I found myself on a bus one day and was eavesdropping on the conversation of two young boys earnestly discussing their social lives…

Boy 1: “What do you belong to?”

Boy 2: “I’m in the UDA Junior Red-Hand Commando Association, the Boys 3rd Territorial Ulster Defence Volunteer Brigade, the Linfield Supporters’ Young Protestant Tearaways, the Fife, Armalite and Drum Youth Band…..and the Scouts”

Boy 1: “The Scouts?…Who do you hate if you’re in that?”

I never heard the end of this dialogue because the bus had foolishly stopped at a red light. I watched it quickly become surrounded by assorted boys in jumpers their careworn mothers had knitted for them to wear during acts of civil unrest. They were using the piles of handily placed paving slab fragments to hurl at the bus I was sitting in. It was not as if the vehicle was particularly identified with some enemy tribe. It was just big, moving and full of squelchy pink suburbanites who would be made to look entertainingly terrified by sudden acts of naked violence. A practise target before the evening’s main event: Burn the Landrover.

It was Belfast 1973 and I was rapidly becoming a victim of urban decay and ethnic conflict. No, actually that’s complete bullshit. I was a well-scrubbed, overfed, lower-middleclass boy on his way to spend pocket money on a plastic construction kit representing a killing machine from some previous war…a perfectly healthy upstanding World War, rather than the present grubby domestic skirmish: The Troubles.

Every night on tv a man called wdflacks had started to speed-speak his way through the who-called-whom-what of the political day. I remember two arch-rivals undertaking a particularly effective vote trawl by haranguing each other one evening. The interview stopped although the studio was still on-air. Both men were suddenly seen smiling and shaking hands like old pals. The real enormity of the “worsening political situation” only came home to me when it was announced that there would be no more fireworks.

Some boys down the street had constructed a pipebomb which, when it went off, rattled the windows for about five streets in a windward direction and ended their careers in saxophony. Not considered unusual for that era, I myself spent rather too much time making matchstick ammunition for a toy brass cannon and firing lead canonballs across our garden. I used to lie in bed at night as the noise of construction sirens in the shipyard gradually became replaced by the detonations, 9 miles down the road, of ammonium nitrate and later, semtex. Important to remember that this was politically-motivated violence aimed at achieving parity-of-esteem, so that’s all right then.

One day, two rather well-dressed young men (remember it was the 70’s in Ulster, so that meant the couture of 1960’s Glasgow) arrived at my father’s business and announced that they had kindly brought him some indispensible insurance -in the form of a truck full of FN rifles. Other unwelcome visitors included a woman who made a good living from claiming out of court settlements for assault by shopkeepers who foolishly threw her off the premises. My father foolishly threw her off the premises, past a queue of farmers who were being made to wait for their tractor repairs because they had used the vehicles to block roads during the UWC strike. Some of them had apparently had their keys removed and pitched over a hedge by some insane old man. It was my insane old man.

We just got used to things. Driving along with army rifles casually aligned with your vital organs. Not going out at night. Being drilled how to use our wheelnut-firing home defence catapult in the event of a break-in. Everything then had tribal significance: names colours, schools, areas, pronunciation…We went to the Armagh Planetarium on a school trip and had to be explicitly instructed not to use the word “taigs” when we were guests for lunch at the local convent. Returning from holiday one summer, we were carrying my uncle’s electric hedge trimmer back for repair. The policeman who unveiled its black pistol grip, during one of innumerable vehicle searches, suddenly disappeared behind a handy pile of sandbags. There was even an occasion when I was obliged to remove my T-shirt whilst being driven to the airport. It was July 12th and the T shirt was foolhardy orange: an easy target for snipers.

Getting used to being away from that situation was just as difficult. When I went back on college vacations, I found myself actually phobic about walking past parked cars if they were unoccupied. During a rare shopping trip to Harrods, my family walked in the front door and all of us automatically raised our arms in the air to be searched. We seemed to be either undertaking a Mexican wave or praying to Mecca. To hide our embarrassment, we pretended to be confused members of some foreign ethnic cult, which, of course, we were.