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.