Tom has been reminiscing again, and shares those memories with us.
It was pointed out to me recently that none of my friends are Rangers’ supporters, and I sat up all night pondering … until it dawned on me that I had had only one close friend who could be described as ‘a Hun’. All my other friends are Celtic supporters, or have very little, if any, interest in football.
Perhaps we should start with the Ugly.
I was having a quiet beer in a bar in Ottawa and reasonably pleased with life. I had graduated fro Carleton University a year ago and had started teaching and was enjoying it.
Canadian beer may be different from Scottish but one consequence remains constant – the visit to the toilet. I was engaged at the urinal, concentrating on the business in hand when I became aware that the man next one along appeared to be studying me.
I had already noticed him, sitting alone at the bar: a big bruiser, a solitary drinker and exuding hostility … a hockey player perhaps and definitely not a man to be crossed. Even in the dimly lit bar, I could see he was ugly, literally ugly: stuck-out ears that should have been corrected by surgery years ago in childhood, unruly spiky hair wetted down in an unsuccessful attempt to tame it, a face still pitted with the scars of teenage acne, and a scowl that did little to improve the overall image.
Our eyes met, unfortunately, and locked for a second. He spoke, a low growl and unmistakeably Scottish: “Ah know you.”
I shrugged, and tried my best Canadian accent: “I don’t think so.”
“Naw, you come fae Cardonald. Ah know that.”
I thought about denying it, but had to acknowledge the fact. And he continued, “Me, tae. That wus where Ah saw ye. Aye, Cardonald.”
I ransacked my brains, but could not place him; at least, hostile as he appeared, I could not remember owing him money, or seducing his sister… Safe so far. He made no move to leave to leave the toilet and watched, almost sneering, as I started to wash my hands and commented: “Ah doant dae that. Dae ye know whit fur? Cos Ah doant pish oan mah hauns.”
He followed me back to my table and sat down, uninvited beside me. Conversation broke out: indeed, we had both lived in Glasgow and in Cardonald; we were about the same age; we had also come to Canada at roughly the same time… He was pleased to establish that: “That’s whit fur we talk the same…”
He shrugged, largely indifferent, upon learning I was teaching; he was in the Army (inwardly I groaned – a Hun, and now a trained killer)… and he was the one who recognized and remembered where we had met in a previous existence.
“You went tae the Catholic school, right? Ah didnae, no me. Ah support Rangers, an’ you support Celtic. That’s where Ah met ye!”
He continued: “Belses Drive, right? You an’ yur pals went doon that road tae yur school an’ every moarnin’ Ah passed the other way.”
The penny dropped (and could not be retrieved from the stank). I remembered going along Belses Drive with my school-mates, and always passing other children going in the opposite direction, one in particular … a shambling, ungainly boy with stuck-out ears and spiky hair. I remember we used to shout insults at him after he passed by and sometimes (if there were enough of us) threw a stone or two in his general direction.
And here he was, alone with me in an Ottawa bar, and probably after drinking by himself for hours … and he remembered … “Ah know you.”
“Dae ye remember whit ye used tae call me?” I did, but shook my head apologetically. “Aye, ye used tae shout ‘Belsen horror!’ it me. Whit fur?”
“Belses, and Belsen. Close enough for kids, I suppose.”
And he accepted that Jesuitical answer; at least, he changed the subject. “Ur ye still supportin’ the Celtic? Daft. Ah hivnae been telt a’ the results bit Ah suppose we’re still hammerin’ you?”
It was 1960, only three years after a certain League Cup final, but I felt it prudent not to mention that, and he seemed happy enough to bask in the memory of the way the universe had unfolded in the past: disputed penalties, offside goals, ordering-offs… I felt no great temptation to argue, and even came close to suggesting I was a lapsed Celtic supporter.
Well, what would you have done?
When he was paying another visit to the toilet, I slipped quietly away, hoping that the Army would soon transfer him to another base, another city, another province, another country … Perhaps even worse, I left my beer half-drunk on the table.
Well, to be honest Alistair W— was not ‘bad’; he was more like a royal pain in the arse. I first met him at Carleton University in Ottawa, but we moved in different social circles: Alistair’s father, an elder in the Church of Scotland, was an accountant back in Newton Mearns, paid his way through university: fees, living expenses and Alistair even had a car! On the other hand, I was so skint that I didn’t plan meals; I plotted them.
It wasn’t just envy that made me dislike him. He was so resolutely middle-class; he belonged to the St Andrew’s Society, and even the Monarchist League, he affected
an English accent, and went on skiing holidays to Switzerland … The student prince, indeed!
We graduated in the same year, and surprisingly both of us ended up teaching in the same town – Alliston, about sixty miles north of Toronto, he in Banting Memorial H.S. and me in St Paul’s. I still could not afford a car, and he was driving a snazzy little TR 4 but …
To pay him credit, on occasion he woud offer to give me a lift down to Toronto at the weekends. We used to drive along the minor road for about ten miles before joining the highway south to Toronto while he regaled me with his ambitions to join the Rotary Club, having already paid his dues to the Young Conservatives. Occasionally, he spoke approvingly of his father, the Presbyteran accountant (and Rangers’ shareholder) who belonged to a golf club in Newton Mearns which did not admit Jews as members.
One Friday night, a few miles outside of Alliston, we were stopped by the police and, as we waited for the officer to leave his cruiser, Alistair cautioned me to say nothing.
“Just keep quiet, and watch how I handle these hicks.”
The OPP officer approached, and Alistair rolled down his window half-way: “Yes, officer, how can I help you?”
“ Give me your licence, please. You were going a bit fast back there, weren’t you?”
“No, I don’t think so; I was under the limit.”
“Sir, I clocked you at 74 miles per hour, and for two or three minutes, I might add.”
“And, officer, what is the problem with that?”
The policeman looked puzzled, scratched his head: “Well, the speed limit on this road is 50 …”
Alistair put on an Oscar-winning performance: “You know, you’re perfectly right, officer…” He pointed to a nearby sign that indicated the highway number (89). ‘I’m really sorry but I had been thinking that number there was the speed limit…” His voice dripped with sincerity and regret, an apologetic half-smile on his face.
The policeman continued writing out the ticket, and handed it to him along with the licence. “Consider yourself lucky, young man.”
“You’ve just given me a ticket. How am I lucky?”
You’re lucky I stopped you before you reached Highway 400. Have a good day, and drive carefully.”
We drove the next few miles in silence.
John McMulken lived on the same street (Ladykirk Drive in Cardonald), and was three or four years older. He was a bright boy and won a bursary to Allan Glen’s, which he attended rather than the local Govan High. He used to travel to and from school by train and, we used to see him regularly about five o’clock on his way home. My pals and I were still in Primary School then and were always playing football in the street – with a tennis ball, of course.
John used to stop and watch for a minute or so before moving on. He had got into the habit of stealing our ball, going down the road about twenty yards, and then kicking the ball back. He specialized in skying the ball (which secretly impressed us youngsters) and to his credit the ball always landed on the street not too far away, and not in somebody’s garden.
To be frank, despite our protests, it was a pleasant enough ritual – and totally harmless.
John got his Highers at Allan Glenn’s, and later graduated with a BSc from Glasgow University and emigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto where he worked for an oil company as an engineer. I found myself in the same city back in 1960 and one Friday night ran across John. I recognized him immediately: tall and a little bit gangly, thinning brown hair, and an open Scottish face – a nice guy, obviously. John described the meeting to his wife: “Well, I was stoatin’ down Yonge Street, and there was wee Tommy stoatin’ up Yonge Street. So, we went for a beer…”
We got together frequently (about once a month) after that, usually on a Saturday night at his house. We had dinner, chewed the fat, went down into his basement and played fiercely contested games of table tennis till late on – and he would drive me home. Saturdays? Well we spoke briefly about the football but, aware of my interest in Celtic (and the fact that we were not doing well at the time), he rarely dwelled on it. Certainly, he never gloated.
He was not cut out for his role as a cut-throat oil executive, and I was not surprised when he entered teaching in his early 40s as a High School teacher of Maths and Science. He was a natural: a big, friendly guy, a pleasant manner, always fair and calm but, typically Scottish, stood no nonsense – and he liked students and teaching.
We were fairly well-matched at ping-pong, and similarly at golf. We had both learned at Barshaw Park in Paisley; my best-ever round there was an 82, and John’s an 83. We played a couple of times near Toronto, and realized how close the matches were. John came up with a proposal: as teachers free in July and August, we could play a lot; we would buy a wee trophy, and compete for it on a weekly basis, the winner to hold it till at least the next encounter; the loser would get to pick the next golf course, and he who had won more games over the summer could keep the trophy over the winter.
It was not an entirely restricted competition: anybody who had lived in Ladykirk Drive, was now resident in Toronto, and who could compete at least ten times in the summer at a variety of courses was eligible to enter.
The competition was keen, the overall winner’s name inscribed on the base; the trophy (all six inches of it) being on prominent display at our homes. Actually, I think the golf was the only time our football differences emerged; invariably, I wore a green shirt or sweater and John favoured blue. Our last game was in September 1964 at the Eagle’s Nest in Bolton and it was my choice. The scores were level for the year, and this was the decider. I remembered greeting John with the words: “Welcome to Celtic Park.”
A lovely man, a good companion, a Rangers’ supporter, and somebody who died far too soon at the age of 60.