‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. it was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness’. - So said Charles Dickens in ‘The Tale of Two Cities’.
The seventies and eighties were dark periods for those of us growing up in N. Ireland. It is easy to forget that then if you fancied a trip to the city centre it was probable that your car would be stopped at a mobile army checkpoint and searched. Then you would be searched at the barriers encircling the city centre by bored young men in army uniforms softly cradling their SLR’s and wondering how on earth they had come to be here. They had left drab towns in England, Scotland and Wales on the promise of seeing the world and instead saw an equally dreary, (but more moist), Belfast and rural Ulster. This had not been in the brochure at the recruitment centre.
Having stood, arms outstretched and mute, while you were ‘frisked’ you then would be ‘patted down’ by equally bored store employees just inside the entrance of the shop you had chosen to frequent. Bags were examined in an effort to spot the incendiary devices which were being left in shops as part of the IRA’s war on commerce.
Being searched was a way of life.
It caused no comment.
It was what happened.
This was life ordinary.
My mother during this time went to Australia to visit her cousin. As happens when relatives visit, there was a trip organised to see the sights and indulge in some retail therapy. As the group of friends entered a store in downtown Sydney, my mother chatted on while automatically going up to some random man (who was loitering near the entrance) and pressed her opened handbag under his nose so he could examine its contents. This was considered a strange act, even to her antipodean kinsfolks. The incident naturally went down in family history.
Should you fancy a trip to the cinema, there were no late shows. At the unearthly hour of 10 pm and having emerged from the London Victorian era smoker’s smog in the auditorium, you found yourself in a deserted city centre. Reminiscent of a scene from a post-apocalyptic world, it was inhabited only by the odd lost soul who didn’t fully appreciate the danger they were in and the foolhardy adrenalin seeking tourist. In many ways it could have been compared to East Berlin -only Belfast wasn’t as cheery.
Or you could go to a pub that had welcoming sandbags and/or metal grills covering the windows and a camera on the locked door. Press the buzzer, wait until they gave you the once over and hopefully you got in. Strangers were eyed with suspicion. There was a very limited welcome in the parlour even or if your name was Timothy or Pat. Most pubs served only alcohol or soft drinks.
If you wanted something to eat you had the choice of crisps or nuts…or nuts and crisps. The choice was entirely yours. It was the natural habitat of the seasoned drinker and heavy smoker. Landlords subscribed to the grunge school of interior design. Natural light was judged to be the enemy and discouraged at every opportunity. Alcohol is a depressant so why fight it?
Visit a restaurant and you could rely on finding, somewhere in the menu, prawn cocktail or melon for starters, Steak Diane or Chicken Maryland for main course, and Black Forest Gateau for dessert. Pizza was exotic, Blue Nun white or Mateus Rose wine was mandatory, and (yet again) thick second hand cigarette smoke was essential for flavour and ambiance.
Large multi-national companies such as McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Tesco, Sainsbury, and the rest avoided Belfast the way shoppers form a natural exclusion zone around an evangelical street preacher. My wife’s brother, when he was a teenager, once drove the 100 miles or so to Dublin one evening just to sample a Big Mac with his friends.
…Then there was fashion.
Ankle snapping platform shoes, outrageously flappy bell bottom trousers, and long, long hair.
The women had to contend with their own fashion foibles.
And then... If that wasn’t enough misery to contend with, along came The Bay City Rollers.
But we were young.
And as Charlie Dickens righty noted…it was truly the best of times.
My school, like many others, had sticky plastic on the inside of the windows to prevent lacerations to the occupants of the room should a bomb explode close by. Bomb scares happened all the time. Some were false alarms - others were very, very real. It was prudent to take all alerts seriously.
It was surely only coincidence that around exam time there tended to be a spate of phone calls to the school alerting the headmaster of supposedly explosive devices planted within the premises. Presumably these calls originated from dangerously deranged terrorists seeking reunification of Ireland and who, at the same time, had a grudge against the whole concept of formal examinations as a measurement of ability.
The headmaster was a deeply sceptical and suspicious individual. After years dealing with troublesome adolescents he seemingly didn’t believe in coincidence. His first name was Stanley. A somewhat aggrieved pupil burnt the legend ‘STUFF STAN’ in giant ten foot letters into the immaculately cared for front lawn of the school using weed killer. - With hindsight the message could have been a lot worse. But it was always deeply encouraging to read it before settling down to double maths on a Monday morning. Anyway… his response to the dastardly terrorists’ threat was to face them down. And so he changed the instructions from ‘evacuate the building to a place of safety’ to ‘everyone stay put, assume it was safe, and (seeing as we were there anyway) search their classroom for suspicious objects.’
It was presumably his view that it is important that every child should learn to be comfortable searching for IED’s (improvised explosive devices).
…At that time due to different taxes regimes, motocross bikes (both new and second hand) were a lot more expensive in the Republic than in N. Ireland. But for some reason or other, second hand parts were not subject to any punitive duties.
Raymond had a lot of second hand bikes. And what are second hand bikes other than a collection of second hand parts? The philosophical question then arises, ‘When does a second hand motorcycle become a collection of second hand parts? I doubt if Raymond cared much for philosophy or the musings of intellectual giants such as Jean Paul Sartre, but for him the answer was clear and unambiguous.
A bike is not a bike when it doesn’t have wheels.
‘Try riding one without them’ was the thrust of Raymond’s argument.
Take that, Monsieur Sartre.
When Ray travelled to scrambles meetings ‘down south’ he always seemed to have a bike with no wheels in the back somewhere. Probably if you cared to look carefully in the hidden recesses of the van you would even find the wheels. No doubt this was Ray thinking ahead and having access to every spare he may have needed.
He was like that.
-Forever thinking up clever wheezes.
It may be a controversial view, but I believe that the English as a nation are one of the fairest nations in the world. They embrace the concept of rules. It is embedded deep within their very DNA and held close to their heart. It is the very cornerstone of society and therefore required to be enforced to the strictest letter of the law. Right is right and wrong is wrong. There are no alternatives because this will only sow the seeds of confusion and insurrection. It is the stuff of Empire. If the rules are not sufficiently descriptive the unscrupulous will exploit the gaps. The net result is the evolution of ever more complex rules. And although it is dangerous to make generalisations between nations, it seems that, (like as with football penalty shoot-outs), only the Germans have the English beaten when it comes to making and enforcing regulations.
It could also be argued that the French like making rules, but in their case they generously tend to believe they are for other nations to use. For them it is more akin to an aspiration, or perhaps optional rough guidelines.
The inhabitants of this island, on the other hand, have tended towards a more ‘relaxed’ view of what exactly constitutes illegality.
Of course nowadays things are changing. Our number one growth industry is inspectors. There is a vigorous and enthusiastic implementation of the copious reams of legislation that the EU churns out. Our natural rebellious streak is slowly being eroded and extinguished.
And that is a bit sad.
On the upside, the French don’t seem to like change very much.
Anyhow, when the event was over Ray would repack the van and wend his weary way northwards once again.
Maybe it was because of the natural highs following a successful race meeting. Maybe it was the release of endorphins due to the physical activity.
… Or perhaps it was even down to the pervasive and intoxicating smell of the ‘Castrol R’ in the vehicle,
… But Raymond’s van always seemed lighter and airier on the return journey home.
The Omeath road between Newry (in the North) and Dundalk (in the South) ran like a vivid ugly black scar across the desolate bracken and rush covered hillside. Late at night and at the height of ‘the troubles’ it definitely wasn’t a welcoming place to be. This was IRA territory. In fact all the border areas carried an official government health warning. It was the hardest of hard borders with fortified Army Sangers and an insidious underlying sense of menace. All the border structures such as customs clearing and their associated buildings were bleak, grey and drab. Concrete and blunt they were imprisoned by fences, shutters and barbed wire- a stark testament to the persistent attacks against them.
Low cloud hung over the mountain and light was fading as the van negotiated the long gradual climb over the mountainside and down towards Newry. For some reason he can’t remember the vehicle in front braked suddenly. With a supreme effort Raymond managed to bring the van to tyre smouldering, screeching halt- mere inches from the vehicle in front.
The driver of the car behind was not so observant and smacked into the back of the van with force. This had the effect of completely confusing the windscreen of the van who believed it was being given the ‘good to go’ signal while the body of the van was still in ‘wait’ mode. As the (still intact) but now thoroughly embarrassed windscreen sulked its way slowly down the bonnet, an ever so slightly agitated Raymond exited the van to have a gentlemanly discussion with the perpetrator of the collision.
He found a car and four slightly shaken nuns wedged against his rear bumper.
In the ‘conversation’ that followed, the nuns accused him of deliberately reversing the van into their car.
Yes, proof if proof were ever needed, that God truly moves in a mysterious way.
…The next week the riders at the motocross meeting were treated to the sight of the (still windscreen-less) van arriving. The back door was wedged open to allow the aerodynamic passage of air through the van, while Raymond and family were decked out in anoraks, scarves and bug smattered racing goggles.
…To Raymond, this was completely normal.
Yet more yarns and craic from John, our local storyteller.
This episode is called "Nuns, guns and non-essential maintainance"