It sounded easy. It should have been easy. I had done nothing wrong. All the policeman wanted me to do was to confirm a story my friend in the flat across the street had told him. That we had seen two boys setting fire to the whin bushes in the railway cutting, a fire which accidentally or intentionally damaged a railway telegraph pole. My friend had named the boys - the Donnelly twins, older than us and, in my father's phrase, 'a bit wild'.
In fact, I hadn't seen the Donnelly twins, though we had been playing near the cutting and had seen the fire, and I thought my friend was making it up, perhaps because he had a grudge against the Donnellys. But, to my lasting shame, I decided to back my friend and say 'Yes, I saw the Donnellys'; reluctantly, I lied.
That was probably in the summer of 1955, which even in Scotland was hot and dry enough for the sparks from steam locomotives to cause bush fires. We lived in a small council estate next to the railway, a few streets built in the 1920s and late 1940s. Over the other side of the line, across the footbridge, Victorian villas crept up the hill. They mainly contained retired people and men in suits who commuted by train to Edinburgh. We hardly thought about them. Our estate had its own life. When I think of the Fifties I think of working men cycling home in overalls, Take It From Here on the radio ('Ooooh, Ron]'), long walks on Sundays, aunts and uncles to tea, my brother listening to Chris Barber at 78rpm, our family's intimate knowledge of bus and railway timetables, my father's chaffing of bus conductresses.
Do I sentimentalise it? Probably. But on the other hand it seems to me entirely understandable that we should look back from this troubled stage in British history and find in the 1950s an enviable decade. Like Lynn Barber on the opposite page, I was five when the Fifties began and 15 when they ended. Our early lives share the same punctuation: the Festival of Britain, the Coronation, Suez, Bill Haley and Acker Bilk. But where Lynn remembers a pinched dullness, I remember an amiable stability and progress. The great symbol of it in our house was the sofa I am sitting on in the picture on the right. It was bought that year, 1955, it folded down into a bed (a Put-U-Up) and formed the centrepiece of the three-piece suite which was almost the only piece of new furniture we acquired during the entire decade. The television, the fridge and the washing machine waited until the Sixties, the telephone till the Seventies, and the car forever.
This suggests poverty, or at least scarcity of cash, but apart from one autumn when my father was on sick pay (and consequently we got a meagre supply of fireworks), I can't remember that money was discussed. Everybody we knew was like us, and my parents, with the slump and wartime rationing behind them, thought of themselves as prospering. By paying a few bob a week into the school kitty, they even sent me on school trips. I'd been to Switzerland and Italy by the time I was 12, to Germany and Austria by the age of 14, countries which then, despite brilliant scenery and chocolate bars, felt poorer and more primitive than our own. In Germany grease glistened on the surface of the soup and we mourned Heinz Cream of Tomato. In Switzerland the trains had wooden seats and you could see the track down the hole in the lavatory. We laughed at this, remembering the comfortable moquette infused with pipe-smoke and the water politely slopping about the toilet bowls in the trains back home.
Of course, I was lucky. I passed my 11-plus and went to the local high school, one of only two to make it from the village primary in 1956. The rest - the failures, the Donnelly twins - went on to do 'practical' things at the junior secondary. My family belonged to what is called the 'respectable' working class, which meant they wanted me to 'get on', though in a modest and non-financial way, as a draughtsman or a school teacher or almost any job which left overalls behind in favour of a suit. These modest ambitions were hardly ever spoken of, but they were no doubt helped on their way by the culture that came into the house through the radio - Children's Hour, genteel voices from the Glasgow studios - and was taken home every Saturday from the pictures, where the heroes on the destroyer's bridge spoke proper and the oilies in the engine room had a rough, Rada approximation to our accents.
Those British films, plus Westerns and Hollywood forays into battle in the Pacific, were the only depictions of violence or its consequences, and only one - the scene in The Cruel Sea where seamen are coughing and dying with oil in their lungs - left any deep impression. There was a lot of talking in such films, which made us anxious for the action, but that, I suspect, gave us a rounder and more real view of the world. As for the action, it could be easily simulated by surprise attacks with cap-guns among the whin bushes - bang, bang, you're dead. Our sanitised versions of killing might have made us oblivious to the real terror and therefore more prone to it. That argument was heard in the Sixties and Seventies, as we adjusted to slow-motion blood, prolonged rape and gouged bellies, but I've never found it convincing. Modern audiences, after all, do not shake their heads and say 'Violence is hell' at the cruelty in Martin Scorsese. In my experience they emerge with something approaching admiration for the Mafia.
Another argument from the Sixties concerns my experience more directly: that people like me are the products of an Uncle Tom upbringing, lucky little prigs who looked down on the 'proper' working class whose culture was always denied. In Beano-terms, us as Lord Snooties and them as the Gasworks Gang. There may be some truth in this. On the two council estates I grew up in, there were always families and houses where the chaos and mess provoked a sad, parental shake of the head, where the snot drip remained unmopped on the upper lip, where drunken rows and Dickie Valentine could be heard on a Saturday night. But we spoke to each other, we shared the buses and the unvandalised telephone boxes. And all of us could look forward to the great force which bound us together and shaped our lives: work.
I can think of nobody who left school to go on the dole. The Donnelly twins survived my slander (the policeman knew a childish lie when he saw one) and went like many others to work in the dockyard. Others went to the merchant navy or to the paper-mill and the railways. And yet what do I find when I look up my first published piece, in the 1961 school magazine? A malcontent's description of provincial teenage boredom. It was the fashion. None of us knew how lucky we were.
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