Tuesday 24 September 2019

Madness and kindness on an all-Paddy site

London 1987

Eugene O'Brien

Blacksod Bay is a bay of the Atlantic Ocean in Erris, north County Mayo. It is 16km long and 8km wide and is bound by the Mullet Peninsula.

On a London building site in the summer of 1987, I worked with a 19-year-old lad born right beside it who was named after it, Blacksod. He told me one day that he'd always been called Blacksod, that he didn't know what his real name was.

Blacksod was a ball of energy and instinct. He'd career out the front door of the house we were renovating, with a full wheelbarrow, along a plank, dump the debris, swivel, and back again, singing "COME OUT YE BLACK AND TANS" at the top of his lungs, scaring the bejaysus out of the posh denizens of Knightsbridge.

Blacksod was one of my new workmates. I was only a college boy, over for a month in the summer.

I was not used to the work. It nearly killed me for the first week. It was an all-Paddy site. You couldn't skive off. Working hard was a sign of manliness. I was struggling on this front.

Blacksod rushed me on the second day and pinned me to the wall and roared in my face: "WHAT KIND OF A C**T DO WE HAVE HERE AT ALL!!! But then he let me go and said that he was going to the shop and would I like a Twix?

Blacksod was unpredictable to say the least but we started to get on and he invited me for a Friday night out in Kilburn. He'd bring me to the best pubs and clubs. We'd get drunk and get off with women. But just as I was toying with the idea my guardian angel of the building site stepped in.

Martin was a big man. He was famed for knocking through any wall in London with his sledge. He had been here for 25 years and only gone home a few times for funerals and to see his wife and children. He had a quiet thoughtful demeanour. He ate raw onion sandwiches for breakfast. He advised me in no uncertain terms to go nowhere near Kilburn with that fella. He'll get ye killed. He'll get ye in a fight and he'll be able for it but you won't.

Blacksod denied all this - we'd be only looking for women. He'd describe in pornographic detail the various sexual positions that he was going to perform with the woman once he'd snared her. Martin had no time for any of that fancy crack. He was a straight-forward missionary position man. Get the job done.

In the end I took Martin's advice and never chanced the night out in Kilburn. He was my saviour a few times on the site. The foreman who was a sneaky Dub, liked to take the piss out of the college boy and have me doing stupid pointless work. Martin would always step in and put me right.

I was usually too exhausted to do anything after work on the site but one evening I went drinking with a friend of mine and we ended up going to the Scala cinema in King's Cross with a gay friend of his who directed videos for The Smiths. We went to see The Shining, and it happened to be the day of the Hungerford massacre so psychotic madness was in the air and we let rip afterward - drink and speed - and a girlfriend of another guy we knew joined us at a house party. She was from Kerry.

The director put on gay porn and sat in beside me and told war stories about Morrissey as he knew I was a fan and I thought what would Blacksod and Martin say if they could see this!

But we left him on the couch and did Dennis Hopper Blue Velvet impressions in the kitchen and people got scared and left, and the girl kissed me and I wanted to take it further but she was determined to be faithful to her boyfriend so I collapsed alone into bed at five.

The alarm went off at the usual time and I scrambled for the Tube. You couldn't be late. I rocked up to the site ready to vom and the sneaky foreman knew I was fit to collapse so put me digging trenches out the back. Fortunately, Martin dug with me and talked about Westerns, and the images of Monument Valley and the slow-motion death of the The Wild Bunch and the message of Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Martin's personal favourite, got me through to lunchtime.

That was when we played the cards and drank tea and I read The Irish Times and they read The Sun and I slagged them for buying such an anti-Irish paper and they told me to feic off back to college. During the afternoon tea break I'd always catch one of them sneaking a glimpse at The Times and one of them would catch me sneaking a glimpse of The Sun.

But I wasn't being absolutely honest with the lads. I was a college boy all right. They knew that. But they didn't know that my father was the owner of the building we were working in. I was the boss's son and my dad's head of operations in London, Bill, wanted me to make the move upstairs. He wanted me to lay down the spade and the wheelbarrow and take up the Filofax and the suit and tie of property salesman.

Luxury flats had been developed at another building and Bill was tying to flog them. He brought me to Harrods one morning to get me kitted out. A smart blue suit. Bill was the original Irish blarney merchant.

He persuaded the Pakistani sales assistant to give a bigger discount off the purchases: "Ah Jaysus, give us a break, what about the 800 years of oppression you put us through?" The assistant protested that his people had been put through a much worse ordeal by the British, but we got our 20pc off.

Bill always put the best side out. Never take the Tube, always get a taxi, so you arrive fresh for meetings. It's all about how you come across.

He lived upstairs from me and we would talk at his kitchen table for hours into the night. He chain-smoked Dunhill's and drank coffee. His wife Marie had been born on the Channel Islands and as a child had been placed in a Nazi concentration camp on the islands during the war.

She loved plays and films and opera. Bill had no interest. His passion at the time was Stephen Roche in the Tour de France. They fought over who had control of the TV. Marie would be desperate to watch Madam Butterfly over on BBC2: "Oh Bill, such beauty, Eugene tell him to turn over," but Bill was insisting on the cycling - "For f**k's sake Marie, Roche is gonna win the yellow jersey. He's a national hero!" I tried to keep out of it.

Bill's attempt to make me a salesman didn't work out. I had to show a few sheiks around the flats but I was dry and unimpressive and felt really awkward.

I missed Martin and Blacksod and the crack of the site. Martin stated that in the short time I'd been with them they'd managed to make me into a half a man. He bemoaned the fact that I was going back home to college and they'd been denied the opportunity to make a full man of me.

The arse fell out of the London property market not soon after so there was no fortunes made.

Bill and Marie had to move back to his family home in Kildare. They too, like Martin, are now deceased. I hope Blacksod is alive and well somewhere. Last year we shot a film for two days on Kilburn High Street and I wondered about what kind of night I might have had 30 years before if I'd had the balls to go drinking with him. I named one of the film's characters Blacksod in his honour and I have never forgotten Martin's kindness to me.

Eugene O'Brien is a playwright and filmmaker

Sunday Independent

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