Thursday 23 May 2019

Review: Paperboy by Tony Macaulay

(Merlin, €12.99)

A hoary old Belfast story recounted how an Irish News photographer snapped a man protecting a child who had wandered into the lion's cage at the zoo, holding off the animal by stabbing at it with his umbrella.

On hearing that the man was from the Shankill Road, the photographer declared that he had never seen such courage, and advised him to buy the paper the next day. Next morning there he was on the front page, under the headline 'Shankill lout torments dumb animal'.

The great thing about Tony Macaulay's delightful memoir is that it gets behind stereotypes and shows life as it was for a youngster growing up on the Shankill in the 1960s and 1970s, before and during the Troubles. It shows how similar it was to life in other urban settings across Britain and Ireland at the time, and how individuals and communities insulated themselves from the Troubles and the mechanisms of defence and denial that enabled them to do so.

It was, despite fracturing into churches, chapels and sects, a religiously monochrome society. Although Catholics were seen as barbarians at the gates, a more proximate threat were the resident barbarians, the hoods lying in wait to rob the young paper seller of his takings .

The first time that the young Tony meets a Catholic is when he passes the 11-plus and goes to grammar school -- itself an unusual achievement for the Shankill where apprenticeships in engineering were more readily available and more prized than post-primary education. He and the young Catholic who became friends were both outsiders in the Protestant school, one for religion, the other on class grounds. Another middle-class Catholic boy at music school thought all Protestants were rich and all Catholics oppressed.

Middle-class and professional Belfast was another world where Tony's mother went to deliver dressmaking to rich ladies who spoke with a different accent.

There were gradations on the Shankill too, between those who lived in flats and estates and those who had their own house with a front garden, between Belfast Telegraph readers and "the dirt down there" who engaged in riots and paramilitary activity.

This is not a sociological tract, although it tells you more than most about the Shankill, young people and Protestant working-class Belfast. It is a warm-hearted and in many ways innocent account of growing up during the Troubles.

Tony Macaulay is the eponymous Paperboy, one of a fast disappearing breed who earned pocket-money by delivering the "Tele" nightly to readers' homes, collected the money weekly and earned a commission, and often extra in tips for running messages.

His parents ran a youth club which kept young people off the streets and out of the hands of paramilitaries and the police, took the family on caravan holidays to the Millisle (Shankill-on-sea) and pushed them towards study and education, music and social mobility.

The story is peopled by wonderful characters, none more so than the father, a foundry worker who maintained his passion for DIY on materials and tools "borrowed" from Mackie's. His mantra declares that "no son of mine will ever work in a factory, or play golf, get robbed by wee hoods, or kow-tow to royalty".'

This is a wholly delightful book, shedding a new and kindly light on the Shankill and those who live there.

Buy Paperboy from Eason

Irish Independent

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