“We all go back to where, we belong” – Michael Stipe.
I reflect on these things way too often. But I can’t help it. I’m a sentimental person. I cling to memories, and good ones. I’m haunted by the bad memories so I lock them in a dungeon and slam the door, hoping they never again rear their ugly heads. I loved the past, I’m loving the present and I’ll try to love the future. I recently re-visited the street I grew up on and before I jaunt to Poland and Ukraine, there was another intervention this week, of telling impact.
“You’ll never change what’s been and gone” – Noel Gallagher
Life had taken me around the world and there were quite a few sentimental moments of real emotion along the way. I remember working in Delaney’s Irish pub in Hong Kong in September 2011 and realising I hadn’t been in Europe for over 2 years, I hadn’t been in Northern Ireland for over 2 years and I hadn’t seen one of my brothers for over 2 years. 2 years is a long time. In your life and in mine. But things couldn’t change overnight, nor do we want them to be that rapid. I was working in Hong Kong, I was living with my girlfriend and any time off we had, we would go to China, or Korea, or the Philippines etc. There was not enough time for me to visit my home country back then, and keep those job contracts. It was one or the other, and work and travel came first. It still does, but in a better way now.
“Don’t get sentimental” – Radiohead
It was even a struggle to get the time off a month later (October 2011) to fly all the way back to Belfast for my childhood neighbour and friend Michael’s wedding. I literally flew into Belfast on the Thursday, found a wedding suit Friday morning, went to the wedding, had lunch with my family on the Saturday, a quick school reunion with old friends on Saturday night and by 5am Sunday morning was on the flight back to Hong Kong, which was already 8 or 9 hours ahead. I got off the flight and went straight to work, in a Kindergarten in Tsuen Wan. It was more manic than Street Preachers. Nicky Wire phoned me and asked me to do a support slot. But I didn’t even have a phone.
“You’ve been so busy lately you haven’t found the time” – Damon Albarn
It was a great lifestyle back then, it was busy, I was teaching during the week, travelling on the weekend, working in other places like Internations when I could. But I didn’t realise I’d missed half of the life that I knew.
“Rain falling down, another minute passes by. I wait for you, but this time I won’t cry.” – Kylie Minogue
“You weren’t around brother. I don’t even know what country you were in”, said my youngest brother Danny to me recently as we drank beers in Liverpool, England.
He was right of course, I wasn’t around to see him growing up, I got carried away with travel, I pushed myself to the limit too much with it. I buzzed off it, but I was also heavily work focused. Take the money and go travel. Family, friends and my hometown can wait. They can and they did, but they shouldn’t have to.
“A nana na nana na na nana nah, beautiful stranger” – Madonna
So on Friday night, 4th December 2015, life had changed for me. I wasn’t too busy to do what I wanted. I stopped working for other companies and sailed my own ship now, through this blog. I built a means of earning the same amount of money online as I did in any of my previous jobs. It took me 2 years to get to that level, from 2012 to 2014. But the advantage was the freedom. I could come back to my hometown again and not have to dash off in 48 hours to fulfill a job contract on the other side of the world. I don’t even book flights or boats out anymore. I’m on my own time.
“I’m free to be whatever I like and I’ll sing the blues if I want” – Noel Gallagher
In such a situation, what do you do? In this case, you relive the sort of stuff you should have done 12 years ago when you left your hometown selfishly behind.
“Sing along with the common people, sing along and it might just get you through” – Jarvis Cocker
So two days ago, I headed back to my old Primary School, Kilmaine Primary School in Bangor, County Down, Northern Ireland. I went to the Christmas Fair in the school’s assembly hall on Friday 4th December 2015. My Mum is an expert at knitting, she can knit cardigans, jumpers, snowmen, teddy bears quite brilliantly (she is too modest to admit how good her knitting is). It’s all hand crafted and passionately made my my Mum. Mum had a stall at the Kilmaine Fair to contribute money to the school and earn some money for her passions.
As I walked through the doors of the school in this now quiet Bangor suburb, I could feel the sentimentality within. It scared me to think that 31 years ago, I first stepped into the grounds of this school. It wasn’t a quiet Bangor suburb in 1984, of that you can be sure. This place was a hive of activity. There were kids in every house on every street. At night in the local park, Linear Park there would be at least 100 lads to play football with. We had a lot of fun. We had 1000 pupils in that school. There were 30 – 35 in my classes back then. You were never alone.
“I don’t care about the wind in my face, because I’m not alone, these days” – Bernard Butler
I cried on my first day here at this school. The sun shone. That was September 1984. The 80s were brilliant. I’m tied to them. I loved them. I missed the episodes of Neighbours I used to watch, I dug out my first ever LP and tape (cassette), Kylie Mingoue’s “Kylie” album, I found my posters of Norman Whiteside and Northern Irish football when it boomed, I saw those raw moments of happiness that for whatever reason in life, can never be replicated.
“Saudades” – a Portuguese word that means “the sentimental memory of a moment which can never be replaced”
Here in 2015, it was an odd feeling being back in this school. After setting the stand up with Mum and Dad, I was alerted to the fact that Mrs. Thompson (who was called Miss Preston before she was married in 1985), my first ever teacher from P1 in 1984 was manning a stand in the same hall. A quick glance over and I saw her. It had been 31 years since I first stepped into her class, over 20 years since I had last seen her. I wondered could I talk to her again…
Life goes on for everyone, and we don’t have time to dwell really. It’s a shame. But I make a beeline for Mrs. Thompson, it was amazing to talk to her again. We chatted, I remembered her with fondness from that classroom, she remembered teaching me and it felt like another of these crazy “full circles” on life’s corridor. In the madness of life here, one of her friends, Yvette now dates my uncle Jack.
“Ob la di, ob la da, life goes on, oh oh oh life goes on” – Paul McCartney
Thank you for teaching me so well in 1984-85, Mrs. Melanie Thompson, there remains something special in life about your first ever teacher. Having taught in Primary Schools and Kindergartens in Hong Kong, the emotional connection can’t escape me. Being reunited was a moving experience. It was so spontaneous and unexpected as well.
Life moves fast though, remember. So I headed back to help Mum and Dad sell the gifts. Children chatted to me. The children of tomorrow. They were happy, they were talkative, they weren’t shy like me. The P7 girls came over to sell marshmallow snowmen to me and at first I said I didn’t want to buy the snowmen. But I saw the happiness on their faces, their smiles and pride at being aged 10/11 and selling things at a Christmas Fair, so I bought two snowmen. They were so happy and they told me their dreams to go to the secondary schools next year.
“The children of tomorrow dream away in the wind of change” – Scorpions
The evening went fast though, and I spoke to three of my 7 former teachers from this school, Mr. Rea (P7), Mrs. Corry (P5) and Mrs. Thompson (P1). I met some old friends I hadn’t seen in years – David Barr, Steven Boyd, Davy McGuinness and my sister’s friends Gillian, Andrew and Susan. Ex-Northern Ireland international Rory Hamill came over to chat as well – he was a hero of mine in the 90s when he played for Glentoran and Northern Ireland.
“Why do only fools and horses work?” – John Sullivan
Some things you ponder on. You have to. I noticed that in the intervening years, my friends had all grown up, a life that passed me by. David, Steven, Davy, Gillian and Susan were all here because their kids now go to Kilmaine. I’d been too busy travelling to notice. Each of them knew I travelled, somehow word had got round to them, they remarked “where are you off to next?”. In turn, I found myself asking them “how many kids have you got? What P are they in?” It was me that was the odd one out. I knew that now.
“It’s crazy what you could have had” – Michael Stipe (again).
I continued to help Mum sell items and I chatted away to lots more people including Brian Hall who was the BB leader when we went to Glasgow in the late 1990s, Susan McInnes and Cathy Andrews – two of Mum’s friends.
The Kilmaine fair was brilliant. Everybody was just so happy. The children just made me proud and happy. Proud that in the 1980s, I had been a pupil here too and we know it was good fun. The 1980s were great. It was the 1990s that changed me. I didn’t like my secondary school at all, I hated it in fact and as I type up more chapters for my book, I contrasted the two decades. If I had stuck with the 1980s vibe from Kilmaine, I’d have stayed happy here in Bangor, Northern Ireland. But anger, frustration and the rebellions of the 1990s lingered deep in my mind. Episodes from the danger zones, The Great Exam Heist, its cruel aftermath had changed my teenage years were a catalyst and I looked out to the world now. I didn’t belong in this town, Bangor, anymore. I headed off into the sunset over 12 years ago, working my way around the world, visiting some 100 countries, like a man on a mission. That was my belief and that was what I did.
Other past pupils from Kilmaine also inspired me. In my year, Zoe Salmon went on to win Miss Northern Ireland and present UK TV Show Blue Peter. Ashley Hutton went on to play football for Arsenal and captained the Northern Ireland ladies team, winning over 70 caps. And currently, Kilmarnock footballer Josh Magennis is a first team regular and scored the important second goal for Northern Ireland against Greece the night we qualified for the Euros. There is magic in this school.
This town, Bangor, and this school, Kilmaine Primary School has a special place in my heart. But I didn’t realise it, until I went back properly after all this time.
“Simply put I saw your love stream flow” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
By around half eight, the fair was over, it had been a success and a fantastic evening. I put on my coat, packed up my Mum’s boxes and left the building. I’m 97% sure I cried.