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Learning About Risk - and how to manage it.

THE River White Cart flowed through the city from its source high in the Lanarkshire hills. By the time it reached Cardonald it was fairly mature and slow moving and absolutely ideal for rafting. My pals and I spent hours building rafts, largely inspired by two great boyhood novels, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. It took a lot of imagination to compare the White Cart with the great Mississippi but imagination was something we had in abundance.

Those early years also developed a skill that was to hold me in good stead for the rest of my life. Risk-taking is something that many youngsters are unfamiliar with these days and that, I believe, will have serious implications in generations to come. We knew that building a raft from oil cans and planks of wood and trying to float down the River White Cart was risky but wasn’t life about adventure and fun? Wasn’t risk-taking worthwhile?

Occasionally we fell in the water and got wet but we soon learned how to swim; now and then someone would fall out of a tree and hurt themselves; it wasn’t uncommon to tear our clothing because of the old nails that were still imbedded in the planks of wood, but we never looked for someone to blame. We knew accidents happened, and most of the time we expected accidents to happen. The idea was to manage the risk in such a way that the expected accident could be avoided. Frequently we would argue and fall out and it would end in fisticuffs but more often than not we were pals again next day. We all wanted to play football in the school team but rarely felt inferior because we weren’t good enough. We simply learned how to deal with failure and disappointment. We drank from streams and pools of water and public fountains, ate blackberries from the bushes, stole rhubarb and crab apples from folk’s gardens and survived. Indeed, we survived with aplomb.

Our biggest fear was not being allowed out to play. This was the ultimate sanction for bad behavior. Generally speaking, during holidays and at weekends I left the house after a breakfast of tea and toast and turned up for a bite of lunch, usually a bowl of soup, before disappearing again until tea-time. During the summer months I would be outside again until bed-time. What did we do all the time? We had adventures, we explored, we spent very dirty hours playing in the old steam train engines at Corkerhill Junction and at one point built a den in one of the old passenger carriages, a den that was ours for the entire summer holidays. Part of the fun was evading the old watchman. We played in and on the river, cycling once we were old enough to get a bike (but never owned a helmet). We played football and roamed freely and, curiously enough, I only remember one incident that involved the police. I don’t recall what it was about but I do remember getting a clip round the ear from this big highland polisman. Once was enough…

Young, well-groomed American men would often approach us and offer to teach us baseball. They were evangelical Mormons and, while we loved to play this curious American version of rounders, I don’t recall any of us attending any of the religious classes. We had become street-wise and I suspect that the streets of Cardonald were not a particularly fertile grooming ground for the Mormon faith.

We would build carts called bogies out of scraps, and ride them down the hill only to discover that we had forgotten to fit any brakes. We soon learned how to stop without brakes. We ate all kinds of rubbish: crisps, chocolate and sticky sweeties and we drank fizzy, sugar-laden drinks like Tizer and Irn Bru and Dandelion and Burdock but we never got fat, we were always too busy running around. If I wasn’t riding around on my bike I was just running, pretending I was Roger Bannister, or Emil Zatopek, or the great Herb Elliot. We didn’t walk anywhere.

THE Fifties and early Sixties were memorable years. The austerity of the immediate post-war years was over and with it came the end of rationing. The Cold War cast a long shadow over the world but, despite that, remarkable things were happening. Ed Hillary and Tensing Norgay climbed Everest, the highest mountain in the world and the following year Roger Bannister became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. An American actress called Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco and became a Princess. The Soviet satellite Sputnik launched the Space Age and a few years later the Soviets launched the first man into space in the shape of Yuri Gagarin and of course the Beatles produced their first of many hit singles, ‘Love Me Do’ and in so doing changed the whole nature of popular music. In 1954 IBM announced the development of a model ‘electronic brain’ – it was the dawn of the computer age, and a biologist by the name of Gregory Incus led a team of scientists who invented the Pill, the symbol of the UK’s most defining decade, the Swinging Sixties.

Maybe it’s not surprising that this particular generation has produced some of the finest risk-takers ever. Look at the legacy of innovation the past 50-70 years has produced. Freedom went hand in hand with occasional failure, as did success and responsibility, and we learned how to deal with it. Our youngsters of today are like a protected species and I often ache at the thought of their lack of freedom. I’ve no doubt it will have repercussions for society in the future.

The above is an Extract from There's Always the Hills, published by Sandstone Press

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