1990s

Memoirs – Episode 3: The School Magazine and the Great Belgian Crisps Caper…

In our final year at the school, a small group of us, the usual suspects fulfilled our long-held ambition which we’d aspired to since 1st year by joining the committee of the annual school magazine. We thought we were the dog’s bollocks, but the truth is we were a bunch of cocky wee bastards who probably deserved a good hiding . In my early years at the school I’d looked up to the older boys who ran the magazine and wanted to be like them with their clever, witty articles, sophisticated sense of humour and sarcastic quips. Several years later when school was but a dim and distant memory one of my proudest moments occurred. I was in a pub in Omagh with a bunch of old schoolmates. I got talking to a younger lad who had been a few years below me at school. To my shame I don’t even remember his name, but he said he remembered my contemporaries and me from the school magazine and the articles we’d written and told me – “I used to look up to you boys – I wanted to be like you”.

In any given year the magazine would have articles on the previous year’s school trips, the excruciatingly bad 4th form adolescent angst-ridden poetry of the “I’m so depressed and misunderstood” variety, cartoons plagiarised from Gary Larrson’s “Far Side” collections and similar such odds and sods. The quality of material wasn’t always top rate, but if nothing else it was a great ego trip to see your own handiwork in print.

We put up a publicity poster featuring a warrior from a sword-and-sorcery “Lord of the Rings”-type graphic novel, glistening sword in one hand with his other arm around a comely young wench, the wind in their hair with the legend “Many are the pleasures of writing for your school magazine”. But inevitably some “comedian” had to deface the poster and change the word “writing” to “riding”.

Hilarious.

We also tried to slip a few risqué pieces in, some of which successfully made it. The editor Pete McGrane, a tall thin red-haired chap had been on a short trip to Belgium after having won a schools essay–writing competition on the European Union. To his (and our) great delight and amusement he discovered that the leading Belgian brand of crisps, (their equivalent of Walkers or Tayto) was called Croky. He wrote a witty account of his Belgian experience for that year’s magazine. At the end of his piece he included a cheeky afterthought. I don’t recall the exact words, but it went something along the lines of:

“…and finally no trip to the low countries would be complete without a mention of Belgium’s favourite junk food – Croky crisps!”

Accompanying this paragraph was a photo of a packet of the fat-saturated potato-based snacks bearing the distinctive “CROKY” logo in large letters. It’s probably a safe bet that the crisp manufacturer’s namesake was well aware of young McGrane’s intentions here, but sensibly he chose to turn a blind eye.

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Memoirs of an ageing schoolboy

About 4 years ago I started work on a comic memoir of my schooldays, mostly for my own amusement. I’ve recently returned to it and have decided to publish a short extract of it below to gauge the general reaction. Comments and criticisms (just don’t be too harsh!) would be welcome. If you went to a boys school in the 1980s and 1990s (especially if you’re from Omagh or the surrounding area) you’ll probably be able to relate to it fairly well.

Living in Interesting Times
By the dawn of the 1990s, the ridiculous ’80s schoolboy fashion of wearing black shoes (often slip-ons) and white socks was gone. Major sportswear labels like Nike and Adidas were still very much in vogue then as they are now. But little did we know we were unintentionally contributing to global capitalism and the exploitation of young children in Bangladeshi sweatshops getting paid 50p a day to make our cool t-shirts for the western world – even though we still wear the designer labels now. As a backlash against the ridiculous 1970s fashions of outrageously vomit-inducing flowery-patterned wide kipper ties and flared trousers the schoolboy fashions of the mid-80s were wafer thin ties and almost skintight trousers. The anorexic effect of the neck attire was achieved by tying one’s tie using the thin end as the longer part and stuffing the thicker end into one’s shirt. Looking back in hindsight it probably looked rather silly, but the folly of youth knows no bounds.

Gaining entry to a certificate 18 film while you were still only 17¾ was seen as something of a coup, but getting into licensed premises at this age was even more so. A summer’s afternoon off following an exam was happily passed in one of the town’s watering holes after you’d taken your school tie off in a pathetic attempt to disguise the fact that you were underage and the barman serving you was breaking the law. Before that the only option had been to go to the local park or the river bank with a bottle of cider shared between 10. The tallest boy in the group was assigned to go into the off-licence, having not shaved for a few days and put on a deep voice when ordering the offending liquor.

We were living in exciting times. Winds of change were blowing across Europe. And the German heavy metal band Scorpions (think mullet haircuts and handlebar moustaches) wrote a song about it. When I visited Prague for the first time about a dozen years later I couldn’t get the bloody song out of my head. I’d been in Vienna just a few days earlier and a certain Ultravox song had been going through my head almost incessantly.
The Berlin Wall had fallen and the old iron curtain was finally being pulled open. Ironically while borders across most of Europe were disappearing, new ones were about to spring up in what was then still Yugoslavia.
Nelson Mandela had recently become a free man and the cracks in apartheid were beginning to show. A few years later we would even be able to buy South African oranges in the supermarket without feeling guilty about it.

The Metal Years
Heavy metal, for years a rather marginal genre was now becoming mainstream. Bands like Guns & Roses, Def Leppard, Metallica and Poison were storming the charts.
Other successful acts of the day at the opposite end of the musical spectrum included Bros, Brother Beyond and New Kids On The Block (currently residing in the proverbial “Where-Are-They-Now?” File – otherwise known as the dole office), but no pupil at a boys’ school would ever have admitted to liking them.
I didn’t have the typical short-on-top-long-at-the-back haircut known as the mullet or go around wearing a denim jacket with the sleeves cut off or a studded leather codpiece or any of that. I merely observed from a safe distance. Tattered copies of rock magazines like Metal Hammer and Kerraannggg would circulate around the classrooms smuggled inside copies of Macbeth or GCSE Biology. Sometimes the centrefold pages would feature scantily clad or topless young women invariably with their arms around the popular artists of the industry. These were usually heavily tattooed young men with bleached blonde shoulder length permed hair in sleeveless tops and ripped jeans (also bleached – for some strange reason discoloured jeans with holes in them were highly fashionable back then) clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels and exhaling cigarette smoke. With the type of stuff you can download nowadays at the simple click of a mouse, all this seems rather tame by today’s standards. But for a testosterone-fuelled 16-year old in the pre-internet era when real porn was hard to come by, especially in a smallish provincial town in a very socially conservative society where newsagents generally didn’t sell top shelf material – or if they did it tended to be kept under the counter (allegedly). Although more racy material did occasionally circulate around the classrooms. One particular individual who shall remain strictly nameless had a bit of a reputation as a purveyor and would bring his “wares” into school for his mates to gawp at wide-eyed and open-mouthed with their tongues almost touching the floor. This was until (or so the story goes) the incriminating publications were found by his mother under his bed while she was cleaning his room. Perhaps an all too familiar story for ageing schoolboys of a certain generation. As a result of this “unfortunate” discovery he was apparently put under virtual house arrest for the next 6 years until his 21st birthday and banned from going out in the evenings. Although the details of this story may have been exaggerated for dramatic effect.
In the spirit of the times a plethora of teenage heavy metal bands with names like Psychosis, Savages and Sanatorium suddenly sprang up in the town. But there was no danger of them upstaging the town’s best known musician, an alcoholic busker known as Arty G. Arty G with his unmistakeable afro hair and bulging eyes had a regular patch on the high street where he would play the guitar, usually with a few strings missing, and sing badly in a slurred voice, a bottle of extra strong cider and a small dog always by his side. Although he cut something of a pathetic figure he was generally liked by the townsfolk as a local institution. Various urban myths about his colourful past abounded – that he had once been a successful musician and had toured alongside the likes of the Rolling Stones and Deep Purple in his youth. After Arty passed away in 2007 he received apparently one of the biggest funerals the town had ever seen.
In a sad pathetic attempt to get in with the metal crowd I even bought a ticket for the Anthrax gig in the rather incongruous setting of Omagh GAA club. Even now the idea of an internationally famous rock act like Anthrax playing in a place like Omagh – and at the local GAA club of all places – seems nothing short of surreal.
When I arrived at the venue I decided I didn’t really want to go, so decided to cut my losses and sell the ticket for £11 – £3 more than its face value. It was my first and to date only experience of ticket touting. I suppose to a 15 year old in those days £3.00 would have been considered a not unreasonable sum – it would have bought you half a cassette tape album or two Viz comics.
Apparently Anthrax complained about being spat on by the audience and vowed never to play in Ireland again. At the time this practice known as “gobbing” I believe was a common occurrence at heavy metal gigs at the time – but have no idea why. It seems that Anthrax’s loss was Ireland’s gain.