THIS IS THE FIRST CHAPTER OF MY UNCLE KENNY’s BOOK CALLED ONE GREAT VISION: See http://kiltforhire.com/2011/07/24/uncle-kenny/
Dampness pervaded the room. It hung in the atmosphere. Over next to the door, the wallpaper had given up the struggle and virtually parted company with the wall. It was a typical Glasgow single-end of the Twenties, cramped and uncomfortable. In the bed recess lay a young boy of four, racked spasmodically by retching coughs and bathed in sweat. His eyes were glazed and he was obviously very ill.
His parents were having an earnest consultation. ‘What dae ye think Bobby, will we ca’ the doctor?’ the mother anxiously enquired.
‘Oh, ah don’t know Maggie, we haven’ae goat the money, five shillings is an awful lot.’
Whit will we dae then, dae ye think we should try a ham skin oan his chest? Ah could get wan for nothing fae the butcher.’
‘Well, ah suppose we could try it but if he gets any worse, we’ll have tae call the doctor and find the money somewhere’, murmured the father.
They were a typical working class couple of the period. The father, a general labourer and odd-job man, poorly dressed in a heavy serge suit with a cloth cap. His wife, attired in a loose billowy dress with a short triangular scarf round her neck, had strong determined features.
The boy was their fourth child and second son. His older brother had died at the age of eight months, another statistic of the dreadful rate of infant mortality of the time.
Despite his fever, the boy had listened intently to his parents’ conversation and it was indelible impressed on his memory, for I was that child and it was my first real memory of life on this planet.
Whether it was the ham skin or my own constitution, I pulled through but who knows what seeds that experience planted in that small developing mind or conditioned the path I have trod in life.
This was typical of conditions in Springburn, Glasgow in the Twenties. Grinding poverty, high infant mortality, scarcity of food, lack of decent clothing, abominable housing conditions.
No matter how much my mother tried and she tried to the best of her ability, we were always short of the decent necessities of life. My childhood experiences were in direct contrast to the almost idyllic account of life in Springburn by Molly Weir in her book “Shoes were for Sunday”. For us, like so many thousands of others, life was a grim struggle to make ends meet. This in a day and age when the sun never set on the British Empire and the conscience-less rich reaped its full benefits while their offspring sported themselves in the flapper period of the Twenties, flaunting their wealth in their idiotic antics at nightclubs and royal debuts at a time when millions were unemployed and their children went hungry. It did not need a Karl Marx or a Lenin to tell the intelligent workers that the only way they could improve their loss was by unrelenting struggle against the boss class as is unfortunately still the case today.
One such intelligent worker was my uncle Hugh and from an early age I was fascinated with his stories of organised working lass protest, strikes, lock-outs, rent protests, fights against the hated “Means Test” which determined meagre “Parish money” an unemployed worker received, and who first handed me the Communist “Daily Worker”, but this was in the future for it is important that workers realise in detail what life was like when Tories reigned supreme. There was as now, a supine Labour Party and cowardly Trade Union leaders never more demonstrated than in the General Strike of 1926. An apex of workers resolved to bring about real change, in which the much vaunted Winston Churchill used every reactionary method to crush it and finally succeeded not by the workers crumbling but by the base betrayal of the leaders of the “Triple Alliance” of railwaymen, miners and transport, exemplified in the person of J.H. Thomas. The strike lasted barely a fortnight but in that time thousands of workers showed the kind of determination that, had they been better served, would have led to a shattering victory over their exploiters.
My only memory of it was the excitement of my farther and other grown ups talking endlessly of their hopes and dreams. Even at that early age of five, I realised that something had happened which was different from our usual routine but as is the way of the very young I became rapidly bored by the concerns of the adults and immersed myself in my own childish pursuits and the thoughts of entering school.
School was a new world entirely. Strict and disciplined with strange alien people called teachers. I never did liken them to any of the ordinary adults that surrounded me in my normal life and never particularly liked school. I was so often punished for “dreaming: that I accepted this punishment as just another unpleasant fact of life for us kids.
I was left-handed and was speedily forced to start writing with my right. Perhaps they did me a favour for I became ambidextrous although I don’t think the possible consequence of their action bothered them in the slightest.
They must have done some good for by the age of sever or eight, I could read fairly well and discovered my first love – books. I couldn’t get enough of them and boys’ magazines like the “Wizard”, “Hotspur” and “Rover”. Then I discovered the Public Library. It was like a treasure trove, “Grimms Fairy Tales”, Hans Christian Anderson, “A Thousand and One Nights”, and so many others. I was insatiable and some of my fondest hours were spent in the wonderland of Springburn Public Library graduating from the ore childish books of my early love to, (by the age of thirteen or fourteen), the horror of reading about the First World War and its grisly character and a growing interest, still vague, of hose these catastrophes occurred.
It may sound absurd but at no time did I connect the wonderful books I read in the library with the dull little textbooks we had at school.
School was a chore to be endured and survived as best one could. Even when I received a second prize in the eleven qualifying class, I thought I was being called out to be punished. The prize in any case meant nothing. Nobody in our house bothered about education other than the compulsory aspect of it, not because of disinterest in their children but rather that all energies were taken up by the elemental necessity of finding the means to feed and clothe us.
A terrible blow struck our family when I was ten. My father left us, never to return. He went off with another woman.
I’ll never forget that morning when I woke and found my mother dazedly reading a note and crying brokenly. He had left seventeen pounds, but no amount of money could compensate for the grief he left in his trail. My elder sister, Cissie, was particularly shattered for she had been his favourite. Apart from emotion, what it really meant was that my mother was left with the sole responsibility of bringing up four children, Cissie, Betty, me, and Duncan my young brother who was only four.
The fact that my mother coped during those dreadful days of the Thirties depression, is a tremendous tribute to her iron-strong determination and courage.
My father to some extent was a victim of those times. A great socialiser and singer, his work-life had consisted of a medley of odd jobs ranging from bookies’ ruiner, to showman to general labourer. Maybe somewhere along the line he decided to snatch whatever pleasure he found, in whatever manner he could.
To me he had always been indifferent and possibly the only real time I arrested his attention was when I woke up one night to find him and my mother quarrelling after one of his parties. Just out of sleep, I thought he was hitting my mother and threw a small vase at him. It struck him on his waistcoat pocket and shattered his pocket watch, his prized possession. The quarrelling abruptly stopped and he bitterly commented “What a bloody son.”
Not long after he left, he realised his mistake and wrote from Liverpool a letter pleading to be taken back. My mother never faltered. For her, he had burned his boats and would never be back. We learned later he sailed for Canada from Liverpool. He wrote some further letters to Cissie but these too ceased and the chapter was closed. We were without a father.
Life was not all grim and we used to look forward to those marvellous Saturday pictures, the “Penny Rush” in the old Wellfield Cinema. For a single penny of the old pound we could enjoy a two and a half hour programme of the main feature, a second “B” film of equal length, a cartoon and my favourite, the serial “The Mystery Rider” depicting courageous masked riders with great flowing capes. When everybody poured out after the show, the boys whooped up the road raucously singing “We are the Mystery Riders”.
The unemployed workers who used to congregate at the top of Croftbank Street at the corner were another source of interest and fun. It was great listening to their stories and jokes for although their lot was hard, they had a great sense of humour. The really great treat was when they allowed us to accompany them to an old quarry whose waters they used as a swimming pool. The unemployed were heroes to us. In any case there were so few men employed in the street as to be non-existent.
Great excitement reigned at the particular period of the hunger marches when, at the junction at Wellfield Street and Croftbank Street, unemployed men lined up under the leadership of a tall powerful looking man. This was Peter Kerrigan of the Communist Party.
The Communist Party was very much a part of the scene in the early Thirties. Many’s the time we kids raced after their flute band, enjoying their tunes and admiring their smart red-striped trousers and fluttering red flag. I first heard “Rowan Tree” from that band and have liked it ever since.
I didn’t understand what they stood for and was not too interested but they seemed a very vigorous lot. To a twelve year old that was excitement but it didn’t match the excitement I got from reading. Still, the early seeds of political awareness were nevertheless being sown mainly by my uncle Hugh and a friend of my mother, John Conway.
John Conway was quite a character and became the man I admired most in my young days. Over six feet in height, this handsome Irishman was like a God to me. He used to take me to the old Paramount (now the Odeon) in the centre of Renfield Street and when the show was finished and people stood for the National Anthem (which was the custom at the time) big Johnny would stride majestically out of the hall with me proudly following on. He helped our family as much as he could even to the extent, when I injured my leg at football, of taking me regularly to Yorkhill Hospital for treatment.
On one occasion he showed me pictures of his relatives but these were not the usual benign domestic pictures. They were of men draped with cartridge belts and armed with Lee Enfield rifles. They were an early I.R.A. unit. Johnny regaled me with their exploits and their fight for a united Ireland and their memories of what the hated British “Black and Tans” had done to their forebears. Johnny finally left the area for somewhere in England and the connection was broken. To me, he was a fine man of principle and courage with a fervent passion to see a united Ireland, a view which I share to this day, though the way in which religion has bedevilled this issue does not make for easy solutions.
Religious dogmas, whether of the Roman Catholic or Protestant variety have always amazed me with their reprehensible bigotry. All claiming salvation from on high but mendaciously manoeuvring ceaselessly for the high ground for their ossified establishments. The only thing I ever knew them to be united on was their common hatred of Communists, Left Socialists or fort hat matter anybody with enlightened thoughts. Frankly I think The Carpenter would be horrified to observe the antics of those who say they act in His name.
The curse of my early days was the “Bill or a Dan” syndrome. Every now and again you would be accosted by a group of mindless young yobs who would demand to know your allegiance. It didn’t seem to matter what you said, you still got roughed up. Fortunately, I was a fairly strong lad and gave as good as I got but it left me with a permanent distaste for that kind of religious expression.
Not that I was irreligious for my mother had insisted that we should go to Sunday School and the Band of Hope and I did so faithfully and regularly until I was unable to attend because of a severe bout of bronchitis which lasted several weeks. Near the end of this illness, my heart jumped for joy when I was visited by my Sunday School teacher, but it was quickly calmed when I realised that the only reason for his visit was to see if I was playing truant!
I don’t suppose that man ever realised the faith and devotion he shattered. I lay there feeling numb that I had been regarded so lightly and stared at his heavily veined hands that seemed to symbolise somehow the insensitivity of his mind. My religious fervour petered away, though I was still seeking so many answers to life’s complexities. So it was with genuine delight I read, several years later, Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species”. Its careful scientific research and reasoning greatly appealed to me. A great milestone in my personal development.
In those days nearly every street had a gang of some sort or other and Croftbank Street was no exception. These gangs were comparatively harmless and consisted mainly of chasing rival street groups back to their own “territory”. It was very enjoyable and filled the need for some form of adventure in an otherwise boring existence. Little physical damage was ever inflicted but occasionally it became tense. Weapons were usually small street stones and our local rivals were mainly a group from Reidhouse Street which faced us across a piece of wasteland, in the middle of which, incongruously, was a small homestead. In the battle that swayed backwards and forwards, that homestead was a favourite mid-way refuge if you were chased by the rival gang. What elation was felt, what at odd times we managed to chase them up and down their own tenement closes!
It was more a question of chases than anything vicious, unlike some of their present day counterparts, with their use of lethal weapons.
The first time we ever saw a display of such weapons was when we encountered a gang know as the “Cowlair Swifts” who were located in Cowlairs Road, a fair distance from our street. That was a memorable day. One of our gang came racing up the street and gasped out “The Swifts are coming”. Except for their name, we knew nothing of their tactics and assumed they were a gang like ourselves, chasing each other with stones.
What a shock it was when they hove into view. They were flashing bayonets! Never did a gang of callow youths disperse so quickly. We left the field wide open to them. They did a swaggering, bravado parade in front of the houses and then departed.
These incidents were relatively few but nearly always the basic cause was the almost total lack of decent amenities and facilities of any imaginative type to accommodate the lust for adventure and excitement that most young people crave.
That situation has remained relatively unchanged in the intervening years.
In there adventures girls figured little, as most of the boys viewed them with some suspicion as nuisances and pushy people. It’s just as well for the procreation of the human race that biological urges overcome our early prejudices.
In observing children nowadays with, in general, their good clothing and plentiful supply of bikes and hi-tech toys, I often reflect on our lot in those distant day of the Thirties. The norm among the poor kids was parish clothes and barefoot summer days.
The parish clothes were abominable. Coarse heavy short trousers, blue pullover with a red stripe, scratchy socks, similarly striped, rounded off with a pair of heavy boots. I hated them. They shouted to the world the poverty of your family.
After my father left, my mother was forced to dress us in these gruesome clothes issued by the authorities to the impoverished and it was in these clothes I attended Albert Senior Secondary School and stood out like a sore thumb among the other children, most of whom wore the smart school uniform, and as is often the case with children, taunted the less fortunate like myself.
Physical assertiveness remedied most of these taunts but the sense of humiliation burnt deep and left me with a lifelong dislike for school uniforms.
Mr primary school marks had been good enough to qualify for the senior echelon of the school and the learning of foreign languages but knowing no better, I opted for the practical manual classes at a lower level. Only in later years, in the army, did I find out that I had a flair for quickly understanding languages but the basic groundwork was sadly missing. Poverty and lack of skillful guidance in one’s early years can have seriously stunting results.
Not that that bothered me at the time. Our family circumstances were such that my over-riding ambition was to leave school as quickly as possible to try to augment the meagre income available to my mother.
When I finally left at fourteen, I did so without a single regret. School days for me were a painful experience both physically and mentally and ever since I have had a feeling of sympathy for troublesome pupils and exercised that sympathy in my time as a teacher. Such pupils are more often sinned against than sinners. In comparison, I was amazed when my wife Isabel, spoke of her schooldays in East and West Calder in the Lothians. Top of her class and a high flier, her experiences seemed almost idyllic and for her school days were a happy time. Perhaps the difference in experience was and is the grimness of life in Glasgow, particularly for people at the bottom of the social scale, compared with those who enjoy the more amenable lifestyle of the rural areas.