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.