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A Shout From The Attic: Return To Zin - 14

"If you want to know what your infantile protestations and arguments for doing something your mother has stopped you doing when you were two-and -a-half, listen to a drunk plead his cause to the Law.''

Ronnie Bray recalls a bleak and belligerent New Year's Eve.

I was waiting in Holdenhurst Road in New Year’s Eve 1962 for Esmé to come home. She was not expecting me, but I found it increasingly difficult to not try to see her whenever I could. We had been separated but not divorced for several years by this time, and I had gone back down to Bournemouth from Huddersfield hoping to patch things up between us. I didn’t know it then, but things were too far gone for that.

Night wore on, as nights do, and no sign of her. I waited. I had nothing else to do and nowhere to go. On the opposite side of the road was a public house, and in front of it a little drama was preparing to play itself out. Two Irishmen had been ejected for drunkenness. They were sober when they went in, but they were sold drink in exchange for currency and when they had sold them too much they threw them out. Those to whom they had not sold an over sufficiency were permitted to remain inside, presumably until they too had exceeded the house’s legal limits of what was appropriate.

As far as I understand the situation, the money they passed across the bar was acceptable, but the results of what was passed back to them in exchange for it were not. No refund was given to the revellers because their night out had been abruptly terminated as that, obviously, was acceptable while its dispensers were ruled not to be. And there, with the staff and partygoers inside the pub enjoying a celebratory extension of licensing hours to mark the year’s passing, and the summarily ejected tipsies from Tipperary outside fuming on the pavement, except that the management had called in police reinforcements to ensure that their ejection remained effective.

As the smaller of the pair tried to re-enter the premises he had summarily been un-entered but moments before, the heavy hand of the law clamped its leathern glove on his shoulder and in a voice befitting Father Christmas said, “No you don’t, my lad. You have been barred.” There is some truth in the saying, ‘Wine in, wits out,’ and though I doubt that wine had been this fellow’s tipple, the results were the same. The witless one argued with the policeman.

If you want to know what your infantile protestations and arguments for doing something your mother has stopped you doing when you were two-and -a-half, listen to a drunk plead his cause to the Law. He employs the same level of debate and the same arguments as you did when a tot. To the sober they sound as specious as they are, but to a drunk they become irrefutable logic. The policeman, wise that he was, did not attempt refutation, instead he explained that he was out and staying out and if he didn’t move along quietly he would have to lock him up although, the Bobby explained, “I don’t want to lock you up on New Year’s Eve.”

The policeman could not have been kinder or gentler, and the small sot could not have been more unreasonable as he descended into a drunken furore. His equally inebriated friend stood placidly by. Whether he was amused or not was not possible to tell because he had on him the featureless face of the totally drunk that gives nothing away as to the emotional state of the wearer.

I have heard the expression ‘hopping mad,’ but until that night I had not seen anyone incensed to the point where they actually hop. The little drunk tore at his coat, thrust it wide on his shoulders and went into a crouch from where he repeatedly launched himself into the air calling out curses in a tongue unknown, but whose general tenor conveyed amply that he was not best pleased with his situation.

By this time I had crossed the road to stand near the policeman in case some altercation developed between the two of them and the one of him. A second or two after my decussation, the hostelry’s doors opened again and out came two young men. One conveyed by his speech that he was Irish and the other by his words that he was New York Irish. They had witnessed the deterioration of the pair of prior Paddys in the pub, had watched their forcible exits, shaken their heads somewhat, and exited themselves to discover the situation that had developed outside on the pavement.

After listening in silence to get a grasp of the communication between the hopping one and the stolid policeman, into which the tall hitherto silent one had now insinuated himself, they ventured their opinions. Said the one from Eire, “You are a disgrace to Ireland!” The transatlantic Irishman said, “If you were in New York you would have been shot by now!” I made a mental note to avoid New York.

Whether, and if so in what way, these interjections were intended to placate the disputants and mollify the situation is hard to determine, but if they were, they failed. The ejectees warmed to their audience, and reissued their pleas for justice in wicked anti-Irish world ruled by a solitary unarmed British policeman with nothing but his woollen overcoat and truncheon, which he did not draw, between what could at any moment become a savage beating at the fists of two angry men the worse for wear due to their own intemperance.

Finally, the policeman agreed to fight them if that is what they felt they should do. “Not here,” said one of them, “it’s too public.” “Let’s take it round the corner, then,” said the Bobby obligingly. He headed for the corner where a side street led off and from there was a back street. The ideal place to launch an attack unseen. The bobby walked towards the opening, and the two Sons of Erin followed him as best they could, and an Englishman, Irishman, and American, followed close on their heels.

Turning to see whose footsteps they heard, the pair invited the policeman to send we three musketeers away. The policeman knew that if one of the fighting pair took a swing at him that we would set upon him and his companions and assist him in delivering them to durance vile for their troubles. “Make them go away,” shouted an angry boozer. “Send them off,” echoed his companion tippler. The policeman calmly replied, “It’s a free country. They can go where they like.”

We were close enough to the belligerents by this time to smell the blood in their alcohol systems, and we looked at them grim-faced, which is easy when the snow is falling and your feet are numb. But those two fellows, who were willing to set about one elderly Peeler in a two-on-one match, didn’t like it when the same odds were gathered against them. They were still two, but the forces of law and order on the last December night of that year had multiplied into four, and we were not going anywhere.

Naturally, the New Yorker was the most vocal of the legal posse, and maintained a continual harangue against his fellow countrymen, several times removed, for their fecklessness and dissipation that they eventually got the message and we followed them, keeping a respectable distance, until they skirted the roundabout and disappeared down Christchurch Old Road to return to their lodgings, sadder, and, one hopes, wiser men.

The four musketeers did what all decent people were doing that night, and shared season’s greetings, and well wishes all round, shaking our heads sagely at the wickedness of some people whose cups were too small for their libations. And thus rolled around one more year in the tireless adventures of this old planet.

Esmé eventually came home safe and sound, but was not in the mood to share greetings and well wishes with me, and I got no invitation to see the New Year in with her over a cup of hot chocolate. As Browning said, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” What, indeed?

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