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A View North Bard out of my mind in England

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

As a teenager, I was part of the invading army of navvies that landed regularly on the shores of Merry Olde England every summer. We were very much reluctant invaders driven by the hope of earning a few pounds on the building sites during the school holidays. Though England was in many ways a familiar place, the journey there was never made without considerable foreboding. The ferry over the Irish Sea to Heysham was an all-night crossing. We had just enough to pay for the trip, so the night was spent sleeping on benches on the deck somewhere. And it was usually a very drunken affair, especially in July, when a lot of Scottish Orangemen were returning from parading around Northern Ireland. The decks were awash with vomit and broken glass, and more often than not blood, as the drinking led to fighting. The language was so foul that even the sea gulls stayed away.

Arriving bleary-eyed and exhausted at 6 in the morning, I enjoyed my first vision of England. And I must confess, having spent a considerable amount of time at school reading and reciting Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelly, Browning, Tennyson, and Hardy, it was a big disappointment. What I beheld was a dull little port on the dreary Lancashire coast, soaked in drizzle. Oh, to be in England! There was nothing merry about it.

I hitchhiked from Heysham to Manchester, about 50 miles, via Preston and Bolton, where I was to meet up with Brian, a Belfast friend who was working on a building site. The first place I stayed in was a rooming house in Salford. I shared the room with Brian and 11 others, mostly navvies. There was one thief among us, who specialized in breaking into men’s clothing shops. One night he came home with a huge pile of shirts, which he distributed around the room. Though we weren’t well paid, thanks to him we were at least very well-dressed.

What impressed me most about Manchester was its Speaker’s Corner (though it wasn’t called that), where socialists, religious fanatics, and crackpots of every description preached and railed from wooden boxes at passersby who give a minute or two of attention. I listened to one man give a long and impressive lecture on the history of Islam.

Brian packed in his job and we set out south for London. Our aim was to go to Clacton-on-Sea, a seaside resort on the nearby Essex coast. Brian’s younger brother Gerald was working there in Butlin’s Holiday Camp and had encouraged us to join him. He assured us we would be able to find a job.

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We hitchhiked down the motorway, through the dull midlands, and arrived in London in the early hours of the morning. We found ourselves in Piccadilly Circus, just as the first bus was getting ready to leave. Two fat prostitutes were eating chocolate bars and chatting up the conductor.

This was the London of the swinging ’60s, when the Beatles, the miniskirt, and Carnaby Street were at their peak. Before I set out, my aunt Martha warned me solemnly to stay away from English girls. They weren’t like Irish girls, she said. However, she did not go into any details. She preferred to hint darkly that there was something wicked about English girls. To a teenage boy, it made them sound astonishingly attractive.

Anyway, it was all academic in the end. Brian and I remained mere spectators of the swinging ’60s during our stay in England.

We pressed on to Clacton-on-Sea, where working-class Londoners took their summer holidays and old-age pensioners retired (the sea air was supposed to be good for you). We met up with Gerald, who whetted our appetites with tales of the fun he was having chasing chambermaids around the chalets (as the ugly little cabins were grandiosly named) in the holiday camp. Alas, when we applied for jobs at Butlin’s, we were told to get our hair cut first. Instead, with the blithe abandon of youth, and temporary "six-hour" passports, we took a trip to Calais in France on a ferry which ran from Clacton.

That was a mistake. Brian headed for the nearest French cafe and ordered a carafe of wine. Before long he was deep in conversation with two locals, who could not speak a word of English — no more than he could speak French. From the way they displayed their scars, I guessed that the subject of our discussion was the Second World War. On the spur of the moment, Brian decided that we should go Italy, where he had a sister. By this stage he was drunk. I decided to go back to Clacton. I missed the boat and was arrested by a French cop who discovered that my "passport" had expired. I was deported on the next boat to England, which dropped me off in Southampton — several hundred miles to the west of Clacton. From there, I resumed my English journey. (Brian got into a fight with a policeman and ended up spending several nights in a French jail before he too was sent packing.)

With a few shillings in my pocket, I wound my way through the Cotswold Hills in the West Country, via Salisbury, Bristol, Gloucester, and Tewkesbury. I spent one night in Stratford-on-Avon. 1964 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. I at last began to understand what the English poets were writing about, with their love of their country’s every laneway, hedgerow and hillock.

I went up through Wales, and back to Ireland on the ferry from Holyhead.

After my first trip I decided that the trouble with England was that it had been so well written about, by some of the world’s greatest poets and novelists, that it was bound to be something of a disappointment. Centuries of cultivation had given it a well-clipped look, at least to an Irish eye. There was none of the wildness of a typical Irish landscape, which one senses even on the edge of the town. History, of course, shapes a landscape as much as do the wind and the rain. And it was easy to see that England had not been invaded for 900 hundred years. Oppression too leaves its mark.

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