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.
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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 probably couldn't. 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).