Bits of a Life, episode one

There may be a few people who read this Blog and want to know a bit more about me. I don’t know why anyone would want to but people are strange, and anyway it gives me a reason to write something without thinking too hard. I’ll start off with childhood stuff.

I was born in 1962 in the Dundee Royal Infirmary. It is a bunch of flats now, just along the road from where I live. My mum, Alice, looked after me, and my dad, also called Harvey, was working then as a marine engineer, in the Merchant Navy. We lived in Watson Street, in an old tenement with an outside toilet. I only know that by being told it. I have no memories of those days.

My first memories are in black and white. Probably because they are not really memories but photographs – including one of a small monkey sitting on my shoulder. It was taken near the old arcade which was once in a very dark space underneath the Caird Hall. And there were snaps too of me and my sister Shirley in a park and with matching, checked, winter coats. All I remember is feeling warm and safe.

Later, I had clearer memories – of holidays in Perthshire, finding an underground stream in a cave, and collecting huge pine cones.

I grew up, with my mum and dad (who went to work in the Timex factory as an engineer), and my sisters Shirley and Michelle, and my younger brother Howard, in Menzieshill, a housing estate in Dundee. I went to Hillside Primary, where I have vivid memories. I remember sitting on a big darkened stage with my class watching a video on a bulky TV set the janitor wheeled out. Teachers always looked wary of going anywhere near the buttons on the machine, and the janitor always looked at them as if they were idiots. I liked that.

I also remember swapping football cards in the playground, going around with a big pile of doubles to get rid of. And one very memorable time there was a craze amongst the boys for cards with illustrations of the American Civil War, with some quite gruesome ones of dead bodies and amputations. I don’t know what child education genius thought those up!

One summer, in the early 1970s, I had a wonderful summer, riding the bikes of my mates because I didn’t have one, playing football in the streets, and playing tennis very badly. It was organised by a youth worker, I think.

My mum and dad must have told me we were moving to Barnhill, just beyond Broughty Ferry – which I’d known as a destination for summertime trips to a crowded beach. They must have told me we were moving, but I was having so much fun playing in the streets with lots of other kids I didn’t think about what was happening. And then it happened. I was suddenly in a car moving past lots of high stone walls into a different world. I felt lost. That feeling never completely went away.

On my first day at Eastern Primary School, a boy took offense at my name and demanded we fight in the playground. I obliged, and I was winning, surrounded by a chanting crowd (Fight! Fight! Fight!). Then, a teacher dragged both of us off to the headmaster. We were belted. I didn’t cry, but my hand was stinging badly for hours, and I felt the first stirrings of a lifelong hatred for unfair authority. Or, to use a more technical term: vicious bastards.

There were however advantages to moving house. Nearby, there was countryside, and I discovered the wonder of roaming through fields and around a place which is still my idea of paradise: Seven Arches Bridge. It was a tall bridge with trees underneath and the River Dichty fast in the winter and slow in the summer. Ducks. Woodpeckers. Lots of magic – sparkling water on the Dichty; a huge haunted house; and 1920s newspapers inexplicably plastered to the inside of the entrance to an old farm building.

My life in Barnhill was a strange mixture of lightness and dark. The best thing was – starting to read imaginatively, and by that I mean I could disappear into a book for hours, and it ceased being just words and became another world, or 20,000 leagues under the sea. Then, there was a tiny room under the stairs my mum let me keep as a kind of den, complete with a very small armchair. And I remember reading and dreaming there, reading books and comics, and then going out along the disused railway to Seven Arches Bridge. Still dreaming so much that I could barely tell if the water voles I saw by the edge of the river were real or not.

The darkness came from fear. Nothing terrible happened to me, but somehow a lot of little things shook me. Decades later, and I’m still puzzled by that darkness. I sometimes walked along the high wall of the bridge just to prove to myself I wasn’t afraid of anything. But it’s easier to be brave about things you can see.

Other memories are brighter. As bright as the blue sky over Broughty Ferry beach. Times like when me and my mum went for a walk to Monifieth and when we crossed a small bridge, we both stepped over something that wasn’t there, and looked at each other and laughed.

And, for a few years my dad took me with him every Saturday when he went to play football. And me and other kids would play with a ball or explore. One time, a few of us found an old abandoned school. The corridors seemed to go on forever.

Memories are strange things. Sometimes, you need to start talking about them before you realise they are still around.

Harvey Duke

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