Saturday, November 7, 2015

George Best And Northern Ireland

During the Ulster Troubles, and outside the remit of political actors and those caught up in the violence of the times, only the Northern Ireland comedian James Young would appear to have pro-actively used a significant public profile to plead for reconciliation through the remit of political satire and a folk celebration of working class life.

Conversely, and as discussed in an earlier post, it would mainly be sporting figures from Northern Ireland that appeared capable of winning unqualified allegiance and broad-based support across the sectarian divide. And indeed across the generation gap too if one were to qualify similar claims now associated with the Seventies punk music scene in Belfast and Derry.

Ten years on this month from the death of George Best and the affection towards his person remains undimmed across Britain alongside the pride he brought to all the Ulster people during days of anarchy, mass murder and bedlam.

Best the working class Protestant born in a city whose Loyalist gable end walls would often be inscribed during the Seventies with the acronym KAI for “Kill All Irish” and yet would be mourned from Dublin to Galway and from Donegal to Cork alike.

Between April 1964 and October 1977 George Best would play 37 times for Northern Ireland and score nine goals in a series of matches which would consist of 13 victories, 16 defeats and eight draws. 16 of these appearances would be against British opposition. These 37 matches in turn were made up of 16 Home Internationals, 14 World Cup qualifiers, 5 European Championship qualifiers and two friendlies. By the deep worldly wisdom of 2014 it surely remains a matter of conjecture as to whether George Best's career was qualified by his lack of appearances at World Cup final tournaments or whether the World Cup finals themselves were qualified by his absence in the Sixties and Seventies.

If mid-1966 can widely be accepted as the start of political unrest with three murders carried out by the Ulster Volunteer Force then it can be seen that the majority of Best’s international appearances took place during the Troubles themselves. The international football team even had to play home matches on mainland Britain between 1972 and 1974 because of the scale of violence - Best himself played in the 16th February 1972 match against Spain in Hull for this reason.

The background of civil conflict in Northern Ireland that ran in parallel to Best’s domestic and international career injected a significant undertone to much of the public response to his death in the country of his birth. Best’s passing uniting the men and women of Ulster in the realisation that the ghost to be mourned was not only that of an acclaimed individual but of an often maniacal time shared together which had nevertheless uniquely defined them as one people.

For all the naysaying of older generations of Northern Irish people - about a talent cut short and wasted alike a well-recalled raft of fellow Celts - for the children and teenagers of the Sixties and Seventies he was indeed nothing more than a defining cultural cornerstone of our lives and has left behind a million memories of genius, skill, intelligence and so much laughter and fondness.

Perhaps in other circumstances another Northern Ireland player could have performed such an act of brazen cheek against hapless England goalkeeper Gordon Banks in 1971 by flicking the ball away during a goal kick and heading into the net – but only Georgie Best could have done it in front of a Cinzano advertising hoarding in the world’s then bleakest grief hole. Likewise perhaps no other celebrity in the history of television marketing could have managed to advertise Cookstown family sausages and Fore aftershave while keeping both professional and personal reputation intact.

To no small degree the former Junior Orangeman and Belfast Telegraph delivery boy from the Cregagh estate would indeed be the sole public figure to supersede Irish political rancour in life and death – the many commentaries he made himself upon religious division on the island of Ireland having unfailingly reflected genuine sadness and humility.

For when Ulster almost ripped its physical being apart with butchery for three decades perhaps no other individual contributed so much to help rebalance how others saw us in our time of war - showing the world the kind of people we were and, more importantly, were not.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Long Way Home

And so a modern London life consisting of Old Testament-style struggle, toil and grim judgement proceeds along its fateful course - an unprecedented Ponzi property scam interfacing with a permanent recession atop a demographic explosion which currently throws up West End crowds every Saturday in various locations that previously would only ever have been seen in the run-up to Christmas in Oxford Street. And this in a capital city now bequeathing little more than stagnant wages, little employment opportunities, no credit, threatening streetscapes and rancid infrastructure to both the weary veteran and the frigging naive newcomer.

If 2014 left the impression of our country having been hit by a comet then 2015 is when the smoke clears to see what is left. London was always a difficult place to live and never an easy option but - to give it some posthumous due - it was never but never unrelentingly fucking nasty the way it is now every solitary desperate hour.

In another world in the last seven days Northern Ireland reached the finals of the European Championships  with such limited human resources - in comparison to the teams who played in the 1958, 1982 and 1986 World Cup Finals under Peter Doherty and Billy Bingham - that it constitutes a now globally acknowledged sporting miracle on behalf of the players and management. 
What has been particularly interesting this week has been the incredible amount of detente and goodwill to be seen on new media platforms between the two opposing fanbases on the island of Ireland regarding successful qualification for both parties. 
Sport as ever qualifying the cultural division of the Irish people and their political conflict alike. This amplifying in turn the light year distance between fundamental civility and decency with the spiv toxic future a New London readily and voluntarily willed upon itself  - burning its bridges with the past and the people who made it what it was.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Flight Of Fancy Stairs Leads Up To The Sky...

Although the past few years have seemed to have offered little more than daily stasis, anxiety, depression and angst for so many people - as grounded on the clinical destruction of vintage career and property ownership pathways in the United Kingdom - it is perhaps the sense of gathering disassocation from our own communal past that truly levels the soul. Indeed there is a tangible feeling now that the past decade alone has concertinaed a half-century of social change into a fifth of that timeframe - that as encapsulated with the blanket toxification of London life and the imbecility of much social media usage.

Since the last General Election in fact British life feels like nothing more than waiting in a foreign airport terminal for a severely delayed plane to take you home that will in fact never ever arrive - and with no money in your pockets for that eternal duration. Just indeed as the Northern Ireland international football squad in the Seventies would hopelessly scour the skies the evening before the ubiquitous Big Match for the possible arrival of The Playboy of the Western World himself.

The late Gerry Anderson's acclaimed BBC documentary A City Dreaming about the modern history of Derry captured this mood perfectly in terms of memory interfacing with a terminal loss of  working class heritage, culture and place. Was thinking about this recently on the news of the actor George Cole's death - having been very familiar with the streetscapes of the Minder locations in the Eighties and Nineties.

I actually walked down one of those very West London thoroughfares only two months back and the differences were extraordinary in terms of the number of small businesses having changed hands or folded in the interim. Those radical changes I saw - which included the old record shop Spinning Disc (that for years had a cardboard cutout of Elvis in his gold suit in the window and where I recall buying a Jay and the Americans CD) having been replaced by some commercial nothingness  - were easily on the scale of the lost Lambeth and West End to be seen in  Jack Wild's wonderful 1971 Melody.

On a less melancholy note I was speaking to a friend last week about old television schedules from the golden years of Sixties and Seventies British television. Thinking back to programmes like Graham Kerr's  The Galloping Gourmet, Paint Along With Nancy and Kim Marshall's Yoga For Health that are embedded so deep in our tribal memory banks of daytime transmissions. The talk came around to children's programmes and Hope and Keen's Crazy Bus - which I can just about recall from the early Seventies growing up in Northern Ireland.

There is little on the internet about the comedy duo of Mike Hope and Albie Keen but what I could source confirmed that the two series they made in 1971-72 - Hope and Keen's Crazy House and Hope and Keen's Crazy Bus - followed on from a period when the Scottish comics were heralded as being the next Morecombe and Wise no less.

Crazy House was set in a house where anything could happen and where some of the rooms contained cool musical guests like Freddie and the Dreamers   - Crazy Bus had the duo on the road around Britain being stalked by a sinister villain in black known as The Shadow. I almost certainly recall one episode where they visited spooky Loch Ness though am absolutely sure the eponymous omnibus never visited my own Belfast hometown during that sad sad period of even darker shadows. The Hope and Keen Scene was their final series in 1975.

IMBD notes that three of the original seven episodes have been lost by the BBC however some kind soul has uploaded the gloriously catchy theme tune from the first series onto youtube. A public comment attached to this in turn recalls how the song was used in a pub scene in the fourth episode of the seventh series of Thames Television's  Public Eye drama in 1975 - They All Sound Simple At First. Alfred Burke with dimpled half pint glasses, car brochures, HP sauce, Carling Black Label and cuntish barmen.

The missing link no less between The Small Faces' Ogden's Nut Gone Flake and a Ringo vocal from The White Album period. There is a fantastic blending of vocal styles here  - Seventies transatlantic lounge eliciting a clearly Glaswegian echo.

Happy memories indeed of a more contented Britain....I would certainly rather be back in that crazy house now rather than in this fucking Common Purpose austerity asylum.

Please play this song at my funeral.

Sunday, March 8, 2015


Last summer during a visit to Northern Ireland I drove eastwards along the Antrim coast from Portrush down through to Larne. The weather had been truly awful the entire week but on that day it was glorious. At times like these the Causeway Coast across Counties Londonderry and Antrim opens up some of the most magnificent stretches of scenery to be seen anywhere in the British Isles - matching anything to be found in the Scottish Highlands or the English West Country. The coastal route itself may even be unparalleled in grandeur in Western Europe itself.

Between Bushmills and Ballycastle I halted briefly at Portbraddan beside White Park Bay. There are only a literal handful of houses situated here in this coastal hamlet alongside what is apparently the smallest church in Ireland - though there are questions as to its authentic status as such.

When I entered Saint Gobbans Church I noticed that amongst other pieces of information and ephemera  placed on the walls was a poem written by a Welsh visitor in the Seventies - Trish O'Brien of Cardiff. It reflected upon the idyllic peace and tranquility to be found there which contrasted with the political sterility and terrorist violence endemic throughout the whole globally vilified north of Ireland at the time.

The poem is entitled Intruders and is dedicated to Sally - the words a heartbreaking reflection upon those three lost decades:

The only sound, our shoes
Scrunching along the garden path
Punctuating the late afternoon tranquility.

Five sleepy houses apparently mesmerised
By the ocean's millpond disguise,
The minuscule church nodding off, unnoticed.

Towering wooden cliffs protective of this rocky cove
Locked in its emerald embrace, sheltering all within
From the prevailing North Westerlies.

Or so the salmon fisherman informed us
In gentle brogue, his stress free complexion
Belying his seventy four years.

With his Border Collie heralding our presence
He approached with patient tolerance
Seeing us pause at the turn of the track.

This is a special place, the other face, 
The face they don't show you on the news
We retraced our steps, feeling like intruders.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The Times of London: Between The Buttons

In my mind there are three truly great "lost" 7" British rock singles of the late Sixties and early Seventies. These are The Who's Dogs, The Small Faces' Afterglow (Of Your Love) and The Kink's Sweet Lady Genevieve. These were respectively released in 1968, 1969 and 1973.

Ironically The Who's extraordinary paean to the world of London dog racing is very redolent of the late-period Small Faces sound on Immediate and reached number 36 in the British charts. Afterglow was the final single the latter group released and would reach the same chart position - the group split up before the planned 1862 album was completed though some of the exceptional recorded work appeared on The Autumn Stone compilation. The Kinks Sweet Lady Genevieve was pulled off the concept album Preservation: Act I - the second of five such releases between 1972 and 1975. The single did not chart and the album made number 177 - the worst performing album the group ever released I believe.

If there is one long player from this period that I feel deserves so much retrospective appraisal it is The Rolling Stones' 1967 Between The Buttons - an album from which no singles were lifted and which the group themselves have been relatively dismissive of subsequently by way of the muddy production. The album was their fifth release and sits between the classic Aftermath - which fundamentally drew the group away from the rhythm and blues focus of their first three releases on Decca with tracks such as Under My Thumb, Mother's Little Helper and Think - and the flawed psychedelic experimentation of Their Satanic Majesties Request.

The album contains 12 tracks though two were withdrawn for the American release and replaced with the Let's Spend The Night Together/Ruby Tuesday single tracks. I am not overly fond of some of the songs on the album but on six tracks alone there is something so unique the group seemed to have captured about a time of clearly unrepeatable social flux and the spirit of a city now long lost to all hope.

The profoundly misogynistic Yesterday's Papers is the sole track from the album that tends to appear regularly on compilations but it is worth revisiting the pace of Connection (which Keith Richards himself claims is the best obscure Stones track in their catalogue) and the snarling All Sold Out. Something Happened To Me Yesterday harkens to a Vaudevillian note with Richards' first ever vocal appearance on the chorus section and a friendly Dixon of Dock Green spoken outro from Jagger. My favorite two tracks though are Back Street Girl's beautiful accordion and harpsichord waltz - the sole track on the album Jagger rates in hindsight - and My Obsession which surely can be read as one of the most sexually-driven songs of the period alike The Pretty Thing's Midnight To Six Man.  Personally, the ethereal atmosphere of Back Street Girl seems to sit alongside Van Morrison's Linden Arden Stole The Highlights as a piece of work that not only transcends our times but actually seems to flit in and out of linear time itself. The other tracks on the album clearly reflect Kinks and Dylanesque touches at points and are She Smiled Sweetly, Cool Calm Collected, Please Go Home, Complicated, Miss Amanda Jones and Who's Been Sleeping Here?

The album was initially recorded in Los Angeles and then in London's Olympic Studios in Barnes and the Pye Studios in Great Cumberland Place. Gerard Mankowitz's photoshoot for the cover took place on North London's Primrose Hill on a November morning in 1966. He used a home-made Vaseline-smeared filter to envision the band entering daylight from a night of toxic dissolution - Brian Jones' literal physical decline complementing this design perfectly. When the group ascended the hill around 6am that morning they met a local hippy character called Maxie who was already there playing his flute. On being offered a jazz cigarette by Jagger he replied "Ah breakfast!" The album reached number 3 and number 2 on the British and American album charts respectively.

Every other weekend I find myself walking over Primrose Hill on my way from North London into the West End and Soho through The Regents Park. I look over a city which has clearly and quite dismissively dictated to me and so many of my peers that the future lies elsewhere - our contribution over decades to its character and animation counting as naught. The view is of a now hostile, soured and clearly fractured metropolis. That strange overlooked album by The Rolling Stones yet sending the faintest of echoes from an inclusive time of cultural fusion across the class divide and through to an economic crossroads that no living city could but ever survive.

Well thank you very much and now I think it's time for us all to go. So from all of us to all of you, not forgetting the boys in the band and our producer Reg Thorpe, we'd like to say God bless. So if you're out tonight, don't forget, if you're on your bike, wear white. Evening all.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Boom Boom Boom Boom - Belfast Before The Fall

Johnny Rogan's excellent 2005 No Surrender overview of Van Morrison's deep connectivity with his Northern Irish roots includes recollections of Belfast's thriving rhythm and blues scene of the mid-Sixties. One woman recalled seeing Morrison's Them at the city's Maritime Hotel in College Square North and how: "I knew those days were special and everybody there knew those days were special. There was such an aura about that time in Belfast - and it was never to be repeated. Ever".

Some posts ago in an article about Irish hard rock group Thin Lizzy I mentioned the huge raft of Northern Irish entertainment venues which closed over the course of the Troubles and indeed two of the "Ballrooms of Romance" have been in the news recently. The yet intact Orpheus ballroom in York Street is facing final demolition and there are efforts afoot to restore the Floral Hall near Belfast Zoo. The 1932-vintage Orpheus was situated on the top floor of the Co-Operative department store while details of the latter's history since 1936 can be found on the ever wonderful Lord Belmont catalogue of Irish architecture. Lulu, The Small Faces and Pink Floyd all played at The Floral Hall and the then 
barbed-wire enclosed building was used as a counting centre during the Northern Ireland Border Poll of  1973 - a year when 250 people died in Troubles-related deaths across the British Isles. It closed as an entertainment venue in 1972 and currently is used for storing feed for the city's zoo animals.

The details of the tragic loss of that once thriving Belfast - dance venues, restaurants, cafes, pubs, cinemas and theatres alike - are fascinating to recall yet terribly melancholy to reflect upon.  This encapsulated for myself with regard to the North Street area of Belfast city centre near the long-destroyed Smithfield market. Two other excellent examples of art deco design in the city alongside the ballrooms mentioned above can be found here - namely the derelict Bank of Ireland site and the Sinclair Building opposite. Older readers of the blog will of course recall The Elephant Bar in the street with its famous five-feet high grey wooden elephant outside the entrance. The pub survived many bomb blasts of the Troubles but closed in the Eighties. I have seen many pictures of North Street from the Fifties and Sixties that are so redolent of a bustling North American city of the period - today it is a derelict, haunted and depressing thoroughfare albeit awaiting radical redevelopment by way of university expansion.

An extraordinarily large raft of entertainment venues existed in Sixties Belfast up to the period when serious civil disorder commenced in mid-1969 - comparable to any major port city of its size and enough indeed to warrant its own listings newspaper City Week. An excellent showband feature on the Culture Northern Ireland website notes that - besides The Orpheus and The Maritime Hotel - the main venues in the city centre for live music at the time included The Plaza in Chichester Street which was regarded as the city's best, The Fiesta in Hamilton Street, Romano's in Queen Street, Maxim's in Fountain Street, The Tudor Hall and The Elizabethan in Royal Avenue, The Orchid in King Street, The Astor in College Court, The Boom Boom Rooms (The Starlite) in Arthur Square and The Gala in Victoria Street. 

As noted in the earlier post there were also many busy venues outside the city beside the Floral Hall in Newtownabbey - namely The Embassy in Derry, The Strand in Portstewart, The Arcadia  and Kellys in Portrush, The Savoy in Portadown, The Flamingo in Ballymena, The Locarno in Portaferry, The Star in Omagh, The Top Hat in Lisburn, The Pallidrome in Strabane and Caproni's in Bangor. Of all the details of that lost time and place surely the greatest of all relates to the latter Palais de Danse which bore the legend Through These Doors Have Passed The Most Beautiful Women In The World.

Some of the other Belfast dancehalls that are fondly recalled on internet forums included Betty Staff's in Anne Street, Cecil Clarke's in Upper Donegall Street and Sammy Houston's Jazz Club on Victoria Street. One of the most oft-used pieces of archive television footage of a city centre bombing in the early Seventies was captured near the dancehall in Donegall Street. Anne Street meanwhile was very close to the site of the 1972 Abercorn restaurant atrocity and Victoria Street is the location of Europe and possibly the world's most bombed hotel - The Europa. 

All of these venues held lunchtime and weekday dance sessions and - incredulously enough to consider at a time when Britain is now populated in the main by functioning alcoholics - were dry. The Plaza also set Saturday afternoons aside for children. Terri Hooley's Hooleygan biography recalls  how at Betty Staff's ballroom the owner would separate overly amorous couples with a blast of hairspray though didn't seem to mind the use of cannabis. A public commentator on one forum recalled the night he politely asked a lady for a dance at The Fiesta and was met with the reply "Yes you can have it - I don't want it". In another thread about what people missed from days gone by in Belfast a poster stated:

To those who feel better away from Belfast, good riddance, we have the best people in the world here with a small minority of so-called sectarian bigots on all sides. Forget those imbeciles and concentrate on what we had and have. People of my age in their Seventies met girlfriends and our wives in the great dance halls in Belfast, we could leave girls home to any part of the city and get home safely. The girls from Gallaher's taught me to jive in The Plaza on Monday afternoons. Another thing about old Belfast, it was the working class people who kept the country going. 

The vast majority of these venues did not survive the initial surge of the Troubles and by the time I was growing up in the Seventies the city centre by night had a heavy presence of soldiers and policemen, was cordoned off with a ring of security fences, looked and felt as dead as a ghost town and frequently radiated menace. I used to sense this a lot when driving through Waring Street at nighttime in the family car - now at the heart of the thriving Cathedral Quarter and used for many location shots in the acclaimed crime drama The Fall. Indeed the walk home my father took in the late Fifties after leaving my mother off from their city centre dance would not have been replicated even by Batman 15 years later.

Van Morrison held to the fact that there was a radical creative gulf between the Them of the Maritime stage and the group's two subsequent recorded albums. That said and acknowledged, have a listen to the powerful and driving I Can Only Give You Everything from 1966 on the group's second LP - as written by Derry's Phil Coulter and covered by both The Troggs and The Liverpool Five. Remember that old Belfast and the people who walked those streets in peace - I desperately wish I could have been one of them. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

George Best City - Unquiet Nights

A quite incredible and very moving piece of music about Belfast has been released this month by the artists Unquiet Nights:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Burning Sky - Writings on Ulster History

I have recently been asked by a regular reader of this blog for some pointers towards quality reading on Ulster history. Although obviously highly subjective my personal overview would be as follows.

During the late Seventies the BBC and Thames Television both produced major historical documentaries concerning the conflict  - Ireland A History and The Troubles. The former was written and presented by the late Robert Kee - author of the classic Green Flag trilogy on Irish nationalism - and remains perhaps the definitive and most thoroughly accessible introduction to Irish history in general in my opinion. It should be borne in mind that Roy Foster's Modern Ireland  - which I see often in high street bookshops to this day - is definitely not for beginners. Another volume I would highly recommend is Henry Patterson's Ireland Since 1939.

In terms of the history of Northern Ireland itself ATQ Stewart's The Ulster Crisis and Michael Farrell's The Orange State (and later Arming The Protestants) are the best known Unionist and Nationalist interpretations of the political dynamics surrounding partition. Two other important books covering this period are Patrick Buckland's second volume on Irish Unionism and Timothy Bowman's study of Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force.

Some other important works concerning Northern Ireland between the start of the 20th Century and the re-emergence of political violence in 1966 are John Gray's history of the 1907 Belfast dock strike, Philip Orr's The Road To The Somme about the 36th Ulster Division's fate, Paddy Devlin's work on the 1932 outdoor relief strike and Robert Fisk's overview of the radically different experiences of the Second World War in the two Irish states - A Time Of War. Also worth reading is Brian Barton's study of the actual Luftwaffe raids on Northern Ireland and indeed this entire period is covered in Jonathan Bardon's excellent histories of Ulster and Belfast.

For the period of the modern Troubles itself the best general introduction is probably David McKittrick and David McVea's Making Sense of the Troubles while other comprehensive overviews are Tim Pat Coogan's The Troubles, Jack Holland's Hope Against History and J Bowyer Bell's The Irish Troubles. Peter Taylor's BBC Troubles trilogy from the turn of the century are highly recommended too - Provos, Loyalists and Brits.

Of the paramilitary groups involved in the conflict, Henry McDonald and Jack Cusack have written comprehensive studies of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association - McDonald also co-wrote a history of the Irish National Liberation Army with Jack Holland. The best known serious overview of loyalist militants remains Steve Bruce's The Red Hand while two other important works are David Boulton's early Seventies' study of loyalist paramilitary revival and Sarah Nelson's Ulster Uncertain Defenders. Ian S Woods' Crimes of Loyalty study of the UDA is also worth reading. The Official IRA was the subject of Brian Hanley and Scott Millar's fascinating The Lost Revolution while highly regarded histories of the Provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army have been written by J Bowyer Bell, Ed Moloney and Patrick Bishop and Eamonn Mallie. Toby Harden's Bandit Country and Kevin Toolis' Rebel Hearts are also indispensable.

Of the reportage from the early Troubles, Henry Kelly's How Stormont Fell, the Sunday Times' Insight Team study and Martin Dillon and Dennis Lehane's terrifying Political Murder in Northern Ireland are fascinating reads. Dillon's later The Shankill Butchers and The Dirty War are also essential. The four David McKittrick compilations of articles from The Independent cover all aspects of the Troubles history and the peace process.

In terms of biography, Gill and McMillan's collection of brief studies from the early Eighties are first class and most are easy to find second-hand - WB Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Wolfe Tone, James Joyce, Sean O'Casey, James Connolly, Michael Collins, Charles Parnell, Daniel O'Connell, Eamonn De Valera, Sean Lemass, Arthur Griffith, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and the Irish and Ulster Unionists Edward Carson and James Craig. Other notable works are Ed Moloney and Andy Pollak's portrait of Ian Paisley, David Sharrock and Mark Devenport on Gerry Adams, Henry McDonald on David Trimble, Chris Ryder on Gerry Fitt and Roy Garland on Gusty Spence. Paddy Devlin's autobiography Straight Left  is also excellent and the various recollections of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four prisoners individually make for very grim reading - Gerard Conlon, Paul Hill, Paddy Joe Hill and Hugh Callaghan.

Other important political works I would highly recommend would be Flann Campbell's The Dissenting Voice history of Northern Protestant radicalism, Alan F Parkinson and Malachi O'Doherty's seperate studies of the worst year of the Troubles - 1972, Robert Fisk's The Point of No Return about the May 1974 Ulster Worker's Council Strike, Jack Holland's Too Long A Sacrifice and Anthony Bailey's Acts of Union reportage, both Padraig O'Malley and David Beresford's works on the 1981 IRA hunger strike, Henry McDonald's Colours and Gunsmoke and Mirrors, Chris Ryder and Vincent Kearney's study of the Drumcree dispute, Ed Moloney's Voices From The Grave interviews with paramilitary figures and Derek Lundy's Men That God Made Mad review of his own Unionist family history. All the fatalities of the Troubles are catalogued in David McKittrick et al's Lost Lives - also see Susan McKay's Bear In Mind These Dead and the WAVE Trauma Centre's deeply disturbing collection of interviews with individuals seriously injured by terrorist violence.

Finally, ten particularly interesting books regarding Ulster that I would suggest are worth investigation are Geoffrey Beattie's We Are The People and Protestant Boy recollections of his youth in loyalist Belfast, the late Wolverhampton Wanderers footballer Derek Dougan's The Sash He Never Wore, punk legend Terri Hooley's Hooleygan autobiography, Lebanese hostage Brian Keenan's I'll Tell Me Ma's memories of his childhood in a now vanished North Belfast, Teddy Jamieson's superb Whose Side Are You On study of sport and the Ulster conflict, Johnny Rogan's No Surrender analysis of Van Morrison and Northern Ireland and Kevin Myer's Watching The Door recollections of his professional engagement with Troubles Belfast.

All these works recall desperate years of bigotry and madness in Ulster and very sad times for the whole of Ireland - so many different generations alike sharing the same wasted years and wasted time.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Vagabonds of the Western World - Remembering Thin Lizzy

And so the most somnambulant Christmas of my near half century on this earth comes to closure. London has seemed completely unanimated since the second week of December right through to around Wednesday 7th January no less. Yet another extraordinary reflection of changing demographics in the capital which makes little sense on any front - let alone the logistics of modern employment as I have ever experienced them personally. Or anybody I know has for that matter.

That most seriously ghostly period of Christmas remains of course the definitive focus of pained nostalgia for so many people thinking back to a long lost Britain - as discussed in the previous post on Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge and the 1914 Christmas Truce. Digital technology alas has seemed to have fundamentally undermined so much residual charm of the period in turn with such a large part of the population now physically, emotionally and spiritually welded to hand-held devices - the blanket collapse of Christmas television viewing as an industry ratings-focus merrily helping this decline along apace.

That particular aspect of a shared family Christmas - from grimly dated material like Morecambe and Wise through to serious quality output like the BBC's annual Ghost Story For Christmas - is certainly gone for good though a few pieces of music have still remained a mainstay for myself at that time of year. I think in this respect of Mario Lanza's beautiful collection of Christmas hymns and carols on RCA Victor from 1959, Horslips' timeless folk collection Drive The Cold Winter Away from 1975 and Elvis Presley's Seventies Christmas album - released in October 1971 and recorded in May of that year in Nashville.

One particular aspect of festive times gone by that I recall was avidly listening - on the evening of Christmas Day itself - to the vinyl LPs I had received that morning as presents. I remember a degree of physical engagement that now sits in absolute reversal to the modern day when human patience can barely handle 45 seconds of full album uploads on youtube before moving onto the next full album upload. Such an incredible paradigm shift indeed from treating music with total absorption as compared to ludicrous disrespect to the artists. I clearly recall listening in this regard all those years back to Led Zeppelin's third and fourth albums, Rush's A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, The Beatles' red and blue compilations and Kate Bush's Lionheart and Never Forever. Perhaps beyond all of these however I think of Thin Lizzy's 1978 Live and Dangerous - one of the greatest live rock albums of all time and as ranking alongside Van Morrison's It's Too Late To Stop Now, Deep Purple's Made In Japan and The Who's Live At Leeds.

Thin Lizzy were formed in Dublin in 1969 and released twelve studio albums between 1971 and 1983 in all  - the first three falling within the remit of bluesy progressive rock, the middle six being broadly hard rock in focus and the remaining three residing within the heavy metal genre in essence. With the exception of a single track - the fourth single The Rocker - the classic live album is drawn from the three year period between 1974 and 1977 and the five releases Nightlife, Fighting, Jailbreak, Johnny the Fox and Bad Reputation - the lineup throughout this time being Irishmen Phil Lynott and Brian Downey, the Scot Brian Robertson and Californian Scott Gorham.

For all that I have just previously disparaged the impatience with which people now treat album uploads on digital interfaces I must confess that the first side of Live and Dangerous was so incredibly exhilarating that I found myself repeating the same four-track song-cycle time and time again and found it difficult to ever even get to the second side. This consisted of Jailbreak, Emerald (which along with Horslips' Dearg Doom remains the greatest of all celtic rock songs into perpetuity), Southbound and the Bob Seger cover Rosalie. Ironically Southbound's lyrics prefigure the radical financial struggles ahead for so many millions of people across the British Isles in the decades to come and to this very day - it is a beautiful piece which clearly stands equal to the other three more famous songs around it. Two other Thin Lizzy songs talk about the curse of emigration from a politically and economically-wracked Ireland in Wild One from Fighting and Fool's Gold from the Johnny The Fox album.

To my complete discredit I never got around to seeing Thin Lizzy live in the late Seventies and early Eighties when growing up in Belfast and look back on this with great regret - similar to missing The Skids in the same period and subsequently The Cramps and the original Hugh Cornwell-lineup of The Stranglers after moving to London. Like Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy would often play in Belfast across the timespan of the Ulster Troubles and two of their guitarists - Eric Bell and the late Gary Moore - came from Joceyln Avenue and Castleview Road in the east of the city. An overview of the group's concert history throws up many venues in Belfast and Northern Ireland that are now long gone:

1970 - The Astor Belfast in March, The Carousel's Zig Zag Discotheque Belfast in April and the McMordie Hall at Queens University Belfast in May. Ulster Hall Belfast (two gigs) and Newry Town Hall in October. They also played at the Embassy Ballroom in Derry City during the year.

1971 - Another gig at the Embassy Ballroom in Derry and the Town and Country Inn in Newtownards.

1972 - Kelly's Barn Portrush, Ballymena's Flamingo and the King's Arms Hotel in Larne in July.

1973 - Eric Bell's last performance with the group on New Year's Eve at Queen's University.

1974 - Ulster Hall in January and The Carousel in April. Kelly's Hotel Portrush, Antrim Town's Deerpark Hotel and the King's Club in Bangor in July. In August they played the Deerpark Hotel again and the Ulster Hall. Kellys at Portrush on Boxing Day. Other internet resources mention gigs in Newtownards, Dromore, the Royal Arms Hotel in Omagh and the New University of Ulster at Coleraine. Also a December gig at Romanos Ballroom in Belfast.

1975 - The Flamingo in Ballymena in January.

1978 - Two nights at the Ulster Hall in June.

1980 - Lakeland Forum in Enniskillen and The Forum in Antrim in January. Also a gig at the King's Hall in Belfast.

1982 - Three concerts at the Whitla Hall Belfast in January. Phil Lynott played a solo concert at Derry's Rialto in this year - another at the Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast was cancelled.

1983 - Last Thin Lizzy concert in Northern Ireland at the King's Hall Belfast on 8th April.

(The Astor was a dance hall in College Court off Castle Street in Belfast and was one of the city's most popular showband venues and later home to the late Sixties "Marquee Club". It closed in the early Seventies in the midst of the terrorist campaigns of the time and was demolished in 2001. The Carousel was located in Chichester Street in central Belfast - the date of its closure is unknown. Romanos Ballroom was in Queen Street in the city and closed around 1969-70. Ballymena's Flamingo hosted concerts by the likes of The Small Faces, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield from its opening in 1959. It also closed at the start of the Seventies. The King's Arms Hotel in Larne was damaged in a large IRA car bomb attack in 1980 and would no longer appear to be in business while The Deerpark Hotel in Antrim was demolished in the late Nineties. The Royal Arms Hotel in Omagh closed in 1999. The Rialto Theatre in Derry became a Primark store and the Embassy Ballroom a nightclub. I can find no information at present on The King's Club in Bangor or the Town and Country Club in Newtownards - both in County Down).

A year after the group split up in 1983 Gary Moore and Phil Lynott released the bestselling single Out In The Fields about the bitter conflict in Ulster. Lynott had released solo albums in 1980 and 1982 - the former covering subjects ranging from now-vanished Soho streetscapes to the death of Elvis Presley to the London punk scene of 1979.

At Christmas in Belfast I noticed that a set of several murals facing The Duke of York pub in the Cathedral Quarter included one of famous Belfast and Ulster personalities including Gary Moore. Alongside him were portrayed George Best, the comic actor James Young, boxer Rinty Monaghan, poet Seamus Heaney, punk icon Terri Hooley, snooker champion Alex Higgins, The Chieftans' instrumentalist Derek Bell, actor Liam Neeson, Eurovisionists Dana and Clodagh Rogers, flautist James Galways, songwriter Phil Coulter and goalkeeper Pat Jennings. Leaning against a wall at the back and looking at the stars - in front of a poster for The Maritime blues venue of Them-vintage - stands Phil Lynott the black Dubliner.

During the Sixties George Best would frequent the overnight bar at the Clifton Grange Hotel in Manchester's Whalley Range which was run at that time by Lynott's mother Philomena - Phil Lynott was a huge Manchester United fan over years and wrote a track about Best called For Those Who Love To Live. He also namechecked the footballer - along with Van Morrison and the Mountains of Mourne - in the Black Rose song's litany of Irish icons.

Very few places in the world produced celebrity figures as cool, utterly unique and charismatic as Best and Lynott in the Seventies - let alone a country at war. So much of the light and style and warmth of Irish cultural identity are embodied in these two men who left this world way too soon. Have a listen tonight to 1973's Vagabonds of the Western World track to remember just how good Thin Lizzy were.

The Rocker and Georgie Best died of substance abuse at the ages of 36 and 59 respectively. Lynott passed away in 1986 and is buried in St Fintan's Cemetery in the Northside of Dublin at the base of Howth Head  - Best died in 2005 is buried in Roselawn Cemetery on the outskirts of East Belfast with his mother and father.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

And There Shall Be No Night - Christmas Eve 1914

It was the Ulsterman Brian Desmond Hurst - born in Ribble Street in East Belfast - who directed the classic 1951 Scrooge adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. Hurst's other famous credits would include Dangerous Moonlight (1941), Theirs Is The Glory (1946)  and Simba (1955) which starred Dirk Bogarde and was set in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection against the British.

During World War Two he directed a propaganda feature called A Letter From Ulster in 1943 wherein a Protestant and a Catholic American soldier write home and give their impressions of the province and the people. An attempt to build upon a sense of community between the Northern Ireland population and the huge numbers of stationed US troops it included footage of soldiers' visits to Carrickfergus Castle, the town of Strabane and Derry's Walls. There is also film of a Catholic service held for the American military at St Mary's Church in central Belfast's Chapel Lane - this was the first Catholic church in the city and opened in 1784 with the aid of significant subscriptions from the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland communities. The local Belfast company of the (Protestant) Irish Volunteer movement of the period paraded to the opening and provided a guard of honour for the priest. Many of the soldiers captured on Hurst's film would later fight in Italy at Monte Cassino and Anzio - their fate can only be guessed at. A memorial to the US Expeditionary Force can be seen today in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.

Film was also shot at their army base at Tynan Abbey in County Armagh - built in 1750 and burnt to the ground in a terrorist attack in 1981with the owners being shot dead. Sir Norman Stronge and his son James were both Stormont MPs - the former being the Speaker of the House between 1945 and 1969. Sir Norman Stronge was the eight Baronet of Tynan while the fifth was Sir James Henry Stronge who held the title between 1849 and 1928 - his only son James Matthew Stronge was killed at the age of 26 while serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in August 1917 in France. In 2011 a relative of Hurst's made a brief documentary where he returned to the Northern Irish locations in the original work including the ruins at Tynan.

Hurst served in the Great War in the Royal Irish Rifles and fought at Gallipoli and in the Balkans and Middle East. In a 1969 Punch magazine interview he noted how "I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland" since in his opinion an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners and an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen. He also recalled Gallipoli and the mixed religious composition of the regiment - which recruited in both Belfast and Dublin - and where "Catholic-Protestant antagonism vanished in this holocaust". Christopher Robbins' extraordinary The Empress of Ireland from 2004 relates the author's own relationship with the flamboyant director over many years and is highly recommended.

The two definitive pieces of literature relating to this haunted Christmas season in my personal opinion are Dickens' story and Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 which was published in 2001 by Simon and Schuster. Naturally let us ignore with extreme prejudice all consideration of the recent hipster tribute to Paul McCartney's Pipes of Peace video made for the benefit of a supermarket chain and as discussed previously. The columnist Peter Hitchens recently noted of this incredulously acclaimed and utterly vacuous commercial feature:

To me, the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers in 1914 is, literally, sacred. It was the last hour of Christian Europe, a tragic failure.

Page after page of Weintraub's work relates to a now lost sense of human worth, decency and warmth - and indeed overlaps politically and emotionally with many themes considered in this blog over the years from Scottish independence to British class division to the failed choreography of European union to the long sad outplay of a British Ireland:

A German sergeant with an Iron Cross suspended from a black and white ribbon and earned, he boasted, for skill in sniping, led his men in a marching tune, and when they had finished, Hulse ordered "The Boys of Bonnie Scotland, where the heather and the bluebells grow". They followed with ballads which both sides knew, singing everything from "Good King Wenceslaus" down to the ordinary Tommies' songs, and ended up with "Auld Lang Syne", which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wuerttemburgers etc joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn it was faked!

In earlier posts regarding the the Ulster Home Rule crisis and the Battle of the Somme I noted how Carson's volunteers infused into the 36th Ulster Division were  to be found within the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers regiments. Weintraub in turn comments upon the 13th Battalion London Regiment position of that night in that:

The regimental history of the Kensingtons conceded, "We were a little embarrassed by this sudden comradeship, and, as a lasting joke against us, let it be said that the order was given to stand to arms. But we did not fire, for the battalion on our right, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, with their national sense of humour, answered the enemy's salutations with songs and jokes and made appointments in No Man's Land for Christmas Day. We felt small and subdued and spent the remainder of Christmas Eve in watching the lights flicker and fade on the Christmas trees in their trenches and in hearing their voices grow fainter and eventually cease."

The component of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the Ulster Division who fought with the Royal Irish Fusiliers were the Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan volunteers. Fatalities at the later Battle of the Somme were heavy - 64 men returned to the trenches from 600 who had left. Many of the dead were members of the Orange Order. Cavan and Monaghan became part of the Irish Free state with the partition of the island in 1921as did a third Ulster county - Donegal.

Cinematically the truce has been portrayed in both Oh What A Lovely War in 1969 and 2005's Joyeux Noel - capturing British and German fraternisation in the former and Scottish, French and German in the latter. Weintraub's book alone however underscores the staggering human scale and historic scope of the Christmas events between the British, German, French, Belgian and respective colonial forces - including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from India in the British Army and the Magrebois Muslims in the French from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Weintraub also notes interesting intra-German divisions regarding the respecting the truce between the Saxon regiments as opposed to the Prussian military contingent - and indeed an individual and very bitter Corporal Hitler from Austria.

From the North Sea to the Swiss border that potentially history-changing moment of rapprochement and brotherhood - that the Germans in the main elicited whatever the qualifications concerning their faith in sure military victory - casts a long shadow on our vile godless world of greed, envy, smugness, ignorance and blandness today.

The men on the frozen fields of Flanders surely looked on the face of God that night every bit as much as the living and the dead did six months hence on the morning of 1st July 1916 at the Somme. So much in our lives of routine, stasis and disappointment will pass but this will not. Those fleeting hours in Western Europe by contrast were the everlasting fingerprint of humanity on this cold, unforgiving, timeless, savage and unrelenting rock. There is very little else in the human condition and the human experience nowadays to hold onto.