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.