Looking across London’s eastern expanse from our staffroom window in the district of E10 – sounds like Eton if you say it fast enough – Sean the sociology lecturer had a sudden urge to blurt out with the crumbs of his Empire biscuit one of those so-called universal truths: “Schooldays were the best days of our lives!” Empire biscuit because that is the way of it in England, though it travels under the name German biscuit in my part of Scotland…or did. It survived the hatreds of wartime and peacetime for a century, but there were indications of change on my last visit home. At the exit-through-the-art-gallery coffee joint at the foot of Edinburgh’s Mound, I was halted by the cake counter gestapo: “German biscuit?” I felt unable to dignify her performance of haughty bewilderment with an explanation – she might even have expected an apology – and merely indicated the cherry-topped choice with my chin. “Oh, you mean Belgian biscuit!” I wondered if perhaps it had crumbled under the weight of censorship, but mid-morning break is too short for discussions about biscuits – there is barely enough time to eat one – and so I left Sean in his sehnsucht zombie state staring beyond the eastern post codes, his mind fixed on the phantom past, whitish crumbs looking like bits of skull stuck to the window pane.
In England, the German biscuit was rebuked and rebaked as an Empire biscuit at the outset of the Great War – a war that might as well have been about a biscuit. Many muddled by state propaganda continued to call them German biscuits and Empire biscuits interchangeably – some even called them German Empire biscuits. Same recipe. It was always an option to call it a Belgian biscuit – on the basis it is topped a bit like a Belgian bun – but I thought it more likely the Belgian re-brand recently emerged because the tourist-sensitive breed were altering perceptions: German biscuit having negative connotations – Hitler, holocaust, eugenics – and Empire biscuit having associations with British imperialism – colonies, class, slavery, and far right groups that want the Empire biscuit to strike back. The Belgian branding, however, is no more benign than if we said Vichy or Pinochet or Franco or even Al-Qaeda biscuits.
Before dunking we might consider the brutal orgy of horror suffered by the people of the Congo at the hands of Leopold II of Belgium – a monarchical reign of terror and torture that accompanied the shameful system of travail forcé, (forced labour), lasting over two decades. Its official end was in 1908, when the Belgium government stepped in – just six years before the outbreak of the Great War – though in fact the system of forced labour continued until colonisation ended in 1960. Caught in the net of a ruthless profit maximisation scheme, the Congolese were coerced to labour unpaid in the rubber plantations, and in just one decade an estimated ten million people were worked to death. The incentive scheme for the male population included the routine severing of children’s hands, the rape of their mothers, and the slaughter of entire families. This was vigorously encouraged by investors – both foreign and domestic – throughout the period up to and beyond the rule of Leopold II, many of them leading industrialists and ‘statesmen’ such as Britain’s Lord Leverhulme. According to the research of Jules Marchal, the Belgian system of forced labour reduced the population of Congo by half, thereby accounting for far more deaths than the Nazi holocaust.
I had been thinking about Proust. Quite apart from all the horror histories, how might he have reacted on learning that his ‘Petites Madeleines’ had been transformed into Tunnock’s Caramel Logs? After Proust a Madeleine ceased to be just a biscuit, of course, and became the means of inner communion: the link between conscious reality and unbidden memory – an instrument of time travel, in a sense. But it was also quite simply a French biscuit named after a woman, and I can think of no reason why the same cannot be achieved for the German Empire Belgian biscuit. Were I to be asked I would suggest a ‘Molly’, after that friendly Scottish actor from my childhood, Molly Weir – a brisk, busy type, as I remember, who liked to reward her efforts with tea and biscuits. The French have Moliere’s Tartuffe, we could have Molly Weir’s tough tarts. Works for me.
My colleague having his Madeleine moment had glanced in my direction for confirmation, but it was not forthcoming. Schooldays, best times? My most powerful memory of school was fear. Every so often I am subjected to assertions of this sort, and must admit to feeling oppressed by them. My dreaded primary school in Ropework Lane held the distinction of being the oldest school in Glasgow, and there was little more to its credit, but my secondary (high school) was the worst in Glasgow, or probably the worst. Either way it made little difference to the terror of it. And I think I mean terror. I was of course delighted when Ropework Lane came up for demolition, but things deteriorated when I was decanted to a school in the Calton district; Calton Tongs gangland graffiti marked the territory, and like detergent adverts, ran with the ‘we kill’ tag line. Though only a primary school, from five up to the age of twelve, it was an altogether threatening place, where people exploded in your face and where I almost lost an eye. My vision of what was bad about school life literally changed. Protection rackets run, kids carrying sharp things, territorial gang slogans scrawled across walls. This had to be the worst of all possible worlds. The very worst, however, was yet to come. And here, paraphrasing Simone de Beauvoir, was the locus of my first lesson on balancing hope with caution: just when you think you have reached the bottom, you find another level to sink to.
It should be so easy to be happy. It should be the easiest thing in the world.
Bing, the doors opened to the going down elevator on my eleventh birthday. A compulsory test to decide the course of my education – and quite possibly a determining influence on the nature of my life – commenced soon after: the eleven-plus. Promising ‘parity of esteem’, the government set about allocating children on an educational path best suited to their particular needs (it was forbidden for teachers to mention ‘pass’ or ‘fail’), but the reality quite simply was that children were sent either to the junior secondary school – known as the secondary modern in the rest of the UK – or to the senior secondary school. I failed.
The junior secondary offered a rudimentary education in sums, spelling, and some basic workshop skills up to the age of fifteen, and then showed you the door. The senior secondary, by contrast, offered pupils an academic route that was considered sufficient to prepare them for a white-collar job or university. None of this applied to fee-paying schools; notwithstanding the tyranny many pupils may have endured in these otherwise prestigious institutions, private schools – then as now – typically offered as much by way of social and cultural connections as through education itself: the speech patterns, the linguistic codes, the old school tie, the enigmatic Latin motto emblazoned across the blazer pocket. Mad mottos, some of them. I once saw a coarse translation from Horace’s Epistulae used by a school in Surrey, ‘Make money any way you can’! Not that school jackets had no place in our school: we had a teacher that hung them on the gate railings with their owners still in them.
Led by British psychologist Cyril Burt, the eleven plus was grounded in academic research that sorted out genetic differences in intelligence by examination. A member of the doctrinaire conservative British Eugenics Society – an institution much admired by Hitler and his followers – Burt’s tests shaped post-war British government policy. He had gained much of his influence from a comparative study carried out on a group of children from a prestigious private preparatory school and a group from a deprived, working class elementary school. When the upper class school children scored higher on intelligence tests than the elementary, Burt concluded the difference was innate: the higher results must be attributed to the genetically superior intelligence of the upper class.
He also attempted to make the case for the heritability of intelligence by studying the concordance rates of monozygotic (identical) twins reared apart; his results demonstrated they correlated highly on tests for IQ similarities. The eleven plus intelligence test therefore became government educational policy, and Burt was knighted for ‘Making educational opportunities more available.’ But when Sir Cyril died in 1971, it emerged he had rigged the twin studies evidence, invented colleagues, and falsified the findings.
For the pupils who failed Burt’s intelligence test, the highest possible award was a leaving certificate – roughly equivalent to a ticket to a show with a restricted view. In my overcrowded, underfunded, slum school for slum kids in the East End of Glasgow, there were poor educational and no recreational facilities. At break time you just walked the yard. Often the air was suffused with the screaming echoing madness of raging teachers up and down the corridors, and some days there were all kinds of crazy hell. Not a typical day, perhaps, but I remember the outraged friends of a boy who had been expelled took it upon themselves to ‘encourage’ other pupils to go on strike for his return. Hundreds got high on the ‘we will not be moved’ and ‘we will overcome’ songs in the yard (when the repertoire ran out there followed the inevitable football favourites). And then they came for us. Hortator thumped the drum for ramming speed and the teachers thrust into the throng, frenzied belts whipping up a scream in the air, giants battling two and three at a time, duffle coat hoods violently ripped as pupils were pulled to the ground and then dragged along the corridors. All a bit of a dry run for a prison riot, really.
The English teacher wasn’t a bad bloke, though – Old Chic, they called him – and he made the effort a lot of the time. He was often seen swinging his well-worn tawse – a thick strip of leather with one end cut into tails – over his head like a rotary blade to disperse a crowd of boys around a fight. He dragged a boy in my class from his seat and right across the floor once, repeatedly shouting his catchphrase “Ya wee ned!” as he knocked over desks, ripping the buttons from his shirt before forcing him to kneel and face the wall for the remainder of the lesson. Perhaps this seems a tad barbaric, but mental degradation was the worst, and some were skilled in that.
One day, during a reading from an abridged version of Moby Dick, Old Chic stopped mid-sentence and removed his glasses, his signature prompt for asking a question: “Can anyone tell me what Berg means?” I don’t know why I broke my vow of silence: “Berg is German for mountain.” A simple answer, but he was astonished. No one had seen him smile before – a strange, somewhat contorted look caused most likely by his instinctive resistance to it – then he turned to write Berg on the board. I felt my face warm with embarrassment but also fear, for whilst his back was turned I saw suspicious eyes were raised. I was always just under the radar as far as school life was concerned: not a part of any group, and not noticed by teachers. (Blending in with the crowd as a sort of grey nobody, I would have made a perfect spy). I just tried to get through my three years of school by keeping my head above water, and ramming into that Berg threatened to put me under it.
When class ended, Old Chic held me back for a word. He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him I liked the public library, and though he was disapproving of some of my book choices (DH Lawrence), he approved others (Nevil Shute). Brief conversations after class became the norm, I looked forward to them, and during one he introduced me to the wonderful works of Jack London. I suspect it had something to do with the sea; Old Chic had served in the Navy during the war and frequently made reference to nautical stories – Berg started there, not surprisingly. But if my perspective on life privately began to change, publicly it lasted a very short while. To feed the needs of my peers I began to do badly in Old Chic’s classes, and I achieved this by giving ridiculous answers to simple questions. For my survival, it was necessary to choose sides, and I remember the look of disappointment rise within Old Chic. I was surprised he didn’t see through it. And so for a while the school seemed less like a holding pen and a pen less like a thing someone might plunge into the nape of your neck, (to this day I bear the marks of what a pencil can do, on my finger and my stomach). But my moral cowardice, or survival instinct, resulted in a deeper wound, and a decade later, in a car park in Glasgow, it would open once more.
In half a century the school leaving age had moved by just one year; my dad left school aged fourteen, I left at fifteen, and I suppose that’s what they mean by the march of progress. The first year I spent applying for all kinds of jobs, but rejection followed rejection, and eventually I invented reasons to reject myself, slowly becoming cocooned in roomworld. I remember reading Jack London’s alcoholic memoirs at that time, John Barleycorn – one of Old Chic’s recommendations – and I think I understood the problem of being trapped in a bottle that at the same time offered some sort of freedom from bottled up emotions. I’m not sure if the book helped, but one year on, aged sixteen, I drummed up the courage to begin the slow ascent up Prospecthill Road to Langside College, a ‘second-chance’ further education college. But a year spent in relative isolation isn’t a gap year. Overtly relaxed, self-confident students were standing around the college campus talking and laughing – sunny clothes, shiny smiles – and I drew looks as I walked past perspiring at danger levels in a ridiculously heavy dark green army jacket. When I reached the college administration building I tripped over nothing and stumbled forward, only just keeping my balance, and was overcome by the need to return to the safety of my bedroom prison. The battle was lost, and I sunk in defeat.
According to my dad – and only he could have seen things this way – the act of running away from college was itself a learning experience. Right there, he said, the place where I trembled and then fled, a ferocious battle took place: The Battle of Langside. It lasted just under two hours and in that time over three hundred people died. Three people a minute – think of the tumult, the frenzy, involved in that! It was there Mary Queen of Scots lost her bid for the Scottish throne. 1568. In the eighteen years of imprisonment that followed, and up to the point of her execution, she kept close her motto – embroidered in gold thread on violet velvet – ‘In my end is my beginning’. It was a code that guided her through those painful years, preserving to the very end her dignity. Losing a battle was not the end – her philosophy denied the possibility of endings – and however Mary Queen of Scots is judged by Scots and by non-Scots alike, it would be difficult for anyone to ignore the power of those words.
Even yet I’m unsure how this parallel turned my defeat into a sort of victory, it was more like a parallel universe, but his words somehow stopped me staring down my socks, and eventually I got around to pulling them up. I never again expected to return to Langside, but as Scotland’s greatest export, Sean Connery, once said, never say never. It took some time, but I did return to climb those stairs to gain the qualifications needed to enter university, and following university I returned to Langside College once more – almost as terrified as the first encounter – this time to deliver a talk to a group of adults one evening. I remember the topic title: ‘Scotland – a third world country?’. The audience would no doubt have given applause for anyone, but I was quite overcome by it, and if it hadn’t been for the bell, the chance to quickly gather my notes and slip out into the night, I might have fled before they finished. I had at last returned to face the crowd and to face myself, and whilst it hardly compares, more a skirmish than a battle, it was in the end as decisive for me as it was for Mary Queen of Scots and those who fought for their preferred version of reality on that same ground – in what was then the village of Langside – over four hundred years before.
That is one possible ending to this story, the one where I virtually led the spirits of a claymore-wielding army of roaring Scottish warriors in a highland charge down the glens of my subconscious against the forces of self-doubt. But there is another ending. Whilst a student I had a seasonal job as a car park attendant in Glasgow city centre. One day, Old Chic drove up towards the exit barrier in Dunlop Street. I recognised him the instant he wound down the window of his car to hand me his ticket. Ten years had passed, but he hadn’t aged. My heart was beating fast and my hands were shaking as I punched his card in the machine. It came to one pound fifty and I called it out. He acknowledged the cost with a groan, and kept his eyes fixed on me as he tried, quite impossibly it seemed, to straighten his back and at the same time remain in the driving seat, digging ever deeper and more awkwardly and yet more determinedly into his trouser pocket for money that increasingly and perhaps all too conveniently moved down under the steering wheel – did his pocket go down to his ankle?
I waited for that benign stare to change, for that surprised moment of recognition, but all he saw was a guy in a booth waiting for the money so that he could press the button to raise the barrier and let him out. I leaned in a little towards him, and with a slight trembling in my voice asked, “Do you remember me?” He stopped dead still, but it was clear he drew a blank. Berg came to mind. It often did. The oblique rebound from that question answered in class introduced me to the exilic insights of Jack London – someone who understood the cold, cruel wilderness in its various forms, and from whom I learned how to build a fire (not the only time a traveller of sorts would rescue me on a desperate road). I had Old Chic to thank for leading me there, a fact I realised as I watched him in his various contortions struggling for the ever-elusive coins of the great deep.
Berg might work as a recall cue, but there was another queue, the one to leave the car park, and so I opted for my distinctive German surname. His face suddenly relaxed into an expression of great relief as he found a reason to stop rummaging for change. “Yes, I do remember you!” he exclaimed with a beaming smile. “Worked out fine for you here, has it?” Seemingly innocent words, but they had the power to bat me back through the years to his class – to the time when I chose sides against him. He was clearly pleased I had got a job of some sort, and no doubt he met many who hadn’t, but could I let it go at that? Had I learned anything from this old man of the sea?
There were some remarkable people working in that car park – my annual summer job going back four years – and most had had a remarkable career in their time. A man who was once a top solicitor in Glasgow was forced to replace his business suit with a high-visibility waterproof jacket and now waved motorists into parking spaces. He had lost everything but kindness, and he was the kindest man in the world. In a similar role was a former Rolls Royce engineer, and there was also an architect, a local government economist, a builder, and even an ex-monk – formerly of a silent order, following an injury he wouldn’t, and simply couldn’t, stop talking. People whose lives had been turned around after major accidents – devastated, in some cases, after a simple fall – such as the former RAF tail-gunner who survived numerous missions into enemy territory then suffered a brain injury after slipping on the ice at his own doorstep. If the situation was different I might have remarked to my former master, the one comfortably resting his elbow on the rolled-down car window, the one relaxed and waiting for me to speak, the one confidently reading me, “I know them not, old man”. But the truth was otherwise. They were good people, and treated me like family.
Decisively surpassed in all but pride and arrogance by my colleagues, I nonetheless could not prevent a feeling of disappointment rise within me – perhaps I should confess it was resentment – regarding Old Chic’s presumption that this was it for me, a car park attendant, rather than a student in a holiday job. I admit it was not exactly unwarranted given that I was holding his parking ticket in my hand, but would he have reached this conclusion so readily if I had not attended the old school? I was filled with a powerful urge to hurriedly display all my trophies for him to admire before he drove off – the bits of paper, my part-time teaching at the university of Aberdeen, and the promising research post coming into view at Edinburgh university. And then there was the Battle of Langside. The madness that was school had not been the end; I had returned to the battlefield, and surely no one could blame me for trying to set the record straight. But as I looked now at Old Chic – leaning towards me, a slightly demented yet benevolent smile set in freeze frame – an oft-quoted line of his ascended to conscious memory: “Self-praise is no recommendation.”
It was not, then, the constraints of time that in the end prevented me from attempting to flood Old Chic with a report of my accomplishments, but the constraints of conscience. In any case, what did I have to prove? I’m sure he would have been happy to learn I gained some paper credits, but I’m also sure that in his estimation they would not have been the true measure of my character. And so the question was still on hold: had it worked out fine for me? A brief hesitation was followed by a nod; a moment reminiscent of a decade earlier when in Old Chic’s class I effectively held up my hand to declare the side I was on, though this time it was not to save my skin, but my dignity.
No more than two minutes passed from the instant I recognised Old Chic approaching the exit gate to the moment he drove off – I never again saw him – but in that time momentous memories were shaken loose from the ocean floor and made to surface. Schooldays were by no means the best of days. I have had better days, better experiences, and there are, I believe, even better times to come. But there is no doubt his presence influenced the course of my life and I am not convinced I would change anything if it entailed the risk of his absence. Just passing through, he made an impact, and he still passes through from time to time.
In the tradition of old men of the sea, he left me with net gains: traces of memory to relive as experience, and the reminder that qualifications do not make the man. He also left me with an unpaid parking ticket.