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.