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.

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