Issue 7

Catherine O'Flynn

At my primary school there were two people into music. John Mahoney and me. We both had a load of older brothers and sisters and I guess that’s what did it. Certainly our tastes were shaped by our elders. I like to think I moved on from that, and that John never really did, but I’m not sure how true that is.

Prior to acquiring my own independent tastes, I followed in the family tradition of Bowie. He was a rarity in our household by featuring in various of my siblings record collections – this to me was the original meaning of a crossover artist. Anyone who could sit next to my brother’s Pink Floyd and my sister’s Ohio State Players was bridging a significant chasm.

A few years later, in the early 80s, I would become tediously obsessed with Bowie. Haranguing idiot Duran Duran fan classmates at their failure to acknowledge his genius and influence. Around the age of eight though, my fondness for Bowie was more low key and significantly cooler. He was the background noise I’d grown up with. I didn’t feel the need to evangelise him to the girls playing skipping games in the playground, or to incorporate him, as I would later do, into any story or poem I wrote for school. My allegiance was signalled only by a badge. This wasn’t a button badge, which had yet to really dominate the pop badge market, but rather a slightly less comely larger diameter model. The badge was a miniature of the ‘Heroes’ album cover. Bowie doffing that invisible hat, whilst holding his leather jacket collars close to protect him from the non-existent wind.

I wore the badge with pride, but without comment. At primary school it passed beneath everyone’s scrutiny until a disastrous collision with David O’Brien during a typically bloodthirsty lunchtime game of British Bulldog. He grabbed at my jumper, I flailed and broke loose. Tearing madly to the safety of base, exultant at my freedom I didn’t notice David O’Brien weeping on the ground behind me, or his fingernail still attached to the back of the other David’s head, snagged on the pin mechanism.

‘Heroes’ was released in 1977 just a year after Bowie’s notorious Victoria Station incident. Whilst the Nazi salute was maybe nothing more than an unlucky freeze frame, some of Bowie’s comments during his Thin White Duke phase were less easily explained away, though of course both he and I would try our best in the years to come.

My classmate John Mahoney, as far as I know, knew nothing of Bowie or his fascination with the occult and fascism, but he too would find himself drawn towards the lure of the Reich. John’s older brother Jimmy had been to Borstal. I suppose it was this deferred cachet that gave John such influence in the playground. Certainly it’s hard to fathom any other explanation. He wasn’t good at football or fighting and he wasn’t cheeky to the teachers. He was a skinny boy with ginger hair. And yet he drew other boys, and me, the pathetic tag along tomboy, into his orbit like litter trapped in a cyclone.

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.

I was distracted from the frontline though by the appearance on Top of the Pops one Thursday night of a new group. The sampled Prince Buster screech at the start of the song acted like a dog whistle on me. I stared at the screen and saw Terry Hall’s sullen face; Jerry Dammers’ crazy leer and heard Neville Staples shouting strange words. The Specials were calling directly to me.

Now as an adult I find many other former Two Tone fans were just children at the time of the label’s heyday. I’m not sure what it was about the scene that attracted kids. Maybe the sharp tonik suits. Maybe the cartoon figure of Walt Jabsco. Maybe the infectious bluebeat sound. It’s hard for me to have a view as I was entirely unaware of this junior groundswell at the time. My classmates at St Vincents were immune to the charms of The Specials or Madness, who I could see even then were the crowd pleasers of the scene. A new more urgent craze was sweeping them away. Jimmy Mahoney’s latest gift to his little brother was National Socialism.

Back in the infants we often used to play Army or War or Soldiers. The country you fought for correlated with your power and influence in the classroom. John Mahoney and his right hand man, Mark Higgins, were the British. The boys on the next rung down played the Americans. The next the French. The z-listers of the team were made to play the Germans, and I the girl, below even them was made to single handedly represent Italy. I didn’t really know what Italy had got up to in the war – they didn’t feature in many films – so I just used to stand near the school wall shaking a big imaginary saucepan and shouting:‘Don’t shoot! I am a-making ze spaghetti.’ The boys seemed happy to have me thus occupied.

Now though it was the A-listers who wanted to be the Germans. We didn’t play Army anymore, we were too old for that, but copies of grown up looking books by someone called Sven Hassel started changing hands amongst the boys. John Mahoney came to school one day wearing a swastika arm band, an action met with fury and an incredibly long lecture to all of us from Mr Winter the headmaster. I wasn’t sure if this was all still to do with punk. I’d seen pictures of Sid Vicious wearing swastikas, but I’d thought that was just him being mad, not actually a Nazi. I didn’t like the idea of being a Nazi – they were so obviously the baddies. But when John Mahoney started the Blitzkrieg Gang I forgot my reservations.

The Blitzkrieg Gang was the elite commando force to be unleashed upon the Cromwell St rabble. It seemed odd to me – Nazis vs. Protestants – a weird mash up of history. Maybe I’d have found it less strange if I’d know then about the murky role of the Vatican during WW2, or maybe then I’d just have been truly confused. Already the figures of Rommel (John Mahoney’ personal hero), Ian Paisley and Bobby Sands were all getting mixed up into one big, lumpy soup. To join the Blitzkrieg Gang you had to pass an initiation test. You weren’t allowed to know what was involved in the inititation test in advance, and you couldn’t back out once you’d been told. I didn’t like the sound of that at all. I was essentially a good girl. I was also an enormous coward. My greatest fear was that it might involve playing on the railway tracks or in the storm drains of the canal, both things that many boys in the class used to do for fun and which filled me with absolute terror. Life outside the Blitzkrieg Gang though looked like a lonely existence and so in the end I said I’d do it. The leadership greeted the news with a shrug. They knew I’d tag along one way or another.

The inititation test turned out to be not so bad. In fact I think some of the boys were a little embarrassed by it. It involved breaking into a building site and following a prescribed course, climbing over the half finished factory unit. At one point you had to climb along some scaffolding, shout out: ‘I am a commando’ and then jump off. It seemed a bit silly. Even though it was a palpably soft test I still didn’t get involved with the climbing and jumping. One of my many terrors along with being killed by a train, drowned in a storm drain and savaged by a guard dog was falling off half-finished buildings. I said I wasn’t going to do it and the leadership decided that in my case just breaking into the building site was enough.

Once in the Blitzkrieg Gang life was quite sweet for a while. We had a den underneath a tree on the wasteland at the side of one of the massive gasometers at Saltley power station. Out of school we’d hang out there quite a lot, throwing stones at the abandoned machinery that littered the ground. We were always engaged in target practice though none of us ever mentioned that we were unlikely to enounter the enemy hidden away as we were in our little bunker.

At school the Nazi craze was slowly mutating into something more contemporary and British. I’d seen the graffiti ‘NF’ sprayed here and there in the area but Nottingham Forest were quite popular at the time and I thought it related to them. When John Mahoney started writing it on his hand though I knew that couldn’t be right as he was a Villa supporter like the rest of us. I eventually discovered that NF stood for National Front. I knew all about the National Front. In fact all I knew was what Jerry Dammers had taught me but that was enough. I couldn’t see it catching on at school, everyone in my class had immigrant parents, of one sort or another. Perhaps John Mahoney sensed this flaw too. Or perhaps his natural cowardice and barely concealed fear of confrontation made him choose the one ethnic group not represented at school, but for whatever reason a new acronym sprung up on his hand: APL.

This was not, what might have been at least consistent, an Anti Protestant League, but instead another of Jimmy’s Borstal hand me downs - the Anti Paki League.

I thought Paki was a bad word. It wasn’t one I’d ever heard at home. It seemed a toxic, hate-filled word even back then. There weren’t many Asian families in the neighbourhood which was predominantly a mixture of Brummie, Irish and Afro-Carribean. The only Asian children I ever saw were the children of the shopkeeper up the road. Sometimes they’d be out playing at the kerbside, two little girls with long plaits, and a smaller boy in what looked like a dress. Despite the weird clothes I felt the universal kinship of the offspring of retailers. I’d see them sometimes at the warehouse telling their dad which crisps to buy. I wondered if their dad paid any more attention to their advice than mine did.

Soon all the boys in the gang had white laces in their Docs, which meant you were APL. ‘Paki-bashing’ was apparently how they spent their free time. They spoke about it in coy terms, lots of nudges and winks, as perhaps they would speak in a few years about equally fictitious sexual escapades. They talked about ‘christening’ their Docs with the blood of their victims. I wondered where they were finding these victims. Did they mean the two little girls? Their four-year-old brother?

The Blitzkrieg Gang still met in its den. It wasn’t really much fun though. We didn’t speak about punks anymore, they seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth. None of the other members were allowed into town on their own, none of them had anything to say about music, not even rubbish music.The fights with Cromwell Street, in as much as they had ever really been fights, had died out. No peace agreement had been brokered, just a mutual recognition of the futility of that particular war. We spent long hot afternoons under the tree, throwing stones half heartedly at bits of metal and each other until one day the long awaited, never truly expected invasion came.

The invaders were three big girls. I’d never seen them before. They looked as if they were at secondary school – some terrifying pubescent Amazonian tribe. They strolled right up to the den, while we sat and gawped. They sized us up and asked the inevitable starter question – the question to which there was never a right answer:

‘What do you think you’re looking at?’

I can’t recall now how the conversation went. I remember that John was quiet and sheepish, the girls loud and aggressive. For some reason I was spared their attention. I’m not sure if this was an act of universal sistership, or because their only interest was in humiliating small boys. They made the others climb into the cradle of a JCB digger, which they then proceeded to pelt with stones and bricks. It didn’t appear to be a particularly terrifying ordeal. Both attackers and victims seemed equally bored and embarrassed by the theatricality of it all. Eventually the girls lost interest and drifted off, shouting threats and warnings after them. The boys took their hands from their ears and climbed out of the cradle. Mark Higgins said the girls were lucky to have left when they did, before the boys had launched their counter attack.

It would be tempting to say that that was the end of the Blitzkrieg Gang and the end of John Mahoney’s spell of influence, but I don’t suppose it was. It’s impossible to recall the chronology now, but I’m skeptical of any neatness to the story. I did eventually start tagging along less with John and the others. I found standing in records shops on my own, endlessly looking at records I already possessed or very much wanted to possess preferable to anything else really.

‘Ghost Town’ was released in June 1981, two years after ‘Gangsters’ and a few weeks before I left primary school. By the time I started secondary school in September The Specials were history. The break from my primary school was absolute. I had no cause to walk up to the flats and maisonettes where most of my primary school classmates lived, I caught the bus early for my new school and came home late. My new classmates lived in quiet suburban Hall Green, or bohemian middle class Moseley in landscapes apparently free from storm drains and building sites. The Specials had deserted me and so I turned back to Bowie, clinging to him tightly for the next few years, obsessing over his classic 70s albums, covering my school jumper with new smaller badges to ward off the evils of New Romantics and Wham! fan hedonists.

I never saw John Mahoney again. I’ve no idea if he ever outgrew his racism, or his infatuation with his brother. Years later when I was 17 I bumped into his old lieutenant Mark Higgins in a pub in town. He told me John had got a girl pregnant whilst still at school and had ended up marrying her. ‘Too much too young’ he said – six years too late - as he sipped his lager and black. He was dismissive of his former hero, laughing at his folly. I knew all about fallen idols. David was in his Glass Spider phase. We drank and chatted and reminisced about the mice in my dad’s cellar. My dad was dead by then, the shop and the cellar sold and I was living in a different part of the city. I found myself thinking back to one of the last conversations I’d had with John. In those last few weeks of primary school with 'Ghost Town' at number one, The Specials had finally done enough to dent the consciousness of my classmates. John asked me:

‘So are you a mod?’

This was a common misconception. The Specials, Selecter, Madness, The Beat were all seen as mods. Anyone in a suit basically. I wasn’t a mod. I knew very well that mods liked Motown and Northern Soul, but followers of ska were rude boys (or girls). I knew also that such a distinction would be far too finely graded and nuanced for anyone at school to get, even John Mahoney the one time great sifter of punks and poseurs, so I said simply:


‘I like the coats they wear. The parkas. They look good with the targets and stuff on the back. I might get one,’ he said.


‘But if you’re a mod, do you have to like wogs?

He knew the answer already, but I gave him what he wanted.‘Yeah, you do.’

‘Do you have to dance next to them?’

‘Yeah you do.’

‘Do you have to hold hands with them?’ He was laughing now at his deliberate childishness.

I laughed too.‘Yeah you do.’

John pretended he was choking on poison, holding his throat and sticking his tongue out, parodying his own disgust. I laughed at the charade. He stopped choking but carried on smiling at me.

I’m not sure if we choose our idols or if they choose us. I think if it hadn’t been for Borstal Jimmy, John might have been a different boy.