The Bold Betty McAllister and Calton Memories

Whether it’s the radical history of the area and its striking weavers or its infamy in relation to the pioneering Tongs Ya Bass or perhaps because of the once bustling blackmarket bazaar culture of The Barras, the Calton is palpable with a rich social history which shames most quarters of Glasgow and beyond.

One of the main arteries in this body urban is Tobago Street which channels through the centre-ish of the Calton connecting London Road to the Gallowgate via the Millroad houses at its northern tip.

Tobago Street is then cut across by Stevenson Street which will take you to the famous Barras if heading westward from Abercromby Street, the home of St Mary’s RC Church where Celtic FC had their life breathed into them in 1887.

These are, seemingly, typical tenemental streets housing typical tenemental folk.

Despite having a place of thunderous importance within my heart as this was the immediate area of my youth, surely nothing special to see here for the layperson or punter who is passing through?

But I, and countless others of a certain vintage who grew up in the Calton, know that Tobago Street, if followed northward as if heading to the aforementioned Gallowgate, eventually leads to a forgotten palace of wonders for the oft mislabelled ‘schemey’ wean.

If this exact spot is visited now, in 2019, all the Tobago St tourist will find is a crumbling expanse of a set of buildings which once formed the 19thC Tureen St School.

Betty’s Club – Tureen St School

In my day however, this was the venue of ‘Betty’s Club’, the aforementioned palace of wonders for the wean who hailed from the terracotta topped tenements of the Calton.

Pool Tables, Tuck Shop

and Lessons in Life

Betty’s Club was named in honour of its patron, Betty McAllister, often nicknamed battling Betty by the press but simply known as Betty to the locals.

Betty was a women of formidable and fierce character who fittingly won the Evening Times Women of the Year award (1984) on the account of her tireless tenants rights activism and community inclusion initiatives.

Betty – pictured on the left

But is her role as matriarch of the Calton in relation to its youth which creates the nexus of this wee read.

Putting it bluntly, Betty’s Club was just pure magic.

Here was a one of a kind club for the Calton youth, catering for kids aged 5 to 16ish who came from local families where the ma’s and da’s had to work two or three jobs between them just to meet the economic needs of the family. They simply weren’t allowed to carve out the time to always be there, physically, for their kids. Grotesque capitalism and it’s spawn – structural economic inequalities amongst different social classes – always enslaves such industrious souls.

On paper, Betty’s Club was a run of the mill kids and after school club – in reality however, it was a lifeline and even an escape to the exotic climes of Burnt Island or Saltcoats by way of the volunteer led day trips.

It was pure undiluted community spirit in action.

The club was also sporting some quality amenities on site – pool tables, TV room, gym hall for indoor football, basketball or an occasional game of ‘longies’ and a wee section in the other building for Sega Mega Drives and Super Nintendo Entertainment Systems (SNES).

Glory days of the highest merit.

Betty’s Club is also where I learned to count currency, namely because there was a growingly disgruntled queue forming behind me as I dared to add up the 37p needed to buy my mixture at the Tuck. As one of the bigger boys frustratingly leaned over me stated

‘’Geez it here n ahl fuckin dae it fur ‘em’,

The boom of Betty’s voice from the other side of the counter stopped him dead.

“If he wants he’s sweeties he’ll need tae pay furrit he’s sel, leave ‘im alaine”

Caesar had spoken.

The silence of the queue symbolic of her well placed authority. Fast forward a few seconds, which admittedly may have felt like a few minutes to hungry others, and this now sweaty palmed wean had counted out the correct number.

No matter how nice they Skullcrushers and Fizzy Cola Bottles tasted, the sweetest taste that day was felt upon hearing Betty’s praise,

“Well done son, that’s you countin’ properly noo”

My Calton in the ‘90s

The Calton in the ‘’90s was a brilliant place to grow up. Merely a goal kick away from the area is to be found Glasgow Green or the Toon in differing directions.

Central to my socialisation was the Swingy right in the centre between Tobago and Green Street. Essentially a park with the usual adventure playground landscaping but, more importantly, it also housed four decent sized grassed areas which, in its heyday, would provide the venue for many a Cup Final.

The Swingy – modernised and barely recognisable from my youth

This is also where I learned how to play fitba’ properly as I mixed with my big brother and his muckers.

The concrete patch before the Tobago St entrance to the Swingy was where I learned to swerve a ball. You could always tell how well it had swerved as it clattered with the wrought Iron black bars which encamped the Swingy. The more swerve on the ball the more wild it would spin off in the opposite direction. I can still hear the ping.

It should also be mentioned that it wasn’t so much ‘’jumpers for goalposts’ In the Calton, as it was hawf bricks or breezeblocks from nearby building sites rooted in the grass or the aforementioned iron railings.

I’ve always believed that if one looks back on their days of youth and such memories appear to be always drenched in some imaginative sunshine, then this is a sign of a childhood well had.

A variant of the rose tinted specs symbolism perhaps. Needless to say, the Calton was always sunny to me.

But enough of the nostalgia – there’s a serious point to be made here.

There always is.

It’s Always Sunny…

I had a great upbringing and the Calton was, and still is, an excellent community. Although I was kept away by the iron hand of my mother from the badness that can happen in any inner city area with a ‘Young Team’ mentality, others would unfortunately fall foul of such an outcome.

Real Calton Tongs grafitti (RCT)

Although it appears the hardest and most masculine, it’s almost always the most vulnerable and insecure who seek such belonging amongst scheme tribes.

A vast amount of such badness happens because of several issues, mostly structural, but of all of them I can’t think of any making a heftier contribution than the power of negative labelling.

This type of labelling, which devastatingly devours the goodness and positivity of any area afflicted with it, can be truly more powerful than the drug of supposed choice to the addict. A toxicity which is quickly normalised to the point where those unknowingly under its spell eventually, and slavishly, conclude,

“That’s just the way it is, and it’ll never change”

According to plenty of the lesser socially aware, the Calton was often, and always incorrectly, labelled as a shithole place with shithole prospects. This is untrue but perception is always more powerful than truth, unfortunately.

Without a doubt the bold Betty McAllister knew this and set about this label and all who weaponised it with the stoic and steely character that working class wummin seem to  embody the best.

Betty was a truth speaker with community self empowerment at the heart of every piece of activism she initiated.

This is why she ran her club. This is why she fought for tenants rights. And that is why she harangued and heckled Thatcher as she dared set foot in Glasgow during Poll Tax season.

The Calton, like every other fertile ground which is unfairly starved of social nourishment due to scything public sector cuts certainly had its demons.

Not untypical of higher levels of drug addiction, street based prostitution, higher than usual unemployment levels and a male youth suicide which was at league topping levels for a while in the 1990s.

It’s clear to see that the sun drenched Calton of my beautiful youth certainly had its rainy seasons.

But for folk like Betty, who also ran a successful Seafood shop on Bain Street at the Barras which aided the local economy of the entire area, the Calton’s rainy season may have been flood like more often than not.

Lastly…

It need be noted, and Betty would have it no other way if she was still around today, that her Club was no one woman band however.

If Betty was the conductor then her orchestra consisted of the dedication of other local volunteers of which only some I can now recall such as her daughter, local woman Esther, and auld Gus.

But if not for Betty’s dedication and directness I, and hundreds of others, would’ve missed out on the day trips, the socialising, the life skills and the inclusiveness of the whole character chiselling experience of Betty’s Club.

On the 5th May this year it’ll be a decade since Betty sadly departed.

God bless ye.

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