A paperboy’s tale

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Paperboy by Tony Macaulay (Y Books, 2011)

See me? See this book? This book is deadly crack, so it is.

At which point you, the reader, will be asking for why it is deadly crack. The thing is, if you look back at that category of books one could class as “Troubles memoirs”, they do tend to be unremittingly grim. So it’s with immense joy that we come across a memoir of 1970s Belfast that wouldn’t easily fit into WH Smith’s “Tragic Life Stories” section. Indeed, one that’s pure brilliant at bringing out the dark humour of our city.

To do this takes a child’s perspective. And in 1975, Tony Macaulay was not a paramilitary or a cop or a peace activist. He was a 12-year-old boy who had just managed to get his foot on the employment ladder with a paper round in the Upper Shankill. So what we get is the next couple of years from the viewpoint of a very observant paperboy. The worm’s eye view, if you like, and it’s the best one possible for bringing the atmosphere of the place and time to life.

When I say “atmosphere”, though, I mean that quite literally. There are the sights – the massive greyness of Belfast’s old Victorian buildings, the neat working-class estates, the parallel trousers and platform shoes on the city’s youth, Doctor Who and John Craven’s Newsround on the telly. There are the sounds – the blast of a flute, the roar of a helicopter overhead, the muffled thump of a bomb in the distance, the Bay City Rollers, Big T on Downtown Radio. And there are even the smells – of Tayto Cheese & Onion crisps, Brut aftershave, the vinegar from a thousand pastie suppers, the unmistakeable aroma of a burning double-decker bus. All this is here. For Belfast people, it’s a bit like stepping into your own little TARDIS.

The language helps, too. Even if you didn’t know Tony Macaulay from his regular appearances on Radio Ulster/Raidió Uladh, you’d be impressed by his fine command of the vernacular. Paperboy is a book that’s so Belfast, it demands to be read with an accent. I personally can’t resist any memoir that frequently employs the word “boke”, and displays correct usage of the pronoun “yousens”. (Note to linguists: “yousens” means “you and the friends/family belonging to you”. I believe there’s a similar pronominal lexeme in Fijian.)

So anyway, young Tony gets his paper round. Forty-eight Belfast Telegraphs six evenings a week, and sixteen Ulsters on a Saturday. This is what gives him the opportunity to observe all human life as it passes by. Not least, of course, Tony’s family: the father doing endless DIY with stuff he’s borrowed from the foundry, the mother sewing dresses for swanky women up the Malone Road, the older brother who shoots down Tony’s wilder ambitions with the injunction to “wise a bap, wee lad”, and who torments him mercilessly after an unfortunate incident involving Brut aftershave.

Because, no matter about his working-class background, Tony is an ambitious kid. He persists with learning the guitar in spite of all the evidence that he’ll never master it, and learns the violin as well. He is a most conscientious paperboy, getting great satisfaction (as well as tips) from serving his customers well. He wants the kids from the Westy Disco to have the best float in the Lord Mayor’s show. Most of all, he wants to impress Sharon Burgess.

Politics, in the macro sense, doesn’t really impinge. That’s an adult affair, the province of cross baldy men having interminable arguments on Scene Around Six, or the Rev Ian Paisley guldering into a microphone down by City Hall. On a micro level it does, often in the form of sideburned loyalists with a penchant for Elvis records who would shut down the power supply to keep Ulster British. Class is here, especially since Tony is a rare Shankill kid who takes and passes the Eleven Plus, gaining a grammar school place that on the Shankill opens him up to the suspicion of being a big fruit, whilst still having to avoid admitting to his classmates that he actually is from the Shankill. (Yes, and the distinction between the more respectable Upper Shankill and the rowdier Lower Shankill, something that’s missed outside of West Belfast.) Religion, too, is here, with Tony having got saved at the age of eight in a Millisle caravan park (largely, I suspect, because there isn’t much else to do in Millisle but get saved) and thereafter being known as “that wee good livin’ boy”.

And, of course, the Bay City Rollers, a running theme here, climaxing in the Rollers’ infamous Ulster Hall gig, where the balcony nearly collapsed and the boisterous behaviour of the audience led to lots and lots of cross baldy men in the Belfast Telegraph opining about how these cheeky wee hallions were giving our city a bad name.

And with all this, a questioning nature that leads young Tony to wonder what folks are like on the other side of the Peace Wall (remember that while the Berlin Wall would last forever, the Belfast walls were just temporary):

I was curious as to what they were really like over there. I had so many questions. Did they learn at their church too that we were all going to Hell? Did they want to put us all on the Larne-Stranraer ferry back to Scotland? Did they really believe we were all rich? Were their paramilitaries full of wee hard men that liked to boss everyone around, like ours were?

Questioning, as we know, is the beginning of wisdom. There’s a great humanism, in the real sense of the word, running through Paperboy. But I won’t lie. It’s the humour and the observation and the language and the nostalgia that made this irresistible to me. And the recognition, in the sense of “Yes! I remember that exact same thing!” I don’t know how easily Paperboy will travel, but I hope it gets a good audience. I really do.

Surely Danny is jesting with us – isn’t he?

So, as you know, the southern election has been called (and not before time) for 11 March. This also means that Gerry, having decamped to the fresh pastures of Louth and East Meath, will have to vacate his position as West Belfast’s abstentionist rep at Westminster, having already stood down from Stormont.

This poses a few tricky questions, as noted by the Beeb’s indefatigable Mark Devenport. One is the technical issue that, whilst Gerry has written to Commons Speaker John Bercow saying he’s resigning his seat, he isn’t going to apply for the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. Doubtless the Commons can deploy some procedural device to unseat the Dear Leader, but Mr Bercow is going to have to put his thinking cap on to figure out what that may be.

More to the point, though, is exactly who SF will pick as the party’s by-election candidate for one of the safest seats in the Commons. Amongst the Belfast Shinners, Alex Maskey seems to me to be the obvious choice – he has decades of hard constituency work behind him, is extremely popular with the party membership and has become quite an adept politician compared to the wee hard man he was in the 1980s. On the other hand, the “movement” may have someone else in mind. It’s certainly a plum position for whoever gets the candidacy.

But one name that didn’t come to my mind was that of this blog’s old mucker George Galloway. Yes, Danny Morrison is holding forth in next Monday’s Andytown News as to the desirability of running Gallows as a candidate, despite Gallows being otherwise engaged in Glasgow at the moment. There’s also the slight complication of George not being a member of Sinn Féin, which should theoretically disbar him from being the SF candidate.

We must also ask ourselves whether Gallows would be the representative West Belfast really needs. Regular readers will know that I’m far from being a paid-up member of the Gerry Adams Fan Club, but I’ll acknowledge that the guy does have a certain gravitas. Are the broad masses of the Falls Road really prepared for an MP who could, at a moment’s notice, vanish from his constituency only to rematerialise in some exotic setting, perhaps sucking up to a Middle Eastern dictator, perhaps impersonating a household pet on national television, or perhaps doing some even weirder shit that nobody could predict?

I’ll admit, George would be fantastic copy, and part of me sort of hopes that Danny is on one of his occasional kite-flying exercises. Sadly, I suspect Danny is just extracting the urine. And maybe it’s just the case that our staid political culture over here couldn’t cope with the Gracchus of Dundee.

The routing (for the time being) of the St James’ hoods

This is by way of an update to our previous coverage of the hoods terrorising the St James’ area of west Belfast. I can inform readers at this point that the Sons of Anarchy have been scattered to the four winds. (Although not, I think, the Four Winds estate, which wouldn’t be prepared for that sort of thing.) After that humiliating affair of the jammed gun, the dissident ÓNH went back to the area in force and cleared the rats out. They also rather self-importantly informed residents they were giving them their area back. Quite how this will play out with local residents, who may be fearing that they’ve now exchanged one gang of hoods for another, remains to be seen.

This is something rather significant in terms of dissident politics, if there’s a shift away from harebrained bomb plots and towards populist vigilantism. The vigilante strain is most obvious with the existence of Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) in Derry, taking physical action against head shops and the like; there are also one or two areas where the INLA seem to have cornered the market in punishment beatings. Of course, it all depends which dissidents you’re talking about; there are about six or seven small armed groups running arounds, some of which are still deeply committed to harebrained bomb plots.

At any rate, for the moment the ÓNH seems to be the group with the wind in its sails, or at least the ability to actually do something. It’s said to have attracted some ex-Provos with a bit of ability. There’s a rumoured link-up with the arrestingly-named “Real Sinn Féin”, the Limerick-based group who split from RSF earlier this year after the failure of their coup attempt against the Dalton-Ó Brádaigh leadership. And the St James’ action has led to the texts page of the current Andersonstown News being full of messages lauding the ÓNH and contrasting them favourably to the Provos’ inability to deal with the den of criminality that west Belfast is rapidly becoming.

This of course poses something of a conundrum for the area’s uncrowned monarch, as Gerry has oscillated between issuing bad-tempered pronunciamentos about how the dissidents should butt out, to making statesmanlike gestures of offering to talk to them and explain the errors of their ways. Either way, Gerry may at this point be feeling as if he’s caught in that scene from Jason and the Argonauts where the zombie soldiers spring up from scattered dragons’ teeth. No sooner do you think you’ve seen the back of republicans, than they pop up somewhere else.

Also, there’s some of the usual sabre-rattling going on on the loyalist side. Andre Shoukri, former head honcho of the UDA in north Belfast, was released from chokey a little while ago and has been making noises about taking his territory back. In response, UDA pharoah Hard Bap was moved to publicise the names of Andre’s twelve-strong gang and advise Andre that, on reflection, he might like to take the ferry to Scotland, just as his mate Johnny had done before him. Ah, boys. Peace process or no, some folks still remain unreconstructed, and not in an endearing way.

Hoods ahoy

This week we aren’t going to bother doing a fisk of the Tablet, except to point out a couple of particularly notable zingers. At the front, Ma Pepsi seems to have formed the arresting idea that Dave Cameron’s Big Society has something to do with the writings of the late Raymond Williams. I think not. And at the back, Elena Discourteous reports on a homily delivered by Fr Tim Radcliffe, the Tablet‘s favourite priest, at the latest of the notorious Soho Masses, on the theme of how the Catholic Church is run by a bunch of old dudes who aren’t down with the zeitgeist. Unless Fr Tim has a wild clubbing lifestyle that we don’t know about, he makes for a rather unlikely Voice of Yoof.

But that’s enough of that. For the moment we’ll take a short break from matters ecclesiastical in favour of more local subject matter, for the Andersonstown News has been hilarious lately. This specifically has to do with a little fraying at the edges of Gerry’s kingdom. Don’t get me wrong, the para-state of republican Belfast retains its one-party system by popular demand, but the Provos have been experiencing a few headaches recently, and smaller forces have begun to get a bit more assertive.

On the political level, one manifestation of that is the series of events that have been held to commemorate the Falls Curfew. This has lead the Sticks to raise their voices along the lines of “Hold on, the defence of the Falls wasn’t youse, it was us,” which is of course historically true. This point went by default for many years, not least because of The Workers Party’s reluctance to admit to its military roots, but it’s good to see the path being made a little less smooth for revisionism.

But there’s a different aspect to this which I want to look at, starting with the riots in Ardoyne over the Twelfth. The Andytown News has firmly stated that the riots were the work of the Continuity IRA, which I seriously doubt since the Contos have trouble enough orchestrating themselves. Furthermore, top Belfast Provo Bobby Storey has been making ominous statements to the effect that he knows where the guilty parties live. This itself raises a question – I’ll grant you that Big Bobby is not a man you’d like to meet in a dark alleyway, but if the guilty parties are not scared of Gerry Kelly, who do you expect them to be scared of?

As mentioned previously, Ardoyne is graced by not one but two residents’ groups, and a look at these illuminates matters. Put very simply, the Crumlin Ardoyne Residents Association (CARA) is the Provo-controlled group, and the Greater Ardoyne Residents Coalition (GARC) is the not-the-Provos group. It is alleged by the Provos that GARC is nothing but a dissident/hood coalition with marginal support, but there’s more to it than that. Granted that there are dissidents involved in GARC and that the local hoods will use any disorder around parades to have a bit of crack, GARC actually has real people involved, and enough critical mass to be able to set the agenda locally. If you looked at the peaceful sit-down before the riots broke out, there were dissidents in it – I recognised a few RSF members – but the bulk of the people involved were indeed residents. Basically, GARC has come to encompass anybody in the area who has a beef with the Provos – even people who should really be within the peace process Big Tent – thanks not least to CARA being so tightly controlled as to exclude anyone even slightly off message, like people who don’t approve of the rioters but aren’t too keen on shopping them.

To sum things up then, we have an enclave with a ferocious history and a strongly independent streak; an interface area where loyalist marches provide a semi-regular flashpoint; a smallish but significant dissident presence; a large and combustible population of unemployed youth; top-down politicking from the Provos that has got some people’s backs up; and a functional coalition opposing the Provos on an issue where their ability to control events is vulnerable. That combination is unique to Ardoyne at the moment, but it sets an ominous precedent.

Moving into west Belfast, there’s something interesting happening in the Divis/Lower Falls area, where an unofficial residents’ group has sprung up. This time the issue is over a bonfire. To explain for readers outside Belfast, some years ago the Provos quietly dispensed with the traditional Internment Night bonfires. These guys want one in the Divis area, and claim a leafleting exercise has shown enormous popular support for bringing back the local bonfire. The Provos poured cold water on that, arguing that of course their leafleting got a positive response because they only leafleted their mates. The unofficial residents replied that there’d been a meeting in April attended by Fra McCann whereat the broad masses expressed their boundless enthusiasm for the bonfire. Fra then surfaced to say that yes, he had been at the meeting, but nobody there wanted a bonfire. You can choose who to believe, I suppose, and it could well be that Divis gets a bonfire whether residents want it or not.

But if you want to know the real source of Máirtín’s current wrath, you have to head further up the road. You may recall that the Ardoyne rioting over the Twelfth was preceded by some rioting at Broadway. This allegedly had to do with a loyalist bonfire, which I doubt as the said bonfire was a mile up the road. The subtext of this was the IBA, a gang of hoods who’ve been terrorising St James’ for some time now. Quixotically enough, they seem to model themselves on TV’s Sons of Anarchy, and have been goading the Provos into coming and having a go if they think they’re hard enough.

And it’s these guys who have really got up the nose of the Andytown News, which is issuing ever shriller calls for someone to do something about these rotten wee bastards. Recent issues of the paper have been full of lurid stories about how, for instance, the Bog Meadows are full of motorbikes that the IBA are stealing to order.

For what it’s worth, the dissidents don’t like them much either. At the weekend, it is alleged, a few guys from the dissident ÓNH went out armed to tackle them, except their gun jammed, and then they were lifted by the cops. Cue a lot of cheeky graffiti about the ÓNH and their old rusty guns. They’ve also managed to seriously annoy the IRSP by graffitiing all over Casa Irp.

In a nutshell, this sums up a lot of the problem with the policing debate. We used to hear people like Alex Attwood telling us that the alternative to the Provos controlling the streets was law and order. Au contraire, it looks very much as if the alternative to the Provos controlling the streets is the hoods controlling the streets. We eagerly await Attwood informing us as to whether he thinks this is an improvement.

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