As a child, I was a keen reader of comics. I had the Beano delivered every week, but I was well up to speed with what was going on in the Dandy, Beezer and Topper. Oor Wullie and The Broons also made occasional forages across the border too, bringing much merriment with them. I loved delving into summer specials and sitting down with a brand new Christmas annual after the pamdemonium of pressie-opening was a great way to relax while dinner cooked. I loved the smell of the ink.
I related to the characters within the colourful pages of my comics with ease. I wanted a tin friend like Charley Brand’s Brassneck. I longed for my own miniature remote-controlled army like General Jumbo. I dreamed of being Billy Whizz running to the shops for neighbours, and receiving an extra reward for being so quick. Sadly, those characters and their special powers, gadgets and pets were only available in dreams.
There was though one theme that was common in several strips, and that was easily within the reach of a schoolboy in Northumberland: playing truant, or, as it was often called in this neck of the woods, playing hookey or hopping the wag.
In the world of the comic, Oor Wullie, Charley Brand (Brassneck’s human friend) Spunky Bruce (pictured above with his giant spider, Scamper), and a host of others were often to be found skipping school and getting into all kinds of scrapes – after they had hidden the school bag. My first venture onto the wrong side of the tracks was not influenced by any comic book character though, as I could barely read at the time.
I was still in the infants on the day that I succumbed to the temptress freedom. At the time I lived close to the school and so I went home for lunch. One afternoon, instead of going back to school, curiosity lured me into a nearby back lane where a row of garages stood. I squeezed through a gap between two of the garages and this brought me into a farmer’s field, from where I could see my school and hear the children playing. The loud clanging of the bell that signalled the end of the lunch break also served as a reminder that I was now officially AWOL.
When silence fell as my school friends went back inside, I felt the proper outlaw, rummaging among the old crates and empty oil cans that were strewn behind the garages. Then I came across a pile of rubbish, on top of which was an object that made my little eyes light up: a real gun.
It was only a rusty old air pistol, but to me it was straight out of a Cagney film. I picked the gun up and went to take aim, but my feeble arms could hardly bear the weight, being used to brandishing only plastic cap guns. As I inspected the weapon, my adventure came to an abrupt end.
My mother, wearing her angry-as-hell face, emerged from between the garages (a neighbour had spotted me and snitched). I was ordered to leave the gun and to get my (now trembling) legs moving homeward, sharpish. I complied, devastated at having to leave the gun for someone else to find. Back home I was given a stern dressing-down and sent to the bedroom I shared with my older brother.
At that young age I didn’t realise the potential danger into which I could have been placing myself. My mother’s anger must have been coupled with a great fright that her son could wander off on his own to such a secluded area. I needed to be taught a lesson, and I certainly got one.
My mother came into the bedroom and she took my small suitcase from under the bed. She told me that she would be packing this, as I would be going to the Wellesley School for a while.
The Wellesley Nautical School was an approved school at the time and, for those of us living in close proximity to it, being sent there was the default threat with which parents steered wayward charges back onto a steady course. Even at that tender age, however, I had already been threatened with a trip to the Wellesley several times, and nothing had happened. I assumed that this would be another empty threat, but, such was the gravity of the situation, this time a more robust approach was required to make sure I got the message. As I sat in my room, confident that the worst was over and that by tea time all would be well again, my mother sneaked to the front door and rang the doorbell.
Suddenly I was alert. I wondered who had rang the bell and I listened intently. I heard my mother’s voice, but no other. Then I heard her say, “He’s in his room,” and the bedroom door opened.The realisation that she hadn’t been bluffing and this was really happening hit me like a train.
I shall bring James Cagney in again to illustrate what happened next. If you’ve seen the film Angels With Dirty Faces, then you’ll know that at the end Cagney’s tough guy character is dragged screaming for mercy to the electric chair* (spoiler alert). This was me. I turned yellow, clinging onto the bunk-bed headboard rails, wailing and pleading with my mother not to let them take me away.
Satisfied that I had learned my lesson, my mother left the room and I sobbed and stewed and slept. All was well by tea time, although one diner at the table was a little sheepish.
The punishment had the desired effect, and I went through the infants and juniors without once playing truant again. When I started the grammar school, however, the lure of freedom tempted me again – but that’s a story for another day.
*In the film, we never learn if Cagney’s character really was a coward, or if he did his friend a final favour by pretending to be yellow in order to discourage young tearaways from idolising gangsters.