By Neil Scott
During my first year living as a mature student in Scotland in a breeze block built room in the University of Stirling in early 1994, we crowded around the only TV in our corridor. It was owned by a working class Scot, Gary. On the flickering, fuzzy screen (the aerial being one of those adjustable metal hoops), was a documentary set in Glasgow’s Milton. An early reality tv experience. A poverty safari. I remember it featured two teenage girls, and it followed their lives through a landscape that looked like a war zone in the Middle East. Like an East or West Belfast Street in the aftermath of a confrontation with the security forces.
I remember being shocked that this place could exist on “the mainland;” coming from Northern Ireland we had been led to believe the struggles there were unique in the “UK.” The incredible poverty, and sense of a forgotten blackhole of neglect pervaded the documentary. These two young women, forgotten and let down by a society hidden from a world that knew it was there, but refused to see. A Scotland (and no doubt reflecting Belfast, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and the like) allowed to die in a flickering strip-lit, damp corridor no-one would notice, by neglectful Tory custodians.
The banter and everyday struggle of the two young women bred some hilarity, mostly from the middle class students. Their patter. Their lives among rubble. My girlfriend Olive was rightly enraged. She whispered through gritted teeth, “these people are laughing at me, because these are people I recognise; I was brought up in an area like this. These girls are me!” And she wasn’t wrong, as my visits to Sighthill in Glasgow where her family lived proved. Olive was another mature student relying on the then diminishing grant that was dissolving and morphing into the awful tory student loan. Another clever working class person who was grasping a lifeline out of badly paid service, “key worker” jobs. A life as a throw away person, at the bottom of a pile atop who sat the “nepo babies” of those who owned the power.
Those areas in Glasgow have improved, but poverty still blights huge swathes of here… and people who can, look to the surrounding hills and valleys as places to escape to. To aspire to. Bearsden being one of those places.
Brian MacKinnon, aka Brandon Lee had began his life in Milton and his family moved to Bearsden for a better life. The very fact that moving from the Milton to Bearsden lengthens your life by 30 or so years is part of the draw. About a year after I witnessed the utter snobbery of those laughing at poverty and its blackhole of hope and stories of people struggling for a rose, the story of his ruse in Bearsden Academy broke, and I was fascinated. This guy wasn’t much older than me, and had had to do the same as I had in order to move his life on, but taking a very different route.
Working class children have less opportunity to fail as those from middle and upper class families. There are a lot of reasons why Doctors, media people and politicians tend to come from middle class or very rich families and why “college drop outs” who do well are massively more likely to be the children of the wealthy and powerful. They have had the support to fail, sometimes many times. Brian/Brandon did not come from a family who could support him through a gap year.
They could not afford to nurse him through hard times by sending him to Malawi to look after elephants or paint the interior of a Kenyan school or bum around the world with a rucksack. Brian in order to escape from the hardships his parents had had to endure when they were younger, had to succeed in a short time frame, or learn be happy, to endure a shit job working class future of struggle for bread and some roses.
Brian/Brandon when he had exhausted himself mentally and his working class options, had to take a job in a leisure centre where he festered and rotted as working class people are expected to do; only his father and his mother had instilled in him a will to escape, so over a mop bucket (and seemingly some encouragement from his mum), he hatched a plan to get back aboard the embetterment train. At 30, his plan was to pretend to be 16 in order to find a way back to Medical School via Bearsden Academy, his old High School.
The plan very nearly worked only for some sort of altercation with another Bearsden Academy pupil (though whether it would have worked beyond University, we’ll never know). The mysterious “Doctor Cheryl” is never shown, nor was she interviewed for Jono McLeod’s superbly directed film, My Old School about 30-32 year old McKinnon’s strange year pretending to be a 17 year old. She doesn’t come out of it looking good, but the film had offered her a space to tell her part in all of this.
Setting aside the questionable aspects to this story for someone else to examine; I have to say McKinnon’s attempt to escape the inevitability of expected working class failure fascinated me (the type of impossible escape beautifully sang about by Pulp in “Common People:”
But still you’ll never get it right
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all, yeah
You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do whatever common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view.
His family’s escape from the post industrial slum created by Thatcher et al, the Milton; their hopes for their only boy in the Spam Valley High; his initial success, and then failure because of perhaps, the pressure? The exhaustion? or just an unsuitability to the course? of Glasgow University, and then his years of scrubbing floors, toilets and a swimming pool; the hatching of a plan that brought colour (and meaning?) to his life, the initial success and then the media crash… some of it mirrored my early life.
I’d gone to High School; initially doing well, but bullied unconscious regularly (boy, could I have done with a 30 year old pupil… or teacher for that matter, on my side protecting me in the way Brian/Brandon brilliantly did for Stefan, who had been bullied and beaten until the faux Canadian took him under his broken wing). I ended up failing most of the exams I was expected to do well in and going through a series of jobs I hated, the final one of which I volunteered for redundancy at 25. I walked straight out of the factory and marched a couple of miles to a college, to ask,”what can I do to get to university,” and a couple of months later I was sitting in a classroom of 16 year olds, unhidden, who became my friends and “second chance” for the two years before hitting the University of Stirling with a vengeance.
My escape from the working class trap of working shifts to pay impossible bills for bread and few, dying roses for those few years was life affirming, beautiful, interesting, educational, revealing and quite wild. A time that was stolen from Brian/Brandon for many reasons that are not altogether obvious. The focus on medicine… the goal being totally removed from him a second and final time, and his seeming entrapment into that ambition for the rest of his life…
But our connection is more than all of that. After University, my partner and I moved to a council cottage flat in her hometown, Stevenston on the Scottish West Coast. At the time, she worked in film and TV and all of her work was in Glasgow. We searched for a rented house in the City- a council house swap was impossible (no-one wanted to move to an area certainly just as deprived as Milton, but even further away from any investment by any corporation or Government), so we looked at private rented houses (we had a young son). After a search, we found a small house on the North side of Bearsden, a name I recognised as an Irishman only as the place Brandon/Brian had executed his briefly famous ruse. And when we moved, I started to see him around, in Bearsden and neighbouring Milngavie.
Our next move a few years later was to our first mortgaged property- an ex-council cottage flat in the same street he lived in. My son then went to Bearsden Academy as it was when McKinnon went (and then the new building that took its place). And I’ve seen him ever since, tall, aging, but strangely dignified. I’ve often imagined conversations with him. And this is what My Old School brought, brilliantly executed by director McLeod and lip synced but acted with the subtleties only working class, scots actor Alan Cumming could bring to the role.
Conversations with Brian/Brandon and those he befriended- most with positive tales of that year, some with the questions of older people looking back on what nowadays is seen as a dodgy ruse (a similar ruse was uncovered in a High School in the West Country of England my sister taught well over a decade later. A TV company inserted a journalist with hidden cameras to make a secret documentary. The company was ordered to delete its filming and apologise to the distraught young people and teachers and the footage was never shown).
All of the cast was given room to think and speak and be authentic, by superb direction. The film really is a powerhouse of directing. McLeod, who knew McKinnon at school that second time, inserts himself as an interviewee and interviews his old friends, including McKinnon. And Cumming beautifully, sublimely portrays a broken, working class man trapped by his experiences and his parents experiences of poverty, failure, and working class aspiration but with an air of dignity.
After all of these years of “knowing him,” perhaps one day, on the streets of Spam Valley, I’ll speak to Brian. And I think I know what I’d speak to him about. Not about his continuing obsession with medical school, or even his audacious ruse. But I’d chat about his impeccable music taste, revealed by a classmate who praises him for introducing him to post-punk music. Some of the same music of outsiders I latched on to in my teens in the early eighties, back during our first attempt at those crucial, short working class High School days that made or broke us, knowing at one side of that final year their could well lurk the precipice of mundanity or worse… failure.
This is why events unnerve me
They find it all, a different story
Notice whom for wheels are turning
Turn again and turn towards this time…