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


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.


A poem about the joys of cycling



I wanted to ride the Tour de France
Then one summer my dreams
Of yellow jerseys fell to pieces
On a downhill descent head over handlebars I flew
My chin scraping the hard tarmac.

Just another crash I thought, no harm done
Until I noticed my white t-shirt soaked in blood
front wheel badly buckled, bike now unrideable
walking towards home bike over my shoulder
a passing motorist picked me up

The doctor spent an hour taking grit from the wound
then one stitch after another
I still have the scar to prove it.

And I’ve never ridden a bike since that fateful day you may say
But some years later I was back in the saddle

Cycling along a shiny wet tarred surface
I glance down to see my reflection
As raindrops sting my face.

Poised like a lance, arms strong
As I grip the handlebars
Living the lie, the bigger they come the harder they fall.
But my only drug of choice is caffeine
in small roadside cafes where
town gives way to country.

An uphill climb
Lactic acid builds up
Thighs ready to die
Lungs take the brunt

Then the
in low gear
the cool
breeze in
my face…

It’s not the Alps or the Pyrenees

There’s no supporters urging me on

no painted message on the road
But this is one of life’s simple pleasures

Which no drug can manufacture

a multi-coloured carbon fibre and lycra parade.

woods and fields go whooshing by.
Endorphines pumping in

what psychologists call “the zone” –

That transient state of bliss where body meets mind.

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More Memoirs: The Class Struggle, Urban Myths and Rural Legends

Here’s yet another instalment from  my long long awaited book “In Complete Circles”.  I have written the bloody thing, but I’m just finishing the proof reading. I do hope to get it published soon!

 008When I talk about class war or class solidarity in this book I’m not referring to the manifestos of Karl Marx or the latest campaign by some left wing socialist workers’ organisation.  I’m in fact alluding to the daily rivalry between 1C and 1D or 4A and 4E which formed a major part of my school days.  There were the legitimate forms of inter-class competition such as football, debating and quizzes.  A quarter of a century later and I still feel gutted at being on the losing 1C side in the final of the first year league which 1B narrowly won by a single point on a very wet and muddy pitch.  I wasn’t in the best of shape having had my fingers badly bruised after accidentally getting them crushed by two shot putts during athletics practice a couple of weeks earlier, but still managed to get on the scoresheet. 

Being an all boys school of raging hormones there were also the unofficial class conflicts.  If a fight broke out between two boys from different classes the unwritten rule was that you supported the one from your own class, a bizarre state of affairs given that we had no say in what class we were put in. 

If a brawl didn’t get resolved in the classroom or the yard, if the two combatants were rudely interrupted by the bell or the intervention of a meddlesome teacher it would often be rescheduled for after school with a neutral territory as the venue.  One such fight had been arranged to take place in the large public pay-and-display car park beside the school which hundreds of school boys and girls passed through daily on their way home.  The two opponents on this occasion were Skins Fallon and Cheese McArdle.  At this stage of the book I’ve run out of names given that there were so many Seans, Shanes, Pauls and Michaels (or variations including Mick, Mickey, Micko, Mike or Mikey) during my time at the school, so I’ve had to resort to using fictitious nicknames.

No doubt the school boys of today film fights on their mobile phones and post the footage on Youtube and Facebook, but back in the day we had to rely purely on memory and eyewitness accounts of varying degrees of accuracy and exaggeration.  Young people reading this (ie anyone under 30) could be forgiven for thinking we were living in some kind of primitive dark age back then.  In many respects we were.  This was a world without e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, blogs, i-pads, i-pods, Skype or Google.  Back then an i-pad was a surgical dressing which you wore if you had an infected iris.  Blackberries were still fruits that grew on thorny bushes at the side of the road.  Androids were something out of Doctor Who and a wiki was a small metal implement used to open a small door or padlock.  An app was what you took when you were tired.

Although I know I’m getting on a bit now that I’m in my very very late 30s, I don’t consider myself to be particularly old.  I draw some consolation from the fact that I’m still young enough (in theory at least) to be a goalkeeper at a top Premiere League club. It’s a lonely position to play in at the best times, but I often wonder how ageing goalies must feel being the oldest player on the team and surrounded by young lads half their age. But I’ll leave this discussion for another time.

 The fight started in classic style with a bit of pushing and shoving and the odd insult thrown in.

 “So do you want a fight, McArdle?”

 “That’s what I’m here for, Fallon!”

 “Is that right?”

 “Oh, you think you’re smart do you?”

 “So what are you going to do about it?”

 It was as if each party was playing for time by deliberately prolonging the dialogue.  A substantial crowd had gathered.  Things were about to kick off as the customary pushing and shoving had started, when a traffic warden – or more accurately the council-employed jobsworth with the peaked hat whose task it was to check if the car owners had paid and displayed with those annoying adhesive square stickers you put up on the inside of your windscreen – intervened.  He was a small chubby man with a moustache.

 “This is a public car park!” he screamed.  “You can’t get up to this kind of carry on here!”  It was probably safe to assume that he had an MBA (Master of Busybody Administration) from the “Ken Blowtorch School of Management”.  Naturally his interference wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms, especially when a bunch of exuberant schoolboys had been looking forward to a bit of entertainment.

The Fallon-McArdle bout fizzled out and attention instead turned to the developing confrontation between Mr Pay & Display and a big lad from the fourth form called Barry Bennett.  Bennett was none too pleased that his rights as a spectator to this feast of gladiatorial action were being curtailed by a small man in a uniform.

He squared up to him eyeball to eyeball and asserted himself, being a few inches taller than this uniformed killjoy.

 “And what the fuck are you gonna do about it, mister?”

Pay & Display Man was quite clearly getting very nervous and could only repeat his previous words, but this time in a much higher voice, as if a lobster had somehow crawled down his trousers.

“This is a public car park, you can’t…” he squeaked only to be cut off in mid-sentence.

“So you think you’re the big man do you?  This is nothing to do you with you!”

“I’m going to report you, you know.  You won’t get away with this!”

Bennett ignored this empty threat and continued his campaign of intimidation.

“Go ahead.  Go and put a ticket on some poor bastard’s car while you’re at it!”

The council employee backed down, humiliated at being made to feel small by a schoolboy.  The crowds of school boys and girls cheered and continued on their way to the bus station via the town centre.  McArdle and Fallon were even seen joking amiably with each other.  The car park incident inevitably became the main topic of conversation throughout the whole school over the next few days.  Everyone claimed to have witnessed it, even the boys who lived in the opposite direction to the “crime scene” and didn’t take that route home.  Not surprisingly the reports became grossly exaggerated and distorted.  Even though there had been no actual physical contact there were rumours that Barry Bennett had left Pay & Display Man lying on the ground in a pool of his own blood.

“My sister Sinead’s a nurse up at the hospital and she said he had to be treated for concussion and head injuries and needed 20 stitches.  You shoulda heard the roars of him!  The doctor said he was this much away (the storyteller at this point – not a medical expert by any stretch of the imagination – demonstrated a tiny gap using his finger and thumb) from getting his jaw broke.  Bennett just done it for badness, like.”

Another “roving reporter” expanded on this account:

“Sure the cops came round and cordoned off the area.  I seen them doing it.  The forensics boys had to take blood samples away with them.  There was a big queue of traffic all along the Kevlin Road for two hours.  The cops lifted Barry and took him round to the nick for interrogation.  They roughed him up a bit just for badness, but he still never told the bastards nothin’.  He gave them as good as he got”.

In an alternative narrative the traffic warden had actually attacked Bennett with a taser (or an Uzi sub-machine – or a machete – or a chainsaw – depending on who you chose to believe) and forced him into retaliating with his fists.

Not that I’m condoning thuggish behavior, but as the accounts of that day became more and distorted Barry Bennett became a bit of a legend after that, a Robin Hood character fighting injustice.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  Just like a few other (but by no means all) events described in this book….

Yellow jerseys and white lies

Lance uses his fingers to demonstrate the amount of times he's taken performance enhancing drugs

Lance uses his fingers to demonstrate the amount of times he’s taken performance enhancing drugs

It’s not about the drugs…or is it?

“I can emphatically say I am not on drugs”, I said… “I know there’s been looking, and prying, and digging, but you’re not going to find anything. There’s nothing to find… and once everyone has done their due diligence and realizes they need to be professional and can’t print a lot of crap, they’ll realize they’re dealing with a clean guy”.

LANCE ARMSTRONG during the 1999 Tour de France (from his autobiography IT’S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE, published 2000)

OK, so it’s easy (and some may say opportunistic) to kick people when they’re down, but some people deserve it. Texas may have a yellow rose, but no longer a yellow jerey.

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”.

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…

Ireland not so Keane on Ireland (or Ireland opens his Trapp)

Move over Natalie Portman... Stephen Ireland auditions for the part of a ballerina in Black Swan

Hidden amidst all the cricket coverage (now suddenly Ireland’s most popular sport for some reason) in the sports pages of today’s Irish Times is a report on an eye-openingly frank interview with Newcastle and former Rep of Ireland midfielder, the improbably named Stephen Ireland, “Ireland goes on the attack”, page 23.
Well, a good many years ago I remember the manager of the Welsh football team was called Mike England, but as the smaller less talented still alive half of the Two Ronnies used to say “I digress”.

Ireland (the footballer not the country) famously courted controversy a few years when he told the Rep of Ireland manager Giovanni Trappatoni he was unable to play in the forthcoming international fixture as his grandmother had just died.
It soon emerged that the old lady in question was actually very much alive and young Stephen was in fact telling a massive porky pie just to get out of playing in the match.
What is it with Irish soccer players and grannies? Not so long ago, there were few players on the team with Irish accents, but they could all claim at least one Irish granny.

In this interview Ireland makes clear his views on Ireland – both the team (the southern one that is) and the country. His criticism of “foreign managers” in the interview is interesting, (“they’re no good” he says), but I’d love to see him saying that to Jack Charlton’s face.

So here we have a tattooed outspoken footballer from Cork who likes to speak his mind with brutal honesty, who once plied his trade with an expensive Premiere League club in Manchester before moving to a less successful club in the north-east of England, but refuses to play for his national team and has a pop at the manager – it sounds all too familiar…

Neverland: England bowled over by the Green

I’ve only written about cricket once before, back in 2007, which coincidentally was during the last world cup in Jamaica when the Ireland team caused a major upset. 4 years later in Bangalore an even bigger shock has occurred. I’m no fan of the game and have no wish to jump on the bandwagon or become a fair-weather supporter, but I just couldn’t resist blogging about this! I suppose this makes me something of a hypocrite, but hey isn’t the world full of hypocrites.

Ireland isn’t known as one of the great cricketing nations, but I can’t help thinking that a bestselling novel about cricket, Netherland by Irishman Joseph O’Neill (and recommended by a certain B. Obama) played a small part in this famous victory.

Ed Joyce must be kicking himself.

What next? England to beat Ireland at hurling?