David F Ross has been described by the Press and Journal as “a real new talent on the Scottish literary scene”. He has two novels under his belt – The Last Days of Disco and The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas – and his latest book, The Man Who Loved Islands, has just been released by Orenda Books.
He joins Book and Brew today to talk about his teenage jobs – from RAF recruit to ice cream producer – and how one particular incident made its way into his writing.
Stick the kettle on, sit back and enjoy…
Upon leaving (or more accurately, being asked to leave a few months earlier than planned) secondary school, directionless and carefree, there weren’t any initial histrionics from my parents. They had separated some 18 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 or five times a week, I’d stagger home half-cut at around 4am, to emerge from my room well after the following midday, struggle through the hangover zone before preparing to go out and do it all over again at 11pm. This was 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, a maternal ultimatum was issued: get a job – a proper one which necessitated the use of a real National Insurance Number – or leave home. All the money from DJ-ing was being spent on beer, clothes and, more 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 tripe 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 it felt then like 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 increasingly bitter showdowns at home, 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 occasionally 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 I found it incredibly 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 to be played at the end of the funeral service?
You might hope that at very least the songs would hint at the uniqueness and individuality of a life well-lived or in interesting circumstances, but Jesus Christ, ‘Oh My love, my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch.’ What is it about this song that made so many – seven in three weeks! – want it to be the final memory that underscores their life?
Crimes against fashion
From the funeral parlour to the ice-cream parlour and an equally short-lived tenure. I managed two weeks – or to be more precise two weekends – as a general dogsbody at Dairy County Ice Cream in Kilmarnock. I was trying to look like Ian McCulloch around this time; my 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, black drainpipe jeans, ripped at the knees. In the mid-80s, 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 a 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 – 20 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 Walport.
Abel Walport was a gregarious and ruddy-cheeked man. Despite a ‘Fagin’ like demeanour, 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 even though 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. I earned around £30 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 to time management ultimately didn’t endear me to Abel. 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 personal promises to stay in touch with Linda or Cheryl. With part of my final week’s pay, I bought the Madness LP ‘One Step Beyond’.
An inexplicable interview
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 going to war, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was deeply unpopular. To me – with my inherited values of socialism – nothing that she did was without suspicion. A war 8,000 miles away off the coast of Argentina seemed crazy. No-one in my circle 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.
However, and to my lasting shame, 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 having 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 naively 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 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 15 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, nevermind 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 good idea had not been fully thought through. Pictures of military aircraft surrounded us. The level of trepidation perhaps no doubt akin to that faced by those who actually have to jump out of one of them, a 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?’
‘Have you ever been in the Air Training Corps?’
A surer-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 dank and depressing Central Bus Station with a distinct sense of foreboding about my future.
An interesting opportunity
At the b, ginning of July though things suddenly looked up. An interesting – if seasonally short-term – opportunity presented itself for me and a close friend. 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 Centres that have subsequently assisted in the development of Andy and Jamie 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. Most people probably view themselves as middle-class; another enduring legacy from the Thatcher era. Thirty 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, but moving forward at the ludicrously slow pace of a brick course a month. This clubhouse was partly functional but most people still made use of the old tongue-and-groove 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 that 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 immersive 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 from the river of countless yellowish green Wilson tennis balls with a tadpole net was an expectation that hadn’t been made clear to us at the beginning.
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. 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.
Two events changed everything
A middle-aged female lawyer had been due to play a competitive singles match against a young student. After several 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. We 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 teenagers from the council estates whom he’d appointed.
Sometimes opportunity for a 17-year-old outweighs judgment or conscience. Friends profited from our tuck shop benevolence. It quickly became widely known that a barter system of payments where the shop’s stock could be exchanged for second-hand vinyl records was on offer at the local tennis courts after closing. 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 quite 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, the two of us 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.
Frustration and revenge
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 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 a scale model of a massive ship moving down the slipway at John Brown’s Dockyard on the Clyde. It was an impressive sight. 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.
This incident makes a brief appears in The Last Days of Disco. Write about what you know, they say. And, I know precisely how a big timber shed slides down an embankment into a river.
The Man Who Love Islands is out now from Orenda Books.