IT is early 1963 and a group of schoolboys are standing on a green hill in Castlemilk, Europe’s largest housing estate, having their photograph taken. They jostle in front of the camera, crowding into the frame, anxious to be in the picture. One stands on tip-toe, leans his chin on another’s shoulder, and stares straight at the lens, defiant.
The photographer, a handsome young man, would stand out anywhere in Glasgow, but at more than six feet tall he towers over these youngsters. He must look curious to them – black beard, Russian hat, dark cape, eyes and hands that are never still. Nevertheless, he has an easy manner, asking about school and football.
The boy at the front, the one with sticky-up hair, is called Charlie. He supports Celtic, as does the photographer. Charlie has an interesting face – tough but vulnerable, with something in his eyes that suggests he has seen things in his thirteen years that no one of that age should witness. When the boy’s gaze is snagged, suddenly, by something to his right, the photographer knows that this is the moment and takes the picture. Click.
Oscar Marzaroli died of cancer in 1988, and so it is impossible to know for sure what he felt when he first developed this photograph and saw the boys begin to materialise in the darkroom. We can guess, though, that he must have realised he had created something special.
He called his picture The Castlemilk Lads and it has become iconic, appearing in books and on the sleeve of Deacon Blue’s Chocolate Girl single. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh uses the photo prominently in its advertising; Charlie’s face hangs on a banner outside the grand sandstone building.
The faces of the boys, then, are famous, but they themselves remained unknown. Marzaroli did not take their names. He did not wish to intrude beyond taking the photograph. Yet, as the poet Edwin Morgan put it in 1984, “It is impossible not to wonder what the Castlemilk Lads are like today”. And as the years have passed, this instinct has grown ever stronger. Are they alive? Have they had good lives? Whatever happened to the Castlemilk Lads?
Last year, I decided to find out. I put up posters around Castlemilk; forlorn notices of the sort one might make for a lost cat. One day a message was left on my phone by a woman called Emily. I think, she said, you are looking for my brother.
Charlie Gordon is 63. He lives with his wife in a suburb of Birmingham, a city that has been his home for the whole of his adult life. He left Scotland at eighteen and went down to England to work as a labourer. He had been involved with one of the Glasgow gangs, the Cumbie, and served short sentences for fighting. He never used a weapon, he says, but was once hit on the back of the head with an axe.
You would never know now, to meet Charlie, that he was involved in all that. He’s friendly and funny, a grandfather five times over, a burly man with a Brummie accent, though sometimes, as he talks about the past, his native Glaswegian emerges. He had a heart attack in 1999 and his health hasn’t been great since – “Every day is a bonus for me” – but you can still see the wee boy in him. His silver hair still sticks up. He could never do anything with it. When he takes off his specs, it is possible to make out the small scar above his left eye, visible in Marzaroli’s shot, which he got when he threw an empty cider bottle into a midden and it bounced back and cut him. “I’ve got scars all over the place,” he says. “You had to in those days, growing up in the Gorbals.”
He was born in 1949 and spent his early childhood living in the bottom flat of a tenement at 3 Inverkip Street, right by the Clyde, where the Central Mosque is now. Their home was near the John Begg whisky distillery. He remembers the barrels, the smell, the big dray horses, the neon sign that flashed into his bedroom all night – “Take a peg of John Begg”.
Charlie’s father was a busker. He would play the accordion round the pubs and then come home drunk and throw a bag of money on the floor. Charlie sometimes worked with his dad in Paddy’s Market, selling old clothes out of a suitcase. “We had hand-me-down clothes all the time,” he recalls. “That’s why I would never get rid of that coat I’m wearing in the photo. I got it bought for me, for either a birthday or Christmas, and it was the first brand-new thing I ever owned.”
When Charlie was around five or six, he saw his sister Catherine killed. Loads of local kids were out playing, as usual, by the buses parked across the road. But Catherine ran out between two buses and was hit by a lorry. “When I looked at the ground I was in shock,” he says, “because all you could see was her clothes. Everything was flat. I’ll never forget it till the day I die.
“She was wearing this outfit that my mum knitted, a skirt with a big white stripe round it, and that’s all you could see. I went to my mum and dad and they came running out – ‘Oh God!’ Mum was in hysterics. It was terrible.”
What sort of effect has it had on him, losing his sister like that? “What can I say? I mean, can you imagine coming out of your house and seeing the spot exactly where she died every day of your life until you moved? It does mentally affect you. You think, ‘If I could have stopped her …’ Most of us had the sense not to run out. But she was only little. Three, four maybe. I’ve blanked it. The year, the date, everything. I didn’t want it in my head.”
It must have been a relief to get away to Castlemilk. The family moved in 1959 as part of the massive slum-clearance programme, settling into a new home at 17 Downcraig Drive. Between 1961 and 1971, the population of the Gorbals and neighbouring Hutchestown fell from 45,000 to 19,000 as Victorian tenements were razed and teeming streets emptied, a pattern repeated in several other central districts. The Glasgow Corporation aimed to demolish 4,500 dwellings each year, replacing them with multi-stories, and homes in the new towns and on the vast new peripheral estates – Pollok, Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Drumchapel.
The families moving into their new homes, with their bathrooms and central heating, found them to be mansions in comparison to where they had come from. But it did not take long for problems to emerge, largely because of a lack of amenities and the distance of the estates from work. Too many people were jobless and bored. Newspaper articles from 1963 refer to Castlemilk as a “concrete jungle” and a “cemetery with lights” and report gang violence as a serious issue. The parents of three little boys, noted the Evening Citizen, were “saving like mad to buy a house of their own, miles away from Castlemilk, because they don’t want their children to grow up here”.
You can see something of this, perhaps, in Marzaroli’s photograph, taken that same year. The multi-story being constructed in the background is possibly one of the Mitchelhill blocks, which were eventually demolished in 2005 – as part of an ongoing demolition of Glasgow’s high flats, every blow-down a fresh admission of failure. There is, too, something in the tone of the photograph that seems to speak of struggle and anxiety.
We should be careful, though, not to clart the picture with too thick a layer of our own angst. The Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s guide to the photograph talks about a dislocated community inhabiting an unfriendly environment, a presumption that Peter Jackson finds insulting. “Unfriendly enviornment?” he says. “That’s absolute rubbish. I was quite annoyed when I saw that. Flaming cheek.”
Peter is the second of the Castlemilk Lads, the boy leaning his chin on Charlie’s shoulder. He’s 62 now, married since 1971, with two children and a grandchild. He worked on the production line of a chemical company until his retirement in 2006, and spends three days a week caring for people with learning difficulties. He always seems to scowl in photos, he says, but wasn’t the wee hard nut he looks in Marzaroli’s picture.
He lives in Neilston, East Renfrewshire. At the time of the photo he stayed at 16 Raithburn Road, a first-floor flat. He moved to Castlemilk in 1959. He had been living with his paternal grandparents in Howard Street, diagonally across the Clyde from Charlie, but there was an electrical fire in the tenement and the family was moved to the new housing.
His grandparents looked after him because his mother had died of tuberculosis. His father was employed by the cleansing department and would come home with tons of stories and what were known as “lucks” – broken toys that he had found in bins – and fix them up for the children.
“I still remember my mother,” says Peter. “I’ve got vivid memories because she was ill for a long time. I remember going to visit her in hospital, my dad taking us. He would always kid on we were sneaking in, and say that we’d got to be quiet; he was making it a kind of game. My brother Richard was four years older, so he knew more than me. I just thought it was a big adventure. But the funny thing is I remember great laughter in the house when my mum and dad were there. I always remember it being a happy house.”
Peter’s mother’s illness, TB, is a point of connection with Marzaroli. The photographer moved to Glasgow from Italy in the mid-1930s at the age of two, and worked in the family businesses – a café, grocer’s and fish restaurant. When he was 18 he developed tuberculosis and was bedridden for a year, gradually recovering his health in a sanatorium in Kingussie. This, according to his widow Anne, was a moment of “catharsis”. He saw other patients dying and believed he could be next.
He began to read the great Russian authors – Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Gorsky – and through them developed an interest in becoming a social chronicler in his own way. This would involve a camera. It afforded him a chance to preserve moments that would soon be gone. For a young man who had felt the hand of death on his shoulder, the idea that life was fragile, fleeting and ought to be captured for posterity was powerful and pressing. So he began to take photographs.
Marzaroli earned his living as a documentary filmmaker, working for Films of Scotland and the Highlands and Islands Development Board. Stills photography was a personal passion, and it was only late in his life that he began to be celebrated for his talents. His reputation as arguably Scotland’s greatest post-war photographer has grown since his death.
He carried his camera with him at all times. It is said that he had “magpie” eyes, always alert to the possibility of a photograph. He was patient, willing to linger until the light or some other aspect of the composition was right. This he called “waiting for the magic”.
There are 55,000 negatives in his archive, of which only around 1,000 have been printed and published. Remarkably, The Castlemilk Lads exists as just a single frame. On the contact sheet there are no other photographs of those boys. The same goes for Golden-Haired Lass, another of his most celebrated shots – a wee blonde girl in wellies trotting past the dark mouth of a Gorbals close.
Marzaroli took many, many pictures of the Gorbals: its closes and courts; its winos and workers and dirty-kneed weans in the streets. He photographed it at the precise moment when it was beginning to disappear, as the bulldozers did their work. He shows lone tenements as islands in a sea of rubble. He shows the gigantic new tower blocks as a sort of concrete armada, an unstoppable invading force. “I think what fascinated him about the Gorbals was the fact that it was being destroyed,” says his daughter, Marie Claire. “He loved the community, he loved that whole idea of belonging. Because he was going back and forward to Italy, for a long time I don’t think he felt he belonged anywhere. But Glasgow was where he belonged.”
Marie Claire was born in 1963, the eldest of Marzaroli’s three daughters. His wife Anne often accompanied him when he was out taking pictures, but not when he took Castlemilk Lads as she was pregnant with Marie Claire. Marzaroli’s many photographs of children may reflect the fact that he himself was starting a family at around this time.
What did he see when he photographed those boys that day? For what magic was he waiting? Perhaps it’s something to do with Charlie’s clasped hands. The picture is a prayer of sorts. It feels aggressive but also plaintive. You might think you are looking at a gang. But it’s not. Though these boys were classmates at Glenwood, they weren’t really friends. Two years after the picture was taken they would leave school and lose contact with each other.
Robert Carnochan, he’s the third boy; the one, a little out of focus, behind Peter. Robert still lives in Castlemilk. He is 61, has been married for 40 years, has two sons and three grandchildren. He worked as an engineer until a few years ago, when he was made redundant. Now he does maintenance work. He had a health scare in recent years, suffering from pancreatitis and was lucky to survive, but is much better now. He seems like a quiet and gentle man. You can sort of understand, meeting him, why he’s at the back of the photograph.
“Aye, I like the picture,” Robert says. “Wish I was at the front, but.”
His dad was a plumber. His mum worked at the Co-op. They lived on Castlemilk Drive; Robert, his brother and sister. The family had come from Carnoustie Street in Tradeston, where they were pulling all the old houses down, and he had attended the Scotland Street school, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, which is now a museum.
He moved to Castlemilk at around the age of five, in the mid-1950s, the early days of the estate. He remembers it as part countryside, part construction site, a frontier territory through which kids roamed in packs. He and his pals would steal apples and turnips from gardens, play at fighting, or venture into Burnside and explore the derelict cinema.
“I remember a lot of open spaces,” says Robert. “I remember I got lost in the bluebell woods. I would have been eight or something like that. It was scary for a while. There was still a lot of building going on. That’s how you got lost. You were in the middle of nowhere and there was no way to figure out your way home.”
It occurs to me, talking to Robert, that one day, not too many years in the future, there will be no-one left who remembers tenement life – the outside toilets and street games and tin baths in front of the fire – and the move to what must have seemed like another world. That exodus is still the dominant folk memory in Glasgow. But for how much longer? These Castlemilk lads, that generation, when they go, a whole era will fade like an old photo exposed to the sun.
It is the sixteenth of June 2012, and we are on that same hill where, so many years ago, Marzaroli photographed some pale and freckly boys. The lads are back in Castlemilk, posing in the rain for a recreation of the shot. Watching them are two of Marzaroli’s daughters, Marie Claire and Nicola, and his widow Anne. “Right hand over your left,” Anne tells Charlie. “Don’t smile. I’ll hold your glasses.”
“You need to look more grumpy,” Marie Claire says to Peter.
“It’s very difficult with false teeth, you know,” Peter replies.
The three talk about old times. About teachers and gangs and how Castlemilk has changed and whatever happened to so-and-so. They are glad to see each other. Though never close, they do have this strange bond in common. Plans are made to keep in touch.
Marie Claire explains to them that for many years she has had Castlemilk Lads on her living room wall; her children have grown up with it. One of her daughters, Rachael, wrote a school essay in which she admitted to being envious of the boys as they had met her grandfather and she had not. For Marie Claire, the photograph is about courage and pride and sticking together through adversity. “It’s a really important picture for us as a family,” she says. “It gives me strength every day.”
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Castlemilk Lads and the 25th anniversary of Marzaroli’s death. There are plans for a new collection of photographs, an international touring exhibition and, a little further down the line, a permanent exhibition of his work in Glasgow. That, though, is the future. For now, it feels like enough to enjoy this remarkable reunion.
Marzaroli used to talk about waiting for the magic. Finally, on a green hill in Castlemilk, after almost half a century, it has arrived.
This story appears in my journalism collection Daunderlust. I have written more about Oscar Marzaroli’s work in Waiting For The Magic