Out of the Camp Ch. 26 – The Inch Secondary Modern
One day when I was playing with Alan Baird, a friend who lived across the street, I overheard part of a conversation his mother was having with another neighbor, Elsie Smith. They were sitting in the living room unaware that Alan and I were in the adjacent hallway when I heard a reference to Hazel, my mother. My attention was instantly alerted, and I heard Cathie say that “She’s knocked the spirit oot o’ that laddie.” Obviously, “that laddie” was me since there was no one else she could have been talking about, “she” had to be my mother. I must have been 7 or 8 when I heard that and understood fully what she was saying but didn’t think it was true. It would be another couple of years before I was told of my adoption and was too young to really put it all together, but one example was my terror of Miss Dunlop, our teacher. One morning I created such a fuss over some maths (math) homework that was due and which I couldn’t figure out, I didn’t want to go to school as I knew she’d be really mad. In the end after having had my mother yelling at me to get going and me resisting and creating all kinds of a fuss, she ended up taking me herself and having a word with Miss Dunlop. I don’t remember how the situation was resolved but Miss D. laid off me for the rest of the day. She probably didn’t realize how scary she was because it wasn’t only me she put the wind up.
Anyway, getting back to the “spirit” that had allegedly been knocked out of me, football (soccer) was another thing that would render me a shriveling wreck. I had absolutely no self-confidence and so if a ball landed at my feet during a game, I’d want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, or if truth be told I’d rather leave it there and run off in the opposite direction. Nonetheless, I still found myself involved in games on weekends or in the evenings weather permitting. I was usually one of the last chosen in a pick-up game and often ended up in goal where I’d do least damage. There was some kind of a junior league in the neighborhood, and scouts were often around looking for ‘talent’. Not that I can make any claims in that direction but one evening my Dad arrived home from work and he’d been on the bus with the trainer of the local team who lived nearby and, according to my Dad, the trainer, Mr. Wylie, told him that he’d seen me playing (or trying to) and that I was a ‘natural’ but that I didn’t believe in myself. Looking back, that sort of makes sense because there was nothing wrong with my general coordination, I guess as Cathie said, I’d just had the “Spirit” knocked oot o’ me and it was years before I overcame it. It was such a huge issue because all the kids in the neighborhood were ‘fitba’ daft’ and, for the most part, supported either Hearts or Hibs, the two Edinburgh teams. Another way that the ‘issue’ impacted me was in my dream to become a singer. The thought of standing up in front of an audience was another terrifying prospect but, thankfully, the Boys Brigade again came to my rescue in the form of the pipe band. I learned to play the side drum after a fashion which ultimately years later led to me getting a drumkit, start playing and later join a pop group, where I eventually sang a couple of songs while playing at such venues as The Place, and Gamp Clubs in Edinburgh and, eventually, abandoned the kit, stood up front and just started singing.
I’d referred earlier to the community spirit, even camaraderie, that existed in our street, Moredun Park Avenue, and I suspect that it wasn’t particularly unusual in those years of post-war Britain where food-rationing was still widespread. Doors were typically left unlocked, and neighbors would rap on the door, announce their presence and just walk in; and there were some real characters amongst them. One who immediately springs to mind is Betty Cant; you can see her in a couple of the pictures I posted in the last installment. She’s the one with the swarthy, almost Mediterranean complexion. I find myself smiling when I think of her and her early morning march down the street yelling at the top of her voice, “C’mon Ella Morrison, it’s high time you were oot o’ yer stinkin’ bed an’ daein’ some work.” She really did have a voice like a foghorn that could be heard the length of the street and beyond. The reality was that Ella would likely have been up for hours and, expecting Betty to show up at any minute, already had the kettle on. There were very few telephones around – we eventually got one with a ‘party line’ which was a bizarre arrangement hardly worth going into here – but one event that I recall vividly was when Ella Morrison – who was quite a character in her own right with a mischievous sense of humor, but also a lovely woman with a heart of gold, and her husband, Tam, were the first people that we knew who got a TV. Before long, every kid in the street was sitting cross-legged on the carpet in front of Tam and Ella’s TV every night at 5 o’clock to watch Childrens’ Hour, with such programmes as Muffin the Mule, Pinky & Perky, Crackerjack, the Flowerpot Men, Andy Pandy and a host of others.
Another lovely lady in the street – actually, most of them were just that – was Elsie Smith who lived right across the street from us with her husband, Bill, a quiet man and son James. One day all the kids were out playing, I don’t remember what we were up to, but I was stung by a bee or a wasp. It got me just above my eye, in the space between my eye and my eyebrow. Anyway, my Mum was at work and my Dad was away in St. Andrews, and so Mrs. Smith took me into her house, boiled some water and put it into a bowl. Then she cooled it with some cold water and put some stuff into it then took my head in her hands and gave me a great big kiss right where the bee had stung me. At least I thought that that’s what she was doing ‘cause it felt a bit weird. Anyway, of course she wasn’t kissing my eye she was sucking out the bee sting and then she spat it out into the water she’d put into the bowl. I could feel my face had gone red with embarrassment and she looked at me and gave me a big smile and an even bigger hug, and said, “Dinae be daft; away ootside an’ play now.”
Another fond memory of those days was Saturday Morning Pictures at the New Victoria in Clerk Street. Every Saturday, well before the doors opened there’d be a line of kids all the way along Clerk Street snaking half-way around St. Patrick’s Square. It always seemed to be full whenever I went and there was always a rush for the front seats which I never understood because I’d always leave with a crick in my neck after two hours sitting there looking straight up. At least in the front rows you got first pick from the lady with the lighted tray who walked around selling ice cream, lollies or the Kia-Ora orange squash. They used to have a singsong for all the kids before the films started but if my memory’s accurate, they gave that up because the kids weren‘t interested and just wanted to get on with the films. Some of my favorites were Superman, Flash Gordon, Abbot & Costello, Adventures of Lassie, Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers. Actually, my Mum and Dad took me to the Empire Theatre once when Roy Rogers and Dale Evans came to Edinburgh and brought Trigger with them. Looking back, it was a bit bizarre watching old Roy cavorting around that wee stage on his great big white horse. All he could do was go round and round in circles and not much else. I think at one point he managed to get Trigger to sort of bow to the audience. Another time they took me to the Empire was to see Eddie Calvert, “the man with the Golden Trumpet”. Not only that, they also took me round the back to the stage door to meet him after the show. To this day I never understood why they would take a wee boy to see a bloke blowing his trumpet when there had never been any indication of interest in that instrument. I don’t know if my mother had a thing for blokes with trumpets but obviously, I’ll never know now.
In Scotland in those days when you came to the end of your time in primary (junior) school, there was an exam that everyone took called the ‘Eleven Plus’, and your results would dictate the secondary school that you would transfer to. I was no academic high-flyer and usually fell somewhere in the centre of the class in terms of scholastic performance. When the results were announced I was given the option of going to either James Clark’s School to study commercial and French subjects or, alternatively, to the Inch Secondary Modern to study technical courses. I had no idea what commercial subjects were, but I wanted to go to James Clark’s because The Inch had a terrible reputation as being very rough. I told my mother I wanted to go to James Clark’s and she asked, “What are you ever going to need French for? Don’t be stupid, you’re going to The Inch to learn a trade. When you’ve got a trade at your fingertips, you’ll never be out of work.” End of discussion! My father, of course, was not around; not that his presence would have made any difference, but he was often a moderating influence in such discussions, and occasionally could sway an argument in my direction. But this? I don’t think so! Old Sitting Bull wasn’t going to be budged on this one I was quite sure.
When I started at the Inch I was surprised by the complete absence of any uniform, some kids were quite smartly dressed, others not so much and that’s being kind. There were a lot of jeans, something my mother would never have countenanced. I don’t remember the first day or any welcome or introductory process, but I do remember our registered (or register?) teacher, an unpleasant long drink of water called Mr. Hutchison, of the art department. Every Monday morning, his room was our first stop for role-call, absentee notes, and any announcements he needed to make. We did also see him for art class, but I have no recollections of those. The only memorable exchange I had with him was in my final year when he also assumed the role of careers guidance master and he asked me what I thought I might like to do. I told him I’d like to be a draftsman and he laughed in my face. I think the two educators at The Inch who I benefited from most were Miss Cullen, a diminutive, elderly English teacher who stood no nonsense and always seemed to be cross, and the other, Miss Innes, an attractive, young recent graduate maths teacher with a jet-black page-boy haircut who also stood no nonsense. In fact, and surprisingly, she was one of the most frequent users of the strap or tawse to administer corporal punishment. No one before her had successfully helped me overcome my terror of mathematical equations and anything remotely requiring calculation. For some reason when I was in her class, one day something just clicked, and I’ve always been very grateful to her for that, not that she’s ever likely to know it.
As I indicated earlier, the Inch was a very rough school with a lot of bullying being tolerated which I found myself on the wrong end of from time-to-time. When I arrived at the school, the headmaster was a Mr. MacKay, a very gentle, bookish and thoughtful man, and probably the worst match anyone could have made for this particular school. I remember being chosen for some reason along with another half-dozen kids, to operate some marionettes that I think he owned and which we went out to some old-folks homes and entertained them with. Each figure was about 18 inches high and based on characters from a number of operas. I remember we had several rehearsals in a common room in order that we mastered the technique which wasn’t easy but was a lot of fun and clearly a passion of Mr. MacKay’s. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but they must have been collectors’ pieces and probably quite valuable. There was no dialogue as we operated them but rather the action was accompanied by a number of classical pieces. I remember precious little about this now other than one of the pieces was ‘In The Hall Of The Mountain King’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, and so the puppets would have been replicas of characters from the opera.
When Mr. MacKay left the school, he was replaced by a man who was then head of the art department. I’ve completely forgotten his name, but I can picture him perfectly clearly as if yesterday. He always struck me as someone who was rather full of himself and would at one time be referred to as a dandy. He always wore a tweed jacket with checked shirt and a bright, flamboyant bow tie, and he had a full moustache. One of the first things he did, if not THE first, was to sack all of the school prefects and replace them with well-known bullies at the school. It was a transparent and less than subtle attempt to reign in the bullying and I’m not entirely sure how successful it was but what I did notice at the time was the huge improvement in the behavior of those individuals, now appointed as new prefects. It was clear that they had taken on their respective new roles very seriously but nonetheless had had to be reined in somewhat when overstepping their authority in arbitrarily doling out their chosen brand of corporal punishment to perceived transgressors.
I left The Inch a 15, as was required in a junior secondary, as joint dux of the school with a boy called John Robertson who, I heard, went on to be a postman (US mail carrier) and I never heard from him again. Around this time, I sat the police cadet entrance exam which I flunked, and I also remember attending an interview with a firm of Quantity Surveyors located in York Place, Edinburgh. How this came about I have no idea but, it evidently went very well, and the boss promised to take me on if I returned the following year having achieved ‘0’-level passes in at least 4 subjects. The next event I remember, was being in the office of Mr. Jack, Liberton Secondary headmaster, together with my father who was making a case for my continuing my education at Liberton. Mr. Jack was very reluctant but when pressed by my father, fortuitously assisted by my conditional job-offer, acceded to our wishes and I started the following Autumn term.
(1) George Reeves as Superman. (2) William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. (3) Roy Rogers & Dale Evans. (4) Orange Maid Cinema Ad. (5) 1950s Wall’s Ice Cream Ad. (6) Looney Tunes Cinema Cartoon. (7) Liberton High School, Edinburgh.