ANY MONEY FOR TEA BAGS , MISTER?
“What night would suit you for doing your vigilante duty, mister?”..
This from a wee spavined, rat -faced ,overly earnest ,but still matter -of -fact,thin as a reed, skinny wee “chancer” with the worst kind of singsong Belfast accent . He was dressed in “combat fatigues” .. They were the kind of cheap greeny , khaki ex-army clothes you could have bought down at the old Smithfield Market, or maybe purchased from the back pages of the old weekly, long ago, pre-ebay “Exchange and Mart” magazine .It was published every Thursday ,if memory serves, and you could buy anything from a grasshopper to a battleship within its grubby newsprint pages. Everyone used to run about in old Waffen SS stormtrooper greatcoats back then. Well , young long-haired men, anyway.They were the very thing for cold damp Irish winters. Even better if you could get one with a neatly stitched “bullet hole ” in it, as a talking point….You could buy cheap ex-army gear and bits of old uniforms with a possible wartime pedigree and it was very popular among the festival going youth at that time . I had a great all-weather duckdown army sleeping bag that found a home at the bottom of my frame rucksack which I subsequently used later while sleeping in parks on my hitchiking forays in Europe .
This lad was on very serious business though…banging on our door that evening in 1971. There was some planning afoot. Well , Northern Ireland was a strange place to live in back then. It possibly still is…What became known as “the Troubles ” was beginning to bed in.We were all about three years into its toothy maw. The horror seeped in gradually as these things do and given the ironic black humour and inherent cynicism in the Irish character , otherwise unwordly and uncouth things were gradually taken for granted.
Life just goes on .
What most people forget when errant memory drifts back to those times was the pervading paranoia.That’s not something that is evident in any of the old newsreels of the time. I suppose people want to forget how frightening life had become.They would prefer to laugh in the face of horror than quake in its shadow.. It would be difficult to engender an idea of that fear into our children or grandchildren today.There had been so much social chaos and political chicanery that violence was endemic.There were soldiers and policemen fully armed everywhere, helicoptors were constantly beating an unholy tattoo in the skies day and night and of course like something from a Vietnam war newsreel , bombings, shootings and killings daily were a staple by a variety of conflicted groupings or individuals with an entire armoury of axes to grind.Shops and factories lay in rubble ,devastated by bombs and there was a fear that whole housing complexes would be torched and residents would be killed in their beds. That kind of thing had already happened in Belfast and whole streets of people were evacuated , residents driven out and were eventually spread and displaced throughout the land, to begin new lives . Some later called it a form of ethnic cleansing…one tribe hating the other to such a degree that they drove them from their homes. People were attempting to protect their own housing estates and streets by forming neighbourhood watch groups. There was the feeling that behind some of these groups there were also armed men ready to back up the watchers with weaponry. It would have been a natural enough assumption given that law and order had virtually broken down . No one really knew anything but there was fear and rumour enough. In the meantime, fathers, husbands and sons gathered at night in small groups of neighbourhood watch groups , to keep a watchful eye out for any violent incursions
What was unthinkable last month or last year simply gets stitched on to the weft and weave of “normal” life and in that old “wartime spirit” people still get up in the morning, wash themselves , put their trousers on and have a little breakfast before facing the day’s toils.Something as insane as a social conflagration outside on the streets simply becomes part of everyday life outside that front door.It’s almost taken for granted . It’s checked on like a daily soap opera in the local daily newspaper or on the news at six…..but life goes on .We still went to the dentist or to the pub. The pubs were gradually installing CCTV as a protection against bombings and some began to issue identity cards to better vet their clientele. You had to be “allowed” to walk into a pub with a quick check to camera, rather than simply sauntering in off the street.As more shops in towns were bombed as “economic targets”, town centres became all but deserted at night. People who had lived above them for generations moved away to somewhere safer. Cafes closed…
Like I say , the general political unrest had been running for a mere couple of years but the vast majority of people were getting on with ordinary life just inside its grisly coccoon.
There were only three of us; young men in our late teens , cusping twenty. All sharing this tiny little house in a street just off the Lisburn Road, in Belfast , that smelt of decrepitude and old long – ago cooked cabbage. It was no palace but it was our temporary digs.it was a small two-up, two-down terraced red-brick house . I remember that the only hot -water was supplied by a noisy gas geyser over the kitchen sink . The old walls had dried out to such an extent that in one corner the plaster was crumbling away. A small tape recorder on a shelf near the door played Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” album as a constant background noise.That music had long since become part of the city and part of our lives.It was part of a Norneverland identity , poetically beyond the awful gloom of the troubled reality at the time. We wanted to believe in it and think of it as Van had from his exile in America.The house was tiny and grubby but the rent was cheap .
None of us were from Belfast. We all had to travel there from some forty miles away. We were in the not long -out -of -school- first- scrambling- job- in- the- city stage of our lives. Still thinking of further education, maybe.We were learning to live away from home for the first time.We barely knew how to cook for ourselves but we thought we were very worldly and quite in- the- know.
The arrogance of youth. That unknowing , untouchable phase where everything is possible. There are many futures to consider and there is a feeling of invulnerability and that “youth” is a forever state.Timeless, really.
In that mindset we all took the taped up “bomb-proofed” windows in the offices for granted ; the gradually increasing security on the streets. Just as we grumpily abide by the humiliation of removing our shoes before being allowed on an aeroplane, today. In the midst of this social upheaval here. the government in Westminster, obviously completely oblivious or uncaring of our raddled plight, decided in early 1971 to introduce Decimal Currency. As if we hadn’t enough turmoil to deal with on the streets , the population in general were asked to get their heads around a whole new way of thinking about money. The changeover from Pounds, Shillings and Pence took place slap bang as the Troubles were starting to go up a gear. We accepted that too , of course and were soon converting to this new scheme of things, just as we’d adjusted to the madness on the streets and the banality of the political stasis .
Before you go thinking that I’ve forgotten the little guy banging on the door….
There was a paranoia being stoked which was seeping in. This concerned armed incursions from rival political /religious mobs and the burning down of streets. Catholic communities had already been burned out of streets early in the Troubles so anything was possible. .We, being strangers in town had no real idea of the territorial pissings and demarcations of these rival communities in Belfast. In our comparative geographical innocence though, we appeared to have set up residence in the “wrong” area . We were all basically deemed “nationalists” living in a “unionist” street. You’d never really know this , of course , until the Marching Season came around and flags began appearing on lamposts. It’s how territory is marked in Northern Ireland. A stranger may have no idea until summer rolls around.
This young man had no idea that he had a house full of nationalist weevils in his nice clean , unionist flour and he was asking us which nights would suit us to do a few hours community “Neighbourhood Watch Duty”…possibly for one of those semi or wholly para-military outfits like the spawning UDA. He certainly wasn’t some young hot gospeller or Mormon selling his godly tracts.
We hurriedly conferred and explained that Saturday might be a possibility , knowing full well that we’d all be away back home by then. That seemed to satisfy him but as he turned to go , he stopped and asked .”Have you any money to put in the kitty for teabags?”….
Well , even Vigalantes need a cup of tea on their lonely nights of paranoia, so we obliged by hurriedly handing him the glass jar full of those shiney new decimal coins that we’d “kittied” for groceries. There must have been all of £2.50 there .More than enough for a week’s rent ….but what the hell,it sufficed to buy him off.He looked quickly , with some puzzlement at his booty and left. We’d got rid of him and swiftly closed the door on his dissappearing heels.We looked at each other , saying nothing.
Even vigalantes need a nice cup of tea.