Chapters 1 and 2 here
Unfortunately, even school summer holidays must come to an end and as August drew to a close I returned to being a pupil. I knew that this year would be even more challenging than the previous one. Yes, I had performed really well but I was repeating the year, I was studying the same material for the second year in succession. This year I would be on an even footing with everyone else, there would be no favours given and none expected. I would need to work damn hard to gain the O Grades that I sought and to repay the confidence that the Head Master had placed in me. First thing I had to do was to decide which subjects I wanted to study. That was easy, I was a working-class lad from the West of Scotland, so I would become an Engineer so I had to select Mathematics, Arithmetic, English, Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering Drawing. I also wanted to get out of Scotland, there was talk about the UK being allowed to join the Common Market and I was fairly good at French and had started to think that being an Engineer in France would be a serious option for my future career, so I put French down too. But the Scottish Education System was having none of it. You had to do technical subjects or languages, you couldn’t do both. ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Because that’s the way it is’ I was informed. What kind of answer was that? Didn’t the school realise that the world was changing, that young people’s horizons were broadening? Apparently not. The school Careers Adviser, who was also the Technical Drawing teacher, said that if I stuck in at school, then maybe one day I would be able to afford to buy my own house and move from my council scheme to a private estate on the other side of town. I could have banged my head against the classroom wall. Did this ‘adviser’ have no comprehension that I had ambitions which went way beyond the burgh boundaries?
“Oh, and by the way, you’ll also need to do either History or Geography” he added, whilst I was still trying to come to terms with my latest setback. This was really the last thing that I wanted to hear. My experience of both had been not too favourable, one was rehearsing almost parrot-fashion the dates of the reigns of Kings and Queens of England, which had no interest to me whatsoever, whilst the other seemed to be about different coloured maps on an atlas with Britain depicted as being the centre of the world. I really had no preference for one or the other. My love for education was quickly waning. I gave no answer but stood there in silence as anger, frustration, and sadness battled for supremacy within my emotions.
‘You can think about it and let me know’ his voice uttered as his finger pointed towards the door. With my head bowed, I dragged my heavy feet towards the exit.
Stepping into the corridor I was immediately met by the noise of excited pupils running around laughing and joking and full of life. Smiling faces all around me, I felt alone, invisible, lost. Life was not a game for me to play.
The next day I learned that the History class would be arranging a bus-trip down to Ayr to watch Nicholas and Alexandra, a film about the fall of the last ruling monarchs in Russia and the rise of the Bolshevik revolution led by Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky. I had never been to Ayr before and I’d never been to an actual Picture House. The local community centre used to put on Saturday Matinees which I sometimes watched after my weekly trip to the Building Society, but they were really a bit of a joke. They usually showed musicals featuring Elvis, Cliff Richard or Tommy Steel in an attempt to connect with the young audience but even we could see just how bad the movies were and we welcomed the knowledge that the film reel would come lose at some point in the movie projector and we would get the chance to show our displeasure by stamping our feet in unison, the thunderous noise would grow louder and louder until they managed to fix the problem or gave up trying and sent us all home, their apology was usually met with derision a sarcastic round of applause. Surely a screening of Nicholas and Alexandra at Ayr Odeon couldn’t be any worse than what I was used to. My decision was made, I was going to study History.
Within a few days, we were on the bus and heading down to Ayr. The only times that I had been on a bus before was a few years ago before my mother started to drink as heavily as my father, and we would go on day trips during the Graithnock Fair Holidays.
I always looked forward to those adventures on Sandy’s Buses. The day before I’d watch my mum making cheese and ham pieces and then carefully wrapping tin foil around the slabs of white bread with their thick brown crusts and storing them in the fridge to keep fresh overnight. She would then turn to my adoring eyes and warn me ‘jist you keep your mauket haunds aff them, they’re for the morra’. Unfortunately, the reality never lived up to my anticipation as the next morning my father would ruin everything by refusing to get out of his bed. My mother would get me and my brothers dressed and ready for our expedition and then shout up the stairs to our father. “Are you ready yet?”
“I’m not going!” came the gruff reply, echoing its way down the narrow staircase and exploding into our small living room. Our three little heads dropped immediately as the response burst our hopes and dreams for the day.
“Get your lazy arse doon these stairs” our mother retorted.
“F*ck off!” he replied.
It didn’t bother me that he refused to join us, in fact, quite the opposite. “Don’t f*cking come then” I whispered “you’ll only spoil it, as usual, anyway” But the damage was done, he had spoiled the day for my mum, undone all her hard work and once again threw water on my youthful excitement and enthusiasm. In my mind, he was as much of a tyrant as Nicholas II of Russia and I wished him the same fate.
I wasn’t going to let anything spoil this trip though.
Around thirty of us, youngsters poured out of the single decker bus and I for one was overawed by the sight that welcomed us. The Odeon was a magnificent building, it stood there like a castle with its tower proudly protruding into the Ayrshire sky above. Lit up by neon lights, the castle looked like a magical place and despite the instructions of our teachers to “walk” we all ran through the entrance into an Aladdin’s Cave full of bright lights, colourful posters, popcorn, ice-cream, and sweets. Miss Herbert assembled us all together in one corner of the foyer before paying our entrance fee. She gave me a look of disdain as I bought three bags of Opal Fruits but her frown quickly melted away when I passed the sweets around my fellow young historians.
An usherette dressed in a fancy uniform and hat and led us down a dimly lit corridor and shone her torch on the floor as she pulled back the red velvet curtain that acted as a door to reveal the biggest room that I had ever seen. It took a minute or so for my eyes to adjust but then I looked up at row after row of seats. Miss Herbert advised us that the Odeon’s auditorium contained seating for over 1,300 people in the Stalls alone and above us, up on the mantelpiece, sorry the Circle, there was room for some 400 more. More than 1700 people in one room, wow that was half the population of Struantoun. We were escorted to our seats and what seats they were, real seats not benches but soft and comfortable cushioned chairs with armrests that folded up and down. We were told to ‘hush’ the lights were dimmed even more and the huge curtain was drawn open revealing a gigantic screen which our entertainment would be projected onto. The Colombia picture logo of a woman holding a torch appeared briefly, being replaced with a bright scarlet background, stirring classical music played as the screen scrolled through the names of the cast, the producers and directors. The music stopped and in total silence, we watched as a fully dressed Alexandra apparently in bed appeared in front of us and then we saw her husband staring at her, it took a few minutes before anyone spoke and then Nicholas declared “I have a son”. For almost three hours, I sat there watching, waiting and hoping for something to happen. This family appeared to live in a fairytale world. There was even a mention of Scotland but as a place for Grouse shooting. Is this how the outside world viewed our wee country?
The film depicted the Tsar as a sensitive and weak man who loved his wife and family. There was little insight into the lives of their subjects and the poverty and brutality that they endured. The loss of over seven million Russian lives, much more than the entire population of Scotland, was covered in less than a minute. The brief glimpses of the revolutionaries, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin portrayed them as cold and calculating, not the exciting heroes that I was longing to see. The film was long and boring and I fell asleep, only wakening up in time to see the Tsar and his family being executed. The curtain came down and the lights went up and I was left confused. Was I really supposed to feel sorry for the loss of this family whilst countless others had gone unnoticed? Once again, my childhood dreams and imagination had been dampened. This history was not my history. Studying the lives of bloody Tsars or Kings and Queens was not for me. Having to put up with a despot at home, who sat in ‘his chair’ as if it was a regal throne, was enough for me. I wouldn’t waste my time at school studying his ilk when all I really wanted to do was concentrate on becoming an engineer.
The school were not happy when I told them so but my mind was made up, “you can’t make me!” I insisted. Eventually, the school saw sense, there was a Maths Class which coincided with the History Class. Would I be happier studying extra maths instead? You bet I would.