From Just Go Down to the Road: A Memoir of Trouble and Travel
By the time of my third year at King’s Park Secondary in Glasgow—school motto: Video meliora petoque, I see and aim for better things—I had proved myself to be better than any of my classmates in one subject: doggin’ it; playing truant; a previous generation called it hooky. There were various strategies one could employ. You could just not turn up, offering an excuse retrospectively, or bringing a forged note purporting to be from a parent, which would outline some minor malady. You might declare yourself suddenly “not well” and ask to be allowed to go home—sore tummies were neither verifiable nor deniable—taking immediately to the great, green liberty of King’s Park, across the main road, or else skipping onto a bus into town (fare-dodging, naturally), to browse in the big Argyle Street shops: Fraser’s or Lewis’s (the Polytechnic), or in the Boots at the corner of Union Street. If Bruce’s parents were known to be out, we might spend half the day at his house in Toryglen, a lush-carpeted, soft sofa-ed domain that gave me a bright and comfortable feeling of living in one of the TV sitcoms I liked. Once, we broke into the drinks cabinet, using water from the tap to make up the depleted measures in the Gordon’s and Johnnie Walker bottles.
When too many sore-tummy declarations ran the risk of technical interference from a doctor, it seemed safer to resort to the dentist. From a surgery near the school someone stole a stack of dental appointment cards and put them up for sale at threepence each. With date and time filled in, one of these could be presented to a sceptical teacher, providing a pass from the horrors of algebra or physics.
Most of the teachers regarded me with sentiments that fluctuated on the spectrum of exasperation, from baffled to benign. I had one acknowledged minor talent beyond my doggin’ skill: English composition. If we had to do it in class, I could whip up something imaginative and amusing on a suggested topic in the duration of an ordinary period, forty minutes. There was a pleasure not to be found elsewhere in the confined spaces of school in feeling the story unfold under my hand, one invention rolling neatly into another, the creative spark heartened by a reassurance that it saved us from the insupportable labour of actually learning anything. Mr. Donald—Ducky Donald—more than once had me stand to read aloud my composition in class, encouraging a merry reaction from fellow pupils. I see now that he was doing it to try to draw me into the fold of diligent scholars.
Other aspects of the English curriculum could be negotiated with a minimum of effort: the mechanics of grammar, spelling, parsing, parts of speech, the ability to précis; all these had been drummed into me at Croftfoot Primary, and from there flowed into my present written work in a natural way. It came as easily to me as kicking a ball. My twin sisters, Jean and Phyllis, were the unchallenged stars of the art class—their individual technical competence enhanced by their twin-ness—and their status cast a genial light on me there, too. I wasn’t particularly good at drawing and painting, but I wasn’t bad. The same could be said for physical education and religious instruction: not bad. As for everything else: bad.
At the conclusion of my first year among the elect, in the A class, reserved for brainy types, poor overall results led to relegation to the B stream. This meant dropping Latin, at which I had gained a respectable 67 percent in the inaugural exam. “Amo, amas, amat,” Mr. Forgie had us repeat over and over. “Amabo, amabas, ama—” . . .
“No you’re not,” old Forgie would insist, patrolling the aisles between the rows of desks, sergeant-major fashion. “You are many disgusting things, but you are not a bo or a bas.”
“Amabo, amabas, amabat.”
“That’s better. Campbell, greet your fellow citizen, Miss Wells, in the forum, and ask if the shepherds have guided their flocks to safety for the night.”
“Safety from what, sir?”
“From boys like you, Campbell.”
Much laughter. “From wolves, of course.” I did so. Aileen Wells was an old Croftfoot Primary comrade. She and I were two out of only three from a class of over forty to be selected for the A stream at the new, bigger, more competitive King’s Park. She replied: “Salve, civis. Gratias ago tibi, quia doluistis.”
Even down among the Bs, I hadn’t yet teamed up with Bruce, who was with the Cs. Few boys or girls from Castlemilk or Toryglen made it into A or even B. Their brightness glowed with a different amplitude. One of the attractive characters seen swaggering about the playground was Big George, the son of Greek immigrants, with rocky Mediterranean features and dark curly hair, the kind of charismatic figure around whom others cluster at every school. He lived in Toryglen, naturally. When Mr. Forgie, chief belter at King’s Park Secondary, summoned George for some infringement or other and told him to hold out his hands in preparation for two or four or perhaps six strokes of the belt—never one, three or five—he said: “This hurts me more than it hurts you, Kavouras.” To which Big George replied (or said he did): “I wouldnae want that. Let’s swap places, well.”
But the C stream was not far away. At the end of second year, it was suggested that I might repeat the entire course, which would mean dropping down to be among a younger lot and losing close contact with all my pals. If there was a hierarchy in the school, it was based not on social class or talent but on seniority. There was something humiliating about the idea, whereas there was nothing shameful about having failed in just about every subject in the exams and bullying weaker boys at lunchtime to yield up their homework so that we could copy it in time for the afternoon bell. It would also have meant going through the hell of second-year chemistry and physics all over again, as well as other subjects my brain couldn’t cope with.
It couldn’t cope with much. Exam marks came at the end of term: 30-something for French, 20-something for history, even lower for geography, maths and physics. Only in English did I dimly glow. In art, it was borderline.
Of course the results were far too low to be shown to my parents. There was nothing to be gained by it. My father would have punished me—not with violence, to which he resorted only in fits of impatience, but with something much worse, something that really hurt: being kept in at night. The idea was that if I could be confined to my room each evening after school for a week, instead of running off to the park to pursue in earnest the things that mattered—in the past, a ball; in the present, increasingly, a girl—I would buckle down to my subjunctives and dates and tectonic shifts and memorize the Periodic Table, ultimately performing at the level of what was alleged to be my potential. How had I got into the A stream in the first place, anyway, along with nice Aileen Wells and that swot Alan Buckley? Nobody knew. By an oversight, perhaps.
So I took the only route available to someone in my predicament: I altered the report card results to resemble something more acceptable. I used a black Biro pen. Twenty-something became 40-something—hardly a show-off improvement, but enough to evade the threat of incarceration. Thirty-six for French might have become, by two deft strokes, 86, but that would be to invent an achievement I could never live up to; 66 would do, and even that was stretching credulity.
When my father had signed the card, making much of his reluctance to do so, insisting in his look-sharpish Navy-discipline voice that I must “do better give yourself a shake boy-o pull up your socks young fellamalad,” I restored the marks to their original state with the help of that modern miracle-worker, the ink rubber. The task was thus completed. No one was harmed by it. No one was exactly happy, but at least life could carry on without unpleasant interruption. The long, light after-school evenings patrolling the streets or playing football in King’s Park were my intake of oxygen. I lived for them and by them.
“He’s no daft,” Dad would say in lighter moments. “He only acts like it.” He would also say (over and again), “If you had 20 percent more brains, you’d be an idiot,” which itself took some brains to work out. And if I said something meant to be funny: “You’re a bit of a wit. A half.”
These remarks were supposed to be good-humoured—ill humour was expressed in other terms—but they represented his genuine feelings. They exhibited just a fraction of an overall frustration. Harry Campbell was himself a wit, a party man, gifted with an abundance of that Glasgow humour that Billy Connolly would soon make famous all over the world, handsome and intelligent and maritally dutiful, much liked by neighbours and family friends. He had left school at the age of fourteen to work as a barrow boy in Glasgow’s fruit market in Townhead. He and my mother, Ina—a neighbour in Shawlands but a pupil at a different school—met a year or two later in “the crowd,” as she liked to put it, “that we went around with” in the years leading up to their envelopment in the Second World War. Her family—pedigree Protestant Scottish lowland working class—was none the less a rung higher on the social ladder than his, which had the taint of emerald Irish in the background.
Her father, Jimmy Beveridge, was the janitor at the school she attended, Shawlands Academy, though the word “janitor” barely describes the position of responsibility he held and the work he did, everything from odd-job carpentry and interior decoration to organizing rugby matches and the annual school sports day. It’s a guess, but I imagine that the headmaster regarded Jimmy as the man who was running the school. The families visited each other during holidays in Scottish resorts, such as Dunoon, Helensburgh and Rothesay. Grandpa had a cine camera for making short, silent films, to which he gave titles: “Doon the Water,” for example, a film about pleasure steamers on the River Clyde. In one of them, the headmaster, dressed in three-piece suit and tie, can be seen on holiday, smiling broadly, with his wife and our grandmother beside him.
The job came with a house next to the school, in which my mother and her younger sister Rona were raised. They were intensely respectable, and I see her father as an essential Scottish type: a man of energy and all-round geniality from a modest background, with no feelings of inferiority, no trade or training but a multifarious talent and—a strange word to use of a church-going, self-educated Scot born almost within the lifetime of Robert Louis Stevenson—modernity.
After joining up as a teenager and serving in the Highland Light Infantry during the First World War, surviving close-up engagement by the breadth of a collarbone, Grandpa worked as an adaptable builder in different parts of Scotland, going wherever the next job took him. He cut and shaped and piled the stones one on top of the other in the construction of the Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire in the early 1920s, and my mother retained memories of the family living in the nearby village of Blackford just after the hotel opened in 1924. In later life, she chose to return to live in a place that was within walking distance of Blackford. He measured and sawed and hammered our bunk beds, our toys—a fort, a farmyard and a garage (“Jim’s”) for me—and was on call whenever Mum required practical advice. “Och, I’ll ask Dad about it,” she would say, when the other dad—ours—looked as if he wasn’t up to the job. In the 1930s, Grandpa owned various cameras, a gypsy caravan near Helensburgh for weekends away, and a car in which to drive to get there. During the 1950s and ’60s, he worked in a garage opposite the school in his free hours, and in my mental snapshots never looks happier than when something needed fixing on his Austin A40 or Wolseley Eight, with its opening windscreen. He could probably have built you a car—or a house—if you had said you needed one.
Our dad lacked these skills. He also lacked Grandpa’s liking for camping, walking in the country, his shared language with domestic animals and small children, his curiosity about the names of birds and plants. Dad’s father, John Campbell, had been one of ten children, and Dad himself was the youngest of eight—in themselves eyebrow-raising statistics in the poorer areas of the city, suggestive of the Roman Catholic Church. And indeed we discovered later from census returns that the first Campbell relation of record, Charles, a “blacksmith’s labourer,” had arrived from County Armagh sometime during the period between 1835 and 1855, the year in which he was married near Glasgow to Helen Connahan, a “scourer” from Donegal. They were united in Paisley, “according to the rites and ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church.” Both gave their ages as twenty. Helen signed the 1855 form with an X, “her mark.”
Their son, the first in a succession of John Campbells, found work in the shipyards. Dad reminisced about the sound of riveters thudding through the streets around the great shipyards on the Clyde—Fairfields of Govan, where his father had worked, Dennys of Dumbarton, which could claim the phrase “steam-driven,” John Brown’s, Blythswood, Connell and Yarrow. At places near the river you could hardly hear yourself speak when passing by. In George Blake’s novel The Shipbuilders (1935), the main character Leslie Pagan recalls how “up and down the river the bows of vessels unlaunched towered over the tenement buildings of the workers” and how “the clangour of metal upon metal filled the valley from Old Kilpatrick up to Govan.” Dad talked of it sometimes as ancestral lore.
My paternal grandfather, the third John of record, married Emily, née McColl, in the Roman Catholic Church in Kinning Park. She was, however, a Protestant, and the last of the Irish Campbells crossed over to the Church of Scotland before Dad was born. It was not a particularly religious household, and I suspect that the conversion was undertaken out of social convenience, or perhaps for reasons of education. During our childhoods, he never mentioned the crossover, even once—Mum wouldn’t have liked it—only crying out, in the course of a joke, “Campbells of Donegal!” When at the age of about six or seven, I asked, “Dad, who were our ancestors?,” he paused for thought before replying, “We come from a very distinguished family. We’re related to Adam and Eve.”
Apart from the awfulness of school lessons and the occasional bust-up at home, I wasn’t having too bad a time. I was fair and open-faced, no matter how earnestly I tried to affect a tough exterior, and attracted the attention of girls. I had adventurous pals. I liked a fight now and then. The parents of friends seemed to think I was bright, in a way that my own parents did not, blinded by the smoke rising from the scorched wasteland I left behind in almost every classroom. My knowledge of progressive popular music was becoming as wide-ranging as my knowledge of Scottish football had been at an earlier age. I could reel off Rangers teams through the ages and can do so now—Niven, Shearer, Caldow; McCall, McKinnon, Baxter; Scott, McMillan, Miller, Brand and Wilson—and could give you most of their club histories and places of birth into the bargain. The problem was school. I hated it. In return, it produced ample evidence—the evidence of the report card—that it could barely tolerate me.
Here are the figures from the last report card to be issued, May 1966: French 29 percent; History 22 percent; Maths 12 percent; Geography 8 percent. These are the ones I remember. In English I passed capably and in art hovered around the midway mark, as usual. The science subjects I would drop on moving out of third year. The threat of a repeat had been avoided last time, but only just. Instead, I was shunted downstream to float among the Cs, where I sat next to Bruce in whatever subjects we shared. We used our jotters to exchange a concoction of MAD jokes and drawings and, from my side—a new thing—poems.
There could be no question of exhibiting these exam results at Kingshill Drive. The summer holidays were coming up: two months of open air, the feel of clean jeans on loose limbs, the annual trip to the Highlands and Portmahomack, to stay on the nearby farm at Rockfield where Mum had done her joyful service in the Women’s Land Army during the war.
These once-enchanted holidays were starting to overlap with new-generation adventures, arriving too soon and too quickly and in too great a profusion to fit my parents’ understanding: going on the road to Edinburgh, for example, with Bruce, to seek the sight, perhaps even the company, of beatniks; reckless bicycle rides on busy roads to places as far away as Saltcoats; the mingled scents and touch of neck and hair and flimsy nylon raincoat in a dingy tenement close; drawing more meaning, more intensely, from music than ever.
It was the nearest I would come to the freedom I had known in my blissful pre-Croftfoot Primary life, before the Fall. The expulsion from Eden arrived with the bitter fruit of knowledge: that school attendance and study (so-called) was a fact of life, destined to endure into the distant era of double figures—the ages of ten, eleven, twelve—carrying on through the teens, a daily, purgatorial stretch of classroom confinement. Dad explained to me that school would be followed by university, where studies would become even harder. I couldn’t make sense of it. After all, I hadn’t asked to bite the apple.
As those exam results came in, I was about to turn fifteen. Bob Dylan had replaced the Rolling Stones as my cultural amulet. The sounds of the American anti-war protest movement were now heard across the world, expressed in folk music with intriguing lyrics, and the vibrations were felt even at Kings Park Secondary: “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, / We shall overcome someday . . .” How beautiful it sounded—more beautiful, perhaps, than anything I had heard up until then—in the Joan Baez vibrato. The music took up residence in the body. “Last night there were four Marys, / Tonight there’ll be but three. . . .” The sounds now came into our home in the form of LPs in interesting covers with long essays on the back, which my sisters bought or borrowed from their with-it—how Dad enjoyed using that expression—art school friends.
Everything about Dylan’s songs attracted me from first hearing: the yearning in the voice, the melodies, the protest against racial injustice in some, the seductive American vernacular of others, the jokes in something called a “talking blues,” direct addresses to the president of the United States, place names right, left and centre—“I’m going ba-a-a-ack . . . to Co-lo-rado”—dazzling imagery through it all. Unlike poetry that existed only on the page, the kind that Ducky Donald strove to interest us in, Dylan’s poetry was transmitted to memory automatically, by melody and rhythm. I consoled myself on the road up to school in the morning by singing my way through one or two of his songs, just as literary folk of an earlier generation might have inwardly recited “Ode to a Nightingale” or a Shakespeare sonnet.
The key note was freedom, freedom. “How many years can some people exist,” before freedom’s embrace will welcome them? It didn’t matter that Dylan had in mind whole subjugated peoples—an understanding gradually dawning. For now, the question applied to me.
During an English period, while Mr. Donald promised delights in store between the covers of Great Expectations as he handed out class readers, I copied into my school jotter the words of an anti-war poem I had written after our weekend in Edinburgh, when I had met a little beatnik fellow with long dark hair from Castlemilk: John Cochrane, known as Coakie. He and I had ended up hitchhiking home to Glasgow in the back of an open truck, while Bruce returned by bus. It left me with a new feeling—it went very deep—of “something I want to do.”
Coakie was a member of the Young Communist League and wrote ban-the-bomb poetry. I didn’t join the YCL, as he encouraged me to do—“A dustman’s goanie make the same money as a doacter”—but I picked up on the poetry.
At the back of my school English jotter, I began writing lines on big subjects borrowed from the new, meaningful music that was suddenly all around, on the radio, on 7” singles, at parties. Freedom. Travel. Peace. War. It had evolved from Frankie Vaughan singing “Honey Bunny Baby” to “We Shall Overcome” in just a few years.
One of my anti-war poems opened with the lines “Death creeps slowly o’er the hill, / God’s armies mass before the kill.” With a bit of time, I might have ironed out that irregular beat. At the end, as a sort of coda, I appended the final stanza of Dylan’s magisterial “Masters of War,” a song addressed to cowardly politicians who shelter in offices behind desks while blood spreads and stains the field of battle.
Dylan had taken the melody for “Masters of War” from the English folk song “Nottamun Town,” in the way that he appropriated many traditional tunes for modern purposes, and now I was borrowing Dylan’s lyrics and folding them into my own protest poem. I tore the portmanteau work from the jotter and, without revealing the source of the final lines, passed it to Bruce, who read it as Ducky Donald ingenuously declaimed the opening words of Pip’s narrative, in hope of hooking our attention.
We lingered together in the corridor during the brief interval before our next period. He liked the first part, my part, Bruce told me, but he mocked the ending, which I had pinched from Dylan. As we headed down the stairs to the first floor and Mr. Howard’s Maths class, he spoke aloud the words of the famous song, before landing on a laugh. “‘Stand over . . .’ What?” Then he came on with the strong Scottish voice, as he sometimes did: “Till ah ken ye’re deid? Come off it, Campbell!”
Bruce loved the Beatles, as he had loved our MAD comics and the James Bond novels. His elder brother had got the Beatles album Rubber Soul for Christmas in 1965, and I listened to it in the New Year while lying on the shaggy cream rug before the electric fire in their TV-sitcom house in Toryglen. I was growing out of the comics but had not grown into the novels, and never would. On Coakie’s recommendation, I was trying to read Wordsworth—in the park, while doggin’ off—without much understanding but conscious that the words transmitted some odd feeling, nevertheless. It took you away for a few moments, and when you returned, something had altered, as the light was altered by a cloud melting.
In class, Mr. Boyd, the long-nosed History teacher—Beaky Boyd—asked each of us what he or she would like to do when the moment came to step out of whatever college we had chosen for our further education and go forth into the world. We had played this game in primary school in a composition, “What I want to be when I grow up.” The boy sitting next to me, Andrew Miller, son of a postman, wrote that he wanted to be prime minister. I said I wanted to be a lollipop man. My inspiration was the white-coated figure at the top of our crescent, who saw us safely across the busy road each morning on the way to school with his red-and-white CHILDREN CROSSING lollipop.
Now, when Mr. Boyd’s question came round, I told the class I wanted to be a tramp. The teacher, no doubt expecting something of the sort from the disruptive boy, “the twins’ younger brother,” showed his exasperation and his scorn. He had never heard of Jack Kerouac and neither had I, but there was something in the air that only I was capable of picking up—something screened from Mr. Boyd and the rest of the class—a new kind of hip vagabondage. Dylan and Joan Baez were spinning a web of song lines all round the world, and I was ready to follow the threads.
All my life the blues has come and gone.
I’m only getting started, it’s time for movin’ on,
Honey, you won’t see me here by dawn.
It was a new language, expressing a new spirit of adventure, and if it shunted old Beaky Boyd aside . . . well, he was just a History teacher anyway, a man of the past.
I was acting the smart aleck, trying to deflect attention from my paltriness in the academic department, and he could see this but didn’t know what to do about it. If there were an opportunity for a retrospective apology, I would send one to him without hesitation. But there was some truth in the ambition that I myself could not have made articulate, and in a few years’ time, I would set out to fulfil it.
Dylan brought his voice, his hairstyle, his shades, his cunning —the message was in the hairstyle and the cunning as much as in the lyrics—to the Glasgow Odeon in May 1966 on the famous tour with the Hawks, and I went to see him. The concert took the form of a sublime first-half solo acoustic performance, followed by a plugged-in electric set with the Hawks, the Band in all but name. People called out from the stalls, “Give us the real Bob Dylan,” as Robbie Robertson and the Hawks kicked up an unprecedented racket in folkie ears. In the middle of one song, Dylan extended a hand to silence the musicians behind him. “Bob couldn’t make it tonight,” he said, addressing the hecklers in the near rows. “I’m here in his place. My name’s Donovan.”
The crowd laughed and clapped, even though they still felt that the man in Cuban heels with the Fender Telecaster wasn’t the real Bob Dylan. To others, he satisfied all present needs, with a smidgen of our native Donovan thrown in. Joan Baez was more to my sisters’ taste, and I liked her, too. How could anyone not like her? “I’m having a good time tonight,” we heard her say on the album Joan Baez in Concert, “and if nobody objects I’m going to take off my shoes.” The whole family sat round the small black-and-white television in the living room, to watch a two-part concert on the BBC, one of the two channels available.
The face itself is a good enough reason for watching it now. Joan Baez’s magnificent voice, by which, she said, she was simply possessed, is often spoken of, but her face is almost equally captivating. As she leans towards the microphone between songs, testing her pitch, the sound takes control of her features. Her heart becomes visible. The world would be a different place without the faces of that era: the face of Baez itself is a work of genius. So is Dylan’s—a face that will change twenty times in twenty separate photographs taken over a period of five or six years. It goes without saying that the 1960s would have been different without the music of the Rolling Stones, but we can also say it would have been different without Mick Jagger’s face.
Jean was in the second year of study at Glasgow College of Art now—Phyllis had followed a year later—and brought home records by Bert Jansch and Davey Graham: new songs, new ways of singing, scintillating twists of scarcely credible virtuosity on a six-string guitar. It was music for youthful intellectuals, and it spoke directly and forcefully to me. Something was stirring in that old A stream inclination, without me knowing much about it.
Here is the story the report card told, as it approached 42 Kingshill Drive, shuddering nervously in my canvas haversack, one late afternoon in May 1966: French 49 percent; History 42; Maths 42—Dad would never have believed anything higher—Geography probably a miserable 38 percent, but what else could I say? The single-digit results were easiest to forge and therefore welcome in that respect. In English and Art I had passed without distinction. I didn’t find it necessary to tell myself not to get carried away in making the latest improvements. I wasn’t doing this to gain approval: that would have fitted my haphazard conception of dishonesty. I simply didn’t want there to be a scene. It was to no one’s advantage.
The card walked up the garden path, entered by the front door, never locked in daytime when Mum was at home, and presented itself to Dad when he returned from work by the Blue Train, from Glasgow Central to King’s Park station, at 5:40 pm, as he did almost invariably. Meanwhile I stood to the side in mute apprehensiveness.
There was a fuss, but not too much of one. I had to give myself a shake, pull up my socks, get stuck in. I said I would—of course I would—convincing no one, certainly not me. Then I went upstairs to play the Davey Graham album Folk, Blues and Beyond, which Jean or Phyllis had borrowed from some suitably with-it fellow art student. The sleeve notes, which I read with a degree of attentiveness never squandered on classroom lessons, mentioned Big Bill Broonzy, Reverend Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson—the constructions themselves rich with suggestion and the promise of other worlds, other place names—beyond Colorado and states hymned by Dylan—other folk and other colours, other ways of seeing things and being in life.
I was already addicted to the sweet taste of Ray Charles singing “Take These Chains from My Heart” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” and I played the 45 rpm singles—again borrowed from friends by Jean and Phyllis—over and over. They had bargaining power, those twin sisters: looks, talent, common sense, all-round feminine good nature. They could have got away with a lot, but had no need to try. The lot came to them. Life liked them, as it liked our mother, who had passed on these qualities to her daughters.
The next day I went back up the hill to school (“How many roads must a man . . .”) with the signed report card and returned it to the teacher, as directed. By now it was getting to be an old trick, and I was a jaded conjuror, blasé about his magic. The ink eraser was set aside. My ingenious performance no longer required the presence of a rubber assistant. The card entered the historical archive at King’s Park Secondary in its fictional state—not good, not even not bad, but not kept-in-at-night awful—never to be retrieved.
Or that’s what I assumed would happen. One day near the end of term, in a French class—“The past historic is formed by taking the root of the present indicative . . . Bruce, tell us when to use the past historic . . .”—the deputy headmaster Mr. Crawford entered and spoke to the lovely Miss Christie in low tones. She always wore a black, flowing academic gown over a blouse and skirt, setting off her blonde hair which she pinned up. She had only to shrug off that gown at the end of the teaching day to appear to be undressing in front of us. The way she walked into the room at the start of a lesson when we were all seated, pointer in hand. The way she looked at you with a young woman’s maternal fondness—no matter what—that I was capable of comprehending only later, in memory. Children of her own lay in the future; in the meantime, she had us. She had lately married but was still Miss Christie.
When someone higher up came through the door and interrupted a lesson, everyone in the class assumed it must be about me, and it was. Summoned from my refuge at the back of the room—French was actually something I was working up an interest in—I traipsed along the corridor behind Mr. Crawford, followed him sheepishly down the stairs to his office at playground level and sat on a chair, as instructed, while he tucked himself in comfortably behind his desk.
Ah, yes, now. How were we getting on?
Not bad, thanks.
People said I had a nice speaking voice. Deep down, much deeper than the words the voice itself could call on, I knew that, despite everything, it projected a better self, a me that one day I would become familiar with. Some of the boys and girls at the new school since it had moved from King’s Park up to Simshill (though it remained King’s Park Secondary) wouldn’t feel that. They were different from my sisters and me. Their coarse, untrainable voices were, in many cases, their nature and their future.
How were things at home?
Shrug. Grunt. Gaze at the wall. “OK.”
A pause. A look, half-concerned, obviously false, not even intended to convince. It was all stagey. He was leading up to something, and I thought I knew what it was.
And the evenings—what did I do in the evenings? Played football, mostly. Better not to mention girls and “getting somewhere”—not far—and the odd harmless fight to work off energy and stealing apples from gardens after dark in the autumn, and Bounty bars and Cadbury’s Flakes from corner shops in daylight. Bruce and I sometimes went to see what he had been told, by his brother or by Big George, were risqué films, including Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Sophia Loren. At the end, Bruce promised, she removes her bra during the striptease she is performing in a bedroom for Marcello Mastroianni. I can recall our excited approach on the top deck of a bus to the Toledo cinema in Clarkston Road, the odorous, faded blue-velvet seats on which we sat throughout two hours of Italian romantic comedy dubbed into English, only to discover during the crucial scene, a few minutes from the end, that she has an attack of Catholic conscience and keeps it on.
So mainly football, yeah. That was about it. I hadn’t made it into the school team, though I had been a goal-scoring inside-left in the last year at primary—Ralph Brand’s position at Rangers—and had fancied myself at the secondary school trials. Instead, I was playing for the Boys Brigade on Saturday mornings, for which “everyone gets a game,” as someone who was selected for the school First XI was tactless enough to tell me. That had been a great disappointment. The old King’s Park was smaller, the pupils more aspirational in their sums and sentences. I would definitely have been selected there. Here, the boys from rougher areas kept me out. They were always the best at sports like football. The teacher in charge of the teams, Mr. Howard, had promised me a second trial—“You look like more of a player than some of them,” he had said with kindly world-weariness—but it had never come about.
“What about homework?” Mr. Crawford asked, coming to the point. He was still doing the genial act, though now with a dollop of obligatory sternness. “Do you spend much time on that?”
A bit. Not as much as I should, probably.
A look of mock surprise. His tone changed again, becoming avuncular. He couldn’t fool me, and he was barely trying to.
“How are the lessons going?”
“Uh . . . Not so good. . . .”
“What about the exams just past? How did you get on in the exams?”
“Not very well, if I’m honest.”
I had to be honest, obviously. It was a great inconvenience, but the other thing—dishonesty, which had served me well until now—had run out.
“Maths, for example.” Mr. Crawford was himself a Maths teacher, though I had never been in his class. “How did you do in Maths?”
“. . . Not very well . . . I think . . . 12 percent.”
He was taking it all the way. Enjoying it? Not really. Maybe he thought it was easier on me to go through this pantomime. He slid open the drawer of his desk and withdrew a repulsive-looking thing, my report card. “It says here 42 percent.” Our eyes met for a second. “How about Geography?”
“Eight percent!” He extended his arm across the desk with the pamphlet-shaped report card open at the latest exams, Spring term, 1966. “What does it say there?”
It said 38 percent. My modesty in making the changes was surely some kind of accomplishment in itself, but not enough of one to win him over. He went through the others, then flicked back to previous tables of exam figures, where the grubby evidence of the ink rubber—not such a miracle worker, after all—suggested historical tampering.
Mr. Crawford didn’t rant and rave. He wanted to show as much patience as was available to him. They were decent people, the teachers at King’s Park Secondary, and they wanted their pupils to be good and decent, too. “I see and aim for better things.” That was what we were all there for, with a few vicious Castlemilk exceptions. We were in it together. It was just that, in my case, the togetherness had fallen apart. Other than being belted earnestly from time to time by Mr. Forgie, which hurt, and reluctantly by a few others such as Ducky Donald and Beaky Boyd, which didn’t, I can recall little unkindness from teachers. It was we who were unkind to them. Lies and insolence and ignorance, that’s what they got in return for aiming for better things.
“Butter wouldn’t melt in your mouth, Jim,” Miss Christie had said with a kindly smile on presenting me with one of the card-framed portrait photographs we all sat for. Her good nature wanted to like me, and I would have liked being liked by her. Other teachers liked me, too, when I put myself up for affection, which wasn’t often. But something had stood in the way of my being liked, and of my learning, and there didn’t seem to be any way of removing the obstacle other than by removing myself from the school.
My twin sisters wanted their troublesome wee brother to prosper, but there was an element in their solidarity with one another and their with-it, pretty friends, their twin-ness in the face of the world and the immediate society surrounding our family, all linked to their small but real and forward-looking successes, that cast me into an intimate solitariness. It was mine, in the way that little else was, besides the music and the jeans and the elusive fragrance of some Toryglen infatuation in a glistening raincoat. I had no choice—I wasn’t even aware of the possibility of “choice,” acting by instinct alone—but to extricate myself from the predicament on my own terms. It sounds trite to say the “existential predicament,” but that’s what it was. I could choose something else, but first I had to identify the nature of the choice, to recognize that there was a choice. Pulling my socks up wasn’t going to do it.
Mr. Crawford let me know that he was not going to punish me. The case was beyond the reach of routine school punishment. He would have to write to my father, which even he seemed to realize was far worse from my point of view than a few strokes of the silly old belt. Then we would see what could be done before the summer holidays came along. The most likely outcome would be to repeat third year, this time with little room for negotiation. I was immature. Time would take care of it. Academic performance would improve along with everything else, if we gave it time. After I had repeated third year, I would be set fair for O Grades at the end of fourth.
“You’re good at some things,” he said sympathetically. “What happened?”
Everyone knew I was good at English, though they also said that if I tried harder and paid attention, I could be much better. “Careless” was a word often used. Miss Christie, with permissive fondness, called me a dreamer, and it’s true I preferred the classroom window beyond which lay mountains and seas and the lonesome road down which a man must walk many times, to the blackboard with its ugly words like “imperfect” and “subjunctive.”
“You used to do quite well at Latin,” Mr. Crawford said, flicking back to marks he could tell at a glance were authentic. I could count and do long division. The Arithmetic side of Maths wasn’t the problem; it was Algebra, the cryptogrammatic language of the Devil, together with the confounding theorems of Geometry, that made my head spin and took malign possession of my will. I had learned my multiplication tables at primary school and would never forget them, as pupils at neighbouring Catholic schools were not allowed to forget their catechisms and classical scholars their Virgil. “What happened?” Nobody knew.
I left his office. This was no time for dreaming. I had to pull up my socks and give myself a shake. There was a job to be done: the letter that Mr. Crawford was about to write and send to my father would have to be intercepted before it dropped through the letterbox at 42 Kingshill Drive.
The Apprentice: Washie’s
At 7:30 in the morning of Monday, October 3, 1966, I boarded a number 13 bus at the stop on Aikenhead Road, a few minutes’ walk from our front door. The bus rolled past Hampden Park stadium, nosing into the lightening day via Govanhill and the Gorbals, setting me down with others at Glasgow Cross, the entrance to the district known as Townhead, never spoken of by any familiar or resident as anything other than Toonheid.
To me, until now, it was a foreign country, known only as the base camp of the fearful sounding gang called the Calton Tongs, arch-rivals of the teenage Gorbals tribe, the Young Young Cumbie. Tongs ya bass. YYC ya bass.
From the Cross, a five-minute walk up the High Street led to Ingram Street, opposite the site of the Old College, the city’s first university and the fourth-oldest in the English-speaking world. Far to the west along Ingram Street, towards George Square, was Stirling’s Library and, less than halfway down, at a sharp juncture, Albion Street, the location over time of various Scottish newspapers. Each of those institutions, in different ways, would come to have a shaping influence on my life, but at the time, I lived in ignorance of their existence.
At the corner of Ingram Street and Shuttle Street stood a formidable grey, three-storey warehouse with an angled balustrade fringing the top. The surrounding streets housed the Glasgow Fruit Market, where Dad had pushed a barrow as a school-leaver before the war. Mum’s instinctive, forward-looking respectability discouraged discussion of it, as it did of the Roman Catholicism deep, but satisfyingly distant, in his background. Now here I was, back on native territory. By 8 o’clock in the morning the gutters were clogged with cabbage leaves, grubby green sprouts, crushed apples, squelched oranges and bruised banana skin.
The entrance to the printing factory was through the close at No. 48 and up one flight to the first floor. There, at eight precisely, I coincided with Mary McIlwham emerging from the cludgie on the stair, already reeking of smoke and gin. Or perhaps it was what Glasgow drinkers at the lower end called “the wine,” a sweet sherry such as Lanliq—Lang’s Liqueur—Four Crown or Eldorado, relished without exception for price over taste. Mary would have known the new boy was due to start that morning. She smiled in a guileless way that I was to grow familiar with and spoke a few words of kindly greeting as she continued towards the shop floor in an elegant feminine step, with me at the rear. She had grey hair pulled back in a bun and a face blushed and lined with “the wine.”
It was the first day of my apprenticeship at Washington Irvine’s, printers, paper rulers, bookbinders and stationers. Four months earlier, I had turned fifteen. On the days after my interview with Mr. Crawford, I had contrived to meet the postman as he came towards the house in the morning. With a shifty hello, I would ask if he had “anything for Campbell.” He would hand me a bill or a postcard or other things that I could tell by the postmarks had come from somewhere other than the school. I had a paper round at a local newsagent, and during those dangerous days I timed its completion to coincide with the postman making his regular approach. After several turns of mooching about with no result between 8:15 and 8:30, I dared to hope that Mr. Crawford had decided to let it go.
One morning, a week or more after the report-card meeting, I arrived back from delivering the papers to find my father still at home. This was unusual—I never knew him to stay off work even because of illness—but the reason was immediately apparent. Mr. Crawford’s letter lay open on the table. My mother stood in the background, a handkerchief pressed to her face. My father picked me up, threw me on to the settee, whacked me across the side of the head with the back of his hand—the favoured side—and continued with what I suppose has to be called a beating, though I don’t remember that it hurt at all. Mere blows seldom did.
It was decreed that I would be kept in for a month. I would copy out two pages of my school history book each day, which I would then read aloud to him when he got back from the office in the evening. I protested: “But Dad, it’s the summer holidays,” gifting him one of his good lines: “Holidays? Holidays are for boys who’ve been working. You’ve been on holiday all year.”
At the end of August (the cruel sentence was soon commuted, thanks to the intervention of Grandpa), I had returned to school to face the humiliating prospect of repeating third year. There could be no starker evidence of my lack of academic aptitude. My contemporaries, beginning fourth year, were taking the first steps on the path leading to O Grades, the Scottish equivalent of O Levels, the following spring. I wouldn’t have stood a chance. Repeat appeared to be the only option.
There was, however, another option: leave.
One day after school in early September, my mother raised the subject tentatively. Our next-door neighbour, Mr. Wells, a stationer, was the client of a small printing firm in Ingram Street. He had mentioned to Mum that the company had a vacancy for an apprentice paper ruler, and she had discussed it with Dad.
It was only a suggestion, she said . . . we just thought you might be happier . . . you know, school and all . . . since you don’t seem to be really suited . . . maybe this is. . . .
Her modest dreams for my future had turned against her with almost daily displays of blatant mockery. Neither discipline nor indulgence had worked. Mr. Crawford’s letter was the final confirmation. One of her hopes was that her son might become a dentist. A chartered surveyor was another profession she spoke of with admiration, though I had no idea what either “chartered” or “surveyor” referred to. My father had offered to get me a start behind a desk in the railways, just as he himself had launched a successful career there twenty years earlier. The lure of “ten pounds a week” was set before me.
He was a thinking man who had never had the opportunity to refine and shape his intelligence with the quality essential to its development: curiosity. He would have loved to go to “the University,” as he always phrased it—there could only be one—caressing the words as he spoke them. Such a move was economically out of the question for any member of a family like his in the 1930s, and anyway history stepped in: the Royal Navy had given him his education. He had trained as a medical orderly on board ship in the Far East and devoured works on the long voyages by Dickens, Dostoevsky and Hugo. One of the great reading experiences of his life was Les Misérables, which he pronounced “Lez Mizer-a-bulls.” Another was A Tale of Two Cities. My father was one of only two people I’ve ever met who referred to “the Brothers Singer,” Isaac Bashevis and his less-well-known sibling Israel Joshua; the other person being Clive Sinclair, the author of a book on the two writers. For my sisters’ benefit, he looked hard into Rembrandt and van Gogh, visited the Tate and the National Gallery when in London, but his abiding passion was the music of Beethoven. It must have spoken to him of other worlds than the stone-tenement world in which he was brought up, other expressions of emotion, in ways that the names of Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Boy Fuller—the names as much as the music—were beginning to suggest different realities to me.
Now that the benefits of learning had been extended by a victorious society to embrace all deserving younger citizens, he imagined that he might enjoy by proxy the days of study and comradeship amid the quadrangles at the University that he had once longed for, through me. Both twins were established at Glasgow School of Art—the first in the entire extended family to make the leap into higher education. Their talent had shone through early, and Dad had encouraged them, after some initial resistance, up to the happy moment of their acceptance. They wore their paint-smeared artists’ smocks at every chance, facing down the light protests voiced by Mum at the dinner table. Her vain hope had been that the two girls would go to the Dough School in the West End, properly called the College of Domestic Science.
I was to be next. If not a surveyor or a dentist, then maybe a teacher. No one had foreseen a humble trade, an apprenticeship projected to occupy the next six years, a square brown wage packet handed over on a Friday at 3 pm (the timing being a safety measure, allowing the pubs to close for the afternoon), a dilapidated factory sunk in the mouldy Fruit Market, its entrance next to our wide-open “pen,” where vans backed in for the unloading of paper and card. Batches were carried up to the second floor in the hoist—another new noun—to be cut to manageable size and trimmed by Gilbert, the cutter (yet another), on his manually operated guillotine. Two fingers on his left hand were shorter than the others.
Maybe it would be a solution of a sort to the outer disturbances my inner turbulence had caused and seemed likely to go on causing. At the completion of my training, I would be a certified journeyman, a master paper ruler, with a job for life.
I accepted the proposal without hesitation. There was a final interview at school with Mr. Crawford, who in his time had doubtless taken leave of boys more troubled than this one. “So you’re going where the big money is!” he said—the printing trade had that reputation—before I walked out of the school gates on to Fetlar Drive for the last time.
The big money Mr. Crawford was referring to belonged to the world of newspaper printing. It had nothing to do with the sort of jobbing work undertaken by Washington Irvine. The firm received its own orders from regular clients, and in addition undertook tasks contracted out from famous Glasgow companies such as McCormick’s and Collins the publishers. Both were situated within walking distance of Ingram Street, and in my first year at Washie’s, I did part-time duty as a messenger boy, delivering and collecting parcels to and from various addresses in town, something I was always pleased to be asked to do. Now and then I was given a few pennies for bus fares, which of course I kept, walking quickly—sometimes not so quickly—there and back. A common mission was to be dispatched with a sturdy plastic container through the old Townhead streets—their inhabitants existing not so much in a different place from the people of King’s Park, as in a different century—to the slaughterhouse and Meat Market near the Gallowgate, where Dad’s maternal grandparents had lived and were married—in the flat which they shared, apparently, at 543 Gallowgate—on May 7, 1875. There I had to ask for “a quart” (never two pints) of ox gall.
I enjoyed the adventure of meeting muscular workers in bloodied aprons and wellington boots, dodging the lorries manoeuvring into place at the entrance to disgorge their bellowing cargoes, glimpsing the bespectacled men dressed in incongruous suits and ties doing the accounts in glass-fronted offices, neat secretaries by their sides, seemingly oblivious to the echoing shouts and the clatter and grind of overhead trolleys from which hung rows of massive carcasses. The slaughterhouse was made the setting for Archie Hind’s novel The Dear Green Place, published in that year, 1966, one of only a few works of its time to embrace the noise and air and colour of Glasgow. But I knew nothing of that yet. Later, I would come to admire Hind’s novel. “In the middle of the pass, barrows were being pushed up and down as the labourers collected the offal: tripes, livers, hearts, lungs, heads”—and somewhere in among it my quart of ox gall.
The job to which I had committed my future was putting lines on paper. The foul-smelling gall was added in tablespoonfuls to large porcelain bowls containing the inks that created the lines, to keep them fast. Starting pay for a first-year apprentice was £4.12s.6d a week, rising in increments of between £100 and £150 per annum, to settle at around £16 per week for a journeyman, about the same wage as might be earned at the time by a first-level schoolteacher. “And with overtime,” people on the shop floor were always quick to add, “you can make a lot more. . . .”
There were opportunities on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, 5:30 to 7:30, and on Saturday mornings, from 8 am till midday, all paid at the rate of time and a half. If you clocked in more than five minutes after eight in the morning, your pay would be docked a quarter of an hour, in my case amounting to about ninepence. There were two weeks’ holiday in the summer—the Fair Fortnight, starting mid-July, during which the factory closed its doors—and a further holiday to be taken during the months of January or February, the “winter week.” Membership of the union SOGAT, which had negotiated these benefits, was obligatory. I was invited to join the menodge. This meant contributing two shillings (10p) a week to a general fund, with nine others—there was more than one menodge in operation on the shop floor—resulting in a sum which would be paid out to each member in turn. In this way, I would be poorer by two shillings for nine weeks in a row, but a rich man—a whole pound was mine—on the tenth.
The factory floor was dominated by three paper-ruling machines, one of which I would in time be given charge of. Two of them were neat modern apparatuses, known as disc machines, or just “the discs,” both operated by the journeyman; the third was a quaint old edifice made largely out of wood, on which I was to learn my trade. This was a Shaw Pen Ruling Machine.
In the first stage of every job, the Shaw was operated manually, using a crank handle to cause a sheet of paper to advance slowly over the moleskin canvas, allowing necessary adjustments to be made to the spacing and balance of the pens and to the density of the lines they were about to draw. When everything was set up and ready to go, a green button was pressed to power the machine by electricity, heralded by a low grumble. Paper was introduced by a feeder, always a woman or girl, dressed in a nylon overall. Mary McIlwham was the most experienced paper feeder on the floor. The first model of the Shaw Pen Ruling Machine was produced in Huddersfield in 1890, and development continued until the early 1930s. At a guess, mine was made somewhere in between.
It looked like a small four-poster bed, with a solid wooden frame. The slowly rolling blanket carried the paper through to the delivery box at the end opposite to the feeder. An upright frame supported threads, which went round on their own smaller rollers, keeping the paper firmly in position on the blanket. As the large sheets of crown passed along—more than 1,000 an hour at the top rate—the brass pens which had been slotted into crosswise wooden carriages rose and fell according to a regulated scheme. It was the paper ruler’s job to fit the pens into the carriages and to slot cams into the timing wheel which caused the carriages to lift when one sheet of paper was ruled, then to come down on to the next sheet at the proper moment, leaving lines of a desired colour and pattern—the basic being the universally familiar page of horizontally lined writing paper.
It was the ruler’s job, too, to spread flannels neatly across the tops of the carriages above the bracket, which secured the pens in place, and to ensure that the flannels were refreshed by regular applications of ink to flow into the pens—but not so regular that the downward flow would cause the pens to flood. The standard colour of ink was “feint”; there were also shades of blue, red and green.
Each job came with its own ruling specifications. Some were quite complex, requiring a perfectly timed drop of vertically running single-line pens onto hitherto ruled horizontal double-line bars, with perhaps a thick single line or two underneath. This might be for the pages of what would be cut, folded with a flat “bone,” and then bound on the second floor at Washie’s into an account book or ledger. For some patterns, the paper was fed into the machine two or three times, front and back. The lines on one side ought to correspond perfectly with those on the other, and the “show-through” should be minimal.
The ink was contained in a bowl near the ruler’s right hand and added to the flannels on the carriages by means of a small brush. If the ink dried up, through the ruler’s negligence, the lines became scratchy. Too sudden a reapplication of ink would vary the density of the lines and cause too much show-through. Achieving a uniform density was among the paper ruler’s principal tasks. At the end of a run, the paper was emptied from the wooden holder at the machine’s rear end, counted into quires and stacked, each sheet ready to be folded and cut according to the appropriate size: folio, quarto, octavo.
This was the labour that filled each of my working days, once I had acquired a basic mastery of the machine.
Long before then, when my first pay packet arrived, I was surprised to discover that nine shillings (45 pence) had been deducted in advance by the Inland Revenue, leaving £4.3s.6d. Union dues meant a further reduction. My mother took £3 for my keep—a concept apparently inseparable from my new status as a working man. Out of what was left, I was expected to pay my own bus fares from King’s Park to Glasgow Cross and back again, leaving less than a pound as spending money after a forty-hour week, not much more than I had been earning on my morning paper round. Sometimes I managed to skip my fare on the bus, or else I walked home from work in order to save a few pence.
The owners of the firm were two brothers, David Irvine and Washington Irvine, known to the workforce as Mr. David and Mr. Washie. It was said that they didn’t get on well. The third director, Mr. David’s son Alister, acted as the main liaison between management and workers. Just over thirty at the time of my arrival in Ingram Street, he was addressed by us as Mr. Alister.
My journeyman and immediate boss was John Pollock, a thin-faced, dirty-minded man who made it known to everyone that he could never bring himself to work with a Roman Catholic. It was not a policy held to by the management—there were several Catholics among the sixty-strong staff, but John Pollock didn’t like to mix with them and wouldn’t have taken me on if I’d been a left-footer, a Fenian, a Pape, an RC, a Tim Malloy, a Mick or a Dan. Rangers fans from the Bridgeton area, who included John Pollock, were Blue Noses or Billy Boys, and before we became acquainted in person, John would certainly have made inquiries as to the name of the school I had attended. The likes of Saint Bonaventure’s or Saint Aloysius in the reply would have made my employment in the paper-ruling department at Washie’s impossible. John found it painful even to enunciate the names of certain central Glasgow streets, such as Saint Vincent Street. They reminded him too forcefully of the sickening accoutrements of the Roman Catholic Church.
Just as important as John Pollock to my early training at Washie’s was Jeanette McGowan, the principal feeder after Mary. She wore an elegant, fitted, yellow nylon overall with white pinstripes and turned-up white collar—I seldom saw her in anything else—and the resident expression on her face throughout the course of a day was in equal parts humorous, sexy, intelligent and hard. She was a type common in Glasgow and its satellite towns—Jeanette lived in Shotts, about fifteen miles away by bus—both feminine and inviolable. Not even John Pollock, who bullied Mary McIlwham mercilessly and teased his fifteen-year-old apprentice with innuendo barely understood, would have spoken out of turn to Jeanette. She took me in hand in a way that made me feel I could rely on her.
I was teased by one and all for speaking “polite” and regarded with mild suspicion by some for emerging from a bought house in King’s Park, with sisters in higher education and a general background more commonly associated with the middle classes and management, a pairing that would have charmed my mother. But any sardonic, over-the-shoulder remarks from Jeanette—her eyes closing languidly, then opening halfway to gauge the reaction—were meant kindly, unless my behaviour didn’t merit kindness, in which case she addressed it directly. She was twenty-one at the time of our meeting, and the dynamic was elder sister to younger brother, one I was quite accustomed to. Jeanette was effectively second-in-command on the floor. She was engaged to Michael Sweeney, who worked in lithography and—his name told me before John Pollock went out of his way to do so—was a Catholic.
Other feeders were nice to be around, too. Jesse, for example, aged fifteen, gauche, good-humoured and with the gift of being totally natural. Nancy was older, pleasantly plump and married to a “man”—the only word she or the other women ever used for their own or anyone’s husband—she always spoke of warmly. She and Jesse reached almost daily for a word I had never heard until now: badness. “That’s pure badness,” they would say of some speech or action of mine or someone else. It could be either trivial or truly wicked.
When a round-faced, red-haired fifteen-year-old also called Nancy joined the team, the first became Big Nancy while the new girl was Wee Nancy, even though she was already taller than Big Nancy. Wee Nancy didn’t have to wait long before she became the target of several of the boys from the printing and stationery departments on the second floor, though Big Nancy tried to protect her from dubious predators. Pregnancy outside of marriage was the greatest personal catastrophe and deepest social shame that could befall any of these girls. But the romantic kidology and horseplay in the air throughout the day was welcome, softening the harshness of the regime: 8 am till 12:30 pm, and 1:30 till 5 pm. On overtime nights, add two hours. The reams of paper in their waxed brown wrapping were stored in the basement, stacked in great, head-high piles with corridors in between, to create an underground maze, a likely place for smooching or, as we said, winchin’. Once Mr. Alister caught me at it with yet another Nancy and sent us both upstairs, after a dressing down, to get back to work.
Even so, you snatched at consolation where you spotted it. If the union, SOGAT, bargained with management to guarantee our holidays and annual pay increases, it had little influence on working conditions at 48 Ingram Street. When it rained heavily, as it often did, the floor around our feet was covered in water. A complaint about cold in winter—John Pollock and Mary McIlwham wore fingerless gloves—was answered by Mr. David with the suggestion to turn on more lights and profit from the electric heat generated by the bulbs. It was forbidden to make or receive telephone calls during working hours—there was one black telephone with a silver dial on the windowsill not far from John’s disc machines—except in dire emergencies. Each morning my mother would prepare my “piece,” which, if it contained bacon or sausage, perhaps topped by a well-fried egg, could be heated in its grease-proof paper on one of the radiators that was fitted under the Shaw to help the ink dry. After five minutes, the mildly toasted white bread would be warm and deliciously saturated with butter and bacon fat.
One day, about a year after I began working at Washington Irvine’s, I looked into the face of a guitar for the first time. It belonged to Áine Carey, a folk singer who would go on to record an LP—a rare thing in those days—of Scottish folk songs, as part of the Gleanna Four. Áine (pronounced as Anne) was an art school friend of one of the twins, Jean. The vision remains: burnished orange-red maple top; elegant neck with mother-of-pearl inlay and crosswise silver frets; bronze strings stretched along the neck from ivory bridge to gleaming brass keys. The prospect was erotic.
For the family group, Áine played Bert Jansch’s famous instrumental “Angie” (adapted from Davey Graham’s original “Anji”), with its thudding descending bass, while the index and middle fingers gave the sparkling suggestion of a melody on the treble strings. Jean bought Bert Jansch’s first LP—just Bert Jansch, already the subject of widespread wonder—and I was allowed to listen to it.
According to the sleeve notes, Bert, born in Glasgow, was “raised ‘in the field’ in Edinburgh.” What on earth did that mean? At the time of making these miraculous recordings, at the age of twenty-one, he didn’t own a guitar. How was this possible?
Not long after I had fallen under the spell, first of the instrument and then the album, Jean offered to teach me the rudiments of guitar playing, which she herself had learned from Áine Carey. My first chord—everyone’s first chord—was a C at the first position. The G chord was also playable, though forcing the joints of index, middle and little fingers to do the work was a mighty task. Nothing on the fret board was comfortable for those untrained digits. For the F chord, the index finger of the left hand had to hold down the first and second strings at the first fret at the same time, a next to impossible feat. My tender fingertips ached. But with practice, Jean promised, it will come.
She told me that finger-picking was the thing to do with the right hand, more sophisticated than common strumming, and gave me a basic 4/4 pattern that Áine had taught her: thumb for the bass note . . . now the ring, middle and index fingers—one at a time—on each of the treble strings. . . . Same thing now on G7 . . . no, try again . . . now on the F . . . ok, it’ll come. Now back to—that’s it—C!
Equipped with just those three chords to play, one was initiated into a rare fellowship. Stir an easy A minor into that progression —“I’m going up the country, through the sleet and snow”—and it opened up the prospect of a whole new life.
Scottish, Irish and English traditional folk songs told beguiling stories, occasionally cruel, but the Mississippi country blues led the singer down the road to a luminous underworld, even if that singer was sixteen years old and living in a respectable suburb on the Southside of Glasgow. Early Rolling Stones and Beatles records had pointed the way, but it was the real thing only for me from now on. The country blues, which borrowed fragments of the ancient British traditions, was the living, continually changing folk music of the present day. These black-and-blue hobo troubadours still walked Big Bill’s highway and rode Robert Johnson’s railroad blinds, sometimes hanging on for rides from state to state between the carriages of a lonesome train. White people met them, talked to them, listened to them, took down their stories and wrote books about them.
By means of the magic carpet of music, the blue mood of the old South—of cotton-picking and “plantation,” of “trouble in mind,” a mind that reached back to slavery and beyond that to Africa—could be felt in the room I shared with our little sister Julie in Kingshill Drive, Glasgow, a city in which at that time there were next to no black people at all. The first African-American people I encountered lived in places like Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. It would not be accurate to say that I met them only on the page or on disc; they lived in the strings and frets and bridge and tuning keys of my guitar, too; they lived in the sounds that emerged from it, however inadequately I might have attempted the songs.
The feeling I got from those meetings was vivid and transformative. It entered into me then like a form of religious instruction, or a program of military discipline, and has never gone away. I bought a record on which Big Bill Broonzy not only played and sang but talked to the Chicago journalist Studs Terkel, his fingers running up and down the neck of his guitar with golden touch as he spoke. I found Big Bill’s speaking voice, full of honeyed light and shadow, almost as thrilling to listen to as his singing.
“Bill, tell me about the blues. What is the blues?”
“Well, the blues really came from the way people live, and the way . . . some of them . . . the way they’re treated . . . and from the places where they live and the work they do.”
We had our native singers, who were just as exciting. Jean borrowed records from fellow students: Midnight Man and Hat by Davey Graham; The Incredible String Band’s self-titled first album; London Conversation by John Martyn. Both he and the Incredible duo, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron, were Scots, like Bert Jansch (Davey Graham had a Scottish father, so we were told) and even Donovan, whose early years were spent in Glasgow. John Martyn belonged to us more than most, because he, like Mum, was a former pupil at Shawlands Academy. Grandpa, the janitor, must have known him. His real name was Iain McGeachy, and he had lived in a smart tenement building at the top of Tantallon Road, past which we walked every time we went to visit Grandma and Grandpa at the house attached to the school.
All communicated thrillingly in this new musical language—a blend of old-world and modernist folk, just as the songs that Big Bill learned as a teenager (“reels” he called them in the interview, not “blues”) were a blend of British and Irish folk song and Southern woe, bound together by African rhythm. All were magically talented. John Martyn’s first album was recorded when he was seventeen and released just after his eighteenth birthday. On it he played “Cocaine Blues (Traditional, arr. Martyn),” its clean notes woven tight with seductive expertise, cushioning his still boyish voice. The photograph on the sleeve showed him sitting outdoors, barefoot, cradling a guitar. Somehow or other, he had been born with that guitar in his arms, the way certain footballers were born with a ball at their feet. Even so, it was possible to attempt “Cocaine Blues” in a primitive version in the living room at Kingshill Drive.
Keep doing it, Jean would say, as no doubt Áine had said to her. It’ll come.
One day, while acting as the feeder for my Shaw Pen Ruling Machine, which I had long since mastered—I was scheduled to move on to the discs in my fourth year of training—Jeanette surprised me by saying she had told John Pollock that I wouldn’t see my apprenticeship through to its full term, and that he had agreed with her.
“I just said to him. I told him. I said he’s too clever f’rit.”
Jeanette let her eyelids close, in that familiar way, eyebrows arching as they did so.
It was as if someone had set off a controlled explosion on a chosen site, in order to clear away unwanted detritus, before a new work of building could begin. It wasn’t that no one had ever told me I was “clever,” now that I was free of school and had dumped “If you had 20 percent more brains you’d be an idiot” behind; but Jeanette was at the present centre of my world. If people are shaped by how other people see them, then I was, day to day, being moulded into other forms.
My circle of friends was widening, and some people on its outer reaches had had a sort of education. Some passing pal had said I was a “philosopher,” and I took it as a compliment, though I wasn’t sure what it meant. Jean gave me William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies to read. I enjoyed the tale of civilized schoolboys stranded on an island, being sucked down towards an innate savagery. But the important thing about this first mature reading experience was my understanding that a story can be about something other than what the story appears to be: there could exist another story hovering above the realistic events recounted on the surface. Story No. 1 might be “an allegory”—an interesting new concept, which applied to the stories told in songs as well—of story No. 2. The second story—the story that wasn’t really there, or not visibly—could turn out to be the more important one. Incidents that are described could be “symbolic”—another new thing—of events that are not. It was up to the reader to be an active participant. Reader and book were in a relationship.
This was an aesthetic revelation every bit as momentous as hearing Áine Carey play “Angie” in our living room. Jean’s suggestion was that Lord of the Flies was an allegory of Christ’s agony on the cross. I failed to see it that way. But here was another aesthetic revelation: we could disagree.
For a while after that, I regarded every novel and poem I read and every play I saw in the theatre—when at last I began attending the theatre—as operating on a level above the visible story. Of even the most realistic work (The Importance of Being Earnest or Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, both of which I saw at the great Citizens’ Theatre in the Gorbals), I would ask myself: but what does it symbolize? What’s the real story? In later years, I found this habit hard to kick.
At Mum’s urging, I enrolled in a night class at Langside College and studied for the O Grade English exam, which I passed. I introduced some of my friends to the songs of Bert Jansch and the Incredible String Band. Without intending to, I began to see my intimate circle divided into those who were capable of connecting with Big Bill Broonzy’s protest song “White, Brown and Black,” with the psychedelic sounds of the Incredibles’ 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, and those who were not, for all they might have tried. This comprehension or lack of it separated me from boys and girls who up until then had been my good friends.
A button had been pushed inside my head, and from now on I responded to a call at some hitherto undetected frequency. My feelings after reading Golding’s novel projected me into another atmosphere, made by art. As I counted out chords and finger-picking arpeggios over the weekend, in the bedroom I shared with Julie, I was counting myself not only into new melodies but far-reaching myths:
I’ll sing you this October song,
Oh, there is no song before it.
The words and tune are none of my own,
for my joys and sorrows bore it.
Robin Williamson, whose song this is, also sang: “Birds fly out behind the sun, / And with them I’ll be leaving.” Why “behind” the sun? Because he was bound for another hemisphere. He spoke of “fallen leaves that jewel the ground”; of meeting a man “whose name was Time / And he said ‘I must be going.’”
It was bewitching. It cast an inescapable spell. The language sounded familiar, as if it had long lain in wait, in expectation of my hearing it. But at 8 o’clock on a dark October Monday morning, I had to leave those weekend fancies behind—not to hitchhike to Morocco, where it was rumoured Robin had gone immediately after singing with a blend of weirdness and lyricism on the Incredible String Band’s first album, playing guitar, fiddle and penny whistle, too—but to return to Glasgow Cross on the No. 13 bus and walk up the High Street to Washie’s.
I had “October Song” to console me, and I sang it to myself as I turned in to the close at No. 48, having braved the early-morning West of Scotland autumn weather, meeting red-faced, smiling Mary emerging from the cludgie on the stair, nodding a good morning to John, putting on my stiff grey flannel overall and preparing to give my hands up to ox gall and ink stains all over again. I liked Jeanette—and Big Nancy and Wee Nancy and trusting Jesse—but Jeanette had looked into the Ingram Street future and had failed to see me there.
An excerpt from Just Go Down to the Road: A Memoir of Trouble and Travel to be published by Paul Dry Books, Inc. in May 2022.