Rubber Bullets

A typical basement bar in the city centre on Saturday night, in the back room a punk band are playing a cover version of Daddy Cool, while various Russians and ex pats sit drinking and talking in the main bar. Suddenly the large group of people sitting on the other side of the room turns into a scene from an early Scorsese film. It throws us because it happens so insanely quickly, we go from a good natured buzz of warm comradeship to an exploding sprawl of howling rage in about three seconds.

 People are punching each other in the face and punching really well: there is none of that drunken idiot dance where two morons hold each other up in a pub car park, too out of it to either fight properly or to just stop being twats. These guys are really good at this fighting stuff. They’re pretty good at chair throwing too, heavy wooden chairs that would crush your skull if they landed right, three or four of them hurtle through the air at high velocity. Bottles shatter and shiny metal things emerge, things that could be knives or nail clippers or antique soup spoons for all that we can make out in the blur.  One dude gets himself a deep vertical gash in his chest and blood soaks into his blue T shirt. Another guy slams into a pillar face first and goes down like he’ll never get up again, and then the guns come out and it ceases to be an entertaining diversion.

Bang, bang, curse, bang, curse. About 20 people in the ruckus and two or maybe three have drawn pistols. They are pointing them at other guys and firing, and I start wondering how much cover the bar might afford me if I dived behind it. But nobody goes down, they are clearly getting hit coz it’s almost point blank range, but they are still fighting and cursing and lunging at each other’s throats… Blanks?.. No, it’s rubber bullets, we’re back in Belfast in 1975, just way more drunk. A shell casing, or whatever they call the metal cylinder that the bullet flies out of, skitters along the floor and bounces off my shoe, and I see it’s pretty small, like 9mm or so. There are 6 maybe 8 shots fired and then the majority of the groups slowly force the minority out of the door. This takes time and involves only slightly fewer face smashing blows and cursing than the peak of the chaos, but they get it done and then, after two minutes or so where everyone is standing at the door screaming and pointing guns at the maniacs who are evidently keen to return to the mêlée, it tails off. Girls are crying quietly here and there, someone says there’s a police station in the same building as the bar, someone else says that the fighters are the police from that station who were just having a drink after work, and no one is dead. From the demented peak of the action to no one being dead seems like a pretty good result all in all.

You don’t see this much here, or I haven’t in 15 years. It’s not a violent city, small English towns are more dangerous on a Saturday night, and Russians for all the macho elements of their culture, don’t go in for a lot of “What the fuck are you looking at?” routines. That said, when you do see them fight, they seem to do it very well. Street scuffles become martial arts movies really quickly and the occasional TV reports of football fights show young men to appear to take great pride in their competence at hurting each other, there’s a serious, even conscientious approach to hitting people in the face that you can help but wish they would bring to more areas of contemporary life.