MEMOIRS of a grim childhood in working-class Dundee are hardly my normal reading matter. However a raft of enthusiastic reviews led me to invest in Toy Fights: A Boyhood by Don Paterson. And I’m glad I did.
Although Paterson is a poet, this shouldn’t be held against him. The leftie views I expected in this Faber hardback are conspicuous by their absence. He writes from the heart and is frequently extremely funny.
Paterson was born in 1963, making him eight years my junior, and almost 300 miles north of my Lancashire home, but the parallels between our young lives were striking. Sent out on errands as soon as we could walk, playing endless ball games on back streets, and living in constant fear of the dentist, to name but three.
We also saw our home town, or rather city in Dundee’s case, torn apart by developers. The fine array of Victorian buildings in the centre of Nelson were flattened in the name of progress, to be replaced by an utterly characterless Arndale Centre complete with shopping mall whose central heating made it a magnet for down-and-outs.
In Dundee, writes Paterson, ‘the arcade under the Caird Hall closed down. Then they bulldozed the streets of the Wellgate and threw up a huge brown mall the size of a football pitch that took a mere twenty years to turn into four levels of empty lets, remainder shops and jakie [drunk] benches, which in bad weather would alternate prettily with junkie benches.
‘My childhood consisted of watching almost every building of any architectural worth razed in a systematic programme of municipal vandalism – one not even driven by a misguided modernising instinct, but by the realisation that dodgy contracting was an end in itself.
‘Quite deliberately, the town was never finished. The council regarded it as a bent dentist regards an open mouth; an empty canvas for unnecessary fillings, veneers, root canals, crowns and bridges, implants and extractions.’
Anderson says that among his acquaintances was a boy named Arthur McClumsky, who was having regular sex at the age of ten. He claimed: ‘I’ve shagged more lassies than you’ve had Mivvies, Donald.’ (The Mivvi being a lolly produced by Lyons Maid with a fruit ice outer shell and ice cream interior. The first flavour was orange, later to be joined by raspberry, pineapple and ‘Cornish’ strawberry. I believe Mivvis are still available, now made by Nestlé.)
He goes on: ‘Arthur was probably trying to cram a life of adult experience into what he knew would be a short span . . . He was dead in his twenties, he’d murdered someone and was killed in prison.’
Referring to the book’s title, Anderson describes a selection of Dundonian street games and says: ‘The announcement of Toy Fights was met with a resigned dread. There were no sides; it was a kind of Atherstone Ball Game without the ball. You choked or kicked or walloped whoever was nearest. The end was declared when more than half the kids were crying.’
At junior school, ‘we were around thirty to a class, seated in individual desks, six to a row; we were placed in order of intelligence, with our house genius Eileen Hurrell in the top right corner and the other thirty of us arranged sequentially. From a bright start in Primary 3, I was shunted in peristaltic heaves down this gormless colon like a swallowed brick. I could not get through the tests. I’d do two sums and lose the will to live. At one point I was sent to remedial maths and sent right back again with a note that clearly read something like NOT THICK CAN’T BE ARSED.’
Among the crazes adopted by the young Paterson were stamp collecting, origami, extreme prayer groups and eventually music which became his overriding obsession. Although his tastes are far more jazz-oriented than my own, he is very sound on the subjects of Robert Wyatt, John Martyn and Fairport Convention, in particular Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson.
Eric Clapton comes in for the following aside: ‘At the time of writing, I hear Clapton has joined forces with increasingly relevant former has-been Van Morrison to record a terrific anti-lockdown song. I gather Eric is none too chuffed with Covid vaccines either, and claims that the AstraZeneca almost saw him go from Slowhand to Nohand; post-jab numbness in his extremities left him fearing he would “never play the guitar again”. That the world might have suffered the permanent loss of those eight stolen Buddy Guy licks is almost too much to bear.’
After massive ingestion of mind-altering drugs, Paterson finds himself in a mental hospital following a catastrophic breakdown. He feels life cannot get worse. ‘But as the Serbian aphorism goes, “Just when you think you’ve hit rock bottom, you hear the knocking from below”.’ In a footnote, he adds: ‘The Serbs are underrated aphorists. “Now the government are using the carrot-and-stick approach. First they beat us with sticks, now they beat us with carrots”.’
Finally released from the institution, Paterson joins a showband on guitar. ‘Their regular gig was the old Dundee FC Supporters’ Club. I arrived an hour early for a run-through of the material. I couldn’t get in as there was a fight in the foyer; two drunks had pulled knives on each other and were frozen in a stand-off. Someone called upstairs and a five-foot MC in a Zapata ’tache, frilly shirt and plum velvet suit with matching bow tie came down to sort things out. He said nothing but merely opened the left side of his jacket; in the inside pocket was a small axe. The two men muttered their apologies and shook hands. Then the MC let them in.’
The book ends rather abruptly with Paterson leaving home and arriving in London aged 20. I hope there will be an equally entertaining sequel.
Going back to the title of this piece, here is my favourite limerick.
There was a young man from Dundee
Who was stung on the neck by a wasp.
When asked: ‘Does it hurt?’
He said: ‘Not very much,
It can do it again if it likes.’
Old jokes’ home
I went in for a newspaper’s pun contest. I sent ten different entries in the hope that at least one of them would win. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.
A PS from PG
Even at normal times Aunt Dahlia’s map tended a little towards the crushed strawberry. But never had I seen it take on so pronounced a richness as now. She looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves