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…
Saturday, 28 May 2011
Tuesday, 17 May 2011
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.