Last summer, just as the schools broke up and we were baking in weather the envy of southern Europe, I mentioned to a colleague that it’d be brilliant to be a wide-eyed P1 pupil again, stopping for the first summer holiday of many where the gap between the end of June and middle of August was a whole lifetime, where the sun was constantly out and where each new day was filled with the promise of do-what-you-like adventure.
Nostalgia’s a funny thing. The summer of 1976 is forever-burned on my memory for two reasons:
I’d just finished primary 2 (thinking about it, it might actually have been primary 1 – It was a long time ago…) and I was beginning to make sense of my position in time and space. Young Sandy Davidson, a 3 year-old from the being-built Bourtreehill area of Irvine had disappeared around Easter time, never ever to be found. Whispers of bad men and concrete burials in house foundations could be heard between the gaps in the Action Man battles we waged in Chrissy Longmuir’s back garden; sombre, understated and in the background but there nonetheless.
Plenty of theories abounded, but to this day, no-one knows for certain what happened to him. Tensions were understandably high amongst our parents, but for the most part my pals and I were oblivious to it, even after witnessing a helicopter land on the field next to our houses and seeing half a dozen frogmen go in and under the River Annick in their fruitless search for Sandy. For many years this remained the most exciting thing I’d ever seen.
Days later, when, walking home from school, my two pals and I continued past our road end and onwards to collect frogs from the big concrete pipes that would service the next phase of the estate where Sandy had vanished from. We were met on our eventual return by 3 distraught, frantic mothers, given far more than a quick skelp (out of relief and love, y’understand) and kept inside for the rest of the day.
So, ye can keep yer Pistols and yer punk and yer political unrest – it’s these Sandy-related incidents that are the events that burn brightest on my mind whenever I see or hear any mention of the year 1976.
When the school stopped, that summer really did seem to last forever. It was, to borrow a tired old cliché, the warmest since records began. A slint of sunlight creeping between the gap in my curtains and onto my face on the top bunk was my daily alarm clock and I was up and at ’em from its first warm rays until I’d been dragged in, scrubbed clean in the kitchen sink and put to bed with the sky not yet quite dark enough for my liking.
I also have a distinct memory of cycling my bike in nonstop circles on the back grass, the piece of cardboard from my mum’s old Silk Cut box clack-clack-clacking away happily on the back spokes, while my dad made French toast in the kitchen. It must’ve been a Sunday, for I can remember the signature sax of Gerry Rafferty’s Baker Street playing loudly as Radio 1’s Hit Parade counted down on the wee radio on the windowsill, wafting from the kitchen and out the open back door into the sweltering early evening sky, carried by plumes of unwanted smoke from the French Toast my dad was crucifying at the time.
Another year and then you’d be ha-ppy
Just one more year and then you’d be ha-ppy
I remember my dad scrape-scrape-scraping the worst of the toast over the sink and telling me it was fine before I ate it.
But you’re cryin’, you’re crying now.
It really was the best of times.
Nostalgia’s a funny thing right enough….
A quick check reveals that Baker Street wasn’t released until the 3rd of February 1978!
So not only am I two years early, the chances of being out the back door in the baking early evening February heat while my Dad merrily burnt French toast in the kitchen are non-existent. Man! I’ve lived with this notion for 43 years and it’s been wrong all that time. This is seismic, believe me. Jeez.
Thankfully David F. Ross has a better grasp of the times. The Ayrshireman has form when it comes to entertaining crime noir that comes gift-wrapped in cultural reference points from the past. You might be familiar already with his Last Days Of Disco trilogy. If not, you might want to get acquainted with it. For his latest offering, David has once again looked to the past for inspiration.
Set in the summer of ’76, Welcome To The Heady Heights features a rum cast of dodgy TV personalities, iffy politicians, misogynistic polis and shonky boy bands. It’s a great read; equal parts hilarious and hideous, devious and disturbing. Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, the story revolves around Glaswegian bus driver Archie Blunt. Recently unemployed, Archie falls in with some of the city’s criminal fraternity and ends up embroiled in all sorts of goings-on. When he unwittingly saves the life of Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, a prime time TV personality (a thinly-disguised amalgamation of career makers/breakers Hughie Green and Simon Cowell), his life takes a turn for the better. Seizing his chance, he forms a boy band, gets them on the telly and, to twist a phrase, obscurity (rather than opportunity) knocks. Keen observers will spot a friendly nod to fellow Ayrshiremen the Trashcan Sinatras here.
Being set a decade or so away from Glasgow’s reinvention as a City Of Culture, the grime and soot of a buckled and bent city stick to the pages, unwelcome reminders of Glasgow’s recent past as anything but cultured. References are made to the Great Eastern, the hostel a mile or so from Glasgow Cross in the city’s East End that provides accommodation for homeless men. In the story, a highly influential group of movers and shakers exploit the situation to their own ends. Recent scandalous cases involving Jimmy Saville, Max Clifford and the topical-once-more Michael Jackson should give you some idea of what goes on.
Blunt finds himself in the position of being able to blackmail the group but his amateur status in a world of hardened criminals and ne’er-do-wells means that oor Airchie is always going to be up against it. The band he puts together – a living room-pleasing take on the Bay City Rollers – receives the highest score on the epoch-defining on-stage clap-o-meter and are destined for great things – the Heady Heights, indeed, but, just as things are looking up, the Sex Pistols appear on Bill Grundy’s show, Archie’s band decide on a drastic new direction and predictable chaos ensues.
Many thanks to David (above) and Anne Cater at Orenda Books for asking Plain Or Pan to be a stop-off on the book’s world tour that’s been zig-zagging its way across all manner of blogs for the month of March. Being one of the last is tricky as by now, I’d imagine, most reviewers will have said everything that needs to be said. For this reason, I’ve intentionally not read the other reviews to date (although I’ll be going back later on to compare what I’ve written with all of the others). Apologies then (and damn you!) if this review has appeared in similar form elsewhere, French toast and wonky Baker Street references notwithstanding.