Jim Byrne: Part 1: The forgotten life – Childhood
As a child I thought I could do magic; or could do at some point in the past; I just needed to remember the magic words. I am still trying to remember them.
At work with dad
I recall being taken to work with my dad; I was maybe about 7 – eating pieces while sitting on porcelain toilets; waiting to be plumbed in (the toilets not me). At tea break in the morning I ate all the pieces I had; even though I felt full after the first one. I was confused; nobody said not to. I had none left for lunch.
Which reminds me of the year I spent working in my dad’s plumbing business as a ‘plumber’s mate’ – when I was 17. Building sites seemed to me to be happy places; full of big characters; full of laughs but also full of not always so light-hearted abuse dished out between workers in different trades.
One thing I remember being surprised to find was that Danish pastries and cakes were at the centre of building site culture – as was strong tea and the, always on, radio.
Both 7 year olds and naive 17 year olds are perfect candidates to be sent for ‘long stands’ or ‘sky hooks’. I can’t recall if I was a victim of those pranks – though more than likely I was.
Being leader of the street gang
I had the strange situation of having high social status (small s) at home – but low social status at school. In my home streets I was gang leader (under 10’s division?); which among other things involved riding my bike faster than every other kid, being the ‘striker’ in the street football team and fighting new arrivals to ensure the king of the street was not overthrown.
Popular street games included throwing bricks at each other across the wasteland ‘around our back’. We took the precaution of digging out trenches and erecting brick and stone barriers. The debris-strewn wasteland we mainly played in was left behind after the Prefabs – built parallel to our street were demolished.
This was the 1960’s and Clydebank was still not fully tidied up after the Blitz; for kids that was great as there were plenty of underground shelters to hide in and plenty of things to dig up from the waste grounds. The best find was a rusty gun; which looked like a Colt 45 we had seen in TV westerns.
Another strong memory I have from childhood is of being in bed for days and weeks enduring the physical and psychological torture of being unable to breath. From the age of two I had very bad asthma.
I spent so much time with my shoulders up around my ears trying to force air into my lungs – that my rib cage became distorted – my back became hunched, my front became pigeon chested and my shoulders became round. These physical attributes made me self conscious (particularly when at the baths with the school). The lack of air reaching my poor brain is probably what shaped me as a person.
I suspect some brain trauma due to lack of oxygen is the culprit and responsible for my bad memory and the unusually large hole in the middle of my brain (statistically speaking, I’m an outlier). Either that or it made me so stupid that I think that brain damage can be caused by asthma.
Unfortunately my affliction coincided with a time where doctors had decided that asthma was a psychosomatic condition. My mother interpreted this to mean I was ‘putting it on’. From then on she was less sympathetic to my self inflicted medical condition; as doctors were always right. This when combined with a level of poverty that meant using public transport was too expensive (for one adult and six kids) meant many long wheezy walks when visiting relatives.
Asthma at that age is very difficult to endure mentally. During long asthma attacks I would try to divorce the physical exertions from my inner ‘life’; I’d try to transport my mind somewhere else – somewhere where the physical exertions didn’t exist.
Asthma also shaped my dreams; the difficulties of breathing manifested themselves in my dreams of doing hard repetitive work – swinging a hammer to drive stakes in while building a railway track was one common dream. I felt delirious for quite a lot of the time during my times with asthma. There were no asthma ‘relievers’ in those days or drugs to stop or reduce the lung inflammation; asthma attacks were not short episodes – they could go on for weeks.
This, and its consequences, led to me developing a feeling sorry for myself attitude. Sickly looking kids with asthma don’t get picked for the school football team – even if they are good at, and love, football – as ironically I was and did; I had done the requisite 10,000 hours of practice playing football using a tennis ball In the school sheds. Which was why I was so good in my street team; at home I, of course, picked the team – so I had no need to worry about being left out. I say ‘picked’ but nowthat I think about it – if you lived in our street you were in the team; there was no real picking going on.
I remember my mother getting summoned to the school to be told to ensure her son stopped running around so much at playtime – as the loud wheezing was upsetting the other children.
Either the psychological traits of ‘asthmatics’ (look them up on the web) or these early experiences left me with a dislike of institutions and authority; both workplaces and educational. Is it a coincidence that I work for myself?
An artistic sensibility
When I was about 12 I won an art competition in the Glasgow Herald; I had painted a porcelain pig; which must have been good, I guess. The prize was a year of weekend painting classes at Glasgow School of Art. I have only very vague memories of my art student days (very funny Jim); mostly consisting of walking down dark corridors and pushing through large heavy doors in the Art School and squeezing white paint from a big tube onto a plastic paint tray. I don’t recall being taught anything – though I do recall that going to the class involved getting the train each week, which was a big adventure.
I took up guitar when I was 13, because my next door neighbour, Derek, did; and my competitive spirit meant I intended to get better than my neighbour very quickly. This came in useful when at 17 I joined a Punk band (not that you needed to be a great musician to be in a Punk band). During my last school years I played school disco gigs and wrote songs. As a band we thought success was inevitable; we didn’t realize that we would need to tell people other than our friends that we existed. On the upside, this early exposure resulted in a lifelong love of playing music, songwriting and recording.
Other things I remember from childhood would be: running away from school on my first day; fighting with my brothers and sisters; throwing a dart that stuck in the ceiling and then fell and stuck in my brother John’s head; being in hospital and believing that nobody would ever come to visit me; the horse-drawn coal lorry that trundled up our cinder covered back lane; the related coal yard and stables; the trumpet of the rag and bone man; fishing for goldfish in the canal (the canal water was warmed by Singer Sewing Machine factory – enabling the goldfish to live in it); falling from a rope directly on to my coccyx; being trapped in a bomb shelter when a local bad boy barricaded the entrance; having my bike stolen; loving being with my dad building something and being a keen gardener (a passion I shared with an elderly neighbour).
The eleven years I spent at Primary and then Comprehensive school I’ll skip; I don’t remember much – and I wasn’t a model pupil. I was good at art but got pushed in a more academic direction; that was a mistake; I would say I am more a creative than an academic. One thing I do remember was how cheeky I could be to the teachers; I would put my hand up and if the teacher took too long to say ‘what is it Byrne’, I’d say, I’d forgot. Very irritating behaviour. I had a talent for cheek – and still do – but there’s little use for it these days.
This section: Jim Byrne's forgotten life, Memoir
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- The forgotten life: Part 3: Education, music, pop stars
- The forgotten life: Part 2: Working, not working, half working
- Jim Byrne: Part 1: The forgotten life – Childhood