Tuesday, January 24, 2012

I swear every word of this is true.

In 1973 at the height of the Troubles, my mother decided that rather stay in Scotland and deal with a violent, abusive, estranged husband, her life would be a lot easier if she upped sticks, took her five children and moved to Carrickfergus, a small coastal town in Antrim. And so it was we found ourselves living in a little village on the outskirts of Carrickfergus, the place was rather inappropriately named Eden, unless of course the real Eden was a dingy little backwater, with barely two streets, populated mainly with "simple country folks" for want of a better description.

The school in Eden was a small school, set on the main road, and we lived on the other street, which ran parallel to the main road. This meant of course that we were almost literally on the school's doorstep. Being a small school, the number of pupils was not great, so the P6 and P7 classes were combined, and this class was taken by the headmaster of the school. When we moved to the village, my eldest brother was old enough to attend the intermediary school in Carrickfergus itself, whilst the other four children, myself included, went to Eden Primary.
Now I've never worked out if there was something specific about my family, we were after all quite untamed, poor, working class Scots, or if it was plain and simple anti Scots bigotry but the headmaster of the school, let's call him Mr Berkley, didn't like us, not one bit. Unfortunately for them, my second older brother and sister, being in P7 and P6 respectively, had to attend his class. I was in P5, and my younger sister was in P3. Mr Berkely would take every opportunity to make his distaste for us known. On one occasion he refused to accept my brother and sister into the class, and sent them back home, simply because they'd turned up to school without pen or pencils. There were a few other incidents but it all came to a head in the run up to Christmas, when traditionally the school would put on a show of some sort, and parts would be found for all the children. Mr Berkley decided this year that he'd find parts for all the kids in his class, even if it meant some of them would sing in the choir. All the kids that is except for my brother and sister, they were not included. No reason given, there just weren't any parts for them.

So it came to pass that for some afternoons in the run up to the show, the entire school would assemble in the main hall, where a makeshift stage was set up, and rehearsals would take place. When it was the turn of Mr Berkley's class to rehearse, they would all gather on the stage, and go through their routines, whilst my brother and sister had to simply stand there, as observers.

My mother got to hear about this, and it's fair to say she wasn't pleased. One day she decided to call in to the school, in order to have a word with Mr Berkley, and it so happened that the day she chose was a rehearsal day. The whole school was assembled in the the main hall, each class going through their routines, or watching the other classes going through their routines, when from the back of the hall came the sound of my mother's unmistakable Scottish accent, "Berkely, ah want a wurd wi yoo". As one, the entire school fell silent, and every head turned towards the double doors at the back of the hall where my mother was standing. Mr Berkley himself said nothing but I can remember quite clearly the anger rising in  his face as he realised who it was, and the barely contained rage as he strode down the hall towards the doorway where she was standing. When he reached my mother he did not stop walking but simply strode on out the doors, practically scooping her up in the process.

 My mother was not a large woman, she stood about 4' 11'', Mr Berkely was about 5' 6"" so he had the definite size advantage, and I guess she was not expecting him to manhandle her in that way. Anyway, they both disappeared outside the hall, and the doors swung shut. The hall, which had gone from silence to deafening whispers, as both the children and the teachers tried to take in what was happening, fell silent again, everyone trying to hear what was going on outside.

We never did get to hear what was said, or what exactly took place but the next thing we knew, the doors flung open and Mr Berkley came running back inside, his confident angry stride replaced by blind panic, his angry red complexion now a ghostly white. He ran terrified up the centre of the hall, chased by something resembling the Tasmanian Devil. Being taller than my mother, and fearing for his life, Mr Berkley was the faster of the two. realising she was never going to catch him, my mother grabbed the nearest thing to hand, which was a folding chair, raised it above her head and flung it for all she was worth. It was a perfect throw, an Olympic medal winning chair fling, it executed two perfect somersaults then connected neatly with the back of Mr Berkley's head. At that point, two things happened simultaneously, Mr Berkley went down, and a roar went up, from every child in that hall. For a short while there was chaos, my mother said something but it was too loud to hear what it was, satisfied with her handiwork, she walked calmly out of the hall, not one teacher went near her.

Of course, there was a court case, it even made the headlines in the local paper, I still remember it "She Hit Headmaster Over head With Chair" which I always felt was unfair, in that it seemed she had swung a chair and decked him, it didn't mention what a bloody great throw it was. She was given a suspended sentence, Mr Berkely retired shortly thereafter, and no one in my family was ever excluded from taking part in the Christmas show again, hell , the very next year, I even got the lead part of Hansel, in Hansel and Gretel.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The British like to think of themselves as a nation of animal lovers, it appeals to their sense of identity. Having lived in the UK for most of my life, I'm not so sure that it's true. It seems that stories such as this one are all too commonplace in the news.
The French on the other hand, they make no such claims, stick something with four legs, fur and a cute face in front of them and they're as likely to eat is as they are to cuddle it.
Having said that, if they do take an animal as a pet, you can be sure it will be treated with a care and attention so often found lacking in the way UK pets get treated. Yesterday I visited Cimetière des Chiens on the banks of the river Seine in the Asnières district of Paris. This is the worlds first recorded Pet Cemetery (opened in 1899 ) and counts some rather famous residents amongst it's internees, including, I was surprised to learn, Rin Tin Tin , Star of the silver screen. Of course when one hears the words Pet Cemetary one tends to think of a shoebox containing deceased hamster, hastily buried at the bottom of the garden, with maybe a little makeshift cross fashioned out of lollipop sticks. This place couldn't be further from that image, it is to all intents and purposes a typical cemetery with the sole exception that it contains animals and not humans. The gravestones are laid out in traditional style, some simple and dignified, some overbearing and kitsch to a degree that would have caused Liberace to blush with embarrassment. Standing proudly at the entrance to the cemetery is a monument to a Saint Bernard who went by the name of Barry. Barry was a mountain rescue dog, his monument tells us, he saved 40 people and died in 1841 saving the 41st. It isn't just domesticated animals who are buried here either, there is at least one wolf, one bear, various monkeys and the occasional horse. One last thing to note about Cimetière des Chiens is that a well as it's inhabitants who have passed on, there is a thriving colony of cats who have made it their home. they spend the day sunning themselves around and on the marble headstones, probably to the great consternation of the the doggy spirits buried there.

Check out more photos at my flckr account

Friday, July 07, 2006

Where to begin?

OK, First post in Liquorice Bomb, here goes.

Well, this is an account of my day last Saturday, which may seem late to some, but considering I have been meaning to start a blog for years, it's pretty good by my standards.
The day started off with a meeting in the American Church in Paris, that lasted about an hour and a half.After the meeting was finished I decided that the weather was too good to take the Metro, opting instead to take a stroll down the banks of the Seine, towards Place de la Concorde.
As previously mentioned, the weather was beautiful, the sun was splitting the trees as we say in Norn Iron.I crossed over the bridge near the American Church to the other side of the river and the first thing I noticed was this couple in full wedding dress, having their picture taken at the corner of the bridge against the backdrop of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower.
They both looked immaculate in that annoying way that French people seem to manage, and despite the heat, they gave off a distinct air of cool.
As well as the official photographer there were about a dozen tourists taking pictures of them as well, and the couple seemed happy to pose for anyone who wanted to take a snap (Yeah, I know, I really need to get a digital camera, so that I don't have to describe these scenes).
Then I noticed something odd.There were no other guests in the vicinity, no official wedding cars or the like, nothing, nobody.
I guess the couple were models posing for some wedding magazine or advertisement.

Continuing on I walked down to Place De la Concorde and the Paris branch of W.H.Smith (an absolutely essential stop off for any English speaking expat).
I had a good browse and managed to find a copy of Christopher Hitchens Letters to a young Contrarian, a book recommended by someone over on SluggerO'Toole (My first plug, please take note Mick).
Satisfied with my purchase, I hopped on a metro at Tuilieres and scooted on over to Place de Republique for a browse around the import video games shops, and afterwards a beer in one of the local cafés.
It all felt very French, sitting in the café smoking a cigarette and leafing through a book of political essays, truth be told, it felt a bit too French and I put the book away because I had this overwhelming sense of looking like a bit of a twat.

This being Paris, and a Saturday, there were of course the political demonstrations, there's always political demonstrations in Paris.Today it was the turn of the Sans Papiers (no papers) a name given to those refugees who live in the country (sometimes for decades) but haven't been given official papers, which makes their life pretty difficult, given that the police have a right to stop you any time and demand to see your identity documents.

After my sojourne I walked back up to the Place de Republique,where there was some sort of African carnival taking place, lots of floats and truck, with drum and African music of various styles, with some very tasty semi clad dancers.

Looking at my watch, I realised I had an hour before the England game started.That gave me just enough time to get across to the other side of Paris, grab a few beers and head to a friends house to watch on his big telly.
Surprisingly (at least to me) England is seen as something quite cool by a lot of younger people in Paris,and my friends were all supporting them in the match (not only that, I walked into his appartement to see a huge England flag on the wall above the television).Well, we watched the match, and you all know how it went, mucho disappointment all around.
However, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down, girded up our loins and prepared ourselves for the France/ Brazil game.
We had some dinner then headed out to the little pub where we were going to watch it.
By the time we arrived it was already too packed to get inside, but this wasn't a problem, since they had a huge screen and the wall practically opened up so that you could see everything from the street.In fact, it turned out to be an advantage, given that it was so bloody hot.
Well, you know how that match turned out as well, but I don't think you can understand just how mental everything got, unless you were there.
Much singing and dancing in the street, as you would expect, except for those amongst our party who were supporting Brazil of course.

It was getting late so I said my goodbyes and headed for the metro, thinking that the festivities were over, I couldn't have been more wrong.
My stop was at the end of the line, so the Metro was empty and it was easy to get a seat, but all changed at the next stop.
As we pulled into the station I could hear the crowd singing Allez les Bleus, Allez le Bleus! over and over again.
They poured into the train and within seconds it was jampacked, I was so grateful to have gotten a seat earlier.
The crowd was mostly young people, late teens, early twenties, and despite the chaos, it was all very friendly.The singing and screaming never stopped, you could feel the whole train swaying from side to side as we travelled along.
It was obvious that every station we pulled into could hear us coming, they just stood on the platform and laughed as we arrived, knowing that there was no way they were getting on the train.
And so it continued until I finally got home, but even then the singing and fireworks lasted well into the night.
And this was just the quarter final, it was worse for the semi-final, though I stayed home to watch that one.But on Sunday I'm off again to Paris, for the big one.
watch this space for an account of how that turns out.