As promised, we start releasing Chris’s memoirs to you on a chapter by chapter basis. Just as String Driven Thing would start their set with the first number, we are starting off with Chapter One….. enjoy….
I was born six weeks after D Day in what was then the second city of the largest empire the world had ever seen. At that time, Glasgow was home to a quarter of the Scottish population, a city of trams and tenements, factories and foundries and it straddled a river where they built more ships in the last three years of the War than all the North American yards put together. It was a powerhouse of heavy engineering, a big brutal metropolis with a bad reputation, but covered as it was in a century of soot, no-one would have ever claimed that it was beautiful.
Then in the 50’s, the noted scribe, John Betjeman, passed through and penned a piece for the Telegraph describing it as: ‘the finest Victorian city in the world’. This phrase soon passed into Glaswegian folklore, hungry as we were for any crumbs of Southern approbation, but alas, it’s a rather selective quote, for once he’d finished raving about our fabulous architecture, the future Poet Laureate delivered this nasty little tailsting:
‘That said, there can be no city in these islands which has darker spots. At Anderston Cross, I visited the worst slums I have ever seen. Enter one of the archways to the courtyards they enclose and you will see the squalor. Small children with no park or green space for miles, play in rubbish bins with dead cats and mutilated artificial flowers for toys. Spiral stone stairs lead to tenement flats with one lavatory for four families. One I visited housed five children and the parents. The coal, the marmalade and bread were in the same cupboard. There was one sink with a single cold tap. There was a hole in the roof and a hole in the wall and the only heat was from an old fashioned kitchen range. Yet, though they complained, these people were not bitter and I was told there were 150,000 such houses in Glasgow.’
Betjeman tells it like it was, but as it happens, he was wrong about the lack of parks, for had he walked up the hill from Anderston, past the bustle of Charing Cross, he’d soon have reached the leafy glades of Kelvingrove, through which meanders the River Kelvin. But if the extremes of wealth and squalor were geographically close, on his walk JB would have encountered some distinct buffer zones, the first of which began with the thoroughfare where I spent the first five years of my life. Broad and stately, St Vincent Street runs from the edge of Anderston into the heart of the city, and number 316 was a fine three storey tenement of the kind you’ll still find in New York, with steps over a basement moat leading up to a grand doorway. Our seven room first floor flat was large and spacious and in an era when the vast majority of properties were rented, would have been beyond the means of all but a few, but my mother solved the problem by letting out two rooms to some rather genteel lodgers. Thus, I spent those formative years in a household comprising my parents, maternal grandmother, two uncles, a French chef and a pair of very correct spinster sisters who worked at a posh city department store.
As the only child in this world of adults, I was the centre of attention, something that may account for the fact that I grew up regarding myself as a bit special. My loving parents were christened Mary and Christopher, but in keeping with the zeitgeist of the day, were universally known as Maisie and Kit. Maisie was a part time waitress in the Locarno Club, a Charing Cross nightspot frequented by professionals and business types, while Kit had been a Military Policeman, invalided out of the Army after he broke his ankle in a motorcycle accident during the retreat to St Nazaire in June 1940. By the time I came along, he was studying to become a draughtsman and as the Wartime blackout gave way to the bright lights of peace, our front lounge became the centre of a vibrant social scene, full to bursting on Sunday nights with couples smoking, laughing and playing a card game called Newmarket.
Being on the north side of St Vincent Street, our double windowed lounge actually overlooked the Anderston area which so shocked Betjeman, but happily its tenements were hidden from view by a monumental stone yard, complete with its own crane. I still remember sitting with my Gran watching the jib swivelling and lifting big blocks of stone, while trams girned by on the street below. But though we were just above the slums, in all aspects save one, our centre of gravity lay behind us, North towards Charing Cross. This was where my mother worked and further along Sauchiehall Street was my first personal nirvana, a big toy store called Lyons, where my parents would buy me Dinky cars. One vivid memory is of me straggling behind them one balmy evening, playing with a fawn Standard Vanguard as they strolled arm in arm down the gentle incline of Elmbank Street.
As fate would have it, this streetscene has changed little in sixty five years, though almost everything else around it has fallen victim to the urban motorway that took Anderston, and with it the tenement that housed my little universe. All that is left is a stretch of cobbled lane that led to the backcourt behind our block, where in summer, I was allowed to play with my cars. One sunny day I was out there under the care of the daughter of a neighbour, when a lump of brick came sailing over the perimeter wall and hit me square on the head. After my frantic wails had echoed up the communal stairs, my mother calmed me down and explained that the brick had been thrown by ‘Bad Boys’, the implication being that these creatures lived just beyond the safe secure world which I had hitherto inhabited.
Looking back, I see now that the ‘bad boys’ had obviously come from Anderston, just a few hundred yards down the hill, and there lay my mother’s dilemma, for the exception to the rule that perennially drew us North, sat midway between their world and ours. In both symbolic and material terms it was huge, though it had been saddled with a diminutive that rendered it, rather irreverently, ‘St Pat’s’. It’s hard to think of anything else that could have drawn my mother down towards those mean streets, but like my Gran and one of my uncles, she was a devout Catholic, just a generation removed from the Irish soil wherein that Faith proverbially flourished. But while her faith was strong, so was her sense of vicarious aspiration, and as St Pat’s Primary School was the Bad Boys’ Alma Mater, there was never any question of her sensitive son being sent down into this den of brutalised animals.
Thus, from the outset, my life was affected by a struggle between sacred and secular. Though my saintly Gran was forever disappearing down to the ‘chapel’ for something called Novenas, I only went with her and my mother on Sunday mornings for Mass. Now and then my father would accompany us, and I couldn’t help notice that when the Angelus bell rang out at Communion and the whole congregation bowed their heads in supplication, he would remain stiffly upright, eyes open, hands held together as if in prayer, but in reality clenched into two fists touching at the knuckle. On one occasion, when we came out, he stopped on the steps to chat to someone while we wandered across the road to a dairy called Gracie’s, where they served the milk straight from churns.
‘Poor man,’ said my Gran, glancing back, ‘he’s got no faith…’
Such phrases stay with you, branded into your psyche, with terms like ‘conscience’ and ‘original sin’, whatever that was. To show how utterly futile it is to dip a child into such pools of superstitious folly, I can still recall my confusion when that same supplicant congregation all bowed their heads, intoning three times, in response to the priest’s cues:
‘Mercy nurse, mercy nurse, mercy nurse.’
What they were muttering, of course, was ‘Have mercy on us,’ but what did I know? The mind of a child is a tabula rasa, open to all shades and varieties of befuddlement, the most puzzling example being a voice each day on the radio reading out what sounded like some bizarre secret code, which turned out years later, to have been the horse racing results.
My uncles, John and Phil, were in their early twenties and both dashing and debonair. The older of the two, John, had followed my Mum into the catering trade and left to go down to London in the late 40’s, where he got a job at the cocktail bar in the Ritz, serving celebrity guests like Lena Horne. Back in the real world that was Glasgow, Phil would take me into the city and teach me the names of the cars parked outside offices. Back then, there were many smaller manufacturers, like Hillman, Humber and Armstrong Siddley but my favourite was the Jowett Javelin, with its futuristic aerodynamic rear. Years later, Phil asked me if I recalled an incident when we were walking past Central Station one day and a young worker fell from a rooftop onto the pavement in front of us. Now I had absolutely no memory of this, but given the way he his described shielding me from the sudden trauma, I’ve often wondered if the incident is locked somewhere deep down in my subconscious.
There came a time when Uncle Phil also left for London, only in his case it was to join the Camillians, a religious nursing order that took care of the dying. His leaving must have created an impression on me, for although I can recall nothing of the young man’s fall, I remember vividly watching Phil shave in the kitchen on the morning he left. Those were the days of shaving brushes and soap, all kept in a little mirrored cabinet that hung to the side of the kitchen sink, so behind the mundanity of the memory must be the subtext of parting. On a lighter note, I remember getting bathed in that same sink one Christmas Eve and waking next morning to find a green clockwork trainset covering half of the floor in the large lounge. Sometimes I think the notion that you die and go to heaven was reversed in my case, for much of those childhood days now seem like paradise to me.
Although there was a piano in the flat, no-one played it. Why my mother didn’t send me for lessons, I’ll never know, as it would have made my future musical life much easier. As I recall, the only music came from the radio, though I remember her singing as she did the housework. She had a good voice, but her repertoire was sentimental stuff in the Count John McCormack vein, like ‘When You and I Were Young, Maggie’. My only other musical memory is entangled with a nightmare, for waking one night alone in the dark, I went wailing across the hallway into the little back corridor to the kitchen, but as I approached the door, the sound of the Edmundo Ros Band enveloped me like some monstrous cacophonous soundtrack, compounding my confusion and fear. For years I could never listen to Latin American music without experiencing a small primal shudder.
So there you have it, an only child in a strange adult world, one parent nominally Catholic, the other the real deal, and hanging between them the burning question of where to send me to school. Their ideal would have been the Primary of the Jesuit run St Aloysius College, just a mile away in Garnethill, but being the favoured choice of Glasgow’s Catholic Middle Class, at this stage it took only a select few, mainly the children of ex pupils, so for now, it was a no no. The best alternative was a Private School called Hamilton Park, usually seen as a Feeder for the next Aloysian intake, which would happen when I was nine. And so to Hamilton Park I was duly sent, shortly after my fourth birthday.
The school building was a large mansion in an exclusive upmarket area of Glasgow’s West End called Kirklee, tree lined and Arcadian. Both setting and status would have suited my Mother’s aspirations though she must have had pause one day when she came to pick me up and looking through the window of the ground floor classroom was met by a vision of thirty teacherless dervishes turning the place into a battleground. And there, amidst the chaos, was her son Christopher, gazing dreamily into space. So is this a vicarious memory on my part or can I really see her, staring wide eyed through the glass? Weird as it may seem, I can actually recall sitting amid the mayhem but what I was dreaming about, I know not. Probably my next Dinky toy and the sheer intensity of its colour.
Although the school was good at the basic three R’s, it did have its eccentric side. The owners were a couple called McTeague, and though the woman was the actual headmistress, her husband’s only duty consisted of wandering around with a child’s sandal in hand, belting tiny recidivists for crimes so inconsequential that I can’t think what they were. Maybe talking in line? Or having your tie loose? Who knows? I have a photo of me on sports day wearing the uniform of dark blue blazer and striped blue and red tie, with a Royal Stuart Tartan kilt, for though my Mother’s antecedents were Irish, this was one aspect of Scottish culture which she had obviously embraced. Or perhaps it was my Dad’s influence, for he was only Irish on his mother’s side, his father’s family having come from the Highlands.
In January 1950, my Mum came home with a baby. I remember looking out of the lounge window and seeing her exiting the big black taxi, then carrying the bundle up those steps. The new addition was my brother Paul, and though his arrival must have altered the household dynamic, my only clear memory of him is an incident one night some months later when a spark flew out of the black range and caught him on the neck. Like the tiny brown scar he still bears, the incident has imprinted itself on my memory, the screams of mother and baby, the yelling as the adults jumped up, chairs falling over in the panic.
Other events have remained with me, like the day I heard my parents discussing the death of Al Jolson, in much the same tones that my generation would use quarter of a century later when Elvis died. It was a big thing, the passing of this blacked up son of a Russian cantor, and much of that impact came from his role in the first ever talkie, The Jazz Singer, released in 1927. When he uttered that immortal phrase, ‘You Ain’t Heard Nothin Yet!’, he couldn’t have begun to know how right he was, but according to my Mum, many of the thousands who queued round the block to see him, did so because they’d never heard an American accent before! Like I said, another time, another planet!