through my morbid fascination, I had a suspicion that listing atrocities was gratuitous and that there was more complexity to history than these books suggested.

Popular as Lord Russell’s works were, they couldn’t compete with sex. Well-thumbed, dog-eared copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Fanny Hill were breathlessly passed around. Tattered copies of Parade and Girl Illustrated and even the rigorously unsexual (although it always seemed to show bare-breasted women and not men on the cover), naturist magazine, Health and Efficiency, circulated. Compared to what any teen can access today on the internet, this was all incredibly tame and bland. Nothing was ever shown apart from bare breasts and bottoms but it was the only window most of us had into this foreign land of sex and the coquettish smiles on the model’s faces seemed to offer so many more unknowns.

Long pants but still with a lot to learn
Once, I was spotted skipping class and heading down Mckerrell Street. A teacher followed me and I ran, dodging through tenement closes, alleys and back greens—if he didn’t catch me he couldn’t prove anything. I came back out onto Mckerrell Street, only to see that the teacher was still hovering about. I ducked into the convenience store and the creepy guy said I could hide in the back. Unwisely, I did. He came through and brought out two or three dirty magazines. These were ones I wasn’t familiar with but were just as bland as all the others. As I thumbed through them, he tried to fondle me. I was wondering what to do, when the bell of the shop rang and he went through to serve a customer. Hurriedly, I stuffed two of the magazines under my shirt and brazenly walked out through the shop, ignoring the stare of the woman buying groceries. Of course there was nothing the creepy guy could do and the teacher was gone, so I got away scot free.

This was the first suggestion I had that sex was a much more complex part of human relationships than my simple, idealized, clean-cut imaginings promoted by Health and Efficiency. The next day I took one of the stolen magazines to pass round outside the shop and gained minor status for it. I still shamelessly went into the shop to buy my single cigarettes, but I was always careful that others were around. In time, I learned that my experience wasn’t unique. None of us even remotely considered reporting the shopkeeper to the police. It was just the way things were, if you went through to the back of the shop, the store owner would try and fondle you. 

At the time I had no qualms and felt no guilt about stealing from the creepy guy, after all many of us tried to shoplift candy given an opportunity. I didn’t even feel disgust at what he had tried to do, he had simply tried something that he could have got in trouble for and that gave me a certain power over him and a freedom from culpability in stealing from him. Today I feel very different about him. He was probably just a sad and lonely man in a time when his sexual preferences could still draw him a hefty prison sentence. I wonder whatever happened to him.

For me, being a student at the Grammar was a world away from the image that the school represented and I never bought into the ethos that it tried to portray. It was a trial that had to be survived but, for all the ups and downs of the rocky journey, the Grammar served its purpose in getting me into university. University was an escape from school but it was also an escape from Paisley and its gangs.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll—part 1

Paisley Grammar School and William B. Barbour Academy

As a member of the leading edge of the baby boomer generation going through my troubled formative teenage years in a decade that for better or worse supposedly defines my generation, this section should be, as the title suggests, about the wild, free love and mind-expanding life in the sixties. Unfortunately, honesty must intervene. 

I admit that I spent far too many hours in the 1960s thinking about sex but, apart from a few fumbling and unsuccessful expeditions into this intriguing yet foreign land, the age of free love it was not. We knew about marijuana and LSD in a theoretical sense, but our drugs of choice and necessity were Players No. 6 cigarettes, pints of heavy and, if we could afford them, fifths of vodka and orange juice. As for rock & roll, we were more aware through weekly episodes of Top of the Pops, pirate radio stations broadcasting from Luxembourg or ships in the North Sea and, latterly John Peel. On the other hand I spent a couple of years in the mid-sixties being into country and western music. Paisley was not Haight-Ashbury. While we knew about the goings on in San Francisco and swinging London, for the most part Scotland remained stubbornly immune to the Summer of Love.

My six years of high school were not, as many people claim, the best years of my life. The moment I put my pen down at the end of my last exam in the spring of 1969, I stood up, walked out of Paisley Grammar School and never returned, not even for the end of year party and dance. While others hung out, reminisced and said goodbye, I took a deep breath and began scrubbing the grease off the kitchen walls in Glasgow airport. That summer I felt truly free for the first time in my life. I was earning money, going to Spain on holiday and, despite some significant anxiety, heading off to university in the fall. I was only seventeen and still had many mistakes and stupidities ahead, but my troubled teenage years were over.

The hall at Paisley Grammar

My less than stellar academic career had ended on a high note. In my fifth year, when we were all taking exams that would determine which university we would attend or if university was even in our future, my parents and I had a meeting with the school principal, Robert Corbett, to discuss options. I was nervous. I had been in Corbett’s office far too many times listening to him tell me, and sometimes my parents as well, that I was on the brink of expulsion. I tended to blame Corbett for all my troubles at school, which was unfair, but our relationship had sometimes descended to one-sided physical violence (in those days strapping a recalcitrant student on his outstretched hand with a leather belt was perfectly acceptable), and my view of him see-sawed between fear and hate.

Eve assumed university was a given and I had vague ideas of turning my passion for collecting fossils into something geological.

“What do you see your son doing?” Corbett asked Eve.

“Going to university,” she answered.

“And you?” he asked looking at me.

“I want to do History or Geology,” I answered.

My memory has Corbett laughing but he probably didn’t. He did tell Eve a story though, “A few years ago we had a girl at the Grammar who was accepted into all four of Scotland’s universities. She was an exceptional student, unlike John.”

There was more about my poor marks in preliminary Higher Level exams—physics, chemistry, history, english and mathematics had all been just enough to allow me to sit the final exams. French, for which I had not seen the point of doing the slightest work, was a remarkable 19%. 

Corbett went on to go over the various troubles I had been in and outlined the options for technical college. All of this must have been hard on Eve but I don’t remember the details because I was sitting thinking, “Fuck you, Corbett,” and other even less savoury things.

The upshot was that, in my anger, I applied myself and in fifth year passed four Highers: English, History, Maths and Science, (Physics and Chemistry were combined into Science since I was in the first year of a new curriculum and we hadn’t got far enough through it to allow sitting separate exams), with good enough grades to be accepted into Glasgow and Aberdeen universities to do Geology. It wasn’t enough for two reasons: first I had to show Corbett and second St Andrews was the best university in Scotland for geology and their requirements were greater. I returned to the life I detested for another year and passed Physics and Chemistry, Advanced Maths and, to fill in time, O Level Geography with good enough grades to be accepted into Edinburgh and St Andrews universities.

I dreamed of walking back into Corbett’s office and waving the four acceptance letters under his nose while saying something suitably pithy. I didn’t, and it was only years later that I wondered if the whole thing had been a set up on his part. Had he been smart enough to spot that, beneath all my childish rebellion there was something worth saving and challenging me would allow that rebellion to work in my favour?

So my high school years ended in a high note. They began on a similar one half-a-dozen years before.

Can you answer these questions?

1) Make adjectives from these nouns: beauty, slope, glass, friend, doubt, expense, delight, sleep, danger, sport.

2) A motorist leaves home at 10.15am and drives at 32 miles per hour. He stops for lunch from noon to 1.45pm and then continues his journey at 30 miles per hour. How many miles has he travelled by 5pm?

3) Multiply 7,296 by 479 (Without a calculator).

4) What article of furniture is DWEBORRA an anagram of?

5) Pick the odd word out in each of the following lists.

a) alike, same, similar, somewhat.

b) pigeon, duck, goose, swan.

c) firm, rough, solid, hard.

d) this, that, the, those.

e) pretty, nice, charm, lovely.

f) tumbler, cup, mug, jug.

g) fishing, rowing, climbing, swimming.

h) scarlet, blue, red, pink.

i) sewing, cotton, needle, calico

6) Write an essay on “What life must be like as a cat.”

Okay, but could you have done it in a strictly limited time when you were ten- or eleven-years-old?

The questions above are taken from the old eleven-plus exam, which was used in Britain in the 1950s and 60s to stream students academically in the last year of primary school. Your mark determined which secondary school you would go to, broadly, a senior secondary that gave you five or six years of education and the chance to go to university or college, or a junior secondary that gave you a much more practical education until age sixteen with the expectation that you would then go into a trade. It was possible but very difficult to move from a junior to a senior secondary school once you were categorized, so the exam was important.

Eve realized that, although it was too late for her, a post-secondary school education was one way to avoid the trap that the collapse of the Raj had thrust her and Jim into. This was particularly true for girls and my sisters had, respectively, a science degree from Edinburgh University, an art college diploma and a teacher training certificate. The expectation was that I would do well in my eleven-plus as a first step on the way to university.

At eleven-years-old I had only the haziest idea of what university was and no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I was okay with that. The difficulty was that I was a lazy student and didn’t particularly care which senior secondary school I went to. There were three options in Paisley and which one you went to depended upon your mark in the eleven plus, in ascending order, Camphill, John Neilson and Paisley Grammar. Eve was convinced that the last of these was the best, even though going to Paisley Grammar included the added cost of small fees and the purchase of a school uniform, which must have put a strain on the family finances. 

Most of my friends were aiming for Camphill and regarded a desire to go to Paisley Grammar as snobbish. I would probably have coasted into Camphill had it not been for an event that strangely prefigured my experience with Corbett. After a pre-eleven-plus parent-teacher meeting, Eve came home annoyed that the teacher had said that I was not capable of getting a good enough mark to get into Paisley Grammar. Based on past performance that was an entirely reasonable supposition but it annoyed me too and, in a fit of juvenile bloody-mindedness, I worked hard and with one other person from my class made the grade. Am I really that easy to read and manipulate?

In any case, Eve was thrilled and I was scared. The only positive was that I had a crush on the girl who was accompanying me and, with the whole of high school ahead, maybe she would notice me—she didn’t.

What an island
should look like.

One of my most vivid memories of early learning was a geography lesson. To illustrate whatever point she was making, the teacher drew a rough outline of Scotland on the blackboard. She had already told us that Britain was an island but I was totally confused by the zig-zag lines of her map. That wasn’t what an island looked like. Islands were more-or-less circular or oval and had bays and beaches round the edges where pirates and castaways could land. I went home and looked at an atlas, only to discover that my teacher had been right. I learned that the sketches in Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, while useful to their stories, didn’t constitute worthwhile geography textbooks.

With the move to Ferguslie Villa came a move of schools from South Primary School to West School. The latter was a combined primary and junior secondary, and it was a very different proposition from what I was used to. The junior secondary half of the school was troubled. There were frequent fights in the playground and police cars were a common sight parked outside. Primary kids were fair game for bullying, which normally took the form of threats of a beating to extort school lunch money. It was good practice for honing my invisibility skills.

West School
Knifey was played out front.

Games of conkers were replaced by marbles, sometimes for pennies, and knifey. The latter involved two boys standing about six feet apart with their legs together. Some arcane ritual that I no longer remember decided who began the game. The object was to firmly throw a folding penknife so that it stuck upright in the ground beside either of the opponent’s feet. If the throw was successful, the other guy had to move the foot nearest the embedded knife and place it where the knife stuck. This opened a gap between his legs and the game was won by throwing your knife so that it stuck in the ground between his feet. The game was more subtle than it appears at first sight. It was easier to get the knife to stick upright with a short throw close to the opponent’s feet, but that gave you less of an open target between the feet and hitting your opponent’s foot lost you the game. On the other hand, successfully making your opponent spread his legs wide lowered this body and none of us had a desire to emasculate the other with a missed throw.

Unsurprisingly, knifey was against school rules, but I recall playing it in plain sight on the grass verge beside Newton Street in front of the school, so the rules can’t have been strongly enforced.

The dreaded short pants

If you were a boy going into first year of secondary school at Paisley Grammar in 1963, the wearing of long pants was optional. When I look back on the photographs of my childhood, apart from playing in the snow, I wore short pants. Therefore, I had short pants that would fit with the school uniform, so that’s what Eve decided I should wear. What she didn’t realize was that long pants were what big kids wore and short pants would mark me as a little kid and the last thing I wanted to do was stand out. I fought the decision, but to no avail and, at the beginning of September, I dressed in my brand new jacket, cap, shirt, shoes and old shorts, learned to tie a dark blue crested tie, loaded my pencil case with erasers, pencils, pens, compass and ruler, and boarded the bus across town for my first day of secondary school.