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Menk, by John Doran

Working in the Sun, Drinking Schnapps, Having Fun

So, let me tell you about my first beer.

My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE’s website thought it would be amusing to employ a 41-year-old who is physically on life’s downward slope.

In case you were wondering or simply too lazy to use urban dictionary, ‘menk’ is Scouse/Woollyback slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental. As in, “Your Sergio Tacchini trackie is sick la, look at that menk Doran, he can’t even afford a Walker trackie. Let’s hit him with a brick and push him in the canal."


MENK 38: WORKING IN THE SUN, DRINKING SCHNAPPS, HAVING FUN So, let me tell you about my first beer. Between 1982 and 1987 I went to the St Edmund Campion Roman Catholic School, a boys comprehensive on a housing estate in St Helens that got knocked down the year I left. One of my best friends was (and still is) Martin. His mum and dad were nurses at the nearby Rainhill Hospital, Europe’s largest Victorian insane asylum and their house stood on the grounds. Twice a week I would get off the bus after school early to go round to his and then people would yell at us: “MENK! MENK! RAINHILL MENKS!” Then they would belm over-exaggeratedly out of the rear window as the bus pulled away, slapping hands twisted into grotesque claws against temporarily spasticated wrists, faces warped into odd parodies of muscle malfunction, grimacing lip spasm and mental enfeeblement before resolving into laughter. And that was just our friends.  No one seemed to realise that the people who lived in the wards of this majestic building were the unfortunate souls suffering from lunacy, not the unfortunate souls blighted with mental and physical impairment. Or maybe they did and just didn’t care. Who knows what goes through the heads of schoolboys? A big thing at our school was that you could get beaten up if you had a big forehead. The tough kids, who were all Neanderthal looking, thick-browed cunts with tiny foreheads would go round and measure everyone from their hairline to their eyebrows. If anyone’s "fodder" measured over four inches, they would then kick the fuck out of them, screaming, “TEFAL head!” There was a TV advert for the French kitchenware company on television at the time featuring a bunch of scientists who had giant foreheads because of how clever they were, you see. And the relatively clever were feared and hated with a relative ferocity at St Edmund Campion RC. I was speaking about this to a Jewish writer friend from Poland recently and he said dryly: “I was at a music conference and I saw an engineer who was infamous for producing neo-Nazi bands, but when I spoke to him, he said it was all in the past and had just been the madness of youth. Then he got really drunk and asked if he could come back to my hotel room and measure my skull.” Martin’s elder sisters had gone away to join the Royal Navy and he had become slightly stir crazy, inventing games that didn’t make any sense for us to play. One involved us sitting on the roof of his house, filling our mouths with Angel Delight powder and then blowing through cheap mouth organs until one or the other of us would faint and then slide down the roof and off the side. I remember him, turning crimson, clouds of brown powder firing out of the end of his tiny instrument until he grunted, "Urgh, I’m going," as his eyes rolled into his skull, and his body slid limply off the side of the house.


The hospital was a magical place, if cold and menacing. Occasionally a terrified inmate would make a bid for freedom, running howling down Rainhill Road in their pyjamas and we would be there to see it. There was no white van, no giant nets, just harassed looking nurses who maybe spent a bit too much time in the hospital social club smoking John Player Specials or supping mild in The Brown Edge to be sprinting after the powerfully insane. The hospital would occasionally attract some national glare because of the higher security Scott Clinic and its temporary guests such as Ian Brady, who came in for psychological tests. But most of the time it was a quiet big place full of hidden nooks and crannies.

Martin and I spent a lot of time indoors listening to Queen, watching Queen video compilations, watching Queen live concert videos and talking about Queen. And then after that, The Cure: inspiring us both to cultivate Robert Smith hairstyles.

There is nothing quite like being 15, spending an hour backcombing your hair with Insette Extra Spiky hairspray and then going to the Brown Edge for a few pints. But don’t just take my word for it. If you’re 15 and reading this, go there this weekend and do it yourself. I guarantee you’ll have a great time. You can find directions by clicking on this link. (And yeah, the irony wasn’t lost on me that this pub was situated in a place called Nutgrove.) It’d be fucking ace if 100 VICE-reading teens turned up there wearing Espadrilles and KFC T-shirts and started ordering alcopops this Saturday.  Actually the folk there were OK, pretty tolerant, really. There were much worse places to drink in St Helens. The pretension barrier was set so low in some of these establishments that you could be beaten to a frothing pulp just by breathing regularly without having to concentrate really hard on doing it. One New Year’s Eve I went into the Lingholme Hotel pub in Denton’s Green with my then girlfriend H. I’d been laid low with flu for weeks but felt like I should at least go out to see the New Year in. At the bar, I asked for a large Baileys. “BAILEYS?” shouted the bar woman suspiciously. “For her?” I nodded and she poured it silently slamming it down onto the counter. “And can I have a large Bloody Mary for myself,” I added. “BLOODY MARY!” she shouted. “Just back from UNIVERSITY, are we? You’ll have a pint of bloody Top Hat like everyone else in here.” Fifteen-year-old readers: I wish I could send you there en masse wearing ironic Disney Joy Division T-shirts and deck shoes to cause merry hell by ordering absinthe caipirinhas, but unfortunately the Lingholme got turned into flats last Xmas. A terrible shame.
But many years before this, probably in 83 or 84, I had my first beer round at Martin’s house. I’d had wine and sherry before, not mentioning whisky when I was ill, but nothing touched me like this can of beer.
I remember with great clarity sitting in Martin’s room with about four other lads. We were all in school uniform, talking about Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Queen’s superlative News Of The World album and sunlight was streaming through the window. Martin’s dad came in with some four packs of cheap lager. They’d been brought straight from the freezer cabinet and they were covered in condensation. The can of compass lager, an own brand from Morrison’s, had the map of some imaginary continent on it, except it had been drawn with such little attention to what actual land masses look like that, even at the age of 13, I knew it was ridiculous. I pulled the ring pull off the can and let it dangle from my little finger. Someone said that you could use the ring pull as a weapon to slice someone’s throat open. The edges of the aperture – if that’s what it’s called – were sharp against my upper lip and the can started freezing my bottom lip numb. And the lager was as cold as glacier melt water. The taste wasn’t totally unexpected as my dad let me drink shandy on some weekends, but bereft of the sugary lemonade delivered to us by the pop man, it tasted of unexplored adult vistas and untold levels of sophistication. Everyone made over-exaggerated exclamations about how much they were enjoying their beer. How they always loved a beer. How this was a particularly fine beer. But it didn’t occur to me to lie because I felt like I’d been French kissed by God. There was something caustic, cleansing, scouring and metallic about the golden liquid as it burnt its way down my throat. During the first demonstrative swig, things in exterior life seemed to become time-stretched and then broke away from me in ragged chunks. The light from the window was ripping my throat open, letting the sun’s rays slide into my mouth and then, gradually spilling warmth into my belly. I always knew that there was something missing inside of me. A hole the size of a grapefruit or a clenched fist in the middle of my chest where I felt my soul or something important like that should be. In church my priest, who looked like Bob Monkhouse, talked of how the Spirit Of Our Lord would fill our bodies – would we only open our hearts to his love. But I couldn’t feel it. I couldn’t sense that guy in the room and my heart was standing open and completely empty. I had ached for this sensation for so long with no joy and now Compass lager had given it to me. I was on to my third can and as drunk as hell by the time everyone else was finishing their first. I got on my chair and started dancing and laughing and waving my arms around and I think Martin threw me out but I can’t really remember. It’s weird; I don’t really have any memories of prolonged good periods in my life before a few years ago. I don’t really remember enjoying being a child that much or a teenager or even a young adult for that matter, and I don’t really mind that much because I guess it’s totally normal for a lot of people. But I have nothing but fond memories of being round Martin’s house. I drank so much there one night that I ate three large Dundee cakes and then vomited currants so heavily that some got stuck to the ceiling. Later, when Martin’s sainted mother cleaned up after me, my puke broke the vacuum cleaner. I’m sure if Rainhill Hospital was still there I could go and sit in the grounds on the grass and this golden shaft of celestial light would pierce my life once more. If it wasn’t all just Barrett Homes, shatterproof bus stops and nondescript newsagents now. They say that fishermen rescued from drowning at the last minute – tangled in the nets, dragged to the surface, the briny punched and poured from their lungs – can find themselves returning to the spot in the ocean above where they nearly drowned. The act of water entering the lungs releases huge amounts of endorphins into the blood stream, apparently giving one a rapturous feeling of calmness and well being. This leaves melancholy fishermen sitting in their coracles floating on the ocean waiting for the feeling to return to them, waiting to be enveloped by the rapture of love. What’s gone has gone, but I’d still go back to the hospital if I could. And what would I give to have that can of Compass lager right now? And what would I give to have the roaring sun in my throat and in my belly once more?

Previously: Menk, by John Doran - Ain't There One Damn Song That Can Make Me Break Down and Cry

You can read all the previous editions of John's Menk column here.