The prompt this week was "it happened on a Sunday" but I was preoccupied with Lieutentant Kije. What has that got to do with Xmas or Sunday you may ask. Read on.
The Christmas you get you deserve.
It happened on a Sunday in November 1975 when I was 14 years old. I had survived High School in Paisley which was no easy feat in those times. I can’t speak for every high school in Paisley but mine was a warzone. Gang culture was fairly prevalent and it was part of the High School playground education. Kids were enrolled into the tiny teams before progressing into the young teams and many graduated to become full blooded gangsters. Piggy Pickett, Speccy Boyd, Basil Burns, Dopey Cochrane and Goofy Doherty may have sounded like characters from Disney movies but they were learning to make real life horror productions. Like many others of that era they honed their talents in the High School playground gaining the extortion, intimidation and violence qualifications which would enable them to build multi-million pound empires of violence, misery and death. High School was about learning to survive in a violent and hostile world where education was about much more than academic achievement. Avoiding getting slashed, stabbed, maimed, bullied, robbed, pregnant, arrested or belted was just as important as gaining qualifications.
I had spent my 12th and 13th years at high school being one of the bright kids. I wasn’t classed as a ‘swat’ or a ‘poof’ but many destined to stay in the High School system deemed I was too smart for my own good. What they had meant was debatable but it translated into me suffering several fat lips, black eyes and a broken nose. Being too stupid to keep my mouth shut or relinquish my dinner money was not a trait encouraged by the system but I was daft enough to survive without my reputation, health or finances suffering too much and clever enough to make it out. The statistics proved I was one of the top 10% academic achievers in the high school system and I was thrust into a world where nothing was as important as qualifications.
That Sunday night in 1975 would have been my fourth month at Grammar School. I hadn’t seen a single fight in the school playground, nothing had been stolen and the gang uniforms of Doc Martins, turned up jeans and Crombie coats had been replaced by Barathea Blazers, Brogues and baggy trousers. The atmosphere was completely different but just as intimidating. Academic discipline was far more powerful than the law of the jungle. Shielded behind tradition the teachers were invincible. They didn’t need a strap of leather to keep their pupils in check. They had Latin, gowns, colours and school songs. They had rules, goals and symbolic achievements. They had Shakespeare, Pythagoras and Prokofiev. The idea of standing at an assembly in the High School singing the school classical song about the Oriflamme would have been laughable but at the Grammar they did it with great gusto because that was what was expected. Expectation was what drove the whole school. They were expected to work hard, gain qualifications, go to university and then run the family business or build on their family’s success. The only pressure exerted was peer or family pressure and the teachers didn’t need the belt or threats of violence to keep order.
That SundayTom Browne revealed the song order on the Sunday night Chart show and confirmed Bohemian Rhapsody had reached number one. Freddie Mercury had gone all Rock Opera and whilst I quite liked the song it just reminded me of all the pretentious presentations at my new school. The Oriflamme and Bohemian Rhapsody were as far apart as Grammar school and High School but in my mind they both represented a change for the worst. In High School I had seen the devastation caused to the school bus the last time a piece of classical music had topped the charts. Simon Park’s orchestral production of Eye level had gone straight to the top of the charts in September 1973. The idea that the theme tune from the Norwegian detective serious Van Der Valk should take up the slot reserved for the Sweet and Ballroom Blitz had enraged the Crombie coated, Doc Martin brigade so much that when it was announced on Radio one at 1pm on that fateful Tuesday lunchtime they had blitzed the school bus slashed the seats, smashed the windows and set fire to a first years jacket. I think the first year was still in it. The idea of a Rock opera topping the charts struck a chord in my educational aspirations meaning I suddenly missed being in the top 10% of the brainless and resented being thrust into the dumbest 10% of the intellectual elite. Second top class, 2B to the bottom class 3G was a long way to fall and the Grammar Oriflamme vision with its bright beacon seemed as dark as the “mamma, I just killed a man” version of High School.
That Sunday was the beginning of the rebellion. Greg Lake’s I believe in father Christmas was number two in the charts and I saw it as an anti-Christmas song. Whether it was or wasn’t, was irrelevant as I twisted the lyrics to suit my vision and ‘the Christmas we get we deserve’ became my put down to anyone who didn’t get what they wanted on their own merit. I knew then I didn’t want to follow the path of a Grammarian. Without their connections and wealth, I needed another route to success.
I survived another four years but never really attained my academic potential at Grammar School. I left it behind and followed my High School instincts. Each and every year thereafter I progressed and got the Christmas I deserved. I never had any complaints.
This Christmas had a little twist in the tale. It was Roy’s fault. He was trying to turn a perfectly normal Paisley High School activity, namely alcohol abuse, into a cultural, academic, abstract poem. He was trying to shine the Oriflamme onto his university drinking days using a classical piece of music. His reference to Lieutenant Kije left me oblivious enough to earn my allotted place in the dumbest 10% of the intellectual elite because despite my Grammar School Education I had little knowledge of early Russian Screenplays and their scores. It was only when Roy mentioned Greg Lake had stolen it from Prokofiev to form the back bone of his Christmas Hit that I realised I had been done. The bastard had sold me a dream of Christmas that had been a complete fairy story and I never saw through his disguise. All those years and I didn’t know I’d been humming a Russian Screenplay. As if that’s wasn’t bad enough the news was broken by a poet, in a poem and poetry just reminds me of Grammar School. I felt like Scaramouche having fandango’s danced all around him.
So that was that. Greg Lake had stoned me and spat in my eye. It was okay, I had attended High School in Paisley. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened. I had been educated to avoid being the victim.
Shortly after Roy’s revelation, on 7th December Greg Lake died and I can’t help thinking, ‘did he get the Christmas he deserved?’ Funnily enough Christmas fell on a Sunday that year. Prokofiev wasn’t Bohemian but maybe someone from my old high school had a Czechoslovakian relative who knew someone in the Russian Mafia who was now confessing “Mama, I just killed a man.”
R.I.P. GREG LAKE – 1947-2016
“I still like the song.”