Sometimes I like to pretend that I’m not really a city boy. Mostly on those days when the London air feels lifeless and vile, and so still that it sits clogging your lungs like a big blancmange. The days when it seems there’s nothing anywhere but concrete and brick and you long for the slap of wet leaves on your arm and the soft-prickle, soft-prickle of grass on your bare feet.
As enslaved to London as I am, sometimes it’s a dreary high-security prison overflowing with concentrated resentment and it feels like a wrong word at the supermarket food counter will get you a shiv in the showers from some homicidal halfwit.
So then I think back to my country childhood, the one I never had. Or almost had or, perhaps, half had.
Scotland: the streets of Paisley were still full of the dirty tenement blocks, for those where the days when one discussed earnestly who had the best haircuts, the Beatles or the Stones. My mother preferred the Beatles. “They look very tidy,” being her argument. Somewhere, in another country, in an imaginary city called London, the 60s were happening, or at least the TV said so.
I took the walk to school again recently courtesy of Google street view, and it just leaves me confused and lost. In the streets that I knew there were the ramshackle great old blocks, the tenements, like the one we lived in. Filthy with soot, and moated with little cobbled courtyards and alleys: the Closes, where, like time displaced refugees from the Depression, groups of young men – dressed the same as old men – would furtively throw their coins in a corner, that had been probably been used the previous night as a urinal, and gamble at Three Up.
The Victorian Gothic and Palladian houses of the misplaced posh were dotted inexplicably among the tenements and the timber yards, and it was to those timber yards and garages we would go and beg scrap come go-kart season. Some work-soiled man would peer wearily from around a pile of off-cuts and shove a plank of wood at you before muttering, “Bugger aff and dinae come back.”
That day when, like fish swarming to breed, we magically knew it was go-kart day and all the boys in their grey shorts and v-neck jumpers – blue for the Protestants and green for the Catholics – would swarm the warehouses, yards and mechanics, pestering them for anything that would make a kart. Then we’d wander the cobbled back streets, near empty in the days when cars were still luxuries, carrying lumps of pallet and pram strung around with rope, like pre-pubescent hangmen.
The karts were rocket-powered in our imagination, hill-powered in design and group-of-friends-pushing-powered in reality.
There are little homes there now, so Google shows me. Designed by little men with little vision for people who are directed to aspire to no more than little lives. Where domestic abuse is conducted behind closed curtains, instead of in the street where everyone could join in.
All new and clean and dull now, just the thing for watching soap operas rather than living them. It is, the council says, an improvement. I suspect they buy their go-karts from Amazon.
My walk to school would take me past St Mirren’s home ground and up by “The ray’s curse” which I only discovered years later was ‘The racecourse’. Which was, frankly, a disappointment.
Eventually it would lead me to the school. Gothic, sprawling, multi-floored, galleried and gigantically halled. As enormous and unfathomable as the palace of some mad Bavarian king. I got lost in it constantly and lived in state of permanent anxiety and uncertainty.
The fear of the tawse, the short leather strap, with its end appropriately forked and ready to give a serpent bite, suffused everything in the classroom and in neat, silent rows we formed on command,
The playground though was ours and dominated by football (which I hated) and the chance of seeing the bright blue flannel knickers of Mary Campbell and the other bold girls who did handstands (which I did not hate).
From the view at the school I stake my claim to bumpkin-hood. Not the view of Mary Campbell’s knickers, but of a farm.
Facing the school was a field. A huge thing, a prairie of unknown size, and in that field were two cows. Never more and never one, always two or none. And they ate. This, as only those of us steeped in country lore know, is what cows do. It is, apart from their prodigious and unnecessarily spectacular defecation, the only thing they do. Cows are masters of bucolic zen.
And so this is my first claim to being a country boy, that I have spent my long waits at the bus stop silently watching cows as they silently watch me. I know the mystery of waggling lengths of hay poking from the sides of bovine mouth, conducting the Presbyterian hymns of the grass.
Also, improbably, there was a mountain. A mountain that came and went. A mountain that floated.
Most days the horizon took a grey wash from the brush of Scottish weather and simply faded out, but on other days it was as if the air chose to focus itself like a lens and then the mountain would be there. Tiny in the distance, but magnificent. Far away, it seemed an impossible thing.
The mountain filled me with some unnameable emotion. Most of my emotions were. I looked to it as a protector and a challenge. It offered a refuge if I could only find out where it was or how to get there.
I bled with desire for it.
I knew the bus to my school didn’t go there, and I knew the bus to Paisley Cross didn’t go there. Which pretty much exhausted the possibilities.
On rare days you could see it tipped with white. I looked at it and suddenly it came to me that the white was snow. That although it was dry here, over there, the weather was different. All my sense of scale and distance collapsed and I don’t think it ever came back. Everywhere to me now is too far and too near.
So, this is my real and greater claim to a country childhood: that I looked at a mountain and longed.