Nineteen seventy six. The year bootboys ended and punk started. The year I first saw the Boomtown Rats playing in the basement of Moran’s Hotel. And the year I left school and got a fulltime job in a bar. I remember going for the interview. I waited in the bar next door which was owned by the same guy. A man of seventy played a reel on a fiddle while another pensioner danced a jig and no-one took a blind bit of notice. You’d be barred for life for the same action nowadays. Irish bars were great in nineteen seventy six.
I was led into the plush lounge bar next door. There I met George. He was small and extremely neat. He looked as if he had his pinstriped shirt tailored. He had a shock of black hair brushed back and was meticulously groomed. I had had my hair styled and wore my best three piece and polished brogues and still felt scruffy beside him. He had a certain style about him and it came out in the way he moved and spoke. We got on well and I felt it was a good interview. We shook hands and I thought that was the last I would see of this middle aged gent.
But a couple of months later I got a letter with an offer of an apprenticeship in a luxury city centre lounge. I had just turned sixteen and it was to be an eyeopener and an experience I would remember for the rest of my life. On my first day I had to wear a big pink bowtie and I started wondering what type of bar this was. But that was George’s style and we all went with it. Two other sixteen year old apprentices started with me and we went playing pool and drinking in other bars during our three hour break most days. One was a teddyboy and the other had all the indie punk music of the day. Most of the barmen were just back from London as was George and I got the impression they all knew one another from before.
At the end of one night, Karl, one of the older men asked me what I thought of gays. I said I didn’t mind them, he smiled, as long as they kept away from me. He had been extremely friendly from when I started but now he turned super nasty, bitching at me and trying to humiliate me every chance he got. I put up with this for a few days, then got sick of it and handed in my notice to George. He asked me if I was sure, saying it was a bad idea but I was determined. Outside that night I confronted Karl who was much older than I and he started to laugh saying so what. I proceeded to sort out the dissagreement Finglas style and punched and kicked the head of Karl. After I grabbed him by the hair and smashed his head off a wall a couple of times he realised he’d made a mistake. He squealed in disbelief at what was happening to him. After a while I decided he’d had enough. He staggered around calling me an animal. I asked him did he want some more. He went quiet.
He wandered off and it then struck me that I was unemployed. George came over to me and calmed me down. He said it was no-one’s fault, that Karl just took things too personally and he’d be sorry to see me go. He seemed genuinely sorry and I plucked up the courage and the brass neck to ask him for my job back. He was very cordial and agreed. Why couldn’t I be more like George I thought. Violence is not the answer but I came from a violent culture and would be slow to learn. I was in Dublin two now. On the southside. Things worked differently. George showed me things I thought posh but enjoyed. Like adding some sherry wine to a bowl of minestrone soup and then putting a daub of whipped cream on top. George smiled when I enjoyed it and agreed it was an improvement. In a way he was trying to tame me. Show me the finer things in life. You could take the boy out of Finglas West but could you take the Finglas West out of the boy. The others encouraged me to move into a flat, in Rathgar or Terenure. Somewhere on the Southside. That where I lived was ruining me, but I was too scared to leave my Ma.
One day George started fussing about the lounge. He wanted everything to be perfect. A friend of his was coming over from London and he was in a tizzy. He dyed his hair so black it was almost blue and got a new suit made which he wore on the day with a red rose buttonhole. He then ordered in a special meal and champagne for his friends arrival. His friend sat in a long booth with his entourage and George fussed over him all afternoon. One of his entourage remarked on this and on how old George was. An argument, no, a row broke out and George got extremely bitchy. Very un-George like. His friend took him to one side saying he didn’t realise how George felt and proceeded to patronise him something fierce. Then he went back to his companions. George looked heartbroken and I felt sorry for him. Some of the staff giggled but I felt like going to him and giving him a big hug, but I didn’t. Affection wasn’t in my vocabulary then.
George was down for a couple of weeks after that and then the news came. His sister died. His one and only younger sister. She was the only one that understood me, he confided in me. George had come from a small town in the West of Ireland and had had to escape to London when it was discovered he was gay. She was his only family contact and now she was gone. George slowly got grayer and grayer as he stopped dying his hair. He didn’t shave for days and came in drunk most mornings. Eugene, the punk apprentice was asked to accompany him all the time. He needed looking after. One day I was talking to Eugene and he was terrified. He said he was afraid George was going to make a pass at him any moment now. I said not to be silly. George would never do that. With George on the slip the bar started to slip and the barmen would sneak off for the night leaving us apprentices to run things.
It was the night of The Clash concert in Trinity College and the bar filled up with sixteen year old punks. They wanted beer and we understood their plight. This was Ireland and if a man wanted a beer he got a beer. Even a sixteen year old man. Pretty Vacant was put out over the P.A. system by Eugene and anarchy reigned. George came in drunk. He didn’t seem to notice anything. We went upstairs to open up the small lounge. I took the seats off the tables and sat them on the carpet. I went to go behind the bar but George blocked my way. He locked the door, turned out the lights and tried to kiss me, grabbing at my crotch. I opened the door running to the madness below while George collapsed in a booth and went asleep. I was a bit nervous of him after that and didn’t like him standing behind me. Soon after the bar was sold.
On the last working night George went down to the cellar and brought up the remaining bottles of champagne. We all sat and drank after closing, remembering old times. George asked everyone to sing a song and when my turn came I sang an old Rolling Stones song, “As Times Go By”. You probably won’t know it, I said. I sang and George’s face lit up. Turns out it was a gay anthem for the lads in London and George’s favourite song. Karl said I must be part gay if I liked that song and even we made up.
Friends at last we went our separate ways and I didn’t hear from them again until years later. My mother was still at the same address and a letter arrived for me in the post. George was having a reunion party and all the old crew was invited. It was a long time ago but somewhere inside me there was a ressentment and bitterness at George having made a pass at me and I wondered would he do it again. So I didn’t turn up.
I met Karl years later. He asked me why I didn’t go to the party. I said I’d meant to but didn’t get round to it. He said George broke down near the end of the night. Admitted he made a pass at me. Said that’s why I hadn’t turned up. That I’d never forgiven him. Then he cried. I made George cry. George. A lonely man. Seeking comfort in the only way he knew how. After the only person in the world who had understood him had died. All alone in the world and I’d made him cry. I was only sixteen when I knew George but I could have hugged him. Held his hand. Reassured him but I was trained in aggression in almost all emotional matters. A bootboys re-action. I’m moving past my Lou Reed New York Punk and into my Leonard Cohen phase now complete with poetry writing. I have a soft side. I thank George for that. Though I think it was a partial revenge. ‘Cause who’s sad and sorry and hurting now.