10 Days, 10 Songs -- The Great Escape

WHEN I WAS growing up on the Harpur’s Hill housing estate in Coleraine, my parents had a friend who lived nearby who would call round every now and then, sitting in the kitchen smoking with my mother and drinking tea. I don’t know how she became a friend. Maybe one of those conversations at the local shop that turns into a companion, I don’t know. I must ask my mother.

  In that way that families do, we started referring to her as my ‘aunt’, although there was no family connection at all. She was a lonely, tragic kind of figure who had already lost her husband, and who herself died way too young. I have a shapeless memory of her as a figure in a fur coat who handed me 50p coins every now and then and at Christmas, bought me inappropriate gifts for a 12 year old. A Jim Reeves record. Six pairs of socks. A joke book.

  The reference to The Great Escape was the memory that the movie - starring Steve McQueen - was on Ulster Television every three or four weeks, usually on a Sunday afternoon. And like all boys of my generation, I never tired of watching it. I must have seen it eleven or twelve times and I'd still watch it if was on telly tonight. But when visitors called on a Sunday, you always had to turn the TV off - and if The Great Escape was on, that was just... awful. To sit on the sofa sipping tea and answer questions from older relatives about how you were getting on at school, when you KNEW that right at this moment, McQueen would be roaring across the fields on that motorcycle, leaping towards that barbed wire fence and freedom.

 Harpur’s Hill wasn’t such a bad place to grow up – there’s a picture here of me with my cousin Hazel, standing outside the house on Hawthorn Place. I’m wearing my Stoke City Football Club top. That’s a whole OTHER story.

  When my mother and father and I first came to the estate, moving over from Killowen on the other side of the river, we lived in the maisonettes near the shops, and they could be grim. I was very young, and have murky, vague memories of dark alleyways and being surrounded by railings and concrete.

  Then we moved to ‘the Wimpy’. So-called because it was built by Wimpy Construction, it was an extension to the main Harpur’s Hill estate that consisted of endless ribbon streets and back squares, all named (apparently) after freighters that used to come into the harbour at Coleraine. We were on Hawthorn Place, but there was also Silverthorn, Blackthorn, Quickthorn, Redthorn... And each of them had multiple personalities: Blackthorn Place, Blackthorn Close, Blackthorn Avenue, Blackthorn Terrace... it was a nightmare trying to find anyone. The houses were breezeblock and pebbledash, constructed without central heating, as I remember.

  The layout of the estate threw up strange patches of greenery – triangles, trapezoids, long rectangles - and we would bravely throw down our jumpers and try to imagine them as football pitches. Quite often there would be a telephone exchange cabinet in the middle, or a lamppost to be negotiated as you lined up a free kick.

  I grew up in front of the TV, lying on my stomach doing my homework while toasting my feet at a three-bar electric fire, one eye on my sums and the other on Blue Peter or Scooby Doo. I was an only child, and I had a big bedroom at the back of the house that overlooked the back square, so I could see what all the kids of the neighbourhood were up to.

  (I could also occasionally see an attractive neighbour who brazenly sunbathed topless on occasions. That’s something I haven’t seen from the back window of ANY house I’ve lived in since)

  I’m digressing. My ‘aunt’ passed away suddenly one afternoon while I was out at school. The whole drama was over and gone by the time I came home. I remember feeling a fleeting sadness. I think that in dealing with death, teenagers cross a line around the age of sixteen. Before that, they don’t quite have enough connection with family friends and relatives for death to really sting. They shrug, and they stand at funerals tugging at their collars. After sixteen, they’re tasting adulthood - and death is like the ultimate opportunity to gush tears and get all morbid and philosophical. Some of them write poems and turn into Sylvia Plath or Edgar Allen Poe.

  I don’t remember it making a big impression on me, but the narrative and the set design must have stayed with me over the years. Once I started writing this song, it gushed like an oil well. It began life, believe it or not, as a slow waltz called ‘Yesterday’s Whiskey’. But it quickly became this Young Dylan pastiche. When we recorded, I battered hard on a tambourine for four and a half minutes and my arms ached for days afterwards.

  On the day that my ‘aunt’ passed away, a bunch of concerned neighbours kicked in the front door and found her literally dying on the kitchen floor. This would have been 1977 or 1978, in the pre-mobile days, when only a couple of people per street would have a telephone connected in the house - so you used the phone box up the street. The one at the top of her street had been so badly vandalised that it was unusable. My dad remembers running down the street to the next available phone box, knowing that precious seconds were ticking away. By the time ambulance arrived, it was too late.

  I drove up around the estate a few days ago, but I couldn’t find for sure the street where she lived. Once I left the immediate streets where I lived, my grasp on the geography of the place was slippery. I could find our old house, and the back square where I played. I could even remember most of the names of the people who lived in the houses backing on to the square. I could look up and see my old bedroom window. I could find the triangular, sloping patch of grass where we played football. All of it seemed a lifetime ago. Which of course, it was – three and a half decades. It’s funny how much you hold onto when you think you’ve left it behind, all those years ago.

The musicians on this track are:

Anthony Toner – vocals, guitars, percussion

Clive Culbertson – bass

John McCullough – electric piano

Paul Hamilton - drums



Well she came from good people, but no-one was with her,

and she moved to our estate to get her act together,

and if our lives are a novel, hers was torn at the edges,

sitting crying in the kitchen, smoking Benson & Hedges.

They were painting up the kerbstones for the 12th of July

My mother said I couldn’t join in, but she wouldn’t say why.


She wore this fur coat that always smelled kind of funny

And every time she came around she would always give me money

And at Christmas she’d get blue and let the film unwind

Sad tears and bad years and Blue Nun wine

We called her my aunt but we never were related

She gave me a Jim Reeves record, I don’t think I ever played it


(Welcome to my world)

Did we still win the war?

I was sleeping on the sofa when they called the final score.

And I’ll miss ‘The Great Escape’ for this.

Somebody blow me a goodbye kiss.


She’d lost her husband Willie to a heart attack,

and she was told she’d go the same way if she didn’t cut back.

Everything in her house was made of plastic and nylon-

when you looked out her back window there was a fence and then a pylon.

Sometimes the house was spotless, other times it fell apart:

Tobacco stained ceilings and the Sacred Heart


(Hail Mary full of grace)

Did we still win the war?

I was sleeping on the sofa when they called the final score

And I’ll miss ‘The Great Escape’ for this.

Somebody blow me a goodbye kiss.


I was just a little kid but I knew it couldn’t go on,

I came home from school one afternoon and she was already gone.

The neighbours came running and they kicked down the door,

and they found her lying gasping on the kitchen floor.

When your heart’s that big and broken, it can’t always be trusted.

My father ran to call for help, but the phone box was busted.


(Is anybody there?)

Did we still win the war?

I was sleeping on the sofa when they called the final score

And I’ll miss ‘The Great Escape’ for this.

Somebody blow me a goodbye kiss.