A thousand and one small-town Scottish nights Albert was the misfit in Scottish town

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SINCE Wednesday night we have seen a lot of the council house in Stirling where Thomas Hamilton lived. It's a certain kind of Scottish council house very familiar to me. I'd guess that it was built in the decade before the war, when many local authorities embarked on ambitious slum clearance programmes that eventually gave Scotland the highest proportion of public to owner-occupied dwellings of any country west of Poland. They were in their time very desirable homes to have - baths, gardens, electric light. Each detached house is usually divided into four flats. Each flat has a living-room, kitchen, bathroom and two bedrooms. The structure is brick but the outside walls are always rendered in plain plaster or pebble- dash because, or so my Dad used to tell me, Scottish brick was inferior to English and needed the extra layer of weather-proofing. You rarely saw unclad brickwork in Scotland other than on factory and warehouse walls. Redbrick houses were the mark that you had reached England on your way south, and were now passing the outskirts of Carlisle or the pit villages north of Newcastle.

All that changed in the 1980s, when post-modern architecture rediscovered brick as an ornament and new private estates were built to corporate designs, and the inferior kind of brick stopped being made north of the Border. Scotland as a place to look at, is now much more like England than it has been since architecture was invented. A large exterior change; and now, post-Dunblane, we are being asked in various articles to consider an equally large interior one. That a new kind of deranged psyche has exploded in a place where for some reason it was considered especially unlikely to happen; with the implication that, though God forbid it happened anywhere at all, its occurrence in some blighted English inner city, though no less tragic and catastrophic, would have been ever so slightly less surprising.

SEEING Hamilton's house and reading about his life, I thought of my own childhood in a similar kind of house on a similar kind of estate with families who, like Hamilton's, sometimes brought up grandchildren as their own. In the background, though I didn't know this then, were the usual histories of unwed mothers, decamping fathers, forbidden relationships between uncles and nieces. I don't mean to paint with the colours of Cold Comfort Farm or David Lynch. It was and is an ordinary and kindly place, though it then contained a few extraordinary adults. One was Mr McIntyre who had military leanings, converted his house into a kind of bunker with a flagstaff in the garden and went to prison for abusing his daughter. Another was a man I shall call Albert, who would have been in his mid- thirties when I was in my early teens.

I got to know him because we both knew the same tunes from Rimsky-Korsakov. One night walking into our separate streets from the bus, I heard him whistling something from Scheherazade and started to whistle my own accompaniment across the houses. When we met again, probably on the bus, he wanted to know how someone like me, on a little estate on the edge of a little village, could know Scheherazade. Out of this came the idea of kindred spirits. He began to visit our house with excited and unrealisable plans for what these days would be called community projects: youth clubs, chess clubs, illustrated talks. Sometimes he appeared in a black bow tie and dinner jacket, his uniform as the cocktail barman of the best hotel in the nearest town. Quite soon, we dreaded his knock on the door.

Albert was, in the word that has been used to describe Hamilton, a misfit. He had ideas about himself and his role in our community that were shared by nobody else. This angered and grieved him. Conversations that began mildly would end with Albert shouting and ranting about the people he found himself among. He was a pest. People shunned him, and the more he was shunned the angrier and more aggrieved he became.

For several years I avoided him. Then one Sunday while I was waiting for the Edinburgh bus, a car drew up and honked. It was Albert, offering a lift. As we drove over the Forth, he began to tell me about the gift he had found in his cornflakes packet. It was a small plastic submarine. "What do you think, eh, a bloody wee bit of plastic is all you get," Albert said. He took his hands from the steering wheel and started to pound it with his palms. "Who do they think we are, giving us their bits of plastic? Christ, I'll show them, they'll not treat me like rubbish." Somehow he managed to get to Edinburgh and drop me off at the station.

I NEVER talked to him again, though sometimes on my trips home to the village I'd see him in the streets or on the shore. There was no more black-tie and dj. He'd lost his job and his car. He went around unshaved in an old overcoat, with a dog attached to a piece of rope. He collected firewood. Sometimes he could be seen attacking a washed-up plank savagely with an axe. He died a few years ago, though he was not an old man.

Albert never threatened anyone physically, so far as I know; the story went that in his earlier career as ferry deckhand he'd locked himself in the lavatory to escape a confrontation. But he was manically angry and alienated, and his story counters the idea that these qualities are chiefly produced in the flux of restless metropolises, where few people know each other and where inhumanity is more expected.

I shall always remember the frequent sight of him on the last bus home. Albert fresh from work in his impossibly smart barman's outfit; the rest of us released from the Alhambra or the Regal, where the biggest shock on view was The Quatermass Experiment or Doris Day slapping a cheek, and when cruelty, if it emerged in war films and westerns, was always restrained and usually confused with the idea of necessary justice.

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