Michelle O’Neill’s recent comments about there being “no alternative” to IRA violence has been dissected by various commentators (some of whom pointed to John Hume as a shining example, while ignoring the vitriolic abuse hurled at him 30 years ago for dealing with Sinn Fein) and reassembled in bad faith by various Twitter types who wear the fact that their parents didn’t join a paramilitary organisation as a badge of honour.
To paraphrase Chris Rock, what do you want? A cookie? You're not supposed to join a paramilitary group, you low-expectation-having motherfucker.
It is important to consider that, equally, many loyalist paramilitaries felt there was no alternative. Indeed, the perception among many within loyalism is that it was one of protecting the community and the family, with many discussing how fathers would man barricades by night and then go straight to work when morning came. As Anthony McIntyre has pointed out, the theme of defence crops up constantly in loyalist writings so it is clearly something that cannot be dismissed out of hand.
If we’re going to come to terms with what happened in this country, we need to be honest. And one writer who has been giving an honest voice and personality to loyalism via the arts is Robert ‘Beano’ Niblock, who has published No Milk Today off the back of delivering a book of poetry, a play as well as collaborating with Gareth Mulvenna on various 'Belts and Boots' nights, all of which have been well received.
Niblock describes the book as a selection of stories:
. . . that I have been writing over the years. Most of them are standalone but there is a little connection with a couple of them. You will have spotted the lineage of the two main characters in No Milk Today: revisiting the legacy of the Tartan gangs of the time and the subsequent journey into loyalist paramilitarism-with heavy influence from ‘older men’.
Set in 1973, the story that gives the book its name is a strongly evocative piece, due to the contrast between the youth of the characters (with references to The Sweet and Last Tango in Paris) and the heavy atmosphere of violence, rumours and paranoia (all too prevalent throughout the early years of the conflict). I must admit, I did have a chuckle at a line referring to Last Tango . . . said by an RUC man while casually interrogating a loyalist hit squad. Such details make for an intoxicating read.
‘O Krok Dalej’ takes on the veneer of a story of mischief and good natured oneupmanship before it goes out of control very quickly. It also, in a way, acts as an inverse of the opening tale ‘Cardinal Sin’ where the beginning of the conflict ends up creating division and suspicion among long term work colleagues. With both tales, Niblock shows how easy it can be for a situation to escalate beyond control, be it external or internal.
As you may have picked up, this is not a book that deals exclusively with our recent past but uses it as a framework for examining working class life and work relationships. Take this excerpt for example:
My driver - Andy Mills - would be there already making sure the loaders had the order just right. Andy was about forty - sound as a pound he was. He’d two kids – daughters - and loved the Arsenal - me and him argued constantly about football. He called me The Yid… Big Terry the yard supervisor was standing-full length brown work coat - a milkman's hat that had seen better days - and a clip board with a blue Biro dangling from a piece of string. Terry was due retirement sometime soon - it was rumoured he’d been here since the milk was delivered by horse and cart for fuck’s sake . . . Nobody wanted to go to Bay Six. Ever. That was definitely a phrase you didn’t want to hear anytime, let alone at five o’clock in the morning . . . You were paired up with Sammy Smith. Jesus! I’d only been out with him a few times, thank God. The float windows were down all the time because he smoked constantly, but just as well they were down because he stank of B. O . . . he also farted nonstop but that wasn't his worst habit. No. He had this skill of hawking up these mouthfuls of stuff . . . with a shuddering throaty roar that at least gave you a warning for a globule of phlegm and spit that was aimed out the side window: the passenger window. Through years of practice, most of the time it made it the whole way out. Most of the time. His most disgusting habit, however . . . well . . . we’ll just leave that one there. His nickname was Pickalicka.
Another thing that springs out is Niblock’s use of dialogue. Staccato, heavy on the Belfast dialect and cut through with an ambiguous tone (is this character being nasty/having a laugh), it captures a piece of Belfast life that not only moves the story along in a swift manner, but is very difficult to replicate without falling into parody or becoming obtrusive for a reader not from the city:
‘“Okay guys-don't wanna be hanging about here all night”.
No one spoke. Or moved.
He turned a chair round back to front and sat on it. His two friends remained standing. Impassive.
“No doubt yez’ve noticed what’s been happening since the turn of the year?”
It was a rhetorical question which he didn't expect an answer to.
And he didn’t.
“Three soldiers . . . Two peelers . . . and three Prods killed . . . and we haven't lifted a finger to do anything about it”.
He straightened up in his chair, took a polo mint out of his pocket and popped it into his mouth.
No one spoke.
There was some fidgeting amongst us until, Roscoe…
“We need to hit back then Bobby . . . that’s what you’re saying”?
“Ten outta ten for paying attention at least”.
Bobby slowly scanned the rest of us seated around the room.
I felt uncomfortable.
He then looked directly at me.
I reddened and felt a cold sweat.
“What’s your name son”?
“Hovis” I stammered.
“What’d’ ya think Hovis”?
“What about Bobby”?
“The price of coal for fuck’s sake”.’
Here we have a scenario that, among other writers, would be played out with stern sincerity. Each participant listening to a charismatic leader whose tone and volume increases as he speaks. With Niblock, he paints a much more realistic scenario where an older man is surrounded by a bunch of teenagers who feel their way of life is under attack and need to hit back, but still have the mentality of teenagers. When that is considered, the loss of life in the conflict takes on an even greater poignancy.
Once again, Niblock hits it out of the park. Not only is this an excellent collection of stories that reflects working class life, the different facets of the male personality in a competitive (or hostile) environment and a Belfast that still holds a grip on the collective psyche fifty years on, but it also does an immense job of adding character and drive to men who have been consigned to history as either faceless killers or grotesque caricatures.
Robert ‘Beano’ Niblock, 2022, No Milk Today, ACT Initiative, Privately Published.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.