(In ‘The Scotsman’ on Saturday 7th July)
When I was fifteen, I got my first job, working as a waiter in the (now defunct) Forth Bridges Motel, a very ugly concrete building that jutted out over the river at South Queensferry. During most of the summer holidays of 1972, I worked 46 hours a week, often doing two shifts in a day and cycling back and forward from Queensferry to Kirkliston, where I lived, though I confess that often my dad, who had encouraged this enterprise, came and picked me and the bike up after the last plate was put in the dishwasher. I cleared up after breakfast in this fairly fancy four star joint, and set up for lunch which I duly served. I was very small for my age, and the waiter’s jacket was too big and I was, I freely admit it, cute, with a slightly Oliver Twistish…twist.The ladies who lunched there gave me piles of change and often I went home with pocketsful which was handy because I was only earning £11 a week. My mother, not a lady who spent freely, was so pleased that I was doing something productive with my summer, that she provided the extra cash necessary for me to buy my first stereo, then, most probably for her own sake, added some headphones.
Among the staff, ruled over by a Head Waiter with the entirely inaccurate name of Goodfellow, was Arthur, a wide boy from Glasgow not much older than me; Colleen, a kind older woman who looked after the kids in the team and Richard, who was the first gay person I knew. He was a student and was considered an intellectual; I remember him saying that coq au vin was a dish that contained his two favourite things. I didn’t fully understand the attendant hilarity. The chef, an enormous Swiss man, was a terrifying misogynistic lump who swore endlessly and creatively and who bullied the young pastry chef, Stewart, who, if I was working late in the afternoon when his boss had gone, fed me trifles from the ‘Taste of Scotland’ menu. 46 years on, I remember the trifles.
In later years I worked as a shop assistant and (unbelievably) as a security guard at a whisky bond, this latter a help of sorts when I began teaching, since the boss had told me on the first day that ‘if anyone broke in’ I should run away, find a phone box and call the police. There are many, many stories about the shop and the bond, but I never have forgotten these formative weeks working as a waiter, learning where to put the cutlery, learning which wine went in which glass and learning what to do if, as I did once, you accidentally serve some peas (buttered and minted) into the back of a bride’s veil (the answer to this is…nothing, just walk away, shortly she will be delirious with drink).
So yes, it was about earning, but it was also about learning. In today’s Scotland, we are, it seems, destined to call our young people ‘learners’ – a move which happened just after I had started calling them ‘students’ rather than ‘pupils’; in my career I have always been well behind the curve of jargon, a fact of which I am sincerely proud. Anyway, these ‘learners’ have a great many qualities – I believe young Scots today to be more skilled, more confident, more emotionally intelligent and generally more socially adept than their parents or grandparents were when they were young. I think they are generally kinder. However, they lack knowledge (I save this precious morsel for another day) and, my sainted aunt, they lack resilience – they are ill more often than their great-grandmothers; they fall apart if a friend says something inopportune; they do not sleep; they get driven everywhereby their parents lest they are abducted and sold into slavery; they are fragile to a fault.
Schools have responded to this of course, often in commendable ways. They organise courses in ‘resilience training’ or – in the case of one famous school – ‘grit’. Outdoor learning, and its partner, outdoor education contribute to this and there is no doubt that hanging by your fingernails from the Old Man of Hoy may make you see last night’s Snapchat insult in a more measured light. But along with all the other extras crammed on to the Scottish curriculum in recent years, are these things enough to arrest this particular malaise? Parents moan about their children’s inability to do practical things by themselves but very often won’t let them touch the cooker or take the bus into town until they’re 23.
I suggest work. In the workplace, you have to be on time; you have to dress correctly; if you miss a shift you won’t get paid; your boss will complain if you are idle or incompetent. However, most importantly, people treat you as an adult and they respect you for what you do, if you do it well. They support you practically and with banter; they help you grow up. Your parents and teachers aren’t there and you have to get on with it. So, I advocate a new move that encourages young people to work and thus develop resilience through the challenges of the workplace. I loved my schooldays, but Colleen and Arthur and Richard and even old Goodfellow taught me too and I thank them for these lessons. Come on young ‘uns, earn while you learn!