A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 310

Poets who matter: No. 17 – Sir Walter Scott

ROCHESTER – Here’s an update on the scouring of the city for a new poet laureate: the dead leaves were raked off the front page of the city’s website in December and black berets went back up for a few hours – this in response to the search committee’s decision to widen the search area to neighboring communities and (this is huge) include the rival cities of Dover and Somersworth. At least, in theory.

I say in theory, for should a poet be chosen from either metropolis, that non-Rochester citizen will have to do more than just pledge allegiance to the Flag, the U.S. Constitution plus Amendments, Troops in Harm’s Way, Motherhood, Apple Pie and no State Income Tax. A citizen of Somersworth or Dover, ere being crowned Rochester’s Poet Laureate, will have to swear loyalty to the Lilac City. It’s a wonder the selection committee didn’t also vote to bring back the criminal background check and throw in a cavity search.

Even the oath of fealty may be a bit too demanding, though, for it is likely to attract only the traitors and quislings of the poetic fraternity just beyond this city’s southern border. Wouldn’t you think that a poet of passion and conviction could spout in Rochester, while tacitly supporting Dover’s high school football team, under a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy? Seemingly not.

Such fierce Tri-city parochialism is echoed in the ever-so-slightly modified lines of Sir Walter Scott:


Is there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native city!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As Dover-wards his footsteps turn'd,
From wandering Rochester for a bittie.


Talking of rival trios, it was almost 35 years ago, as a Glasgow police officer, when I was first tasked with running the Easterhouse Project, a pair of rugged corrugated metal and cinder block halls built by the Army in a sprawling housing estate of over 40,000 people, where continually clashing teenage gangs had become the talk of Britain. Exceeding the Rochester-Dover-Somersworth mistrust was that of the Drummy, Toi and Aggro, those exponents of the violent clash and occasional brutal death, whose most useful attribute was in providing an unending source of fodder for the legal, court and prison systems.

Rather than, as Scott put it,


…moralize on the decay

Of Scottish strength in modern day …


I increased the Project’s hours for energy-burning sports like indoor soccer and weightlifting, and built a discotheque in one hall, which provided revenue for the Project and romantic opportunity for the teens. I also used a new 15-seater van, donated by the Prince Charles Trust, to take folks from the local senior centers and toddlers from the kindergartens to places of interest, like castles and zoos, with gang members on a rotating basis elevated to chaperone status.

The van also allowed me, with the help of Duncan Harvie of the Langside Climbing Club to take the Drummy, Toi and Aggro into the Scottish highlands for hillwalking and rock-climbing adventures - adventure being the key word, as we were never quite sure what would transpire.

Parallel to all this a world away, two American researchers, Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, had articulated a theory of gangs in a book called Delinquency and Opportunity, first published in 1960. By the mid to late 1970s, this work had gained traction in the worlds of sociology and (more importantly) political decision-making in the United States in particular.

Criminology study groups from far-flung places like Tasmania and Cincinnati, Ohio, began to arrive at the Easterhouse Project escorted by high-ranking Glasgow police officers to see how theory translated into successful practice. It seems Cloward and Ohlin’s analysis of gang cultures – criminal, territorial and retreatist (druggy) – could be applied, if imperfectly to the Easterhouse situation, where delinquency and an appalling lack of opportunity (the youth unemployment rate was around 46 percent at that time) neatly entwined. Coupled with another interesting sociology book of the time, Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression, the increasingly successful work at the Project had theoretical underpinnings. Oh boy, what a leader I was!

Around this time, having just taken a Toi group up to Glencoe (See Poets who matter: No. 16 – William Wordsworth), Duncan and I organized a weekend trip for eight or nine older Drummy boys to the Torridon area, in Scotland’s beautiful and remote northwest. The goal was the five-mile traverse of a daunting mountain called Liathach, which the hiking guide author W.A. Poucher calls “the mightiest and most imposing in Great Britain.”

It was a five-hour drive from Glasgow, and setting off at five o’clock, we reached Glen Torridon a bit after 10 p.m. on a fine summer’s evening, with still more than an hour of daylight left, that far north.

Rather than book our wild crew into Torridon Youth Hostel, we had brought camping gear enough for everyone, and a couple of miles up the glen, opposite Liathach, there was a stand of trees with a clearing where tents could be pitched.

Things went uncommonly well. We set up camp, chugged down a couple of beers, and were in our sleeping bags before midnight. Duncan had breakfast for the Drummy lads cooking on the stoves early next morning, and before 9 a.m., we were climbing up the mountain’s eastern flank. Progress along the ridge was sure and steady, with the experience elevated by a day of spectacular weather. We lunched on the highest point, Spidean a’ Choire Leith, almost 3,500 feet up with a glorious view of the Atlantic, and then continued westwards, dropping down the tricky stone shoot in mid-afternoon, awed by the grandeur of the precipitous sandstone cliffs.


These mighty cliffs, that heave on high

Their naked brows to middle sky,

Indifferent to the sun or snow,

Where naught can fade and naught can blow.


So penned Scott of the Cuillin ridge on Skye, off to the west, with his dramatic words just as apt in Torridon, I thought.

Then we struck back up the road to the campsite, cooked supper, and, with the Drummy boys all having turned 18 and drinking age (they were carefully chosen) we headed for the Beinn Damh bar.

As luck would have it, there was a disco, and a parcel of local girls who asked the boys to a party when the bar closed at 11 p.m. Again, perhaps buoyed by the achievement of the Liathach traverse, everyone was mellow. When the drink ran out around 1 a.m., the Drummy were content to head back to camp, driven by the knowledge that a few cans of Tennents had been stashed there for emergencies.

Shuggy Cumberford, before departing, even obtained the phone number of a young lass from the neighboring village.

“She’s fae Diabeg,” said Shug, adding, with immense worldliness, “Or so she says.”

Arriving back at the clearing in the wood, I saw that another tent had been pitched, during the course of the evening, a little way off from our group, but as there was no sign of life, we paid it no heed.

“Let’s build a fire,” I suggested, being in enormous good humor due to the success of the Drummy’s outing. The lower branches of the surrounding pine trees were brittle and dead, making for excellent fuel, and soon we were sitting round a crackling blaze, drinking lager and swapping stories of hiking adventures and gangland derring-do. I remember adapting good Sir Walter’s words into song at one stage.


O’er Liathach throughout the night,

A wondrous blaze was seen to gleam,

‘Twas broader than the watch-fire’s light,

And redder than the bright moonbeam.


Anyway, cans drained, and after responsibly micturating on the embers, we turned in to sleep, and, due to the exertions of the Saturday, didn’t wake until mid-morning on Sunday, by which time the campers sharing the clearing had departed, before we had a chance to greet them. 

Then, in good fettle, Duncan and I shared the drive back down to Glasgow and dropped the Drummy boys off back in Easterhouse at the Lochend shops in late afternoon,

On Monday, as was my habit, I opened up the Project around 1 p.m. to get some office paperwork done before the members of all three gangs drifted in at 2 p.m.

I was scarcely seated when the phone rang, and a crisp voice at the other end identified himself as a divinity student from Aberdeen. It seems that just a couple of days before, he and a fellow religious novice had traveled to Torridon for the purpose of enjoying a tranquil, pious retreat in one of Scotland’s last remaining fragments of ancient Caledonian forest.

Their quiet sylvan contemplations, however, had been frighteningly torn asunder in the early hours of Sunday morning by the sudden arrival of a boisterous party of youths whose leader, as they listened in silent alarm, appeared to be drunk. It was that leader who instigated the scaling of the precious Scots pine trees, the snapping of dozens of branches, and the creation of a dangerous fire.

“That is absolutely awful. I am so sorry, and so glad you called. Rest assured that heads will roll for this,” I told the voice at the other end. “Did you get the leader’s name?”

“No, but we read Easterhouse Project Trust on the side of the van and the telephone number,” the angry voice answered.

“Well, have no fear, I am certain I know who this idiot is. Heads will roll. Ancient Scots pine forest, you say? And here we are trying to convey to our youth the importance of preserving Scotland’s heritage. This is shameful,” I said, working my self up into a lather of sympathy and indignation, while, spotting through the office window, two carloads of dignitaries and high-ranking police officers pulling into the Project parking lot.

Somewhat appeased by the assurance that the irresponsible boozer in charge of the youth camp would be harshly dealt with, and again thanked profusely for his call, the divinity student hung up, just as a criminology study group from Dallas, Texas, was shown into my office by a superintendent from police headquarters.

“I’d like to introduce you all to Constable Nolan, who is doing some interesting work with our local youth,’ said Superintendent Frood. Just how interesting, they were not about to learn.

Dec. 15/16, 2007


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