Robert Bresson wrote: “Laugh at a bad reputation. Fear a good one that you could not sustain.”
I used to want a bad reputation… or a good one. The difference didn’t seem to matter. The first fictional character I ever identified with was Frankenstein’s Monster. Growing up, or trying to, in Maryhill, Glasgow, doing good or doing evil seemed equally valid to me, but being ignored, invisible, cast out, hungry, did not.
Now, ideas of bad or good seem less interesting than the details, the facts, what is… and is not.
In The Book of Man I wrote:
The middens were infested with rats. They’d appeared in force during the months when the Cleansing Department went on strike and rubbish filled the back courts in stinking piles. When the strike was over and the rubbish was gone, the rats were still with us. They got so big that the tabloids began printing stories about “super-rats.” For once they weren’t exaggerating. They were true, the stories about huge hungry rats attacking babies in their cots, and fighting back like angry cats when hysterical mothers tried to drive them away. Nobody wanted to believe the Victorian horror stories under the banner headlines. But, in 1970s Glasgow, they were true.
Over the years, readers have praised my horrific imagination when discussing that part of the book. But I didn’t imagine it. The part about rats attacking babies is most likely apocryphal, but the rest is true. When I saw this photograph from 1975, I remembered it again, the mountains of plastic garbage bags, and the big rats running around. In the evenings, little boys would go out rat-hunting, sitting on top of the middens with stones and bricks at the ready, trousers tucked into our socks so rats couldn’t run up our legs. I remember rat footprints in the dried lard in a frying pan.
I happened across the cover image of this book online. It brought to mind a Maryhill gang song I learned as a child:
Ah went tae a party on Setturday night
Ra tongs wur therr an’ they waanted tae fight
So Ah pult ma blade oot as quick as a flash
An’ Ah shoutit, “Ra Young Team, ra Young Team, ya bass”
The furst wan thit came wis five foot four
Ah liftit ma boot an’ he fell tae ra floor
Ra cunt wis in agony, ra cunt wis in pain
So Ah liftit ma boot an’ Ah fuckt him again