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The Vacuum Issue 8 spacer Issue 8
Licensed To Booze
by John Morrow
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On a Wednesday in 1956 I went to Donegal Place post office with a short form, witnessed by a Minister of religion and a JP and paid seven shillings and sixpence for my first driving licence - no R plates or test required. The whole transaction took not more than seven minutes.
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The thing itself was a tiny cardboard foldover, much like a library ticket of those days - no photo, of course. I had never driven a car, though I had read a 'How to' library book about it.
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The following Saturday morning, accompanied by a friend who did drive, I went to a garage on the Castlereagh Road and for a deposit of £29 hire-purchased a 1949 side-valve Morris Minor with (allegedly) 35,000 miles on the clock: a banger; it roared like a tank.
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The deal sealed, my friend drove us the road and out towards Ballygowan, lecturing me the while on the automotive process (he was a teacher by profession), particularly on the arcane innards of the clutch. He didn't mention anything about what's now called 'Road Drill', but I thought that might come later. It didn't.
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Once through Ballygowan he turned left onto the Comber Road and pulled over to the side. 'Your turn,' he said, climbing out and walking round the bonnet, the engine idleing. I could see he was serious. He had run out of talk and was bored.
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Naturally I was terrified. But not wanting to show it, to lose face, I shifted over and, after a few tussles with the clutch, set off. The old Minor, of course, was Spartan simplicity itself, which helped. In the first few miles there was some gear clashing, stalling, over-running at junctions etc. but I found that 'How To' reading paid off, providing a sort of internal commentary - which was just as well: my friend read the 'Daily Worker' all the way through Comber to Dundonald. A cold fish: an Old Campbellian Marxist.
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Outside Dundonald I pulled over to the side, shaking with the strain of it all, thinking he would want to take over for the journey downtown. But no; 'You've dipped your bum in the water,' he said, 'now swim'. And he suggested that we have the first pint of the day in the Duke of York, Donegall Street.
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I made it, at a top speed of no more than 20 m.p.h.. It being Saturday the traffic was light, though I should explain to those of a later vintage that even mid-week rush hours then were nowhere near today's bloody mayhem, even with trams and trolly-buses. Certainly there were no diminutive 80 year old widows, teetering on two-inch heels, peering through the steering wheels of 8 cylinder Mercedes (there are shoals of them in my up-market ghetto), nor was there the dodgem-like antics of wild-eyed young matrons on the 'school run' in 'people carriers', hurtling home to the arms of current afternoon lovers, if BBC soaps are to be believed. (You will have gleaned from the foregoing that I am an automotive misogynist, i.e. a grumpy old fart.)
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There was one minor contretemp in Waring Street. A large bay-windowed man in a cloth cap was waiting to cross the road when my front offside wheel mounted the kerb and ran over his toes. I said something like 'Oh Christ!' and didn't stop. My friend, looking back, said, 'He never flinched'. The industrial-toe-capped type, I'd say.'; this with lip curl aand reefed nostril that was more Campbell than Marx.
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We had two pints each that day in the Dukes. Afterwards, I drove myself smoothly through the city to my home on the Ormeau Road, where I was received with rapturous acclaim by family and neighbours alike: the first ever car owner in Ettrick Street.
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And so began my career as a drunk driver.
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Not to be one never crossed my mind. The breathalyser had not yet been invented; the police still moved mainly on foot and bicycle and they had few cars; only in the case of an accident did the question of drink arise, and was then computed by way of the suspect walking a chalk line on the road.
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Indeed, it was taken for granted that anyone driving a car after closing time (10 o'clock) was to some degree under the influence. The singing heard from passing cars then was probably the occupants themselves keeping the party going as they travelled between closed pub and after-hours shebeen. Instrumentation en route was not unheard of.
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By Xmas of that year I had progressed in my experimentation to a comfortable mean of no more than 4 pints before settling behind the wheel, 'settle' being the operative word. Sober, was inclined to be of an irritable disposition, short-fused especially with regard to things mechanical - and the car was giving increasing cause for concern. The above level of booze intake really did cause the awful cacophony of small noises to recede somewhat.
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And so it was that on the Saturday before Xmas, with 4 (or so) pints inside me - plus, perhaps, a half'un or two of festive cheer - I drove away from the Duke of York bar at 10.15pm, bound for a knees-up in the Albertbridge Road premises of the East Belfast branch of the Communist Party (at that time the branch with the longest membership roll in the U.K., I'm told).
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The knees-up was to welcome a Russian delegation over on a fraternal visit. In the event, I learnt later, the three-man delegation arrived falling-down-drunk and fit for nothing but the journey back to their hotel. The irate local Commissar, who had been practicing his speech in Russian for weeks, then closed the door and turfed everyone onto the street. (The comrade who drove the Russians that night said later that they had expressed, presumably in coarse mime, the desire to visit a brothel. Knowing of no such place in the Belfast of that time he was tempted, he said, to drop them off at a certain dark, deep gateway in Linenhall Street, where lurked a beef-ankled peasant from Mullingar who might just have made them feel at home. But he didn't).
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From the above you will have deemed that we never reached the East Belfast Kremlin that night. By 'we' I mean, firstly, in the back seat, a cadaverous convenor of the Paint-Sprayer's Union, a fully-paid-up Comrade who was to be our entrée to the festivities. As we travelled along Oxford Street to the Albert Bridge he alternately suckled on a pint bottle of stout and sang another stanza of 'The Song of the Red Cavalry'. This he did mainly to irritate the occupant of the front passenger seat, the fattest journalist in Ireland, whose political opinions in drink were somewhere to the right of Mussolini's. He clutched to his bosoms a paper bag containg a bottle of Powers whiskey, three-quarters full.
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That then was the tableau when we reached the end of Oxford Street. I had just started to turn left up the Albert Bridge when our nearside front wheel clipped the curb and fell off.
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In actual fact, though, it didn't 'fall': it bounder away up the road in the direction of the bridge, a slow motion, eye-riviting sight as the now uncontrollable car shot straight across the road and came to rest with its radiator wrapped around a lampost on the Markets side.
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Again, 'shot' is a bit heavy, for long (it seemed) before we had hit I had unfrozen from my open-mouthed contemplation of the skittish wheel and stamped hard on the brakes. No seat-belts then, of course; my head bounced off the windscreen and I saw stars briefly for the first time, and my knees jammed hard against the fascia, but no blood. The radiator belched steam at the lampost and I had the presence of mind to switch off the ignition.
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The journalist, carrying in front as he did a natural air-bag, had moved forward no more than two inches and was unscathed, though emitting a high-pitched obscene litany to do with the whiskey bottle, which had shot out of his grasp and shattered on the windscreen. Likewise, the open stout bottle of the Comrade behind had broken loose and was ejaculating a geyser of foam in the handbrake area. He himself seemed determined to finish his song.
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Keaton-like, the door on my side had sprung open on impact. The car had slewed round broadside to the pavement, and as I swung my legs out to disembark I came almost face-to-face with a man who sat propped on a windowsill in a row of terraced houses. Later I would observe the state of his boots and lower legs, and the stick he leant on, and conclude that he was a cow-walloper, one who nightly encouraged cattle to move briskly from the trains in Maysfield marshalling yards to the slaughter house. He wore what was then called a 'Paddy' hat (now ethnically taboo, I'm certain) and was smoking a short pipe, the stem of which he now removed from his mouth and pointed in the direction of the Bridge. 'You're in hot water now, friend,' he said gleefully. 'Wait'll they get a whiff of that brewery you're carrying.' Looking up the deserted road I saw a black Wolesly come cruising slowly towards us: unmistakably the police.
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The journalist had opened the passenger door and had tumbled onto the road, screeching still. I went round the car and heaved him upright, and then reached in and manhandled the Comrade out over the seats. Suddenly sober, the reek of them and the inside of the car got to me and I knew that all was lost. My job: I worked for the company that insured the car and they were hell on drink. My fiancee: we were to be married in April and had already arranged a mortgage (with the same company!).
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All this was going through my mind as I watched the Wolesly draw to a halt beside us. The passenger door opened and a large man unfolded himself, putting on and adjusting his cap as he straightened up - a sergeant. He approached our shambles slowly, talking in a loud country accent 'Sure I saw plainly what happened. We were just at the brow of the hill there, Bloody oul Minor an' their dodgy stub axles. That's what it was y'know. Happened to me two years ago in my own driveway. I read in one of them motorin' mags where the Morris people were going to call back such-and-such serial numbers for the years'.
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And so on, and so on, as he bent to survey the remains of the errant axle and then - Oh God! - ducked his head into the car, 'You got off lightly. All windows intact and no broken bones' (at this point he spotted the cow-walloper on the windowsill and broke off to shout, 'Well, Mickey. Are you keeping yer nose clean?' Mickey didn't reply). 'Look, if you want anything from us for your insurers, get in touch.. Alright now? Have you far to go? Would you like us to send round a taxi from the City Hall rank? OK, best of luck'.
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And away he went. As he opened the door of the Wolesly I thought I heard a snatch of song from within - but it could have been their radio.
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After the Wolesly had gone, the first to speak was the cow-walloper. 'You're one jammy bastard,' he said sourly. 'He was bluthered himself; full as a po. They raided a poteen still in Riley's Place a month ago. Took away the gear and a hundredweight of mash. They have it going in the oul stables behind the barracks. Not one of the buggers has drawn sober breath since. The sargeant couldn't smell drink the night if you poured it over him.'
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Whether there was any truth in the cow-walloper's tale I never found out. They were great myth-makers in the Markets.
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The company, satisfied with the stub axle theory - which was true - wrote off the car and I got a new (2nd hand) one. But I had learnt my lesson. I started teaching my teetotal fiancee to drive in February 1957.
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And 47 years on she is still the driver - in two-inch heels, backless flip-flops or bedroom slippers. She keeps a toilet bag stuffed with combs, sprays, touch-up paint and God knows what else in the door pocket, and at red lights she re-invents herself in the rearview mirror. Klaxoned by the irate pile-up behind she flourishes her disability card in one hand and gives a vigourous finger with the other. A Saturday morning beside her, slaloming round the car park at Tesco, can only be bourne after two gin and tonics - at least.
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Licensed To Booze
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