“Whit’s yer favourite colour wee man?” It’s a strange question to be asked in a dank seedy underpass. Maybe when I answered, the other young chap urinating against the wall with his back to me would turn around and my favourite colour would be written in marker pen on his forehead, perhaps these lads were merely travelling magicians. No, I knew exactly what was happening here, this was the prelude to either a fraternal bonding between us strangers and a safe passage through the underpass, or a beating, depending on how I answered the question.
This was back in my school days in the West of Scotland, and he meant, was I a Protestant or a Catholic; that was the true question. I’d been in this situation before, it was fairly common. You’re going about your business and you pass a sinister gathering of neds – kind of like chavs in England but wider. (I should explain that, I mean “wide” as in cheeky in an aggressive way, like when you try to wind someone up or being a smart arse, you’re being “wide”. I don’t know if that’s a Scottish thing, a West of Scotland thing, a Coatbridge thing, or a thing from just my street where I grew up but it was a phrase.)
Basically good-for-nothing troublemaking cocky little cunts.
As they were in a gang, they’d take the opportunity to trip you up, push you “accidentally” or just stand right in front of you and block your way without saying a word.
If they did grunt anything at you it was usually a question about your religion or what football team you supported – for they were effectively the same thing. It was almost like a sectarian toll-booth. Your answer determined whether you would pass without trouble or whether you’d have to pay (with bruises and teeth) for safe passage. They would do this because they literally had fuck all else to do, and it would give them a rare moment where they could feel powerful and like some kind of big man – a moment they could look back on fondly as they yo-yo’d in and out of prison in future life.
I was skilled at dealing with bullies. I was so puny and weak only the cruellest boys would even consider touching me, and even then their peers generally frowned on it as I was so physically pathetic. It would have been more socially acceptable to pick on a kid in a wheelchair than me with my 20kgs of body weight. A disabled kid would probably have been able to put up more of a fight too.
But failing that, were I to find myself confronted with aggression that completely lacked morality or boundaries, I was also funny. A funny voice or a bit of slapstick was usually enough to distract them. Sometimes I’d just trip myself up shortly before reaching them, oh how they’d laugh at how stupid I was and before they knew it I was through their gauntlet unscathed. One time I actually beat myself up. It didn’t hurt as much as if they did it, and I was very entertaining to them.
I know you’re thinking “why didn’t you just cross the street?” The reason is because I didn’t want a brick landing in the side of my head; trying to avoid them was merely an excuse for them to resort to makeshift range weapons. Or if you’re wondering “why not just take a different route?” I did, many times; it would often take me an hour to get to somewhere half a mile away because I had to detour via neighbouring towns. And even then it rarely worked, the little bastards had checkpoints everywhere.
Anyway back to the underpass; this was an unavoidable crossing underneath the tail end of a motorway, the lights rarely worked and the whole place stank of piss, for no other reason than the fact people pissed there, a lot. I don’t know if maybe it was something to do with the sound of cars overhead but something just made people’s bladders start to burst as soon as they set foot there. If I was very very lucky there would be no-one there (perhaps a changeover is sectarian checkpoint staff), if I was quite lucky there would be someone there, but they would be pissing. On most occasions there was a group of layabouts lining the corners at the entrance, keeping watch while one of them pissed.
“Haw wee man, whit’s yer favourite colour then?”
OK OK let’s think about this rationally, was there any sign as to their religious (and therefore sporting) leanings. A football strip, a cap, a badge, anything. Nope. My answers here were basically blue (Protestant, from the blue and white of Glasgow Rangers) or green (Catholic, from the green and white of Glasgow Celtic). I know you’re thinking white would have been an option, but at my school there was a question over whether white was a colour and the fact I knew this and they didn’t was one of the things that separated me from these neanderthals. Because I actually went to school, I wasn’t going to let them bully me into pretending otherwise.
With no leads I had a 50/50 chance of getting through this underpass with my face in one piece. I somehow had to guess their allegiance. I was neither religious nor into football, but by family I was Protestant and a default Rangers supporter. There was no point in trying to make out I supported some other football team or I was not a football fan, in both cases I’d get a beating usually reserved for homosexuals, and that beating was the worst. It had happened before, when I decided to pick a team from another Scottish city. This alone got me roughed up, my ignorance of football meant I also picked a team from the wrong religion, so I got kicked around extra for that.
I panicked and played my trump card. “Orange.”
Orange as in “the Orange Order” or “William of Orange”, Protestant/Rangers things. OR … orange as in one of the colours of the Irish flag… it was tenuous but I was confident they would find it acceptable and let me pass.
“Orange? Whit the fuck ye talkin’ aboot orange? We wirnae askin’ ye yer favourite actual colour, we wantae know whit fitba’ team ye support. Are you tryin’ tae be WIDE, wee man?”
Oh my, the clever little bastards. I was right back where I started.
The guy who was pissing finished off and turned around as he was halfway through zipping up his trousers. Hey hang on, I recognised that little prick from school.
Ah it was easy now “Orange as in King Billy. Yeah. Up the fenians!” (I didn’t really know what a fenian was but it was what my brother called Catholics so I went with it). “Down with the fenians! Yeah! Out with the fenians!” They started getting roused as if to join me, but I couldn’t think of any other directions suitable for the “fenians” other than up, down and out. It had worked nonetheless.
“Nae bother, haw wee man, whit ye up tae?”
I improvised, “Yeah, just heading through the underpass. Meeting up with some friends to … talk about how much we hate Catholics. Then, you know, pick up some milk for my mother from the nearest definitely Protestant shop I can find.” They let me pass thankfully. The way I was going on I was surprised they didn’t ask to come with me. Like I said this was a regular occurrence, and just a part of everyday life in those parts. I’d pretended to be an avid Celtic supporter and thorough Catholic on many other occasions.
I thought of this story because I realised just a few days ago how history seems to have repeated itself.
I work for PlayStation. Our biggest rival is Xbox…
UPDATE: I’ve realised since posting, that in this story, I talk like I do now, and the antagonists talk in a West of Scotland dialect. Just to be clear, back then I talked like they did too. If I’d talked to them with the accent I have now after 12 years in Birmingham and London, I’d have had the shit kicked out of me whatever my football team was…