My first eleven years were spent in the house where I was born at 34 Aberfeldy Street, Dennistoun, a district in the northeast of Glasgow, Scotland. At the age of five, I started school in Haghill Public School, which was two streets away.
The school was a square, three-story, red sandstone building, set in a playground which was divided into two equal parts, one for boys and one for girls. When it was time for classes, the janitor rang a bell, which was mounted on a bracket at one side of the school and was sounded by pulling on a chain. A teacher would appear at the main door and the pupils lined up in their own classes under the supervision of the teacher, who briskly marched each class inside. Another teacher played marches on the piano to keep us moving along smartly.
Classes started with the Lord's Prayer, a chapter from the Bible and the catechism, before lessons got under way. The school was a Protestant public school, so the few Catholic and one Jewish boy in my class were excused for the fifteen minutes of Religious Instruction.
This was in 1920 - 1921, before Catholic schools became established. The Catholic schools were provided by the government, but administered by the Church and Catholic lay personnel. No fees were charged as in the U.S. parochial schools.
In Haghill school, classes for children from five to eight years began at 9 a.m. and dismissal was at 3 p.m. Lunch was from 12 noon - 1 p.m. The older ones did not get away till 4 p.m., and many of them lived a distance of two to three miles. As a rule, they walked home, unless they were lucky enough to have a penny for a tram ride. I was fortunate and had a fairly short walk. My first day in school was memorable, because when the classes were let out at 10.30 a.m. for a fifteen roughly east to west on one side, with Walter Street on the opposite side. The streets at right angles to these two sides were Aberfoyle, Aberfeldy, Aberdour, Aitken Street and Appin Road. On the opposite side of Cumbernauld-minute interval, which was a comfort break, I went home, to the astonishment of my mother. I thought it was lunchtime!
Aberfeldy Street was in a development of four-floor, red sandstone tenements bounded by Cumbernauld Road, the main road which ran Road was one of the dozen or so Public Parks for which Glasgow is justly proud. The city planners created a green belt around Glasgow and the following is a list of the park names: Alexandra Park, Linn Park , Glasgow Green, Springburn Park, Tollcross Park, Botanic Gardens, Rouken Glen, Bellahouston Park, Whiteinch Park, Kelvingrove Park and Knightswood Park.
Our park was Alexandra Park, which had several soccer fields, a model yacht pond, with clubhouse and boathouse, swings, roundabouts and, of course, a band stand. Band concerts were held twice a week in the summer and featured military bands, factory bands and pipe bands. But one feature of all the Glasgow Parks was the beautiful, cultivated flower beds and ornamental fountains which were truly breathtaking and, in 1994, were still a joy to behold. Many of the parks included golf courses. Alexandra Park also had a duck pond with several black Australian swans and dozens of mallards and other ducks. I made the acquaintance of the pond in our park when, at the age of four, I fell in on a Sunday afternoon. Luckily, it wasn't deep and I was quickly fished out!
Although I mentioned that many kids had to walk a fair distance to school, there were also many who lived in the same neighbourhood as I. A boy named James Gifford enrolled in school on the same day. James lived on Cumbernauld Road, and, on the first Saturday after starting school, James was struck and killed by a tram-car on the way to Alexandra Park. I did not see the accident, but heard people talking about it. It did not register strongly at the time.
I should write something about Haghill School teachers, who did their best to instill the three "R's" into all of us. My first teacher was Miss Smith -- I never knew her first name -- a matronly lady who was much gentler on her new students than we deserved. Miss Smith was my teacher through my "infant years", which was better known to us students as the "baby class". If she did nothing else, the gentle Miss Smith instilled in me a life-long love of words, grammar, reading and books. My next teacher was Miss MacMillan, who was a tall, well-built lady who became very emotional at times. Indeed, she occasionally burst into tears when something upset her. One of Miss MacMillan's subjects was music, and while I never got beyond a very rudimentary knowledge of "Staff Notation" or written music, she instilled in me an appreciation of classical music and opera (through her record collection) that has remained with me to this day. I never got beyond plucking out a tune, by ear, on the old pump organ or on the piano. Miss MacMillan took a shine to me and when I left Haghill, true to form, she cried and hugged me goodbye!
When I started at Haghill School, the headmaster was Mr. Butters - a tall, balding, white-haired gentleman who always dressed in immaculate morning suit with "claw-hammer" coat and spats! When he retired, he was replaced by Mr. Martin, who was a bit younger, but wore a full, brown beard and had the same sartorial touch as Mr. Butters. The headmaster was the ultimate arbiter on discipline, and woe betide the pupil who was sent to the headmaster's room for some heinous offense such as talking or disruptive behaviour in class. The teachers had their own instrument of punishment, a leather belt or "tawse" about eighteen inches long and one inch wide, slit halfway along to form two half-inch straps at one end. The offender held out his hand, palm up, and the teacher would whack it with the tawse, giving as many strokes as was deemed appropriate to the offense. For extreme offenses, the culprit would be sent to the headmaster, who presumably would administer a more severe punishment. I managed to get through Haghill without detection of any serious crime, so I have no first "hand" experience of the headmaster's tawse, but I did get the odd swipe from some teachers. This came not from Miss Smith or Miss MacMillan, but others who took over on occasion!
When I went to Haghill School, the desks were two-seaters, with a tip-up seat and a lift-up, sloping top with a slot at the front that contained a "slate" opposite each seat. The slate was about 12" by 8" and it had a wooden frame. Pupils used the slates for writing and basic arithmetic. We wrote on the slates with a "slate pencil," a piece of talc-like material, which was 1/8" or 3/16" in diameter and two or three inches long. The writing was erased with a damp sponge, which the pupils carried in a small tin. When not in use, the slates were returned to their slots on the desk. The desks were also equipped with two "inkwells," one at each outside edge. We didn't use ink or do any writing on paper for at least the first year. When we graduated to another grade, the slates were left behind and we mainly used pencils on paper for our everyday writing or arithmetic. Ink and pens came into use for copying our writing exercises. They were done on special books with a line of copper-plate writing, and the pupil had to copy this on a blank line below the example shown. The problem we had was that the "nibs" on the school pens were usually in bad shape. When we got smarter, we carried our own "nibs" in order to have any chance of writing the beautiful copper-plate style we were supposed to copy. Copper-plate is a stylized way of writing with a light upstroke and a heavy downstroke, which can only be done with a good, flowing "nibs" with a broad point. It is impossible with modern "Biso" pens.
Our house on Aberfeldy Street was typical of the flats or apartments all over Glasgow and around Dennistoun. It was on the second top floor (no elevators!) and was reached by a passage from the street called a "close" which passed the two doors on the ground floor, then up stairs where each landing had two doors facing each other. The close and the stairway had beautiful, ceramic tiles and each door had a stained glass panel in the upper half, as did the windows on the half landings. On the first half landing were the doors leading to steps down to the back-green, where the communal wash-house stood at one end. Around the green were posts with hooks to take a clothes rope. The eight families in each close used the wash-house, in strict rotation, to do the family laundry.
The wash-house had a boiler with a fire below, which had to be kindled and stoked with coal to heat the water for the wash. When it was hot enough, the water was lifted out with a bucket into the tubs and the housewife would use a washboard to get the clothes clean. Real tough dirt was often boiled out in the boiler before washing and wringing out. When washed, they were hung out on the clothes rope -- weather permitting -- and finally carried upstairs where the housewife would spend another day starching, ironing, folding and putting them away. In those far off days, before washing machines and drip dry clothes, a woman's work was very difficult.
There was no television. And radio, or as we called it, the wireless, was only in its infancy. My dad was a radio buff and we had one from about 1922. We were allowed to listen through earphones, which came in pairs, but separated into single units, so we could share in the limited broadcasts of those days.
Films were silent, with captions and subtitles. Movie-houses usually had a mini-orchestra of four to six people and the music was suitable for the theme on the screen. As kids, we went to the penny matinee on Saturday afternoon and if the films were silent, the kids were not, and we screamed support for the good guys and booed the villains.
As a young child, I was fortunate to have grandparents living nearby. My mother's parents lived within walking distance of our house. I remember when Alec was in the infirmary, I would go there from school and wait for my mother to take me home. My grandmother was a tiny woman, with grey hair parted in the middle and drawn tightly into a "bun" at the back. She must have been in her late 70's when I remember her first, but back then, grandmothers really looked like very old ladies. She always wore a calf-length, blue knitted coat over an ankle-length, black skirt with an apron over it. One thing sticks in my mind and that was her tea, which to my young taste, always seemed to be a lot better than I got at home!