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Stuart Cosgrove, Director of Nations and Regions at Channel Four, said recently that Scots "love the culture of poverty. They indulge the culture of poverty... There is hardly one film made in Scotland by a Scot that is not cast in some dreary, awful, urban, deprived social landscape." I'm guessing he won't be reading Robert Douglas's Night Song of the Last Tram, but it will be his loss.
Douglas begins "If my father... had been killed... during the Second World War, I know that for the rest of my life I would have looked at the few photographs of him and mourned our lost relationship. Unfortunately he survived and came home."
This startling admission underlies Night Song of the Last Tram, but this memoir of working-class life in Glasgow's Maryhill is more than an account of paternal dysfunction. It is a well-written slice of social history delivered directly by an eyewitness.
The book opens towards the end of World War Two with the memories of a two-year-old and closes when the author is 16. In the early chapters Douglas and his mother live alone in their single end (one-room tenement flat). It's a world composed almost entirely of lone-parent families and the prospect of the men's return is overwhelmingly exciting. Douglas waits all morning for his demobbed father. But even their first embrace is ill-augured. His father's "clipped moustache was jaggy, it felt strange. I was only used to being kissed by women."
Douglas's father was an unfaithful wife-beater before he went to war. On the day of his departure a neighbour had tried to comfort Douglas's mother saying, "God's good. Wi' a bit of luck he'll no come back!" Unfortunately Douglas Snr returned unaltered, but many people didn't get the same men back as they had sent away.
After six weeks under fire on the Normandy beaches during which he was detailed to remove the blown-up bodies of troops, knowing that at any second he might meet their fate, Douglas's glamorous 18-year-old Uncle George is terribly changed. The young man, who spent previous leaves dodging amorous young women, comes home morose and nursing incipient alcoholism. The night before he returns to duty George plays his own brand of Russian roulette throwing a live bullet into the fire. Everyone else runs for cover, but George remains in his chair. After the explosion he says, "another wee bullet doesnae make any difference. Ye jist saw for yerselves, no frightened of anything."
Douglas also reminds us of a time when children's rights barely existed and even affectionate parents wouldn't think to warn a child about medical procedures. On a trip to the dentist he's treated to the sight of fellow sufferers entering the surgery upright and exiting comatose, their parents thanking the man in the white coat for apparently murdering their child. No wonder that when it's his turn for the gas he draws on every swearword in his six-year-old vocabulary.
We worry today about over-supervised children, but the relative freedom of the 1950s results in fatalities. One of Douglas's playmates drowns; another falls to his death through a garage roof. School is a lottery, a place where brilliant teachers mingle with sadists who are too free with the tawse (belt).
Douglas doesn't shy away from brutality, but he also recognises the humour and capacity for fun of people who are up against it. He's adept at capturing Glasgow voices. A woman in the steamie makes fun of Wee Wullie the washroom Lothario saying, "Oh, he's givin' her the big smile. Huv ye ever seen teeth like that? Like a set of burglar's tools. Is that no pitiful tae watch; he thinks he's George Sanders."
Stuart Cosgrove is right. Many Scots are fascinated by the voices of the past. Night Song of the Last Tram is a welcome addition to an increasing wealth of firsthand accounts collected into social histories, such as Jean Faley's Up Oor Close and Ian MacDougall's Voices of Leith Dockers, which feed and inform that fascination. But Cosgrove is also terribly wrong. Remembering our working-class history is not a sign of stagnation or an act of wallowing self-indulgence. It is a necessity.
We're 50 years on from the last page of Douglas's book. A high proportion of the British forces are still composed of the poor and the dislocated, and in war zones children and their mothers are still sheltering from bombing raids. Night Song of the Last Tram doesn't just give us a survivor's memories of post-war Glasgow; it reminds us that history doesn't go away. It has a nasty habit of keeking back and taking pot shots at us.
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