As a kid growing up in Glasgow, Scotland in the 1950s, it was not at all unusual to receive a whack if you did something wrong. Today discipline, as it was euphemistically called then, would be known as child abuse.
It was autumn and that meant chestnut time. No, this wasn’t the kind you eat, these were horse chestnuts that you used for Conkers, a kids game. A hole was punched in the center of the nut, then a string was passed through it, knotted at one end. The object of the game was to hit your opponent’s Conker while preserving your own, intact. As the nuts often broke, having a good supply was essential.
Chestnuts fall to the ground but as kids were always foraging for them, so it was more industrious to throw sticks at the ones still on the trees. Albert and I decided to go to Queens Park and look for Conkers. There were many chestnut trees in the park and we picked up a few heavy sticks on the way and started to throw them at the branches. We were doing quite well when we heard a voice yelling,
“Stop what you are doing!”
We looked round to see the ‘Parkie’ (park-keeper) approaching. Now Albert was a wee hard kid. He was unusual for a Glasgow Jewish boy. Most of us kept a low profile and avoided conflict but Albert seemed to thrive on it.
“Fuck off,” he replied.
This did not sit well with the Parkie, who grabbed Albert by the scruff of his neck and frog-marched him to the exit on Victoria Road. As luck would have it, a policeman was standing nearby and the Parkie, explaining the reason, passed him over to the cop. Again he was frog-marched down the street to a blue police box. The police box (as Doctor Who fans will know) was a roughly 6-foot square box that contained a telephone and some shelves for policemen to fill in reports. It was sometimes used to hold prisoners until the Black Maria (police van) came to take them away. The officer pushed Albert inside. I had followed, and stood outside listening to Albert grunting and whimpering as the “Polis” as we called them, beat the shit out of him. A few minutes later he was ejected, bloodied, bruised and still swearing at the cop.
The rabbi was pummeling me, my father was hitting me, and everyone was yelling. Crosshill Synagogue was in a converted row house in Glasgow. Although my family was not religious, we were members and I attended Hebrew school as a child. Like most of the adherents, we pretended to be Orthodox while there. The sanctuary was a floor-through, with the Ark at the front and the women’s section at the back. Rabbi Dryan, the congregation’s leader, was from somewhere in Central Europe. He was a sweet man, but had a fiery temper. He taught the Hebrew school.
It was Simchat Torah (celebration of the Torah) and after services we all traipsed upstairs for refreshments. The room was set up with rows of long tables with drinks, fruit, and cakes laid out in the center. I sat down. To my right was the rabbi, to my left, Percy Rosenthal (a close friend of my father), and to his left, my father. My cousin Clifford was sitting opposite me. In my right hand was a half-eaten orange.
I was in conversation with Clifford when Percy reached over, took the orange out of my hand, squished it in the Rabbi’s ear, and replaced it in my hand. In that instant, several thoughts flashed through my brain: this was audacious, no one will ever believe it wasn’t me, and now I’m truly fucked. The rabbi turned round, his ear dripping with juice. He saw the orange in my hand, and started swearing and hitting me. A moment later, my father joined in. My cousin was laughing his head off and all that I could think of was, Percy Rosenthal, you’re my hero.
Mr. Farquhar was my English teacher when I was around 14 years old. He was a good teacher with a big interest in the classics. He introduced me to The Odyssey by Homer, and Oedipus by Sophocles—as well as Dostoevsky, and George Orwell. Good as he was, he failed to understand my humor; being a smartass, I often interjected a snide comment in the midst of his teachings. This usually ended with my getting called out to receive “six of the best on the Lochgelly Tawse”—or as we called it, the Belt.
An article by the BBC described it thus:
“Based in Lochgelly, Fife, John J. Dick Leather Goods were the teacher’s preferred suppliers at the height of the tawse’s reign of terror.
“The Lochgelly Tawse was made by cutting 2-foot-long strips of leather from pre-tanned and pre-curried hides. The leather would then be dressed and cut halfway up the middle to form the tails.
“The particular design of the tails provided the searing nip when it struck the student’s hand.
“However, the Lochgelly method was preferable in that the tails were ‘edged’ in order to prevent drawing blood.”
It hurt like hell and sometimes if the teacher aimed badly, it would hit your wrist, which swelled up like a balloon. I got the belt so regularly from Mr. Farquhar that one day, I went to class early and asked him to give me the belt before the class started.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because you’re going to give it to me later, so why don’t we get it over with and get on with the class.”
He shrugged, and gave me six of the best. Later on in the class, because I was cheeky, the bastard gave me six more.
So much for that plan.
Mr. McTavish was a sadistic bastard. His method of discipline was worse than all the teachers put together. He didn’t own a belt. If you didn’t behave he would send you next door to borrow one. This meant enduring the snickers and derision of the pupils in both my own class and the one next door. After the punishment was over you had to return it to the nearby teacher.
“Don’t forget to thank him,” McTavish would instruct you.
No one ever got the belt twice in his class.
Hebrew School started an hour after regular school ended. The classes were held at the back of the room in the women’s section. Rabbi Dryan disciplined the class with a wooden coat hanger. A wallop from that, and you saw stars for about five minuets. Blessed with a sarcastic tongue, it wasn’t long before I became his subject. I, along with the other students, took this in our stride, but once I went too far and he started to pummel me. He hit me so hard that his coat hanger broke in two. I came home with bruises on my shoulder and complained to my father. He was unimpressed.
“You probably deserved it,” he said. Thus was the attitude of parents in Scotland in the early sixties.