I ended the 1980s in Bellshill – just outside Glasgow having spent Christmas in Geneva, Switzerland. A winter holiday season of marked contrasts. On New Year’s Eve 1989, I found myself in a small council house in what was then one of the poorest places in the United Kingdom. A bleak landscape of deprivation and blue-collar unemployment. There was no better place to wave goodbye and sod off to the Thatcherite 80s.
Should say before I continue that through the magic of Ancestry.com, I’ve discovered that several of my Irish ancestors (I’m half Irish) departed for Lanarkshire, the county covering Bellshill, in the late 19th century. But once they had saved up enough for the fare – they were on a ship bound for New York. Like Sheena Easton, Bellshill’s most famous daughter, they were bound for the New World at the first opportunity.
So, how and why did I find myself in Bellshill?
That Christmas in Geneva first…
I come from a mixed-up background. My father was Irish and my mother was Portuguese. She had cousins living near Geneva in Switzerland. As a family, we spent that last Christmas of the 1980s at their house. In the French tradition, they gave out presents on Christmas Eve and it was all exceedingly pleasant and bourgeois.
The only unsettling moment was the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu broadcast live on French TV news, proving that communism was unravelling across central and eastern Europe. Aside from watching Mr. and Mrs. Ceaușescu getting riddled with bullets by a military firing squad, it was an uneventful Christmas.
I flew back to the United Kingdom with a box of Swiss chocolate liqueurs that would come in very handy on my forthcoming trip to Glasgow.
The National Express coach to Bellshill
Barely pausing to catch my breath, I met up with my Scottish mate Johnny Ogilvie – known in his homeland as “Oggy”. I’d agreed to venture up to his birthplace to celebrate the new year. We got on the tube to Victoria and boarded a National Express coach for the long journey northwards. Something like eight hours through the night from memory.
When we stopped at a motorway service station along the way, the cockney driver hauled his bulk out of the front seat and, filling the gangway, barked at his Glaswegian passengers: “You go for a piss and a sandwich but no booze back on this coach. Any booze and you’re off. No drinking!”
This verbal assault on paying customers would have been filmed on smartphones and broadcast on social media within seconds today followed by widespread howls of outrage but this was a pre-digital age. His comments were just between him and us. And everybody obeyed.
A very disgruntled Scottish throng got back on an hour later cussing under their collective breath. At this point, I realised that the answer to their grief lay in my bag. So, I produced the Swiss liqueurs and began handing around Lindt Kirsch Batons. Short, stubby chocolate tubes filled with cherry liqueur.
The alcohol content was negligible but the thirsty Scots bit the end off like a grenade, chugged down the liqueur, and threw away the chocolate. Nobody got pissed needless to say. But I was very popular.
Abandon hope all ye who enter Bellshill
I stood on the brow of some or other hill and gazed down at the bleakness below. I’d lived in Liverpool for five years and taught literacy in an adult education centre in the dock area so was no stranger to the socio-economic impact of 1980s de-industrialisation and mass unemployment. But Bellshill still took some beating.
We got to Oggy’s family home. The door opened and there was Pa Oggy spreadeagled on the front room carpet, face down, surrounded by beer cans. A bar heater glowed next to him. Apparently he’d recently lost his job at the Ravenscraig steel works and his coping strategy was all too obvious.
Coming from an Irish family, I was no stranger to booze. Although my relatives went one of two ways – signing the pledge and total abstinence or never being seen without a pint and a cigarette. My grandmother the abstainer died aged 65. My father, who liked a tipple and a smoke, died aged 83. Draw your own conclusions.
New Year’s Eve in Belshill – Catholic and Protestant sectarianism
Oggy and I bought a ‘cargo’ (pronounced ‘cargay’) from the ‘offy’ (off-licence) and left a large plastic bag of beer and whisky at the house. We then went off to observe the Scottish tradition of visiting relatives at their homes on New Year’s Eve. Oggy’s Dad stayed behind under strict orders to go nowhere near our booze. We would return for it at midnight.
What you have to understand about much of Scotland – especially Glasgow and the surrounding towns – is that the sectarian politics of Northern Ireland are not only present but even stronger in these communities. Irish Catholics who emigrated to Scotland for work clung to their love of the Pope and Republican views. While Scottish Protestants supported their co-religionists in Ulster detesting Roman Catholics, being intensely Loyalist, and joining Orange Lodges.
Oggy advised me to keep my Irish Catholic heritage under wraps. Unless I wanted my nose flattened or worse. In fact, I think he told me to adopt the name ‘Fraser’ and drop my very Papist surname ‘McMahon’ for the duration of my New Year’s trip to Bellshill. And I could see why when we entered house number one and I was greeted by an image of the Red Hand of Ulster (a Protestant favourite) and a framed photograph of Queen Elizabeth II on the wall.
Then just to top that off, this Protestant Loyalist aunt produced a letter from prison – can’t recall if it was a son, nephew, or other male relative behind bars. The letter was read out. I don’t remember the content because my eyes fixated on yet another Red Hand of Ulster drawn with meticulous detail at the bottom of the letter.
After that, Oggy gave me some time out from being surrounded by Loyalists with a visit to his one Catholic relative. Another aunt – think she was called Bridget – and this living room had a framed photograph of Pope John Paul II on the wall. I’d long ago become an atheist so never thought I’d heave a sight of relief to see the Holy Father beaming back at me.
DISCOVER: Northern Ireland in 1979
Disaster at the homestead
After the rigours of Loyalist and Papist aunties, I needed a drink. We ended up in a dark pub in deepest Hamilton where I sampled a glass of ‘bucky’. Buckfast Tonic Wine to be precise. A caffeinated alcoholic drink that still sells well north of the border. With a passing resemblance to Tia Maria, it’s a murky brown liquid that tastes like cough medicine and claims to be an ‘apertif’. Originally produced by the monks at Buckfast Abbey but now heavily associated with anti-social behaviour on Scotland’s bleakest estates.
Well, when in Rome…or Hamilton.
Then it was back to Oggy’s Dad who at some point had risen from the floor to demolish every last drop of what we had bought at the offy and then resumed his starfish impersonation before the bar heater. Part of me – a Celtic part – was secretly impressed. He’d drunk at least eight cans of beer and a bottle of whisky on top of his earlier alcohol consumption – and yet was somehow alive.
Boozeless, we set off into the night.
First to what I think was a bingo hall but that night had gone all country ‘n’ western. It’s an under-appreciated fact that Irish and Scottish immigrants to America created the country sound. But that’s under blog post. After a couple of Johnny Cash numbers, we wandered off to a typical 1980s provincial night club. Sunken dance floor. Whirling lights. Aggressive bouncers. And then back home.
FIND OUT MORE: Racism in 1980s Coventry clubs
Oggy’s relatives were up all night chatting in the street until daylight. But the rigours of Bellshill had finally got to me. I’d welcomed in the 1990s and now I crashed out. The following day it was back on the National Express.