I have been absent from Derry City in one way or another for over fifty years and going home has changed quite a bit for me.
In the old days, when my parents were alive, it was, and still is, a very pleasant experience. One or more of my family would always meet me at the airport. If Daddy picked me up, it would be lovely but no stopping at the pubs on the way home.
When Charlie or Gerry, my brothers, did the run, it was quite a different story as the celebration started when the wheels hit the runway. Depending on the available collective funds, we made frequent stops at our favourite taverns on the way to Derry, usually making the Ponderosa on the Gap our last port of call.
The highpoint was always my mother opening the front door. She would be all smiles, wiping her hands on the good apron. Her first words would be, “You’re welcome this far” and, then, “Will you take a fry?” I would never refuse. Let me tell you it didn’t get much better than that.
Surrounded by family in my mammy’s kitchen with the bacon and eggs, the pot of Pink Punjana tea, the fresh cream buns and the cool pint of milk just in off the step, are memories I will always cherish. Home at last.
It always amazed me that, in a town with very little money and monstrous unemployment, no one would ever settle for a bap or cream bun that wasn’t totally fresh and perfect in every way but, then, that’s a Derry thing.
I managed to make the trip home every year. In bad times and good times, you were expected to make the effort.
Being broke was no excuse. You just charged the flight. Safe in the knowledge that they could come after you for the money but couldn’t take back your holiday. Not a very sensible observation but it always worked for me.
Over the years, things changed socially. All of a sudden hugging was the “In thing”. My whole family had trouble with that and it’s still a little awkward as old traditions die hard. I remember giving my Dad a hug in Belfast Airport that went very wrong as he had a cigarette in his mouth at the time.
Our family was wonderful in their own special way. It wasn’t important to remember birthdays and stuff because these things were never considered important in the first place. We just truly cared for each other and it would be considered “sissy” if you ran around saying “I love you” all the time. Again it’s a Derry thing but there’s nothing wrong with that.
Coming home once a year gives you a very unique perspective seeing all the visible changes like watching a slide show at twelve month intervals. Not just viewing the new construction chewing up the town I loved so well, but watching the cultural changes, too. Being away all that time it appears that everyone is getting older except for yourself.
I will never forget the wizened little old man; slightly the worse for wear and drink, grabbing my coat shouting “Johnny, Johnny” remember me?” Turned out I went to school with him and that was scary to say the least. Talk about a reality check. No way would I ever be that old.
Lately, my visits have lost a bit of their lustre as my parents and all their lovely relatives had long since passed away. I find I am a stranger in my own town and, as the city evolves, most of my friends have disappeared. It’s still my home and some things are changing for the better.
My friend and fellow trombonist John Trotter was always nice enough to drive me to the airport when I would depart.
Back then I would load up with all the hometown goodies I couldn’t find in Canada. Loose tea, Chef Sauce, Birds Custard, Fry’s Cream, Cadburys Flake and Doherty’s Sausages etc. So much so that the customs officer at the airport remarked on inspecting my luggage that I had “come a long way to do my shopping”. (Irish humour)
I miss my old friends, the characters, my favourite pubs, Telly Boys, Smokey wet streets and people greeting you with the salutation, “Yes”.
Derry has always been a big part of my life and I always look forward to coming home. Sure, where else would you ever want to go?
Well known jazzman Johnny Anderson, brother of radio and TV celebrity Gerry, lives in Canada.