These were the days!

When the bell went I took a chance and ran up the alley on the south side of the school which was strictly out-of-bounds but I wasn’t seen and I missed the mobs on Clarence Drive and picked up a 59 bus on Hyndland Road and went to Arlington Baths.  They occupied a magnificent but decrepit Byzantine folly, with domes and minarets at the foot of a run-down street in Woodside.  In the Turkish baths, ancient bank managers with huge bellies and diminutive genitalia padded around the finely tiled mosaics.  Arlington was really a remnant of Empire, originally a bathing club for gentlemen and the sons of gentlemen.  I remember an ancient poster advertising the club (it could as easily have been an advert for Woodbine, or Bovril) featuring muscular moustachioed Victorian gentlemen zooming over the surface of the pool on rings and trapeze.  I was not the son of a gentleman; my father was a policeman and my mother a nurse, but we were upwardly mobile.  I threw my school bag on to the great pile of bags that littered the foot of the stairway up to the billiard rooms, grabbed my trunks from their hook in the office, jotted my membership number, 301J, in the book, changed, and went on the trapeze.  There were two trapezes in series, just as in a circus.  The pool was the safety net.  The manoeuvre of transferring between trapezes was known as “the fly”.  I had not yet mastered the fly, but I was getting close.

I played tig with some kids from Hillhead and the High School, and ran and dived and swam myself to exhaustion eventually getting thrown out because I jumped from the deep end trapeze stand to the third ring and swung like Tarzan the length of the pool which was verboten.  Mr Cox blew his whistle and kicked me out.  My eyes were stinging with chlorine and my palms callused with the repeated gripping of the rings and trapeze.  All the lights had haloes round them.

After baths I met my father in the reading room.  He was talking with his friend Mr Train.  Mr Train was a haberdasher and women’s couturier who was very tall with fair hair and a trimmed moustache.  He looked like Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.  He was immaculately dressed in sports jacket, cavalry twills with a razor-sharp crease, and faultlessly polished brown shoes.  He used to say to my father, “James, invest in your clothes.”  He always wanted my mother to model for him but she never did.

My father had been in the RAF and Mr Train had been a POW in Stalag Luft III.  He didn’t have a good word for Tuck, Bushell, Bader and the rest who kept irritating the Germans, who would take it out on everybody by exacting reprisals mostly of a petty nature which would increase the general level of discomfort.  He greeted me with a twinkle in his eye.  “Hello young man!  Can you do the fly yet?”

“No.”

“I was watching you.  You’re nearly there!”

We gave Mr Train a lift along Great Western Road to Kelvindale.  It had been drizzling and on the broad curve of Clevedon Road the rear end of the car drifted.  My father drove into the skid and the car righted itself.

“Well held, James!”

Next day I sat in the playground at morning break with my pal Big Jobs.  He had torn out the middle four pages of his F2 jotter and was writing laboriously.  I glanced over his shoulder.

Discipline is the fundamental basis of any well-organized society.   

Discipline is the fundamental basis of any well-organized society.

Discipline is the fundamental basis of any well-organized society.

Discipline is the basis of any well-organized society.

Discipline…

I asked sympathetically, “How many?”

“Hundred.  96 to go.”

“Blimey.  Who was it?”

“Gobstopper.”

The vice-captain. He was the only prefect sufficiently feared and hated to merit a nickname.  He was squat and prematurely bald and sadistic and aggressive and frankly looked ridiculous in his school tie and half-colours.  He looked like a real estate agent.  Shortly afterwards he became one.  He would hand out lines as soon as look at you.  At least he wasn’t allowed to beat us.  That had gone out shortly before the abolition of hanging.  Some people thought society was going to the dogs.  We were all getting soft.  I asked Big Jobs what he had been caught at.

“Having a ciggy in the bogs.”

Well now that’s ridiculous.  Everybody knew Big Jobs smoked.  Big Jobs had been smoking since he was about 5.  He smoked on Clarence Drive to and from school and none of the teachers bothered.  He was like one of these Hispanic boys in the Remove at Public School – you read about them in The Hotspur – who was allowed to smoke Cuban cigars for cultural reasons.  Big Jobs really ought to have had the same dispensation.  I volunteered, “Gimme some paper and I’ll do a page for you.”

“He’ll recognise the handwriting.”

“No he won’t.  I’m a good forger.  Let’s see…”  I copied Big Jobs’ backward slanting scrawl and handed it over for his perusal.

“Not bad.  Okay, thanks.”

And as I wrote, I wondered if it were true.  Was discipline really the fundamental basis?  I didn’t care for the idea.  If it were fundamental, then discipline existed for its own sake.  But surely we chose discipline, we chose to be self-disciplined, in order to achieve a higher aim.  If the sole purpose of our society was the perpetuity of discipline, then were we not merely the rank and file of a vast goose-stepping army strutting around some parade ground just for strutting’s sake?  Who would benefit from such an arrangement?

The Politburo watching the show, I suppose.  That was a very uncomfortable notion.  Suppose the only thing that society asked of us was that we strut in a specific way.  We strut in the playground so as not to arouse Gobstopper’s wrath. We strut, albeit with more subtle gait, in the classroom for our teachers, subsequently in the work place for our employers.  But if there is nothing behind the strut, then this is a masque of death.  And what happens if you find yourself out of step?  Well, Gobstopper hands down 100 lines.  He might well have dictated, “Harshness is the fundamental basis of any well-organized society.”

Harshness is the fundamental basis of any well-organized society…

Big Jobs glanced across.  “Steady mate, you’re writing the wrong thing.”

“Sorry.”

I’m sure Big Jobs would have settled for two of the belt.  I know I would have.  Short and sharp.  A double dose of the tawse; two swipes of the Lochgelly.  Over and done with.  Lines were soul-destroying.  You did them, all the while thinking, “This is a complete and utter waste of time.”  That was the point, the poignancy of the punishment.  It was like painting coal.  It struck me that I hadn’t had the belt for a while.  I got a reprieve in MacTavish’s one day.  I’d been fooling around, and MacTavish said in an undertone, “If you don’t settle down, I’ll warm your fingers.”  I mistook his tone.  I should have recognised the menace of understatement.

“Okay, that’s it.  Step out.”  The desk drawer was wrenched open and slammed shut.  He swished the fork-tongued instrument of discipline through the air like a golfer warming up with a driver at the tee.

“Cross them.”

I did as I was told.

He raised his right arm.  The tawse disappeared momentarily behind his shoulder.  I tensed in readiness.

Suddenly MacTavish went pale.

“Good God, boy, what have you done to your hands?”

“Mm?”  I glanced at them.  The palms were covered in blisters and calluses from the repeated frictional trauma of the rings and trapeze at Arlington.

MacTavish relaxed his stance and put the belt back in his drawer.

“Sit down and hold your tongue.”

It never occurred to us that our teachers’ right to chastise us might be withdrawn.  But even then there was a debate raging amongst the directors in 129 Bath Street.  All these kids from deprived backgrounds suffering abuse at home – did they really need another clip round the ear?  “Never did us any harm!” said the pro-tawse lobby, with their irrepressible facial tics, intermittently losing control of their bladder.

We were changing for gym one day, and a bit noisy, and Paddy Elder came round from the PE staff room and said, “I’ll say this once.  Shut up.”

There was a lull, but the hubbub started up again.  Somebody pushed my friend Donald against the dressing room door and it slammed into the wall with a crash.  Paddy marched back in and summarily gave Donald six of the best.

There was dead silence.

Then my friend Brian MacFarlane met my gaze and shook his head and whispered, “That’s not right.”

 

 

 

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