Northen Sky

I’ll admit I was struggling to come up with something to write for this week. With Boaby Souness back and occupying swathes of spare time, I figured I’d give it a miss; assumed hardly anybody would notice, anyway. But then Nick Drake’s, ‘Northern Sky’ came on the i-pod in the car, and prompted this:

Upon leaving (or more accurately, being asked to leave a few months earlier than planned…) Secondary School, directionless, there weren’t any histrionics from my parents. They had separated some eighteen months earlier and no doubt had enough of their own problems to deal with. This soon changed after a few months of the DJ-ing getting more and more out of hand. Four, sometimes five times a week I’d stagger home hammered at around 4am, emerge from my room well after midday, struggle through the hangover period before preparing to go out and do it all over again at 11pm. This was generally my daily routine in the summer of 1982, interrupted only when a World Cup match from Spain caught my imagination sufficiently to try and plan it into the day.

Eventually, an ultimatum was issued: get a proper job – one which necessitated the use of a National Insurance Number - or leave home. All of the money from DJ-ing was spent on beer, clothes and most importantly records. I’d manufactured a friendship with a couple of girls from school who’d begun working in the local Woolworths store. In return for the odd few nights out with free entry to some private parties we were working at, they sold me records at a reduced staff discount rate of 35p a single. It made buying utter shite like ‘Japanese Boy’ by Aneka or the latest Ultravox single a bit more bearable. God bless you girls!

Dj-ing was essentially a hobby that I got paid for, and while I was never going to give it up, I reckoned finding something else to remove the threat of eviction was a price worth paying. Following the maternal showdown at Burnfoot Place, I drifted into a bizarre variety of aimless and short-lived jobs, none of which hinted at any kind of future direction. I landed a position as a part-time clerk in an undertaker’s business. This lasted three weeks. It was far too sombre and depressing. Before taking the job, I’d imagined a daily routine which was at least entertaining. I’d anticipated some real gallows humour with colleagues playing sick practical jokes with the bodies that they had to prepare. But it was very dour. Appropriately respectful, certainly, but resolutely boring. I’d been partly interested in the job because Billy Fisher worked in a funeral parlour in Billy Liar. But if anything, our Shadrach was even more doleful. Everyone else had to be called by their surname only. For three weeks, I was simply ‘Ross’. My job was principally to record and file the last requests of relatives for their loved ones. What clothes would they be wearing? Was there anything to go into the coffin? And what music did they want played at the end of the funeral service?

You might hope that at very least the songs would hint at a life well-lived or in interesting circumstances, but Jesus,
‘Oh My love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch’
What is it about this song that made so many – five in three weeks! – want it to be the final memory that underscores their life? Don’t people crave uniqueness?

From the funeral parlour to the ice-cream parlour and an equally short lived tenure. I lasted two weeks - or to be more precise two weekends - as a general dogsbody at Dairy County Ice Cream. I was trying to look like Ian McCulloch around this time. The hair was teased and backcombed into a shorter version of an indie style beehive by the combined power of orange juice and sugar.  I wore a battered old black raincoat, Leonard Cohen style. It belonged to my dad and I wore it even in high summer. Underneath, I wore a black and white checked shirt and below it were black drainpipe jeans, ripped at the knees. In the mid eighties, there were far greater crimes against fashion. But having to wear a hairnet over this solid concoction on my head, and swapping my Big Country checked shirt for a purple overall that tied up at the back? Not a good look.

There were essentially four tasks in an ice cream factory, apart from Manager, which was clearly never going to be an option for me. The first role in this mini production line was that of mixer. Not in the DJ sense, in this case the job involved nothing more than what it said on the tin. The mixer simply mixed the ingredients into an enormous metallic vat. Second in line was the feeder. The feeder ‘fed’ a small 3mm thick rectangular metal tray about the size of a house brick with greaseproof paper on it into a mini conveyor belt. The cutter then sliced the continuous blocks onto these trays, before the packer folded up the greaseproof paper and then lifted the brick of ice-cream before loading them – twenty in a minute – into a form of Milanda bread basket where it was taken to the freezers. This production line of milk-based produce all took place within a windowless space no more than ten feet square. Everyone took a turn at each job, on rotation after an hour. A bell sounded to signify changeovers. It was a five man operation with the spare man regulating temperatures, fixing stuff that had broken, emptying deformed bricks back into the mixing vat and making tea for the boss, Mr. Walton.

Abel Walton was a gregarious and ruddy-cheeked Jew.  Despite a ‘Fagin’ like demeanor, most of his boys liked him. Every morning, and bearing in mind I only lasted four of them, he would start the day with a pronouncement; ‘Now my boys, let’s make some bricks of pure gold!’

He’d apparently been doing this for years. With no irony or sarcasm and despite the fact that during my brief tenure, two of his ‘boys’ were female. Admittedly not obviously female but with name badges that said ‘Linda’ and ‘Cheryl’ to assist with identification. They both looked like the bastard offspring of mixed gender Romanian shot-putters. Lovely personalities though. I earned around thirty pounds in total for the two Saturday and Sunday shifts. Old Abel had other teams of artful dodgers for the weekdays and it was, for a while, a very profitable business for him. I struggled with the early Saturday morning start and my general attitude didn’t endear me to Abel and after my fourth full day, eight days after I’d started, he let me go. There was no major fanfare, no bricks of gold as a parting gift and no promises to stay in touch with Linda or Cheryl. With part of my final weeks pay, I bought the Madness LP ‘One Step Beyond’.

A few months later, I went for an interview that seems inexplicable to me now. In 1982, Britain was at war. In the run up to actually going to war, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was deeply unpopular. To me, with an inherited tradition of socialism, nothing that she did was without suspicion. A war 8,000 miles away off the coast of Argentina seemed crazy. No-one even knew where the Falkland Islands were prior to this conflict. Invoking the Dunkirk spirit to rally the whole country behind a common enemy and, conveniently forgetting all the troubles at home, seemed just a bit too opportunistic.

I can testify that this kind of political expediency worked. Having had a real fear that conscription was just weeks away, I innocently figured it might be better to have chosen a service, than have one chosen for me. Armed with nothing more than a cheap Burtons suit and a complete lack of appreciation of what might actually be involved, I pitched up at the Royal Air Force Recruitment office at Wellington Square in Ayr. I figured that being up in the air dropping things on people was better than being in a muddy hole in the ground having them fire things at me. That I had actually considered that the RAF would let me in a plane following a few weeks basic training demonstrated the lack of research I’d carried out prior to my appointment.

There were around fifteen fellow potential recruits, all of us looking like the cannon fodder at the beginning of every Hollywood movie from ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ to ‘Full Metal Jacket’. The RAF would clearly have a major job on its hands turning any of us into adults, never mind airmen prepared to put our lives on the line for Queen and country. We all sat silently in the tiny waiting room with its high ceiling and ornate cornice, no doubt thinking that what earlier seemed like a really good idea had not been fully thought through. Pictures of military aircraft surrounded us. The level of trepidation perhaps similar to that faced by those who actually have to jump out of one of them, parachute strapped to their back.

I was ninth in line and my Q&A lasted no more than five minutes. The exact transcript is beyond my recollection but, with an absence of any pleasantries, it went something like this:

‘Have you ever been arrested by the Police?’
A prolonged silence followed by a hesitant ‘Eh, no!’
‘Have you ever taken drugs?’
Same response.
‘Have you ever been in the ATC?’
A more sure footed ‘Yeah, I’ve DJ-ed in their hall loads of times!’

It should be noted there is no sense of humour evident in the armed forces recruitment process. There would be no ‘Private Joker’ in this film.

Four or five more rapid fire questions all concerned with why I wanted to be in the RAF, followed by the same hesitant responses were enough to establish beyond any doubt that I was not, nor would I ever be, RAF material. My tangible indiscipline, evident disregard for Her Majesty’s Government and the lack of any kind of personal goals showed me up for the desperate charlatan I was. Rather than feeling that I’d just had a lucky escape I trooped over to Ayr’s depressing Central Bus Station feeling a distinct sense of foreboding about my future.

This period marked the point where I felt for the first time that I had no real idea of where I was headed, and of that realisation troubling me. In the direct aftermath of this interview, I even considered working in the railways parcels office in Glasgow’s Central Station where my dad worked. Thankfully, he refused to put a word in for me. I suspect that this may have been more to do with his unwillingness to have his working style cramped rather than any major aspirations for me to do better in life than he had. Perhaps I’m doing his memory a disservice.

At the beginning of June though, an interesting – if short-term - opportunity presented itself for me and Billy, my best mate. We’d each been offered the position of ‘temporary groundsman’ at the Kilmarnock Municipal Tennis Club, which was buried in the cleft behind the Henderson Church. The club had four clay courts and they ran on a north / south axis parallel to the gently flowing Kilmarnock Water adjacent. The datum of the courts was around ten metres higher than that of the river’s normal surface level. The courts themselves had a coating of red whin dust on top. This material was a distant cousin of the greatest impediment to any level of significant sporting achievement that the youth of the West of Scotland might have otherwise dreamt about: red blaes. A far cry from the likes of the David Lloyd Academies that have undoubtedly assisted in the development of kids like Andy Murray. Then again, like most things, the game was different then too.

A chain link fence surrounded the courts, creating a safe internal oasis that would be forever middle class. These days that phrase means little. Everyone considers themselves to be middle class. Twenty five years ago though, this was a sport considered to be for the privileged few. The fence was damaged only at its southern edge. An edge it shared with the far more working class pie-and-a-pint outdoor bowls club. The damage was due to overuse as a route onto the flat asphalt bowling club roof when stray tennis balls had to be recovered. A small red brick single storey tennis clubhouse was under construction at the northern end. It seemed as if it was being built by a firm owned by the American TV detective Petrocelli - moving forward at a pace of a brick course a month. This clubhouse was partly functional but most people still made use of the old tongued and grooved timber slatted garage that sat just outside the fenced enclosure on the upper edge of the river bank.

The reason we were offered this job in the first place was due to the enforced absence of the incumbent.  His name was Jeremy. He’d been there since leaving school three years earlier but had to give up on this particular summer as a result of recuperation from an eye operation. His recovery from this procedure would rule out his usefulness to the club for that absolutely mental period leading up to and just beyond Wimbledon in early July. This three to four week stretch traditionally saw hundreds of kids, who had evidently never lifted a tennis racket for anything other than pretending to be Paul Weller, throw on a headband and a FILA polo shirt and head for the courts.

Temporary memberships almost doubled in this period, and consequently someone prepared to be there at the crack of dawn to open the gates was essential. This was to be one of our tasks. That and sweeping the courts and lines, repairing the damaged fence, operating the tuck shop and locking up at night. The recovery of countless yellowish green Wilson tennis balls with a tadpole net, that all the would be Borgs had skied into the river was an expectation that hadn’t been made clear to us at the beginning though.

I was useful at tennis and took on the additional unpaid role of coaching several useless and unenthusiastic kids. The weather that summer was glorious and most of the girls who came to play were dressed like Tracy Austin. Admittedly there were a few growlers who resembled Betty Stove, but still, good times. The only blot on this sylvan landscape was the assumption made by the Committee that we were doing this work for the unremitted enjoyment of it. To be fair they held this view because our school Geography teacher, who had approached us in the first instance, hadn’t cleared the position or agreed any payment for it with anyone. Two events stick in my mind that brought those halcyon days to an end. If I remember correctly, they may even have occurred during same week.

A middle aged female lawyer had been due to play a competitive singles match against a young student. After a number of abortive attempts to arrange the game, it was suggested that they try to play at 8.00am on a Tuesday morning. The remainder of the tournament was being held up by this tie and a great deal of pressure was being brought to bear by the all powerful committee members. Billy and I had been out with the mobile disco the night before and I had got home at around 5.00am. We’d usually take turns at opening the courts and this particular Tuesday had been my turn. After frantic and failed attempts to track either of us down – my mum had gone out early with my sisters and if the phone had been ringing, I certainly didn’t hear it – the furious Ayrshire legal eagle was forced to forfeit the match due to her inability to find an alternative date, or anyone else with a key for the padlock.

We were reported to the committee and dismissed days later. The other issue which no doubt had a bearing on this decision was the alleged abuse of the position of tuck shop manager. Texans, Wispas, Spangles and a wide selection of other confectionary had steadily been going missing from the timber garage since we’d started the job. The takings weren’t accounting for it. Our theory was that good old Albert, the geography teacher had been making up the difference on a weekly basis to avoid any suspicion falling on the two working class teenagers from the council estates whom he’d appointed.

Sometimes opportunity for a seventeen-year-old outweighs judgment or conscience. Old Albert was devastated. He’d trusted us and suspected others. A parting of the ways was inevitable and only his intervention with the committee prevented this becoming a police matter. Unsurprisingly, no payment was proffered for three months of genuinely hard work. We did sweep the courts, we did repair the fence and we did recover an incredible amount of previously disregarded tennis balls. Unfortunately, we also did open the courts every day but rarely at the required time, and we did manage the tuck shop but not in the way the committee had hoped.

Despite the possibility of criminal action, we still felt extremely hard done by with the lack of any payment. On the last night there, Billy and I sat outside the courts defiantly attempting to justify our perspective. In the self-righteous mind of the selfish teenager work done equaled freedom to nick stuff. The positives outweighed the negatives. We were due remuneration.

Anger and annoyance took over and we attempted to take our frustration and revenge out on the timber garage that we had been sitting against. After a fair bit of shoving, it dislodged itself from its concrete base. To my astonishment and shameful delight, it came away from the base in one piece. The weight of the carcass gave it a momentum all of its own and it tipped up onto one side of its pitched tar roof. It then slid slowly but gracefully down the bank and into the river. Like one of the massive ships moving down the slipway at John Brown’s Dockyard on the Clyde, it was an impressive sight despite suffering by comparison of scale. It’s still hard to believe it happened as perfectly as it did with a small mound of sculptured and silhouetted sweet boxes and old chairs on a rectangular concrete slab being all that was left to counterpoint this piece of performance art.

We stared at this sight open-mouthed for what seemed like about an hour. Then walked home.*

(*This incident makes a brief appears in The Last Days of Disco. Write about what you know, eh…and I know how a big timber shed slides down an embankment into a river.)

‘Northern Sky’ reminds me so much of that summer. It was a mad summer where in the space of a few short months I’d left school, regularly got drunk whilst in control of a double deck turntable, filed the personal requests people had for their loved ones’ funerals. I’d made, fed, cut and packed four days worth of vanilla ice cream bricks and, spurred on by a bizarre sense of nationalistic fervour had briefly considered myself officer material. Tennis was the one constant. One of the things that kept my interest there was a girl I liked a lot. Actually there were a few but one in particular gave me the feeling that an attraction might be mutual. She had long dark hair and very athletic limbs. Her name was Jackie. She had an older brother who was skirting around the fringes of the music industry, involved with a locally-based band called The Trashcan Sinatras. The singer in this band was the brother of the as yet unheard of singer, Eddy Reader who would go on to national fame with Fairground Attraction.

‘Northern Sky’ was on a record belonging to Clark, Jackie’s brother. She had brought it to one of the many social evenings at the tennis club where the kids would have a barbecue and sit around playing records until midnight. ‘Bryter Layter’ was played regularly. There were a number of people there who liked it. I initially considered this record to be very representative of the types of people who made up the club membership. It was boring, middle-class, whining rubbish. It was the anti-Clash!

Many further listens though and this music began to seep into my soul and it has never left since. ‘Northern Sky’ is an absolutely beautiful song full of longing, despair and fragility. It said more about how I was feeling at that time, than I gave it credit for initially. The album it came from sounded unlike anything I’d ever really heard before. Out of time, yet timeless. You could never have guessed from the uplifting nature of this song that Nick Drake was a very troubled soul.

The dalliance with the lovely Jackie ended abruptly and shortly after it had begun. As with the tennis club cognoscenti, I felt slightly awkward in the presence of her family during the few occasions I was invited to her house. They had ‘lunch’ when we had dinner, and ‘dinner’ when we had tea. They had ‘supper’. We had Heinz Toast Toppers and Creamola Foam before going to bed. Her parents had two cars, and enough space in their driveway for a third. But I really liked Jackie. She had a freedom of spirit that was addictive and a confidence that was intoxicating.

However, it made me acutely aware of the class-based divisions between us and with a sense of growing embarrassment; I put off asking her back to mine for as long as possible. When she did eventually come to my house, it was obvious that it was something of a culture shock for her. Her upper-middle-class background left her totally unprepared for the council enclave of North-West Kilmarnock. But the thing that actually put the tin lid on the relationship was her choice of music.

She brought over her favourite album and I felt compelled to let her play it in my bedroom. It had the following sleeve notes on it and after I’d read them, I suspected the gig was up:

‘(This album) is only a conglomerate of thoughts in my subconscious, the love + love – hate = love energy making it possible for me to bring my consciousness to an idea…..’

Yeah, right on Stevie! What a load of pretentious, upper-middle-class shite.

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