Friday, 15 November 2013

Nettlefield Primary School And The Boy Who Sold Dirty Pictures


From the age of five years old I attended Nettlefield Primary School, a place with only a couple of hundred pupils. In this community all the kids knew each other in one way or another, be it friend or foe. Nettlefield sat in a quiet backstreet off the Ravenhill Road in Belfast. It was a school for the immediate area with no kids who were outsiders.

The pupils of Nettlefield came in all shapes and sizes. There were kids who continually wore a sticking plaster over one eye to cure a ‘lazy eye’. These poor kids went through their early school life half-blind. There were the ones who constantly had two streams of snot running from their noses. There were the kids with shaved heads to get rid of nits. The ones who smelt of wee. There were some gentle, clean looking pupils who looked like they came from respectable families. These kids formed the minority amongst the weather-beaten faces, reddened and chapped from the cold of winter. This is the place where the metal meets the meat; where nothing is expected from kids; where the forgotten ones of society live.

In Nettlefield Primary the whole school knew ‘Beezer’. He was the hard man of the school. Beezer was spoken of as being the best fighter in the school and had a legendary reputation. We heard stories of him taking on and beating up three boys at once. I was fine with this, for I knew the mighty Beezer from outside school. His mother was a hairdresser and used to style my ma’s hair once a week. This loose connection was enough to put me on the good side of the school tough guy. Therefore, I was usually free from any kids giving me hassle although I did manage to get into some scraps and scrapes along the way, Beezer or no Beezer.

One of the well known characters in Nettlefield was a boy in my third year class who operated a distribution service of dirty pictures. These were photos of ladies modeling underwear, cut out from his mother's clothing catalogues. The boy would bring his collection of sordid pictures into school to sell them in the playground during break and lunch. He traded not in hard cash but in sweets and toys. The racket ran as a true barter system;

Each day the nine year old king of pornography stood in a corner of the playground with a crowd of other boys around him ogling at the various pictures of very conservative middle-aged women standing in girdles, braziers, pants, stockings and suspenders. Like a market stall trader the boy would haggle with the other kids over the prices;

Customer: "I'll give you two Black Jacks and three Midget Gems for that picture."

Trader: "No way! Two Black Jacks and six Midget Gems!"

Customer (after deep thought): "Alright, two Black Jacks and six Midget Gems… but you're a robbin' shite."

Trader : "Business is business my friend…”

...and off I went with my picture, drooling all over it, and off went the boy who sold dirty pictures, with his pockets stuffed with sweets and trinkets of all kinds - a true entrepreneur who knew at the age of nine years old, where the market for a successful business lay.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Escaping Grosvenor High School

1976 - It was a Saturday morning when I received news that I had passed my eleven-plus exam. I was the first one in the family who succeeded in gaining entry to a grammar school. My ma’ and da’ boasted in the pubs and clubs about how their son was going to attend Grosvenor High School next year. To them Grosvenor was an illustrious academic institution and my parents used my achievement to impress their friends. This was perhaps fine for them. It was me and not them who had to endure being called a snob by the other kids, simply because I was going to a ‘good’ school where not many from our area went.

Boys from the nearby Orangefield Secondary school would stop me and mock. Many times I was taunted as I walked home from school. They would grab my standard-issue Gideon’s bible from my blazer pocket and wave it in the air shouting, “he’s got a fuckin' Bible! He’s a snobby Christian! GET HIM!”

Sod this, I thought as I ran for my life.

I had to get out of Grosvenor. If I was to going to survive life amongst the rough kids in the urban jungle I would have to get out of that school. I soon formed a cunning escape plan. It was to rebel in any way I could.

I refused to get a Grosvenor rugby jersey. Everyone had to get one, but not me. When the PE teacher handed me my new jersey which my parents had to pay for, I threw it on the ground at his feet in defiance.

I’m NOT wearin’ a Grosvenor rugby shirt!

The irate teacher glared in disbelief at this tiny kid who stood defiantly before him.

GET THE BAT!” he roared in a Dickensian tone.

That was my instruction to go to the store room and bring him a wooden bat so he could smack me on the backside with it. I handed the bat over and received the agonizing punishment, but I had made my point to him – I wasn’t playing rugby. I played football. It was the sport I grew up with and played continuously. I'd never been to a rugby match in my life and didn't understand the rules. No-one I knew liked rugby. It was viewed the same as hockey - a posh sport.

I actually liked cricket, but didn't know the rules apart from hit-the-ball-and-run back and forward between stumps. Being wicket-keeper with the big gloves, pads and everything was my thing, taking delight in putting off the batsman by calling him a “fruity bastard” or insulting his mother, just as he was about to receive a ball. However, these sports were not football. That was my game. I was a stranger in a strange land here.

The kids in my class were nice, gentle kids with smooth-skinned faces. They looked at home. I wasn't one of them. Being the smallest kid in the class was an extra factor to add to my list of insecurities, but these kids were different. I couldn't be like them. No way could I match up to their immaculateness. That was it. I was getting out.

The key to my emancipation from Grosvenor happened when I discovered through the grapevine that if a pupil failed their first-year exams, the school simply expelled them. Perfect. I had my ‘Great Escape’ from Grosvenor High School sorted, and I was to be Steve McQueen.

When the time came to sit my end of year exams I adopted the same approach to every exam. I turned the page after the teacher uttered the dramatic words “you may turn your papers over”. I then simply wrote my name, class and I hate Grosvenor’.

That was it. I put my pen down and sat staring into space for the rest of the exam, content with my rebellion.

During the week of receiving the appalling exam results that I knew were coming, all my teachers gave me a right going over. One by one they fumed, spat and yelled at me. They caned and beat me for my defiance and non-participation. That was all teachers except one, my Religious Education teacher. Not because he was too Christian to beat me like the other teachers, rather it was because I had somehow managed to pass my RE exam. In a multiple choice paper I had circled random answers out of boredom to simply pass the time during the exam. It turned out that I had circled quite a lot of correct answers and I managed to get a 68% pass...

My parents eventually received a letter in the post stating that Grosvenor Grammar School had “removed my scholarship”. In other words they kicked me out due to my lack of participation.

There was no investigation as to why this boy who had succeeded in passing his eleven-plus exam to gain entry into Grosvenor had rebelled in every possible way. I think the school wanted to get rid of me as quickly possible - and my parent’s response? They beat me too like my teachers had done but I didn’t care, I was no longer a Grosvenor snob and was back to being one of the lads again. I was going to Orangefield Boys' School and now my kudos was back again amongst the lads, however my education was about to cease altogether. Not that it mattered.

This was the world were as long as you could write, spell and count a bit, that was good enough. You won't need education where you're going – into a trade, in the construction business, or a labouring job. The kids in Grosvenor could keep their fancy lawyer, doctor, architect jobs. I was going to get my hands dirty. This was protestant working-class east Belfast.