In Praise of Touts
About fifteen years ago I walked into a printing shop in Belfast with a pale pink T-shirt I had bought in Topman. I wanted a word printed on it in inch-high red flock. The young man at the counter baulked when I showed him it. ‘I don’t think we can print that,’ he said. ‘That’s the worst word.’ His manager came out from the back office. He looked at the word. He shrugged: on your own head – or chest – be it. The word was TOUT.
In its most common usage elsewhere on these islands it means a person who trades in tickets for concerts or sporting events. In Northern Ireland it is very specifically a police or security services informer, and the mere appearance of it on a wall next to your name in times past was as good as a death sentence, the ultimate form of silencing in a climate that included, on the state’s side, broadcasting bans and MI5 listening devices. (I had got the idea for the ‘Tout’ T-shirt when I was doing events for the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.) ‘Touts Will Be Shot’ graffiti wasn’t just a warning to actual informers, it was a warning to us all. The walls themselves might not have ears, but the people who did – the people who controlled what went on the walls – were never far away.
It is difficult to convey just how taboo the word still is, two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement. So when I hear a singer step up to the microphone and say ‘We’re Touts from Derry,’ it isn’t just my ears that perk up, my spirit does too.
And that’s before they start to play. Touts, despite being in their own words a singer that can’t sing, a mod that can’t play bass and a drummer that can’t see, are good. No, scratch that: Touts are fucking brilliant. They belong to a noble tradition of Derry punk, Northern Ireland noise. When they tackle Van Morrison’s ‘Gloria’ – as they did last night on BBC Northern Ireland – it is a reminder of the rambunctious R&B roots of Northern Ireland’s most famous musical son. They have already supported Kasabian, Liam Gallagher and Derry’s own Undertones (we only lent them to you, world), and all this without having released more than a couple of EPs.
For the last while, since I started following them, when I have seen the ‘Touts Will Be Shot’ legend on a wall I have wanted to jump out of the car and add the words ‘to Stardom’ at the end. If there is any justice in the world, that’s where the Touts from Derry are headed. Even before that, though, they have done us all a favour in taking one more word down from the walls and putting it back into our mouths, with a grin. Plastered it across a fair few chests, too, from what I can see.