A BILLY OR A DAN OR AN OLD TIN CAN?
I was born on the 29th of March, 1915, at the age of nought. They said it couldn't last and sure enough, I soon found myself getting older, like a lot of people in Glasgow, especially around the high-rise tenement area in Bridgeton where I lived with two parents (one of each sex) and eventually two brothers, Bert and Ronald.
The more mathematically-minded reader will deduce that I was only three when the war ended. If I'd been a bit more patriotic, perhaps I would have lied about my age and joined up, but instead my earliest memories were of playing among the Bridgeton slag-heaps, a less-than-exotic blend of coal and assorted debris, surrounded by hordes of other neighbourhood kids whom nobody seemed to look after. You were lucky if you could get your head above that. I could, but only because we lived three flights up.
It wasn't so bad that you needed special breathing equipment to cope with the altitude, but being at the top of so many stairs did tend to make us unpopular with the street traders. The local coalman used to come round with his horse and cart, and he would sing his wares. Instead of shouting "One and fourpence ha'penny coal", he'd set the phrase to music (sort of) with a little reprise of "Co-o-al" at the end. Very tasteful. So my mum or dad would shove their head through the window and call, "Two bags, please" (for some reason, they never sang that bit), whereupon the coalman would smile at the thought of a sale. The smile soon faded when he saw how far up he'd have to lug a ten hundredweight bag. I'm amazed he didn't sing back, "You must be jo-o-king!"
For most kids round our way, parents were a novelty. I was never particularly close to either of mine, mainly because I'd barely see them except on Sundays. The poor blighters were always working, Dad as a universal grinder (don't ask me), Mum mainly as a seamstress although for a time she did run a little dairy until the routine of rising at 5 a.m. to get the supplies became too much. Not that she had to do the milking herself, you understand. There weren't a lot of cows in Bridgeton.
Of the two, she was the disciplinarian. She had to be: Dad was amazingly placid. But they both cared about us and I've them to thank for getting me involved in music. Virtually every child in the district was given piano lessons as soon as they were old enough to tell the keys from the lid, but most parents would save themselves the expense of long-term tutorage if things weren't progressing. Fortunately, I took to it and was far happier at the keyboard than mucking about in the slag-heaps playing low-budget footie with a screwed-up lump of paper for the ball.
The older kids played even stranger games. They were less keen on soccer itself than the sort of behaviour you get from the fans. But they didn't use Celtic or Rangers as the pretext for a punch-up: in Bridgeton, sectarian hatred was based on religion. I may have missed the Great War but I saw plenty of small ones.
From the relative safety of the third floor, I was able to observe rival gangs taking part in theological debates in which the weaker side would lose face, often literally. Even at a distance, it was chilling stuff. The Protestant contingent were referred to as the Billy Boys, after William of Orange. They even had a song with such inspired lyrics as "Hallo, hallo, We are the Billy Boys..." (Ivor Novello award-winning potential, for sure) This they used as marching music, accompanying their journey from Monteith Street to the predominantly Catholic stronghold in Norman Street. With still greater imagination, the RCs had been dubbed "the Norman Conkers". Stop me if all this imagery gets too sophisticated. They too would march and anyone with a brain would keep clear on a Friday night because that was when it always happened. I'd watch from the bedroom window, petrified at the sight of these bare-chested lunatics (even in the depths of winter) brandishing bayonets, hatchets and fists, beating each other senseless... not that they had much sense to start with.
As well as the Friday evening ritual, there were strategic ambushes on saints' days. Come March the 17th, the Billy Boys would hang round the Catholic school gates, ready to give the Dans a Patrick's Day trouncing. This bloodshed would be greeted by huge cheers as if something wonderful had happened! Similarly, the day commemorating William of Orange saw the Dans handing out festive punishment to the Billies.
And that was just Protestants v. Catholics. If you were Jewish, you got it from both sides. In fact, the only thing that united the two warring factions was a common bond of anti-semitism. In those parts, we didn't have born-again Christians: this mob were more intent on making you wish you'd never been born the first time! Lads showing no outward sign of belonging to either camp could expect to be stopped in the street with the words,
"A Billy or a Dan or an old tin can?"
and if you gave the right answer, you won a prize: you got to stay in one piece. Quite why Jewish people were referred to as "old tin cans" never became apparent. It was probably the only rhyme they could find for Dan. Cole Porter, eat your heart out!
Providing the wrong answer to this cryptic question won you a consolation prize of two weeks in hospital, but there were ways round it. Happily, I wasn't stopped and challenged that often. My parents were Protestants but only in their spare time. I dare say they were vaguely proud of their faith, but we weren't church-goers so I wasn't immediately identifiable as a Billy. This made it easier to duck the issue when I did get interrogated. With a skill for evasiveness that would have been the envy of a politician, I'd reply by asking,
"Well, which are you? I only want to be seen with the best."
This display of transparent crawling seemed to confuse them and, more often than not, I'd wheedle a response out of them before committing myself, then simply declare the same allegiance. A child of five could have seen through me, but fortunately these children were older and didn't. I hope none of them reads this. They're probably still thugs, even at the age of ninety.
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