We were walking home from school talking about football, girls and who might be on Top of The Pops later that evening. We heard gunfire and it sounded close. It was coming from the direction of our estate!
It was 1974 and gun battles between the IRA and the British Army were a regular occurrence in the estate. We often had to run home to our houses for sanctuary during these battles which were spontaneous and could occur at any time of the day or night.
My friend David was hoping that Slade were going to feature on Top of the Pops that evening. He was a massive Slade fan and we often called him Noddy, but he didn’t like this as some people thought we were calling him after the character in a children’s story. He had big ears, which invited various abusive terms including oblique references to the F. A. Cup. Mind you none of us was brave enough to repeat these remarks in his presence, as he was a formidable boxer with hands like shovels. My other companion that day Johnny didn’t really care who was on Top of The Pops – as long as Pan’s People featured, he would be happy. I was hoping Queen would appear, as I loved their music. I was also rooting for Slade, as I liked their louder material.
As we approached the entrance to our estate we saw two armoured personnel cars and two jeeps speeding in our direction; one of them had a red cross painted on both sides of the vehicle. We quickly assumed that there must have been casualties. We were stopped dead in our tracks as a number of soldiers alighted from the vehicles and started firing in the direction of the estate. Our estate was on a hill and obviously the IRA snipers had located themselves at a number of vantage points. The army ambulance sped off towards the town centre with two soldiers struggling to close its doors. There were at least two other soldiers sporting blood-stained bandages on their arms. Some of the soldiers ran towards us and told us to stay put, although one of them was very aggressive and pushed David on to the ground whilst intoning various expletives and references to our perceived religion and nationality. We were frightened even though it was daytime. We thought this particular soldier would shoot us. A year earlier one of our school friends was shot dead by a different regiment whilst sitting on a wall. They said that this 13-year-old boy was pointing a gun at them. He was murdered just as he ventured into his teens and the soldier who fired the fatal shot was released from prison after serving less than two years. Another soldier came over and gave us verbal abuse, but he ordered his fellow aggressor to return to his vehicle.
We decided to take a short cut through a field that would take us away from the line of fire and into the back of the estate. Despite taking an alternative route we spent most of our journey crawling through the field just to be on the safe side. We were frightened and angry. David was cursing the soldiers, although he was more concerned about his mum’s reaction to his mud-stained school uniform. Johnny and I didn’t care as we could borrow uniforms from older brothers who had just left school. I was sure that all our parents would be relieved to find us covered in mud rather than blood.
Eventually we made it to a gap in a wire fence that led into the rear of the estate. There was an eerie silence in the intersecting streets as we made our way to Makem’s shop which was located in the middle of the estate and acted as a focal point for the local youth. The gun battle was over and the soldiers had retreated from the area. The IRA men had also disappeared, but within a few minutes we heard the names of most of those involved. One of them was Johnny’s oldest brother and he had been taken away for medical treatment as he was apparently wounded.
We met up with other friends who managed to get into the estate just as the gun battle started. David scrounged a cigarette off my older sister and he recounted our experiences to a small crowd of our peers who had gathered around him. There were various expressions of abuse for the soldiers concerned. House raids preceded the gun battle and a number of people had been arrested including a local politician who tried to intervene during one of the searches. For the next ten minutes we were heroes who suffered dearly at the hands of the British Army.
It was a temporary and unwanted distraction from the real concerns of our youth!
Within twenty minutes our conversation returned to the potential guests and presenters on Top of The Pops.
As far as I recall both Queen and Slade featured that evening. I don’t think Pan’s People put in an appearance.
We got a raw deal from the programme’s hosts as Tony Blackburn and Jimmy Saville co-presented and bored us all to tears.