Thursday, 27 February 2020

3pm. Saturday, 21st May, 1977.

3pm. Saturday, 21st May, 1977.
I was twelve years old.
Thirteen soon in August.
A hot sunny day.
FA Cup Final day.
The Belfast streets were silent.
Everyone indoors.
TVs on.
Nothing else mattered apart from watching the battle for that famous silver trophy.
Life was that simple.

Wembley Stadium.
The site where legends are created.
The Twin Towers.
Wide open spaces.
Green grass reflecting glaring sunlight.
The light is good today.
Rizzla advertising boards.
One hundred thousand people.
Flat cardboard FA Cups covered in tin foil.
“Que sera, sera,
Whatever will be, will be,
We’re going to Wembley,
Que sera, sera...”
Life was that simple.

1 - Stepney
2 - Nicholl
3 - Albiston
4 - McIlroy
5 - Greenhoff B.
6 - Buchan
7 - Coppell
8 - Greenhoff J.
9 - Pearson
10 -Macari
11 -Hill
12 -McCreery

Number 11.
Gordon Hill.
The Magician.
Magical left foot.
I had sent a letter to him.
I told him how brilliant he was.
He sent me a small sheet of paper with his autograph on it.
Gordon Hill wrote to ME!
A boy in Belfast!
Life was that simple.

Stuart Pearson 51”
Jimmy Case 53”
Jimmy Greenhoff 55”
Three goals. Four minutes.
Magic was happening in the sunshine.

Bob Matthewson blew the final whistle at quarter to five. Time to get the tea on, after Martin Buchan proudly lifts and holds high that trophy, first played for in 1872. A prize that holds many memories and secrets.

Victorious Manchester United. The Young Ones had done it. Punk Rock football. 4-2-4, in your face football. Coppell on the right. Hill on the left. Bombarding.

Six days later, on 27 May 1977, the Sex Pistols would release the venomous ‘God Save The Queen’ to the world. The new generation were here and would be heard.The warning shots had been fired. The ripples were sent out into the Cosmos. We will not be ignored.

1977. The Year One. No turning back. The seeds were planted. The chaos of change ignited.

If you go outside and listen hard enough, on a quiet evening, you can still hear the snarl of 1977 coming from the aethyr — absorb it.
Life is that simple.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Time travel #2 (2019-1972)

The world is full of ‘lost boys’. I’m one of that unfortunate crowd. We drift through life, not feeling any real part of society, sometimes even the human race itself. Part of me has enjoyed being different from the average person, with all the quirks and eccentricity, but a huge part of me yearns for just plain old normality. A world not ruled by anxiety, depression and out-of-the-box thinking.

As I write this now, I long to go back and change the world that I grew up in. No longer do I want the pain of the past - the drunken, violent, abusive parents who destroyed all but tiny fragments of my confidence and self-worth. I want to go back and reassure the young ‘me’ that things will work out, and I will make it through the torturous times.

To do this I must travel back through time. Some say it’s impossible, but to us lost boys it’s a gift we have. Events of the past are not just memories, they are moments frozen in time that can be visited or tapped into, whenever we choose to do so. All that is needed is the individual key to each moment to allow entry into it.

This time, I choose to travel back from this point in time of writing, 2019, to visit my seven, going on eight year-old self, in the year 1972. I want to stand in front of that little boy, put my hands on his shoulders, look him in the eyes and tell him that his future-self is right here, looking after him, guarding him, advising him - and that everything will work out. The presence that I knew and felt back then who was always with me was indeed my future-self, my guardian-angel if you like, trying to steer me in the right direction, away from harm. Many times I didn’t listen to the advice given, but through time I learnt that the entity I knew as “my strange companion” was real, tangible and was a genuine force for good.

Let’s do this. 1972 here we go…

I began the year 1972 aged seven and finished it aged eight. I was a gentle kid, frightened by the outside world. My parents had created such a hostile atmosphere in my own home that my logic turned to the perception that if it was as bad as this in the place where I should feel the safest, namely home, what horrors were out there in the world beyond the ‘safety’ of my own family unit?

I was in year four or ‘P4’ in Nettlefield Primary School, a small school with only a few hundred pupils which sat in a backstreet in east Belfast. Everybody knew each other. It was that kind of school - all kids from the local area who went to school together and came from the same streets.

By the age of seven I was discovering that I was a handy little football player, with a natural, fearless ability to make a ball do what I wanted. When I got my foot on the ball, I would be instantly transported to that other world of magical creativity, in which the only moment that mattered was NOW. I could carve my way through a bunch of opposing players with an ease that surprised me every time, even though I knew I could do it. Playing football to me was like an artistic dance of self-expression. Give me the ball and I was at one with the world. In later years playing football would be replaced by playing and composing music. The purpose and effect was the same - it gave me an escape from a world that I struggled so much to deal with on a mundane, everyday level.

1972 was also the year I was beaten in the school sports-day sprint final by Diane, a girl from my class. I was devastated. How could this happen? Beaten by a girl?! In front of a a packed playground full of kids and parents. As I stood, balling my eyes out, I want to take the opportunity now, to go back to that moment from this year, 2019, to that boy, and pull him to the side away from the crowded playground, to tell him, “It doesn’t really matter that you lost a sprint race to a girl. It’s all GOOD.”

To do this I need the keys to access 1972 from now.

Let’s got to directly to Saturday, 4th March 1972. It was the day of the Football League Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, London. Stoke City versus Chelsea. The match finished at 2-1 to Stoke City and the winning goal was scored by George Eastham. The sound of Brian Moore’s commentary on the game still rings around my head as he shouted “The Old Man Has Done It!”,  as Eastham, who was 34 years old at the time slid the ball into the net. I go back to seven year-old me, the boy lying on the floor, head resting on hands, watching this game on TV. I’m an invisible presence, sitting right beside him.

Let’s drift to another point in time, to Saturday 25th March 1972 and The New Seekers singing the song, ’Beg, Steal Or Borrow’ as part of the Eurovision Song Contest. I watched this show on television in our next-door neighbour, Mrs Nelson’s house. I’m guessing my parents were out on the lash and she was babysitting for me. I recall sitting beside the small fireplace watching as Luxembourg won the contest. From the year 2019, I sit invisible in that room in 1972, with Mrs Nelson, her son, Brian, and me. My presence is that of a Spiritual Guard.

Saturday, 6th May 1972. The FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. The biggest football match of the year. Leeds United versus Arsenal. It was a yearly thing to look forward to. It didn’t matter who was playing, the FA Cup Final was the football event of the year. Like the Super Bowl in the US, millions would be glued to the TV set. Leeds won the match 1-0 with an Allan Clarke diving header. I recall Mick Jones suffering a badly dislocated elbow in the last minute of the game that had me feeling squeamish, as the slow-motion would replay his awkward fall over and over again.In the football world that I was so absorbed in, Derby County won their first ever league championship, pipping Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester City to the title, with just one point separating all four teams. I tell my over-excited seven year-old self to enjoy those precious moments - there will be many more.

As I delve further into 1972, I have to stop and consider how there are certain defining moments that happen in your life that stay with you, and go on to influence your future life in a major way. These beautiful foreshadowing events happen innocently at a particular moment, but their magic is cast out into your future universe to influence the you in the years to come. One such event happened on Thursday 6th July 1972 - Top Of The Pops was a Thursday night ritual all over the UK and Ireland.The show started in the year of my birth, 1964 and ran for many decades until 2006, when music itself had all but disappeared from the public psyche as being something that mattered, and had transformed into a digital, internet-based form of entertainment. Back in 1972, music was a vital thing in the lives of people and Top Of The Pops was a weekly fix of who was at the top of the singles chart in the UK.

On Thursday 6th July 1972 David Bowie appeared on Top Of The Pops singing his new single ‘Starman’. I watched, transfixed by this odd-looking guy with weird reddish hair wearing a multi-coloured cat-suit, playing a blue guitar. He sang and pointed to the camera “I had to phone someone so I picked on you-hoo-hoo…”. That was me he was pointing at. I’m sure he was. He was confirming that he was like me, an odd,  not quite fitting in lost-boy. That was the moment that I wanted to be a musician, (preferably a Rock-Star), just like David Bowie. In the future I never made it to Rock-Star status, but I became a humble musician, continually inspired by Bowie and that moment I unwittingly experienced on an average Thursday evening in 32 Ravenhill Avenue, Belfast.
I go back to that moment now, and put my arms around that seven, soon to be eight year-old boy and tell him, “You’ll be playing guitar like that one day. Heck, you’ll be even writing your own music, just like that guy on the TV.”

See? Time-travel is real. Use the keys to gain access to moments from your past. Feel the feelings. Hear the sounds.Smell the smells, Touch and taste the days before. It’s easy. Just for 1972 alone, I’ve got loads of keys to moments built up and catalogued in my mind. The same with every other year.

The Wimbledon Mens’ Singles Final, played on Sunday 9th July 1972. Stan Smith versus Ilie Năstase, It was a five set marathon. I sat glued to the TV, cheering on the rebel, Năstase. He was the baddie, Smith was the straight-laced good-guy. Smith eventually wore down his opponent to win 4–6, 6–3, 6–3, 4–6, 7–5. I recall him jumping over the net to shake hands with Năstase. Back then Wimbledon winners often jumped over the net, like a tradition. It doesn’t happen any more. The world has moved on.

On Friday 21 July, 1972, Rod Stewart released his album ‘Never A Dull Moment’. My older brother brought a copy home and I played it until I knew every word and every nuance of the music. As the record played on the turntable, I would stare at and absorb the cover artwork, and the sleeve notes. Music allowed me to drift into another world in which nothing really mattered except what was happening right now. The past and future didn’t exist - there was only right here, right now, and Rod Stewart was singing “…and you wear it well…”. That’s all there was, and it was perfect.
I sit beside that seven year-old boy hugging my knees just like him, in a Belfast living-room that smells of tobacco smoke, with whitish, nicotine-stained wood-chip wallpaper and brown furniture. He can feel my presence. There’s no communication, just the two of us and Rod Stewart’s ‘Never A Dull Moment’ playing. What more could a boy want?

You may read this and think it’s insanity to attempt to communicate with your past-self. The lost-boys know different. We, the not-quite-right folk of this world have the gift of secret keys, that the average mortal will never attain. This gift is the price of suffering. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone.

Goodbye, love and blessings to 2019, all the way back from 1972, and vice-versa.


Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Time Travelling #1 (1980-1940)

Post-major-surgery to remove cancer seems to have given me the ability to transport myself back to certain periods in time. I was diagnosed with cancer in December 2018, and went through a nine-hour operation to cut out the gnarled growths. I’m still here, writing from the edge of trauma, and this allows out-of-the-box thought. This adventure starts in 1980 and goes backwards to the 1940s, just before the days of rock and roll and gradually towards the end of an innocence.

Let’s start in 1980, in a world of restriction. The year the film, ‘Gregory's GIrl’ was made. It was a different realm of being. A world before the internet, in which three television channels existed; BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. A United Kingdom of social confinement. People lived and worked in their own ‘areas’. Outside of that area was terrifying. The baby-boomers were finding their raison d'être.

Those born in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were the foot-soldiers of significant post-world-war social change. By the time the creative work of these generations would come to fruition in the future that is the 21st century, they’d be riddled with cancer, dementia, and a host of other ailments. Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s ‘1984’, said, “we are the dead”.
It’s then Winston’s girlfriend Julia reminds Winston, “Don't you enjoy being alive? Don't you like feeling: This is me, this is my hand, this is my leg, I'm real, I'm solid, I'm alive!” Julia speaks much wisdom at a time of despair.

I can feel the past as a tangible, visceral reality. They are the feelings, emotions, touch, smell, and taste of naivety and innocence. From the invincible days. When death was an impossible concept. When music mattered, back in a time when rock-stars couldn’t die. No one could’ve known that music would lose its soul to the cold-blooded claws of the internet algorithm. Controlled. Everything today is perfect and controlled. In the future, there’ll not be a glitch. There’ll be only a harmonised, controlled perfection.

I can hear ‘Win’ from David Bowie’s 1975 album ‘Young Americans’, and be instantly transported to a summer afternoon in 1978, when I first heard it aged 13, about to turn 14, one month later. I can feel the heat from the sun. I can smell the cardboard album cover. I can hear the quiet of a mid-July Belfast, when most people were away for their ‘twelfth-fortnight’ summer holiday. I can touch the stillness of our house as my mother and father sat drinking in some local pub. I was okay with that, as it meant I could play the album loud, while watching the rays of the sun come streaming through the blinds into my bedroom.

“What happened to a sense of wonder, on yonder hillside getting dim? Why didn't they leave us, alone...” once sang East Belfast’s Van Morrison.

From the old world to the new 21st century world. Sit in your chair and push the buttons. Stare at your 50” wide rectangle with trance-forming pictures and symbols.
“You are now in a controlled Alpha State”.
“You deserve it”.
“Leisure Audio For The Modern Ear”
*This is trademarked. Do NOT touch*

Somewhere there is a soul in a box. Frightened. Sad. Full of love, creativity, and a smile that hasn’t been smiled in many years. Once, it had a daring and creative rage. Now it’s hammered into submission. The repetitive rain of blows from the algorithm is always too much to bear. The inevitable surrender was held off by a young, rebel heart, kicking and pushing its own way against the tide. But experience will eventually scar that, one too many times. That last particular scar will weaken and change you from a game-changer to non-participant.

This when you need to FIGHT, FIGHT, FIGHT. 
Think of that little inner light, that soul trapped in a box, in a nook within you.
That thing was your dare and rage, your fire.
It’s still there.
Let it out of the box.
Free it.
It’s still there.
Build the tension.
Watch the fire get brighter.
Let your little light SHINE, SHINE, SHINE.

Or don’t. The choice is yours.


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 gas-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 small 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. This was not just a cubby-hole cum cloakroom. This was a secret den where I would retreat when I needed to get away from the world. It was my own little angular Narnia. No-one knew I was there.

When my ma came gunning for me after I had done something wrong I would disappear into the cubby-hole shaking in terror. Hiding behind the rows of coats hanging up, in an attempt to merge into them - to become invisible by being part of the coats. I prayed she wouldn’t look down to see two skinny white legs with dirty knees sticking out from underneath 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. Sitting 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. The now usual shouts and screams didn’t bother me anymore. I’d heard their threats of killing each other too may times to now take them seriously. As a ten year old, I had risen above their unhappiness, and left it behind for a world of imagination. A boy has to deal with trauma some way. Mine was through music and books. In those worlds there were no arguing parents - there was simply a better place, full of art and grace.

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 Carlsberg Special Brew 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..

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.

Friday, 29 June 2012

The Facts of Life


My group of mates would educate each other with second hand tales, myths and facts about the world. I was eight years old when I found out about the facts of life and making babies from my mate Jimmy-Rib. He came frantically running around the street corner towards us as we sat on Mrs Flanigan’s garden wall bored out of our minds. Jimmy-Rib stopped completely out of breath and dramatically declared;

"I know how you get a girl pregnant!”

"Tell us! Tell us!" we shouted back at him.

"Ya stick yer dick up her fanny and ya pump her up – and ya keep pumping and stop when she gets to about here!"

Jimmy-Rib gestured with his hands the desired amount of ballooning that should be applied to the girl's stomach area. That was it. You pumped the girl up like you would do with a punctured bicycle tyre.

We now knew THE secret!

Off we spread out in various directions to meet other kids to tell them "I know how you get a girl pregnant!" The jungle drums were now out…


Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Video: 'Dusk' from 'belfastsongs'

'Dusk' - Track #1 from the album 'belfastsongs' by livingstone.
Film footage from East Belfast 1977 (Moorgate Street).
Used with kind permission of Ruth Girvan.
Music © Ian Livingstone 2012
Published by livingstonemusic


Sunday, 22 January 2012

Terrorist Games

1974 - During the troubles Belfast was a place where my mates and I had very limited options of entertainment. These were the days before the digital revolution, when there were just three TV channels and one of them was absolutely no use to me. BBC2 seemed to show nothing but gardening programmes and documentaries about garbage such as the building of the Manchester ship canal. This was a period when the entertainment we indulged in came from our own creative imaginations – there were no other choices and there were even less when the downpours of rain happened, or when it was simply too cold to play outside.

Children of the 1960s and 70s were at the tail end of the obsession with the notion of defeating the Germans in World War II. This generation would also be the last to watch and be mesmerised with films about the American Wild West. These Hollywood movies showed John Wayne kicking the arses of Red Indians. Films such as ‘The Great Escape’, ‘True Grit’, ‘The Guns of Navarone’, ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and James Bond movies were the staple of our entertainment. There were good guys and there were bad guys. In the movies good guys always beat the bad guys. It was that simple.

My friends and I would re-enact scenes from our favourite war films and play at being cowboys in search of some ‘injuns’ to mercilessly slaughter. This would involve climbing garden walls, sneaking through neighbours’ gardens and usually being chased out of them by those same neighbours. They just didn’t understand that we were on a mission to capture and kill some Germans!

Sometimes we would play at being the enemy, the Germans. It’s good to see the problem from both sides. We would pretend to be Nazi storm troopers and go looking for British soldiers to take as prisoners. One of these captives was always Roy, a boy who lived two doors down the street from me. He was a year younger than us, which is a massive age-gap to kids. We could therefore by authority of age, make him do what we wanted. The poor boy always complied.

We approached Roy and announced in our best German accent that “vee hef cam to take yoo ez our preezonur yoo Eeengleesshh peeg!” Roy was whisked off to my back yard and tied a post for interrogation. We paced back and forth in front of him and shouted in our best German accents, “vehr arr yor vehpons you Breeteesh shvine-hunt!

Our interrogation stopped when Roy became very agitated and began crying uncontrollably. He was yelling “Mammy! They’re beating me!” Our prisoner was released at this point before his ma’ came to rescue him and also give me and Marty a hearty Ulster woman’s smack on the head.

Our world of play was also influenced by the troubles in Ulster and during the 1974 Ulster Loyalist Workers’ Strike we saw lots of masked UDA men operating about our neighbourhood. They blocked roads and stopped cars to prevent anyone from getting to work. My mates and I thought they looked great in their terrorist attire of combat coats, hats, dark glasses and a scarf over their face. That was the next form of entertainment sorted out for a bunch of ten year old boys - we were going to play at being the Ulster Defence Association…

Off we went on our separate ways into our houses to search for UDA-style clothes. I managed to gather a brown fishing hat, a green parka jacket, a pair of my da’s sunglasses and my Glentoran scarf. I put them on and stood in front of the hallway mirror posing with one of my toy plastic guns. I had the perfect UDA look. Out of the house and down the street I marched to meet up with my other junior UDA comrades. One by one they emerged from their houses with their best attempts at looking like UDA commandos. I was disappointed with Smickers’ efforts to look like a terrorist. With a black duffle coat, a chequered flat cap and one of his ma’s silk scarves across his face he was not really looking like a fierce warrior of Ulster and more like a dirty old man who would hang around school playgrounds. It was however the closest things he could find to UDA gear so he would have to do.

We set up our first UDA roadblock made from two buckets with a brush pole placed across them. It wasn’t quite a roadblock either – it was across the pavement but we thought we’d start off lightly by initially stopping pedestrians and eventually working up to bicycles and then cars. Down the street came Mrs Richardson. She was a really nice lady so we took down our roadblock to let her through.

How are you boys doing? Having fun?” she asked in her kind tone.
Aye, we’re bein’ the UDA!” we replied.
Very good, have fun” replied this gentle silver haired lady. Mrs Richardson was much too nice to hassle with our terrorism. As she walked past us we began waiting for the next person to come down the street.

Along came four boys from around the corner who we didn’t like and had many fights and arguments with. We weighed up the situation. If we tried to stop them there would definitely be a punch-up. We opted out and once more dismantled our barricade to let them past.

The next person to walk down the street was Mrs Dunne, a strange lady who always wore heavy face make-up. We all thought she was definitely a prostitute. As she approached we stood resolute and declared “Stop! We can’t let you past!
Why not?” asked Mrs Dunne.
Cos we’re the UDA – THAT’S why!” She tried to get past to take down our barrier but we crowded around her.
Yer nat getting’ past!” we told her. Mrs Dunne started smacking us each around the head.
Let me past ye wee buggers!” she yelled.

We eventually let her pass but this incident had made us feel a sense of that power, just like real UDA men.

This was our world of Cowboys, Indians, Soldiers and Spies and playing at being the Ulster Defence Association. This is how we relieved the boredom of living in Belfast during the troubles. There were other kids who would take this one stage further and actually join the UDA or UVF when they were old enough to be accepted into the ranks. Perhaps the Catholic kids played at being the IRA? I don’t know as I had never met or knew any Catholics. I went to a Protestant school, lived in a Protestant area and would probably end up getting a job in a Protestant company. This was the way it was, like it or lump it.


Monday, 2 January 2012

Hiding Me from the Minister

1968 - At the age of four years old I had a foul mouth. This was a logical progression in my vocabulary due to my parents continually using foul language around me in the house. If my ma' and da’ swore then I would too. I took pleasure in calling someone "a wee bastard". That was me, right in there at the deep end of swearing - no messing about on the periphery with mild swear-words. I was an all or nothing child.

I even managed to call the local Presbyterian minister foul-mouthed monikers when he came on one of his frequent visits to our house, in another attempt to bring my family of uncultured hillbillies to the Lord. The Minister leant his head to one side, beamed a big smile. He clasped his hands and leant down towards me.

“Hello son!”

“You’re a fuddin' tunt!” I replied.

There was a silence around the room as everyone tried to comprehend what I had just called a man of God. My mother went into a torrent of grovelling apologies to the minister while repeatedly smacking the back of my head as hard as she could.

“Wait til’ I get ya later, ya wee scamp!” she shouted at me, carefully watching her language and behaviour in front of the minister. As she pulled my by the arm upstairs and pushed me into my room, she ferociously whispered, “I’m gonna bloody kill ya’ when the Minister goes – ya’ wee shite!”

You see, I thought it would get a laugh; the same laugh I used to get when my mother and grandmother used to secretly goad me into calling my older sister “a fuddin' tunt”. My sister would be disgusted at this which would make my ma' and granny laugh even more. As my sister stormed out of the house I would repeat the phrase over and over, usually to a lilting little tune - "You’re a fuddin' tu-unt! You’re a fuddin' tu-unt..."

From the day I swore at the local man of God I was locked away upstairs each time he visited. It was as if I was a child of inherent evil.

"Where's Ian?" the Minister would ask. My mother would concoct an excuse such as "he's upstairs sleeping" or “he’s away for the whole day”. Meanwhile a family member had to sit upstairs with me to make sure I couldn't come down to greet the Minister in my own special four-lettered way.

…although what else can a four year old do when he is surrounded by parents who regularly screamed the worst obscenities which could be mustered up at each other during their wild drunken rows?

It’s obvious the four year old will learn from and imitate his teachers.

…and that's what I fuddin' well did.