Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Chasing the Girls

1969-1990 - For a boy to be able to say he had a girlfriend was hugely important. It meant you were cool. Having a girlfriend was a badge of honour. It saved you from those awkward moments when you are asked amongst a crowd, “are you going with anybody at the moment?” To be able to say “yes” and give the name of one of the more attractive girls from our area gave great kudos and nods of approval from everyone.

As a boy I spent 50% of my time playing football, 25% chasing the wee girls and the remaining 25% in quiet nooks snogging, fumbling and giggling with them. These were the days when a kiss would last forever. It wasn’t so much kissing rather it was two people sucking each other’s face amidst a torrent of slobber.

There are laws a boy has when finding the girl of his dreams. These laws exist like memes from ancient carnal man. They involve an intricate assessment or vetting procedure of the potential girl, by the boy. There are five criteria or rules;

#1: She must kiss using her tongue.
#2: She must allow you to put your hand up her jumper.
#3: She must allow you to put your hand down her jeans.
#4: She must put her hand up your jumper.
#5: She must put her hand down your jeans.

If the girl does not immediately apply rule #1, the relationship will end after two dates (give the girl a second chance). Rules # 2.3.and 4 had to be applied else the affair was off.
Crucially, the whole relationship hinged on rule #5 being applied - this was paramount. Only when this rule was brought into action could the boy consider himself to be ‘in love’. In the 1970s these were the Laws of Love to a Belfast boy. I would hazard a guess it hasn’t changed much since.

Finding a girlfriend was never a problem for me. I never understood why the girls liked a skinny little runt like me but they did, and I wasn’t complaining. There were young innocent loves in Diane, Julie, Helen and Debbie, and later in my late teens and early twenties, there were the girls who shared wild drunken nights with me.

One of those hedonistic evenings involved a drunken snog with Aggie Trimble. Being drunk is not much of an excuse for this action. I mean, this girl smelt of chip-fat. Just say the name to yourself - "Aggie Trimble" and think of the smell of lard. I think you get the gist of how much of a brave public confession this is. I lower my head in shame at the thought of cavorting with Aggie Trimble. I sincerely hope I never match THAT feat.

There were many strange, scary and hilarious moments in my love life. Even being threatened with death did not halt my experiences with the opposite sex. Like the night I was with a girl known as ‘Big Yvonne’. She was only about 5'5'', and her title of ‘Big Yvonne’ was not a reference to her height. Yvonne liked sex - a LOT. She would sit in a crowded bar and scan the male revellers. Once she had decided on her prey for the night, she would stare continuously at them. The victim would either become so unnerved they fled the bar, or they would be trapped by her hypnotic, mind-controlling glare and fall victim to Big Yvonne and her lust. I was one of those poor victims on three occasions. I was so terrified of her that I behaved like a captured hostage who didn't want to be killed. I simply obeyed her orders. It wasn’t worth not doing so.

Big Yvonne took me back to her house one night. While she was feeding off me in one of her lustful frenzies, a British Army soldier knocked on the front door and shouted through the letter box "Everybody out! There's a bomb-scare two doors away!" Yvonne once again demanded that our cavorting continued. "Just keep going!" she ordered me like I was her sex-slave. Against the background noise of army bomb-disposal trucks and voices from walkie-talkies, we got on with business. Not even the threat of death from a bomb could stop Big Yvonne's lust - and as for me, well I thought "if I'm going to die, this isn't a bad way to go..."

Long before I went on my wild lust-driven rampage in my late teens I did actually meet the girl of my dreams. This happened when I was fourteen years old. She was called Jane and was twelve years old. Her friend Kim was going with my mate Marty and when a fourteen year old boy went on a date his mates came along also. That’s the way it was for girls – you dated a boy usually in the company of his friends. My mates and I went everywhere together. Rules are rules.

One summer's evening Marty went to his girlfriend's house with me tagging along. Her friend Jane was also there. Once I set eyes on Jane’s blonde hair, jeans, cowboy boots and rather ample chest I decided “she’s the girl for me”. I said hello to the new girl of my dreams while wishing I was wearing something other than dirty jeans, tee-shirt and a Manchester United scarf. If I had known this tasty bit of stuff was going to be present I would have worn something a touch more classy, like my Glentoran jersey. Perhaps I would have washed my jeans or maybe even taken a bath.

Jane and I seemed to hit it off. Soon we were going out with each other to the point where I had written her name on my schoolbag and on my arm in a ballpoint pen tattoo. When a girl’s name makes it onto a boy’s school bag and the covers of his schoolbooks it must be love.

Each night Jane would come to my street to be with me, while my mates and I played football. When we stopped to take a rest, I would disappear up the street with Jane to a quiet nook for a kiss and fumble. Occasionally I left her standing waiting for me out in the street with my mates while I sat in my house watching television. These were the ways of an apprentice romantic without a clue of how to treat a lady. Jane stuck me for a year or two then wisely got rid of me and my ever-present mates.

This was the start of our on-off-on-off-on relationship which ended in us getting married thirteen years later after being apart for eight years. I can safely say that mates are no longer present in our relationship. In the ways of how to treat a lady, I at least learnt that much!

Thursday, 15 December 2011

I Once Played Trumpet for Duke Ellington

1986 - Old Tommy drank in a pub in an East Belfast back-street. He only lived a couple of streets away so he could get drunk and still manage to find his way home. It was a daily routine he carried out as if he was occupying his time while waiting for God to bring him home. He was a wee man who 'never bothered anybody'. Tommy did his own thing, drifting through life on the soft cushion of repetition. Tommy’s life had a gentle uncomplicated rhythm. He was in his retirement years and wanted no fuss or bother.

Tommy was a friendly man who struck up conversations with many folk in the bar. He would tell tales from his past and each time he eventually he would get around to reciting a story of how he once played trumpet for music-legend Duke Ellington. ‘The Duke’ came to perform in Belfast one night during the 1940's and Tommy was recruited to play trumpet for him at the concert. This was Tommy's conversation centrepiece. "There are not many who can say they’ve played for The Duke!" he would tell anyone who was listening.

That musical night was his little slice of fame on which he rested as he slowly gave up playing a musical instrument. Working in the Shipyard and raising a family was not at all conducive with being involved in the Arts. I once asked Tommy why he quit playing trumpet. He told me that he got married at the age of twenty-one when " she found out she was pregnant.” You got a girl pregnant and you married her. That was the proper thing to do in the 1940's. Tommy became a young husband and father and "one thing led to another and I just stopped playing." His dream of being a musician was replaced by the cold reality that this was not to be.

After the struggles of young adulthood followed by the middle-age years, Tommy had finally found his own routine in life. He seemed happy with his wife, son, daughter ("the gentleman's family") and grandchildren. He had a small crowd of good mates waiting for him every day in the bar. What Tommy had didn’t amount to fame or fortune but it was enough.

After that night when he played music with Duke Ellington, Tommy spent the following forty years slowly sinking into alcohol-oblivion. This hazy world softened the inner secrets and the 'what could have been' thoughts that swirled around his head. With alcohol they disappeared. Tommy had reached the stage when the war was over; there was no more fighting; no more dreaming of a possible past. Heaven was now waiting for Tommy to be with the wee wife he lost a few years back - "God rest her soul..." he would say each time she spoke her name.

Tommy may not have fulfilled his dream of being a musician but he did actually play trumpet for ‘The Duke’. There really aren’t many who can say that.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Euston Street versus Holy Cross Boys

1975 - Our football team at Euston Street Primary School won the district league and cup, an amazing achievement for a bunch of scruffy east Belfast kids from a backstreet school. I was the proud left-winger of this magnificent team who trounced most other school teams each week. We may not have been intellectual but we were genius with a football.

My biggest disappointment during our double-winning season was being pipped by one measly goal from being the team’s leading scorer. It was John McMillan and his sweet left foot which denied me that accolade. Still, I had a league and a cup winners’ medal to cherish.

Our team was drawn to play Holy Cross Boys’ Primary School in a cup competition. The match was to take place at their school. They were Catholics and we would be going into their territory. This scared us. We were Protestant kids from a Protestant area in a Protestant school with Protestant friends. Most of us had never met a Catholic before. This was the way it was – you lived in your own area with your own friends, family, school and work.

On the day of the big match, we had visions of our team winning the match and all of us being beaten up or shot. We held an emergency meeting in the school playground to discuss strategy. We decided that our only option was to let Holy Cross Boys’ win. We didn’t want to die.

Walking out onto the pitch we got a first glimpse of the enemy. They looked just like us, another bunch of eleven year old kids from Belfast in all shapes and sizes – from the short and chubby, to the tall and lanky, to the small and delicate. Twenty two bony kneed youngsters in baggy shorts and wrong-sized football shirts stood shivering in the cold Belfast winter air waiting for the referee’s whistle to blow.

When the match kicked off we were polite and offered little resistance to them and by half-time they were four nil in the lead. We were still alive. Our strategy of keeping them happy so that we could get back home to the safety of East Belfast in one piece was working.

The second half started and soon it was five nil, then six, then seven. In a momentary lapse of concentration, our centre-forward Frankie scored a goal for us. It was a fluke goal, the ball rebounding off him into the net. An 'I didn't mean to score' goal. Frankie went into hiding for the rest of the game, convinced they would 'get him'. After pleading with the coach to take him off, he was substituted.

It was seven goals to one at the final whistle and we each shook hands with the Holy Cross boys in a moment that was more profound than we realised. This was the first time any of us had shaken hands with a Catholic. Probably those boys had never shaken hands with a Protestant either.

We travelled back home in our rickety mini-bus and they went home to their area. It would a long time before any of us would shake hands with the enemy again. This was Belfast in 1975 after all.


Monday, 5 December 2011

Signing up for Bolton Wanderers

1974 - I was a great wee footballer who was once described by two men as "the best boy footballer they had ever seen" - although you can't completely trust the views of two men full of rum, sitting in a Belfast pub...

At ten years old, football was my life. Kicking a ball was what I did constantly. On glorious summer days during the school holidays I would joyously play football with my mates in the Ormeau Park. This was Heaven. No school, scoring goals and lying on the soft grass watching ladybirds do their thing. I would capture the odd unlucky ladybird and keep it in an empty matchbox with little holes pierced in the lid for the poor thing to breathe. The poor creature would be very much dead after it had been thrown about the inside of a matchbox which had been in my pocket for the duration of an hour and a half long football match.

During one particular match, I noticed an old man watching us play. I carried on playing and during the match I dazzled and shone as usual. It was a position of immense power being streets ahead of my mates in football skills. I loved torturing and teasing my friends as they attempted to get the ball from me. They employed all sorts of tactics to put me off the game - shirt-pulling, clipping the back of my heels to trip me and throwing the odd punch. As the old boy watched us I scored goal after goal.

After our match which always finished with a ridiculous score, something along the lines of 36-29, the old man approached me. He told me he was "a scout for Bolton Wanderers". No Manchester United or Liverpool, just third division level Bolton Wanderers but hey, it's better than nothing. He was a tiny man of about 5'1" in height and wore traditional Ulster-man dress - brown suit, white shirt, brown tie, brown shoes and a brown tweed cap to hide his baldness. The old boy told me I was a great footballer and that he wanted to sign me up for Bolton Wanderers. “Wait, a ten year old signing for a professional football club? Was I THAT good?” I thought to myself.

The old boy took out a small creased notebook and pen from his pocket and asked for my name, age and address. He also told me that he would need to take a photograph of me. Alarm bells were starting to sound. As he opened his notebook he asked if I would meet him the next night in the Ormeau Park to take my photo. The alarm bells were getting louder. As he was speaking I caught a glance into his crumpled notebook and noticed other kids’ names which I recognised, one of them being a girl. I asked him "why have you got Mavis' name there? She doesn't even play football!". I noticed the old man panic. Why did he have the name, address and photo of an eight year old girl? Was he also going to sign her up for Bolton bloody Wanderers? My mates and I began to catch on to what was happening here. We were talking to a ‘dirty old man’.

My crowd of mates gathered around the old boy. "What's up?" one of them asked.
"He wants to sign me up for Bolton Wanderers" I told them.
"Bolton Wanderers?! But they're shite!" declared one of them.
"Are you REALLY a scout for Bolton Wanderers?" asked another.
"Yes! I really am!" the old man replied.
"He's not, no fawkin' way!" shouted another.
"He wants to meet me tomorrow night to take my picture" I told the gang.

By this stage the old boy was surrounded by about fifteen street-wise Belfast kids who had obviously rumbled him and knew fine well that he was an old pervert. He looked terrified as he was surrounded and bombarded with numerous questions simultaneously;
"Why do you take pictures of kids, mate?" asked the cautious one.
"Are you a pervert?" asked the direct one.
"Show us yer dick!" shouted the comedian.

The old boy was backing away as the pack paced after him and around him, playing with their prey with great amusement.

"I'm gonna get my Da - he's just over there..." said one, knowing this would finish the old boy off. At that point he turned and ran for his life with fifteen kids running after him shouting obscenities and threatening to report him "to the peelers". I remember the old boy tripping and falling on his face to which we all fell about laughing. I never saw him ever again.


Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Mad Fathers and Ferrets

1968 - In working class Belfast the real sages and gurus would meet daily in little backstreet dens, and the more they drank the wiser they became. There were many in the pubs who knew everything there was to know about life.

When I was four years old I developed whooping cough. My father was told a story in a pub about a ‘Seventh Son of a Seventh Son’ who had mystical healing powers.

Take him to see that fella. He’ll sort him out.”

My da’ put his faith in what his wise drinking pal had told him. His entire philosophy about life came from what he heard in bars and clubs.

It was a fine summer’s afternoon when I was bundled into the car by my da’ and driven out to the back end of nowhere. I hadn’t a clue where he was taking me to and all my da’ would tell me was that “we’re goin’ to get that cough of yours sorted out.”

We drove along many winding country lanes and into the driveway of a white farmhouse. Chickens and dogs scurried around the car and greeted us with a cacophony of barking and clucking. The front door of the house opened and a man stepped out. He gave a slight smile and a nod as he waved to us. He was a large stocky man with thick dark hair, most of which was stuffed beneath a dark green woollen hat. To a skinny city boy like me the man looked exactly like how I imagined a large beefy farmer would look. He spoke with a deep-voiced country twang.

“You find the place alright? It’s easy to get lost round here.”

My da’ and I were brought into the farmhouse. The smell of dampness and home-cooking hit me. In his kitchen, the mysterious farmer told me to sit in a chair in the middle of the room. I gave my da’ a “Help me! What’s going to happen to me?!” look and he gave me a reassuring nod to follow the man’s instructions.

Without saying a word, the farmer slowly poured some milk into a saucer and placed it on the large wooden table. He disappeared for a few minutes and came back into the room holding a ferret. I was terrified and wondered what on earth he was going to do to me. The big Farmer held the wriggling beast who was making loud chattering noises over the saucer and let it lick the milk. Then he poured the ferret-licked milk from the saucer into a glass.

"Drink it –ALL!"

I took a small, repulsive sip and wretched.

"Go on! Drink it – ALL!" said the farmer again. My father echoed his words. I held my breath, closed my eyes and swallowed the lot.

"Good lad! You’ll be right as rain in no time!"

My father slipped the farmer some money, thanked him and we drove away. The farmer was still nursing the ferret in his arm as he waved us goodbye.

The thing about this weird encounter was how it all seemed perfectly normal to my Father to ignore the option of getting a qualified doctor’s advice and instead put his trust in what his drinking cronies told him - even when his child was suffering from whooping cough, a potentially life-threatening illness.

To make this tale just that little bit stranger, the whooping cough soon disappeared. Perhaps the thought of more visits to the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son and his magic ferret scared the illness out of me forever.

Or maybe the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son really did have magical powers and the wise old men in the pub really do know everything…

A Day Out in Millisle

1973 - When the weather was good my ma’ and da’ would bundle me into the car and drive to Millisle, a little seaside town adopted by the working-class as a holiday resort. This spot on the North Down peninsula consisted basically of one street containing a couple of amusement arcades, chip shops, sweet shops, and a pub. On a glorious summer’s day many would flock from Belfast to Millisle to get a break from life in the city. The North Down coastline and the little towns dotted along it like Newtownards, Bangor, Greyabbey, Donaghadee, Groomsport and Millisle. These were the places Protestants would go for a day out. Catholics would travel to different holiday spots along for their days out. The two cultures remained separate, even on a glorious summer’s day.

My folks and I would set off at about eleven o’clock in the morning and by the time we arrived in Millisle or ‘little Shankill’, my back and bum would be roasting and virtually stuck to the car seat as the sun blazed in through the car windows. When we finally came to a stop I would open the door and dive out of the car panting for breath in the blazing hot sunshine. And so our family day trip to Millisle had begun.

My folks would give me some money, order me to not stray far and off they would go into the First and Last pub for an afternoon's drinking. Great. I was alone in Millisle, with £1.50 to spend and drunken parents to look forward to dealing with. Things just can’t get better than that.
The first stop for me would be to buy an ice-cream, sit on the pavement outside the pub and watch the people go by. It was a thing I liked to do, not by choice, but by circumstance. With my parents spending most of their available time in pubs and clubs I had become used to being by myself. I got to like my own company and enjoyed watching the strange shapes, sizes and demeanour of other people. Each one, a separate universe of their own, had come to this little seaside town in an attempt to escape the grey of Belfast for just one day. They passed by me in streams of families. I sat back in the hot sunshine eating an ice-cream, watching the parade of men and boys in football tops and mothers shouting at their kids. I slowly licked and savoured each icy mouthful of ice-cream, trying in vain to make it last forever, like it was the last one on Earth.

All good things must come to an end and when my ice cream and people-watching was exhausted I walked to the amusement arcades. There I would pass time unsuccessfully trying to win prizes from the stalls. I watched groups of kids having fun together and wished I could join in with them. I never did. It wasn’t worth the risk of asking them “can I play too?” only to be ignored, laughed at, told to “piss off” or given a punch on the face.

After I had occupied myself for around four hours while May and Angus were having a great time in the pub sinking drink after drink, I decided hat was it. I finally couldn’t stick the boredom any longer. I stormed into the ‘First and Last’ pub, and began continually tugging at my da’s belt while begging him to take me home.

"Sit down son, we're enjoying ourselves..." he would usually say.

Realising my folks were not going to move for a while I would admit defeat and sit amongst them and their drinking cronies. A few of the people in the company bought me soft drinks and give me a few coppers from their pockets. In return I had to listen to drunken waffle, banter, songs and stories. I would drift off into the canyons of my imagination to escape the sound of the drunken ones warbling an off-key rendition of ‘Mexicali Rose’.

Finally my ma’ and da’ would decide it was time to go home. They would say their goodbyes to their company with drunken hugs, handshakes and long-winded farewell speeches which seemed to last forever.

Eventually my ma’ and da’ waddled off to the car with me following behind. I would help my very drunk mother into the car, who was as limp as a sack of potatoes. My da’ would drive us back home to Belfast in his orange Vauxhall Viva while very drunk. When he drove in this state, he would become extra cautious and would hit the brakes continually. The drink was making him hallucinate and he would slam the brakes on because he thought a dog had run onto the road. By the time we arrived home I was feeling sea-sick with being thrown about the back of the car each time my da’ panicked and brought the car to a violent stop.

Our car eventually reached Ravenhill Avenue. The orange Vauxhall Viva bounced along the street and came to a screeching halt at our house. My folks left me off at the house and told me they were going out for an hour. Off they rode into the sunset towards the Parkview bar. The taste of the drink was now on their lips and they needed more…

…and so ended another grand day out with May and Angus.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Gunning for Keith Chegwin

1977 - ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ was the most popular kids TV show in Britain during its era from 1976 until 1982. It was a live three-hour Saturday morning programme with games, pop music, cartoons, live phone-ins and an outside broadcast held in different locations around the UK. At these live road-shows kids could bring along their unwanted toys and games to swap with other kids’ who did the same. Swap Shop’ was a programme from a more naive Britain entering into the Margaret Thatcher years and a revolutionary concept in Children’s television. Britain loved it except me - I could take it or leave it.

Swap Shop came to Belfast in 1977, to a city silenced, traumatised and numbed by the troubles. Very few from overseas would visit Belfast so when we discovered the famous Swap Shop was coming, the whole neighbourhood was excited. Even better was the choice of venue being Ravenhill Rugby Ground, just up the road a bit from us.

Leading up to the big day the kids in the area were talking about it continually. Some spoke about how they might get their faces shown on TV. Others imagined how they might meet Keith Chegwin, the presenter of the live road-show. Chegwin was a colourful kids TV presenter and well-loved by the British public – but not by me and my mates. To us he was a ‘big fruit’, with his multi-coloured woolly jumpers and girly haircut. He always appeared happy and bouncy and to top it all off, he was English - that just made us hate him more. It was a common thing in Belfast to not like the English. To us, they were the country who thought they were better than the rest of Britain. Every time the words “World Cup” and “nineteen sixty six” were mentioned on television there would be a collective moan heard over Ulster. To the people of Belfast the English were ‘pansies’.

It was ten o’clock on Saturday morning on the day of Swap Shop’s visit to Belfast when I heard a knock at my front door. It was ‘Millsie’ and a team of about twelve other kids.

Ya comin’ up to Ravenhill?” Millsie asked me.
Nah, can’t be bothered” I replied.
C’mon! We’re all going!” said Millsie.
This confused me. I thought, why they would want to go to take part in a poofy TV show?
Millsie continued “C’mon, it’ll be class – we’re all going up to kick the shite out of that wanker Keith Chegwin!

Now it made sense -- this band of twelve year olds weren’t going to take part in the show at all, rather they were going to make an attempt to beat up Keith Chegwin. Millsie had been calling on doors since nine o’clock that morning to gather together a posse of willing young volunteers to help him in his quest.

Nah, I’m not going. I’ll stay in and watch for you on TV” I told the gang. Millsie replied with a cocky “Okay, but look out for us kicking the crap out of that gay boy Cheggers!

And off the team went calling on another few houses further up the street to coax some other kids to join in with their quest. I watched them through our venetian blinds as they eventually disappeared around the corner. I watched that episode of Swap Shop intently that morning. I prayed that Millsie and his band of junior desperados would make it past the huge security staff, and onto the stage to get at Cheggers. I had a vision of that team of Belfast kids beating up the famous TV presenter - all beamed on BBC live television to the entire United Kingdom.

Millsie’s mission failed to happen but he and his posse did try. I’ll give them full marks for their determination.

This was a Belfast were there existed, an urge to vent anger on those who are different from you. It was an insular Belfast caught up in its own incestuous arguing over faiths and symbols. Swap Shop were a bunch of outsiders coming to us with their ‘happiness’. This wasn’t a time to be happy. It was a time to hate an enemy. The troubles had instilled this mind-set throughout the province of Ulster. If Millsie and his posse had succeeded, they would have unwittingly relayed this message to the UK who already thought of us as a country of mad folk.

But let’s face it, to us Cheggers was a ‘Jessie’ and a ‘big-girl’s blouse’. How dare he come over to Ulster with his happy, smiling face and English accent - and as for the horrible multi-coloured woolly jumpers and his girly haircut! I thought he really did deserve a visit from Millsie and the boys…

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

One Singer, One Song

1970-1980 - In the world of social clubs in Northern Ireland there is an old tradition known as the ‘sing-song’. They are gatherings of people who get drunk together and when the booze kicks in people would begin singing songs. The music would be played by a local pub ‘act’ who would often be one guy with a guitar and a little drum machine. As the pub-singer was singing the punters would nominate someone to sing a song by writing the person’s name on a scrap of paper. They would give the paper to the pub-singer who would keep the names until the floor was thrown open to other singers.

I’d like to now call Dickie up to give us a wee song” he would announce over the PA. Dickie would falsely look surprised and would pretend to protest. “No, I can’t!” he would he would say. His friends would encourage him with shouts of “Go on Dickie! Give’s a wee number!” Dickie would shrug his shoulders and would declare “Oh, okay then”. Pretending to not want to sing was something he always did. If he was not nominated to sing he would be deeply offended. There were many others like Dickie who took the sing-song very seriously. Each of them had their own particular song which they always sang. The rule was that no-one would dare sing anyone else’s song. It could cause a row if someone stood up to the microphone and sang a song that had been already claimed by another. Angus always sang 'The Way We Were'. Dickie always sang 'Spanish Eyes'. Billy, 'Beautiful Sunday'. May, 'Slow Boat to China'. Milton, 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘round the Old Oak Tree'. That was the deal – don’t touch my song and I’ll leave yours alone.

Every Sunday afternoon in the middle lounge of ‘The Raven’ social club these same songs were sung by the same people to the same crowd. Each sing-song was a duplication of the previous one and that’s the way they liked it. The same people drinking the same drinks at the same tables in the same smoke-filled room and enjoying the same banter while listening to the same songs being sung by the same singers. It was a security thing. There were no surprises apart from the odd punter collapsing on the floor because they had that one drink too many tipping them over the edge.

There was a strict code of conduct that was upheld during sing-songs. The code was never written down yet was known and upheld by everyone;

1. Each person had their own song which no-one else could sing.
2. When someone was singing a lively song it was okay to join in.
3. If someone was singing a sentimental or sad song there should be absolute silence.

If someone was singing a sad ballad and another person was found to be singing along with them, they would be scolded by the other punters with shouts of “Hey! One singer - one song!” I heard this phrase shouted many times when the sing-song code of conduct was broken…and to be found to be having a conversation while someone was singing was seen as being disrespectful to the singer. You would be treated with contempt if you were discovered to be talking to your mate during someone’s ‘turn’.

Many times people would be in tears when someone sung a sad song. The drink was now in full grip of everyone in the room and as the singer was crying alcohol-driven tears of sentiment, he would be joined by some of the watchers who would also begin blubbing. This was the music of the lost, the music of what could have been, the music of sorrow and regret, music which cried out for better things. This Sunday afternoon music begged for the following Monday morning and the commencement of another working week to never arrive. The dream of the entire room would be to freeze time so they would be all lost in an eternal drunken sing-song with the same people drinking the same drinks at the same tables in the same smoke-filled room and enjoying the same banter while listening to the same songs being sung by the same singers.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Pillaging the Isle of Man

Sinking pool balls - Isle of Man, 1979

1979 - My mate Marty and I went with my parents to Douglas, the capital town of the Isle of Man for a summer holiday during the glorious summer of 1979. My folks allowed me to take Marty along for a couple of reasons – I would have a companion therefore they didn’t have to entertain me which meant this meant that they could go to the various pubs and clubs on a two week alcohol binge. This arrangement suited us all - my mate and I were free to do whatever the hell we liked with no one watching over us, which was heaven for two fourteen year-olds. May and Angus were also free to do whatever the hell they liked. The deal was struck – you leave us alone and we’ll leave you alone.

Throughout the fortnight and with no parental control to restrain us, Marty and I embarked on a near non-stop stealing spree. Our fortnight of thieving began with stealing a few sweets from the local shops and within one week we were walking into souvenir shops and walking out calm-as-you-like with armfuls of Isle of Man trinkets. We also continually nicked booze from behind the bar of the guest house we were staying in. When the owners of the quaint little house were busy with their cleaning duties, we would sneak behind the bar and pilfer bottles of beer. Marty and I would take the booze up to our room and drink it. Being fourteen year-old alcohol-novices we couldn’t drink it all so we used our entrepreneurial talents to scout out a few local teenagers who we could sell the surplus stock to. We began selling alcohol on a daily basis to the same bunch of kids who became our regular customers. Marty and I decided this was a most excellent holiday.

With the extra cash made from selling booze to local kids and from the savings we made from stealing presents for everyone back home, Marty and I were loaded with money to spend in amusement arcades, pool-halls, go-kart racing and generally live in decadence on a diet of chips, sweets and soft drinks. We would go sunbathing on the Douglas beach, lying back on the warm sands with our skinny white frames on display to the world like two little working-class Johnnies-made-good. All the while May and Angus were somewhere getting hammered in some local pub - wherever the cheapest drink was on sale. Marty and I hardly saw them at all over the fortnight. We were robbing the local shops of their stocks while May and Angus staggered and crawled from bar to bar in a drunken bender. The vulgar ones were infesting the Isle of Man.

Soon our fortnight of bliss was ended and it was time to return to the fierce grey Ulster skies and a world of army Saracen vehicles and road-blocks with soldiers pointing SLR rifles. Marty and I stuffed our stolen presents into our suitcases which couldn’t hold all of the ‘pruck’ therefore we had to steal an extra case from a cupboard in the guest-house to pack the rest of the stolen gifts into. When we arrived back in Belfast everyone was delighted that we Mart and I had been so generous in buying everyone presents. My Grandmother couldn’t believe her eyes when I presented her with a huge Isle of Man weather vane, a pile of Douglas drink-mats, a souvenir t-shirt and a few random books nicked from book-shops. My brother, sister, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends all received illegally procured gifts and no one questioned how two fourteen year-olds could afford so many trinkets. I brought Jain, my childhood sweetheart a stolen “I [heart] the Isle of Man” badge to further cement our relationship and to prove that romance was still alive and well.

I mean, what else would two fourteen year olds from working-class East Belfast, with innocent looking faces, a hidden sense of deviousness and a lust for danger do when they were left alone in a holiday resort for two weeks with no adults looking after them? Mart and I had been given a license to live for a fortnight in that wild, boyish carefree spirit, where the world revolves in its entirety around you. In this world there are no laws except the ones you set and life for us kids was a process of doing, getting caught and being punished. This time Marty and I executed our cunning beautifully to the point where didn’t get caught - until this little confession. To the locals of Douglas on the very beautiful Isle of Man, I’m sorry. Forgive us for bringing a little taste of the Belfast I knew to your beautiful little island.


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Ravenhill Defenders Flute Band

1972 - At the age of eight years old the Orange Order marching season in July and August inspired me and my friends to form our own flute band. This band was to be known as the ‘Ravenhill Defenders Flute Band’. We had volunteers in the form of me, Marty, Smicker, and Jim-Rib. Smicker and I were to be on flutes and because Marty already carried the banner string in his father’s Orange Lodge on the real twelfth of July parade he was to carry the banner of the ‘Ravenhill Defenders Flute Band’. Jim-Rib played drums in the local Boys’ Brigade band. He was to be our drummer. ‘Jim-Rib’ was an abbreviation of his full nick-name of ‘Jimmy-Ribshite’, gained because he was so skinny.

We had our line up for our band of loyalist marching heroes. All we needed were the instruments, the banner and the marching regalia.

Marty stole a white bed sheet from his mother and two brush poles. These were to be made into our banner. With a tin of black paint and a brush nicked from one of our fathers we carefully painted ‘Ravenhill Defenders Flute Band’ onto the sheet. We then painted a very dodgy primary-school-style drawing of King Billy astride his white horse. The sheet was spread it out in my back yard to bake dry in the glorious summer sun.

Jim-Rib appeared with a big empty paint tin turned upside down with a string attached to it around his neck – the perfect drum. We were getting somewhere now! We nailed the bed sheet banner onto two brush poles and stood back and admired our work. There was however one major obstacle. We were creating a flute band yet none of us could actually play flute or even had one. We decided that we would all simply sing the tunes out loud using the letter ‘D’. Therefore ‘The Sash’ was all in ‘the key of D’ resulting in “Dee-dee-deeeeeeee-dee-dee-dee-deeeeeeeeeee-dee-dee…” Perfect.

For the parade Marty borrowed his father’s real Orange Sash to wear and the rest of us had to make our own from any material we could find. The ‘Ravenhill Defenders Flute Band’ was now ready to hold its very first parade.

We assembled and took our places in the middle of the road and Jim-Rib loudly struck up the first drum-roll. We were off on our grand parade. Marching up the middle of the street we would occasionally have to disperse from angry car-drivers being held up by our defiant parade. We would move amidst shouts of, “Get off the bloody road ya wee buggers!” Once the cars had passed we would go back out into the middle of the street and recommence our proud march. We sang Orange marching tunes, “dee-dee-dee-ing” proudly and banging paint tins. Marty was at the front carrying the bed-sheet banner. Our musicality was nil but our spirit and passion was immense.

This is what we did. We played at being Loyalist flute bands. It was working-class Belfast in 1972 in the middle of the Orange Order marching season. This was our world...


Saturday, 2 April 2011

On The Beak

1977-1980 - School never agreed with me and I was too much of a daydreamer to listen to teachers. I spun on my own orbit in a constant attempt to escape those who tried to tell me how I should be. I was thirteen years old when I gathered up the courage to mitch off school, once I had managed to talk my mate Marty into being my partner-in-crime – if I was going to get caught I wouldn’t be alone. ‘Beaking off’ school was a landmark event for me and Marty. It was like a Rite of Passage into the world of skipping school. This operation needed very careful planning…

Both of us carried out some prior reconnaissance work to source out a suitable place to hide from the outside world on our first day ‘on the beak’. There was a little area known as Chesham near to where we lived. Chesham was a strange batch of small, quiet streets and cul-de-sacs that was entirely different from the surrounding areas of red-brick terraces. The houses of Chesham built for ex-servicemen from World War I, had a quaint charm. Many of the houses were painted white and they resembled little Mediterranean villas. This peaceful area was perfect for me and Marty to hide from the dreaded ‘Beaky Board’, a team of men and women who by urban legend would wander around the streets looking for kids who were playing truant from school. Every school kid was terrified of the mysterious Beaky Board.

To make things better we found two huge hedgerows growing parallel to each other. The tops of the hedges grew over and into one another creating a roof of sorts. We climbed inside the two hedges to discover there was a three foot wide space running the length of the two bushes. It was our very own hidey-hole with loads of space and protection from the Belfast rain. The setting was perfect for our first day on the beak…

We met the next morning and set off for school as normal except his was no ordinary day - this was the day of reckoning. Nervously we walked to the local shop to stock up on sweets and comics to keep us occupied for the next six and a half hours. We walked to the Chesham area and to our leafy hedgerow sanctuary. With a quick glance along the street to make sure no one was watching we quickly disappeared into the security of a hedge, our hearts beating double-time. Marty and I sat inside the large hedgerow from half past eight in the morning until half past three in the afternoon. Even though we were trapped and living in fear of being caught it was exhilarating. Since we did not think to bring a watch we had no idea what time it was which meant that we had to venture out of the hedge once to ask an old lady the correct time. She told us “it’s a quarter to three – not time to go home yet”. She was onto what we were doing. The old lady’s comment made us paranoid that the Beaky Board would bust us in our leafy hiding place. However once it hit half past three we walked home in a state of triumph, like heroes after a battle. We did it! We beaked off school! This was to be the first of many days to come, each time it became easier and more tempting to simply not go to school.

Another friend Mark was also a partner I skipped school with. Mark’s house was empty during the day and the temptation of having yet another sneaky day off with nothing to do except listen to music, watch TV and smoke cigarettes, was much too great.
One day as we lounged in the comfort of Mark’s living room listening to David Bowie albums we decided that chicken soup and bread would be perfect for lunch. As we were stirring the pot we suddenly heard the front door opening. It was Mark’s ma’! We panicked and raced out to hide in the back yard leaving the pot of soup still boiling on the stove. Mark’s mother walked in to her kitchen to find a pot of creamy chicken soup heating itself up for her lunch. She screamed “Maarrrk!!” but no sound apart from the bubbling soup. When she came out to the back yard she found Mark hiding behind the rubbish bin and me hiding behind the coal bunker. We were caught red-handed. We both ran past her like whippets and out of the house, as she screamed obscenities at both of us. I hid for the rest of the day in Ormeau Park, terrified of going home in the fear of Mark’s mother telling my parents.

By the age of fourteen beaking off school had become a regular thing for me. I was becoming more confident and blasé about not going to school to the point that I now simply stayed in my own house – sod being outside in the cold. The routine was to leave the back door open and leave for school as normal. I would wait a few streets away until nine o’clock when I knew that both my parents would have left the house for work. When I knew they had gone I would sneak up the back alleyway and in through the back door. This would have to be done silently to avoid our next door neighbour hearing me going into the house. I had to spend the entire day basically in silence as I was convinced that my mother had assigned the neighbour to watch the house and listen for noise through the thin single brick walls. Playing truant can make one very paranoid.

In the quest to continually hide my tracks from the days I skipped school I had to master my father’s handwriting style in order to fake the absent notes I handed in to my teacher on the days I actually went to school – Dear Mr Gibson, please excuse Ian from not being at school as he was very sick. Yours sincerely, A. Livingstone.
There was a point in time that both my parents and school knew I was a regular ‘mitcher’. I saw a few letters from the school expressing concern at my lack of attendance, but they only read me the riot act once - after that they seemed to give up. In my father’s eyes an education wasn’t essential. He had set his sights on me becoming an apprentice and “getting a trade” in the construction industry. This was working-class Belfast, a place where a good day’s work involved getting your hands dirty and not being a pen-pushing desk-hugger.

I continued playing truant until I left school with no exam qualifications at all, but none of that seemed to matter, to me or anyone else.


Saturday, 19 March 2011

Summers in Dundonald

1973-1975 - During the long summer days of the early 1970s I often stayed for the entire two month school holidays with my Aunt Margaret, Uncle Tom, two cousins David and Elaine and Ned the dog at their home in Dundonald. To me it was a proper family home and far removed from the alcohol-fuelled cess-pit where I spent the other ten months of the year. The Livingstones from Dundonald were like a completely different species from the Livingstones of Ravenhill Avenue Belfast. The Dundonald clan were people you could love and feel loved in return. Aunt Margaret and Uncle Tom didn’t fight the way my ma’ and da’ did in a drunken war against each other and everyone else. If Aunt Margaret and Uncle Tom had any problems I didn’t see them whereas May and Angus acted out a living hell marriage in full view of the whole neighbourhood.

Aunt Margaret was a person who cared about people. I liked being around her. I sometimes went with her to help clean the interior of her local church. She let me polish the large golden eagle statues on the pulpit and in the stillness of an empty church I would enjoy each moment of just being with this very dear Aunt of mine. Her husband Tom was my da’s brother and a totally different being from his uncouth sibling. He was a man who made me laugh a lot and that is how I remember him. When Uncle Tom died from cancer in 1978 I guess part of me went too.

The lazy summers in Dundonald with its soundtrack of children playing and neighbours mowing grass lawns, allowed me to venture into happy childhood experiences. I played on an old obsolete railway line. It was a perfect place to enact my favourite Wild West and War movies from ‘True Grit’ to ‘The Great Escape’. I had the delight of playing cricket matches with the other kids from the area. Playing tennis matches and hitting golf balls in Moat Park were wonderful new things to me. It was very different from Belfast life and I loved every moment of it.

I loved my two cousins David and Elaine dearly. David was older than me and I thought he was great. He played football for his school team and had his hair cut in the David Bowie ‘Aladdin Sane’ style. To me he was the perfect ‘cool dude’. I loved spending time with Elaine and her friends. I fancied a few of them however to my disappointment none of them managed to be attracted to my skinny nine year-old frame.

I loved exploring the old Dundonald railway line by myself. I would awaken early, pack a few biscuits and a bottle of juice. I went wandering along the railway track with a gun-shaped branch of a tree as my protection from any Red Indians or German Storm-troopers who I might come across on my journey. I meandered along the tracks totally happy with my own company and my wild imagination, stopping every so often for a rest and a snack. I would find some long grass to lie in to soak up the summer sun and its stillness and silence, which was only disturbed by the industrious buzzing of bees and wasps. I remained still watching the little creatures at their work. This was my own world of magic and wonder, and in this world there were no political troubles or rough kids to fight with. Everything seemed to be gentle in comparison to the streets of Belfast. This was a different world and I wanted to stay here forever, however the days immersed in golden summer sunshine and life with a family who were ‘normal’ felt couldn’t last. Soon it would be time to return to the grey of Belfast, school and life with my ma’ and da’.

From the moment my parents brought me to Aunt Margaret and Uncle Tom’s house at the beginning of the holidays, I never heard from both of them. I think May and Angus were glad to get rid of me. It meant they were free to drink themselves into a stupor without the responsibility of a child to look after. I was happy with that arrangement and every day I secretly wished I would never see the two of them again…

Friday, 11 March 2011

My Extended Family

Me with the Taskers, Stirling Castle, Scotland 1970

1973-1975 - As well as my own blood relations I had a series of mysterious aunts, uncles and cousins, none of whom were related to me at all. I had an entire family of non-relatives living in Scotland who we would occasionally visit. ‘Uncle’ Harry and ‘Aunt’ Madge along with their six children, my ‘cousins’ would welcome us into their home for two weeks during the summer. Come to think of it I have no idea who these people actually were or why they were thought of as relations, but I grew to love them as my own family. I think the connection came from ‘uncle’ Harry and my father once being workmates who had kept in touch over the years. Such was the strange custom in our house where friends of my mother and father would be regarded as my ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’. I had loads of these pseudo-relatives – Uncle Ron, Uncle Bobby, Uncle Charlie, Aunty Mavis, and enough pretend-cousins to fill a school assembly hall. I wasn’t moaning about it – when any of these strange relations would call, they would give me some spare coppers from their pocket. In fact, I couldn’t have enough of these weird aunts and uncles.

Uncle Ron was my favourite of these ‘uncles’. He visited the family most summers with Uncle Alex who was an actual blood-relation. Uncle Ron was a flamboyant and funny man who wore pristine clothing - usually cream and beige with smart slip-on loafer shoes. The fact that when Uncle Alex and ‘Uncle’ Ron came to stay with us they would sleep in the same bed didn’t strike me in anyway as odd. I mean, Eric Morecombe and Ernie Wise would be seen in bed together on TV every Saturday night.

(Child on the right is me with ‘Uncle’ Ron. Uncle Alex left kneeling)

Uncle Alex and ‘Uncle’ Ron made me laugh, brought me gifts, gave me money, got drunk a lot, fought, cried, bitched and danced. Alex and Ron generally had a two-week long party when they came to Belfast. This usually involved huge family rows caused by Uncle Alex and his dramatic tantrums. My two Uncles were as camp as a row of tents in a ‘Carry On’ film. They were hilarious entertainment and I loved both of them.

Watching Uncle Alex and Uncle Ron argue in a drunken bitch-fight was nothing startling either – my mother and father regularly fought, so alcohol-fuelled brawling was a sight I was very well used to. My parents often brought their drinking cronies (and more ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ for me) from the pub after closing time for a boozing session. From my room I could hear the laughter, raised drunken voices and the singing of country ‘n western ballads of despair.

As Uncle Alex and Uncle Ron danced together in an inebriated state in the middle of our living room to Englebert Humperdinck singing “dance, dance, dance to my ten guitars", they would suddenly begin arguing. The dancing became pushing and shoving and the singing turned into yelling at each other. The sight of Uncle Alex and Uncle Ron fighting was as Tom Jones once said, “It’s not unusual…

It wasn’t until I was about sixteen years of age that I figured out that Uncle Alex was gay and Uncle Ron was his lover. No one in the family spoke of Uncle Alex being gay. I had asked my ma’ and da’ on several occasions but the subject was always immediately changed. It was like a dirty secret to be ashamed of. This was protestant working-class heterosexual Belfast where a Protestant keep-it-all-in ethos would forbid speaking about things such as this. To this day I have never heard any member of my family utter the words “Uncle Alex was gay”. This may have been a family embarrassment but it made no difference to me at all. Uncle Alex was fun to be with, end of story.

Alex’s flamboyancy sometimes saved the day as it did on the morning of my sister's wedding in 1969. I was five years old and was to be my sister's page-boy on the biggest day of her life I was a mischievous little kid with a mission that was for me to be the center of attention and not her. Manipulating situations to make people focus of all attention on me is what I did magnificently.

As the beautiful radiant bride and her helpers were fussing over her wedding dress, I dramatically strode into the room. My mother, sister, father and bridesmaid didn’t pay any attention and continued to adjust their wedding apparel. I declared to the whole family that "I'm not going to her stinkin' oul’ wedding!" I went on sit-down strike refusing to put on my page-boy outfit. The white frilled shirt, blue velvet trousers and matching cummerbund and bow-tie were girls’ clothes and not for a boy like me. There was no way I was going to be seen dead in those little Lord Fauntleroy clothes! This was thirty minutes before leaving our house to go to the actual ceremony.

The attention turned from brides and bridesmaids being pampered to me. I felt a surge of power. I was now the focus of attention and not my sister on her big day. My sister burst into tears. She had already been a nervous wreck before I had chipped in with my dramatic statement but not she was a blubbering mess. “He’s going to ruin my whole day!” she howled. The relatives in the room tried to coax me into putting on my wedding outfit, from talking to me nicely to offering me sweets and money, to just plain screaming at me but I stood resolute. “I’m nat wearin’ those stupid clothes!” I repeatedly told them all.

At that moment my uncle Alex waltzed into the room towards me. He told me excitedly the frilled page-boy shirt I was refusing to wear was exactly the same as the shirts worn by the pop-star Tom Jones when he sang on stage. The excitement in his voice made me sit up and listen. "Really?" I asked. "REALLY!" replied Uncle Alex. "Oh it is SO Tom Jones!" chirped Uncle Ron. That was me sold. If the shirt was good enough for Tom bloody Jones, it was good enough for me I thought.

When I finally put the page-boy outfit my Uncle Alex clapped his hands and shouted “You look just like Tom Jones!” He and Uncle Ron began wailing an out of tune version of ‘My, my, my, Delilah’, while fixing my page-boy outfit. I stood in front of the mirror and in my five year old mind I saw Tom Jones the cool singer staring back at me. With pop-star coolness I declared to my sister, the blubbering, panicking bride "Okay! I will go to your stinkin' oul’ wedding!"

Uncle Alex had saved the day.