Whenever I’m asked where in Scotland I am from, my response is always ‘Barrhead’. I lived there from the age of 7 until I left home at 18. In the same way that bands are always listed as being from a particular city, presumably because their music is influenced by their home, I feel that almost everything I do is influenced in some way by growing up in Barrhead.
Barrhead is a small town just to the south of Glasgow, near Paisley. In December 1983, our family – that is my mum, my dad, my brother Andy and me – moved from a small terrace house in Cathcart to a bigger house in Barrhead. My mum had been offered a job as the Head Teacher of Arthurlie Nursery School in Barrhead, and so that prompted our move, and a change of schools for me from Holmlea Primary to Springhill.
It’s hard to romanticize about Barrhead in the 1980s, and believe me I have tried.
The reputation of Glasgow and the surrounding area back then was that of a hard, working-class, hard-working city. In the 18th and 19th centuries, and early part of the 20th century, Glasgow was one of the richest cities in the world due in part to its role in the slave trade and then shipbuilding. But by the 1960s, Glasgow’s economy was in decline and it was not until the late 1980s and ’90s that things began to improve.
It may have changed now, but back in 1984, Glasgow, and Barrhead in particular were not going to be found on any ‘Most Desirable Postcode’ lists.
At the time it was just the place where I lived. I was born in Eaglesham but don’t really have any memories of that. We moved to Cathcart in the late ’70s which is a suburb of Glasgow about 15 minutes walk from Hampden Park. Cathcart was not posh by any means, but apparently it was in comparison to Barrhead. This may be difficult for some people to believe, but within Glasgow there are probably dozens of different accents. In fact, Barrhead is even pronounced differently in Barrhead – it’s not Barr-Head, it’s Borr-Heed.
So in January 1984, at the age of 8, I was the new boy in the Primary 4 class at Springhill Primary in Barrhead. There were about 20 boys and girls in the class, and my first memory of introducing myself to them was being made aware that I spoke very differently. I didn’t know it at the time, but I must have had a Cathcart accent and I was therefore ‘posh’. Another word for posh in those days was ‘poofy’. So I became known as ‘Poofy Pete’. I think this happened before lunchtime on my first day at Springhill.
There were several days in those first few weeks when I ran home from school crying. Either because I was being picked on, or because I was in genuine fear of being battered. Battered means ‘kicked in’. ‘Beaten up’.
It seemed like there was a lot of fighting at the school. Probably because there was not much else to do. The playground was just one giant concrete slope. There was a bit of grass behind a railing but we were not allowed on it. There were no slides or climbing frames. The only piece of apparatus in the whole playground was a grey brick wall. It was about the size of a football goal and was often in use as such by at least 4 separate games at the same time. So there was football and fighting, and a lot of fighting about football.
I remember one day early on, there was a boy in my class that just wanted to fight me. I think he took exception to the way I said the word ‘brilliant’. And then, knowing me I probably didn’t back down, and the tension escalated all day. By home-time, a fight had been arranged outside the school gates between me and this boy by some budding Don King. And my opponent had also recruited some other really mad ‘bams’ to be his back up (his honners). I remember being genuinely scared and not able to eat my lunch.
At the end of the afternoon lessons, I stayed back in the classroom for as long I could, trying to take as much time as possible to pack up my stuff and find my jacket. Out of the classroom window, I could see what looked like the whole school gathered outside the only exit to watch me ‘get a doing’. Fortunately, just as I was walking out towards everyone, a fight broke out without me. I suppose that there is a tipping point when you have a certain amount of mad bams in the same place at the same time primed for a fight. Anyway, some teachers came out to break everyone up and I made my escape, running home, crying.
The first friend I made at Springhill was called Bobby. At the time I was just starting to get into my Mum and Dads’ Beatles’ records and I’d already bought by first album – Queen’s Greatest Hits. Classic. Bobby was into music too and was a huge Michael Jackson fan. I think that Thriller had just come out and Bobby was obsessed by it. He was also really good at maths. So we bonded over music and maths, but we also bonded over being bullied. I think that until I arrived, Bobby was the most bullied kid in the class. I spoke differently which was enough to invite the attentions of the rough lads, but Bobby’s family were from India and so his skin was a different colour. He was reminded of that on a daily basis. Together we were the bottom of the food chain.
I don’t know how I knew that it was wrong to make fun of people because of their skin colour back then, but somehow I did. Maybe it just didn’t seem fair. I never joined in with the name-calling against Bobby, but thinking about it now, I can’t say that I always jumped to his defense. I’m conflicted as to whether I should even type out the names that he was called. There is something about seeing those words on a screen now in black and white that is very powerful because, it just sounds so terrible. But it’s not part of my story so I wont repeat them.
In their defense, kids who want to bully someone will always find a weakness in their prey. And it was only a couple of kids in the class that would initiate it. We were all young kids and playgrounds can be tough places. I don’t think any of us really understood what racism actually was. It wasn’t until 1988 that Glasgow Rangers signed the first black footballer in the Scottish Premier League. That’s when I really became aware of what racism meant.
Anyway, Bobby lived just down the road from me and so we started to walk home together and quickly became friends.
At the time I didn’t have the social skills to handle the bullies. Some years later I realized that I could use my wit as a defense, and, shamefully, as a weapon against weaker boys at Glasgow Academy. But as an 8 year old my plan to integrate with the other boys at Springhill was simple – play football with them.
Football was a huge part of my life even then. In 1983, Aberdeen had beaten Bayern Munich and Real Madrid to win the Cup Winners Cup. That was huge. And the Scotland national team regularly qualified for World Cups. Everyone wanted to be Kenny Dalglish. When it was light outside, rain or shine, I would be out playing football, and when it was dark I would be inside playing Subbuteo. I collected Panini stickers and could name the players on every team in the top leagues of Scotland and England. Fortunately I was also a decent player.
One day I was out on my bike on a BMX track behind St. Marks school, and I recognized some of the boys in my class training with a football team called Cruachan Boys Club. The next week I joined in and was signed up for the team. I eventually became the captain and we won several trophies in the Glasgow leagues. The school didn’t have a team back then, but I played on other teams with the Boy’s Brigade too. I feel that it was once I’d proved myself on the football pitch that I was finally accepted by the other boys. After that, if there was going to be any fighting it would be us against them.
I learned how and when to fight too. I remember one time when we were messing about in the playground and I got into a shoving match with a bigger boy. He tried to punch me but missed. Then he tried to kick me and I caught his foot. For a split second my brain processed my options. I knew that what I was about to do was wrong but I decided to do it anyway. I yanked his leg up and he fell back and smashed the back of his head on the concrete. I got on top of him and punched him in the face a couple of times, before someone restrained me. His nose and mouth were bleeding. We got dragged off to see the headteacher to get “the belt”. I knew I was in trouble but I remember standing outside the headteacher’s office, in full view of everyone as we waited to get our punishment, with the other guy bleeding heavily into a tiny tissue, and feeling pretty good.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing of course. There was the time in 1986 when me and 3 other lads got the McGills bus into Paisley on a Saturday afternoon to go and see The Karate Kid, Part II. I drank far too much Fanta during the film and was bursting for a piss by the end of it. I tried to get into the toilet but the queue was too long and we were in a rush to get back to the bus stop. So I thought I could hold it, but I couldn’t. We were almost at the bus stop and I just started pissing in my jeans. I was motionless standing on the pavement watching my light blue jeans turn dark blue. Of course it was the funniest thing ever for the other boys. Then the bus arrived and the driver wouldn’t let me on. Yeah that was a rough day, and a rough Monday morning back at school. It was rough for a few months actually. I still can’t watch Karate Kid without feeling the urge to go for a piss.
As time went on, my accent changed too. So much so that in 1987 when I actually did go to a posh school, I got bullied for years by a bunch of rich kids because I sounded like someone from Borr-heed.
Bobby wasn’t really into football though. We remained friends through primary school but my best friend became another boy called Jason. I spent a lot of time at Jason’s house in the 80s. At weekends we would rent a bunch of videos and watch them back-to-back. We watched a lot of Eddie Murphy films and a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger films. We also watched a lot of American wrestling and American Football. Looking back it seems like we had a fascination with America. I know I did.
Jason was a great friend. After we left Springhill, we were the only two boys in our class that didn’t go to the local secondary school, both of us instead going to private schools in Glasgow. I don’t remember why or when we stopped being best friends. I think we probably just moved on to different things. But I only have good memories of our friendship.
I’ve been back to Barrhead a few times since I left. My parents moved house in 1999 out of Barrhead to Newton Mearns, which is about 5 miles down the road. But every time I go back to visit, I make time to drive through the town and stop outside my old house.
Barrhead has changed a lot since the mid ’80s, but I know from Facebook that a lot of the people in my class still live there. I often wonder what they think of me now.
Really I was only at Springhill for three and half years and then I buggered off to a private school. And now here I am living 5000 miles away writing about how I still feel like Barrhead is a part of me. They would be perfectly justified in telling me to fuck off.
But maybe that’s because I remember being made to feel different as the new boy that first January. In reality, I’ve been in touch with a few of my old classmates and every single one of them has been very friendly and sweet to me.
I’d want them to know that the whole time I was at that posh school, I defended Barrhead and the way we spoke. I’d want them to know that I still remember the names of every boy and girl in my class, that I have fondness for all of them, and that I truly hope that everyone is in a good place now.
Barrhead will always be with me. Even when I was working as an attorney in New York City, and I’d be in the middle of a heated argument with some other lawyer threatening me with sanctions or whatever, I would laugh and think of Barrhead. Once you’ve been scared shitless by some nutter from top end of Borr-heed wanting to batter you in front of the whole school, it’s hard to feel threatened by some slicked-back, big-mouthed attorney from Connecticut.
You can never change where you are from. I’m from Borr-Heed and I always will be.