‘All High Kicks and Low Morals’: My Introduction to Gay Life in 1960s Glasgow

A Guest Post by William Campbell

The myth once perpetrated that schooldays are ‘the happiest days of your life’ certainly did not apply to a shy, quiet, non-sporty, spotty youth like me, who wanted to be a fashion designer. I found myself amongst a bunch of growling wannabe engineers and factory workers. Attending a senior secondary in East Kilbride, I wished every schoolday would finish quickly, so I could get back to the safety of home. I only ever felt accepted, and comfortable, in the Art Department, amongst the most gentle, creative, fellow pupils and my very own ‘Jean Brodie’, Mrs Barclay. You could go to her classroom any lunchtime, and she would be playing classical records on her Dansette record player, while we ate peanut butter sandwiches and drank diluting orange juice. The only time I felt happiness and acceptance was in the 5th year, in that class.

He wore a leatherette coat, green corduroy trilby with feather, and a pair of leather driving gloves

1966 saw me starting work, aged 17, as a junior sales assistant in the menswear department of an upmarket shop in Buchanan Street, Glasgow. For the princely wage of £5 10s 6d a week, I was to learn more about life working in that shop, from a man who would change my perception of myself and other people. He instilled within me the belief that no one was better than you. This was Mr Robertson, the senior salesman, who interviewed me initially for the position. Whilst I had no idea I was gay, he clearly did, possessing a ‘gaydar’ long, long before the birth of the internet dating site. He was 37, quite small, slim, bald, with slightly protruding front teeth, and wore thick horn-rimmed spectacles. He arrived for work drunk most mornings, having spent the evening before on a journey though the 1960s Glasgow gay scene. Starting at the cocktail bar in The Royal, he would then move onto Guys, or The Strand. He wore a leatherette coat, green corduroy trilby with feather, and a pair of leather driving gloves (he had neither a driving licence nor car and bussed it everywhere).

Most mornings Mr R would head straight into the changing room, dim the lights and send me to Ferguson’s (a high-class grocers) in Union Street, for a tin of Epicure white peaches in brandy. It was a long narrow can containing 4 whole fruits in the alcohol liquor. I would hand him the opened can, and having scoffed the contents with a spoon, he would drink the brandy. Then, with an adjustment of his tie knot, and with alcohol level topped up – hey presto! – he was ready to face his public at 9-15am.

Every day in the shop was a performance. You simply did not know what he would say next to the customers (who adored him, I might add). I was both terrified and in awe of him, and could not wait to get in to work every day, just to see what would happen next. He just didn’t care!

He would tell customers he was ‘just back from Tangier’, and ask ‘don’t you love my tan?’, when in fact he had bought a tin of Max Factor Creme Puff, and slathered it on his face.

Mr R lived with his elderly mother in a rented tenement flat in Govan. Yet, when dealing with the mostly wealthy customers in the shop, he spun a web of fantasy about his life. It was so convincing that even I who worked with him, and knew a little about him and his circumstances, had to ask if his stories were true. He would give me a withering look and send me off to make him a coffee. He would tell customers he was ‘just back from Tangier’, and ask ‘don’t you love my tan?’, when in fact he had bought a tin of Max Factor Creme Puff, and slathered it on his face.

One morning he sent me to his mother’s flat for something he had forgotten, and over a cuppa, I said it sounded as if Mr R’s latest holiday in Greece had been fabulous. ‘You must be mistaken’, she said, ‘he spent that two weeks at home, and anyway, he has never owned a passport.’

Mr R would exclaim, ‘Here he comes, all high kicks and low morals’.

Mr R had a frequent visitor to the department, a man called Frank, who in hindsight must have been his boyfriend. Frank was pleasant enough, but a ‘hard ticket’, who was frequently drunk, and black-eyed. They seemed to have been friends for years. They knew a really fun guy, Derek, who was, as they say, ‘a chorus boy’ in variety theatre. He would high-kick his visits to the menswear department, which didn’t go down too well. Mr R would exclaim, ‘Here he comes, all high kicks and low morals’. But actually, he was the sweetest, kindest guy. He was always ‘just going off’ to do summer season in Bridlington or Skegness, and his stories were outrageous.

I worked with Mr R for three of the happiest, funniest years of my life, and before he died, I happened to visit a small menswear boutique on the southside of Glasgow. Thirty years had passed but he still looked pretty much the same. The shop ‘wasn’t quite his style’ and as we chatted, he started sipping on a whiskey he had poured from the side of the till. It was ‘for his nerves’ since he was ‘held up at gunpoint’ a few weeks previously. Held up for some coins and a few pairs of socks? Was that true, or was it right up there with his Moroccan or Greek travels? I have no idea. But I believed it. That’s how good he was.

I understand why the “Mr Robertsons” of those times invented “worlds” for themselves, to just lose themselves in a nicer place where they were safe from harm

Those far off days of the swinging ’60s: Free love, The Beatles, Liberalism. That’s what the media would have you believe anyway. Sure, it was the decade of ‘free love’ but lest we forget, gay men were still going to prison, having to hide their sexuality at work or lose their jobs, were being thrown out of the house for being gay, beaten up…the list is endless and shameful. And all while, Dusty was topping the charts, and having to pretend to be hetero to have a career. I understand why the “Mr Robertsons” of those times invented “worlds” for themselves, to just lose themselves in a nicer place where they were safe from harm.

So, that was my journey: from dreading school, to loving work. Amazing, and all down to him. He would be amazed to be remembered today, but whatever I am today, I owe to him. Here’s to you, Mr Robertson.

Here’s to you, Mr Robertson.

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