ST. JOHN’S

“How long did you spend in St John’s, Mister Connor?” I asked

“A week.”

“You mean you were sentenced to a week’s incarceration in this ‘Home’?” I squeaked incredulously.

“Nah,” he replied shortly. His face showed signs of exasperation. He took a deep breath before launching into a long explanation. “It wiz like, ” he said, “Lady Luck wiz oan ma side. They made me work furr a week in that place. Ah’ll show ye the only pay slip Ah ever received in a’ ma life.” He pulled a shiny, fat wallet of dark Italian leather from his back trouser pocket and rifled through the banknotes until he came across what he was looking for – a crumpled, much fingered sheet of paper with the bold type legend at the top: ST JOHN’S HOME FOR WAYWARD BOYS, OXFORD. Below the heading and date, ‘4th September 1936, the words ‘Ten shillings to the bearer, John Connor, the sum of Ten Shillings for services rendered” were scrawled in ink. I examined the sole piece of evidence that Connor had ever been gainfully employed, and concluded it was kosher. Smiling, Connor carefully folded what was clearly a precious document to him and put it back in the flashy wallet.

“What services did you . . . um, render, Mister Connor?” I asked.

“Och,” he said with a dismissive flutter of his fingers, “Ah jist tobered up the other residents.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

“Jist making sure,” he said with a leer, “the other kids stayed in line and didnae get ideas above their station. Batterin’ them furr cheekin’ the staff, smokin’ in the lavvies, no’ clearin’ up their dishes at meal times . . . stuff like that. Ye see, first aff, Ah picked the lock oan the kitchen door. Second aff, Ah choarried the cook’s big, sharp carvin’ knife. Ah stuck the chibb intae the back o’ ma ‘winners and losers’.

“Where?” I said.

“Ma ‘winners and losers’ – troosers,” he explained curtly.

I had noticed a significant pattern to Connor’s speech patterns. When he was adopting the insouciant pose of a seen-and-done-everything important figure in the under world, he peppered his narrative with raw, careless thieves’ cant and Glaswegian rhyming slang. The Catholic chapel became the ‘piney’, short for ‘pineapple’. The ‘uncle’ was an abbreviated form of ‘Uncle Ned’ which meant ‘bed’. On the other hand, when he wanted to impress the listener with the importance of what he was saying, his default dialect was grammatically correct, slightly modified Lowland Scottish.

“So,” Connor explained. “That wiz me tooled up again. When the matron saw how good Ah wiz at makin’ the other boys obey the rules, she offered me the job. Ten years o’ age, Ah ruled St John’s.”

“How long did you hold that job, Mister Connor?” I asked.

“A week,” he replied.

Something did not add up here.

“What I don’t understand, Mister Connor, sir,” I ventured timidly. “Why was your sentence so lenient? I mean, a week’s not very long, is it?”

He put the palms of his hands flat on his thighs, arched his back and threw his head back, laughing throatily, as if he’d heard some very good news.

“As soon as the auld vicar in charge o’ the place cashed ma pay check,” he said, “Ah went up the touchline.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means Ah trapped . . . scarpered . . . ran away,” he said.

“But . . . but . . . How was that possible?” I stammered.

“A doddle, sonny,” he replied,. “I jist strolled up tae the auld janitor behind the desk at Reception. Ah wiz singin’ like a wee lintie in my boy soprano voice as I sauntered towards the Main Door ’I Belong to Glasgow’ wiz getting’ laldie when I leaned over the desk tae wish the auld yin a good evening. I jist applied McMahon’s Law tae the situation.”

ENGLAND

My right hand shook as I scribbled as much as I could of this in my notebook. “Did you ever . . .you know, get into trouble . . . um, when you were acting outside the law like that?” was my halting question.

“Sure,” Connor said with what passed as a wry grin on his twisted lips. “The first time the cops grabbed me wiz in Oxford. A mob o’ aulder guys and me – no’ McMahon – took a train doon tae London. It wisnae furr the fitba’. Jist a wee change o’ scene.. We hid a terrific time. Oor boys wurr bullyin’ English guys in pub doorways, wavin’ open cutthroat razors in their faces as they threatened them. ‘Ah cut yer ear aff, Pom-gobbler,’ wan o’ oor mob wid growl at his victim, ‘whit urr ye gonnae tell them at work oan Monday when ye turn up wi’ a big white cloth bandage tied roon yer heid wi’ a big, floppy bow oan tap? Urr ye jist gonnae say somethin’ really crazy? “Haw, boss, Ah hid a wee accident when Ah wiz shavin’ this morning. Cut ma ear clean aff, so Ah did.” ‘Is that whit ye’re gonnae tell everybody?’ Right tae this day, son, threatening behaviour by Scottish fans in Pommy cities is very much par furr the course.”

I pretended to find his fantasy about a shaving accident amusing.

“What was so great,” I asked, “about subjecting other people to violence?”“Power,” he replied.

“ And these English folk you were threatening,” I asked, “just let you bully them like that?”

“Sure,” Connor said with a smirk. “As soon as ye showed them a blade and asked them if they wanted some o’ this, they crawed it.”

“They just meekly turned away?” I queried.

“Certainly,” Connor remarked with satisfaction. “Nane o’ that ‘The meek shall inherit the earth’ nonsense goat a look in then, and still disnae. The meek are there to be smashed. They get oan the wrang side o’ me, they’ll inherit a chibb oan the jaw.”

In my gut I knew it was pointless to offer Christian articles of faith like ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ to this man. He was displaying a trait I found disturbing. He exuded lack of remorse. He was completely indifferent to the hurt and mistreatment he inflicted on others.

“Another thing we done,” Connor said, laughing with the pleasure of the memory, “wiz follow English lasses oan the street shoutin’ ‘Hey, lasses, here’s fellas.’ They wanted nothin’ tae dae wi’ us and they aye ran away as fast as their wee legs wid carry them.”

There was a long pause in the narrative. Connor shook his head. “We stole a bus, a single decker,” the gangster admitted ruefully. “Well, ‘Gudgie’ Strachan wiz the wan that hot-wired it. A’ the guys piled intae the bus, me behind them. Ah didnae know whit wiz goin’ on. Ah was, Ah wiznae even eleven years auld. So we’re a’ singin’ aboard the bus when we run oot o’ fuel and Strachan guided us intae a lay-by jist ootside Oxford.”

“What did you all do?” I asked.

“Carried oan chantin’, Connor said. “Heart of My Heart, Keep Right On to the End of the Road, and Ah’m the Saftest o’ the Faimly a’ goat big licks fae us. ‘Don’t panic,’ Gudgie Strachan bawled as he conducted the singin’ fae the driver’s seat, ‘we’ve jist run oot o’ juice. Somebody’ll be alang in a minute.’”

“And did somebody turn up?” I asked.

“Aye, the polis,” Connor said. “We wiz a’ nabbed by aboot a dozen cops, and we wurr taken tae a nick in the city where we hid a weekend lie-in afore appearin’ in coort the followin’ Monday. The big guys goat lang sentences in prisons and borstals. Me, Ah wiz too young furr Young Offenders even, and they sent me tae St John’s Home for Wayward Boys in the city centre.”

APT PUPIL

“At whit point did we chuck it last Saturday?” Jackie (The Hat) Connor said. He stopped pacing the floor of the single end and seemed to address the question in the direction of the easy chair where I sat, pencil at the ready, with my notebook open on the wooden table in front of me. He raised his right arm clad in a butter-yellow leather safari jacket in a theatrical gesture. “Oh, aye, the rotten life ma auld man hid,” he said. “How Ah made a vow tae make stacks o’ dough, whatever it took, wiz that no’ it?” He threw himself down lengthwise on the sofa, taking care to pluck the creases of his chocolate brown gabardine trousers as he settled into a comfortable position.

“Mmmmmm,” I hummed as my pencil flew across the page. I had now changed tack. Rather than express my impressions in laconic telegraphese, I had decided to take dictation. Having spent the best part of Sunday amplifying the cryptic notes I’d taken on Saturday, I now reckoned I’d be as well trying to reproduce on paper what he actually said. As a well-deserved break from my literary labours, I attended the Rev. Tommy Murchison’s six o’ clock Gaelic service in St Columba’s Church of Scotland in Copland Road. The minister’s text was Paul’s epistle to Titus Chapter 1, Verse 15, To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.’ Gulp! The sprezzatura of the tenement teuchters, particularly in their singing, returned them briefly to the simplicity and innocence of an old world. This contrasted strikingly with the complex, dark and violent new world revealed to me the day before in the rhetoric of Jackie (The Hat) Connor.

“Yeah,” he murmured reflectively that Monday morning in the single end. “Ah became a kind o’ sawn-off hoodlum at a very early age. Like everybody who’s in the position Ah’m in today, Ah hid tae learn how tae dae things. Ma education wiz in the gutters o’ the Gallowgate, where the best lessons’re learned.”

“Who were your teachers and what lessons did you learn?” I asked.

“Started aff goin’ on wee missions furr Jimmy McMahon.”

“What kind of ‘missions’?” I enquired.

“Och, ye know,” he explained dismissively. “Bit o’ light shopliftin’ up the toon in Woolworth’s and Lewis’s: stealin’ crates o’ beer fae lorries parked ootside pubs . . .wee bit o’housebreakin’ when we knew naebody wiz in the hoose. We’d jemmy the electric and gas meters and take a’ the two bob bits. If the worst came tae the worst, we’d steal washing aff the dryin’ lines in the backcourts and sell the shirts, knickers and troosers tae the stall keepers doon at Paddy’s Market. We wurr never idle.”

“Was that all you did?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said. “We learned how tae break intae motors wi’ wire coat hangers and how tae hot-wire say, a Riley or an Armstrong Sidley, that some other gang leader or bookie wiz wantin’.”

This low-level criminality was, I imagined, what all novice gangsters had to learn. “Was violence ever involved?” I enquired.

“Oh, nearly a’ the time,” Connor replied airily. “No’ by me – Ah wiz too wee – but ye could watch the big boys when they went oan the demand. They’d hiv a machete up against some guy’s throat – maybe he owed McMahon money or a favour or somethin’ – and they’d look the man right in the eyes while the guy’s pleadin’ wi’ them, and they’d convince him that they widnae hesitate tae rip his coupon furr him. The secret of these razor-slashers and chib men wiz they made the guy they wurr bracin’ see that if he didnae pay, he’wiz gonnae get hurt. ‘Hey,’ they’d say, ‘ you want yer nose cut aff and furr us tae ram it doon yer throat? That whit ye want, ya bam?’”

Here in Plantation a chill wind was blowing from the east.

STREET PARTY

A this point in the proceedings,  I am absolutely rigid with interest in the bobbing and weaving of the rubber-limbed drum major, which will help explain why I haven’t observed kitchen chairs being brought out from adjoining closes and placed in a kind of orchestral semi-circle. Magically, these chairs are occupied by four elderly men with accordions strapped to their chests. A younger man, mid-twenties, strokes a snare and high with brushes. A young woman, early twenties, wearing the scarf of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama rushes to join the group. She brings a trumpet to her lips. That someone from these decaying tenement buildings should aspire to graduation from such a prestigious establishment beggars belief. Suddenly, the singing starts. The drum major has a powerful singing voice. As the bass drum pounds out a heavy pulse the instrumentalists swing into a popular American song.

Led by the bendy man, the crowd, fifty strong at least, launches itself into the number.

“YOU CAN ROLL A SILVER DOLLAR

DOWN UPON THE GROUND

AND IT’LL ROLL, ROLL, ROLL

BECAUSE IT’S ROUND, ROUND, ROUND.”

Everyone, including me, is singing now.

“A WOMAN NEVER KNOWS

WHAT A GOOD MAN SHE’S GOT

UNTIL SHE TURNS HIM

DOWN DOWN DOWN DOWN,

OH, LISTEN MY HONEY,

LISTEN TO ME

I WANT YOU TO UNDERSTAND

AS A SILVER DOLLAR

GOES FROM HAND TO HAND

A WOMAN GOES FROM MAN TO MAN . . .”

A young teenage girl, barefoot and dressed in high cut red cotton shorts and a yellow blouse, bursts out from a close on the far side and runs swiftly towards the tables at the nearside of the now packed street. She makes an agile leap onto a card table – unbelievable! – and begins to clap her hands above her head in time to the thudding bass drum.

Men, women and children who have poured out from every close on the street are shrieking, “Gaun yirsel’, hen! Gaun yirsel’, hen! Gaun yirsel’, hen!”

Then they all start to dance, all these poor people from adjoining tenements, all swaying and clapping at the top end of Blackburn Street where it meets with the passing traffic on Paisley Road West. They are all facing in the same direction, towards the main artery that leads to the rest of the city. All the men and women, boys and girls, the top half of the street full of them, follow the movements of the Queen of Chaos on the card table. They clap their hands in the air and thrust their hips this way and that on each BOOM! The whole street party, under the banner LOUSY BUT LOYAL is grinning and laughing at the passing traffic. It is undeniably exhilarating.

I raise my fists to the heavens and want to announce a new dawn. I am pulled in two directions. Part of me is proud that these people, classed as ‘disadvantaged’, do not hesitate for a moment to claim their own territory with an abandon I’ve never witnessed before. Another part of me says, “These are not your people, Norman. You’ll never take part in near Dionysian revels along with them because you belong to another tribe.”

In the middle of the number a chilling thought struck me: ‘Dè chanadh na daoine agam fhìn, nan cluinneadh iad mi an-dràsta? What would my people say, if they could hear me now?’

Slowly,  I detach myself from the heaving mass of defiant humanity and walk westward toward my home half a mile away. A strange feeling is sweeping through my being. Despite being aware that the kind of behaviour I’ve just witnessed may not be approved by my Gaelic speaking extended family, deep inside the abandon and fearlessness of the LOUSY BUT LOYAL folk thrills me.

Dia bhith timcheall orm, God be round about me!

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

I breathed wetly and hung back at the street corner. I tried to see, but not to be seen.

Ritchie wet his lips and swallowed.

“See me,” Connor said, “Ah’ve been runnin’ aboot the streets o’ Plantation for a long time and Ah know how tae deal wi’ baith kinds: deal wi’ either wan – as Ah hiv in the past and will in the future. In your case, Mister Ritchie, Ah’ve decided Ah’ll make a special effort, try and make ye understand. Ah made up ma mind tae come and see ye, as Ah’m daein’ here, right noo. Watch closely, fat man here Ah am.” He spoke in the calm, reasoned tones of a philosophy lecturer explicating a tricky concept to an attentive student. “The price is a ‘pony’, twenty pounds, tae come in here. That’s permission. A tenner a week tae stay. The twenty plus the five weeks ye’ve been here plus the next week in advance comes tae eighty quid. Ah’m gonnae come roon every Saturday tae collect the rent, right?” He smiled, baring only his front upper teeth. “Listen carefully, fat man,” he said. “If ye fold on me, Ah’ll find ye, and hurt ye, ye follow me?”

The man from Whiteinch dried his hands on his white apron and nodded. He moistened his lips again. “I thought that’s what you would say,” he muttered.

Blow!” Jackie Connor issued the command in a much harsher tone. “Get back in that pub, crash the till and hand o’er the takings tae Big Andy here.” He glanced at his watch. “Ye’ve goat five minutes tae gi’e me whit ye owe me.”

Jackie Connor was checking his watch when Big Dan emerged from the narrow doorway, brandishing a bundle of banknotes. Connor smiled, took the proffered money and proceeded to distribute it randomly among the growing throng. The result was increasing pandemonium. Whoops and yells filled the air.

Suddenly, from Craigiehall Street, a thoroughfare that bisected MacLean Street about 200 yards away, a fully-fledged Orange marching band swung into view. They had come from the Lodge in Lorne Street, which was situated one block away from where we stood..

Brrrr, brrrr, tuk-a-tuk, tuk-a-tuk, brrrr, brrrr, tuk-a-tuk, tuk-a-tuk rattles out from four snare drums. Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! thuds from two bass Lambeg drums. The shrill trilling of twenty wooden flutes floats against the tenement walls as this uniformed company slowly advances towards us. The antics of the tall, lanky drum major who led the parade are thrillingly dangerous. He frequently bends his loose-limbed upper body at the waist and turns it from side to side, swaying in time to the booming drums. His marching style, indeed that of all the band members, is strange. The feet of these youths have not adopted the orthodox heel-toe arrangement favoured by the rest of the earth-people. With the soles of their footwear gliding, or skliffing, across the ground in the manner of people attempting to get into backless slippers without using their hands, they advance in unhurried spurts. All eyes are on the outrageous drum major. His domination over the ground beneath his feet – for this was doubtless the motive for the jabbing, gliding motion of his progress – was exaggerated by the arrogant way he sent his mace spinning wildly into the air. This was no controlled twirling. The mace spiraled recklessly upwards to the level of the attic flats on the tenement buildings on either side. Shouts of approval greeted the action. The uniforms, blue bonnets with diced bands, short cutaway jackets in white with blue braid, and fitted black trousers, projected a look of military menace. This was a company of soldiers who were slip-sliding away to engage with an unidentified enemy.

I was drawn to the triumphant music and nodded my head in silent agreement when Big Andy declaimed theatrically: “You may talk of piano, or fiddle, or lute, but there’s nothing that sounds like the old Orange flute.”

HUMILIATION

The evening’s principal entertainment – jiggin’, bevvyin’ and winchin’ – hadn’t quite started yet when Connor’s opening act wheeled into the street under the giant banner which stretched between two top floor flats and bore the legend LOUSY BUT LOYAL. Some customers from the pub emerged from the side door and lined the edges of both pavements. These men, young and old, had witnessed the barman’s capture inside the pub and they  all adopted the same street-wise pose intended to display alert interest accompanied by cool control of emotions. They linked the fingers of both hands, palms down, across their upper thighs and from time to time ejected a stream of saliva through their upper front teeth. The ladies and the furniture arrangers all ceased their activities. Everybody seemed to know that a belter of an opening act was imminent.

“Now then, Mister Ritchie,” Connor said pleasantly in a high, clear voice. “I don’t think you understand the kind of business you’ve been doing in my patch . . .sir.”

The barman ran a finger round his collar and remained silent.

“Ye’ve been o’er oan this side o’ the water five weeks noo,” Connor said. He kept the alto voice low and pleasant.

“Uh-huh,” Mister Ritchie croaked.

“Ye’ve been flyin’ the ‘Mammy’ – Glaswegian slang for ‘Mama Mia’ meaning wine – oot o’ that dunny in Mair street. (A ‘dunny’ was a dark, dank underground cellar in the slum tenements of inner city Glasgow.) Six times you’ve loaded up that wee white A33 van wi’ boxes o’ that cheap, fortified British Sherry, hivn’t ye, Fred?”

The barman turned his head to one side and lowered his gaze.

“Twice,” Connor continued, “loads went to coffee stalls in Windmillcroft Quay and St Vincent Street. Once a load went to a shebeen in the Gorbals and a rake o’ wine went o’er tae another shebeen in Anderston. This’s some work you and yer boys hiv been daein’ here – boilin’ up that vile smelling jelly stuff, strainin’ the liquid intae bottles and taking it tae yer distribution centre in Mair Street. No one bothered you at any time, yous wurr daein’ it. Ye’ve been roon the block a few times o’er in Whiteinch and ye know that’s no’ an accident here in Plantation. For that coverage ye pay me.”

Ritchie shuffled his feet and did not speak.

“And since ye’ve met guys like me when ye ran that Ferry Tavern in Whiteinch,” Connor said, “ye’ve goat tae know ye goat aff oan the wrang fit wi’ me. Ye should hiv come tae see me before you started usin’ Mair Street. Ye didnae. Ye should’ve come tae see me as soon as ye took o’er this pub in my patch. Ye didnae. Right, ye think ye’re a wide man – ye know it a’. Or, maybe ye’re jist a retard.”

Already, I am resenting Connor’s lacerating humiliation of Ritchie. I get the impression that the man I have been charged with describing is not, as we used to say, the ‘clean totty.’ The sense of entitlement and his innate belief in his own superiority is becoming increasingly sinister to me. Perhaps the characteristic that unsettles me most is his scarcely concealed willingness to resort to violence if anyone disagrees with him. He is undoubtedly a classic psychopathic bully.

The realization is dawning on me that I’ve made a mistake in joining the gang. All I know that with Connor the end result will be ‘pow!’ The type of boy I am, I tell myself, is a watcher. I am a wordsmith who writes about what I see, hear and feel. I am not a fighter, particularly. I’m happier transcribing Connor’s memories, back in the single end. Annoyed with myself with being out on the street with this crew of small-time hoods, I suddenly feel nauseous. First, I taste something metallic and sour in the base of my throat. My backbone arches and my hastily gobbled ‘tea’ rains on the pavement.

THE TAVERN

There was a pub at the left-hand corner of Paisley Road West and Blackburn Street in the Plantation district of Glasgow in the mid-fifties. It had two entrances: one wide entrance on the main thoroughfare and another, narrower, door was round the corner in Blackburn Street. An experienced publican from across the river had recently bought the inn. Judging by the procession of men who came out of the main entrance, business seemed to be good. Jackie Connor and nine other members of the ‘single end’ gang, with me trailing at the rear, notebook clutched to my chest, observed this activity as we headed along the block between MacLean Street and Blackburn Street. At times I wanted to be part of this almost military phalanx. Criminals strongly attracted me. Vicariously, I wanted to live out my own fantasies of ‘badness.’ At other times, when I found myself hanging back I recollected the mutual aid practised in Benbecula – communal tasks like peat cutting, the gathering and clipping of sheep and the distribution of the day’s fishing catch – Connor’s lust to exercise power over the lives and fortunes of others held little attraction. Wherever this mission was leading, I knew it would end in humiliation for a victim. My stomach slid. I felt a beating in my chest like a bird’s wing.

As we came abreast of the main door of the Plantation Tavern on Paisley Road West Jackie Connor raised his right hand and our entire posse came to an abrupt halt.

“Right,” Connor barked, looking straight ahead. “Danny, you and Joe, get in there and bring that bamstick o’ a gaffer oot here tae me oan the pavement.”Big Danny, the man who had driven me down to the single end the previous evening and Joe, a compact, wiry man in his mid thirties with a narrow face set off by a broken nose and tormented, darting eyes that made him look as if he was about to go off on an out of control temper tantrum, detached themselves from our stationary trio and in a swift, almost choreographed, move, grasped the twin door handles and yanked both doors open allowing them to boom against the entrance porch.

In two minutes’ time they emerged gripping a fat middle aged man by the elbows. The red-faced man was wearing a long white apron over a black and white striped shirt and navy blue woolen tie.

“Bring him o’er tae ma side,” Connor commanded, still looking straight ahead. The captive barman was manhandled in stop and start shuffles until he was positioned just behind Connor’s right shoulder. Jackie turned and stared at the trembling man for a full ten seconds before he seized the navy blue tie in his right hand. Still gripping the tie in his fist Connor turned to face the front again, so extending the bartender’s neck to its limit. Without warning our leader began to march forward along the Paisley Road West until he reached the intersection with Blackburn Street. We turned left round the corner, the choking barman supported at the elbows by Big Dan and Joe to prevent him falling face first onto the pavement.

“Who’s yer daddy now?” Connor asked sweetly.

There was a little mob of around twenty people spreading themselves across the southern end of Blackburn Street from pavement to pavement. “Hurry up,” somebody shouted. “Show starts at six o’ clock.” Trestle tables and kitchen chairs were being set out in the middle of the street about fifty feet away and an accordionist, seated on an upturned tea chest, was practising block chords. Some middle aged women in flowery aprons were bustling round the tables filling plates with sausage rolls, baked potatoes and bowls of crisps. Some of the tables had McEwan’s Pale Ale screw top bottles on them, not a drinking glass in sight, and on one particular table there were a dozen or so unlabelled wine bottles, uncorked already, placed at intervals of six feet.