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.

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Preliminaries

Preliminaries

At half past nine, on the dot, the following morning, Saturday the 30th of May, I was standing with my back to the corrugated iron close mouth.  Cradled against my chest was the leather bound notebook. Tales of mayhem, theft, stabbings and assorted villainy awaited me, I was certain, and I looked forward with a mixture of keen anticipation and a frisson of fear to recording them. I acknowledged that I had always nourished a morbid fascination for the devil-may-care outsider. Richmal Crompton’s William and his Outlaws were my first heroes, to be supplanted by the nebulous members of La Légion Étrangère with their newly created identities and their willingness to confront death full on.

I was bouncing from one foot to the other when Jackie Connor turned into MacLean street from the Govan Road. He was wearing a white cashmere polo necked sweater, tailored silver grey mohair slacks with fourteen inch turn-ups. His shoes were gleaming blood-red leather slip-ons with tassels. A grey Borselino soft hat enclosed his long, wavy flaxen hair, and his face was expressionless behind aviator sunglasses.

He stood motionless about four feet in front of me for five seconds, looking me up and down. Eventually he bared his front upper teeth in a sneering smile and announced: “You know, kid, ye’re wearin’ gear that looks like whit ye’d wear furr getting’ shot by a firing squad . Best get ye inside afore ye frighten the horses.”

Once inside, I saw that he had re-arranged the furniture. Between the sofa where Connor lolled, his hands clasped behind his head, and an over-stuffed easy chair, which was where I had to sit, a bare wooden kitchen table stood. On it Connor had placed two dumpy bottles of strong ale, already opened, a bottle of Martell brandy, two glasses, an ashtray and two packets of cigarettes and a Dunhill gold plated lighter.            My host poured two generous measures of brandy and indicated that I should drink along with him. This I did at frequent intervals during the following half hour. I placed my notebook and a freshly sharpened pencil on the table and drew the Luckies towards me. “Alright if I smoke?” I enquired.

“Nae problem,” Connor said. “Ah smoke like the Polmadie Furnace masel’. He picked up the pink packet and proffered the exotic cigarettes to me. “Keep the Yankee fags furr later,” he said. “Try wan o’ these. They’re English and they’re called Passing Cloud.”

I accepted one and lit it with a single smooth thumb stroke of the Dunhill. Already I felt richer, more sophisticated, more powerful. “You live well, Mister Connor,” I said. “And I envy your sartorial elegance. Your good health, sir,” I proposed before almost emptying the strong ale ain three gulps.

My host looked pleased. His green eyes showed a spark of light.   More brandy followed as he described in detail the provenance of his clothing. It gradually became clear, as he trotted out names like Moishe the tailor at Charing Cross, shoemakers from Milan, silk and mohair suiting’s from Paris, that, unless I shut one eye, Jackie Connor would split into two. I felt weirdly sober with one eye squeezed tight, and I felt completely trashed when I opened it.

“I’m impressed,” I said.   Picking up the pencil, with calculated suavity, I wrote in the notebook: “Sbjct v. shrp. drssr.”

Although I had enjoyed a modicum of success at writing in school, this gig was different. Before I committed crayon to paper in this venture – paid for in advance, mind – I had determined that a slicker approach to what I’d hear was required. My home-knitted shorthand would surely impress the subject himself.

Whether or not it would work with Connor would depend largely on my being able to stop squinting and how successfully I controlled the sudden vertigo I was feeling.