Blackhill, a Glasgow east-end housing project feared in proximity and derided from a distance by the rest of the city.
The first commandment of Blackhill society was Thou Shalt Not Grass, meaning that no matter how heinous the crime, no one should pass on any information to the police.
Blackhill consisted of 14 streets and 5,000 people, of whom almost half were registered as Scottish criminalsA number of Scottish ballads are set in and around what was known in the 16th century as the Debatable Land, an enclave on the Scottish-English border that gave succor to outlaws and banished men.
Blackhill was the closest thing to a modern-day equivalent, before the police substation was opened around 1972, and social behavior modified marginally.
Beyond the pond, in the dawning light, lay the gray tenement buildings of Hogganfield and Craigendmuir streets. The clouds seemed to hang on the rooftops, increasing the air of desolation, and not a creature stirred – even the packs of semi-wild dogs that incessantly trotted through Blackhill seemed to have vanished.
And as I leaned on my rail, thinking this must be one of the most cheerless vistas in Western Europe, I saw something remarkable stir in the distance.
It looked like a small fairy, clad completely in white, and as it emerged out of the mist and drew nearer, I realized the figure was a very young girl dressed in dazzling chiffon and lace.
Then, about 10 yards behind her came another young lass, similarly bathed in white, and then another, and another. The Catholic girls of Blackhill were making their way up to St. Philomena’s Chapel to take their First Communion!
It was a surreal and haunting sight.
Yo-Ho had a regular name at one time but most folk had forgotten it and called him by the cry he repeated at intervals as he limped along the streets of Blackhill – Yo-Ho!
He had been a coalman in his younger days, plying the Bridgeton area with a horse-drawn wagon, yelling “Coal, briquettes,” at the rows of Victorian tenements and carrying heavy sacks of coal on his back up three or four flights of stairs when hailed by a customer.
It was punishing, unrewarding work which exacted a physical toll on the man, and the beer he had to drink to dispel the coal dust from his mouth gradually became his master.
“Ah’ve been knocked doon by six cars and a horse, constable,” Yo-Ho would shout defiantly, hirpling down the center of the road from the Provanmill Inn on the day he got his unemployment check, as if he were daring a seventh car or a second horse to try its luck.
I can’t recall Yo-Ho ever being arrested. He was usually amiable, and if he did get mad and smash the crockery in one of the three houses where he lodged in rotation, he would move with dignity and police accompaniment to the next stop in the triangle – be it the apartment of his ancient mother, his long-suffering wife or his female drinking companion.
One day I was quietly plodding the beat, bothering no one, when an urgent and dreaded cry came from the entrance to a Maryston Street tenement.
“Hey, polis! Quick! There’s a wuman havin’ a baby.”
Glasgow policemen were trained in a very basic way to handle this type of emergency, but most officers went through their entire career without ever having to remove a bootlace to tie, temporarily, an umbilical cord.
“Are you sure?” I replied, hoping against hope.
“Aye, am sure,” said a thin, anxious-looking man, “it’s right in here. Ground flat.”
I walked into the darkened hallway of the house, where several other equally nervous men were pacing around.
“Wiv nae lights. Wiv been cut aff,” said one. “She in there,” he added indicating an even gloomier room off the hall
I opened the livingroom curtains which were presumably drawn to thwart the inquisitive peering of debt-collectors, and saw, lying on a grubby couch, a woman in an advanced state of labor.
I pulled out my radio and shouted for an ambulance.
“There’s a woman having a baby at 8 Maryston St., ground flat right,” I told the police operator.
“Oan ye go,” came the response, in a tone that suggested suppressed mirth.
I looked up for one of the men to lend a hand, but none of that hapless crew had followed me into the room.
And he saith unto them, be not affrighted … Mark 16:6
But they were terrified and affrighted … Luke 24:37
“Have you any hot water?” I shouted to the hallway.
“Naw, wir electricity’s cut aff,” said a voice.
“Well ask the folk next door for some.”
“We’re no speaking tae each other,” replied one of the men.
“I need hot water. Bang their door and tell them the Glasgow police are commandeering it,” I yelled. “And bring in a clean sheet, if you’ve got one, for this couch.”
A sheet got tossed into the room, and I spread it under the mother-to-be, who, to her credit, seemed much more relaxed about the whole business, than that gaggle of useless brothers or boyfriends or whoever they were out in the hall.
A basin of warm water arrived, borne by the original thin man, eyes averted. I took it and he retreated at speed to the safety of his companions.
And woosh! The baby suddenly arrived, and as I caught it, a menacing German shepherd darted into the room, and showed a disconcerting interest in the proceeding,
“Get that dog oot o here,” I shouted, drawing my baton to protect the infant. “And keep a lookout for that ambulance.”
The baby began to cry, which I took to be a good sign. I washed it with a pocket handkerchief and then used my bootlace to tie the umbilical cord in the manner prescribed by Glasgow Police Training School.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger … Luke 2:7
Shortly afterwards, an ambulance pulled up outside the house, and two attendants with a stretcher came in to take care of mother and baby, and rush them down to the maternity hospital.
One of the ambulance men surveyed the conditions of the birth and quietly rolled his eyes.
“Aye, a manger would be a big step up,” I murmured to him, out of earshot of the mother.
As I exited through the hallway, the men were already in a state of celebration, judging by the appearance of a popular brand of cheap sherry known as Lanliq.
“Have a wee Lanny, Constable Nolan. Wir gaun tae call the wean after you,” said the grateful thin man, who had elected to stay with the herd, rather than accompany the woman in the ambulance.
“That’s a very nice thought – but it’s a wee girl, I think,” said I, knocking back the sweet drink, out of a sense of social obligation. “Maybe next time round.”
* * *—————————————————————————
Glasgow Corporation had a deliberate policy of housing the city’s criminal, anti-social and abject tenants in Blackhill, and it was often suggested by the media in the 1970s, that there was no more incorrigible place in the whole of Europe.
The most lawless and desperate part of Blackhill was Acrehill Street, and so, I reasoned, those persons who lived in the very heart of Acrehill Street – No. 26, by my calculations – must be the most dreadful people in the western hemisphere.
And living in a top flat apartment at No. 26 for a while in 1973, was a family called the Coombahs, who had become a bane of the Blackhill police sub-station from the day they moved into the area.
Mr. Coombah was of West Indian or maybe Australian Aboriginal descent, so it was neither easy for him nor his kids to avoid racial taunts and worse in a housing project almost entirely comprised of Picts and Celts. Nor was it always easy for him to get a sympathetic hearing about his string of complaints from anyone behind the police station desk, because 30 years ago, it must be said, a disturbing number of policemen were racist too, and in Glasgow ironic rhyming slang, Mr. Coombah was sometimes referred to as a “Paddy Mularky,” meaning a “darkie.”
One day I was dispatched to the Coombahs to take a report of broken windows, and as I approached 26 Acrehill St. I looked up and saw that every single pane in a top flat apartment had been shattered, obviously by a fusillade of stones from a squad of vindictive street urchins.
I climbed the stairs to the top flat and was taken into the house to survey the damage and make out a report. The bedrooms facing onto Acrehill Street were littered with shards of glass.
Who is left among ye that saw this house in its first glory? And how do you see it now. Is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing? Haggai 2:3
I peered down at the sullen group of kids out on the street, and made a mental note of who they were.
He looketh forth at the windows, showing himself through the lattice. Song of Solomon 2:9
“Come into the livingroom, officer, there’s more damage through here,” said Mr. Coombah, whom, in my prejudice, I had wrongfully assumed to be Europe’s most rotten person.
I pushed opened the door, and was astonished. The sparsely furnished room was full of cages containing colorful, lively birds – finches and canaries, lovebirds and budgerigars – whistling and singing their hearts out in clean, well-cared for conditions
…and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird and the daughters of musick shall be brought low. Ecclesiastes 12:4
I was swept with guilt at my previous assessment. Here was a family placed in the most trying conditions by local government and harried mercilessly by neighbors because of their skin color, yet whose humanity was evidenced by their love and concern for those small trilling birds.
Back at the station, I called the Corporation workshop in Parnie Street, and asked that they treat the Coombahs’ window repairs as an emergency. I feared the cage birds would soon perish with the draughts and gasworks stench blasting through the broken panes, and I don’t know if they did survive, for shortly after that incident, the Coombahs moved out of Blackhill – driven out, in reality – and I never saw them again.
“Yo-Ho,” he’d yell, as he lugged all he owned in a battered suitcase. “How many books in the Bible, son? How many parts in a bren gun? Yo-Ho.”
Whenever he relocated, which was every few weeks, he would conduct a war of words against the place from whence he had been ejected, while embarking upon a charm offensive with his future port of call.
The first commandment of Blackhill society was Thou Shalt Not Grass, meaning that no matter how heinous the crime
Anyway … back at the Connolly’s, I was welcomed into the livingroom, where my eye lit upon a peculiar, dark object housed inside a jam jar full of liquid. It had been given pride of place on the mantlepiece, above the fire.
“That’s Charlie’s Duffy’s finger,” said Jeannie. “The weans (children) wanted to keep it.” She then related the tale:
Her brother, Charlie Duffy, most Saturday afternoons, would head up to the Provanmill Inn, enjoy a series of pints with his cronies, and find his way back to the Connollys’ by early evening. He would then serve as babysitter for the kids, while Jeannie and her husband, John, went up to the Inn for their Saturday night out.
On a recent Saturday, Charlie had come back, assumed his child-minding role, and fallen into a deep, beer-induced sleep. When he woke up, it was dark, and sensing that the children were still outside, he groggily pushed up the bedroom window to call them in from play. The window, alas, rattled down again, and with such force that it severed his left index finger.
Apparently, thanks to the alcohol, Charlie felt little pain, and had the presence of mind to retrieve his finger, stick it back on his hand, wrap the mess in a handkerchief and fall once more into slumber.
Some time later, the kids came in on their own and found their Uncle Charlie oozing blood through a hankie folded around his hand. Panic. An older child sped up to the Provanmill Inn for Jeannie. An ambulance was subsequently summoned, and Charlie, finger and all, were rushed to the Royal Infirmary. Little could be done. A doctor cleaned up the stump, and gave Charlie a tetanus shot and his finger back.
The finger, though, fascinated his nieces and nephews, and they plopped it in a jam jar filled with vinegar, and carried it around Blackhill, as a curio for other children to see. Later, placed on the mantlepiece, the finger slowly turned black, despite the vinegar solution.
“It’s time to get rid ‘o that thing,” said Jeannie, giving it a glare.
The living-room window, which looked over Queenslie Street back court, was open to allow the staleness of winter to escape the house and the spring-evoking smell of a smouldering mattress to seep in.
One of the children obediently got up, took the jar, and was about to slosh the contents out of the window, when Jeannie, moving at the speed of light, dramatically blocked the way.
“Naaaaaaaawwwww! Not oot the windae!” she screamed. “If they dogs ever get the taste of human flesh, nane o’ us will be safe. Burn it.”
My mind flashed at once to Keats, and Ode to a Grecian Urn. He was agonizingly torn between the immortal but lifeless scenes of beauty adorning the urn, and the fleeting vitality of real life, itself. It took him 50 lines to explore the topic, though, while Jeannie, or Super Keats, as Nietzsche might have described her, expressed, and solved, her dilemma in a shriek and a few terse syllables that graphically envisioned Man’s horrendous fate.
To survive the present, the past – as symbolized by the contents of Blackhill’s Grecian Urn – must be obliterated, or mankind will be haunted by the netherworld, represented in very real terms by yon lean and hungry dogs. Thus spake Jeannie Connolly, best know as Jeannie Duffy.
Wow! Poetry! Just like drink, there’s no telling where it will lead.
Blackhill consisted of 14 streets and 5,000 people, of whom almost half were registered as Scottish criminals, a surprising number when you consider that almost everyone else was too young to be fingerprinted. The community was both tight-knit and tight-lipped, and until a small police station was opened in the heart of the project, it had governed itself through occasional acts of ruthlessness and savagery, alleviated by day-to-day acts of compassion and darkly humorous tales of caution and exploit.
followed the old one out of the station and up the hill to Hogganfield Street, where she lived, and where her assaulted friend was still located.
During the short journey, the old woman told me that earlier in the evening she, and a male friend, had gone to a pub in the east of Glasgow called the Saracen’s Head, or more familiarly, the Sarry Heid, where a wine-based drink, best-known as white tea (short for White Tornado), could be had at a reasonable price and which produced temporarily pleasing effects. There, the couple had met a stranger and invited her back to Blackhill after pub closing time to share a half bottle of sweet sherry the lady was kind enough to buy them.
I came on duty again at 9 p.m. that evening and read the police log for the previous 14 hours to catch up with the events of the Saturday. And Blackhill was ever eventful.
An entry caught my eye, and I searched out the full report which revealed that at 8:25 a.m. on Royston Road, a handbag had been snatched from the grasp of an old lady clad in a grubby white wedding dress while she was waiting on a No. 11 bus. No witnesses had come forward.
* * *
I wondered how she had got home, and how she would get through what remained of her life, and then my thoughts drifted to tragic John Clare in Northampton Asylum, where, in periods of clarity, he wrote some of his most wrenching poems, including the bleak I am, which was published in 1865, the year following his death. It begins thus:
I am – yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivions host …
* * *
Another kenspeckle figure in the streets of Blackhill was wee Paddy the Bleach Man, a self-employed dwarf who pushed a hand-cart loaded with bottles of his home-made disinfectant throughout the housing project. He enjoyed a loyal customer base for his product was very effective in neutralizing the stench of dog feces in building passageways, which had to be washed down on a weekly basis by the city’s tenants.
Paddy allowed people to pay him when they had the money, and was constantly pausing with his barrow to make adjustments in his tick book with a pencil that lived behind his ear.
He was also welcomed as a source of gossip throughout Blackhill, rather like the chapmen and tinkers who carried news around the countryside in earlier times. It was important for some people to know, for example, who had been lucky at the Dennistoun bingo the night before, so that a timely call could be made to collect debts.
Cheery by day, and often the life of a party at night, Paddy had his sorrows too. Occasionally in the early hours of the morning, after the Provanmill Inn had closed, he would sit at the side of Craigendmuir Street, his short legs not quite reaching the ground, and publicly sob, in a way both heartfelt and theatrical, about matters of love.
His life came to an abrupt and tragic end, one day, when a truck backed up and crushed him against a wall outside his bleach store. He was apparently beneath the driver’s line of vision.
The people of Blackhill genuinely mourned his death and some folks, like his friend Jeannie Duffy, who appreciated him as a Glasgow character, shed tears.
“Poor, wee Paddy,” she keened.
* * *
I’m on fire putting a stamp on an envelope
I’m on fire wrapping garbage into a newspaper
I’m on fire with heroes and dwarfs and poverty and hope
I’m on fire with love and anger
( from the big fire
– Charles Bukowski)
* * *
Pixie Dixie, in contrast to Paddy, was liked by no one except his mother, whom he had driven bald with worry, and whose affection he did not reciprocate.
An idiot savant whose narrow field of accomplishment was an ability to locate small amounts of scrap metal in a way that a wild boar might sense the presence of truffles, he was a frequent source of complaint from building sites and road works.
Pixie Dixie was so named because his habitual attire, summer and winter, was a black duffle coat that had become so impregnated with dirt and grease that its hood, which wrapped around his head, had adopted a curious elfin peak.
When not rooting, pig-like, for scraps of lead and iron to cash in at metal dealers, Pixie Dixie was preoccupied with monitoring policemen as they plodded around Blackhill.
As an officer walked along a street, he would soon become aware of a stooped, duffle-coated figure about 100 feet away, darting parallel to him through back courts. And every now and then, the grimy, beady-eyed face of Pixie Dixie would peer furtively round the corner of a building.
A police officer unfamiliar with the area – someone filling in during a vacation, for instance – might become infuriated and radio Blackhill substation for help in capturing the shadow, which would screech taunts from a distance when it thought it had been spotted.
The reply from the substation to the beat constable would always be a plea to ignore Pixie, for if arrested, his presence in the cell would linger long after his actual transfer to the main station.
Several years after I had transferred from Blackhill, I encountered Pixie Dixie. Though he still looked furtive, he has been sandblasted clean, and said he was living in an institution.
“How’s your mother?” I asked, recalling the careworn old soul.
“She’s deid, and ah don’t gie a f—,” yelled Pixie Dixie, dancing backwards as heads turned.
“She’s earned the rest,” I thought to myself.
* * *
(I don’t believe Bukowski was well acquainted with anyone like Pixie, who was disturbed enough not to need booze.)
* * *
While it was usually possible to avoid arresting Pixie Dixie, the same did not hold for another well-known Blackhill resident, Elizabeth Jones.
Betty had been pretty, once, but had reached the age where her physique was unable to bounce back from bouts of drinking. While her addicted body screamed for alcohol, she screamed at her mother for the means to buy it, and would resort to violence if the household purse was empty.
It was a short distance from her house to the station, but it would take several officers to convey her up to the holding cell, for her struggles were as spirited as her invective was entertaining to spectators leaning out of their windows. Her usual inference was that officers were abducting her for sexual purposes, and the amused neighborhood would stoke Betty’s delusion with wry, unhelpful comments.
Once booked at the substation desk, the writhing lady would be pushed into the adjoining cell. Then there would be a desperate rush by the sergeant to tape newspaper pages, known in the police office as “curtains,” over the observation window, for her next move was always to remove every stitch of clothing and gyrate.
She was known to us as Betty Boo and I think most police officers, although they never said so openly, admired her mettle. They felt sorry for her too, and so did her mom, who always took her back.
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