The most boring thing an old man might say to me when I was young: “You don’t know you’re born. You lot have it easy.”
My father grew up in a world in which he was better off in each successive decade than in the one before it.
He had lived through two World Wars, as a small child who presumably took little notice of the first one, though psychologists say you can be influenced for life by events in those infant years.
He was seven years old when border posts went up just yards from his home. I can remember being seven, the building sites we played on in Riverdale, so presumably he remembered that for the rest of his life, too. He lived through the depression of the hungry Thirties and, for some reason he never fully explained, retained from that period a gripe against farmers.
He was in his mid-twenties for the Second World War and worked with “the Yanks” in Derry. Two of his brothers joined the Army. I never asked him why he didn’t.
I think he met my mother in Port Salon after the war. She had been a nurse in London during the Blitz. They engaged in some smuggling together, but didn’t make as much money as others they knew.
My earliest memories are of a house in a little estate in Ballycastle and starting school with the nuns.
My father was a barman in Belfast by then, on the Grosvenor Road in a pub called the Distillery. It was connected in some way with the Dunville Distillery and the Distillery football club. The whiskey is now distilled in Kircubbin and the club is based in Lisburn.
When we moved to Belfast, my first classroom was in the pavilion of Casement Park GAA ground, later used as a base for the Royal Artillery after Operation Motorman cleared the barricades and, later still, as a drinking club.
In my teens, I worked in bars with him where he was the manager. Two of them were burnt out by loyalists in August 1969. They were the Cliftonville Hotel and the Enfield Arms on the Crumlin Road.
These bars still served porter, or Single X Guinness. This was the cheapest drink, at a shilling a pint, but it took most work to prepare.
You took the black stuff from one barrel and the white from another and you shifted back and forth between the two to get the balance right, losing nearly as much into the drip tray as ended up in the glass.
After that, he managed the Unity Tavern in Unity Flats, where Provos and Stickies punched and kicked each other at the end of the night.
A vodka and orange was three shillings and seven pence then, about 18p. A pint of Guinness was two shillings. My father said he remembered a pint costing a penny. My pay for a shift in the bar was one pound. Later, I got a weekend job in the Unicorn in Castle Street for 25 shillings a night (£1.25p). Then, for a time, I wrote a column for Cityweek for three guineas (£3.15p).
My first pay packet as a reporter on the Sunday News was £1,000 a year — £20 a week plus a fiver in expenses. This was, I suspect, more than my father was earning in the bars.
Still, between his pay and my mother’s, as a part-time night sister in the City Hospital, they raised six children, clothed and fed us and managed to go out for a drink together every Wednesday and come back and shower the children in their beds with packets of crisps. Of course, there was the family allowance as well, student grants and the dole for the summer holidays once you were of working age.
There were massive disruptions in the lives of my parents’ generation, depression, wars and the Troubles. There were pandemics, too, attacking the children of my age. Some wore callipers to support their wee legs after polio. We had measles, whooping cough, chicken pox and mumps and I heard of children dying of scarlet fever.
My father’s generation had lived in fear of tuberculosis and he retained a superstitious fear that it was spread by cats. That belief probably came from seeing how asthmatics allergic to cats had coughing fits around them.
There always seemed to be a child in the class who was off school to recover from getting his tonsils or appendix out. And old people had walking sticks, because arthritis was something to be lived with rather than fixed through surgery.
Life got better in that generation and the political culture of the time was motivated to help people out of disadvantage.
That motivation derived, I suppose, from the harshness of life experience and expressed itself largely through the Labour movement.
In recent decades, though there has been a huge amount of social reform legislation, the state has pulled back on welfare support, public housing, student grants and pensions.
The state pension is no longer a sum that anyone could live off, though what else is it for but to sustain someone whose working life is over?
The hardship of the pandemic forced the government into public spending on a scale it would not otherwise have contemplated, but even then, a Conservative government’s reflexive instinct was to be stingy towards nurses in a health service that had strained itself to the limit.
There are two possible lessons from the lifetime of my parents. One is that life continually returns to crisis and hardship and there is no sound hope of enduring security. The other is that, despite hardship, life gets better, as theirs did.
Life is either cyclically disheartening and you never really escape from struggle, or it gets easier because a civilised country will create an adequate safety net for all and technology brings ever-better material comforts.
The two periods in my life that are remotely comparable to the great upheavals in their time were the Troubles and the pandemic. We came out of the Troubles to see our cities transformed, some changes that had nothing to do with government, like cheap air travel, but also with a health service eroded and benefits cut.
We will come out of the pandemic to what? A renewed understanding that “we are all in this together” and that the welfare of the most vulnerable contributes to the welfare of all?
Or just a sigh of relief that it is over and a hope in government that some other suckers will pay for it.