Don Paterson (2023) Toy Fights: A Boyhood.

Don Paterson is around the same age as me. But he’s won a stack of poetry and literary awards and is Professor of Poetry at St Andrew’s University. That’s the university that usually comes out near the top for all the English nobs that can’t get into Oxbridge and even a few that can. Don Paterson, like me, grew up in a council estate in Dundee.

Dundee is on par with drug deaths with Glasgow, which every year wins the award for dying. That’s how I measure how shite a place is. Don had a solid enough start to life. His dad worked as a colour-iner during the day for D.C. Thomson. That Scottish institution that sold the Sunday Post, Oor Wullie, The Broons, The Beano, The Dandy to us. A twee-wee vision of Scotland.  No Catholics, or blacks, or girls that considered getting pregnant without first being duly wed. It was part of the contract for working for D.C. Thomson. Knowing your place. No sex, no homosexuals, nor unions, obviously. That would be spelling trouble.  

Don got a job there as well, working in the ‘Banzai’ department of Commando comics before his brain melted and he had a breakdown. His dad was a solid enough musician and played every night to make ends meet, while his mum went catalogue mad and had a new couch every week and black debt was there middle name.

Don too got into the band scene after experimenting with other instruments. He found the guitar or the guitar found him. But he didn’t want to be like his da. Being like Billy MacKenzie was their goal. He tells us how a woman interviewing him couldn’t help to stop and kiss him half-way through.

The pudding haircut and Jimmy Osmond, ‘I’ll be your long-haired lover from Liverpool’, was to him the polar opposite of no talent and a voice that shouldn’t be heard. He doesn’t blame him. Family business. Crazy Horses.

I agree with much what he says about how the buroo harasses the sick and poor, but it could provide a creative space for working-class artists if it was renamed something catchy, like Universal Income and not Credit. (Buroo money generally is worth 10% less than it was 10 years ago, which coincides with toxic Tory policies, but that’s me going off on a tangent).  

Paterson is a jazz aficionado and music lover. I don’t even have a radio in my van. I’m tone deaf and not interested. His references fall flat. But we can agree that a woman singing lifts her and makes her more beautiful. It worked for Celine Dion and before that Barbara Streisand. Anyone that can hit the high notes and fling in enough sugary lyrics to ring school bells in a primary school is fine with me.

I’m not a fan of institutions. But most of my stories seem set in them. So I’m an aficionado. When Paterson had a psychotic break from his body and was admitted to Madness, not the band but ward 89, the Largactil shuffle and Ninewells Hospital, my ears didn’t prick up but this seemed familiar territory. Paterson, we know escapes (he wrote this book, won awards). But he was both sane and insane enough to spot a trend. He adapt the ‘law of stupidity’, which states that x proportion of any group will work against both their interests and those in the group. He adds that the group leader—like the recently promoted charge nurse in his ward, Graham, with a propensity for humiliating patients and intimidating and having sex with women on Ward 90—will be a narcissist.

We’ve moved on from the eighties. We know this from watching the moron’s moron Trump, Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage, to name just three. He does not name Jimmy Saville directly, perhaps for fear of being sued, or just doesn’t need the hassle.

It’s no secret that the Jute Mills of Dundee created, for a time, a matriarchically inclined culture (*with higher than average infant mortality, even for working class slums, as babies were weaned by house husbands on sugary water). Don Paterson looks back to the seventies and eighties  in short punchy chapters. He finds lots worth remembering, including himself, and his morbid guilt. That’s the beauty of this book, unbanal wonder. Read on.