Tent Life

Gerry wasn’t a man for camping, or indeed for a tent at all. Neither did he love getting wet, and he certainly did his best at all times to avoid peril. He did not readily welcome discomfort.

How ironic was it then, that tents played quite a major part in his early career at events running the length and breadth of the island of Ireland.

What follows is a colourful excerpt from Heads – A Day in the Life (Gill & Macmillan 2008). There was no mercy…

Tent Life on GeraldMichaelAnderson.com
Gerry Anderson – Heads – A Day in the Life (Gill & McMillan 2008)

The exact location was unimportant to us [Brown and O’Brien] as we had long since ceased to care where we went. Except to hope that the gig was not an integral part of a carnival. If, to our chagrin, this proved to be the case, we would perform in what is known as a marquee.

Basically a large tent, this sprawling, hazardous, temporary structure would be erected by the local parish council during the summer months for the purpose of holding hopefully profitable dances for the benefit of parishioners. Amongst those expected to attend were the timid, the cocky, the forgotten, the spurned, the superannuated, the mentally handicapped, the crippled, the lame, or the merely halt. These dances were usually part of some broader village or town festival. There are generally two types of marquee tents – two-polers and three-polers – although every once in a while it is possible to encounter the rapidly disappearing four-poler – the Tyrannosaurus Rex of this esoteric canvas world.

Two-polers are relatively bijou but marginally more dangerous, the broad expanse of the canvas routinely trapping rainwater in the centre and at each end of the sagging, swaying roof – rainwater generated by the summer monsoons. As bands like ours were usually called upon to perform on a makeshift stage situated at one or other end of the tent, gazing down upon a temporary, sawdust-covered slatted wooden floor, nervous musicians habitually spent long anxious hours standing directly underneath untold gallons of suspended water while surrounded by, and often wired directly to, functioning electrical equipment. The prospect of instant death was never far away.

At least with the electric chair, a person gets to sit down.

Gerry Anderson – Heads – A Day in the Life (Gill & McMillan 2008)

Base Instincts of Tent Life

These marquee dances were generally well supported. On a busy night, the interior of a typical tent was a nightmare of crushed bodies, cheap perfume, crippling body odour, the primeval reek of long-worn underpants mingling with the familiar stench of recently consumed alcohol and freshly minted puke.

On one side of the tent gathered frightened, beehive-headed women who appeared to be wearing someone else’s clothes, on the other, a heaving mass of damp, sullen, inebriated, randy men wearing dark suits.

Facilities were not ideal. Men, like livestock, pissed and shat outside in the field. None of us was quite sure what the women did – there was a small, isolated tent well away from the Big Top that no-one talked about.

We usually changed into our shiny suits in a crudely fenced off designated area, a quagmire situated just behind the stage, unaccountably muddier than anywhere else.

We didn’t look forward to marquee dances, always regarding time spent under these canvas awnings as a gentle reminder that we were living and working in the wrong country.

This was life in the wild. Dances in tents were a law unto themselves. We saw the inside of so many that I often felt like a Bedouin tribesman.

Gerry Anderson – Heads – A Day in the Life (Gill & McMillan 2008)

Beauty Queens

Sometimes local beauty queens were paraded in the tent to be judged Carnival Queen a dubious hour at the best of times, judging by the menace generated by the pissed, salivating, panting youths who, knuckles brushing the ground, rushed the stage at the merest hint of the swirl of a skirt.

These beauty queens were usually sponsored by local hostelries and, consequently, proudly bore the title of the establishment represented. A young lady, for example, could find herself known as e.g. MISS TRAVELLER’S REST for a calendar year.

But there were worse fates in store for young girls hungry for a title. I have always found the young ladies of Donegal particularly unfortunate when it came to representing their local watering holes. We can well imagine severely restrained or, at best, muted celebrations on the part of a young girl’s parents upon receiving the news that their daughter would be known for the next twelve months as MISS SQUEALIN’ PIG.


And pity the young lady who triumphed at a particular motel in Letterkenny. What wouldn’t most young, red-blooded men give for a night with MISS THREE WAYS?

And then there is the Queen of them all. A beauty queen named after the Donegal village in which she lives. May there be a MISS MUFF forever…

Gerry Anderson – Heads – A Day in the Life (Gill & McMillan 2008)

For a man who didn’t fancy life in a tent, he surely found plenty to observe and lay bare when it came to tent shenanigans. Remarkably, he managed to avoid electrocution, at least to our knowledge. If you can’t lay hands on the copy you swear you last saw under the bed, you may find Heads lurking in the dark corners of your local bookshop, and there are still some available online, new and used on Amazon.

Ah, though, but weren’t they the days?

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