Monday, 12 March 2012

1987

March in 1987. Nice ? Not really ....

The first few months of 1987 passed quietly enough. In the garage I'd started an apprentice. Bob Bradley, a third year apprentice with a driving licence. He'd been out of work for a few months since his last employer just folded up and closed the doors. This was  happening a lot in Glasgow. Many mid-sized garages were finding it harder and harder to stay in business for  many reasons, the rise of the fast fits like Kwik Fit , reluctance to invest and I have to say it, just sheer incompetence, being among them. Bob however came to me by a recommendation from an old friend in the motor trade, Alex Jarvie. Bob had met Alex in the Mulberry Hotel and asked him for a job so Alex had sent him along to me. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is, if you're looking for steady, reliable, sober sort of people don't expect to find them in pubs !
Anyway, Bob was settling in after a fashion. I can't beat about the bush on this though, in those days he was an awful driver! He drove in a state of constant panic, as if at any moment, the world was going to crash into him. Quite the reverse of course, Bob was more liable to drive into them. He spent too much time looking left and right and peering into the rear view mirror to have any time left to look where he was going. Never his fault though, it was because every other driver on the roads of Glasgow were vindictive psychotics and they were all looking for him and him alone. That was why they would slam their brakes on just in front of him ! It was a shame really, because the wee Bedford HA van, that another good friend, Jock Murdoch, had given me, would almost certainly have continued to serve us well for another year. Not with a set of smashed headlamps, a wrecked radiator and an origami styled bonnet it wouldn't !

So , we all woke up one morning in March to find the above. This paralysed Glasgow for the best part of a week. Bob from Castlemilk obviously couldn't get into the garage. I was closer, so I walked, but there was very little I could do, customers couldn't get in and I couldn't get any parts I needed. All I could do was finish off any jobs we had going and do some garage housekeeping. Mind you, I've always wondered how Bob could get to the Mulberry Hotel most evenings that week because the garage wasn't that much further ?

I was building up a pretty good list of regular customers, mostly by word of mouth, which I've always found to be the best way. Of course there were some real "stoaters !" These are the ones that stay longest in my memory for various reasons. There were some people that I just did not want to get involved with, either because of their reputation or quite simply, I just didn't like the cut of their jib. What's the point in trying to have business relations with somebody when there's an air of distrust hanging over ?  That goes for both parties, if I felt I couldn't trust someone or got the impression that they couldn't trust me it was no go.

 "Sorry, I can't help you, why don't you try the main dealers or the garage round the corner ?

"Because they sent me to you !"

 This was when I learned just how small Glasgow is, and how quickly a reputation spreads. And I'm talking about customers here, not garages ! At that time there existed an unofficial motor trade Black List and woe betide you if you ever ended up on it. We knew of some people in Glasgow who had to go to extraordinary lengths to get work done on their cars just because they were on this Black List.
Black Bob, hands in pockets !
I'll give you an example of one, actually a family or a clan. I'd opened an account with House of S*** because if you chose carefully you could get good proper brand name components and equipment at very good prices. It was a kind of warehouse that would sell absolutely anything if it could turn a coin on it. Especially tinned spinach, remind me later if I don't tell you about S*** Brothers and Tinned Spinach !! And because they intended to eventually dominate the market they had nothing to do with any of the other wholesalers, especially the Motor Trade specialists and in this case particularly if they were American , like Dana. So because they weren't really experts in motor trade stuff they usually priced their stock about 20% above their buying price and this led to some really good bargains. One morning I was in the warehouse stocking up when I was approached and told that Mr S*** wanted a word with me. I'd actually met a couple of the older S*** brothers when I worked in Fairbairns so I thought maybe one of them just wanted to see me in the office to say hello and maybe give me a better discount on some things just for old times sake . Aye, Right !
"There's a car at the door waiting to take you "
"Where ? Look, I've got overalls on, for goodness sake !"
"It disnae matter, you're to come up tae the hoose in Pollokshields"
So there I was in the middle of the back seat of a BMW 7series with a bunch of characters who could have stepped out of a bad British urban crime movie listening to them  talking Urdu.
We swept into the drive of one of the bigger houses in Pollokshields and I was ushered into a hall and invited to take off my boots before being led in for an audience with Mr S***. The room was practically in darkness, the curtains drawn tight and the only light came from a couple of candles. And there, reclining on a pile of cushions was Mr S***. One of the younger Mr S***s, not the one of the older ones who I remember always wore well tailored three piece suits. He was wearing the white  shalwar kameez with a pashmina shawl round his shoulders. When my eyes got used to the candlelight I looked around the room and got the feeling that I could be in a medieval oriental chamber. Especially with Mr S*** there looking like a desert prophet.

"Sit!"

Not "would you like to be seated ? " or "Let me find you a chair" because as far as I could see there wasn't a chair in the room.
So I sat......and waited,......and waited .
Then, without taking his eyes off me, he reached over an rang a wee bell. I kid you not ! An old woman came shuffling in, fully veiled, and and listened to him for a few seconds then scuttled out only to return within minutes with a tray of food which was laid before me.

"Eat!"

 was the second word he said to me.
I waited till he had said grace then making sure I only used my right hand I ate from the side of the platter nearest to me. I didn't eat much because I had my lunch box back at the garage and although I couldn't fault the food offered  I wanted to leave room for the lunch Mimsie had made me. I noticed that he only ate as much as me and when Allah had been invoked a few more times the bell was rung and the old woman came in to clear the tray away.

"There is no alcohol, we live according to the teachings of the prophet, peace be upon him. Would you like water or coffee or tea?"

By now he was becoming positively chatty.

"I'll have the same as you, please"

Then over a couple of glasses of water we had, not exactly a conversation, but also not quite a sermon. He told me that the family now had six BMW 7 series and were about to buy a couple of new 5 series. They were all going to stay in the family as he didn't believe in trading cars in, he only wanted to buy new. But he regarded it as his duty not to be wasteful with money. Yes, this was a man with six, going on for eight, fairly new BMW's, not second hand Nissans or Toyotas. He had decided that the family was paying too much for maintenance for the cars because

 " you know, these are good cars, they don't need all this servicing every year, this is just a western trick to get money from us !"

 He didn't want me to service the cars to make sure that they didn't break down, he wanted me to fix them when they broke.

"These 7 series of ours have never broke down in the three years we've had them "

" That's true, that's because they've been getting serviced in the dealers. If they hadn't been getting regular oil changes etc, they surely would have broken down"

"Yes, yes, I understand, you only want to do the servicing so that you can make some money too. OK, OK, but we'll tell you when the cars need servicing, not you ! And if we ever do ever have a little problem with one of the cars, you'll give me your home phone number so that we can call you any time we need you ? Like just now, one of the cars has had  a silly yellow light on the dashboard for a couple of months that won't go out, and it's making a funny noise now when we brake."

" That sounds to me like it needs a set of disc pads and possibly a set of discs too, not a cheap job "

" No! no! no discs ! That's what the dealer said, but they're just trying to rip us off. It just needs front pads and we have some in the warehouse that you can use. So how little much money (sic) do you want to fit them? And will it be ready for four o'clock to collect the children from school ?"

Now, that is not at all the way the conversation went, in between what was said above were bits like
 "Why do you let your women walk about the streets like whores ?" and
 "AIDS is a plague sent by Allah to punish the west, that's why Islamic countries don't have AIDS"  and
 " You might be an honourable man but I can't respect you until your beard is longer" and
 "You people are always getting divorces, our marriages are all arranged by the family , that's why we never divorce "
 And all the time the poor prophet, peace be upon him, was being dragged into it. There was a lovely Irish family I used to know very well, and the old mother was forever coming away with things like "O Mary, Jesus and Joseph bless us all "  and "Jesus and all the saints in heaven preserve us ". They were like linguistic flourishes, or ribbons in a girls hair and to me they were charming. But the way Mr S*** spat out his holy remarks reminded me of punk T-shirts with provocative offensive slogans written on them.
People that know me say that I can be pretty thick-skinned when I want, I would rather say that most of the time I choose not to react to hostility. That afternoon I definitely felt hostility. And I chose not to do any work for Mr Sher...ever ! Like I've said before, good business relations are based on mutual respect and trust, and no matter how long my beard was Mr S*** was never going to have any respect for me.

George Spence and John Cherry.

But was there a life away from the garage ? Sure was ! I'd become very fond of walking through the wilder parts of the west of  Scotland in the Spring. Particularly Knoydart. It's one of these places that can seem so remote nowadays and I always got the feeling of a civilisation in retreat when I go there. I've often been to parts of Scotland where it seemed as if I'd just missed it and  only got a glimpse of something vanishing forever, like the ripple on the surface of the loch. I could almost believe in ghosts in these places. I was fond of the profound silence and the total absence of the signs of mankind. So why on earth did I go that spring, to Knoydart, with George Spence ? George is one of the most entertaining men I have ever met. But, jings, does he talk ! I'm scrambling up a hill with him, gasping for breath  and he's still talking ! I swear he breathes through his arse ! He most certainly doesn't talk through it !
A bit of a background to George. Sandra had known George and Linda Spence for a number of years through the property business. Every time they were in Sandra's office she would tell me about this really fascinating character and I was really keen to meet him. As it turned out I met him for the first time through an acquaintance in the motor trade and not unnaturally  George got talking. It pretty soon came out that this was the character Sandra had been talking about. Glasgow, small world and all that sort of stuff ! Next thing Sandra and I were invited to an evening at John and Marge Cherry's, John Cherry being the mutual acquaintance from the motor trade. We started seeing a lot of the Spences then. They were fine hosts and damned good company.
George in Barrisdale Bothy in Knoydart.
George just about to vanish .
George was a military man, he was totally addicted to the smell of Blanco and Boot Polish. His entire life was run on a military regime. I'm not being unkind when I say, a slightly fantastic military regime ! George would have been a perfect Field Marshal for Alice in Wonderland's Red Queen. To give you some examples, George was a bit older than me and he'd done National Service in the army. He was posted to Borneo and this was the high point of Georges life. He'd learned jungle warfare and survival techniques to probably the same level as modern day Special Forces.


 Go for a walk on a hill with him and he could genuinely disappear in front of your eyes, his grasp of the principles of camouflage were so good. He was never any more than twenty seconds away from his survival pack, waking or sleeping. He demonstrated to me how he could survive with his pack for at least a fortnight anywhere in the UK. If George had decided to go missing, the authorities would have found Lord Lucan sooner. He could fascinate me for hours describing the best way to sharpen a bayonet, how to cook a lizard, the best way to shoot an enemy through jungle foliage, and how to swindle Her Majesty's Revenue Collectors. What did George do for a living ? Good question ! Only George could really tell you that. Some things you'd know about , like the time he was employed as chief of security by some American Oil business and had an office in Park Circus. He also did well buying and selling collectables like porcelains and the kind of stuff you see on Antiques Roadshow on BBC tv. At one time he had a fair going wedding car hire business. But his biggest success, and biggest downfall was The Cooker Factory. At one point the social services were giving poor people money to buy cookers but then, when they found out that the money was being spent on drink and drugs they would only give a voucher that could be used to buy a cooker. This is where the Cooker Factory comes in. George would take the £100 voucher in exchange for a second hand cooker worth £30 and give the voucheree £20 cash, drink money and sit back and congratulate himself on his £70 profit.  "Wait a minute, the arithmetics surely agley here is it not ?" Not at all, in a couple of weeks, the voucheree would bring back the cooker and sell it back to George for £20 worth of Buckfast tokens. Yes I know, the arithmetic still doesn't work. Eventually Her Majesty's Custom and Excise people also came to that conclusion. Her Majesty being of course the occupier of Buckinham Palace, not Alice's Red Queen.
 "Well" said George, " I walked out that office without a penny in my pocket. I even had to give them the keys to my bonny Mercedes. So I took off my socks and my Anello and Davide hand crafted brogues and walked home barefoot because I didn't know when I would ever be able to buy another pair of shoes!"
 This was when George declared war on HM custom and excise and HM revenue and any other like minded minions such as Glasgow city council and the TV licencing authority.
So George lived on his wits, and he lived well on his wits. I often wonder just how well he would have done if it hadn't been for his vendetta against authority? Because it was truly obsessive. He would often leave the house in total disguise in case they were watching him. And everything was cash or barter and any bank accounts were just for show.
So that might give you an idea of George Spence. I'll tell you later about his brother and his nephews and their involvement with our family.


Life at Minard was settling down into a sort of routine, money was still very tight as Sandra and I were bearing the full cost of the mortgage and quite a lot of the other bits and pieces. We still don't know to this day if what we did then was really for the best. Sandra and I had decided that we weren't going to give Mimsie the full financial picture as at the time we didn't think she could have coped with the implications. Which could have been, the family getting split up and living in council houses in the back of beyond. We should have told Dave and Ricky. But I didn't want to worry them. I didn't think that they could have done anything at the time anyway, so what was the point in us all being unhappy. My Dad used to say that ignorance is bliss and if you didn't know about something it wasn't going to worry you. If there was a monster round the corner, worrying about it wouldn't make it go away, but at least you'd be happy right up to the point where it jumped out and ate you. You must admit his philosophy was attractive in some ways.
So if we were wrong, we're sorry. All we can say is that we thought we were doing our best for everyone.


Me disguised as a Scotsman.


Mimsie was getting back into the way of it by now. She had kind of filled the gap that her sisters had left in her social life with her cousins Greta and Ian and their families. I'll always be grateful to them for that, despite what other people will say.
I've put in some photos of a cousin's wedding we were at and you can see Mimsie was enjoying herself. I, perhaps was not over enthusiastic about following the tartan herd, but there you go, my one and only time disguised as a Scotsman !

Mimsie not disguised as a Scotsman !






Lucy was doing well at school but Sandra thought that it was time she started learning about how a household actually runs. Thinking back on this, we should probably press ganged Dave and Ricky into this then it wouldn't have been such a shock to them when they had to fend for themselves . Anyway, we decided that Lucy had to learn that the rubbish in the house wasn't taken away by fairies during the night and that there wasn't a secret magic wand that did the dishes.  Hutchesons Grammar School was too upper crust to teach the "gels" about that sort of thing, that was surely what servants were for, weren't they ? So Sandra drew up a work list for Lucy to do, take the rubbish out to the bin, wash the dishes, learn how to drive a washing machine, learn how to shop for food and other necessities and how to prepare an evening meal for the three of us. We sound like a couple of Victorian monsters don't we ?  But I think Lucy is glad we did it, because nowadays she's running her own household with two kids on her own and she's doing just fine !
Lucy supposedly doing the washing.
And she did well out of it financially too. She would spend the housekeeping budget very wisely and any savings she made went right into her purse. As if we didn't know !  We weren't complaining, other people were getting fish and chips for their dinner, we were eating smoked haddock souffle ! And we dutifully listened to her telling us how scandalously wasteful we were with toilet paper and if we didn't improve there was going to be rationing ! She also learned the art of delegation. Occasionally I would drop in to Minard in the afternoon to find Lucy lying back in her chamber listening to Nick Kamen on the record player while a bunch of her pals were washing the dishes and doing the hoovering. Or, she knew that if she told Mimsie that she couldn't remember how to set the washing machine that Mimsie would do the washing for her and probably do the ironing too! What could we say ? the work was being done and we were getting a laugh out of it....and smoked haddock souffles !


Lucy doing domestic duties, properly !





Mimsie's Greenhouse.
Mimsie had sort of taken over from Dad in the garden. Sadly there were never to be any more fresh home grown vegetables, that was just too much work for her, but she got a great deal of pleasure out of her garden. It was a madcap sort of garden but we liked it. Often when Mimsie planted stuff we had no idea what was going to come up, it was frequently a surprise and all the more welcome for that.
So for Christmas that year we all clubbed together and bought her a greenhouse to bring on her flowers and plants and later it became a sort of wee sunhouse for her to have very exclusive garden tea parties in. It had to be exclusive as there was only room for two in it !


That, more or less was 1987, the next year would start to see my business taking off, meaning more work, more expenditure and bigger risks.


Lucy and the Daughters of Darkness.
































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