History

EU Referendum- The case for staying

With only a few days to go before the potentially historic EU referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain within the European Union, Dr Philip Larkin, an academic from the school of law at Brunel University in London argues the case for remaining.

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Introduction
With less than one week to go now until the upcoming referendum, I have been asked to set out my reasons why the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union. Despite all the hype in media over the past few days, I still believe that the UK electorate will vote (albeit not by a huge majority) to remain in the EU. The reason for this, as columnist Philip Collins [not the much-maligned former Genesis drummer and vocalist – in much the same way as the present author is not the deceased poet and librarian] has argued convincingly (and which I will examine further below), is that Brexit ultimately means an enormous lot of uncertainty for the UK, particularly in relation to the economy, and uncertainty is an ally of caution and conservatism. I also believe that this erring on the side of caution will intensify over the course of the next six days as the reality sinks in that the referendum is not a game of shadow boxing, or the equivalent of a by-election, but the real deal carrying grave consequences. This will require those of us who support remain to hold our collective nerve until next Thursday night. Although I very strongly believe that the UK should stay in the EU, I also believe that a person can passionately support Brexit without being either mad or bad. With few exceptions, the referendum campaign has been conducted in a moderate fashion, and this article will follow suit. The issues are too important to be obscured by personal mudslinging. The article will examine my reasons for wishing to remain, while rebutting the reasons put forward for Brexit, under a number of headings.

Parliamentary Sovereignty and the EU “Superstate”
One of the central arguments of the Brexit campaign (although it has been played down somewhat lately) is that leaving the EU would restore the Parliamentary sovereignty to the glory it had once enjoyed in the heady days of Imperial power, although this is not openly stated. I have selected this heading at the beginning because of all the Brexit arguments it is probably the most easily rebutted. To begin, as Professor Sir Elihu Lauterpacht stated, “Parliamentary Sovereignty ends where Britain’s international obligations begin.” In other words, the signing of any international treaty involving co-operation, be it on defence, trade, or intellectual property, entails some pooling of sovereignty, and has done so since the Anglo-Portugese Alliance ratified by the Treaty of Windsor in 1386. By signing a treaty, or joining an international organisation, the UK is effectively stating that, (in accordance with Dicey’s theory of sovereignty) although technically Parliament is free to make any law whatsoever, it will voluntarily restrain itself from legislating against the aims of the treaty. I have often asked my Constitutional Law students: “Can Parliament, under Dicey’s pure theory of Parliamentary Sovereignty, create an Act of Parliament banning smoking in the streets of Moscow/Paris/New York?” Some are genuinely surprised when informed that, in theory, Parliament can do this. My next question is:

“Why then, does Parliament not make such legislation?”

The answer, invariably, is that it would be ridiculous and pointless. Quite so:

Parliament has always been constrained by what it is politically expedient and acceptable. Leaving the EU will involve the UK having to sign a plethora of trade and other agreements with other countries and trading blocs, including the EU itself. These treaties will also limit Parliamentary Sovereignty. Even a successful immigration policy (on which more below), which the Brexit camp argue will be easier outside the EU, will necessitate the UK having to having to reach agreement with the remaining EU nations, again involving the pooling of sovereignty.

Related to this issue, stories about the eventual drift towards a federal European “superstate” amount to nothing more than a baseless canard. While it is true that some of the founders of what became the European Union may have had pretensions for an economically, politically, and socially united Europe, these aims did not take into account the great cultural differences between different European states. As Lord Denis Healey wrote, those nation states which form the EU have developed through singular historical and social processes. While federalism may have been a suitable form of government for scattered English speaking agricultural communities of largely British descent, as with the United States and Australia, it is totally inappropriate for a continent as culturally, linguistically, economically, and socially diverse as Europe. Healey also stated that France, with its traditions of independence, would actively prevent the creation of a superstate. The improbability of achieving a common European foreign policy in any other field except trade was underscored sharply by the second Gulf War in 2003, when the UK, the Netherlands, and many of the Central and Eastern EU states supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, while France and Germany stood resolutely against it. In my view a common European army remains a very far-off possibility, if, indeed, it even is a possibility.

Fears about a European superstate also grossly exaggerate how much of national life the EU actually has responsibility for. The EU itself, despite pretensions to more, remains very much a giant trading block, with product standards harmonised as far as possible to facilitate free movement of goods, persons, services and capital. There is no pressure on the UK to join the Eurozone, and many remain supporters would not welcome any move towards adopting the Euro even in the medium to long term, myself included. The recent Great Recession has demonstrated the benefit of a nation being able to control its own currency, and set its own interest rates. While there does remain quite a deal of democratic deficit within the EU institutions, with the unelected Commission perhaps wielding too much authority, surely these are problems which can be mended with time and nudging from nations like the UK, Sweden and others? For the future health and survival of the EU, it is vital that the UK remains a member.

It is not an exaggeration to state that enemies of the West and Enlightenment values would be delighted to see fragmentation of the EU, which represents many of the qualities which have long made the West economically prosperous, democratic, and respectful of human rights. It is said that Vladimir Putin was desperate to see Scotland leave the UK. He is equally anxious (if not more so) to see the UK depart from the EU, as are other unfriendly parties in the world. Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is a fan of Brexit.

The EU and the Economy
It is frequently argued by Brexit supporters that leaving the EU would somehow “liberate” the British economy from the stifling effects of a European continent currently experiencing stagnant levels of growth. The UK would then, in theory, be free to pursue even more beneficial trade deals with the remainder of the EU and the wider world, in particular the growing economies of the East. I realise that it is a cliché to say, but my gut feeling is that if something looks too good to be true, it usually is. Neither am I alone in believing this: in a recent poll by Ipsos MORI for the Observer, 90 per cent of economists said that they expected Brexit to damage the economy, with just four per cent believing it to be beneficial. That degree of unanimity on any poll of any group of people is almost without precedent. As Paul Johnson, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, has asserted, in the short run Brexit would definitely create uncertainty. In the immediate aftermath the pound, and probably the stock market, would dive, making us all poorer. Even one of the few pro-Brexit economists, former Boris Johnson adviser Gerard Lyons, has accepted that short-term uncertainty would lead to reduced growth in the immediate future.

So what about the long term effects of Brexit? Would it be a case of suffering short-term pain for long-term gain? The simple answer is that no-one really knows, and no-one really can predict. Brexiteers tend to take the sanguine view that “the rest of the world, including the EU will still need to/want to trade with us, and we’ll soon be trading more than ever before.” There are serious reasons to doubt such optimism. Yes, it is true that the rest of the EU will still need to trade with the UK, and in time a working relationship will be arrived at. However, why on earth should anyone be impressed by having in the future what they already have now? As the Washington Post put it yesterday:

“Countries don’t knowingly commit economic suicide, but in Britain, millions seem ready to give it a try. On 23 June the United Kingdom will vote to decide whether to quit the European Union, the 28 nation economic bloc with a population of 508 million and a gross domestic product of almost $17 trillion. Let’s not be coy: Leaving the E.U. would be an act of national insanity.”

It is beyond my poor power of expression to put it any clearer than this passage. Some will ask “but we’ll still be a great trading nation if we leave the EU, won’t we?” My answer to that would be “maybe, but for goodness sake why take massive risks with the goodwill of our greatest trading partners, and leave the world’s largest trading area?” Why should it be imagined that Germany, with its great influence over EU policy, be disposed to make favourable trade agreements quickly with a non-EU UK, which, by leaving the EU had wounded, perhaps mortally, the institution which has long been central to German foreign and economic policy? Some people dismiss all too quickly as bluff statements from the European Commission, President Obama, and Hilary Clinton, that in the event of Brexit, the UK would be obliged to “go to the back of the queue” when it comes to trade agreements. To me it is perfectly logical that countries like the US and other EU states, to name but some, should be less than welcoming to a UK which had left the EU. To begin, one of the major attractions of the UK for foreign investors is not only that it is “a good place to do business”, but also it has access to such a huge market. This is why it has been a central plank of US foreign policy from the time of President Kennedy onwards that the UK should join, and remain, a member of a Common European Market. Leaving would cut us off from the greatest free market in the world, and probably damage our relations with the US also. Similarly, there has been mutterings from Japanese car manufacturing companies that in the event of Brexit, they would consider very seriously the relocation of their factories to other nations still within the EU. Again, this is a perfectly logical view to take from the perspective of foreign investors: why stick with a UK which has cut off its nose to spite its face when we could move our operations to Poland, where the people will be glad of the work, we can pay the workers less, and they still have access to the free market? It is often said that the secret of a happy life is being willing to give and take: it is no different in the life of nations, particularly a great trading nation like the UK. Established mutual goodwill counts for so much, even in today’s world of instant communication.

What about the argument that Brexit would make us freer to pursue ever greater trade with the emerging markets in the world? Well, my counter question to that is: what exactly is stopping us from doing more of that now? After many years, the realisation has dawned on British manufacturers and service providers that they now have to market their products fiercely and energetically throughout the world. This stands in some contrast to the 1970s, when Denis Healey as Chancellor of the Exchequer lamented that the UK was woefully far behind other European states when it came to marketing their products, a result, he believed, of having a captive imperial market for so long. Prime Minister Cameron has set the political pace for what UK firms should be doing aggressively, by his trade visits to India and elsewhere, and it also explains why planeloads of manufacturers like Scotch whisky distillers are heading out to places like China and Brazil to boost their sales. I struggle to understand how leaving the EU would make the task of finding new markets any easier. In addition, as the Economist has very eruditely pointed out, most of the factors hindering economic growth in the UK stem from long standing domestic economic and education policy, such as the problems of poor infrastructure, lack of new housing, low productivity, and, of course the ubiquitous skills gap. These are much bigger obstacles to growth than any mythical EU regulations.

Furthermore, the Brexit camp frequently take too little account of the changed fortunes of the UK since the time it joined the EEC back in 1973. At that time Britain was generally judged to have taken over Turkey’s mantle as “the Sick Man of Europe”, going through possibly the lowest point of post-Imperial decline in those years. This is not the case nowadays: by 2030 the UK is predicted to be the most populous state in the EU, and its economy looks set to overtake than of Germany, which will make it for a period the fourth largest economy in the world. With this eventuality as a backdrop, Brexit appears to me to be akin to walking abruptly out of a long, tough, business meeting, just when matters are turning decisively in our favour. Another important point to consider is that the UK is ideally placed to champion the successful completion of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), on which there is much misunderstanding, but which has the potential to add hugely to both the British and other EU economies, and which encapsulates much of the free-trade spirit of the great economist Adam Smith.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that even after 41 years since the last referendum on EU membership, the Leave campaign still appears to be very fragmented as to what sort of example a non-EU UK should emulate. Some cite the Norway as a case study in “having your cake and eating it”, with it not being an EU member yet still having access to EU markets through being included in the European Economic Area (EEA). Yet this overlooks certain key points. First, Norway has never been an EU member state, so there is no issue with them voting to leave a club that they have been in for over 40 years. Secondly, Norway still has to conform with all of the EU trade regulations and standards, and is almost completely powerless to influence EU trade policy. Other Brexiteers would cast us in the role of a northern European Singapore or Hong Kong should we leave the EU, forming a new free-trade area with states such as (per Michael Gove) Albania. This presupposes to some extent that the UK can somehow physically slip its geographical, historical, and cultural moorings and choose a completely different role in the world. Nations simply cannot choose roles like an actor may choose a part in a play. It has been asked of me in the past “why can’t we in the UK be more like Switzerland, not in the EU and still very wealthy, with minimal international alliances and commitments?” My reply is: “Why can’t an apple be more like an orange?” Sometimes an image says a thousand words. The varying examples cited above underscores the point that the Brexit camp is, in reality, hugely uncertain among themselves as to what Exit will actually mean for the UK, and, more importantly, as to where they wish to lead us. This is scarcely a sound basis for taking such a momentous risk with our future.

Immigration
The control of immigration into the UK has been a central plank in the Brexit campaign. It is pointless to try to gloss over this very emotive topic, so I will try to address it here. It has already been stated above that even in the event of us leaving the EU, a successful immigration policy would require us to arrive at some sort of agreement with the remaining 27 member states, something which they may be less than generously willing to do. Related to this, the reality is that many migrants come from outside the EU: leaving the EU will not change this. From the perspective of London (where this author lives), immigration over the centuries has made the city perhaps the most cosmopolitan in the world, which also explains its great economic and cultural success. One need only think of the Flemish cloth merchants of the 14th Century, the influx of French Huguenot immigrants in the late 17th Century, the Jewish immigrants fleeing the Russian pogroms, and latterly, Poles, Latvians and Lithuanians; all of these have enriched both London but also the rest of the UK. In an open and free (and now growing) economy like that of Britain, there will always be a need for migrant workers, who, after all, contribute not only to the labour market, but also to the exchequer through their taxes, helping us to maintain infrastructure and public services. For those worried about EU migrant workers posing too much of a drain on UK social security benefits, the European Court of Justice this week have backed Britain’s right to refuse to pay family welfare benefits such as child benefit or child tax credit to unemployed EU migrants who have been in Britain for less than five years, dismissing claims by the European Commission that it would be discriminatory to do so. What this judgment means is that EU migrant workers and their families will have no other option but to engage with the labour market on their arrival into the UK as soon as possible.

It would be wrong to dismiss out of hand the concerns of those in various parts of the UK who claim that they no longer recognise their communities because of the vast influx of migrant workers, and are frustrated at having to compete for lower paid jobs in the labour market due to migrant worker competition. They may also be vexed by the fact that EU migrant workers, particularly from Poland and other such nations, very often possess a higher level of technical skill than UK school leavers, and are prepared to work longer hours at more competitive rates of pay. While empathising with these concerns, there are a number of points which can be made in reply. The first is that during the boom years migrant workers filled a much needed gap in the UK labour market, manning lower-paid posts which nationals were reluctant to take up. Secondly, the reality that migrant workers help to fill the skills shortage in the UK should be an alarm call to the political establishment to ensure that our own young people are provided with the necessary technical education and skills training to be able to make good the shortfall ourselves. To their credit, the Coalition Government and the present Conservative Government appear to realise this (as do many figures in opposition), and are currently attempting to rebalance the UK economy with a greater emphasis on technical apprenticeships and the creation of University Technical Colleges to train future generations for knowledge driven industry. However, this is only a beginning, and the British electorate should be steadfast in holding them to this task.

Conclusion
In the above passages I have attempted to demonstrate that exit from the EU is just too much of a bad risk for the UK to take. Whatever faults in may have (and for goodness sake nothing touched by the hand of man is ever perfect), the European Union represents one of the most successful and constructive international partnerships ever devised in the history of the world. As a people who pride themselves on being non-ideological and imminently pragmatic in their approach to life, politics and business, the British electorate should know when they are on to a good thing: I would be both surprised and disappointed in the event of Brexit. One issue which I have not dealt with above, but which merits a mention in conclusion, is that exit from the European Union could throw into jeopardy the long-term survival of an older and equally successful union: the unity of the United Kingdom itself. After seeing off the Scottish Independence campaign in September 2014, and despite SNP success in the 2015 general election, it is my view that Scottish nationalism will soon be demonstrably “on the ropes.” It would be a great pity to breathe life back into a movement which has peaked and is already entering into decline. I will end the article with that final thought.

Philip Larkin writes in a personal capacity. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Brunel University or of “The Dreaming Armadillo”.

 

The School Window Cleaner who bore an uncanny resemblance to Manchester United’s 1980s Dutch centre forward Arnold Muhren

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Here’s another extract from my forthcoming book “On Square Routes”.  “OSR” will be a collection of more memoirs in the tradition of “In Complete Circles”, but will also feature travel writing, short stories and poetry.

Below is a semi-fictionalised account of an incident from my primary school days back in the dark ’80s:

The School Window Cleaner who bore an uncanny resemblance to Manchester United’s 1980s Dutch centre forward Arnold Muhren

It was a dull spring day in 1983.  Our primary six teacher Mr Arthurs had set us an exercise in fractions, something my nine year old self had found particularly difficult.  He let us get on with the work, while he sat at his desk reading the paper.  Maths had never been one of my strengths at school.  Naturally I got distracted.  I looked out the window and began to daydream.

On the other side of the window a man was cleaning the pane and giving it considerable elbow grease.

Joe Gorman sitting at the desk behind mine pointed out that the window cleaner looked like Manchester United’s Dutch centre forward Arnold Muhren.  On closer inspection there was certainly a passing resemblance.  Though why a well-paid sports star with one of Europe’s top clubs would be cleaning windows at a primary school in Omagh was something of a mystery.  So I began to concoct a story in my head.

Maybe he’d had a row with his boss Ron Atkinson, left Old Trafford in disgrace, and was unable to move to another club for contractual reasons, then having fallen on hard times due to gambling and addiction brought on by the inevitable bout of depression he must have gone through, and unable to return and face the shame in his native Netherlands he’d ended up cleaning the windows of a primary school in Omagh.

To this day I wonder if this was really a normal pattern of thought for a nine year old.

In the next row of desks Mark Mullan caught my attention:

“Hey Wardy!” he called out in a loud whisper.

I looked up to see him giving the rude two-fingered sign to the window-cleaning Arnold Muhren lookalike.  This was a little ironic as young Mullan was actually a Manchester United supporter.  But I suspected his aim on this occasion was simply to try and make me laugh.  He certainly succeeded.

In fact I involuntarily laughed out loud and had to put my hand over my mouth to prevent a further uncontrollable fit of giggling.  This prompted a stern rebuke from Mr Arthurs.

A few days later the real Mr Muhren was in action against Brighton in the FA Cup final.  But somewhat fittingly we never saw that window cleaner again.

Round in Circles

An article on my book “In Complete Circles” has appeared in the local magazine Omagh Today. Thanks to Claire Martin for the publicity.

“…In Complete Circles – an irreverent, laugh-out-loud, nostalgia-laden memoir/travelogue that takes a hilarious journey down memory lane…”

Please note: This is a quote from the article and not my own words!

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In Complete Circles
is available from Amazon at a very reasonable price.

A Partitioned Island

I recently spent an enjoyable 10 days In Cyprus. It reminded me of Ireland – a small island with a border dividing the north from the south, with a British military presence and two tribes separated by religion and flag – except that the Cypriot climate is a little warmer.

Bellapais Abbey

Bellapais Abbey


Paphos Archaeological Park

Paphos Archaeological Park

The Troodos Mountains - for some reason I received a text on my phone here saying "Weclome to Turkey", even though we were still on the Greek side of the island

The Troodos Mountains – for some reason I received a text on my phone here saying “Welcome to Turkey”, even though we were still on the Greek side of the island


Tomb of the Kings, an ancient burial site in Paphos - with KFC sign in background

Tomb of the Kings, an ancient burial site in Paphos – with KFC sign in background


Memorial to Gergios Grivas military leader of EOKA who fought against British rule in Cyprus in the 1950s

Memorial to Gergios Grivas military leader of EOKA who fought against British rule in Cyprus in the 1950s


Starred agama (Stellagama stellio), the largest lizard on Cyprus

Starred agama (Stellagama stellio), the largest lizard on Cyprus

Ancient Roman Mosaic, Paphos

Ancient Roman Mosaic, Paphos


Mosque at Paphos - recently restored, but now no longer used for worship sine the partition of Cyprus and polarisation of its two communities

Mosque at Paphos – recently restored, but now no longer used for worship since the partition of Cyprus and polarisation of its two communities


"Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus" flag painted on hillside

“Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” flag painted on hillside

Statue of Archbishop Makarios III, first president of the Republic of Cyprus, (1960–1974 and 1974–1977)

Statue of Archbishop Makarios III, first president of the Republic of Cyprus, (1960–1974 and 1974–1977)


Icon at Kykkos Monastery, Troodos Mountains

Icon at Kykkos Monastery, Troodo Mountains

The ruins of Bellapais Abbey, Northern Cyprus with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags visible through the arch

The ruins of Bellapais Abbey, Northern Cyprus with Turkish and Turkish Cypriot flags visible through the arch


A Cypriot hedgehog

A Cypriot hedgehog

Another shameless plug…

ICC Press Release 002

In Complete Circles: The Memoirs & Travels of an Ageing Schoolboy…

Available now from Amazon for £4.95 or $10.50 or €8.24 (in Italy), €8.12 (in France), €8.56 in Germany, €7.90 (in Spain).

Previews available.

Memoirs of An Ageing Schoolboy # 7: The Life of Larry

As some of you may know I’m currently writing a memoir concentrating mainly on my school days.  Just over a year ago I published some early extracts on the blog.  I’ve been working hard on it ever since and now hope to have the finished product out in time for Christmas.  And before any smart remarks come in – yes I do mean Christmas 2012.

In advance of a certain long-awaited reunion due to take place in just under a fortnight’s time, here are some further extracts to whet the appetite.Image

At the behest of our English teacher, a walrus-moustached Belfast man called Lawrence Muldoon, known among the pupils as Larry, a small group of us attempted (“attempted” being the operative word) to set up a film club.  The idea was to hire a film projector and show selected films of the more artistic type like Casablanca or Citizen Kane and profound subtitled European films from the likes of Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut rather than the standard current Hollywood blockbuster to an audience of appreciative younger pupils.

We managed to procure some used film posters from the local cinema and stuck them up at various locations around the school to publicise the imminent formation (ahem!) of the club.  Inevitably they were defaced.  On the Steel Magnolias poster two drawing pins had been strategically stuck through each of Julia Roberts’ breasts, and another one further south.

Due to a combination of apathy and logistical problems the film club never saw the light of day, even though about 20 pupils (mostly gullible first and second years) had already paid the £1 a head membership fee.   Where that money ended up remains a mystery to this day. 

Larry like many of that particular generation of teachers born roughly between 1940 and 1955 was a bit of a character.  He had nicknames for virtually all of his pupils based on agonisingly bad puns. 

If we ever had him for a free period (or study periods as the principal preferred to call them – even though during these interludes we did anything but study) he would go around the class asking boys their names.  A typical exchange would go like this.

Larry: What’s your name, boy?

Pupil A: Sir, Aidan Duddy.

Larry: Sir Aidan Duddy?  Have you been knighted? 

What’s your name?  (Pointing to Pupil C)

Pupil D:  Otis McAleer.

Larry: So what do they call you then? McAlnose?

Pupil D: No, they call me Curly because I’ve got curly hair.

Larry:  Where are you from?

Pupil D: Ballygawley.

Larry: Is that Ballygawley, Tyrone or Ballygawley, Zambia?

Pupil D: Zambia.

Larry:  What’s your name, son?  (Turning his attention to Pupil B)

Pupil B: Sam Teague.

Larry: I just asked your name, not your religion.  (To Pupil C) What’s your name?

Pupil C: Martin McTosser, sir.

Larry: Are you from Ballykilbollocks?

Pupil C: No, Killybastard.

Larry: I didn’t know there were any McTossers in Killybastard.  Sure McTosser’s not a Killybastard name.

Pupil C: My da’s from Ballykilbollocks.

Larry: Is your da called Pat?

Pupil C: No, sir.

Larry: Mick?

Pupil C: No.

Larry: What the hell is his buckin’ name then?

Pupil C: Frank.

Larry: Frank, the butcher?

Pupil C: No, he’s an electrician.

Larry: You mean electricity has actually reached Ballykilbollocks?

Pupil C (Unamused):  I wouldn’t know, I’m from Killybastard.

Larry: You didn’t have a brother at the school a few years ago?

Pupil C: No, I don’t have any brothers.

Larry:  And what’s your name?

Pupil X: Sergio McBastard

Larry: You’re not one of the Drumgallykilderrymore McBastards are you?

Pupil X: No, I’m one of the Castlegorfinmorebrack McBastards

Larry: You McBastards don’t half get around…

And so on…

There would be situations when certain troublesome pupils were making a nuisance of themselves in class.  Larry would pretend to get angry and bang loudly on his desk, then say: “Get yourself down to Brother O’Loscan’s office now!”  The miscreant in question would go out the door down the corridor and on his way to receive a bollocking or perhaps much worse from the Great Satan only for Larry to shake his head with a sigh and reveal his bluff, ordering a designated pupil to:

“Run after thon buckin’eejit and bring him back here!”

He would also indulge in the occasional spoonerism – If someone had left the door open he would bark at them – “Fose that cluckin’ door!!

Watch this space…

Memoirs Part V: A Bird in the Hand

Peri - the joys of being a young Dr Who fan in the mid-80s

[“Bushmen of the Kalahari”][/caption]

It wasn't just Zammo...


“Places to avoid include almost all of Co Tyrone, which has so many non-descript, grim one-horse towns you can hear the collective hooves clop from across the border in Donegal. I have found next to nothing to see or visit in that county”

Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent

Henry McDonald, Tyrone’s version of Salman Rushdie will probably have no interest in the fact that I grew up in the largest of these grim one-horse towns.

It was the early autumn of 1986. For the first time in their history Tyrone were in the All Ireland final against the mighty Kerry. There was much excitement, and the school could claim a few past pupils among the Tyrone players. That summer I’d spent three weeks in Donegal at an Irish language college, supposedly learning the niceties of the Irish language. I shared a room with three chancers from Greencastle and Carrickmore called Bradley, Teague and Hughes. It was a rite of passage for many Irish schoolchildren. The place was called Machaire Rabartaigh (or Magheroarty) on the rugged north-west coast of the county with a view of Tory Island – the island whose name bizarrely became the alternative moniker for the British Conservative party – in the distance.
How ironic that the political party of the British establishment, a club of Old Etonians and aristocrats should be named after a windswept treeless island off Ireland’s rugged Atlantic north coast.

One of the big chart hits that year was the anti-drugs song “Just Say No” by the cast of the then popular TV series set in a London secondary school Grange Hill. You can see the video here.

I watched it for the first time in over 20 years and found it to be so embarrassingly cringeworthy – the hairstyles, the clothes, the music – it was almost painful to look at. At least it was all for a good cause.

One of the leading characters Zammo had become a heroin addict, a storyline devised to discourage young people from going down that route.
I even got to meet the boy who played Zammo and his screen girlfriend Jackie when they visited the local leisure centre as part of the town’s annual arts festival. I was the proud owner of another celebrity autograph to add the collection alongside that of former Dr Whos Peter Davison and the late Jon Pertwee as well as that of international footballer Pat Jennings.
There was even a boy at school nicknamed Zammo in honour of the character. I don’t know what became of him, but I’m sure he didn’t follow in the footsteps of his Grange Hill namesake.

The Dr Who Years
A small group of us ran a Doctor Who fan club – or appreciation society as we preferred to call it – chiefly organised by an older boy called Mark Doherty, a martial arts enthusiast, and an amateur photographer/film-maker, who in a few years time would go on to forge a successful reputation as “DJ Marco” on the local disco and hospital radio circuit . His highly original nickname was “Doc” – as was the case with virtually every other boy at the school called Doherty – and there were quite a few. Nicknames, not surprisingly followed a general pattern you see. If your name was Murphy, you’d be known as Smurf. If your name was Brian O’Donnell you’d be called Bod. If your name was Seamus O’Connor you’d be referred to as Soc and so on. But most nicknames simply just involved adding a Y or an O to the individuals’ surname . Another club member was a more anarchic lad in the same year as Doc called Brendan Bankfield, whose highly imaginative nickname was Fieldy. He had an explosion of upstanding hair and was studying art, drawing inspiration from the morbid, gothic imagery of heavy metal album covers. He showed us one of his masterpieces. As homework the art teacher had set the class an assignment entitled “Back to school – an environmental study”. Fieldy’s interpretation of the theme was a boy in school uniform hanging by the neck from a tree, with his tie as the noose.

Our club meetings were held Friday afternoons after classes had ended in the school lecture theatre. We would watch old Doctor Who episodes of very dodgy quality. These generally came from friend of a friend of a friend an uncle of a colleague of a friend of a “contact” who knew someone who worked in the BBC archives department and had smuggled out illegally copied videotapes of old episodes . So what we were watching was effectively a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy (etc) on videotape. These were the days before digital recording technology, DVDs and downloads. Or alternatively if you had penfriends in Australia which was several years behind in the episode schedules they could send you tapes.
We would have debates on who the best Doctor was, quizzes where we would impress each other with knowing who the second boom microphone operator on Terror of the Zogdats broadcast on the 12th of March 1967 was. We were basically a bunch of nerdy 13-year olds who attracted much derision from our classmates.

It should be noted that Doctor Who was not the big budget, highly popular and successful phenomena it is now. Back then the original series was dying a slow painful death and was considered very uncool. But part of me enjoyed being on the receiving end of the derision. Part of me revelled in the nerd tag. I felt I was part of an elite minority. It would take a few more years to realise how deluded I’d been.

It wasn’t the sort of hobby you would hope to meet girls through.

However, one of the main attractions of Doctor Who from an adolescent male point of view is the high quality of the lead character’s young female assistants. The girl in the role back then was certainly no exception. She was a whiney American called Peri who often wore low cut tops exposing ample amounts of cleavage. A cynical ploy on the part of the production team to boost the already flagging ratings of washed-up TV show in terminal decline no doubt – but we weren’t complaining.

One particular teacher, TJ O’Loughlin took an interest in our club. He would occasionally pop his head around the door to lend us some moral support, impressed that we were doing this through our own intiative and without any outside interference. But he would deliberately keep his distance so as not to be seen to be interfering.
He was one of the last of a dying breed, the genuinely eccentric teacher. I suppose every grammar school must have had one or two of them back in the day. Something of a renaissance man, he ran the school chess club, worked as a part time attendant at the local swimming pool and was an occasional actor with the town’s drama society.

He once challenged the whole class to a bet about cannibal chickens – which he won and pocketed his winnings.
He was a regular visitor to Eastern Europe in the days of the Iron Curtain and one of his claims to fame was that he was one of only two men in the town who could speak Polish. Since the expansion of the European Union and the movement of labour from east to west I’m sure the town has at least a few dozen Polish speakers these days.

Since retiring from teaching he’s become a prominent spokesman for minority rights. An interesting career move to say the least.

Such was his influence on a generation of pupils that the former head boy Sean Daly at the 1993 prize-giving night paid tribute to “our swimming French teacher who has since followed in a different dimension”.

Killerball
At this time one of the popular playground games was the rather sadistic and violent “killerball”, a variation on the less harmful game of handball. About 20 boys would stand beside the wall of the school. A small rubber ball would be thrown against the wall with great force. If it hit you on the rebound you would get a kicking. It was the element of living dangerously that appealed, something that many of us would get addicted to over the coming years. But that’s another story altogether…