Friday, 11 July 2014

Collecting for the Boney

On the 11th July each year the protestant tradition of lighting bonfires on street corners and in the middle of main roads was something all the kids from our area took part in. We had been brought up around this annual custom yet nobody seemed to have any knowledge of why these huge fires were lit all over the country. What it meant to us was being allowed to stay up late to wander around the local streets to watch other fires blazing. We also knew it was about burning an effigy of the Pope on the top of the fire. My mates and I weren't sure why, but the Pope was bad.
When the bonfires were lit, large crowds of people would gather around the flames to drink copious amounts of alcohol. The kids ate sweets and drank lemonade in between fuelling the great fire by throwing pieces of wood and car-tyres on top of it. The crowds sang along to Orange-Band music coming from a record player someone had rigged up in the street. This night of fierce Protestant pride .
My mates and I thought the ‘eleventh night’ was all very exciting. Kids from the various areas would begin collecting wood for ‘the boney’ months before the 11th July in a bid to see which street could create the biggest inferno. This competition led to huge rivalry between the various streets resulting in gangs from one bonfire raiding another to steal their wood. Running street-battles between the rival camps happened regularly. Gangs of kids from seven to sixteen years old faced each other in hand to hand fighting, all in an attempt to steal or protect a few rubber tyres and wooden pallets.
The war between the bonfire-crews entered into espionage tactics with the smaller kids sent out on a reconnaissance mission to monitor the other bonfires. These kids reported back times when the other bonfires were least guarded. The older ones would plan a raid on one of the neighbouring street’s stash of wood. Often the plan was simply to set fire to the rival bonfire in a bid to spoil their chances of having the biggest fire on the day.
In our area there were two main bonfires, the ‘Backer’ and the ‘Rossy’. The Backer came from a patch of ground known to everyone as the ‘back-field’ and the Rossy came from just around the corner in Roslyn Street. There was fierce rivalry between these two factions and each had a crew of around twenty kids. Quite a few violent running battles took place along London Road with bottles, stones and bricks being thrown amidst punch-ups.
Our wee bonfire could not compete on the scale of the Backer and the Rossy. There were only five of us collecting for our boney and we were all nine years of age. We were fodder for the bigger kids. My mates and I often watched helplessly as a large gang of older kids set fire to our puny but proud bonfire and casually walk away laughing at us. We would then begin collecting wood all over again from scratch. If we were quick enough we would get a few fathers out to chase the bigger kids away but they would inevitably return later.
To stop future raids from the bigger kids we came up with a plan of storing our wood on the roofs above the back yards. If the wood was up high, no one would be able to get at it was the logic.
We moved all of our wood onto the little roofs and stood on high amidst it all thinking that no one would ever rob us again. A few rival gangs attempted to storm our walls and as the enemy were hoisting each other up to get on to the roof we would stand on their finger tips or beat them with big wooden sticks. We watched them as they fell back to the ground. The enemy gang would gesture up at us hurling threats and obscenities. We stared back at them smug in our satisfaction that we were unreachable.
That year we managed to gather and build a puny excuse for a bonfire, but regardless, we were very proud of what we achieved. I think we did rather well considering our entire supply of wood was raided three times forcing us to start over again each time. We were persistent little buggers and determined that we would have a bonfire with a party - and that’s what we did.
On the 11th July 1973 as our little bonfire blazed we drank lemonade, ate sweets and listened to the flute-band music being piped out into the street. We all agreed that it would be the last bonfire we would arrange. The enemies made, battles fought and sheer back-breaking work that it took simply to light a small fire was definitely not worth the bother…

Monday, 5 May 2014

Prod-Mods and Taig-Mods (The Art Of Division)


The two political and religious sides of Belfast have lived together like warring teenage siblings who've been forced to share a bedroom for all of their lives. They've argued about and divided almost every conceivable thing, each side claiming certain elements as 'ours'. Whether it be 'aitch' or 'hatch', green or orange, "Northern" or "the North of", Derry or Londonderry, we'll divide anything. Division is what we do best in the endless game of Loyalists and Republicans trying to convince the world how they are right and the other side are the Spawn of Satan.

Many were and still are traumatised by the troubles in Northern Ireland, yet amidst the hatred, killing and mayhem people sought refuge. With me and many others, music was the escape. When you're lying back on your bed, staring at album artwork with headphones on and your favourite band are blasting out your favourite song at deafening volume, the world goes away for a few minutes.

We were musically starved in Belfast. Most of the big-name pop and rock bands wouldn't go near Northern Ireland on their tours. Dublin, London, Glasgow, Manchester et al were feasting on a huge musical pie and we were getting the crumbs and the odd small piece. Those who came to Belfast were treated like gods. Artists spoke of the amazing gigs in Belfast with an audience reception they had never experienced before.

Music would unite people like nothing else. Those who jumped up and down together when AC/DC played at the Ulster Hall in 1979 had not a care in the world if the band were Prods or Taigs. It was the music that mattered. However, we're talking about Belfast here and with our penchant for division, some music fans managed to include rock and pop bands into the conflict.

Yes, we divided certain musicians, bands and artists into Prods and Fenians.

Stiff little Fingers were Prods from Belfast and The Undertones were Fenians from Derry. Paul McCartney was a republican after his 'Give ireland Back To The Irish' song was released in 1971. U2 were regarded as republicans after that fateful night in 1983 in Maysfield Leisure Centre when they played 'Sunday Bloody Sunday'. There was an urban myth that Marty Pellow, lead singer of pop-band Wet Wet Wet had stated in a fictitious interview on TV that his hero was loyalist Michael Stone.

That was it. Wet Wet Wet were Prods.

At a Wet Wet Wet 1989 concert in Belfast some of the crowd wore Rangers football shirts and waved Union Jacks to show their support for the band and their apparent Loyalism. This concert drove the band to not play Belfast for another twenty years. 

During the Ska music revival around 1980 there was a story going around about the band Bad Manners and how they gave money to the IRA. They were Fenians. Madness were adopted as the Protestant Ska band for some reason. Therefore, if you had a Madness patch sewn onto your coat you were a Prod. A Bad Manners patch, you were a Fenian.

From a musical perspective I think the Prods got the best band. I'd rather stomp to Madness' 'One Step Beyond' than the faux-West-Indian warbling of Bad Manners' 'republican' singer, 'Buster Bloodvessel' shouting "Leep-O-Fatty-Ya, Leep-O-Fatty-Fatty-Reggae!" 

During the Mod revival at the same time there was a dilemma for Republicans who wanted to become Mods. Everything 'Mod' had red, white and blue and Union Jacks all over it. There was no way a Republican would be seen dead in a Union Jack jacket a la Pete Townsend from The Who. Some clever entrepreneur seized the opportunity and began producing and selling duplicate Mod merchandise except in green, white and gold in opposition to the Britishness that was at the heart of the Mod movement.

We now effectively had Prod-Mods and Taig-Mods.

In Belfast we seem to bring EVERYTHING down to the "are you a Prod or a Fenian?" argument, as if that's all that matters in this world. It's a small, incestuous city where each gesture and articulation can determine which side of the political fence you come from. From which side of a bridge you walk on, to the football team you support, to how you pronounce certain letters of the alphabet, to which music you liked - all had religious and political meaning in Belfast. This was a world that mostly went no further than it's own area, stuck in an endless argument…forever it seems.


Sunday, 26 January 2014

...and the boy sat under the stairs.


When the gas ran out in our house I was always the one given the job of putting single shilling pieces into the meter under the stairs at the back of the little cubby-hole that my da had built. Since I was smallest I was the natural choice to clamber over the piles of old shoes and bags stored inside this little room, with its angular roof. The room seemed to disappear from standing height into a black hole. The old unloved coats hanging like dead scarecrows, gave off a musty whiff. The concrete floor was covered in old unwanted shoes, handbags, school satchels, cases and holdalls. My ma and da would occasionally have a clear out to make way for the next generation of coats and bags to be imprisoned there.

I didn’t mind the task of feeding a hungry meter with single shilling pieces, and over the years that wee cloakroom became a place of escape for me. I liked the other-worldliness and stillness of it. Once I got into this little cavern and closed the door behind me the world outside would go away and I could be alone with my imagination. The coldness and damp didn’t bother me as I sat reading war comics under a single beam of torchlight. I would disappear into the adventures of Lord Peter Flint, the British war hero from my favourite weekly read ‘Warlord’ as he foiled yet more German plots to win World War II with his cunning and brilliance.

When my ma came gunning for me after I had done something wrong I would hide in the cubby-hole shaking in terror behind the coats. I prayed she wouldn’t look down to see two skinny white legs with dirty knees sticking out from behind a coat. If she did, I was dead. This hiding place usually worked. After she scanned the room for me, my ma would storm upstairs to look for me there. That moment was my one and only chance to escape by diving out of the cubby hole, down the kitchen and out the back door, like Lord Peter Flint on the run from the Germans, except to me my ma was much more terrifying than facing Adolf Hitler and his storm-troopers. I would hide a few streets away until I had to come home because it was getting dark. My hopes were thinly pinned on the possibility that my ma might have forgotten about our earlier incident. But a few hard slaps around the head were waiting for me as soon as I walked into the house…

In our house the cubby-hole was a hideout to help me survive life with my parents and the blazing drunken rows. In my tiny inner sanctum I would hear noises of perfect hatred as my ma’ and da argued and battered one another. I hid so that neither of them could bring me into their war. They would often try to do this. My da would call me to witness something my ma’ had done to him – usually a bloodied face slashed with her fingernails. She would do the same when my da’ had hit her, and I would stand in between the two of them listening to their accusations, like a reluctant judge and jury. If I chose the side of one, the other wouldn’t speak to me for days, as though I was a traitor.

As I sat parked on the cold bumpy gas meter, I would ignore their calls for me join in and continue reading the comics which I had stashed under the stairs to keep me company at times like these.

A war raged in the hallway, yet I was engrossed in a Second World War story from a comic book. The Germans were getting their arses kicked and by the sounds of it so was someone else. I would feel them bouncing off the thin wooden walls of the cubby-hole as they staggered and fell about in a stupor. When the coast was clear and the shouting had exhausted the shouters, I would sit and savour the stillness. The quiet was a beautiful relief from the whirlwind that had been raging a few moments before. The front door of the house had just been slammed violently as my da’ stormed off to the pub for more drink. In my cocoon I could faintly hear the whimpering from my ma as she sobbed, wishing for a better life. Her solution was always to crack open another tin of beer and sink it along with her hopes.

…and the boy sat under the stairs dreaming of what it would be like to be able to fly – far, far away.