17 May 2017

Wonderland

My earliest childhood memories start when I was three, which I hear is quite unusual, but I think the reason I remember that early period so well is that it was the best time of my childhood:

My mum was alive. We were playing with kids in a gang.

We were drawing pictures of houses with crayons. It was great. No problems. What was not to like?

We lived in Northern Ireland¹, then at 5 Ashford Drive, Bangor, County Down², off Donaghadee Road. The gang, which was, as I remember it, fifteen to twenty kids, was probably only eight kids. Maybe just five. In any case, it included me and my older brother, Mark, and various and sundry other children from the neighbourhood. Age range: three to ten.    

Writing now, as an adult, the idea of a ‘gang’ implies danger, criminality, drugs, mafia. Obviously these elements were not part of our gang. Our kids’ gang was the kind of gang that wasn’t trying to do bad things. All we were trying to do was muck about and do things that were slightly naughty.

There wasn’t any trouble getting into this gang.

Later I realized with other gangs, cliques, and groups of kids at school that inclusion or exclusion could be very important. And very difficult. But this was easy. I was just in. We all were.³

In our gang you had to do stuff. It was rites‑of‑passage time. Which basically meant all doing whatever the bravest of us wanted to do. It was follow the leader.

I was a follower, as I was one of the youngest kids, and I was definitely eager to be part of this gang and do what the other kids did. I remember clambering over roofs of bungalows in the area where a housing estate was being constructed. The housing estate was half built and half not built. I was usually second to last in a line of kids. I remember walking along the top of a wall, like a cat would do, looking down at a whole load of stinging nettles on one side and a whole load of stinging nettles on the other side. Or maybe there were stinging nettles on one side and broken glass and concrete and spikes on the other side.

But stinging nettles: They just love existing, don’t they? They’re bastards. Stinging nettles are the Nazis of the weed world. If stinging nettles didn’t sting, then they’d be fine, they’d just be stuff. But in fact, they sting and they sting children, and they make them cry, and then you can’t get the sting away, and then you have to get a dock leaf, which is some other weed that grows near the stinging nettles, and then you rub it on the stinging bit on your body, and then nothing actually happens. The dock leaf doesn’t work – but I was told that it did work – all kids were told this. So yes, stinging nettles. They were there. Death by stinging nettles was our fear.

Believe Me

Stinging nettles. They were there. Death by stinging nettles was our fear

At the housing estate building site there was a pile of earth at the top of the hill. The pile of earth was huge – in my mind it’s about a mile high and touching the sky and mountaineers would climb it, but it was probably only about four or five feet high. When it rained, we slid down it on tea trays4.  It was like sledging but in non‑snowy times.

At some point we decided to throw mud balls at passing cars5.

But how do you throw mud balls? Just get mud and put it into your hand and make it into a thing like a snowball and then throw it at cars. This seemed to be the height of dangerous‑kid activity. It could have ended very badly, but it was just something you had to do.

The bigger kids were doing it, so I had to, too. How I managed to throw a mud ball anywhere at the age of four or five – how it got any purchase! – I can’t imagine, so whatever mud balls I threw probably didn’t get close to cars6.

The mud‑balls day was a good one. I remember it. Throwing mud balls and then trudging down the hill, and my mum found us. I’ve got an image of her at the gate, though she probably wasn’t at the gate. She probably just answered the door when we ding‑donged. And she said, “God, you’re covered in mud! What’s been going on?” So then there were baths and clothes in washing machines and then tea. And a good day was had by all.

Mum, who had been a nurse, was a very helpful and loving person. She would get up in the middle of the night and get me things if I asked for them. Sometimes I’d ask for a glass of pop (lemonade, remember?) or a mug of milky coffee. “Can I have a milky coffee? Can I have a glass of pop?” I’d get out of bed and I’d go to my parents’ bedroom door and just make this request through the door, not caring if anyone was awake or asleep. And Mum would always get up and get me a glass of pop or a mug of milky coffee. I couldn’t do real coffee, so she’d have to boil up the milk in a saucepan on the stove, and then put the granules of instant coffee into a mug, and then she’d add the milk. She was obviously a very nice mother to be happy to do that at any time of the night.

There were also monsters under my bed. Apparently everyone thinks there are monsters under the bed, and I was certain there was one under mine. If a monster ever does manage to get under someone’s bed for real, then that would be a bad day. I’m not sure exactly what monster I’m considering here but sort of a jellyfish/octopus/bear–type monster. Actually, that would be really freaky, so let’s not try to 1) make one of these, or 2) put them under people’s beds. An adult’s bed, fine. Could adults actually deal with a weird monster under their bed? I think if the monsters started moving around, then – well, we’d get out of bed and we’d get a frying pan, and then we’d beat the crap out of the monster under the bed. Or we’d get a broom, and then we’d poke the monster out. No, we’d lock the door and set fire to the house. That’s how we’d deal with a monster under the bed. If anyone disagrees with me, please write a letter on a postcard to the BBC.

I learned to ride a bicycle at the top of Ashford Drive when I was four or five. I had a little bike with big fat wheels and also training wheels, and Dad would take me up to the top of the hill and then, holding on to the back part of the bicycle so he could keep it vertical, let me go. You could get a bit of speed up that way. At some point Dad must have taken his hands off and then I was free.

Those were good days.

  1. I’ve kept up a distinct love and respect for Northern Ireland and for the island of Ireland as a whole. I really loved my time there, and I make sure to visit often: I always do gigs there, and I sometimes adopt a Northern Irish accent with other Northern Irish people, and they tend to say, “Oh, that’s okay. Yeah, you sound kind of right. It sounds like a Belfast accent.”

  2. Pronounced Bang‑gor, Cowny Doi‑n.

  3. Later on I found out that every kid in this gang was a child of a Protestant family. I had no clue about religion in Northern Ireland when I was there. This was 1964–1967, but The Troubles that were about to kick off in 1969, and had been around for four hundred years, just had no impact on me or my brother or probably any of the other kids we were playing with. But I do know that a Catholic family moved on to Ashford Drive and then later had to move out. I believe because they were ostracized. I learned this later. At the time we were all just kids.

  4. I don’t know how we got hold of the tea trays, but it was probably planks of wood and things.

  5. This was a thing to do. Was it dangerous? Probably. But we didn’t have a Health and Safety officer in our gang.

  6. “That’s my defense, Your Honour.” That’s what I would say in court. “I was only four. I didn’t have the trajectory ability at the age of four.” Because if I had hit a car and a car had skidded off the road – then there’d be a crash and then terrible things would have happened. Then we would have run and scattered and been scarred for life and it would all be a film and you’d have to become a missionary and force people to take on Christianity even though they didn’t want to. And then you’d have to become the inverse of a missionary to deal with that. And then you’d just explode. Forget this. Forget this whole train of thought.

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