TALK

As we fanned out in a semi-circle on the pavement before the entrance to the Chevalier public house that afternoon in late August you could feel palpable tension, on the edge of violence, emanating from our posse.

Jim Bannan, wearing a thigh-length donkey jacket over bib and brace overalls, emerged from the swing doors of the pub. He had his right foot on the pavement and was turning right when he noticed the reception committee. “Evening, ladies,” he said,”How can Ah be of assistance tae yous?”

“By shutting up,” Connor said quietly. “And listenin’ tae whit Ah hiv tae say.” With that he made a chopping motion with his right hand and shouted, “Inside!”

Immediately, in what seemed a smooth, choreographed move, Connor’s men moved into rapid action. Two of the young men seized Bannan’s wrists and pulled in opposite directions until the victim’s arms were extended in the crucifixion position. Simultaneously, from right and left, the teenager and another man tackled his legs like rugby players. They wrapped their arms round the man’s thighs. Big Dan seized Bannan by the lapels and pushed him backwards through the doors. The scrum skittered across the sawdust strewn floor of the pub with Bannan backed up against the bar counter.

Big Dan and the other gang members detached themselves from Bannan, leaving him breathing heavily and staring at everyone in the pub. He decided to adopt a pose of insouciance. Brushing his shoulders and arms with the back of stiffened fingers he said, “Whit dae yous want? Whit’s the score here.”

Jackie said: “Seven . . . wan . . .tae us. We want money.”

“Ah hivnae any money oan me,” Bannan said. “Nae money or anythin’.”

“Hard cheese,” Connor said. “Money ye borrowed. We want it.”

Bannan drew himself up to his full height and smiled down on Jackie. He said: “Look, Ah didnae borrow money fae yous. Ah mean it. Ah didnae . . .”

“True,” Connor said reasonably. “But ye did borrow money.”

“Maybe,” Bannan said with a hint of defiance in his voice. “No’ fae yous – fae Big Ramsey o’er at West Scotland Street.

“Bingo!” Jackie Connor exclaimed triumphantly.

“Whit’s it goat tae dae wi’ you, wee man?” Bannan said aggressively.

“Aye,” Connor said, “ye’re a big lump o’ a boy a’ right. Wonder if ye’d be good tae eat?”

Everybody in the pub burst out laughing. Bannan stared at them all and stood with his feet apart and his fists balled. “Naw, he said, “there’s naebody in here that wid make me pay money Ah goat fae “Beef’ Ramsey.”

“The very man,” Connor said. “H asked me tae talk tae ye. Ye know, ya bam, talk? The debt’s no’ his any mair. We’ve ta’en it o’er. Ye owe us the poppy noo. Gi’e me eighteen notes and ye’ve nothin’ tae worry aboot, right?”

“Whit if Ah tell ye tae take it oot o’ here?” Bannan said, tapping the tip of his nose with his clenched left hand.

Connor thought for a couple of moments. Then he said thoughtfully, “Maybe Ah’ll jist hiv tae dae that thing. We’ll see.”

“Ah’d like yous tae try,” Bannan said.

“Really,” Connor said.

“Aye,” Bannan said. “It shouldnae surprise ye tae learn that Ah’m able tae take care o’ masel –“

Bannan was still talking as Connor made his move. He turned on his heel. Facing the door he performed a strange jiggling motion with the right sleeve of his linen jacket. Dangling from a lanyard looped round his right wrist was a ten inch lead pipe. He threw the cosh over his left shoulder. After taking three skipping steps forward he made such an incredible leap it was as if he was attacking Bannan from three feet above. At the zenith of his arc he whipped the lead pipe in a backhand swipe away from his left shoulder. The vicious blow caught the base of Bannan’s right eye and his upper jaw smashing bones, and breaking upper molars in his mouth. Bannan at once began to choke and he made a wet, roaring, strangling sound of pain and rage.

PROBLEM

“I don’t like the guy,” Big Dan announced. He was addressing Jackie Connor, but all of us in the packed single end on that late summer evening heard him clearly. Apart from the two main players, the audience was composed of Rab, three other young men I’d never seen before, the teenager, and me, the diligent scribe.

“Who’s this?” Connor said.

“Peter Bannan,” Dan explained, “fae Kinning Park.

“Name disnae ring a bell,” Connor said.

“He borrowed money,” Dan said, “and ‘Beef’ Ramsey thinks he’s stallin’.”

“Ramsey gi’ed him the money?” Jackie Connor asked.

“Aye,” Dan said. “A fast tenner o’er in Scotland Street aboot a month ago.

“Got it,” Connor said. “Ramsey shunted a’ his deadbeat payers o’er tae us. And this wideboy thinks he’s some kind o’ good cause.”

“Ah think,” Dan said, “we might hiv a problem.”

“How?” Connor said.

“Thinks he’s a hardman,” Dan said. “Six two or three, fourteen stone, mostly muscle. Works as a blacksmith in a foundry in McLellan Street.”

“Where is he?” Connor asked.

“As a matter o’ fact,” Dan said, “Ah met him aboot five minutes ago at the tap o’ the street.” He snorted. “Ah asked him whit he wiz daein’ on this side o’ the Paisley Road West. And dae ye know whit he said tae me? First he laughed, then he said tae me, ‘Ah go wherever Ah want tae go, and naebody’s gonnae stop me. Ah’ll be drinkin’ ma first pint the night in the Chevalier.’”

“How much diz he owe us, Dan?” Connor enquired.

“Tenner fae Ramsey,” Dan said, “plus two pounds a week interest, furr four weeks – ca’ it eighteen notes.”

“Did ye talk tae him aboot money?” Connor asked.

“Naw,” Dan replied. “But Ah did say if he wiz headin’ furr a pint in the Chevy, somebody might want tae hiv a word wi’ him.”

“Whit did he say?” Connor asked.

“He sneered and said, ‘Talk’s cheap, ma man.’” Dan said. “Ah’m supposed to be impressed by his fast mooth. Obviously,he thinks the tenner wiz a contribution.”

“Obviously,” Connor said, “we’ll hiv tae get Mister Bannan’s attention. We’ll hiv tae go o’er tae the pub and say tae him, ‘Whit’s the score?’ Like, ‘Where’s ma money?’ He looked slowly round the single end. “Right, troops,” he commanded. “Let’s go!”

We trooped over to the Chevalier and positioned ourselves in a semi-circle around the entrance. As I stood there with my notebook tucked into my armpit I believed for a fleeting moment that I was almost a gangster myself. It was a strange decision I had made, keeping up with violent people up to no good, and following them into a violent place. I didn’t know it then, but the first time I pretended to be a member of Jackie Connor’s gang was to be my last. I knew myself well enough to be aware that I got a vicarious thrill from hearing and reading about physical violence. The actuality of being involved in this behaviour might prove to be too strong for my delicate sensibilities.

 

QUO VADIS

We scrambled out from the bench seats and made our way to the exit. As we passed Francesca who was standing behind the cash register she said: “Buona fortuna, Signor Connor. Jackie did not acknowledge the good wishes of our waitress. I took the opportunity to air the one Italian phrase with I was familiar. “Arrivederci, Francesca,” I said. I don’t think she heard me.

We stood over on the other side of the Paisley Road West. Connor scanned the busy junction left and right as he waited for a black cab to appear.

“I made an important decision after Cambuslang,” Connor said, reverting to Standard Lowland Scottish pronunciation. “I’d never touch anything that involved guns if it didn’t feel right to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve body-swerved something that looked prime to other guys. Sometimes I’ve been wrong. I’ve missed out on money from bank jobs. That’s all right. My rule’s always been that if I walked away from three sure things, and everyone went in and made barrow loads of dough and I’d knocked the one opportunity back where it turned out that everyone who went in went to jail, I was smarter than all the guys went in on the other three.”

He flagged down a passing cab and got in. This gangster was one clever man, I thought, as I watched his departure. And I wasn’t referring to his fluency in spoken Italian.

As I gazed at the departing taxi, I spaced out for a short time on the contrast between Connor and me. This was a man who looked long and hard before he contemplated a leap.. Since an early age he had a life plan. I, at the age of sixteen, resembled a stirk lost in the mist. The employment menu for the sons of working class parents never changed: schooling, manual labouring, marriage, family, rented accommodation, a week’s holiday ‘doon the water’ every second summer, and perhaps optional good luck.

Job prospects for the likes of me were limited: apprenticeship in the shipyards, van boy, the army, or, the shiniest link in the employment chain, inheriting the ‘dockers’ badge’ from my father – a prospect which did not thrill. Secretly I aspired to a ‘collar and tie’ job in the public sector: a counter clerk in a sub-post office where I’d get to wear a cotton jacket in a hideous shade of air force blue and be free to cheer up customers with many a witty crack and ringing laugh. When asked what I did for a living could truthfully reply, ‘I’am a Civil Servant.’

Of course, all these options meant I’d have to enter the realm of voluntary poverty. The only careers in the public sector that offered a comfortable living wage were those of a doctor or a lawyer in local government, and these were as unrealistic to me as becoming a cowboy, say, in Wyoming, or an astronaut in Florida.

My mind reeled away from the prospect of becoming a professional footballer. I had seen local heroes, Willie Woodburn and Willie Waddell, marching in step down Kirkwood Street from club-subsidized lodgings to subsidized jobs in the shipyards. No, I couldn’t imagine a gilded future like theirs, though in a desultory way rosy images nibbled at my mind.

After a period of what was described as further education, I did enter the public sector. School teaching was the profession I drifted into. And it was the most rewarding happenstance that ever befell me. As I’ll reveal later on, I became a self-employed entertainer, and while I made a great deal of money in this pursuit, I blew most of it irresponsibly. Here’s the ‘car as a’ mhaide’, the twist in the stick: it’s the generous index linked pension I receive from my days as a school teacher that gives me the freedom to amuse myself with this blogging caper. For me it’s a good thing that I don’t have to fawn on cautious Scottish publishers. For readers it’s ‘Aye’ or ‘Naw.’ The final judgment is your shout.

EASY PEASY

As he told his story Connor held a crisp golden fritter between his thumb and forefinger, applied the brown condiment, and took a dainty bite. For my part, I seemed to have lost my appetite and was more thirsty than hungry. My mouth was very dry. I took a big gulp from my tumbler. “Did you get away?” I asked.

“Nae tother a’ ba’,” he said, employing a smart Glaswegian variant of ‘No bother at all.’ He spoke with his mouth full. “McCulloch went oot,”he said. “Ah glanced behind me for a brief second and Ah seen him takin’ aff the Balaclava as he marched smartly smartly towards the Ford. Ah waved the shotgun back and forth slowly, coverin’ the room. Ah waited half a minute or so. Naebody moved. Ah backed oot the room, slammed the door shut. Ah waited. Eventually, Ah stepped back fae the door. Ah stuck the pistol grip o’ the shotgun intae ma belt oan the left side. The barrel fitted in against ma body. As I moved quickly down the driveway to the car, Ah took aff the Balaclava and stuffed it intae ma back pocket as Ah went. McCulloch hid already started the engine. Ah goat intae the passenger seat and the Ford leaped oot the driveway, takin’ the curve on tae the main road wi’ the tyres screamin’.

“Phew!” I exclaimed. “What did you do next?”

“Went hame,” Connor said, “tae Centre Street and divvied up the dough. ‘Cully’ took back the shotgun tae some gangster in the Gorbals he’d rented the weapon fae. Then he done a strange thing. He gi’ed me the Luger and five rounds. And Ah still hiv it yit.”

Francesca had returned and was standing at the end of our table composing a bill.

I raised a finger and pointed it at the girl. Then I placed it against my lips.

“Sonny, hey,” Connor said, reaching out with his left hand to place it my right forearm. “You tryin’ tae warn me? Ah don’t care if the lassie hears me talkin’ aboot guns.”

“No, no,” I said, “wasn’t that. I was just trying to draw your attention to the waitress.”

“Well, all right, then,” Connor said, pulling open the stuffed wallet. He picked out an orange coloured ten-shilling note, fixing his gaze on the girl. “Tenga il resto,” he said, which from my Latin studies I took to mean ‘Keep the change.’ “I want everybody,” he continued, “between Paisley Road Toll and Lorne School tae know that Jackie Connor can get his hauns oan a Luger pistol any time he feels like it.”

“You mean you keep it on you?” I said.

Connor shook his head quickly and narrowed his eyes. “Naw,” he said. “Let’s jist say Ah’m the custodian o’ the weapon.”

I moistened my lips.

“But look,” Connor said, ‘it’s getting’ late and Ah hiv tae be somewhere. So look, a’ right? Gi’e us a walk o’er tae Burtons at the gushet and Ah’ll tell ye whit Ah learned fae the ‘scrappy’ deal.”

We scrambled out from the bench seats and made our way to the exit. As we passed Francesca who was standing behind the cash register she said: “Buona fortuna, Signor Connor. Jackie did not acknowledge the good wishes of our waitress. I took the opportunity to air the one Italian phrase with I was familiar. “Arrivederci, Francesca,” I said.  I don’t think she heard me.

SCRAPPIES’ CONVENTION

“Let me tell you what happened,” Connor said. He swallowed a forkful of peas, gulped a mouthful of Kola and belched silently. “We nicked an auld humphy-backed Ford Popular that wiz parked beside the Co-operative Headquarters in Carnoustie Street. We stowed the big Luger handgun and the sawed-aff shotgun in the foot well in front of me, and ‘Cully’ drove to the scrap yard in Cambuslang where the ‘scrappies’ were hau’din’ their meetin’. He reversed the wee Ford up a steep driveway that led tae a big, metal shed. ‘Cully’ reached intae the back seat and came up wi’ two woolen Balaclavas helmets, each wi’ two eye holes cut oot. We pulled them o’er oor heids. ‘Bring oot the guns,’ McCulloch commanded. Ah took the double-barreled shotgun The barrel hid been sawn aff jist afore the front end o’ the stock. The stock wiz cut aff jist behin’ the pistol grip. ‘This’ll clear oot a room in nae time,’ McCulloch said. ‘You take it, Jackie. Ah’ll take the Luger.’ We goat oot o’ the motor and walked slowly up the driveway. Ah held the pistol grip in ma right haun’ and whit wiz left o’ the barrel in ma left. ‘Cully’ gripped his pistol in his right fist and clamped his left haun’ oantae his wrist furr support. Baith his airms wurr stretched oot in front o’ him.”

Francesca had returned to our table bearing a bowl of freshly fried potato fritters and a flask of brown liquid. “ Ecco,” she said. “Pattatine fritte.”

Connor did not miss a beat. “Grazie,” he muttered and resumed his narration. “McCulloch kicked the door of the shed open and went quickly intae the room. Ah came in fast behind him. See, we’d rehearsed whit we wurr gonnae dae furr aboot a week beforehand.

“There wurr two round wooden tables wi’ eight men in the gaff. The men sat motionless wi’ tumblers on the tables in front o’ them.”

“They were ambushed?” I gasped.

“Wan fat guy in a maroon polo neck sweater who wiz sittin’ at the front table took his Capstan cigarette oot his mooth and put it in the ashtray. He said: ‘Oh oh.’ McCulloch stuck the barrel o’ the thirty-eight in the fat guy’s face. The guy looked up slowly, clasping his haun’s between his legs. Ah goat a nod fae ‘Cully’ and Ah stepped furrit tae the table farthest away fae the door. Ah held the shotgun close tae an auld yin’s eyes.”

“McCulloch shouted: ‘Whit yous hiv goat in yer pockets, place it a’ oan the table.’ He abruptly hit the fat guy wi’ the barrel o’ the Luger, usin’ a choppin’ backhand motion that caught the fat man at the base of his neck at the collar. The fat man groaned but managed tae keep himsel’ upright in his chair.

“Ah stepped furrit and held the shotgun close tae the left ear o’ the auld man at ma table. He leaned furrit in the chair. He took oot his wallet fae the back pocket o’ his gungaree troosers. He removed a stack o’ banknotes and slowly and deliberately placed them oan the table.

“While the auld fella wiz busy stackin’ up notes, Ah swung the shotgun roon tae point at the next man. He wore a checked flannel shirt wi’ braces. He reached furr his wallet.

“McCulloch made his well-rehearsed speech: ‘Whit we want, we want everythin’ yous’ve goat in yer wallets. Gi’e it a’ up and keep quiet. That way ma young frien’ here disnae get nervous and blow somebody’s face aff. How’s that, eh?’

“The rest o’ the men,” Connor said, “goat oot their wallets and put money oan the tables. Ah went back tae the doorway. McCulloch moved fae wan table tae the other , collectin’ the money and stuffin’ it intae the pockets o’ his long trenchcoat. Ah stepped furrit two paces. Mcculloch passed behin’ me and stood near the door, waved his pistol fae side tae side. Then he made his farewell speech. ‘Yous’ve been very good,’ he said. ‘Stay good. Naebody’s hurt. Don’t try tae follow us.’

EUROPA CAFÉ

In the old days, to find the Europa Café in Kinning Park you had to walk along the Paisley Road West towards the city centre. On your right hand side, Just past Portman Street, and just before Stanley Street, a sit-in greasy spoon with the blue and white exterior tiled exterior occupied about eighteen feet of frontage. On a sunny June afternoon in 1953, Jackie (The Hat) Connor and I were about to partake of a local delicacy. Seated on wooden benches opposite one another at a marble-topped table at the rear of the shop our order had yet to be completed. A young, dark-haired girls, wearing white high-heeled shoes and a black cotton dress with a scoop neckline, reached over my right shoulder to place a glass of fizzy dark Kola on a mat by my right hand. Deftly, using her left hand, she put a saucer of steaming mushy green peas on a cork place mat in front of me. It was obvious she weighed a little bit more than she had when she had bought the dress and the slightly-overloaded bra beneath it. Jackie Connor, already served, was busy liberally dousing his portion with vinegar. “Grazie, Francesca,” he said. The girl smiled, placed two forks on the table and smartly turned away from us.

“Ah’m gonnae tell ye a wee story,” Connor said. It’s aboot the time me and ‘Cully’ took aff a squad o’ scrap metal dealers. ‘Scrappies’ wiz whit we ca’ed them.

I recognized that I was becoming strangely addicted to hearing the man’s tales of violence. I swallowed them like syrup on hot pancakes. ”Go ahead,” I said.

“Okay,” Connor said, grasping his fork upright in his fist. “Scrap Metal Merchants aye hiv a stack o’ lowey in their ‘sky rockets’ . . . their pockets, ye know, furr obvious reasons. Guys that urr gonnae be sellin’ them lead stolen aff tenement roofs willnae accept cheques, will they? Anyway, ‘Cully’ goat the wire fae some guy he was in Barlinnie wi’ that there wiz tae be a big meetin’ o’ scrappies in a yard o’er in Cambuslang oan a certain day. They wurr comin’ tae this particular scrap yard fae a’ o’er Britain – Birmingham, Yorkshire, Newcastle and the industrial belt here in Scotland.” He swallowed a forkful of mushy peas. “And,” he said, “McCulloch decided that him and me wurr gonnae rob them.”

I took a sip from my glass.

“These folk,” Connor said, “wurrnae the kind o’ people that worked in a bank or somethin’, they expect maybe some day some guys urr gonnae come in and rob them. Naw, ‘scrappies’ wurr different.”

How?” I said.

“Some o’ them thought they were pretty big shots,” he explained. “Ye come in there wi’ jist knives and coshes, they’ll make trouble furr ye. Lot o’ Romany blood in thae folk. Tough guys.”

The voluptuous Francesca had returned to our table and was standing in the aisle, pen and notebook at the ready. Jackie Connor ignored her for ten seconds or so and continues to talk in a loud voice. “That’s why we brought guns in wi’ us,” he said. We hid a big Luger 9mm pistol and a sawed-aff shotgun.”

“Nient’ altro, Signor Jackie?” the girl interjected.

“Aye,” Connor replied. “Whit aboot some fritters, hen?”

“Subito,” the girl said, and she wheeled away from our table.

“Sure,” Connor said. “It wiz armed robbery. He seemed to remember something and shouted what sounded to me like fluent Italian at Francesca’s retreating back. “Mi scusi, Signorina. Posso avere . . . como si chiama in italiano? – ‘broon sauce?’ The girl acknowledged his request with a nod of her head and made her way round the counter to the deep fat fryer that stood to the right of the entrance.

“Where did you learn Italian, Mister Connor?” I asked

“Oxford,” he replied.

DIFFERENCES

“What kind of work did your old man do?” he asked abruptly.

“Did,” I said.

“Well, what line of work was he in before he went to his reward?” Connor persisted.

“Docker,” I replied.

“That’s what I’m trying to explain to you,” Connor said. “What guys who’re hauling iron ore and wheat sacks from the holds of ships, selling stamps in the Post Office, putting up scaffolding on buildings, emptying bins, the kind of stuff normal people deal with every day, don’t understand is that to bad people like me normality is different. To us, robberies, smuggling, fencing stolen goods: the odd beating now and again, like cutting some guy’s ear off, are just normal things that guys like us do. This is the way we live. It’s what we want that counts. We don’t resign ourselves to anything. So if getting what we want, when we want it, means we’ll do anything we have to do to get it, including bursting kneecaps and Achilles tendons, or nailing a debtor’s hands to a wooden floor, well fine then, that’s what it takes. And we do it.”

I gasped and stirred uneasily in my chair.

Connor made a motion with both hands. He mimed carelessly tossing an invisible object over his left shoulder. This indicated that his little lecture was over and done with. Looking down at me with a smug expression on his face he nodded his head once. He said, “That should do it for today, kiddo. Now do you understand?”

As I collected my writing materials I reflected on a thing I’d never realized before. The guys who really made their mark in the underworld always start from scratch, and rise up through the ranks until they get to head their own organization. “When did you take over Plantation, Mister Connor?” I asked.

He reverted to demotic Glaswegian. “Aboot five years ago,” he said. “When Ah wiz sure o’ two things: that Ah wiz ready for promotion and that the guys who wurr runnin’ the place couldnae run a ménage. The basic thing wiz Jim McDonald was concentratin’ oan lendin’ tae the dockers doon at the Control oan the Govan Road. Big Ramsey fae Scotland Street wiz mainly operatin’ in Kinning Park and Harry Garvie fae Ibrox didnae hiv the manpower tae make an impression in the Plant.”

“So?” I queried.

“So,” Connor said, gazing at me and smiling, “the Plantation wiz ready furr pluckin’. It wiz ripe. So, Ah jist came in, set up an office in this wee single end, engaged muscle like Big Dan and Rab, and took o’er the district.”

“Just like that,” I said.

“In a way,” he said reflectively in a more or less standard accent. “I keep the peace here. What I stand for in this slum is order. If you as a normal citizen believe there’s always going to be crime, irrespective of the police, then what you want is assurance that if you tolerate a certain amount of criminal behaviour, you won’t be harmed. I give the people here that assurance. And my word is good.. Let me spell it out for you, son. If you’re not a cannibal round here, you’re lunch.”

Connor had begun his recital of his beliefs almost apologetically, speaking so low that I had to lean forward to hear. After a few minutes, his voice changed, grew stronger, more animated, and, when this happened, his face seemed to change too. His face became a light show of shifting emotions, a kaleidoscope of different faces. There was something hypnotic about the performance Was he trying to weave a spell?

I knew in my gut it would be pointless to argue, or even refer to Christian values like turning the other cheek or loving your neighbour as yourself.

I left the single end, closing the door behind me.