In writing these chapters, I have been able to look back at all sorts of diaries, notes, and journals that I’ve been keeping since I was 7 years old. The earliest diaries rarely contain expressions of emotion, and tend to be simple statements about what happened that day, like ‘December 29, 1986: Today we went to Shawlands to buy me a walkman’, or ‘January 16, 1982: Mum bot a cake. I put my hand on the tray it was on and it flew on to my foot. Watched Chips. It was very good’.
Rarely did I write down how the event actually made me feel. As such, the entry on February 11, 1987 is somewhat unique in that respect.
I was eleven and half years old in February 1987 when I sat the entrance examination to The Glasgow Academy, a prestigious and expensive all-boys private school in the West End of Glasgow. I was in my final year at Springhill Primary in Barrhead, the equivalent of 7th grade in the US, but I had never sat an exam before.
My parents had decided that they wanted me to go to a private secondary school (junior high and high school in the US). They knew that I was ultra-competitive in everything I did, (still am), and they thought that if I didn’t have competition academically then I might lose interest. I think they were probably right. So they were prepared to pay a lot of money for me to be able to mix with some of the smartest kids in the city.
All of the private schools in Glasgow required applicants to take an entrance examination on an assigned day at the school, so they could assess the academic potential of the kids. The original plan was for me to go to Hutchesons Grammar, known in Glasgow as simply ‘Hutchie’, but we had put in applications for two other schools, Glasgow High, and Glasgow Academy, so that I could get some practice with exams. I think the Hutchie preference was mainly an economical one – it was closer to where we lived and the fees were lower than the others.
My parents, who were both teachers, put together a study plan for me over the Christmas holidays so that I would be prepared. The Glasgow High exam was up first. My 1987 Letts Senior Schools Diary was one of my earlier diaries and is covered with stickers of Rick Astley, Aha, and Wet Wet Wet from the magazine ‘Smash Hits’. At the time I was still obsessed with Queen and Freddie Mercury, and I was listening to a lot of pop music. It wasn’t until a year later that I heard ‘Appetite for Destruction’, a perfect album for a 13 year old, and I started to explore music that was not in the charts.
Looking at the rest of the 1987 diary, my other interests at the time were watching football (and by football I mean soccer), playing football, buying Panini football stickers, playing football games on the Spectrum computer, and watching American football.
The thing about most of these private schools in Glasgow back then was that they disapproved of football (soccer). In fact they actively despised it. Some teachers would say dismissively that football was the pursuit of the working classes. Privately educated boys, they believed, should play rugby. That was really my only worry about going there: that I wouldn’t be able to play football.
All I really remember from the day of that exam was seeing that they had a big sports hall with football goals at either end. I’m pretty sure that was what I meant by ‘it looks a good school’.
The following week I got the flu and I missed the Glasgow Academy exam day of February 7th. Somehow, my folks were able to arrange for me to take it by myself on the following Wednesday. There were three parts to the test – Mathematics, English, and then a problem solving IQ test.
I’ve never liked math(s), but I’m secretly very good at it. It was the opposite with English – I always enjoyed it but I never got the highest grades. There is something about maths that fits my brain. Once I’ve seen a specific maths question and understood how to get the answer, my brain somehow identifies a pattern and can quickly apply it to similar questions to get the right answer.
Even as I read that previous sentence back, it doesn’t make sense to me. A perfect example of why I should really be spending my time perfecting my algebra, instead of trying to write my memoirs.
So having recovered from the flu, my mum brought me to Glasgow Academy on February 11, 1987, and I took the maths portion that day by myself in the Deputy Head’s office. As I was taking the English part, my Mum says that the school told her there would be a place for me at the school. After they had reviewed my answers to the English questions, and before we left the school that day, the Rector offered us a 25% scholarship.
“I do not believe it. I won a scholarship for the Academy. Andy was 125 all out. I won last game”.
Although it wasn’t our first choice, the partial scholarship meant that Glasgow Academy would now be a lot cheaper than Hutchie. It was decided that night where I was going. The next day I took the Hutchie entrance exam. The diary reads: “Hutchie Exam. Springhill 0 v 4 St. Marks. Didn’t do well in exam. Doesn’t matter going to Academy anyway.”
A few days later, we got a letter from Glasgow Academy increasing their offer to their highest award, ‘The Montrose Scholarship’, which would cover 40% of the fees. I’m pretty sure my Dad enjoyed a few cans of Tennent’s Lager that night.
I started at Glasgow Academy in September of 1987, shortly after my 12th birthday. Of the three schools I applied to, it was the only one that was an all boys school, and probably the most formal of them all. We had to wear full school uniform with blazers, ties and black shoes. Hair had to be above the collar and deviations from the rules on attire were strictly punished. Economically it was also a different world from anything I’d ever known.
Just as with my first day at Springhill in 1984, I felt different. I sounded like a kid from the working class town of Barrhead, and I think the other boys knew that I couldn’t afford to be at this school. So this time around I was bullied for being poor.
My parents really were proud of me for getting into the school. I think they saw this as a great opportunity for me to get a good education, and to gain access to a world they had never known. A world of privilege. I had been doing ok in Barrhead but had started to get into some trouble at school and with the police. I remember just before my first day at Glasgow Academy my Dad took me aside. He told me that the most important thing I had to remember was that I couldn’t get in any fights or I would be expelled. I think my Dad was probably worried that the school would be looking for an opportunity to kick out this pleb, so that they could get their money back.
I remember that first day of school at Glasgow Academy vividly. I was one of only 5 new boys in Class 1A. We were told to report to Mr. Little’s classroom and he told us all where to sit. My desk was at least 30 years old. It was one of those old heavy wooden desks you see in black and white movies with the wooden seat attached to the base of the desk. I knew it was old because it still had an ink well in the corner, and the surface of the desk was covered in etchings and marks from the previous inhabitants dating back to the 50s.
Lifting up the lid of the desk and looking inside I found even more foul-mouthed graffiti on it, most of it specific to the teacher in front of me.
My desk was against the wall on the right side of the classroom, which meant that when I leaned back and sat sideways, I could see the whole classroom or talk to the people behind me.
So I felt very uncomfortable that first day, and I had no concept that the boys who were randomly sitting beside me would become lifelong friends. The skinny boy with the spike hairstyle directly in front of me was Neil ‘Nelly’ Hamblen. It was his first day too and we bonded instantly over a love of football, being attracted to Madonna, and our initial belief that everyone else in the school was a posh twat. Nelly and I eventually studied law together at Edinburgh Uni, shared a flat, and he was my best man for the first ‘wedding’. He’s visited me many times here in Austin and although he lives in Australia now, we still exchange text messages almost every day.
Directly behind me was Jonny Graham. Jonny and I played in the same sports teams together for the next 10 years, through school and university. We shared a house together in London, he came to Farah and I’s wedding in Austin in 2007, and is still one of my best mates.
Across from me was Dougie Lockhart. Dougie was the best man at my wedding to Farah and I was his best man at his wedding a few years later. He became an international sports star and is now a very successful director at a financial services firm. He is still in Glasgow so I don’t seem him as much I would like, but we’ll still be friends when we are pensioners.
The alpha male of the class was Andy Aitken. He was also the scrum half of the rugby team and he sat directly behind Jonny. He started giving me abuse pretty early that first day. He was probably making fun of something I said that wasn’t ‘proper’. Instinctively I didn’t want to back down, and I started to push back to try and let him know how tough I was. I don’t remember saying this, but it has frequently been repeated to me since by our mutual friends that I told him, and everyone that was listening that, “I had never cried”.
That wasn’t a very smart thing to say. Of course it wasn’t true either. I was probably just marking my territory. But Aitken took it as a personal challenge. The next week we were in English class, waiting for the teacher Mr. ‘Christ’ Gray, to return from a break. Aitken got the chalk duster from the blackboard and started smacking it against the back of my dark blue blazer leaving an indelible white mark the size of a brick. I tried to get him to stop but he was determined to push it as far as he could.
Quickly it escalated into the shoving match that had been brewing all week. We were at the front of the class and everyone was watching. He started slapping me in the face. I knew the teacher was due to walk in any moment. I tried to grab his arms and hold him but he was too quick. I wasn’t scared of him, but I was scared of upsetting my Dad. In that moment, all I could think about was that if I got caught fighting then I would be expelled, and my Dad would be very, very angry. So I just stood there and let Aitken take his best shots. He punched and slapped me all over the head until I hit the ground.
I went back to my seat. Bruised and crying. The whole class was laughing. Ten seconds later Christ Gray walked back in. He never knew what had happened.
Some months passed and I actually became very good friends with Andy Aitken. He’s actually one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. We met up a couple of years ago at a Scotland game in Germany. He’s a fucking lawyer now as well.
I don’t remember getting in many fights after that. I noticed that some of the other kids were popular because they could make people laugh. I thought that maybe I could do the same, and after a while I found out that I could. And I got a huge rush out of it. I was then constantly looking for ways to make my classmates laugh.
There was a part of me that just could not resist making a joke when it popped into my head, regardless of how much trouble it would get me in. So most of the time the victim of my attempts to make everyone laugh was me. I would always try to sit at the back of the classroom, but inevitably at some point I would be moved down the front for the rest of the year by the teacher, as a punishment for something stupid I said. Later my Dad told me that he had the same problem. In fact the reason he got into teaching, he told me, was because instead of making jokes from the back of the class, he wanted to do it from the front.
However, sometimes the laughs I generated would be at the expense of others.
I think that initially, there was a realization that when someone made fun of me, I could deflect that by turning around and making fun of someone else who was not as quick-witted. I just wanted to make people laugh and to be popular. At that time, I didn’t really care whether people were laughing at me, or laughing at someone else.
Shamefully, I became the bully. I didn’t ever engage in physical bullying, although there was a lot of that going on in the school, but I’m pretty sure I made some of the other boys miserable. If I thought I could get a laugh, I would make fun of someone’s hair, or the way they walked, the way they ate, their height, their weight, their mannerisms, anything. I was a dick to a lot of people, for a long time. It’s not something I am happy about and I regret it. If any of them happen to read this and they need a more personal apology I will do it.
I was at Glasgow Academy for six years and for the most part I enjoyed it. There were some great teachers there too. Mr. Hadcroft, the Classics teacher remains an inspiration to me. I studied Latin for six years simply because I enjoyed being in his classroom.
I even started to enjoy math(s). One year our teacher Mrs. Inwood assigned the class a project to learn about the stock market and investments. We were all given an imaginary 500 quid to invest in the market and each week we had to report back on our profits and losses. I had no interest in that so, partly as a joke, I proposed to the teacher that I would like to use my imaginary money to bet on horse racing. After all, the stock market was essentially betting right? I think the teacher saw this as an opportunity to teach a young boy about the ills of gambling so she agreed.
Each morning I would report to her the horses and the odds I was betting on, and much to her chagrin, I actually did really well. After a while I was reading the Racing Post every morning, poring over the form of the horses and the condition of the ground at Newmarket and Kempton. At the end of the year I had made more profit than anyone in the class, but Mrs. Inwood refused to give me the prize.
I never ponder about ‘what might have been’, but it’s hard not to consider how different my life would be had I not aced the exam for Glasgow Academy in February 1987. Different friends, teachers, maybe different universities, careers and cities.
Apparently, the school has changed a lot now. The year after I left, Glasgow Academy merged with a nearby girls school and it has been mixed ever since. Even more shockingly, they now have a school football team.
I’m very grateful for the opportunity I was given. I found friends for life, and the education I received laid the foundation for law school and everything that followed, not least my low-level addiction to gambling on horses that continued well into my late teens.