Round 1: The school of hard knocks

Round 1: The school of hard knocks

It’s 1916. Among the great powers of Europe, ‘the war to end all wars’ is raging. But, in households across Scotland, it’s the war against hunger and want the ordinary folk are waging. And me? I’m a new mouth to feed, and welcome too. For Mum and Dad have no money worries, in the sense that they have no money to worry about.

Dad is fortunate not to have to go to the front. He’s more immediately engaged in taking on Old King Coal – who, let it be said, takes few prisoners either. But what does a wean in a small Lanarkshire mining village know of the great struggles of the time? In the main, life is cheery in the Kelly household and boyhood passes in a blur.

When schooldays come round, there are so many interests for me. But few of them are in the classroom: great games of hunch-cuddy-hunch; the thrill of being asked by bigger boys to play in goal; getting the odd black eye and (more rarely) dishing one out.There must have been some learning involved, though. For when the time comes to change schools, they send me to the academy. But the joy of the daily train journey is tempered by lessons too serious for my liking. Learning in English is bad enough, but in French!? Matters are made worse by the fact that the Irishman teaching me French seems to like his cane a lot. Well, at least a lot more than he likes me. After so many whackings, I have a stroke of genius. “The Glasgow-to-Edinburgh road is being built,” I tell my pals. “Why go to school at all, when there must be a need for bright boys to make tea or run errands?” The steamroller makes a huge impression on me, as does the gaffer’s tacketty boot swiftly applied to my nether region. One of the fiercest men I ever saw, I blame him still for stunting my growth. Better days lay ahead: mooching around the big stores to stay warm and dry, watching out for the supervisors who would fling you out. But, strangely enough, I can’t recall ever being tempted to steal anything. It’s just truancy, but still enough to get you into hot water at home – not to mention expelled from school – as I discover when the schoolboard officer pays Mum and Dad a visit.

After the high jinks, we’re all for the high jump: sent back to the lower school, with our tails between our legs and our new found notoriety not getting us very far at all. This come-down is as nothing, though, to the gathering economic gloom. It’s 1929. The Wall Street Crash and the Depression hit everyone where it hurts most: in the stomach.The local pits are worked out, they say, and unemployment becomes a stark reality. Dad and my older brother – who is now fourteen and a working man – are forced to look for work in the pits of Fife. And so the family gathers up its bits and pieces and follows.

Scottish mining village 1930s

Scottish mining village 1930s

There’s accommodation to be had, of sorts. But not the sort we’re used to: back to back houses, just a room and kitchen and so gloomy from the outside. But, inside, once the fire’s lit and there’s a kettle on the hob, it’s more like home. But finding pals is a different thing. As is usual in a small village, the first thing to be done is prove your fighting abilities. So, it’s not long before a local bully is taking the mickey out of my slow, West of Scotland speech: a signal for a donnybrook in which David once more defeats Goliath. And that’s that, I think.

Until I turn away and he hits me with an iron plate they use for bolting pit rails together. I never see it coming and, with a split head, I need medical attention. But not before I make sure that the doctor will have two patients when he arrives…

I never go back to school. Our family, now numbering eight children, finds a more comfortable home. At fourteen years of age, I join my father and brother working down the pits, hewing coal.

Round 2: The pits