This Sort of Thing...


Bill or Bob?



As my Ma took the biggest pan from the kitchen cupboard I knew that we’d be having fillet of a fenny snake for tea. But I won’t complain, I told myself. There’s a delicate situation that needs discussing so I need her to be smiling like a Cheshire cat on its holidays in Grimsby. I’ll eat whatever she puts on our plates. 


Eye of newt and toe of frog

Oxo cube and hairs of dog

Granny’s homemade cholagogue

Your innards to contort and clog


Rations were meagre on Seacroft Estate in Leeds during the early seventies but better than in nearby Gipton. Mealtimes required a combination of imagination, courage and tact. On this particular day, with an announcement to make that I was sure would not be well received, I had to use double tact.

The problem that arose could be blamed entirely on Paul Mallinson, a kid at school who I had semi-befriended because of his knowledge of music. All my other friends seemed to be obsessed with Led Zeppelin, Yes or Cat Stevens, none of which particularly wowed me. But fifteen-year-old Mallo (which seemed such a cool nickname) knew his green onions when it came to unconventional or emerging talent and had midway through an English lesson announced that he was going to a Bob Marley and the Wailers’ gig at York University the following week. New ethnic music from Jamaica, a quid to get in, pay on the door… how cool was that?

I had never heard the word ‘gig’ before. It was what rock stars called a concert. Mallo just got cooler and cooler every time he opened his mouth. He remained unruffled as the English teacher mocked him for wasting his pound on something that wasn’t Pink Floyd related but, although not formerly invited, I decided that I would accompany my teenage mentor on his twenty-mile journey to Trench Town, Yorkshire. Bob Marley’s new style of reggae, that I had only heard late at night on Radio One, was too exotic to miss.

My Ma had a rough idea of where Jamaica was on the map but she had probably never before encountered the terms Rastafarianism, Reggae Music or might not be home that night, so she was somewhat less than enthusiastic when I broke the news of the great adventure I was planning.

‘But haven’t you got school the next day?’ Her words immediately honing in on a stumbling block.

‘I have,’ said I ‘But not until the afternoon because we’ve the exams all week.’

Her lack of enthusiasm diminished to a total absence of understanding underlined by the waving of a gravy-coated wooden spoon. ‘And what exam do you have that day?’

‘Only English Literature.’

Only English Literature? And you have all the answers already in your head?’ she asked, already knowing the answer to her own question.

‘All that I need’ I replied, which may have sounded like over confidence or a lie, but was actually neither.

We had been studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth (you may have heard of it), H.G. Wells’ Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul and some poems by some poets that had been admired for some years by some people but not me. All of these I found to be as tedious as a twice told tale, as the Bard of Avon himself might have said. Even our chemistry teacher had expressed sympathy at the joyless task imposed upon us, oblivious to the fact that in many of his own lessons only a few ill-timed explosions and his sense of humour had saved the day. He told us that H.G. Wells was where mercury came from. 

I’ve always loved reading and enjoyed some poetry, but not the set books of Foxwood School’s English Department. I’m tempted to say that their stuff was outside my comfort zone but that couldn’t be completely true because it always seemed to send me to sleep. I wasn’t interested in what they considered essential reading, so I had absolutely no intention of doing any revision work. I would sit the exam because if I didn’t my parents would receive a letter from Leeds Education Committee demanding that they remit £3.75, the administrative cost of inflicting such torture on innocent schoolkids. I didn’t know much about what I’d be asked to write in blue or black ink for a duration of three hours in silence broken only by the occasional cough or dropped lucky gonk in the ghostly school assembly hall where I imagined so many students before me had suffered near-death experiences, but I did know that I’d get by in life without a certificate from the Joint Matriculation Board confirming that I understood exactly why Lady MacDuff had been so pissed off with her husband.

‘You’ll have to tell Bob Marley that you can’t go. Your education comes first.’ My Ma, stirring with heightened vigour what bubbled in her pot, wasn’t smiling anymore. I sensed that toil and trouble was brewing.


‘Don’t you but me. You’re wasting your life. Any more of this and I’ll be telling your Da!’ she threatened.

I wished I’d twisted the truth and said I was going to see Larry Cunningham (who bore the epithet Donegal’s very own Jim Reeves). Years earlier we had been lucky enough to lose his LPs in a house move but his crooned Distant Drums were never too distant from my Da’s eardrums so I know he’d have given me his blessing and possibly even the bus fare to York. Unfortunately, my Da too was distant, doing his bit for the North Sea oil people at the top end of the country, not far from where the Scottish Play was set, so it was my Ma who called the shots in the area of bringing their kids up the proper way.

To argue would have been a waste of time. There would have been shouting, weeping and wailing and an altogether bad atmosphere about the house for days on end and then all stirred up again and repeated with renewed hostility when my Da got home from his work. An older me would have just gone and to hell with the consequences, but the younger me was foolish enough to heed the words of his elders. Thankfully I didn’t have to explain this to Mallo because I hadn’t told him that I’d be going with him in the first place. There’s nothing less cool than telling your peers that you can’t do something because your mother said you’re not allowed. I imagined Mallo’s Ma to have the attitude and demeanour of Janis Joplin.

So, in the interests of family harmony, my education and my future career, I chose to give Bob’s show a miss. Mallo went and he said it was the best gig he had been to in all his fifteen years on Earth. He’d talked to a Rasta roadie and bought a The Wailers - Catch a Fire Tour button badge. Knowing he had no chance of catching the last bus back to Leeds, he had slept under a tree in the lush green grounds of York University. I expect that when he left school he went to live with Bob Marley’s beautiful daughter in a wooden shack on the beach in Montego Bay.  

In the days when grades one to six were pass marks for a GCE ‘O’ Level and grades seven to nine denoted failure, in English Literature I managed an imperfect six. To this day I cannot imagine how I managed to achieve such unexpected success. I think the examiners must have given me a couple of extra marks for wearing my Who Shot King Duncan? tee-shirt during the exam. It can be said that my working life fell into three main areas of expertise; they being merchant shipping, pensions administration and podiatry. Without that certificate of competence, on which the Joint Matriculation Board spelt my name wrong, I just don’t know how I would have got on.

I don’t have many regrets in life but high on the list of those that I do have is my decision not to attend that Bob Marley and the Wailers gig.

A long time after the event (or non-event) two things have cropped up to rub salt into my wounds. The first was my beloved Priyatelkata telling me that in 1977, when she was only thirteen, she went with her friends to see Bob Marley and the Wailers near where she lived in Paris but didn’t tell her parents that she was going.

The other laceration stinger occurred one summer’s day almost fifty years after the forbidden gig. Whilst visiting my, by then, quite elderly Ma, we decided it would nice to go for a car ride over the North Yorkshire Moors, stopping for a bit of lunch in a nice country pub. The sun was shining. The weather was sweet.

‘Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta’ she started singing as we motored along the A64 towards Malton.

‘What are you singing that for?’ I asked in utter astonishment.

‘They played it on the radio while I was having my breakfast. It’s a really nice song. It’s by Bob Marley. I like him.’

The hell-broth that had boiled and bubbled on the stove in our kitchen at the beginning of my tale turned out to be something different to what I had expected. I could perhaps describe it as stewed bicycle inner-tubes in a parcel of some sort of leathery-textured, offal-flavoured substance. It wasn’t very nice. In fact, it was almost as bitter as I was. But it was better than what the poor black babies in Africa would have been having for their tea that day, apparently. Little consolation in my mind.  


ABC 117       

Photograph: Me taking full advantage of my grade six GCE ‘O’ Level whilst painting the sharp end of a big rusty ship floating about somewhere in the Persian Gulf.



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