My memoir is entitled Our Side of the House. This extract will help explain why:
I wonder how many times I pinched a bun or biscuit when I was a wean and thought I’d got clean away with it, and then heard my Ma coming up behind me to tell me I was ‘far too cute’. . .
They didn’t understand the word when I used it that way in London. When I talked about children growing cute fast they thought I meant cuddly cute. I had to spell it out for them: crafty, wily, quick on the uptake. You learn that your elders talk in code, and that while some phrases are spoken softly they’re loud with a double meaning.
I suppose the first time it clicked with me was that night Joe Campbell came round to see my Da. He had some work that needed doing. My Da wasn’t home yet.
‘Sure sit an’ wait for him,’ my Ma said, pulling chairs near the heat of the range. ‘He’ll only be half an hour. I was just makin’ a drap o’ tay, anyway.’
‘Naw, not for me, Annie. I’ve just risen from tay at home.’
‘Sure a wee cup in yer han’ won’t do ye any harm. Bredge, love, will ye go and get a few biscuits?’
My Ma made the tea. Bredge passed round the biscuits. Joe congratulated Bredge and me on how fast we were growing, as if we’d put on another couple of inches since yesterday.
‘Anythin’ startlin’, Annie?’ Joe asked.
‘Oh, nothin’ pass-remarkable.’
For a few minutes there was talk of the weather and how hard it was to find a decent floury spud these days and the quare turnout there had been for Barney the Rogue’s funeral, God rest him. Then, as the tea was topped up and the biscuits went round again, Joe started talking about my Da.
‘So Mick’s in Coleraine, now…’
‘Aye,’ my Ma said. ‘Started on Friday last an’ I hope it’ll keep him goin’ for a wee while yet. It’s the Bull’s Eye, they’re at, ye know.’
‘Ah’ve not been in that place in years,’ Joe said. ‘But Ah know from the outside o’ it it’s badly in need o’ a lick o’ paint. Yer man McNulty has it now, hasn’t he? He’s doin’ rightly for himsel’. Do ye know is he from our side of the house…?
There it was. That phrase I was always hearing; that phrase I’m still always hearing. Is he from our side of the house? Is he Catholic?
‘Is it true that you lot can always tell who’s Protestant and who’s Catholic?’ that guy Simon asked me at the college. And I told him how we do it – how the school’s a giveaway and you can make a good guess from the name or the place they work or the town. But I forgot to mention the intelligence you can gather in kitchens. I suppose we take it for granted. But he’d enjoy it. It tells you so much about the way we think, doesn’t it?
Somebody new moves into a pub or a boarding house or takes over as a dentist or doctor. My Ma and Da and the aunts and uncles sit here round the range weighing him up. Is he a good-lookin’ fella or like the back end of a bus? Is he tight or generous? Is he a smart boy or did he come up the Bann on a bubble? (I love that phrase, that notion of a character who’s so frothy he just blows up the river with the spume.)
Eventually, after a bit of side-stepping, somebody gets to the point. The voice drops, as if whoever’s asking is embarrassed, or worried that the walls have ears, or both. And then we hear: ‘Is he from our side of the house, do ye know?’
‘Ye may be sure he’s not.’
‘Damn the bit of ‘im. There’s no chance for any o’ ours in there.’
And there’s that clicking of the tongue against the roof of the mouth, or a tight pursing of the lips and a resigned shake of the head.
But just now and again the answer’s yes. Somebody’s seen this new guy at Mass or the sister of a teacher says he’s been in to look round St Colum’s with his kids. And then, especially if his job’s a good one, a well-paid one, it’s all smiles and congratulations, as if he’s done something for all of us. ‘Good man. Isn’t that great tae see. All credit tae ‘im.’
They usually guess right, too. You’re one side of the house or the other, and whichever it is everybody soon gets to hear. Everybody but the weans, who aren’t supposed to know what you’re talking about at all. And whenever they come running in you’ve got to remind everybody to guard their tongues, because you don’t want this sort of talk repeated on the Harbour Hill, do you? ‘Whatever ye say, say nothin’.’
How long was it before I realised that that phrase had a second meaning; that it was a worn piece of advice? Somebody on our side of the house who felt himself wronged by somebody on the other would be reminded that he was in the minority; that it would do no good to kick up a fuss; that he would just have to live with it because this was they way things were. Whatever ye say, say nothin’. It’s not a bit like that soppy, watery, English phrase ‘Least said, soonest mended.’ It’s a bitter acceptance that things are beyond mending.
Even at the age of seven or eight, I knew there were offices and factories and housing estates and whole towns where people from our side of the house weren’t welcome. Nobody had told me that, but then they didn’t have to. All they had to say was that such and such a place was ‘a black wee hole’. I was cute enough to know what they meant.
If you would like to read more, you can find the book on amazon.co.uk