The Royal High had made its crack at moulding the intake of 1963 to its assumed template. Some had fitted, some had adapted, some had fallen into the reject bucket. By the fourth year of a Scottish secondary school it’s far too late to try to alter paths. That was the year to take “O” grades with “Highers” being taken in the fifth and sixth years. None of the namby pamby English business of the first four years being a basic preparation for the real academic challenge of the next three, no distinct gear change. At the Royal High it was simply time for the routine of exams and the race to see who could get the qualifications first to get out of this junior prison. Play it right in Scotland and you can garner enough qualifications to move from school to university after your fifth year, while English schoolboys have two tough years stretching ahead. That the Scottish leavers are probably even then less well prepared than the English fifth formers is neither here nor there.
We’d all grown up a bit – boys and teachers alike. The rules and objectives were still there but, like a relaxed club, it was down to individuals whether they followed them. The easing had followed a steady path. Out of these dreaded shorts after the second year, an effective phasing out of rule by the belt in the third year, an assumed junior adulthood by the fourth.
The men the boys would become were there if you looked. Ambitions were formed and pursued or abandoned as hopeless dreams; realities began to be recognised. The character traits that would take us through adulthood wouldn’t change much now. Oh, to know if each did follow the path that seemed already to be laid out before them.
Who Wanted to be a Millionaire?
Did Allan become the entrepreneur his early business sense seemed to dictate? His business brain was always there from the thriving little industry he ran within the Photographic Society in everything from blow-ups and reprints of favourite snapshots to passport photos. And he grew his market. While customers were waiting in the little makeshift darkroom off the sixth form common room, he’d sell them lemon squash and biscuits; find a cup or mug, clean it, yourself, to your own required hygienic standard and then pay tuppence for a dash of concentrate – carefully measured in the plastic bottle cap. If that wasn’t strong enough then it was tuppence more for another capful. He made no bones about his hundred per cent plus mark up and his customers had no complaints. We knew the cost of most things, but we also knew their value. With the biscuits he’d simply work out the unit cost, double it and round up to the nearest penny. He eventually went legitimate when he persuaded the rector to let him run a tuck shop and, with a couple of carefully chosen helpmates, began to sell Mars Bars and crisps, Coca Cola and penny chews to the entire school. He was always rather cagey about the finances of that deal, but the guesses were he split the not-insubstantial profits with the school. A boy who would go far.
And did Brer go as far as he wanted? He truly had a dream. He wanted to be a cowboy. Not in any childish, romantic sense. He’d worked it out. He was strong and fit. He wanted to see the world, to work in the great outdoors. What better way than to ride herd across the great plains of the American mid-west?
Golf Club Bully?
And did the appropriately named – oops better not, he’s probably the sort to have some port-sodden Sue,Grabbitt and Runne ready to fire off quasi-legal blunderbusses – get to strut his snobbish stuff on some wider stage? Rather better off than most, his mid-upper class pretensions buttressed by a (middling) place in the top stream, establishing his questionable superiority was virtually a full time occupation, although even he had grown out of chanting “slum boy” at those he considered his social inferiors – – and if they were considerably smaller than him. I see him now as some middle manager signing his letters and memo as “Mr” while, of an evening and weekends being a busy member of a golf club committee making up petty rules and banning people he doesn’t like.
Fight for a Better World
Did Stuart simply graduate to take over his father’s successful little engineering company as, from day one, he had said he would – or did the recession then tear that comfortable assurance apart? Did square-jawed, solid, decent John – he could only ever have been called John – get to officer training so he could lead men and fight for a better world? Who went to prison and who went to the wall? … and who lived happily ever after?
Fred, Badger, Lofty Peak, Bob, Jocky, Arthur and Curly
The teachers were, generally, the same people who had welcomed my form a lifetime ago. Fred and Badger, now we could physically look down on them, somehow lost their terror. Big, broad McDougall whose snowy hair and name meant “Lofty Peak” could be the only nickname, taught French and German as if he were lecturing at a minor university for the educationally disadvantaged. If you wanted to listen and work he was pleasantly surprised and supportive; if you didn’t want to and couldn’t be bothered doing the homework then that was your look out. Old Bob in English spotted those who cared and tried to inspire those who didn’t. Jocky conducted his History lessons as a stream of consciousness, letting us pick out what we might or might not need. The gym teachers Arthur and Curly (yes, surprise, surprise, he was bald) ignored the fat and the lazy, the inept and the pathetic to concentrate on the runners and swimmers, climber and athletes who might bring the school some silverware.
Big Dave, Jocky’s junior colleague in the History Department, preened himself and tried to pass on his suavity to his charges along with his own patrician view of European history since 1789. To a mid-teenage boy in Edinburgh in the 60’s “smoothness” was all. Dave had it, from the sharp suit and haircut, to the toning tie and Italian slip-ons, from the dismissive curling lip to the smart put-down. He was our role model.
So, what was “smoothness”? Smoothness was being fifteen and calling your friends Mr MacPherson or Mr Verity (in a putative Wildian drawl) rather than Mac or Nelly. It was wearing hipster trousers with 13 inch drainpipes – despite it being tricky to get your feet through – button down shirts and seriously scuffed shoes. It was smoking with your eyes narrowed and lips pursed. It was snide comments archly delivered. It was economy of movement and a refusal to hurry. It was confidence expressed as bored arrogance. It was acting beyond your years. It was being bloody minded. It was trying to screw the system. A small example, which gave us much fun: school caps weren’t compulsory, so no-one wore them beyond a few first formers for the first few weeks. It became smooth to wear them in the fourth form – as long as they were three sizes too small and perched ludicrously on the back of your head. In something of a first the Royal High banned the wearing of school caps.
The Leader of the Pack
Charlie was the leader of the smoothness pack. Tall and dark and looking older than his years he’d been clubbing and dating since he was thirteen. He had money too for the right clothes, even investing in those that took him to – or beyond – the edge of school uniform. Prefects or teachers would get down on their knees with a ruler to check the width of his trouser bottoms (sixteen inches minimum said the school rules) and send him home to change. Or they’d spot the flash of red socks between shoe and trousers and off he’d be again. But then authority would draw a blank when he’d turn up in light mottled grey trousers (of required width) and point out painedly that the only rule on colour was that they should be charcoal grey and that was exactly the colour of these trousers – would Sir care to see a copy of the advertisement or perhaps visit the boutique himself and inquire?
Alternatively, Charlie would be delighted to lend Sir a colour chart if he was uncertain about the definition of different colours.
Hair – its length and style – was a major battle ground. It must not come over the ears or over the collar. Solution: sweep it back behind the ears in school hours and flick it forward the moment you exit the school gates – or wear low collars or, at the extreme, fold the collar back on itself. It may look ridiculous but it saves half an inch and was definitely a smooth thing to do.
Charlie also led the way in out-of-school activities in drinking, clubbing and womanising. Uniquely he was able to prove undeniably his claims of sexual experience, when, shortly after his sixteenth birthday he quit school to take a job and marry his pregnant girlfriend. Perhaps there was more to life than smoothness after all.
Girls Girls Girls
The aping of cultural sophistication threw up other advantages. As with all boys’ schools, the obsession was making contact with girls. The Literary and Debating Society was one route. Not the Thursday afternoon post school sessions when we’d debate the great issues of the day among ourselves, but the regular Friday night sessions when we would team up with another school for an evening of intellectual – and who knew what other – stimulation.
The Royal High’s standing was sufficient for us be deemed fit hosts or guests for Mary Erskine’s or Gillespies, Watson’s or Cranley and the other Merchant Company, direct grant or full blown private schools. And boy did it encourage membership of the Literary and Debating Society. For many it would be a passing phase as too many evenings would have too many bottle-bottomed spectacle wearing swots of either gender, taking everything too seriously and forgetting the apres-debate was just as important as the hot air of the main event. Or our lads would overdo the cut and thrust of debate, the deliberate abuse of the conventions, the search for delinquent stardom and the next debate would suddenly be with another boys’ school or attended by phalanxes of teachers determined to maintain standards. On the good evenings – at least for home debates – we were left to organise ourselves as sensible young adults. It was a good way to meet a better class of girls than those we (or I, at least) was used to from dubious dancehalls. And the contacts could knock on.
..and that’s enough for now.
Hello, is anybody receiving me?