Following on from Chapter One, we move into the 1950’s with Chris heading off to his first school, St Aloysius’.
Don’t Fence Me In
1950 brought the first really big gear change of my life when we left the city centre flat for a terraced council house way out in the western suburbs. With its back and front garden and sunny outlook, this was the dream that had been promised to the soldiers who had gone off to War; a decent home in a country worth fighting for. There my sister Jane was born and when my Dad bought a Ford Popular, our Scots version of the American Dream was at last coming true. By now he was a marine draughtsman, working for a company called Polar Engines, miles away in Govan, so the car was as much a necessity as a luxury.
Our estate in Yoker had hitherto been flat farmland, and while the soot covered city had been dark and enveloping, here it was bright and spacious. Even the road outside our garden gate was a cream coloured concrete and with hardly any traffic on it, the little network of streets was a safe haven for kids of all ages. Here I met a lifelong friend, a curly haired lad called Harry MacGregor who was always happy to be involved in any crazy scheme I was currently planning. On Saturdays we’d go off to the local cinema and watch black and white movies, trotted out by a Hollywood production line with a captive audience measured in the multi millions. Then it was back to a stretch of marshy scrubland just a few hundred yards from my house where the drainage ditches would become our own Wild West, or Korea, or whatever terrain the latest matinee had just taken us to.
That said, when the second Aloysian intake arrived, my hours of play were suddenly curtailed, for the journey to school took an hour and a half. First there was a five minute walk to the bus stop then a ten minute bus ride to the tram terminus at Anniesland, where I would catch a Number 24 and ride it to the opposite terminus, on the South Side of the city. The new Jesuit Primary was called John Ogilvie Hall after a Jesuit hanged at Glasgow Cross in 1615, basically for being a priest, with all that entailed in a land which had embraced the Reformation as enthusiastically as Samson had cleaved to Delilah. Like Hamilton Park, it occupied a large detached house, so one bright blue morning in mid-August 1953, I was to be found sitting under a monkey puzzle tree in its verdant garden, waiting patiently for the next stage of my life to begin.
Our uniform was bottle green, with a golden eagle on blazer and cap. Striking would be the word, so my parents could definitely see what they were paying for. However, in my two years at this Jesuit Primary, it has to be said that I saw no Jesuits, for the teaching staff were, in religious terminology, all ‘lay’. The school was split into two ‘houses’, Ogilvie and Gonzaga, the latter being another Jesuit of Italian origin, whose Christian name happened to be Aloysius. Looking back, I see now that the new intake went into Ogilvie, while the chosen ones who had been with the Jesuits at Garnethill from Primary One were mostly in Gonzaga. So in all but name, these chaps were already regarded as the academic cream, while we were as yet rough indigestible yoghurt.
For the next two years I endured endless tram rides through tenement streets, reading Richmal Crompton books and doing my best in my few hours of recreation to recreate her hero, Just William, in a Scottish setting. By the time I got home in winter, it would be too late to go out to play, and there was always an hour of homework, so at age ten, I was like an automaton, eating, sleeping, travelling and learning. Then one day my father brought home a Grundig tape recorder which one of his apprentices had loaned him and something in my head clicked. To me, this artefact was truly wondrous, both in looks and function, and once I had got over the sound of my own Glaswegian voice, I became addicted to the notion that slices of life could be replayed at will. Tellingly, though, I don’t recall there being a musical aspect to my new love affair, so this must have been before the arrival of those rock’n’roll stars who lit up the Mid Fifties like a fleet of flying saucers shooting across the monotone grey sky.
At age twelve, I left Primary school and moved to the Secondary in Garnethill. Here there was no shortage of Jesuits and every morning we were herded into the pews of their huge high vaulted church to sit through yet another rendition of Mass. I was still a believer at this stage, or perhaps a ‘non-questioner’ would be a better description. When you’ve received a set of teachings with your mother’s milk, it’s hard to do anything else but swallow them, but certain events had caused little cracks to appear in the seemingly solid edifice of ‘Faith’, like the death of my Gran, and earlier, the death of Santa Claus, for with his demise came the passing of pure unadulterated innocence. But lurking just over the horizon was a force that would sweep away all the doubts and confirm my utter non-belief.
To get home, I would walk down the hill to New City Road, and ignoring several bus stops I would make for St George’s Cross, where there was a music store called The House of Clydesdale. In its window was the usual display of Long Players by acts like The Platters and The Hi-Lo’s, but beside them was the most fantastic beast I’d ever seen. White pearls studded its neck, scrolled f’s slit its blonde body, chrome capsules caressed its midriff and tattooed on its brow was the legend ‘Hofner’. In my pre-sexual world, this was a truly magical object, whose shape echoed the feminine form, but which could be owned in a way no female ever would. The fact that caressing it in a certain way caused it to vibrate and give forth exotic sounds only served to anoint it as the very summit of my desires. It was, as they say, love at first sight, but alas, unrequited, for the price tag hanging from its pearloid plastic tuning pegs meant it was way beyond the means of my parents who were already sacrificing greatly to send me to a fee-paying Jesuit school.
So yet again, the scales were tipped in favour of the sacred, although how anyone could view this guitar as even vaguely secular is beyond me. To me it was more miraculous than all the Biblical tales I’d been getting told since I was old enough to listen. Not that the Jesuits were very big on the Old Testament. They were very much into the Gospel of John, mysterious and Greek, and patently at loggerheads with the other three Gospels. There was also ‘The Apostle’s Creed’, an exhaustive list of Catholic beliefs taught by rote and recited in parrot fashion. To whom this declaration was meant to be delivered was never stated. Perhaps it was what you told Peter at the pearly gates, a kind of ‘Open Sesame’ to the afterworld for, at this time Catholics were under the impression that only they would gain entry to Paradise while agnostics, atheists and adherents to other faiths were all doomed to hellfire.
In my case, however, paradise lay on the other side of the music store glass and in a matter of months my obsession would take on a whole new dimension when I first heard the logical outcome of those shiney chrome pickups. When I did, nothing would ever be the same again, and the man to blame was Elvis. Skiffle had erupted by this time, as had Bill Haley, but these were minor tremors compared to the earthquake that Presley caused. I remember going to the Tivoli cinema in Partick to see his disguised biopic ‘Loving You’ and feeling the searing heat that his presence generated. Obviously for the girls screaming all around me, this was a sexual thing, but for me the prime force was music, which he seemed to be channelling in much the same way that kitchen appliances are powered by electricity, and even back then it occurred to me that his gyrations could be the by-product of this unique emotive charge.
But while all this was going off in my head, I was still having to deal with the Jesuits, with their fearsome reputation for being super educators. Given that this was what my parents were paying for, rather than buying me the new love of my life, I think it’s only fair to put their teaching methods into context. In my time, they used a control system called the ‘Ferula’, which is Latin for punishment, and in their case was a whalebone covered in leather. But this was merely its physical form, for in a move of diabolical cunning it was deemed that to rule out the slightest possibility of teacher bullying, only one man could administer it. This was Father Phillipson, the Headmaster of Discipline, and to add mental torture to the physical sadism, he practised his craft after lessons ended, which meant that those unwise enough to have bucked the system would have to live all day with the promise of the Ferula hanging over their heads, like the proverbial sword of Damocles.
Then at four o’clock, when everyone else was leaving school, the recalcitrants would form a queue outside his office on a half landing above the gym, waiting patiently to have their palms turned temporarily into scalding slices of raw meat. In their grubby hands, each of them clutched a slip of paper, like a banker’s cheque, but known to us as a ‘bill’, which stated how many ferula they should receive… four, six, nine, or for real villains, twelve! Each bill had been dispensed by a teacher, to whom it would be returned once it had been ‘cashed’, so that he could be sure the punishment had been meted out by matching it with his counterfoil. So, the name of the game was fear, and for anyone who wanted to avoid that queue, the only sensible course of action was to keep your head down and remain totally anonymous.
First Year was divided into three classes, with Gonzaga’s elite in 1A, the Ogilvie stream in 1B, and those considered beyond the pale in 1C. As long as you played the game, it was possible to escape the Ferula queues, though given the regime applied by some teachers, it was almost certain that you would fall foul of them in the course of your academic career. Somehow, I stayed invisible that year, walking a fine line between nonentity and goody two shoeism and in this featureless landscape, my only memorable moment is the day some pupils came running into the class yelling excitedly, ‘It’s War!!’ This was the Suez crisis, when Colonel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. Britain and France invaded in a vain attempt to wrest it back. Historically, this was the end of the UK as a world power, but in the context of my boyhood, it says much for the unthinking uniformity of those times, when the idea of another War could be greeted with such heady exultation by a bunch of First Formers.
One event which occasionally brightened my life was the visit of my Uncle Phil. He had a lovely laconic sense of humour which could at times become acerbic and strangely, for a man of the cloth, he was a real film buff with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hollywood and the peccadillos of its stars. Any time he was back, he would take me to the movies, not always to a blockbuster, but to films he himself rated. Thus, I sat spellbound in the darkness watching Kirk Douglas navigate a moral minefield in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’, one of the greatest anti-war films ever made. My father’s own father had died in this War to end Wars in 1918, leaving his widow to bring up three young boys, but the tragedy had always seemed remote to me till I entered Kubrick’s world and experienced the senseless slaughter through the immediacy of his lens.
One other film that Phil took me to which affected me even more was Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’, with a haunting score that I discovered later was down to a genius called Bernard Hermann. The surreal sense of longing, of things left unfinished, was perfectly captured in his music and stayed with me long after I’d left the cinema. So too did the mysterious plot with its seeming re-creation of the dead heroine, evoking the startling notion that perhaps the deceased were still amongst us, on the crowded streets, passing us by every day. Some of this may have been down to the fact that my Gran had recently died in our house, having just returned from a pilgrimage to Lourdes, a trip she had taken by plane, never imagining that this might be unwise for someone with thrombosis. For a long time afterwards, I would find myself searching for her face amongst the faithful at Church, just as James Stewart would apparently do on the streets of San Francisco.
Back in the sphere of education, over the next two years, the Ferula system did its job of keeping me on the relatively straight and narrow, though it didn’t prevent some teachers from indulging in good old fashioned psychological bullying. One proponent was an Irish science master with a habit of scratching himself in a rather obvious place. For some reason he decided to pick on me, perhaps because of my very anonymity, and he began to refer to me as ‘Cakey’. If he used my correct surname, it would be to tell me how I was ‘vacant and glaikit!’, a Scots term meaning stupid. As a sensitive soul, I would blush to the roots of my hair each time he set on me, and one day when he ordered me to get a glass pipette out of a cupboard, I dropped it through sheer nervousness, much to the delight of my classmates, who all went into paroxysms of laughter as it smashed on the floor. So much for solidarity!
Then one Spring day I broke my wrist in a cycling accident and, on the mornings I had to miss class to get the plaster cast checked at an outpatients clinic, I found the sudden sense of freedom overwhelming. I would walk through the leafy glades of Kelvingrove Park, totally free, and the idea of returning to a dark Victorian classroom would fill me with dread. Happily, I now had a clinic appointment card which was easily amended and the first morning that I added a date, the heady breath of freedom was suddenly enhanced by the adrenalin of danger. All of this happened to coincide with the onset of puberty, which must have caused some deep psychological change in me, for back in the prison of school, I began to throw off the cloak of anonymity and started to lift my head above the parapet.
I did this by way of humour, for like my Uncle Phil, I found I had a talent for making people laugh, something I had naturally kept hidden in a class setting. But once the funny cat was out of the bag, my jokey little asides about Irish crutch scratching got overheard, and in no time at all, I found myself in that Ferula queue at four, rubbing shoulders with the school dregs. I stood there nonchalantly, loath to admit to these villains that this was my first ever belting and that the bill I was holding was only for four. When at last my turn came, I entered a small darkened office with an anglepoise desk lamp shining down on the ledger where the names of the punished were entered. Father Phillipson was seated at the desk, and he sighed as he took the bill from me wearily, his pen scratching across the page. He was a man in his fifties, totally bald, with half-moon spectacles, and as he stood up, he pulled open the desk drawer, declaring in the clipped upper class accent that all Jesuits then had:
‘Dear, dear, Adams. We can’t tolerate insolence!’
He reached into the drawer and as in horizontal dentistry, where the drill is only glimpsed at the very last moment, the dreaded Ferula appeared suddenly, lashing down on my fingers. Then there was only pain, throbbing through me as I obediently alternated hands.
So now there were two factors at work that would stop me being transformed into the middle class professional that my parents vicariously aspired of me. One was rock’n’roll, as embodied by my latest hero, Buddy Holly, and the other was the vow I made after that dose of the Ferula that, whatever it took, it would never happen again. I knew that a component of this decision was cowardice, but the over-riding feeling was that this physical assault was an unjustifiable encroachment on my civil rights; a praiseworthy notion, but one unfortunately, whose time had not yet come. But rebellion had lit a candle in my pubescent soul, so when one sunny morning a few months short of my sixteenth birthday, I received two bills totalling fifteen Ferula, instead of joining the queue at four that day, I simply stopped going to school and to prevent the Jesuits from ringing my parents to find out where I was, I removed the diaphragm from the handset. Basically, this meant that though the phone rang out as usual, no sound would be forthcoming from the caller.
Naturally enough, after a few days of this, my mother reported a fault to the telephone company and an engineer duly arrived and after a quick perusal asked if perchance any of her offspring played guitar. Knowing how obsessed I was by this instrument, she answered in the affirmative, at which he shook his head and tutted:
‘The wee rascal’s stole the diaphragm for a plectrum!’
I was happy to go along with this supposed misdemeanour on the basis that the much greater crime still remained undiscovered, but a few nights later, the phone rang, and that clipped upper class English accent came down the line asking to speak to ‘Pater.’ Now if you recall, Pater was a virtual non-believer spending a goodly proportion of his hard earned money on sending all three of his kids to Catholic fee paying schools, only it now transpired that one of them wasn’t actually going. Much angst would flow from this unfortunate revelation, but interceding on her son’s behalf, my mother persuaded my father to let the Jesuits administer the punishment; after all they were the professionals, which was what he was paying for. But it was decreed that I needed a new blazer for the coming humiliation, so come Saturday, we set off for the city in my father’s Ford Popular with me and my two younger siblings in the back. However, once there, they made the mistake of leaving me in the car while they went off to attend to some business, and I took the opportunity to do a runner.
Back home I raided the little cashbox beside the telephone, threw a few clothes into a bag and beat it. My first port of call was a nearby phone box to ring two friends and arrange to meet them at the local cinema, but just as I exited, around the corner, carrying a battered suitcase came an older buddy of mine called Cary who happened to be a merchant seaman. He asked where I was off to. I told him I was running away.
‘How about you?’ I asked.
‘Me? I’m bound for Galveston!’