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…


Memoirs, Episode 4: “Just a Formality?”

The big event of any pupil’s final year at the school was the 7th year formal. The other two grammar schools in the town also had theirs. In this particular year it turned out to be something of an anti-climax. In America the equivalent, I believe is known as the “high school prom”. This is the occasion so beloved of hackneyed, clichéd Hollywood rom-com movies where the underdog triumphs over the golden boy. The finale inevitably features the typical scene of “making out” in the back of the Chevy after the underdog, the weedy bespectacled guy has outwitted his butch football-playing rival and won over the glamorous girl.

But this wasn’t California. For most of us in the real world of Omagh’s ostentatiously named Royal Arms Hotel (not quite as plush as it sounds – and sadly no longer there) on a mild night in February 1992, this was a distinctly unromantic affair. There was no Marge and Homer moment. The young woman I took already had a boyfriend. I was aware of this, just as he was aware of the arrangements on the night. Being the decent fellow that he was he didn’t mind. This wasn’t a big deal in any case. My first and second choices were already spoken for and the formalities were more or less made at the last minute. Going on your own without an accompaniment and being the proverbial spare prick was a non-starter. This boyfriend was an accomplished athlete and Gaelic footballer and if I remember correctly was on the Tyrone minor team at the time. I could provide very little in the way of competition. The sum total of my playing career had consisted of about four matches (two as a sub) for the Omagh St Endas under-12 reserve team, all of which we’d lost quite heavily. However as he was in the year below he was ineligible to attend, the formal being for final year pupils only.

One individual was adamant that he wasn’t going, claiming that it was a waste of money. And to his credit he didn’t go. Looking back in hindsight he did have a point. It was quite an expensive night – for a schoolboy anyway. On top of the costs of the two tickets and the hire of the tuxedo it was customary to buy flowers for your escort and chocolates for her mother. Any drinks purchased on the night were of course another added expense. However as I was driving I was strictly teatotal on the night – unlike a few others.

Only a few years earlier the secondary event, the annual school disco had been abolished due to drunken pupils going on the rampage and destroying everything in their wake. This would reflect the shape of things to come.

The formal was usually held on a Friday night for obvious reasons. Nursing a hangover in class the next day wasn’t a pleasant prospect. However this year, due to some booking error or similar twist of fate it was on a Thursday.
It was a spectacularly unremarkable night. The boys formed their own little cliques and the girls formed theirs in which they chatted amongst themselves. That is until the bombshell was dropped.

After the unexceptional meal of roast chicken and the usual lukewarm, overcooked vegetables, the traditional mock awards ceremony took place. My memory of the night is hazy given that it was nearly 20 years ago, but if I remember correctly young Mick Cunningham was master of ceremonies, rather appropriate given that his initials were MC. The prizes awarded were generally jokes directed at the personality of the recipient or in reference to a memorable incident in which they’d been involved. One boy for example was known to be an ardent Celtic supporter, so the plan was to present him with a Rangers shirt on the night. But for reasons soon to become apparent this never happened.

It started off fairly innocently with a game in which a male and female participant were plucked from the “audience” and made to say “fluffy ducks” with a marshmallow in their mouths.

Following this less than inspiring start a young lad – to preserve his anonymity I’ll call him Gavin McCarthy (which sounds absolutely nothing like his real name of course) – was called up to the stage and invited to say his piece.
I should point out here that it was customary to invite the school principal to the event.

McCarthy walked up to the microphone somewhat unsteadily and addressed the crowd in a slightly slurred voice.

“Is there any teachers out there?”

“No!” lied the congregation who by giving him this illusion were inviting scandal. The MC had probably told him something similar.
McCarthy in his alcohol-fuelled innocence saw this as an opportunity to speak his mind more freely than would have been advisable under the circumstances. His next words have since entered into folklore.

“Who here agrees that Crokey’s an asshole?”

This was followed by a very awkward, uncomfortable period of eerie silence, which lasted about 10 seconds, but seemed more like 10 hours.

In his advanced state of inebriation he has been blissfully unaware of the presence of the object of his character assassination himself in the very room – along with a number of other teachers.

This blip was ignored for the moment. The proceedings continued despite this dark cloud hanging over them like the proverbial elephant in the room. Things gradually degenerated into anarchy as the MCs started pouring beer over McCarthy’s head.

Crokey had had enough by this stage and decided to intervene. He purposely walked up to the stage and called the whole proceedings to a halt. From that point on the atmosphere was somewhat subdued. I was pissed off as I’d been told I was going to be the recipient of some award and was looking forward to getting up on stage and making a witty speech.

Later on in the gents – or so the story goes – McCarthy in conversation with an unnamed individual was supposed to have expressed a sense of betrayal, claiming:

“The bastards told me there was no fuckin’ teachers there!”

Needless to say young McCarthy never came back to the school. Four months of intense exam preparation (among many other things) later it was all over for the rest of us as well. In the words of Alice Cooper, school was out for the summer, school was out forever. Except for the poor sods who’d fucked up their A-levels and had to come back and repeat.

Then came university, an entirely different experience…

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”.


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.

Memoirs of an Ageing Schoolboy (Nostalgic reminiscences on schooldays in a Co. Tyrone town during the 1980s and ’90s – coming out soon in paperback) Episode 2

John "Crokey" Smith

    Episode 2: (Christian) Brothers in Arms

My secondary education during the mid-1980s to the early 1990s from the age of 11 to 18 was formed at a Christian Brothers grammar school. The order has come in for much criticism of late in the wake of the major abuse scandals which rocked Irish society. But like any other sub-group in any society it was swings and roundabouts. There were good brothers and bad brothers. And mad brothers. By the time I had left the school there were very few of them left, but the “brotherly” principal was a despotic Kerryman called McC____ [Details suppressed for legal reasons] – known (not exactly affectionately) to the pupils as “Crokey” – and to most of the teachers as something unprintable. He resembled a taller leaner version of the former British Labour Party leader John Smith. In response to his supposedly dictatorial regime, a self-styled schoolboy “terrorist” group called the Pupils Liberation Organisation (PLO) was active at the time – but more on them later.

Retreat from Reality
Being a religious school, retreats were compulsory. They served little practical purpose though. Sending a bunch of unruly, frustrated adolescent boys oozing with hormones on a residential course of supposed spiritual renewal was a recipe for disaster. Although their purpose was supposedly to provide sacred reflection in the tradition of the school’s ethos, they were in reality, a complete waste of time – a view that I’m sure many of the teachers would even share. These retreats were usually chaired by an earnest young priest who liked to think he was in touch with the angst and frustrated minds of the modern youth. On one such event in the spring of 1991 was held at an old priory in the historic village of Benburb – a place famous for the 1646 Battle of Benburb.
The unfortunate youngish priest presiding over this supposed course of spiritual renewal happened to be German. For convenience purposes let’s just call him “Father Von Schumacher”. Unusually for priests of the day he had a moustache, and so as to appear more down-to-earth and informal he chose to dress in civilian clothes rather than the normal black garb and clerical collar. The cringe-worthy events which ensued were like that famous episode of Fawlty Towers about the German guests. Cue goose-stepping around the grounds, Nazi salutes, felt-tip pen Hitler moustaches drawn on upper lips, etc. Needless to say the war was mentioned once or twice.
The next day the entire class was hauled before the teacher in charge, a well-known county GAA official, who had a few stern words to say. Given the troubled political situation of the time he said he could understand why we were “angry young men”, but why did we have to take it out on this harmless man simply because of his nationality?

The following year – my last year at the school the retreat was residential. The high jinks on this excursion were even worse…


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.

Violent Thug Noel McGinn gets just desserts

I was disgusted to hear of the appalling violence which marred the Tyrone county GAA football final,i n which Dromore manager (and former Tyrone player) Noel McGinn was caught on camera head-butting a Clonoe player. However, in a way thought I also felt somewhat vindicated by the (in my opinion lenient) 72-week ban handed out to McGinn – for more personal reasons.

McGinn was a teacher in my primary school back in the 1980s. As a county player at the time, he had a real chip on his shoulder and thought he was the dog’s bollocks. On one occasion I got involved in a fight with a boy from McGinn’s class. I say “fight”, but in reality very little happened. Nevertheless I was summoned to McGinn’s classroom and interrogated on what had happened. I told the truth, but he refused to believe me and suspected that I was guilty of something more serious. This was a few years before corporal punishment in schools was banned. I received 5 hard slaps on each hand with a solid wooden ruler and (although I’m generally not one to bear grudges ) I’ve had it in for this vicious bullyboy thug ever since.

McGinn’s actions in the classroom mirrored his actions on the field of play. In his playing days he was certainly no saint. As a middle-aged manager it seems he hasn’t learnt much since then. Headbutting an opposing player was not only a deplorable act of gratuitous violence, it was also an incredibly stupid thing to do considering there were TV cameras present. But stupidity and McGinn go well together. I commend the Tyrone County Board for acting swiftly in handing out the ban, but McGinn was lucky not to receive a life ban. People like McGinn give Tyrone GAA a bad name. There should be no place in the association for violent thugs like him.