John was knowing and snide, but snide in a way that impressed us. He wore a childsize black leather jacket, was the first boy at school to have his hair cut in a skinhead and declare himself a punk like his older brother. I’m not sure now that his brother was a punk. I think what Jimmy was essentially was a violent headcase. But John was our unquestionable authority on the matter. His main area of expertise was in distinguishing true punks from poseurs. Often this sorting of sheep from goats would be conducted from the window of Junior Two’s classroom. John would point out a passerby with bleached hair, or a cap sleeved t-shirt and test our skills. We’d invariably get it wrong. Wearing Doctor Martens was punk, wearing monkey boots made you a poseur. Blondie were all poseurs, and Debbie Harry the biggest poseur of them all. As far as I could tell the key difference between punks and poseurs was something to do with hygiene. If someone looked as if they might have been a bit sick on themselves they were a punk.
All of Jimmy’s behaviour was interpreted by his younger brother John as punk and so we absorbed Jimmy’s Borstal ways along with his musical choices. We all wrote ACAB on our knuckles because we thought that was punk. When Sister Kathleen told us off for writing on our hands (without knowing what it was the letters signified), John taught us the prison code of simply putting a dot on each knuckle. We were thrilled. I remember serving PC Talbot in my Dad’s shop on various occasions, terrified that he would notice the marks. Perhaps he did, but assumed the dots on a little girl’s hand were more to do with a childish game than a conviction that he personally was a bastard. He was probably right.
It was around this time that the fights with the school across the road began. It’s the natural order of things for neighbouring schools to scrap and throughout my time at St Vincents I had known that pupils of Cromwell Street were the enemy.This emnity though was pretty latent and half hearted until a dramatic incident changed everything. Cromwell Street kingpin Lloyd Blackford donned a cardboard dog collar, climbed up John Mahoney’s garden fence, and there looking down onto the tiny council house patch of grass, waved his fist and shouted: ‘I am Ian Paisley!’ Thus started the great sectarian skirmishes of Nechells.
From that point on, our war with Cromwell Street was no longer just some tawdry territorial scuffle, but a holy war. Their school could hardly have been more aptly named. The Cromwell Street pupils were transformed from just the kids you never saw at church into Oliver’s Army – hardcore protestant defenders of the faith, and we went from recalcitrant shuffling church attenders to an oppressed minority united by the communion wafers stuck to the roofs of our mouths.
I didn’t see much action in the war. Being a girl and living outside the tiny epicentre of the fighting, I got only second hand accounts of the skirmishes. The images were vivid enough though, fit for any gable wall. Lloyd Blackford, a latter day King Billy in a Fonz t-shirt, standing on top of the hill surrounded by his henchmen, swinging his snake belt around his head before descending on our brave boys.