Paperboy author Tony Macaulay: Musical brought me back to my 12-year-old self

Tony Macaulay didn't think Paperboy, his 'ordinary' account of growing up during the Troubles, was good enough to be published, yet it was, to critical acclaim, and now it's a musical. The west Belfast author chats to Gail Bell

Tony Macaulay, author of acclaimed Belfast 1970s memoir Paperboy, which has been made into a musical. Picture by Mal McCann
Gail Bell

TONY Macaulay has few regrets in life, but it is gnawing source of disappointment to him that his mum and dad did not live to see their 'Westy' disco pulse vibrantly into life on the set of Paperboy the musical.

As a revived adaptation of his 2010 internationally acclaimed memoir prepares to hit the stage for a second time this summer, the author, peace-builder and business development leader believes his late parents would have been "proud and very moved" to see their unglamorous little 70s youth disco immortalised in a piece of modern theatre.

The Belfast nightspot at the top of the Shankill kept hundreds of young people off the streets during some of the worst days of the Troubles and is integral to the new-look Paperboy musical produced by BYMT (British Youth Musical Theatre) and featuring the talents of Andrew Doyle (script and lyrics) and Duke Special (aka Peter Wilson) who wrote the score.

For Macaulay, the eponymous paperboy delivering the Belfast Telegraph for pocket money, it has proved another joyous trip back on to the dance floor of his childhood – and a surreal diversion right into the over-active “sweetie mice” mind of his 12-year-old self.

“I was always imagining I was in the latest science fiction TV show or that I was James Bond or Dr Who, so Andrew Doyle basically took those little snippets in my imagination and turned them into whole scenes on stage,” he enthuses. “A brilliant scene involves my beloved sea monkeys [a pet craze in the 1960s] which were advertised as exotic little alien creatures but were basically just tiny fleas.

“My wee brother uses their jam jar to do some painting and unfortunately they don't survive the experience, but, the way Andrew has written it, they come alive and chase people around the stage. It's really very funny.

“I look at it all and I think it would be so lovely for my parents to enjoy it too and realise how significant a thing they were doing, not just for us, but for lots of other working class kids growing up at the same time.”

He is in Budapest training a group of world leaders from the automotive industry in business development skills when we catch up and, despite success with three later books – Breadboy, All Growed Up and Little House on the Peace Line – he is still endlessly surprised at the number of readers who show interest in his “ordinary” account of an “ordinary boy” growing up in what was a very different kind of Belfast.

"I honestly never thought Paperboy would go quite so far and make it on to the stage as a musical," he confesses. "In fact, I didn’t know if it was even good enough to be published as a book. Suddenly, it was in Eason's in Belfast and then, three years later, it was in Barnes and Noble in Fifth Avenue in New York. I'll never forget the day I walked into that shop and saw a pile of my books sitting there for sale."

In Paperboy, the Troubles are always there in the background but, almost inevitably, there are times they must come centre stage.

So, amid the fun of sea monkeys and energetic soundtracks from The Bay City Rollers – still Macaulay’s favourite band – the writer doesn’t skip over the account of his Scout troop having to hide behind a car once to avoid spraying gunfire.

“There had been a bomb planted at the shops across the road from where my Scout troop was meeting and I remember running down the street and the bomb going off,” he recalls.

“Those incidents did worry me because they came so close to home, but in terms of general day-to-day things, like having to evacuate shops, not being able to get home at night because all the buses were off – that all seemed normal because, really, you didn’t know anything else.

“I sometimes reflect that I should have been more scared than I was, but it was so normal that you just got on with everything and my family certainly wasn't unusual in doing that. I think that is maybe one of the reasons why people from outside Northern Ireland are interested in my books – there is a social history there and they get to see how ordinary people lived through extraordinary times.”

Encouraged by last year’s unexpected success of the musical version of Paperboy – which first started life as an assignment for an Open University Creative Writing course – he is soon to start work on a musical adaptation of second book, Breadboy, after which, his first novel, Belfast Gate, will launch in the autumn.

And, following Paperboy’s four-day run at the Lyric in August, there is talk of a USA tour next year and also dates in Dublin to be confirmed.

"We wanted to build on last year’s success and make the show even better for audiences this year," Macaulay says, "and, for 2019, there are some changes to the narrative and character details, as well as a brand new song.

“Unfortunately, though, a dance I taught everyone didn’t make it into the new script – the Slush was a favourite back in the day, but they said, ‘That’s lovely, but we’ll do the proper choreography now… As always, Andrew and Peter make sure the end result is authentic and true to the book. I think it is beautiful what they have done with it.”

A graduate in media studies and former youth leader in the republican community (at a time when his wife, Lesley, was doing the same job in Protestant strongholds) the Portstewart-based writer – who studied for an MBA at the Open University before enrolling for something "more fun" with creative writing – is hoping his first venture into fiction will be just as warmly received by his many fans.

Belfast Gate, a tragicomedy set in the present day, tells the story of a cross-community women’s group in west Belfast who start a campaign to take down the peace walls. Coincidentally – or perhaps not – it has echoes of his favourite scene in Paperboy which struck an emotional chord with one particular theatre-goer last year.

"I had noticed an older woman waiting around at the end of the one of the shows looking a bit teary," Macaulay reveals, "so I asked if she was OK. She told me they were tears of joy as she had been one of the 'peace women' at the peace rally we had re-enacted from Woodvale Park in 1976.

"It brought me right back to my 12-year-old self, climbing up the fields on the side of the Black Mountain, to see what was happening. I remember looking down and hearing the women sing, Abide with Me and Give Peace a Chance and the women from the Falls Road opening the gates and walking across the peace line where the women from the Shankill welcomed them with open arms.

“There must have been 28,000 people there that day and, even at that age, watching from a distance, I felt hope. I think that is what is really unusual about Paperboy – there are people going to see it who were actually in it."

:: Paperboy is back at the Lyric from August 1-4. A pop-up exhibition of 1970s memorabilia, organised in partnership with National Museums NI, is also running at the theatre from July 31-August 4.

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