'Dimly one was conscious of the hatred outside...'
Nik Cohn was born in London in 1946 and spent his childhood and adolescence in Derry. He is the author of several books on rock and pop culture, including Market, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, Today There Are No Gentlemen and I am Still the Greatest says Johnny Angelo, which is thought to have inspired Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.
Cohn is also said to have had a hand in the outcome of Pinball Wizard from The Who musical Tommy. In both Rock Dreams and Twentieth Century Dreams, Cohn collaborated with artist Guy Peelaert to create bizarre, make-believe chronicles of the lives of some of the twentieth century’s most famous icons.
His stories, features and reviews, one of which famously spawned Saturday Night Fever, have appeared in The Observer, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Queen and the New York Times. A collection of his short stories, Ball The Wall, was published in 1989. Ever the subversive, Cohn’s most recent book, Yes We Have No: Adventures in The Other England was published in 1999. The writer now lives in Shelter Island, New York.
‘Nothing had prepared me, not remotely. Derry in that era, before the Provos and long before Bloody Sunday, was very much a backwater, some thirty to fifty years adrift of the moment, and proud of it. As for Magee itself, its isolation was almost monastic. ... In theory it was a training school for Calvinist ministers; in reality, with its high stone walls and imported tutors, more like an unarmed encampment; and its isolation from the town was absolute.
‘Dimly one was conscious of the hatred outside, with its perpetual roundelay of Catholic ambuscades and Protestant reprisals, Black Masses and Orange Parades. But they seemed to carry no reality. Even when I was blown out of bed by the concussion of a detonated radio tower, or when a pitched battle raged at the army camp and an RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) sergeant had the lobe of his left ear shot off by an IRA sniper, it felt like some yarn out of Hot Adventures.
‘If it had not been for Tiggle, the aforesaid janitor, my only link to life as endured beyond Magee’s walls, I would hardly have been aware that men, when shot, did actually bleed.’
(From Ball The Wall)
This extract is from In Derry, one of the several short stories that make up Ball the Wall. It is obvious from many of his subsequent work that Cohn’s distinctly unconventional outlook on life and highly imaginative style of writing were shaped by his youthful experiences growing up in Derry.