‘Paperboy’ evokes nostalgic longing for childhood | VailDaily.com

‘Paperboy’ evokes nostalgic longing for childhood

Karina Wetherbee
Special to the Daily

There are moments of awkwardness in everyone’s childhood, and there are also moments of bliss, even in the meanest of upbringings. The Irish have made a veritable reputation off of the art of fervent living in the face of diversity, and the small green isle has been the scene of countless upheavals that have tried even the stoutest hearts.

One such stalwart soul is Tony Macaulay, author of the memoir “Paperboy,” a delightfully charming account of his two-year stint as a Belfast paperboy during the IRA uprisings during the 1970s. Beginning as a 12 year old in 1975, and continuing for two tumultuous years, Macaulay bravely delivered “forty-eight ‘Belly Tellys’ each night in the darkness.” And they were dark times, indeed, with rough streets and an ongoing risk of bombings and violent clashes.

But, as in any region of ongoing conflict, children find a way to continue with the daily task of living. Macaulay “was more interested in tips and TV and bonfires and music and outerspace” than he was in the violent skirmishes in Northern Ireland during what has been dubbed the “Troubles.” The book evokes the smells and sounds of childhood, those “every days” that are taken for granted, but which comprise the backbone of life. Written with a self-deprecating humor reminiscent of Bill Bryson or fellow Irishman Frank McCourt, “Paperboy” will evoke a nostalgic longing for childhood, especially for those of generation X.

Macaulay marks nearly every significant moment of his youth in reference to a beloved television show or movie celebrity. Pop music dominated and “Star Trek” and “Lost In Space” were frameworks for his imagination. The juxtaposition of these more pleasant recollections against the daily machinations that were a part of living in a city divided by religion and animosity make for a fascinating read.


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Driving the narrative is Macaulay’s illustrious career as a paperboy, and he was clearly serious about his job, well aware of the great privilege and status it afforded him. The dirtier and more worn a paperboy’s bag was, the more senior his position. Macaulay carefully crafted his relationships with his customers, as better relations meant better tips, and he reveled at reaching a top position in the paperboy queue. Friday nights for paperboys were significant, for that was when money was collected, and traversing the dangerous streets of Belfast after dark made them targets of IRA reprisals or simple hooliganism.

Because he was small and uninterested in fighting, he became crafty at eluding troublemakers. He would cut through yards and slide through fence cracks, hiding his earnings in his worn shoes. Having watched the city of his youth fracture and crumble around him, he was determined to be “Belfast’s first pacifist paperboy,” but he kept this information to himself, for he had a reputation to protect.

Growing up in Belfast meant keeping lots of secrets — what faith you were, what you did for work and where you lived. Who was Protestant and who was Catholic were always topics for conversation, and the “peace walls” that divided the two grew ever higher and increasingly stained with paint and petrol. Through charmingly sarcastic anecdotes, Macaulay highlights the silliness and pettiness at the heart of the unrest that gripped Belfast, showing what is often the case, that children see through the drama with clearer and less jaded eyes, not yet fouled by the prejudices and narrow-minded notions of their parents.

Though much of the book highlights the colorfully idyllic memories of Macaulay’s youth, there are moments when the larger world intrudes, very nearly imperiling his life as milk men and paperboys were being targeted for the political reprisals that engulfed the streets of Belfast on a regular basis. In spite of the violence, he couldn’t help but daydream what the lives of the Catholic boys on the other side of the walls were like. Were there paperboys? Did Catholics have acne and have to suffer through braces?

Ah, if only every child suffering through such conflicts could reach across the dividing walls and the bombed out rubble, and discover that acne is universal, as is joy, fear, pain and a longing for peace.

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