There is a constant dearth of money at school, especially when there are fags and billiard
halls to be paid for - but Jack McLean and his fellow Smoking Shed desperadoes find a way
The teenage years, writes Jack McLean, have a certain desperate edge to them. Jack's adolescence was spent at Allan Glen's School, where he was in a state of constant war with the headteacher, ``Joe Boss'' - and across Glasgow in Merrylee, where had had his first lessons in love. In our second extract from his memoirs, Jack writes with gusto and candour about the fun and the hurt of his
WE MOVED to Merrylee, a housing estate on the edges of Cathcart on one side and Newlands on the other. A model scheme it was, set among large houses, big bought houses, with large lawns and what passed for haute bourgeoisie in Glasgow to lounge in them. The children from the big houses went to private and fee-paying schools. Their daddies had a few bob and it showed in the cars which sat in their long driveways and the tennis clubs they went to, and in their wives who shopped and visited and might do a spot of charity work, and their children who wore school uniforms elaborate enough for the Household bloody Cavalry.
Their teenage daughters looked absolutely delicious in their crisp pastel summer dresses, with their hair gleaming with shampoo and their light make-up and flat shoes, quite unlike the brazen little tarts I was used to in Townhead. What the boys looked like I didn't give a bugger about really.
Merrylee was on the edge of the big houses and its inhabitants weren't, but even then it was the sort of housing ``scheme'' which shouldn't really have existed, too damned posh and upwardly bleeding mobile by half. There was a
reason for this.
When the plan for a council estate was first put forward the posh aborigines of this leafy area had strokes, and the history of Merrylee was one of pulling them. Every fly-trick from the middle classes was perpetrated, just to avoid the lower orders.
The first thing the then corporation put forward, to assuage the fears of the big shots who lived in the big houses, was to propose to sell the houses to small shopkeeper types, inoffensive bank clerks and the like, the sort of Poujadistes the aristos were used to condescending to when needed. Keep out the lumpen, that would, the sepoys could revolt somewhere else, not in their stretches of parkland.
That was in 1952 and it caused a bloody uproar, including a strike by the tradesmen who were working on the scheme; and marches in the streets; other workers in other trades downed tools in solidarity. There was, after all, still a democratic resonance from the post-war years, a feeling among many people that we were building a new world, a classless one, and even among many of the wealthy themselves there was a feeling that if workers were good enough to build the houses they were damned well good enough to live in them. The Merrylee Strike - it got called that - was an uprising by Decency really, and an impasse seemed inevitable.
The new ruling Labour group came up with a solution. They didn't sell the houses, they let them, as was the policy to those who needed houses and ``had the points'', to ordinary people from ordinary walks of life. But they put a rare spin on this concept, for they vetted the type of ordinary people who were to obtain houses in this ordinary scheme. Some of the vetting took on a surreal dimension. If you had a job with a collar and tie in it, that was extra points, if your children were staying on at school, extra points; Jesus, a boy at university, you went to the head of the queue. It was a lot more subtle than that.
What really happened was that the Merrylee scheme (like Mosspark and Knightswood elsewhere in the city), picked the prize crop, the labour aristocracy. The result was undeniably the poshest council housing estate in Britain. Good idea for Merrylee at that, and I couldn't and can't complain. By the time I got there Merrylee was just absolutely spiffing.
Nobody remembers their adolescence with any coherence, or at least they shouldn't. It's a period in life when things are often unbearably, unremittingly, slow; when everything takes for ever. An hour in a schoolroom lasts an eternity and there is a sort of itch in your inside you can't scratch, an itch in your very bowels. Any converse with adults, especially parents, is not only long and tedious to get through, it is always somehow disjointed and you never get to say what you meant to say. You never seem to say what you thought you would when you thought about it before or after either.
Then there were interludes in which it all moved too fast, events occurring quicker than a butterfly's fart.
I remember the incredible desire I had for articles of clothing. A white shortie coat with a red satin lining - it was no f***ing good without the scarlet lining.
The desperate need for the right shirt, for heaven's sake, with cutaway collars or spearpoint collars - there was a brief and splendid fashion for stiff, starched collars, I recollect. I remember paper collars which were quite smart until you perspired too greatly in the dance hall when the bloody thing disintegrated on you. You took two collars to the dancing and changed in the bogs.
My secondary school, Allan Glen's, I hardly remember at all - save that Joe Boss, the
heidie, initiated a campaign which meant he went crawling about the buildings looking for me, checking up on whatever misdeeds he was convinced I was getting up to and becoming apoplectic with frustration because I wasn't getting up to them, or at least he couldn't discover me in the act. It was the hair he hated most, that oiled quiff, that Antichrist of a coiffure, that rebuke to the short-back-and-sides and bloody discipline, some fitness of things.
The man tried to nail me and never managed it. Once he had me for flooding the lavatories by blocking all the sink taps up. I had the best alibi you could imagine, the sort major criminals always have in police series on TV. At the very time the lavvies were being flooded I was standing in front of a geography teacher called Dewar and waiting to be thrashed for being caught smoking round the back of the techie huts.
This was a merry wheeze all round because I was joined in this alibi by several other solid miscreants, each of whom the headmaster had been trying
to catch out for months. We could have told him that the outrage in the latrines had been perpetrated by Bill Bird, whom you last met
at the school gates on my first day, and all his pals from the Debating Society.
The other boy at those gates had been Glyn Philips and he was one of the Bad Crowd, the ones who smoked. In The Shed. At first I didn't like cigarettes, encountering spasms of nausea five minutes after a few drags of the weed, but I persevered. Oh yes, I persevered all right, about the only time I did, really, throughout school.
The Shed Boys all smoked, didn't they. Part of the drainpipe strides and sideburns. What was quite so venal about fags I don't know, but it wasn't a kick in the arse off drinking beer or visiting bordellos, and I was all for it. There was a definite allure about all those desperadoes who smoked in The Shed too.
We even had a supplier, a precursor of the playground pusher, who used to sell us single fags out of his packet of 20. Every now and again we communards revolted and took his fags from him. He just appeared the next day and charged us a penny more for each cigarette until he'd made up his losses. We called him The Parasite, because he himself didn't smoke. But he was always better off than us.
An expensive business, the five Bristol of a morning, so we all started using our dinner money which we were meant to pay each Friday and went without lunch instead. Some of that was spent, of course, in nearby merry mansions of malfeasance, the snooker halls. There were two we patronised as a group: the Crown, which stood at the top of a series of dusty auction rooms; and the rather gaudier Imperial which lay underneath a
barber's shop straight out of gangster movies.
Snooker halls were then a perfectly ideal spot for teenagers to come to no harm but yet were ludicrously regarded by parents, clerics, and schoolteachers as the sort of gaming hells Regency bucks had orgies in. You'd have thought you could catch syphilis off a billiard cue the way the adults told you. But if you caught a whiff of the demi-monde in those musty, urine-reeking vaults they were indeed harmless and a lot more fun than the pusillanimous palaces for precocious young snooker players they are today. My career in snooker, though, ended with an absence of jollity altogether, especially for one fellow pupil of the school.
There was a constant dearth of money, for teenagers still at school had none. And there were the fags and the snooker to be paid for. We found a way. There was a fat myopic boy called Peters there who wore the sort of clothes that his mum bought him and who was forced into wearing his hair with what doubtless his dreadful parents called ``a proper trim''.
I've changed his name actually because he might still be alive, being as much a prick now as he was when he was a boy. He was the sort of wimpish chap who liked to hang about gangsters, straight out of Runyon that is, and he hung around the snooker halls with us when he could and he couldn't play the damned thing at all. So we regularly took him to the cleaners. For money, because he was also the sort of boy who bought himself some kind of faraway membership and we let him do this because of the poppy. Eventually he couldn't pay what he owed and then suddenly he could: we didn't know how, or at least I didn't. I was to find out though.
Allan Glen's possessed a school orchestra. Headed by a teacher, a lunatic called Lockie, it contained every loop in the entire school. All the sad lost boys, the incompetents, and the ones with nervous tics and funny walks and ringworm and receding chins. The erks, the jube-jubes, the dispossessed. Few owned their instruments and relied on those the school provided which were kept in a large and dusty room which we smokers knew well because we had a key to
it and played pontoon in there from time to time.
Peters was, of course, a member of this orchestra and kept his violin in the music store when he didn't take it home to practise. Who it was who told him about pawn shops I do not know, but Peters needed money to pay his billiard hall debts and he had this violin, even if it was school property. So Peters settled his first debt and absented himself from orchestra practice as best he could. But he didn't absent himself from the billiard hall. The lure of being with the hidalgos was, I suppose, too strong. And so he got into another debt. A lot more debts. And how he got out of them was pawning violins.
After a while I suppose it occurred to him that an orchestra without a strings section might not be considered viable and his, well, fiddle, would be slightly noticed. So he took to trombones. And then trumpets. And then any damned instrument at all. If the school had owned a gilded bloody harp I suppose he'd
have marched that off to the pawn just the same.
Christ knows what the leader of the band, the mad Lockie, must have been wondering as his maestros were trying to belt out The Soldier Chorus with what by now must have been lavvy paper and combs. And so, eventually, as he must have known he would be, Peters's thefts were found out, actually because he was caught truanting, and he promptly admitted to his life of crime in areas other than merely dogging school. Thinking about it, Peters had thieved to the value of, in today's terms, several thousand pounds. And then he gave the names of those involved.
There was a fair gang of us and actually I wasn't in the business myself at all but Peters must have blurted out every name of every member of the miscreant community he could remember and I was among that number. The reason why nothing could be proved against me was that I had sod all to do with the caper. I didn't even know about the scam and played serious snooker with a youth called Morton who worked a stall at the Barras.
The problem was that I looked the very part of the Bad Yin. A sort of pocket-sized version of Flashman. And so I was blamed at first. We all got off with it while Peters disappeared for ever, doubtless sent to the Colonies or whatever version of it his mum and
dad had for him.
What rather rankles even yet is that there's still a whiff of guilt attached to my blameless self and those who had gleefully blagged Peters, and the school orchestra, of course, were considered to have been led astray by me. The heidie said so to my mother, whom he had called to the school and informed her, while she wept in front of me - he liked a touch of that, mothers weeping - that I was a ``ringleader'' or ``bad influence'', altogether an evil genius.
My mother said I wasn't, of course, but mothers are always doing that about sons who have been proved irrevocably to be mass murderers. ``He was always a good boy at home,'' they cry. ``Does a' the messages and widnae hurt a fly!'' Well my mother pulled all that stuff, but he was having none of it. He said I was the worst boy he had ever had the misfortune to encounter.
But I now had a life out of school and in Merrylee and district - a very wide district indeed covering slum areas from the Gorbals and even the city centre, the suburbs, the posh ones as well, out to open countryside. My patch in fact. It is amazing how far and
wide adolescents roam, and
on their own two feet at that. You never do
it again, all
this roaming abroad. When we first moved to this pleasant area I was a bit all at sea and caused massive offence in the early days when, playing football with local lads, I fouled their best player, a chap called Sandy Fraser.
The Merrylee boys were working-class lads but a lot more polite than the kids I knew either in Townhead or at school. When they remonstrated with me over my disgraceful conduct I think I was taken aback. Such rebukes in my experience took the form of threatening behaviour. So I told them to f**k off. I added a wee c**t as well. I got that language, at least the ease with which I used it, from Allan Glen's School and not the lush paved pastures of Townhead.
I never made friends really; just a lot of acquaintances, because, of course, not going to the same school as anybody else I never got much chance. So I made friends with my younger brother's ones or their older brothers.
My brother, Brian, is only a couple of years younger than me and, because I was born prematurely and was so small, I even shared a pram with him and we were brought up dressed in the same clothes, like twins. One of the worst things about secondary school had been the wrenching separation which I felt. I had felt that once before when Brian had to stay in the infants' playground and I was in the big boys' one.
Despite that, Brian and I were, and are not, alike at all. For a start Brian was blond-haired where I was dark, rosy-cheeked where I had a complexion which would have done credit to a Victorian child on its deathbed. He also had a sunny disposition and was perpetually happy, or so it seemed. He was quiet and shy, but open and friendly and possessed the charming selfishness, which he yet does, of the non-egoist. I was the opposite in all qualities mentioned above and with an added goodly dose of pugnacity, not an attractive trait at all.
I still have the pugnacity, and it is still not attractive, but we cannae all be happy and sunny natured, and I'm not, and have to make do with a cheeriness which, though rarely forced, holds a certain desperation in it, like singing merry songs during a bomb raid.
But the teenage years are always spent with a certain desperate edge to them because you know they can't last, but by and large I had a good time during them because Merrylee was a green and grassy place with good people about and it was a very good era to be a teenager in anyway.
It was the fag end of Elvis the rock 'n' roller and a very fecund period of pop songs. The songs were rather maudlin and girls listened to them dreaming. There was a lot of dreaming going on. Well, a lot of songs with a wonderful chorus which went: ``Dre-e-e-em, Dreem, Dreem, Dreem, Dreem, Dree-em.'' There were Dream Lovers abounding and I intended to be one of them. So I went out and fell in love.
Truth to tell, my first contacts with girls were really pretty pointless and my heart wasn't in it. I met two other lumpen prole girls and went about with both for a while and then just the one. Her name was Marlene but I always thought of her as
Marleen: she was a bit too common to share a spelling with Dietrich.
She was rather common-looking too: if you can have brassy red hair, she had it. Her mum and her two brothers were very nice and much approved of me - I was a steady enough boy whose dad was the local janitor. Marleen was sort of flighty though, and it never bothered me because I didn't fancy her anyway, which was just as well because she didn't let me do anything to her at all. But then, very few girls let you do anything to them at all, at any time it seemed.
We all met in the local five-pin bowling alley on Sundays and told each other how far we had got, of course - you think all those repro fifties movies that Hollywood does so well were hooey? Think again, they are often very accurate indeed, and I remember my early teenage years as being rather American too. Maybe because Glasgow has always had a certain American feel to it. My father's generation thought they were all Jimmy Cagney. Mine just updated it.
We sported ice-blue jeans and Hi-Back collared shirts we bought from Bob Fletcher's Esquire Shirt Shop in Cambridge Street across from Fusco's the hairdresser's. We went to hops not a kick in the arse different from those bopping away in Philadelphia or Boston or Memphis, Tennessee. Certainly British films have either not recaptured that time or tried to, and
The five-pin bowling alley was a refurbed cinema and it was the first attempt to put Middle America into the city, in a little quiet suburb of Glasgow too. It had the alleys all right but the pins had to be put up by hand by a hapless youth who lurked underneath the hatch where the pins went down. I was taken on as an instructor, which was great because a lot of families tried it out and there was always a truculent teenage daughter with her pants wet just dreaming of bad boys like me.
The alley didn't last long really because a lot of the mums and dads caught the yearning look in their daughters' eyes and garaged them up good and proper. But it remained one of the spots for the kids to come, especially for the postmortems on Sundays in the cafe. ``Howdya get on with Morag?'' countered by, ``Got the tits.''
Very robust liars said they had got the hand. Nobody ever said they got their Nat King Cole because nobody would have believed it. In fact, nobody believed the bit about the tits or the hand much. And nobody ever said anything, ever, about the girls they really fancied. Or were in love with.
There wasn't all that much being in love in any case because then, as doubtless now, boys and girls in the teen years tended to hang around in groups, a lot like pals really, and most of the romances were a lot of crap: you just got fixed up as couples as a kind of executive tidying-up.
I went and fell in love with a dark sad-eyed girl called Elizabeth Watson who was called Buff by her friends. I never tried a damned thing with her because I was so much in bloody love and I suspect that Buff got a bit pissed off with that because she chucked me and I broke my f***ing heart, I really did.
Just the way they tell it in the storybooks. I couldn't eat, and woke up every morning with such a pain in my psyche that it was deliciously unbearable. I still had the good sense not to let any of my family know about it.
I could have stood the merciless taunts of my father and brothers but the dreadful sympathy my mother would have gladly swept me up in would have had me slashing my bloody wrists.
n Extracted from Hopeless But Not Serious - The Autobiography of Jack McLean (to be published on Thursday by Mainstream at #14.99).