The early years in Govan
The sound of a dog howling outside broke the eerie silence of the early morning. Johnny pushed his brother Nick’s leg from his chest and rolled out of the bed he shared with two of his other four brothers. Nick the youngest, with his bright red hair and skinny legs, was always asking Johnny to steal him some sweets. Bruce the stocky one, only a year younger than Johnny. As brave as a lion, curly black hair the same as mothers, was still snoring away, dead to the world. The other double bed was empty. Alistair and Jack, the two eldest, were already up and gone. Alistair helping old man Frank with his milk round before he went to school. Jack working in fat Larry’s butcher shop round the corner. A five a.m. start every day including Saturdays. Five boys crammed into two flea ridden double beds in the single end basement flat in Govan. Father and mother were asleep in the alcove, the big heavy blue curtains drawn for warmth and privacy.
Outside in the cold December dawn over Glasgow the dog had stopped howling. Johnny quickly pulled on his baggy grey trousers, old grey collarless shirt and the thick blue jumper his father had bought him, on one of the rare occasions when his father backed a winner at the horses. Warm black socks with numerous darning patches and steel toecap boots completed his attire. Feeling like a tramp in the tacky clothes and avoiding looking in the mirror, he made himself a bowl of porridge. While eating the food he gazed around the room. His other brothers still cuddled up in bed. The two girls, his beautiful sisters all cuddled up in the other bed, a single with a plain dingy brown wooden headboard, two curly mops of hair, sticking out from the top of the layers of faded pink woollen blankets. One day, one day I will get out of this fucking nightmare, he thought. Glancing at the big mahogany nineteen thirties clock sitting centre stage on the dark blue wooden mantelpiece, Johnny noticed it was nearly six a.m.
The recently lighted coal fire filling the room with a soft warm glow, beckoning him forward like a Neanderthal coming home to the entrance of his prehistoric cave. Jack had managed to steal some coal from the local primary school the night before, piercing his thigh on the sharp railings as he hauled his bag of black gold over the gate, he never even felt it in the sub zero temperature.
Jack had lit the fire before he went to work, its red ambers flickering like jewels in the crown of a pauper prince. Soon the old clock would chime six thirty and the rest of the house would start to awaken. Big Jack was the only one working in a regular wages job. He had been working in the old fashioned butchers at the top of the street for about a year now, without his Christmas tips we would have had nothing on this cold December in the year of our Lord 1959. Father was out of work, the shipyards closing down one after the other, like falling dominoes, the rest of us were at school except for baby Karie. Women stayed at home in those days, mainly because of the large families they had to look after. We were like Fagan’s urchins, scrounging and stealing to survive.
This is how I saw things in those days, this is my story about me and my family. Johnny Buchan, the smart one, or am I?
I picked up the large drawing pad big Jack bought me last Christmas, taking a sharp pencil from my Rangers pencil case I started to sketch the room. First the butler sink with solitary cross head iron tap poking out from the wall. Like a drooping cock after a night of heavy drinking, the dripping tap slowly dropping icy cold water into the sink, like a melting icicle. Above the sink I sketched in the small window with the metal bars on it, the blue curtains had been drawn back, probably by Jack before he left for work. The old gas cooker was next, a dirty white monstrosity with four rings, one of the cast iron pan supports was missing, the back left as you looked at it. On the other ring at the front, the biggest one, was the big metal pot that we made the porridge in. Jack always left the Scott’s porridge oats to soak in water all night ready for the morning, he always made a big pot full, enough for everyone. As I started to sketch the wall to the left of the window I suddenly felt the need to take a leak, putting down my sketch pad I went over to the bed and pulled out the tin pot from underneath the bed, the colour fading on the rim but the Rangers blue still bright round the sides. It was a wonder that the pot that the boys used for taking a leak in was empty and I was glad it was empty. Half filling the pot I took it with me to the butler sink and emptied the contents into the sink, as I washed my hands with the yellow carbolic soap I saw the water flush away the piss and smiled to myself, as I thought of the water flowing down the drain and into the river Clyde.
I Hope some catholic bastard ends up drinking my piss if they go swimming in the river, I thought, while I dried my hands on the old blue towel hanging from the nail in the wall. Walking back to put the tin pot back under the bed, I once again glanced round the room, shit what a fucking dump, I thought, one day, one day, still I have my brothers, we are the Buchans and we are the hardest fucking boys in the whole of Glasgow. Going back to the sketch pad I decided I wasn’t in the mood for drawing anymore, so I put my drawing stuff back in the bottom drawer of the old oak chest of drawers and opened the big heavy door, to the outside world that I hated so much.
Bouncing up the cold concrete steps that led out onto the street two at a time I started to whistle a tune, it was a Frank Sinatra song I had heard somewhere. The bus stop where Johnny waited every morning to take him to school, Shawlands Academy Secondary school was only a hundred yards or so away from the shit hole that was home.
At this time of the morning it was still dark and I gazed up at the rooftops, half expecting some vampire phantom to swoop down and bite my neck and turn me into one of the undead. Standing at the bus stop I looked at the small fat kid that was waiting there already. “Hello what’s your name fat boy?” I said, giving the boy one of my hard man stares.
“My friends call me Tubby, Tubby Gibson, the shite that are not my friends I just batter into a pulp.”
The fat boy called Tubby Gibson just stood there, hands in his pockets staring at Johnny.
“I guess I want to be your friend then Tubby.” I said, holding out the hand of friendship. Tubby shook my hand and a new friendship was born. He would join our gang later ‘Toon Boys’
Although I didn’t know it then, Tubby Gibson was the best young fist fighter in Glasgow. We were both thirteen years of age. The reason I had not met Tubby before, was Tubby had just spent a year in Borstal and this was his first day back at school.
Not Shawlands Academy like me, where the bright kids were sent, but the other school where they sent all the tough guys and no hopers, who thought only sissies were clever. Nicknamed The Den, most of Govan’s kids ended up at The Den, only two out of every class were sent to Shawlands Academy. I hated Shawlands Academy with a vengeance. Although I was smart I did not belong in this posh school full of rich kids with rich parents. The kids were all posh stuck up kids, with their blue blazers and grey neatly pressed trousers.
Alienated by my old clothes and lack of money, I felt like a Protestant in a school of Catholics, or the one black boy in a school full of white kids. Not that there were many black people living in Govan in 1959.
Back in the house everyone was beginning to wake up. Nick the youngest of the boys was the first to stir, he was not a boy for washing in the morning. He just dressed in his knee length grey shorts and grey shirt, turned the gas back on and lit it with the box of matches that his mother used to light her cigarettes. She always had five Capstan, full strength fags, so full of tar that they were banned later, because of the high cancer risk. As the gas sputtered into life Nick knew that the nice big pot of porridge was going to be ready soon. Johnny had turned the gas off when he left, so it would not take long to heat up. Nick was an uncomplicated boy, he liked his comics and his games of marbles. At Elder Park primary school no one ever messed with him, because of his brothers reputations. Nick went over to the big bed and shook Bruce by the shoulder. “Get up Bruce.” He called, over and over again, finally Bruce pulled his large frame out of the bed and shuffled over to the table, where Nick had laid out a big hot bowl of porridge for his brother. Bruce tousled up his young brothers red hair and gave him a big bear hug. “Thanks for the porridge Nick.” He said, as he shovelled the hot porridge into his mouth, quickly finishing it.
“How’s things at school young brother?”
“Top of the class Bruce, as usual.” Said Nick, grinning.
Taking his empty bowl from the table Bruce walked over to the butler sink and rinsed the plate under the tap. The cold water struggling to clean the sticky plate. Taking his thick warm black woollen coat from the peg next to the front door, putting it on and wrapping the blue woollen Rangers scarf round his thick bullish neck, he opened the door and stepped out into the cold air. Calling back to Nick as he closed the door. “Keep studying Nick you’re the brains of the family, even smarter than Johnny.” He closed the door and left, Nick felt proud of his big brother Bruce. Nick didn’t want to lie to his brother, but he wasn’t top of the class, he didn’t want to go to Shawlands Academy, he wanted to go to The Den, to be with his other brothers Bruce and Alistair, he knew Johnny hated Shawlands Academy. Bruce would meet up with Alistair outside the gates of The Den. Alistair would usually have a couple of sweets with him from his tips and a little bottle of milk each. The early years, man were the early years tough.
We were proud kids, tough little urchins growing up on the mean streets of Glasgow. The girls also had it hard, they never had any decent clothes to wear. Although they were both beautiful it was hard to tell looking at them. The eldest Jennie was the favourite of the family at six years old. She was pretty, her hair was blond and curly and her eyes were bright blue. The baby of the family, and everyone called her baby for years, was Karie. She was named after her mother and had her mothers look. Black hair and big brown eyes, she also had her mothers loving nature. She was only four years old. The reason there was a gap between Jennie and her older brother Nick, was that another baby was born in between, but sadly died before anyone met her. She only lived for a few hours. Jennie and Karrie went to Elder Park primary school. Bruce and Nick were the only brothers at Elder Park by the time they went to school. Nick was a good boy and tried to look after his sisters. If anyone was bothering them he would threaten them with his elder brothers. Myself, Bruce, Alistair and Jack had all gone to Elder Park primary school, so everyone knew, you messed with one Buchan, you messed with the whole family. So no one ever bothered with my brothers or sisters at school.
I was in the maths lesson at Shawlands Academy by the time my sisters arrived at Elder Park primary school. Every day the maths teacher asked a question to the class, with the usual added ending. “Does anyone else know the answer apart from Johnny Buchan?” The question was very difficult, and only I seemed to have the ability to answer it. The teacher thought I was an absolute genius at maths, and he was right. Where did I get it from? I got it from my father, who as legend goes, could work out the tote dividend on the winner and placed greyhounds quicker than the computer at the track. I also picked up my fathers bad gambling habits on the horses and greyhounds. It made me feel good being smarter than these rich kids and it made the girls in my class fancy me more.
Not just for my brains but because I was rough, tough and good looking. What rich girl doesn’t fancy a bit of rough, even at that age. Ever since I was a young boy I was great at mental arithmetic. I would play a game against other kids, taking the number two and doubling it, in my head. Most people would drop out before they got any where near a million. Not me, not Johnny.
On the ground floor of the block of flats in Elder Park Street, lived a young couple with one child, a girl named Bonnie. She was about the same age as me, and bonnie a wee lassie she was too, I always had a crush on her for as long as I could remember. The flats shared communal toilet was also on the ground floor.
The toilet door was a pine ledged and braced door, ill fitting, painted black and hanging on a pair of rusty tee-hinges, the type of door you would find on a shed nowadays. It had no windows and was lit by a solitary light bulb, hanging from a frayed brown flex in the centre of the room. Hanging from a six inch nail, driven into the cream coloured, flaking plaster walls, neatly cut squares of newspapers tied with a piece of string through one corner, served as toilet paper. The toilet seat was missing, so you had to sit on the cold porcelain. To flush you had to reach a chunky pine wooden handle, that was attached to a thick black iron chain dangling about five feet from the ground. The high level Victorian cistern was black and had a hideous gargoyle face moulded into the iron. To reach the chain you had to stand on the slippery bowl and stretch as high as you could. When I was a young boy I had a recurring nightmare, I would slip while stretching to reach the chain, the Gargoyle would come alive and push my head deep down into the toilet bowl. While I choked on the mixture of soggy newspapers and excrement it would utter its spine chilling laugh, as it pushed me deeper and deeper into the shit. Before I drowned I always woke up and cuddled into my brother, pulling the blankets tightly over my head, but I never seemed able to get back to sleep. Everyone tried to avoid the toilet as much as they could, especially at night. I avoided it nearly all the time, day or night.
Inside the single end, 21 Elder Park Street Govan, where our childhood dreams and nightmares took place, the walls were painted pale blue, with dark blue skirting and architrave’s, the Glasgow Rangers colours, fathers football team. Mother and father slept in a big alcove on the left as you entered the room, with heavy blue curtains that could be drawn to keep out the cold.
On Sundays they were always drawn, I think most of the children were conceived on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning. On the wall facing you as you entered the room was a big Victorian fireplace, black iron grate surrounded with four rows of cobalt blue Delph tiles. On top of the oak mantelpiece was an imitation gold trophy with a Rangers football rosette attached. Next to the trophy was an old oak wind up mantle clock with a loud chime. Father used to get the big brass key for the clock from the mantelpiece and wind it up every Sunday evening, no one else was allowed to touch it.
Above the mantelpiece was a huge bevelled edge mirror in a heavy oak frame. Jack was standing in front of it when he was about fourteen, combing his hair and looking like a proper teddy boy. My father hated the teddy boy look and he was always shouting at Jack. Once he tore up a pair of Jack’s jeans with his bare hands, after Jack had spent hours sowing them, because they were so tight. Jack hated my father because he felt he was treated so badly, but on reflection I think my father just wanted Jack to be somebody when he grew up, not end up in prison, running around with the wrong boys. Jack never saw it that way, but some of his friends were already drinking bottles of red wine and getting into trouble with the law, my father just wanted Jack to grow up better than him. In some ways I think my fathers ill treatment of Jack helped him grow up stronger and eventually become the fine, strong, family man of integrity that Jack was. We all loved and admired our big brother unreservedly, and I loved him more than words can say. In the corner of the room was an old free standing white gas cooker, always kept spotlessly clean by our mother.
Mothers cooking was to say the least, basic. Her mince and potatoes were legendary, her recipe was bung a big load of mince in a pot, let it cook for a while, then fling in at least ten carrots, peeled and cut into thick slices. Par boiling meant nothing to mother, she said. ‘Only French people eat onions.’
The carrots were very healthy as they were always undercooked. It’s a wonder most of us ended up wearing glasses.
Jennie, a fine warm loving girl like her mother, had simple tastes. From the age of fifteen she wanted to cook just like her mother. She invited a really good looking boyfriend round to dinner one evening, when we lived in Arden. Being rather fond of mothers special, mince and potatoes, she decided to cook the dish for her new boyfriend. Unfortunately being a little short sighted, and not wanting to wear her new spectacles in front of her new love, she unknowingly cooked him a packet of minced morsels dog food, enhanced with nourishing marrowbone jelly, for extra life and vitality. The boyfriend asked for seconds, he loved it. Two portions later he was ready to taste some of Jennies home baked apple pie and custard. What a girl, what a cook, he thought. While waiting for Jennies home baked apple pie and custard, he unfortunately stumbled on the empty packet of dog food lying on the kitchen table.
Feeling rather queasy now he made his excuse’s and left, without tasting Jennie’s home made apple pie, or her ample bosoms, he was really ‘barking’ mad at Jennie, and never saw her again. He would have been sorry, if he had known then, that Jennie would grow up into one of the most beautiful girls you have ever seen. She ended up working at the Bunny Club in London for a while as a waitress, as did my other sister Karie.
Karie won the Miss Bristows Shampoo contest, the prize was cash, clothes, and a Lucy Clayton modelling course in London. I loved to go out with my beautiful sisters for a drink, once guys knew they were your sisters they would buy you drink all night, just to get introduced to the girls.
Next to the cooker, hanging on the wall, were an assortment of big iron pots and a huge frying pan. The butler sink was used to wash small items of clothing as well as small children.
On washdays mother used to fill the big blue pram with dirty washing and head for the local laundrette, nicknamed the steamy. The steamy was a big building full of industrial type washing machines, and rows of sinks with scrubbing boards, with big bars of yellow carbolic soap on every washboard. Up to twenty women at a time would be in there, all wearing pinafores and with their hair tied back with brightly coloured head scarves. When I had a bad chest mother would take me there, the steam from the big clothes presses would help clear my chest and help me breathe better. For baths we kept an old tin bath in the big storage cupboard on the landing, where the coal was stored. In the winter when the fire was lit mother used to make toast, she held the bread up to the fire with the long brass fork from the fireplace set, which consisted of a little round sweeping brush, small shovel and the three pronged fork, all highly polished with Brasso, as was the big brass letter box on our four panel heavy oak front door, which was painted blue of course. A door where I got my finger stuck in the jamb when I was only seven years old, the pain was excruciating, as the tears ran down my face I banged on the door with my left hand, screaming for my mother to open the door. It was a relief when she rushed out and picked me up and comforted me. The nail eventually fell off and the nail that grew back on the ring finger of my right hand was an almond shape, completely different from my other nails, but not unpleasant to look at. Hot water had to be boiled on the stove to fill the tin bath, or in the winter, heated on the coal fire in a large copper kettle. So one bath a week was all we were allowed, usually on a Friday night, sharing the bath water. On other days we had to wash with cold water and a flannel. The wall to the left of the front door had two pull down beds, they could be folded up out of the way during the day. Jack slept in one, and when Alistair was born he slept in the other bed. When I was born I shared the bed with Alistair. Later when Bruce and Nick were old enough to go in a bed, it was Bruce in with Jack and Nick in with me and Alistair
When my two sisters were born, another fold up bed, that turned into a small table, was donated by a local charity. Every time a new sibling was born they would sleep in the big blue pram, with its shiny chromium wheels and real rubber tyres. Each baby would stay in the pram till the next one came along, then he or she would be moved into the top drawer of the oak tall boy, that stood between the fold up beds. I remembered vaguely my little stint in the pram, even though I was only in it for twelve months.
Mother wanted a daughter, so she let my hair grow really long. I was like a little angel, she told me later, the bluest bright blue eyes, the hue of a wonderful summer Scottish sky, curly blond hair the colour of corn, and the daintiest features you would ever see on a boy. Even then I had a lovely smile and was always giggling. Mothers sister Rose came to visit us while I was still a baby, all the way from the United States of America, her husband was very rich and the story goes that they offered my mother and father one thousand pounds for me. My father kept saying for years afterwards, he would not sell his Johnny, or any of his children, not for a million pounds. I wish I had a photo of me at that age, but no one in the family had a camera.
The sleeping in the drawer was not very nice, it was comfortable enough but very claustrophobic even for a small child, the biggest fear was someone closing the drawer, lucky enough it never happened to me. Although I have a vague memory of someone accidentally shutting the drawer when little baby Karrie was in it. Talk about overcrowding. We moved to Arden while Karrie the youngest was only six in 1961. In the middle of the room in Govan was a big oblong oak table with turned legs, ball feet, and six plain slatted back pine chairs that didn’t match the table. Later mother hand made some nice thick cushions to put on them, blue of course. She never had a sewing machine. Most of the time, when we were staying indoors in the cold Scottish winters, we would sit at the big oak table playing cards or board games. Every Christmas, we would receive for presents, a big fresh orange, and a chocolate selection box each. On the back of the selection box there were cut out board games, snakes and ladders, Ludo, or draughts normally. We would use the rest of the box to make a dice by cutting out a hexagonal shape, and writing one to six on each edge, then we would get a needle and push it through the centre to make a fulcrum. Every game was played in earnest, sometimes for a piece of chocolate. We would whoop merrily as we spun our home-made dice, till father told us to keep the noise down. For counters we would use the tops of beer or soda bottles. In those days most beer was sold in bottles, the metal tops had a cork inset that could be prized loose. Then we would use them for badges to pin on our jumpers, using the cork inset on the inside of the jumper and pressing it back into the top through the material. We also used the bottle tops to decorate our home made skate boards and buggies. We would make a chariot by getting a plank of wood, nailing an empty beer crate to it, then fixing an old broom head on top for a handle. Finally we would go to a posh area and steal rich kids skates, nail them to the plank, decorate the crate with bottle tops, make a sword from wood, it was the Roman legions re-born and we invented re-cycling long before the yuppies did. As a young boy Nick loved to read American comics, he used to trade them with other boys. During that period many comics passed through his hands, that today would be worth thousands of pounds as collectors items. Nick still bought and collected comics till he was in his early twenties, and still has a few valuable ones to this day. His favourites were The Green Lantern, The Silver Surfer, Justice league of America, Spiderman, Superman and Batman, many first issues.
In the summer we used to play marbles. We would make a ring in the dirt and each player would place four of the marbles in the centre, then you would shoot from about ten feet. If you knocked a marble from the circle you would get another shot. If your marble stayed in the ring other players would be allowed to shoot for it, and you would have to use a different marble to shoot with. The game was over when all the marbles were out of the circle. Another favourite game was dares. This involved climbing onto the top of the concrete shelters that the bins were housed in. Between the shelters, the gap would vary from about four feet to over eight feet. The shelters were about ten feet high.
The dare involved running across the roof and leaping from one roof to another. The hardest leap was big spiky, so named because there was a pointed metal railing between the gap, which was about six feet, if you missed you would stand a good chance of being impaled on one of the spikes, like Vlad the Impeller.
The day I made my attempt at big spiky it was snowing, my heart was pounding as I ran towards the edge, I leapt through the air, I came up short, my hands desperately clutched at the edge of the roof. My chin impacted on the hard concrete and my teeth went right into my tongue, somehow I scrambled up onto the roof. I was lucky I did not fall down onto the sharp spikes below.
A week later another boy missed and ended up with a spike going right through his heart. After that no one ever played the dare big spiky again. I had to have five stitches in my tongue, with no anaesthetic, lucky it was so cold that my mouth was numb or it would have been unbearable. It was painful but I did not cry. Later my tongue swelled up and I could only drink water for about a week. I always remembered my father buying me a peach, when he took me to have the stitches removed, that was the best bit of fruit I have ever tasted in my life.
We also played a lot of football in the street. We never had a real football, our ball was rubber and only about six inches in diameter. I was very good at football in those days and was selected to play for the fresh air fortnight team. The fresh air fortnight was in the Highlands, poor kids were sent there if they had been in any contact with anyone who had tuberculosis. During a routine screening at school one of the family was found to have been in contact with a carrier for tuberculosis. We never found out who it was. So myself, Alistair and Bruce were all sent away for the fresh air fortnight. Everyone else went to stay at auntie Joan’s house for a week. We all loved it at the big country house, long walks every day through the beautiful Scottish mountains and crags, up at six a.m. A good four or five hour walk, then back for lunch. Lunch was a couple of freshly baked rolls, filled with cheese and salad, and a full pint of milk all to yourself.
The dormitory had a lovely big library full of adventure books, Treasure Island, Call of the Wild, to name but a few. In the afternoons we would play football till tea time. After supper, myself, Bruce and Alistair would all sit and read till lights out at nine p.m. On a Saturday we would get parcels from home.
Big Jack managed to steal a huge quantity of soap coupons, which he converted into sweets from the corner shop, so we got a great parcel, all wrapped up in brown paper. The last Saturday before we went home, a team of boys from the local remand school were invited to play a fresh air fortnight select eleven. I was over the moon, to me it was like playing for Scotland. On the day of the match I came running out onto the pitch with my shirt hanging out like my hero Denis Law. I was brought sharply back to reality when I heard the loud voice of the headmaster call out in a fierce Highland accent.
“Tuck that shirt in Johnny Buchan! Or you wont be playing at all.” I tucked my shirt in, but I was no longer Denis Law, everyone played reasonably well including Alistair and Bruce, but the team of remand boys beat us six nil.
To get money as kids we used to look for weddings on a Saturday afternoon. It was the custom in those days for the bride and groom to throw money from the bridal car as they drove away for their honeymoon. You would gouge and stamp on other kids just to get the coins. In Elder Park street there was a small newsagents shop, the proprietor would give a sweet to the kid who managed to bring the delivery of newspapers inside on a Saturday morning. At least ten kids would wait on the pavement for the little red van to arrive with the papers. One Saturday Bruce was so determined to get the papers he got hit by the van, he was sent flying in the air, when he landed, lucky enough on his feet, another kid was picking up the papers. Bruce pulled him round by the shoulders and nutted him, he went down like a felled tree, he picked up the papers and ran into the shop, where he collapsed in a heap. They called an ambulance as he was out for about five minutes. Bruce woke up just as the ambulance arrived, collected his sweets, and told them he was OK. The owner of the sweet shop was a bit of a character, if a kid was caught trying to steal sweets he would be placed in a big wooden barrel for two hours and only let out when he or she promised never to try to steal sweets again. Jack, Bruce, Alistair and I had all been in the barrel more than once. Nick well he had only been in the barrel once, that was enough for him. Most of the time during our childhood we spent trying to steal sweets, we were like Fagan’s urchins, running around with our dirty faces and dressed in rags. We were issued with free shoes once a year and we had to go to collect them from a special council depot in the west end of Glasgow. I remember my last pair, they only had boots, big thick soles with a steel inset at the front and on the heel, they only had a size bigger than mine. I think they deliberately gave you a size bigger than you wanted, so that you would not grow out of them. Within ten minutes the skin on your heel would be worn off and you would be hobbling about like a wounded soldier. I never had a bicycle, but we would steal one for the day, then just leave it somewhere, as father would slap us if he caught us stealing.
I remember I stole a racing bike once. I clipped my feet into the pedals and set off like a demon down the Govan road, I was in the Tour de Glasgow. Unfortunately I braked at some traffic lights and could not get my feet out of the pedals, so I just toppled over and split my head open on the pavement. Being Johnny I just laughed and left the bike behind.
My father worked in John Browns shipyard in Govan when I was a boy. Every Friday, he used to come home covered in black dust, looking like the Michelin Man. He had rolls of copper cable wrapped around his waist, to sell for scrap, and packets of drill bits in his pockets. Everyone who worked there had some sort of fiddle going on. Mother would fill the tin bath, and help scrub his back. He was a very meticulous man and I remember he always used to look after his nails, he used to push the skin back with a switchblade to expose the cuticles. After his bath he would get dressed in a fine suit and tie, while mother polished his shoes. He very rarely drank indoors, preferring to go to the pub and meet his friends. Before he went out he would give Karie, my beautiful mother, her housekeeping money. She always asked him, just before he left, “would you like a dinner when you get in?”
He always gave the same answer to my mother.
“No woman, I will get something at the pub, be home before twelve as usual.” He always came home, usually drunk, always before twelve. He would expand his chest, and all the buttons would pop from his shirt. Ripping his shirt off he would flop into the big tattered armchair, while mother was picking them up, to sew back on the next day, he would shout!
“I’m the hardest man in Glasgow! Fuck the Pope.” In the summer we used to go to play in a place we called the Sunny Dumps, later when we were older we discovered it was a big building site. We would look for wood and make a makeshift hut inside one of the big groundwork clay pipes. When the weather was bad we would go there and read books and talk.
Once in the lucky middens we found a pile of girlie books, so we took them to the Sunny Dumps and invited Bonnie along, we showed her our willies and she showed us her little fanny. I think that night I had my first wet dream. I was only eleven years old.
We were so poor when we were kids, the only sweets we got were sweets we could steal. One of our favourite tricks was to glue a penny, using a piece of soft gum, in the dispenser for chewing gum, outside the little corner shop, this would stop it falling inside when you turned the handle and we could empty the whole machine with one penny. A cup of tea was special in those days, we were always out of milk, so we used mothers breast milk. She always seemed to be pregnant or nursing a new born. No wonder I am still alive it was so full of vitamins. We were all breast fed till at least three years old. Then there was the Scott’s porridge oats, now that is the way to grow up strong.
Another discovery we made, quite by chance, was when we saw a cross in chalk on the corner of a street, it meant coupons were being put in the letter boxes. Money off soap powder and other goods. We would then go and take them out of the letter boxes and sell them to the owner of the corner shop for sweets. The best thing about the corner shop was the fruit machine. The old fashioned type with cherries and fruit on three reels. The jackpot was three yellow bells and paid about two pounds, a lot of money in those days. The shop was painted bright blue, and sold other goods as well as sweets. The proprietor was an elderly man of about sixty, with grey hair. He was very thin, with long gnarled fingers and rings on both hands, he always wore a white apron.
His wife made hot meat pies. Rangers supporters would buy them on match days, they were the best meat pies I have ever tasted. Sweets were kept in big glass jars behind the counter, on shelves that stretched up to the ceiling. When he was climbing up to get one of the jars down, one of us would distract his wife, while the other would stuff his pockets with chocolate from the tray next to the till, he never did catch us. Still I bet he was making a mint out of the soap coupons. He never gave us a fair trade on them, but we couldn’t complain, could we? My mother was a very beautiful woman, with lovely long black hair and soulful brown eyes. She came from a poor Glasgow working class family, unlike my father who came from Highland stock. He was born in the Kyle of Lochalsh, where his parents owned a farm.
My mother had a lovely singing voice and was the kindest person you could ever meet. She smoked strong cigarettes and never stopped talking, we were always telling her to shut up. Its ironic, and always it fills my heart with deep grief, that she died of throat cancer. How I wish she was still alive, singing her sweet songs and listening to all my worries. My father hated smoking and was always telling her to quit, I wish she had listened to him.
My brother Alistair and I were inseparable in those days. He is a year older than I. We shared everything, not that we had much to share. On the rare occasion when my father backed a winner on the horses, he would give us two shillings each to go to the Saturday morning movies. We would go straight to the corner shop, near fathers sister Jane’s house, and buy a big two pence mother Baileys candy. That left us with twenty-two pence each, so we would play the fruit machine with the rest, if we won we would go to the movies, if we lost we would go for long walks by the river Clyde or visit the sunny dumps.
As we walked along Glasgow’s mean streets, looking at the big sandstone tenement buildings, buildings that looked so warm and full of life in the summer sunshine, yet seemed so dark and foreboding after dark, we talked about all the exciting things we would do when we left school. I wanted to be an artist or a famous rock star. Alistair always wanted to own his own shop, he fulfilled his childhood ambitions, I never did. The conversation always seemed to end up about seeing the world, getting out of Glasgow, getting down south to London. When I was about nine years old, my brother Alistair cut his finger when we were looking in the rich peoples dustbins for empty beer or soda bottles. We called it looking in the lucky middens, a Glasgow word for dustbins, if you found any glass bottles you would get a half-penny for them from the corner shop. I took him to the hospital, while we were waiting the nurse gave me a glass of milk and a chocolate biscuit. Some weeks later there was no food in the house, except for porridge, so I just cut my finger to go to the hospital again and get the nice free milk and biscuits. Looking back that was a fucking crazy thing to do. Still when you are hungry you will do just about anything.
One moment sticks in my memory more than others, like Peter when he denied knowing Jesus to save his own skin. When my father sent me to the shops to get him a paper, I saw two boys wearing green jumpers coming towards me with hate in their eyes.
I carried on walking and crossed to the other side of the street. Lucky my pal Tubby Gibson was with me. Tubby just ran across and punched the bigger one repeatedly in the face. He cried out for mercy while his friend ran off. I just stood there frozen to the spot. I still remember how his eyes had puffed up almost instantly, turning deep purple, I felt sick. About an hour later my father sent me to the shops again to get some milk and I ran into the same two boys. I am afraid my bottle went and I said I didn’t even know Tubby Gibson, I was only thirteen years old. I preferred to read books, adventure books like Jack Wilds White Fang. When I gave my brother Alistair the book he loved it and started to read more books himself. My first year at Shawlands was very lonely, I didn’t seem to fit in. To get a dinner at lunch-time I had to go to the teacher at assembly and in front of my classmates, say; “Free please!” It was so embarrassing for me, I was a proud boy.
One other boy had free dinners and all the posh boys used to tease and taunt him at playtime, so I just went hungry. Sometimes I would walk round the local Woolworth’s and steal a few sweets to keep me going till home time. I still excelled at maths and technical drawing. My English was poor, I could not see the point of studying Latin. My favourite lesson was the art lesson. This was a mixed lesson and I was in love with a blond girl who sat a few desks down in front of me, I would often sit and sketch her, but she never even knew I existed. The moment I knew for certain that I would not be staying on at Shawlands till I was eighteen, then going on to university, was the day I heard that Bruce had only came fourth in his class and would not be coming to Shawlands. No one expected Bruce to get to Shawlands, he didn’t, he ended up going to the same school as Alistair, the Den. The thought of spending another three lonely years at Shawlands without the company of my brothers was unbearable, so I was sure I was just going to leave at fifteen and get a job. That’s what I did.
I was fed up having no money, so I got some work after school maintaining rich peoples gardens. I made a lot of mistakes at first and ruined some expensive flowers I thought were weeds. I really persevered though, and saved up a fair bit of money.