My Unfinished Father – A Life Lived to the Full – Part 2

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My Unfinished Father – A Life Lived to the Full

A Life Lived to the Full

03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018

Brian Matier

Part 2 –  Pages 12 – 23

My Dad at this time was working at the Ritz Cinema, in Belfast.  It was right in the heart of the City and was the leading cinema in the Province and many films came out there on release. We once went on a school day out to see ‘Scott of the Antarctic.’ For a spell he acted as Commissionaire and was dressed up in a splendid uniform which made me think he was a general.

Attending St Malachy’s College soon deprived me of any Nationalist views.  The school was controlled by priests who were, by nature, pretty well steeped in Catholic views and they expected their pupils to follow what they said without question.  There were about 20 to 25 priests out of a total of thirty or so teachers.  They were certainly well in the majority.  I have no idea what order they belonged to.

Checking my school magazine for my first year I note that there were slightly more ‘civilian’ teachers than clerics, but it never seemed that way to me. Perhaps I was wrong; perhaps the priests lived ‘in’ and the civvies were spread among the various schools in the district.

I remember, in particular, Father Walter Larkin, known to us irreverently as ‘Wally’.  He taught Irish and Latin and was a fearsome creature that could pounce and whip out his cane in a heartbeat.  He was probably the hardest of all the teachers.

They wore a long black gown which swished around their feet under which they carried a cane which they were always eager to use. I remember that we were given a limited choice of which subjects we decided to follow.  English, history, geography and maths were , of course, set by the State as compulsory subjects so , in effect, we were reduced to choosing between French, and German as a modern language and between Latin and Greek as a classic tongue.  I selected French and Latin. 

A language which we were required to take was Irish.  I was not interested in Irish and displayed as little attention to it as I could get away with. No one I knew spoke Irish, and I did not understand why I should waste time studying it. This duly led to an interesting confrontation between me and the head master, the very Reverend Patrick Kerr.  I saw him after I had failed the Easter examination, having previously failed the Christmas examination.  The conversation went as follows:

“You have failed the Easter Irish examination.”

“Yes, father, I am not interested in the subject.”

“And you failed before that at Christmas. “

“Yes, father.  As I said, I have no interest in Irish.  Nobody I know speaks a word of it.”

“That is not the point.  It is your heritage and you should be proud to speak it.”

 “Father, I passed French and Latin at both exams.  I do not need a third language.  In any case, I want to join the RAF and Irish is not a requirement for them.  Also Her Majesty does not speak Irish.”

He studied me for a long moment and picked up his cane.  I was given six on each hand.  “That was for impertinence’ was his judgement

With stinging hands and burning eyes I left his office.  I decided that it did not pay to be honest. To be fair to myself, the loss of Irish did not hold me back in any way that I could judge.  In my final examinations exam in school, I gained eight distinctions and two credits.  Not bad, if I may say, for someone who had failed Irish.  As a judgement in later life it would seem to demonstrate that students do best at what they want to learn. Irish was the only exam which I failed at school.

Subsequently I wondered if the very reverend Patrick Kerr believed that his use of the cane would instil in me a love of the Irish language.  Or would it make me hate the subject even more?

At about this time my interest in cricket had developed and I had a love of the game which has lasted all my life.  As a group, the boys in the street had graduated away from the car park at Windsor park football stadium to a neighbouring park, Marlborough Park, to be precise where we played on grass with a tree trunk as wickets.

Later still, someone acquired a set of stumps.  Even later still we progressed to Musgrave Park which was a halfpenny bus ride away and where we had a set of stumps at each end.  May Glory be to you God?

We tried to emulate the famous cricketers of the day; the sainted Denis Compton and the England captain Len Hutton, later Sir Len. On the bowling side there was the fearsome ‘Fiery’ Fred Trueman and the deadly Brian Statham, an impeccable fast bowler.  As I had by this time become a Lancashire fan, I pretended I was either Statham, or Roy Tattersall, a fine spinner or John Ikin, a steady left hand bat.  Yes, yes I know, I batted right handed.

I recall my first encounter with cricket on the BBC in 1948.  Thanks to the blessed Wisden I can even identify the date. It was 14th August 1948. I was ten and had been playing in the street (where else) and came into the house.  The radio was on and there was a great storm of applause.

“What’s happening?” I asked Dad.

“Bradman is just about to play his last test innings” he replied.

Even I had heard of Bradman and his invincible Australians.

“I will listen to this” I declared.

“He only needs four runs to end up with a Test match average of 100” said Dad.

The English captain, Norman Yardley, led three cheers for the great man and everyone settled down.

Bradman was bowled second ball by Eric Hollies ending with a career average of 99.96. It was said that he did not see the ball as his eyes were full of tears.

“He wasn’t much good then” was my final remark before I headed out the door again.  The Don was, by a distance, the greatest batsman who ever lived.

My interest in cricket developed after this and has lasted all my life.  I do not remember anything of the 1949  series but by 1950 with the arrival of the West Indies, with the famous three ‘W’s’, Weekes, Worrell and Walcott I had become hooked.

It was during the following winter that I tried to listen to the nightly cricket broadcasts from Australia.  This was in the early days of such broadcasts and was hard listening.  It seemed you were always required to listen to the cricket through the sound of sizzling bacon frying.

We didn’t play cricket at either of my schools, either the primary school, or at St Malachy’s.  At the latter, they only favoured Gaelic, or Irish football, and hurling, with a passing nod to soccer or Association football as it was called in those days.  In addition there was, in the school playing fields, a half building with two side walls and a sloped roof line, without a roof where there was a strange game of hand ball was played.

It made no sense to me and I despised both the ‘Irish’ games.  The distaste of the school was something I could not understand.  These non Irish sports were designated as ‘garrison’ games and were therefore rejected.  In the upper circles of Irish Nationalism, the Gaelic Athletic Association, the GAA, forbad any of its members to play such games and deregistered those who did.  You can make your own judgement on this attitude. I guess you can imagine my own attitude.

As I write this, things have changed a great deal.  Irish Rugby is very strong and soccer rides nearly as high.  The captain of the England one day cricket team, as I write, is an Irishman from the Republic, Eoin Morgan. Jackie Charlton, when manager of the Republic’s football team was regarded as a saint, and he was an Englishman.

I did manage to exercise my legs a little while at St Malachy’s by participating in the school sports on 23rd May 1953 at Celtic Park, a football stadium where Belfast Celtic had played until their withdrawal from the game a year or two earlier.

There is quite a story behind this event from my viewpoint.  On the Monday before the games I was admitted to hospital for an operation on my right foot to remove five in growing warts, or varuca I believe they were called.  You did not decline such an appointment as one never knew when it would be re issued.

The ‘op’ was successful, I believe, but painful and I was discharged with all good wishes on the Thursday morning.  However, at that time in my life I believed I was immortal and determined to go to Celtic Park, and take part, ‘if I felt up to it;’

Of course I felt up to it.  My mother was heavily pregnant and I rather suspected my time at school was very nearly up.

My first race was the ‘under 15’ 100 yards in which I finished third.  My foot hurt like hell but I was determined.  The second was the House relay 220 yards in which I scored a second place for St Pauls House.  In Churchill’s words, more ‘blood, sweat and tears.’

My great victory came in the ‘under 15’ 220 yards in a time of 27.8 seconds.  The time was one second slower than that achieved by the under sixteen boys, so, despite the pain I was very pleased. I remember seeing my sock and plimsoll soaked in blood but I carried that as a badge of honour.

I seem to remember that my great friend Aodhan ran the mile in 4 minutes 27seconds.  I cannot find a record of this in the school magazine, but bully for him.

I received a tennis racket in a wooden frame as a prize, which I kept for many years.  And I then went home to bed for a couple of days.

In the meantime my ‘girlfriend’ had become queen on the death of her father, King George VI, in February 1952 and her splendid Coronation followed just over a week after the school sports. To my surprise the school gave every one a day off as a mark of respect on the King’s death.

Also around the time of the Coronation, my Mum gave birth to my brother Alroy, thus completing the family.  I have the feeling that somewhere in 1942, a child may have been lost or stillborn, but if so, it was never discussed. I remember sitting on the doorstep of our house, not knowing where to hide myself on the day Alroy was born.  I was deeply embarrassed.  I remember carving a small cricket bat which many years later I presented to him at Christmas. By sheer coincidence, at the same Christmas, he gave me a full sized cricket bat he had won in a raffle.

At around the same time, my Aunt Edna, who had chided my Mum on becoming pregnant, had fallen pregnant herself and had produced a daughter in October 1953.  Oh, dear.

I went back to school in September but stayed only a month or two.  This put an end to my ambition to go on to university and join the RAF.  It also put an end to my mother’s ambition for me to be a priest.  That, at least, was a blessing. My Dad got my first job from one of his mates in the church.  It was with a beer bottling company at the top of the road.  My job was as a general dogsbody.  The company imported beer from the Continent in huge casks and decanted it into bottles for the trade in Ulster. I think it was called Amstel lager.

I did not touch beer then, or for a very long time afterwards.  There was, for the time, a fair amount of automation, with a long table moving slowly through the warehouse with bottles being washed and dried without anyone touching them.  At the same time they were filled with beer and taken off at the end.  This is where my problems began.

At this point the filled beer bottles , duly capped, had to be lifted up to the first floor on  a series of holster like containers on a uprising belt which rose into the ceiling where they were unloaded and packed into cases for delivery.  My skills were more than adequate to packing the bottles into their holsters. 

Then came the day when I was required to unload on the first floor.  My skill levels were exposed as inadequate and I missed several bottles which returned to the ground floor with a great explosion of broken glass and beer bursting on or near the poor chap who was loading them.

It was very quickly explained to me that I should perhaps seek alternative employment.

My Dad came to the rescue once again through the Church mafia and I was employed by a company called E D O’Mahoney, who distributed confectionary throughout Northern Ireland for a manufacturer based in Blackpool in Lancashire.  It wasn’t a bad job and I quite enjoyed it.  There were plenty of occasions to enjoy a few sweets.

My job was to ensure that the van was filled with orders for delivery so I suppose I was a ‘picker’.  On many occasions I was taken along to make the delivery, which was OK, at least I got to see something of Belfast and further afield. 

In 1954, my first year with the company, I started to play cricket for a team in the east side of the city.  They were called Victoria and played at Victoria Park.  This eventually led to my downfall at work.  I had promised to play on the Saturday but on the Friday afternoon, late on the Friday afternoon, Mr O’ Mahoney senior, said to me, “I want you to work tomorrow.”

I replied, “I am sorry, but I can’t.”

“Why can’t you?”

“I am playing cricket.”

“What’s more important; playing cricket or your job?”

“Well my job is.  But that isn’t the point; I have given my word.”

“Well, if you are not here tomorrow, do not turn up on Monday.”

I played cricket on the Saturday afternoon and I did not turn up on Monday and was once more unemployed.  Maybe I am wrong but Dad seemed to understand. l was, at least, given a reference which stated that I was ‘let go’ as  I did not drive and the Company needed a driver.  Liars!

It was a funny thing but Victoria Park was in east Belfast, the most Protestant part of the City, but I do not recall that religion was ever an issue.  I was Catholic and if my mates did not know that, they could very quickly have worked it out.  I did not swear, I did not smoke or drink and I did not chase girls.  No one was bothered, least of all me.

At home, the Orangeman’s Parade took place on the Lisburn Road on 12th July each year, and together with all our friends from around, we trooped to the top of the street to spend a couple of hours watching, without any bother.

The only place I ran into religious bother was at St Malachy’s, where a number of boys could not tolerate my having different views to their own.  Life is funny.

During these teenage years I maintained my interests in those thing I enjoyed and, by and large, ignored a great deal else.  I followed the Korean War for the full three years it lasted and was a great follower of General Douglas Macarthur.  Subsequently I came to realize that he was more than a bit mad.

There was, I think, only one Victoria Cross of the War awarded and that was to Private Bill Speakman, born in Cheshire but serving in a Scottish Regiment.  I remember him coming home in the newsreels of the time.  And I remember him on Remembrance Day in 2017 as his wheelchair was pushed down the Mall. He was a brave man.

I started buying records, mostly in the 45 rpm mode.  I think my first purchase was by Guy Mitchell, an American country and pop singer.  My second was ‘In the wee small hours of the morning’ by Frank Sinatra.  Frank was to provide the background music to my growing up and for many years afterwards, to the end of my life.

In the meantime I managed to get myself into trouble.  Belfast is a port city and on its northern and western sides it is surrounded by some low hills, pretending to be mountains.  Lying to the west of the city is Black Mountain, beyond which is Aldergrove, now the site of Belfast International Airport, but for many years the home of the RAF.

During the War there had been the odd accident as in particular, USAF aircraft struggled to maintain sufficient altitude to climb over Black Mountain.  Sometimes they didn’t make it.  On this particular day a bunch of us had climbed the mountain and came across the scattered remains of an aircraft.  We were very excited and clambered all over it, oblivious of the danger.  At one point I found what I can best describe as a small bomb or rocket, about a foot long and with a feathered tail. 

With great glee I brought home this prize and placed it on top of the mantel piece, where a fire was burning, expecting great praise from my Dad who was out at work.

Great praise was not what I got.  My father, no lover of the Police, immediately called them and half the street was evacuated while they called the EOD people from the Army to remove the offending piece of ordinance.  Not the most popular boy in the street.  No animals were hurt in this piece of nonsense, but a number of neighbours were deprived of an early night.

After my demise from O’Mahoney employment, my Dad told me to find my own job so I turned to the newspapers and to the Government.  The latter gave me three weeks woodwork training in a school near the Botanic Gardens where we were given lunch every day.  I found a job through the Belfast Telegraph, working as a dispatch clerk for Erskine and Sons in North Street, very much in the centre of town.  They were a hardware store, both retail and wholesale. 

Here I stayed for over a year and a half. I was paid three pounds a week of which I gave my mother two pounds ten shillings towards my keep.  It was enough for me. I rode my bicycle to work and had very little expenses.  We took stock every three months when we were required to work late.  That was OK, my bike had a light.  Also we were subbed a half crown on these working nights to get some food. 

After about six months my pay was increased to four pounds a week which delighted me.  I increased what I gave to my mother to three pounds and kept the pound.   As I moved through 1955 and into 1956, I think I realized that Erskine and Sons, much as I enjoyed it, was not going to provide a future. 

I became great friends’ with a chap called Gerry, who drove a lorry for, I think, NIRTB, the Northern Irish Road Transport Board.  He was an ex soldier who had served in the War in the RUR, the Royal Ulster Rifles.  He was not a gung ho character, but would exchange reminiscences of his wartime experiences.  This made up my mind.  I joined the Navy as a Junior Electrician’s mate, second class, and boy seaman.

As I was under age I required parental approval, which was not forthcoming.  My Naval service lasted one day. However I still had a great deal of matters on my mind to keep me occupied.  There was always, cricket, music and politics.  I joined The Northern Ireland Labour Party while remaining a firm Unionist.  No, don’t ask me to explain, I am not sure I understand it myself.  These strange and contradictory views I held on to the 1959 General Election when I voted Labour for the first and only time in my life.

I had been vaguely aware of girls for some time.  I had never had a girl friend.  I think I was too shy. My first ‘Love’ was Anne Carcer a pretty girl who lived in the next street and whom I admired from afar.  She was a year or two younger than me and seemed to prefer to associate with the older lads in the street.  Later when I was in London, I took Anne out, on two occasions to the Royal Festival Hall to a couple of Jazz concerts.  We saw Chris Barber and his Jazz Band.  Some sixty years later I saw the old chap still playing his trombone in Epsom Playhouse.  Magic, Chris.

In the meantime, Alma Boyd drifted across the screen and later Sandra Kirk, a redhead whose father was an Inspector in the RUC. At the time I was seeing Sandra I was planning to join the Metropolitan Police and Sandra tried to persuade me to join the RUC. 

Sandra, Anne and Alma all remained as virginal when we parted as I had imagined they had been when we met.  Work was a little different.  There were a number of girls who worked in the shop and they rarely wandered into the warehouse area.  Two did venture there; Nancy and Battler.  Nancy was a pretty girl, Battler, as her nickname suggested was frightening.  Nancy and I snogged a bit but did nothing beyond that.

In the meantime I discovered a new source of female friends.  In 1956 I switched from Victoria to Dunmurray cricket Club, a pleasant area south of Belfast which drew a crowd of what we might call cricket groupies among the young ladies, who seemed to be inordinately attracted to young men in whites.  This was quite new, and pleasant, to me.

You may be wondering why I have not mentioned my cricket career.  The fact is there was not much to mention.  I was fifteen when I played my first game for Victoria on 8th May 1954. I batted at number ten and failed to score in 2 minutes at the crease.  We scored 53 against Essex, no not the County side, who scored 78.

I played eleven games that season and batted eight times with six not outs for a total of five runs, average 2.5.  I see from my journal at the time that those five runs took me 71 minutes.  I also bowled two overs for four runs and no wickets and took one catch.  Not, I agree, a brilliant first season, but I enjoyed my cricket. Of the eleven games we played in 1954, Victoria won three and lost eight.

To be perfectly frank, my second season, in 1955, aged 16/7, did not appear very much better.  I played fifteen games and batted twelve times with once not out for 27 runs at an average of 2.27. However my journal noted that I batted 272 minutes for those runs, which indicated a certain attitude of mind, I think.

It was the ‘over my dead body’ style of batting.  In one particular game, batting at number ten, I scored nine not out to secure a one wicket  win over Victoria Works, whoever the hell they were.  My team won five of the fifteen games in which I played, losing nine and drawing one.

It was obviously time to start thinking about working for a living. The arrival of my baby brother had barred serious thinking about the Air Force and equally any consideration of the priesthood, not that I ever seriously spent time on that.  More and more I turned my mind to policing.  I did not really take the RUC into my considerations here.  I had been born, and was still, a practising Catholic but my political thinking, even at seventeen, was Unionist.  I would not be trusted by either side.  So I thought about the Police on the mainland and it was to London that I was thinking. My mother was a great help here.  She studied the newspapers and presented various job opportunities to me.

In the meanwhile I jollied along quite happily with cricket and girls.  I started to learn to dance, ballroom, of course.  I went to the Betty Staff School of Dancing.  Pretty nearly anyone growing up in Belfast in the 1950’s will remember Betty Staff’s.  It was also a good place to meet girls.

As 1955 drifted into 1956 I was happy enough with my family and my life.  i had Mum and Dad, my two sisters,  Siobhan who was 16 and Aileen who was twelve.  Brother Alroy was a mop headed ragamuffin of two and a half.

I had another cricket season on the horizon with much to look forward to.  I had my dancing and my music.  I had two particular school friends, Aodhan and Brendan from St Malachy’s.  I also had my political activities with the Labour Party.

I also cycled a good deal with Ozzie and Derek from the street, friends of Siobhan.  We would ride to Bangor in County Down, where on one famous occasion, sweating from our ride; we hurled ourselves into the sea.  We nearly died!  I have never felt so cold.  I have never swum in Irish waters since and only once or twice in British seas.

We also once rode the fifty miles to Warrenpoint on the Irish border and took the ferry over to Omeath in the Irish Free State.  I truly learned the meaning of knackered when I got home that night.

What I did not have was any kind of future which I needed. But it was increasingly obvious that two adults and four children in our little house did not fit.

And so the 1956 cricket season rolled around.  The Aussies were coming!  The Australians were strong but they could not match their predecessors, Bradman’s Invincibles.  Nor could they match Jim Laker in his great year.  At Manchester in the Fourth Test he took 19 wickets for ninety, a world record breaking performance. England won the series.

In the meantime I had applied to join the Metropolitan Police as a senior cadet.  I undertook some tests in Belfast under the auspices of the RUC and sat back and waited.  Finally came the big day; I was sent a warrant for my ticket and someone gave me a lift to the docks to catch the Belfast to Heysham overnight ferry.  I remember I thought it was disgusting and smelled of a mixture of vomited beer and urine.  The date was 14th August 1956.

The sea voyage took all night and I arrived in Lancashire in the half light of a gray and unwelcoming morning.  Breakfast was, I thought, very expensive on the train and not very good.  So it was a pretty disgruntled eighteen year old that arrived at Euston Station.  I remember my first conversation of any importance with a railway porter.

“Excuse me, how do I get to Beak Street?”

“Look, Paddy, that’s in Central Lennon.  You need to get the Tube to Trafalgar Square.”

“How did you know I was Irish?”

He gave me a quizzical look.  “I guessed” was his sardonic response. What a stupid naive boy I was, still wet behind the ears. Despite my naivety I found Beak Street, a side turning off Regent Street.  I checked in, was allocated a room and was now free.  They didn’t need me until the following day.

The warden was a friendly older man, an ex policeman.  “What are you going to do this afternoon?” he asked me.

“I want to visit Lords.”

“There’s a game on today,” he informed me.

“Yes, I know, Middlesex and Kent’ was my reply.

He nodded.  “Right, let’s see if I can get you there.”

I got there in the early afternoon, paid for my ticket and entered Heaven.  It was a magical afternoon.  I was at the Headquarters of cricket, the sun was shining and to my delight Denis Compton was batting with Bill Edrich.  Altogether they added 156 runs and Denis scored a hundred and one and Bill 67. After the pair was out, some of the magic departed. However there was then some very decent batting from Gerry Delisle and Denis Baldry. 

At close of play I believed I had died and gone to heaven.  Denis had just had his kneecap removed and was batting, practically, on one leg.  I stumbled back to Beak Street and after a meal tumbled into bed.  I slept like a baby in a dreamless sleep. It was the best night’s sleep I ever remember in my life.

The following day was taken up with interviews and medicals, all of which I seemed to survive without too many alarms.  I do recall feeling very embarrassed to be standing naked in front of three men whom I presumed to be doctors.  I cannot remember if I went home that night or the following day, but soon enough I was on my way from Euston.

I do remember how very sad I felt seeing how the backs of houses in North London looked and I could still see the evidence of bomb damage everywhere.

The ferry was still pretty disgusting this time crossing the Irish Sea and then in the early morning I was home in Belfast at the docks. I do not recall how I got home, but eventually there I was, at home after my big adventure.

I felt I had done well enough to be accepted but I had to wait and see.  In the meantime I carried on working at Erskine’s and playing cricket.  My last game of the season was played on 26th August 1956 and we lost.  In fact, of the 19 games in which I played that season we lost eleven, drew one and won seven. Winning or losing did not seem to matter in those days.

In my twelve innings in the season, I was not out five times and scored 26 runs at an average of 3.71 I took five catches.  I enjoyed the season and especially enjoyed Dunmurray.  But life was about to become a sterner challenge.

The next thing I heard was some weeks later when a letter from the Met Police arrived which asked me why I had not responded to their letter and turned up to commence training.  This caused great consternation and my Mum turned out to be a star.  She phoned London, not an easy task, as we had no phone at home in those days and she had to do it all on a public telephone.

Eventually she sorted everything out and the Met became satisfied I had not received their letter and a new one was sent and received and in due course I repeated my August trip to London to report to the Metropolitan Police Training School at Hendon.

All of this generated a great flurry of activity.  Mum insisted on buying me some blue shirts despite my protests that the Met would surely provide me with a uniform to wear.  At the end of October I crossed the Irish Sea once again on my big adventure.  I do remember thinking that this was the first time I was leaving my homeland and perhaps I would never live in Northern Ireland again. I never did.

Pages 12 – 23

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