Monday, February 20, 2017

John Hurt - Our Man For All Seasons


I had been thinking about John Hurt some days before his death on 25th January 2017 - recalling to mind The Pied Piper movie from 1972 which I watched on television several times as a child. This strange feature was directed by Jacques Demy, filmed on location in Bavaria and had Hurt playing Franz the Baron's son who wants the dowry of the mayor's daughter to fund his army. It also starred the Scottish folk singer Donovan, Jack Wild, Donald Pleasence and Diana Dors. As for the Pied Piper himself, the legend can be read as a metaphorical representation of youth emigration from Lower Saxony to the East, multiple deaths of young people from disease or a even Children's Crusade - likewise it could be a dark mirror on historic sex crime or cult activity.

Hurt's acting profile of course became truly global at the end of the Seventies and early Eighties with his appearances in the hit films Midnight Express, Alien and The Elephant Man but his earlier career incorporated some interesting roles as well. This alongside the three very well-recalled television appearances as Emporer Caligula in I Claudius, the murderer Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and as gentleman homosexual Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant.

Hurt's first film was 1962's The Wild and the Willing - a romantic drama of student life which also saw the first movie appearance of Ian McShane. The following year Hurt featured in an educational short film for The Spastics Society called The Contact as a physically handicapped teenager with cerebral palsy. 1964 saw Hurt appear in the London drama This Is My Street with the original Avenger Ian Hendry. He then portrayed Richard Rich in Fred Zinnemann's 1966 story of Sir Thomas More - A Man For All Seasons - while in 1967 he was cast in the British drama The Sailor From Gibraltar.

The last year of the Sixties saw Hurt appear in three films which have all faded out of memory - the comic lead in Sinful Davey about a Scottish highwaymanBefore Winter Comes starring David Niven and set in an Austrian displaced persons camp after World War Two and the American drama In Search of Gregory with Julie Christie.

10 Rillington Place - released in 1971 - had Hurt take on the role of Timothy John Evans who was wrongfully executed for the murder of his wife and daughter by John Christie in Notting Hill. The same year he appeared in Mr Forbush and the Penguins which was filmed in Antarctica and traces the personal catharsis of a skirt-chasing biologist when face to face with survival dynamics in the animal world. After The Pied Piper Hurt's next appearance in cinema was the political comedy Little Malcolm in 1974 - the first feature film produced by George Harrison for Apple Corps. In 1975 he portrayed Tom Rawlings in the still quirky horror movie The Ghoul with Peter Cushing which was set in Cornwall and then an RAF officer in the Italian language film La Linea del fiume.

Prior to the major breakthrough of Midnight Express in 1978 Hurt appeared in four movies the previous year - the British-Canadian thriller The Disappearance with Donald Sutherland, "The Island" segment of horror anthology Three Dangerous Ladies, Paperback alongside Paul Morrissey and the independently produced colonial drama East of Elephant Rock. Between Midnight Express' junkie Max and doomed executive officer Kane in Alien Hurt starred in The Shout with Alan Bates which was another horror movie set in the English West Country. He also provided voices for the animated features of Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings - narrating the characters of Hazel and Aragorn.

As noted, Hurt's contemporaneous television work in the Sixties and the Seventies ranged from Z-Cars to The Sweeney, a  1974 production of Sygne's The Playboy of the Western World and appearances in long-running drama series Armchair Theatre, ITV Playhouse and Play for Today. In 1976 he starred in The Peddler in the latter series as an anti-depressant salesman.

The scope of Hurt's talent was truly extraordinary - from the time of his major breakthrough in the late Seventies and right up to his portrayal of James Parkin in the 2010 remake of the MR James ghost story Whistle and I'll Come To You My Lad. His work incorporated White Mischief, Scandal and The Field on the big screen and television appearances from The Alan Clark Diaries to the eponymous narrator of The Storyteller children's series to the dramatic adaptation of the Birmingham Six case where he portrayed campaigner Chris Mullin.

I well recall seeing The Elephant Man at the ABC Cinema in Belfast when it was released - the scene he shares with Hannah Gordon when Joseph Merrick reflects about his mother is an incredibly moving  piece of cinema which captures such profound human sadness and empathy. Thirty years later and every day of the working week here in the disfunctional and corrupted capital of our country I pass the London plaque upon George Orwell's former domestic residence- Hurt of course having portrayed Winston Smith in the 1984 version of 1984.

John Hurt was born in 1940 in Derbyshire and during his 77 years lived in Oxfordshire, Norfolk, London's Bloomsbury, County Wicklow in the Irish Republic and Kenya. He was truly one of the greatest ever actors to come from the British Isles without question and a man of considerable passion and depth. Hurt's death after a six decade-long career in acting is a melancholy early marker within what is already a deeply troubled year - here in a world where one can take one's pick of mischief-making pied pipers of all political complexion and agenda.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

George Best and Chelsea



Been watching quite a few dvds in the past few weeks to tide myself over a freezing 21st Century British January - here in the post-Brexit political ghostscape of dumbstruck silence. One of these has been the Leeds United edition of ITV's The Big Match series of the late Sixties, Seventies and Eighties - endlessly entertaining fare.

Leeds of course were re-embedded in public consciousness off the back of the David Peace book on Brian Clough's short tenure as manager in 1974 and the subsequent movie The Damned United. The performances that that iconic squad of international players left behind to British social history of the Seventies are still breathtaking to witness. Between promotion from the old Second Division in the 1963-64 season and being cheated out of a European Cup final win over Bayern Munich in 1975 the team won the League Championship in 1968-69 and 1973-74, the FA Cup in 1972 against Arsenal and the League Cup in 1968 against the same opposition. To this day the Leeds fans hail their team as European Champions at games with reference to the 1975 controversy and their martyrdom at the hands of bogeyman referee Monsieur Michel Kitabdjian.

Extraordinarily enough they were were runners-up in the League in 1964-65 to Manchester United, 1965-66 to Liverpool, 1969-70 to Everton, 1970-71 to Arsenal and 1971-72 to Derby County. Also FA Cup runners-up in 1965, 1970 and 1973 to Liverpool, Chelsea and Sunderland. In Europe they won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (precursor of the UEFA Cup) in 1968 against Hungary's Ferencvaros and then Juventus  in 1971 - they were also were runners-up in the competition in 1967 against Yugoslavia's Dinamo Zagreb and likewise runners-up in the 1973 European Cup Winner's Cup to AC Milan. Players of such calibre and metal as Eire's  Johnny Giles, England's Terry Cooper and Paul Madeley and Scotland's Billy Bremner, Eddie Gray and Peter Lorimer insure that the legend of Don Revie and Super Leeds will run and run.

One of the best matches on the collection was a 1973 away game at Stamford Bridge in London against the equally renowned Chelsea squad of the time - John Hollins, Charlie Cooke, Peter Osgood, Ron Harris, Peter Bonnetti, Alan Hudson et al. Leeds won 2-1. That most famous of all Chelsea squads is also interesting in terms of a particularly thought-provoking piece of counterfactual football history. This alike the possibility of Best, Law and Charlton having been joined in the Manchester United front line by a retained Johnny Giles and Celtic's  Jimmy Johnstone and as with regard to the possibility that a troubled Belfast Boy could have ended up here in what could and should have been the literal middle-point of his career.

Following the early Sixties decision of East Belfast's Glentoran to let the apparently questionable talents of a teenage George Best go by the board- as did scouts from Wolverhampton Wanderers who Best actually supported as a boy and Manchester City - his ten year stint at United was followed by a light flight of golden top end appearances with the Johannesburg Jewish Guild, Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Hibernian of Edinburgh, San Jose Earthquakes, Sea Bee (of Hong Kong), Hong Kong Rangers, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions and Osborne Park Galeb in Australia, Warwickshire's Nuneaton Borough and finally Tobermore United who are based to the north of Magherafelt in County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Yes,that wee town on the road from Desertmartin to Maghera.

However,  despite the general car crash nature of Best's career following the 1968 European Cup final and the decline of the aging United squad, several teams were yet interested in him according to an historical haul through the rich Best bibliography on the shelves - of which the most impressive by a long way remains Duncan Hamilton's 2013 Immortal. These included Real Madrid and Juventus at the beginning of the Seventies, Chelsea and Manchester City and also Brian Clough's Derby County in the fall-out from the 1973 sacking of Best and manager Frank O'Farrell, a particularly keen New York Cosmos at the very launch of the North American Soccer League in clear preference to even Pele as the lodestar of the revolution, Real Madrid again in the period when Tommy Docherty came to manage United, Birmingham's Aston Villa in the same time frame and several Italian and Spanish clubs following his performance for Northern Ireland in the 1976 World Cup qualifier against Holland in Rotterdam.

The possibility of a move to Chelsea in particular is truly fascinating in light of the panache of their team performances, general individual flair and timely location in Western cultural history on the King's Road which was exemplified by the visit of the regal Raquel Welch to Stamford Bridge for a 1972 home game against Leicester City. Welch yelled enthusiastically to striker Peter Osgood from the touchlines during the match - he later recalling "She probably figured as I was standing there on the pitch doing nothing it was okay to interrupt. If I had been George Best I would have slipped her my number but then again if I was George Best she would have slipped me hers". Welch was photographed previously by Terry O'Neill wearing a Chelsea strip on the set of her western movie Hannie Caulder - the team was also watched by Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood in this period. Chelsea won the League Cup in 1965, the FA Cup in 1970 and the UEFA Cup in 1971.

Hamilton's biography notes the especial frisson that playing against Chelsea in London gave to Best:

It is said that man responds to those landscapes in which he instinctively feels he belongs. Best had never played at Stamford Bridge before; but he knew he belonged there. The architecture was unimpressive. There was rickedly-looking double-decker seating on stilts beside the modest main stand, its footballers weather-vane twisting atop a white-fronted pediment. There were wide, open spaces behind each uncovered goal and 20-floor high-rises could be seen in the middle and far distance. But something indefinable in regard to the ambience of the ground and the atmosphere inside it never  failed to in inspire Best. He was roused whenever he went to Chelsea, which became one of his spiritual homes. 

In the eleven seasons that George Best played for Manchester United he took part in 17 matches against that classic Chelsea squad of the Sixties and Seventies - four victories, six draws and seven defeats for United in a batch of 16 First Division ties and one League Cup match.

1963-64: 23rd March 1964 - 1-1 draw at Old Trafford.

1964-65: 30th September 1964 - Manchester United's 2-0 away victory at Stamford Bridge which would be the game to bring Best firmly to public attention across Britain. Best himself always saw it as the day the trajectory of his career left an earthly gravity - 21 players and the stadium having applauded him off the pitch at the end. He scored in this game as did Dennis Law. In the return League fixture on 13th March 1965 in Manchester Best scored again in a 4-0 victory - another
oft- transmitted piece of footballing genius with Best outwitting Eddie McCreadie on the top left wing before looping the ball over Bonnetti from a ludicrous angle. United went on to win the Championship in this season.

1965-66: 12th March 1966  - Three days after Manchester United's famous 5-1 victory against Benfica in the European Cup Quarter-Final Chelsea defeated them 2-0 in West London - the home fans applauding the significance of the Lisbon victory enthusiastically before kick-off.

1966-67: 15th October 1966 - 1-1 draw at Old Trafford the week before Best played in Northern Ireland's 2-0 defeat by England in Belfast in the European Championship Qualifier. The Jules Rimet Trophy being paraded before the Windsor Park crowd - including my father and grandfather - beforehand. Manchester United won the League Championship in this season again.

1967-68: 25th November 1967 - 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge with Best carrying an injury. The
2nd March 1968 return at Old Trafford saw an on-form Best miss a penalty in a 3-1 defeat for the home team. Chelsea's Ron Harris succeeded in both matches in fundamentally limiting George Best's scope. A borderline apocryphal story of the time relates how a fashion photographer was assigned to take action shots of Best against Chelsea to juxtapose with trendy clothing shots already obtained - the photographer subsequently observing how a ubiquitous blue-shirted, square-jawed and mean-faced hard man seemed to be in every solitary captured image.

1968-69: 24th August 1968 - 4-0 defeat for the European Champions at Old Trafford with Harris reassuming his defensive watch. The 15th March 1969 return at Stamford Bridge saw Best out-perform Harris though relegation-threatened United again lost 3-2.
 
1969-70: 6th December 1969 - Manchester United defeated 2-0 at Old Trafford with Harris again neutralising Best on the wings. Chelsea also won the 21st March 1970 return at Stamford Bridge - Ian Hutchinson scoring twice in Manchester and the same again in London. The season would end with Chelsea's first FA Cup final victory over Revie's Leeds.

1970-71: 19th August 1970 - A scoreless draw at Old Trafford in the League. Best also played in a League Cup 4th Round game against Chelsea on 28th October 1970 - this was the game where Best outwitted a hammering Harris challenge in the Manchester downpour to score one of his most famous ever goals in a 2-1 victory. The Stamford Bridge return tie in 1971 in the League saw Best suspended for missing training and spending the weekend in an Islington flat with actress Sinead Cusack - United won 2-1 without him.

1971-72: 18th August 1971 - Best was sent off for arguing with the referee following Chelsea's opening goal - the press photograph of his exit from the pitch beside a placating Bobby Charlton and Tony Dunne has been reproduced many times. United however won the game in London 3-2.  The 22nd January 1972 return at Old Trafford saw Chelsea's Osgood score the only goal of the match.

1972-73: 30th August 1972 - Another scoreless draw in Manchester. Best did not play in the Manchester United team between 25th November 1972 and 20th October April 1973.

1973-74: 3rd November 1973 - 2-2 draw in Manchester during what would be Best's final 12-game bow for United under Tommy Doherty.

As an appendum to the above, on 27th December 1976 at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea defeated Fulham 2-0 in the Second Division tie. Fulham's team included Best and Bobby Moore. The two players were also in the Fulham squad on 8th April 1977 at Craven Cottage where the home team won 3-1 - Best scored one of the goals.

As discussed in an earlier post on George Best and Northern Ireland, his footballing career ran in parallel to the worst years of the civil war in Ulster. The 18th August 1971 and 22nd January 1972 ties mentioned above came only nine days after the introduction of internment and one week before Bloody Sunday respectively - these being the two events which pushed months of sustained radical civil disorder into a full-blown guerrilla insurgency with an accompanying sectarian carnage that shamed  the name of Ireland across the world for many years.

Both Duncan Hamilton's defining work on the footballer - and indeed many other studies of his extraordinary lifepath - reference how Best's deep-seated love for United may well have been the core reason for the radical downfall of his career in the mid-Seventies. This of course standing alongside the sobering fate of being lodged deep within a mediocre Northern Ireland international squad that was linearly placed between highly successful and passion-driven World Cup final appearances in the Fifties and Eighties.

An elongation of George Best's British football career at this point may well indeed have seen him alive today - let alone within the context of the commercial multi-billion pound invigoration  of the sport he alone single-handedly revolutionised alike Belfast's Alex Higgins with the game of snooker.

Granted George Best at Chelsea may not be as tangible a sporting counterfactual as the prospect of the star in his glorious prime at the Mexico World Cup of 1970 - where Northern Ireland would have been arraigned against first round opponents of  Belgium, the host country and mighty El Salvador had they topped the qualifying group above the USSR. Nonetheless the thought of a blue-clad mid-Seventies Best at Chelsea remains fascinating - looming there between the overweight and heavily bearded player working through his demons for a brace of lose-lose matches under Tommy Docherty in 1973 and 1974 and the night that the Gods of Dutch Total Football fought for his shirt at the end of the 1977 Northern Ireland match in Rotterdam ...  a 2-2 draw and the 33rd of only 37 international appearances.

Privately, George Best was of course a long term resident of the King's Road for many years. However the thought of Belfast BT6's finest son playing with a top flight Chelsea team in the mid-Seventies for a half-decade or so remains such an incredible piece of historical reflection. It certainly would have made the utterly degrading - and perhaps unparalleled collapse - of London as a great city even more harrowing to consider today.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

The History Men


Donald Trump's inaugural address on Friday - having centred on the realpolitik of genuine equality of opportunity for the working people - would appear to have seriously irked a raft of parties. From angst-ridden cultural marxists to po-faced political apparatchiks to the credibility-free mainstream media.

In tandem to these events in Washington the past few days have seen some extraordinary political rhetoric being thrown into the mix in Northern Ireland by way of Ian Paisley Junior MP's comments on television and print in reference to his relationship with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. In contrast to the Cash-for-Ash revelations that have taken down the regional assembly in a smoke of vitriolic discord surpassing the bewildering continuum of conflict legacy debates, Paisley's comments have engendered widespread public support and re-illuminated the fact that the reconciliation of the peoples of Ireland are yet a light in the darkness of our times in Europe.

As noted in this blog previously, the rapprochement of the highly politically intelligent Ulster people in the past two decades have clearly emplaced the general public well beyond the political parties in terms of positive social dynamics. Similarly, and whereas Irish history is by default complex and multi-layered, there is so much evidence within public discourse suggesting that ubiquitous and perennial political divisions are running in tandem with radically changed perceptions of our past - this in recent years mainly focused on the brave role of northern and southern Irish military divisions in the Great War which directly preceded the Irish revolution and the partition of the island.

The specific history of Northern Ireland itself is full of many individual player-actors who do not fit into an easily stratified categorisation - from nationalist leader Joe Devlin to the unionist evangelist Harry Midgely and from the Progressive Unionist Party of the Thirties to the Northern Ireland Labour Party. Likewise whereas the Ulster Protestant of today could still relate to a classic piece of unionist polemic such as Patrick Riddell's 1970 Fire Over Ulster down to the last paragraph they are still cognisant  of the republican dynamics of the first quarter of the 20th century that started the outplay of the British in Ireland or indeed miscarriages of justice affecting the northern nationalist community in the modern conflict that sit as uneasily on the moral compass as the murders of working class British soldiers.

Some of the speeches and commentary from the latterday (and quite literally Born Again) Reverend Paisley on a shared future, Christian forgiveness and communal reconciliation stand in sobering counterpoise to the political chatter of our recent times - founded in the main on smugness, patronisation, arrogance and PC doggerel from the professional and highly priveleged political classes. The same arrogance indeed that can be seen in broadcast media news bulletins with lisping, cocksure and "wiseguy" presenters sneering openly at the political earthquakes of 2017 with barely concealed derision while the proverbial dogs in the street know now that so many pages have turned in the past calender year that we have skipped several historical chapters and arrived at an epilogue that looks very big and scary to politically adolescent eyes. Likewise for mindsets too immature - if not utterly gormless - to comprehend how grotesque individual human hubris can engender a societal catharsis of this scope.

Pass it on...

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Such a Little Time - Ulster's James Young


The Ulster comic actor and theatrical solo performer James Young has been referenced many times on this blog in the past - this will be the third and final main post about him. He remains such an interesting character in Irish social history, gay culture and in the day-to-day back story of an Ulster at war in the Sixties and Seventies.

Young is remembered in the main for his connection with the Group Theatre in Belfast's Bedford Street, his bestselling vinyl records that were produced by the Emerald label and for the BBC Northern Ireland Saturday Night television shows in 1973 and 1974. On both record and stage he combined fast witted urban humour - particularly hysterical in the rambling main show introductions - with reflective monologues on life, hardship and death in working class communities.

The two most famous - and indeed saddest - of his monologues in the latter context are arguably I Loved a Papist and Slum Clearance. The first centers around a fateful love affair set fast against the tide of history as lived and the second about how eviction from a condemned house appeared to the elderly resident concerned as threatening to terminate a spiritual connectivity to his own family past.

Young's catalogue of work is so rich and varied in content. There is The Feud - arguably his finest dramatic performance - about how a sectarian grudge between two tough Belfast youths ended in both tragedy and revelation many miles away from Ireland's bitter shores. We Emigrated is another wonderful piece which recalls the experience of emigrants from Ulster in North America. It is somewhat hammy in delivery but at the same time terribly moving when he notes how within transplanted communities in the New World the Catholic-Protestant Christian divide stood as naught and how only distance can sometimes make one retrospectively embrace the positivities of Irish life - the rain, bigotry and everything. Indeed The Feud also references the garnering awareness of a Belfast father of his son's loneliness in New York  - more and more he talked of Ireland and the people that he knew - which Young delivers to perfection.

The four monologues I have always found particularly interesting with Young are those that closed the live shows - they can be found on the Ulster Group Theatre performances captured on the albums Young  at Heart, Young and Foolish, James Young's 4th and The Young Ulsterman. To put these into context - the first political murders of the Troubles took place in 1966, civil disorder escalated from late 1968 through into 1969, full scale terrorist activity coalesced from late 1970 onwards and mid-1971 saw Northern Ireland teeter on the brink of civil war. The Young albums referenced were released in 1966, 1967, 1969 and 1973.

Why I Am Here from Young at Heart has the actor answering a question from a pedestrian on a Belfast street as to why he had not attempted to broaden his artistic horizons upon the London or New York stage. Young talks about the physical beauty of the countryside, the community and warmth of the Belfast people underneath the perennial political passions and the homesickness that so many emigrants have felt over the years. The piece ends with Young's wish to end his days in Belfast and his faith in how his talent can perhaps help Northern Ireland people weigh up the questionable rationale underpinning their religious animosities.

Salute to Belfast from Young and Foolish returns to this call of home when Young overhears a passenger on an airbus smugly allude to how easy Belfast is to get away from. In his reply he talks about the meetings he has had over the years with exiles from Belfast resident abroad, the memories they shared with him of places and characters from the past and how the light seemed to fade from their eyes when the conversation drew to a close.

This is Us from James Young's 4th discusses the onset of civil disorder and how the British media selectively ignored the everyday warmth and common sense of the Ulster people and their industrial achievements in their blanket focus on extremism, violence and the foregone collapse of what they presented as a grotesquely constructed and politically fallible Northern state.

We're Here For Such a Little Time from The Young Ulsterman has been discussed in an earlier post with Young juxtaposing the physical beauty of Ulster with the civic destruction and communal loathing now engrained in society to such a degree that it has turned his earlier faith in a core community base of shared labour experience and folk memory into a literal sick joke.

Young's work is well worth tracking down to this day. In the midst of terrible butchery - that is now being conveniently qualified as an essentially just war for civil rights by the credit-free mainstream media and pliant on-message academics - Young shone a light onto the existent bonds in Ulster society and the bridges that were yet to be burnt. He provided an extraordinary narrative of a society enduring years of directionlessness, confusion, brutality, disorder and rank strangeness and helps us to recall the people of those times - that communal backbone, capacity for endurance and an emotional energy that will never be seen again on these islands.

Also - for all the smug arrogance of the British elites in living memory - the Ulster Troubles actually do as an historical fact throw up endless examples of political intelligence that are going to be needed sorely over the course of the next calendar year. This to both resolve governmental and party political  mistakes of biblical consequence and to heal societal breaches that now appear beyond the influence of man or God alike.

Happy Christmas to all the regular readers of Saturday Buddha.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Different Kind of Christmas...



Several weeks ago came confirmation that the past decade has seen both a decline in national  living standards and a stagnation of social mobility in Britain not experienced since the 1820s. Analysis within this blog over the years of course has clearly pointed to these horrifying financial pressures on middle income Britain that have turned life into a daily struggle for millions of hard workers with neither fairness nor respite and indeed little prior warning of the scale of this grotesque fall.

The interpolation of this domestic misery within globalist economic logic and human demographic shifts clearly underpinned the summer vote on Brexit - even to the mindset of a newborn lamb. With that populist wave now being copperfastened by the American Presidential result we find ourselves in an extraordinarily strange political atmosphere off the back of blanket mainstream media silence regarding the true catalysts involved and the reality checks now due upon various demented political agendas. Other important player-actors and troupes within this great drama are likewise saying naught and looking innocently skyward.

The alternative Irish commentator and broadcaster Thomas Sheridan recently discussed Brexit and the Trump victory and presented them as a deliverance from hell itself  - albeit into a form of purgatory as a clearly open-ended period of achingly slow yet common sense-driven political transition/salvation. I myself also see the political status quo at the turn of this year in similar purgatorial ways - albeit gauged on how the aforesaid civic silence regarding the true factors which drove this year to its historic end has now stonewalled all rational public debate outside adolescent social media hysteria.

We are living through days of morbidity, stasis and confusion because the biggest political questions affecting a raft of British generations lies buried behind a mound of media obfuscation that has even trumped the dark psychological masterclass of the Ulster peace process or the selective dumbness over the deconstruction of London as a capital city.

And meanwhile one terrestrial television station's weekday evening newcasts continues to scream forth hysterical cultural marxist diatribes at every juncture when clearly the British public in the main would clearly rather hear about lost cats in Devon being reunited with their elderly owners. The same channel broadcasting crass retrospectives of Seventies' television viewing to accompanying asexual nerdish comedians' faux distain of the racist, sexist and utterly vile Britons of the period. People like my grandparents who lived through the Blitz, two world wars, two civil wars and exploitative low-wages in the mills and factories of West Belfast.

Some days ago in turn I listened to a news and current affairs programme on another British broadcaster's Northern Irish radio output. They got into the festive spirit with their own version of Kids Say The Funniest Things by asking infants what they thought various diminutive names for local political parties meant. This included one party symbiotically connected to an Irish guerilla organisation responsible for the deaths of over 1500 people. I am wont to reflect upon the words from the Book of Revelation here - And in their mouth was found no guile for they are without fault before the throne of God. I am also wont to think of a young handicapped neighbour of my grandparents who was murdered 40 years ago this month by the same brave men - many of whose veterans are due to enjoy their turkey sandwiches in a few hours time. Such are the depths of pure degradation this country has sunk to.

A year of populist revolt thus terminates in an atmosphere of seething contempt for professional party politics - this alongside a quizzical communal confusion as to how this must now play out without any new and legitimate political grouping to mentor and guide the most explosive lightning bolt in post-war European history druid-like towards a positive earthly location.

As the celebration of Christ's birth and the winter solstice approaches the tide of history enters a brief, bewildered and idiot abeyance with 2017 promising a sobering and deeply serious denouement of all the above.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Day of the Tartan


Just a brief year-end flag-up to one of the most interesting books I have read on Irish history for quite some time that was published earlier in 2016.

Gareth Mulvenna's work on the loyalist Tartan gangs of the early Seventies is a genuinely revelatory study of both the development of the Northern Ireland conflict and the significant role that working class loyalist youth played in Belfast's urban disorder in the very early days. The book clearly emplaces the Tartan phenomena against wider British teenage culture of the period  -  by way of glam rock, Richard Allen's scary Skinhead pulp novels and football hooliganism etc - and the road to subsequent paramilitary involvement.

Since the qualified peace in Ulster took hold in the Nineties there has been nowhere near enough left-field material of this quality coming on board. This aside from research firewalled behind expensive academic press prints that by all rights and all commerical logic should be widely accessible. I am thinking of the extraordinary Black Magic and Bogeymen: Fear, Rumour and Popular Belief in Northern Ireland 1972-1974 by Richard Jenkins to that end in particular.  I read this slack-jawed at the British Library in acknowledgement of the fact that this fantastic book was going to have to be a very expensive Christmas present to myself.

One other recent study of paramilitary loyalism in this context is retailing for a mere 82 pounds sterling on every digital bookselling outlet. Even though Mulvenna's work references a full-scale firefight in my own granny's street in North Belfast in 1971 I would not have paid that much money to read about it.

Tartan Gangs and Paramilitaries is complemented by Geoffrey Beattie's autobiographical We Are The People and Protestant Boy memoirs about my own childhood locale (1992 and 2004) and the fascinating posts on the Belfast Stories blog - both offer highly recommended insights into barely contained Irish civil war, class fractures in Protestant Ulster, the long violent outplay of the British in Ireland and now decimated Northern British industrial communities.

Friday, July 1, 2016

A New Day Yesterday


And so last week a four-decade-long political and socio-economic timebomb - merrily helped along past critical mass instability by years of deregulated financial devilment and venal personal greed by large segments of the British population - erupted off the back of two detonators provided by European Union membership. Britain will never be the same again in terms of the balance of our political classes - the European Project in turn lies in total disarray due to grotesque mismanagement and sneering arrogance.

This blog, as a small and very humble contribution to British and Irish social history,  has of course touched base often with much of the toxic contents of the aforesaid device and as brought to you by our nation's unique class divisions - the Ponzi property scam, banking criminality, the cultural denigration of the Old Labour working class communities, population transfers with concomitant senses of rank entitlement in tow, imbecilic celebrity worship, stagnant private sector wages, selective historical amnesia buried within the Northern Ireland peace process, the deconstruction of London as a national capital city, cultural marxist overload in advertising and the mainstream media, asset stripping, hard working professionals lodged in squalid rental accomodation for a king's ransom, lack of career opportunities and pathways for social progression, permanent austerity and the North-South divide. We lived in a very happy contented land last Wednesday.

Back in the mid-Seventies off the back of the Ulster Workers Council strike - another political earthquake which followed upon a democratic political mandate remember  - the Marxist writer Tom Nairn's The Break Up of Britain had of course touched base with national political fractures as galvinised by an Ulster at war and the question of devolution for the Celtic peripheral of the UK in Scotland and Wales. The political shock of last week underscoring how the endgame all along - for those with insight to see the lie of the political land in the past 20 years - was going to be focused on the English core of our nation.

Surely any society living through this strained degree of disconnectivity with the past - from consideration of my own great-grandfather's experiences on the Somme front with the Royal Irish Rifles exactly 100 years ago this morning through to the memories of a Seventies childhood of community, warmth, home, decency, place and belonging - is not fit for purpose. No amount of social media screeching, awkward friendship fallouts or generational fractures can take away from this. If anything it merely underscores the hopelessness of ever scientifically fusing north, south, east and west when nobody cares to know where the centre is situated or the mechanics of what makes it mechanically and emotionally tick.

From what I can garner from the order of battle my great-grandfather was in the second wave of soldiers attacking the Schwaben Redoubt on 1st July 1916 - he must have seen sights of hell's own creation that morning in Flanders as the Ulstermen progressed further than any other body of infantry on the Allied front and paid the price of 5,500 casualties including 2,000 dead. The two pictures accompanying this blogpost are of northern Irish soldiers from the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Irish Fusiliers. So remember the Protestant and Catholic fallen of a then British Ireland today as well as the brave men who returned to a deeply unsympathetic future on these islands - never forget the sacrifices of the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Messrs Hancock and Rimmer



Revisited two truly great British movies over the recent Bank Holiday that in different ways reflect very stark modern-day realities in the United Kingdom - Tony Hancock's 1961 The Rebel and Peter Cook's 1970 The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. Hancock's movie was the sixth most successful British film of that year at the box office while Cook's political satire was a commercial and critical failure - having had its release held back so as to not coincide with the General Election of that year when Labour's Harold Wilson lost to Edward Heath's Conservative and Unionist Party.

Whereas the latter half of The Rebel tends to fundamentally stall in the main - and I personally have never seen the appeal of Hancock's second and final film The Punch and Judy Man of the following year - the earlier segments of the movie remain utterly joyous. Hancock portrays a thoroughly disgruntled and soul-destroyed banking clerk who dreams of the bohemian life and one day leaves surburban London commuter hell and goes for it in cool France. The scene where he is down to his last sous in a Boho Parisian cafe and becomes so inspired to be even within hearing distance of impassioned artistic debate all around him is priceless. The hook of the movie being that his utterly crap, infantile and shitty art suddenly becomes seen as valid cutting edge product off the back of his own hamstrung idiotic misinterpretations for the awestruck Beatnik cognoscenti.

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer sunk Peter Cook's career in one fell swoop as a solo headline performer though alike Cook and Dudley Moore's 1967 Bedazzled time has been very kind to this work. The movie is essentially the story of a marketing and PR genius' rise to prominence within political Conservatism - without ever breaking sweat or questioning the moral codes of society in truly psychopathic fashion.

The cast of both films are interesting in turn - The Rebel has John Le Mesurier as Hancock's dreary City boss and one of the angry artistes in the cafe in the beginning is a young Oliver Reed. The Cook movie has a great peformance from Le Mesurier's Dad's Army superior Arthur Lowe as an advertising manager whose cushy life is about to be obliterated by the amoral Rimmer down to the point of having to sell his own furniture and car under his wife's nose in the wake of his cool rival's career light flight. Other well known cast members include Graham Chapman, Ronnie Corbett, Diana Coupland, Michael Bates, Ronald Fraser and Denholm Elliott - all of whom are now deceased.

In reality Tony Hancock and Peter Cook were complex personalities on so many fronts and lived fundamentally foreshortened lives - Hancock committed suicide in Sydney in 1968 at the age of only 44 while Cook died of alcohol-related liver damage in 1995 when 57 years of age. Both The Rebel and The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer do seem so clearly relevant to irreversible societal changes of the modern day and especially with regard to modern London - vile greed, grotesque media spin, avarice that has altered the national DNA forever, the distancing of the general public from the political classes, staggering social immobility and the retardation of creative endeavour among them.

Indeed recently while on a walk through the bland remnants of Soho to see the new blue plaque to Mary Millington in Great Windmill Street I noticed a chain of art shops in the West End whose frontage was emblazoned with the legend TURN LONDON INTO A CITY OF ARTISTS. The irony being almost overwhelming in a city whose experience of one of the biggest population transfers in global history in the past decade now overlaps with what would certainly appear to be an imminent
collapse in property values off the back of grim Ponzi mischief that will end in very big and very bitter tears. In turn having a creative talent today that is even the equivalent of being in Birkenhead in 1959 with a flashy Rickenbaker and a good voice may alas count for sweet fuck all in the scale of things.

Check out both of these films at some point with regard to a devastated London, a lost England and a mangled value system.


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Belfast Burning - April and May 1941


I watched this city burning with a bitter scarlet flame
                     And I heard the banshee sirens when those big black bombers came
        But we kept the sea lanes open under Churchill's mighty plan
                     Till the victory day when you danced away round the Ould Black Man

The Ould Black Man was a monologue performed by the Ulster comic actor James Young at the Group Theatre in Belfast's Bedford Street in the late Sixties - it can be heard on his third album It's Great To Be Young which was released in 1968. The eponymous subject is the statue of the 19th Century Presbyterian leader Henry Cooke on Great Victoria Street and his musings on the city's changing social complexion  - from the heavily populated and industrialised early part of the 20th century through to the swinging youth culture of the time.

The lines quoted above refer to the four Luftwaffe attacks on Belfast in April and May 1941- the second of the raids on Easter Tuesday caused the single highest death toll for any aerial bombardment during the Blitz on Britain outside of London. 900 men, women and children were murdered in one of the least protected cities in the United Kingdom. This particular raid also left 1,500 people injured and 50,000 homes destroyed - fatalities were also caused in Derry City, Bangor and Newtownards on that 15th of April 1941 night.

An ecumenical service of commemoration was held last month in Belfast on the 75th anniversary for the dead of the Belfast Blitz - alongside the unveiling of  plaques at the Falls Road Public Swimming Baths and the central St George's Market which would both be used as temporary morgues. Other plaques have been erected near the scenes of significant death tolls around the city such as Percy Street on the Shankill Road where thirty died when a landmine struck an air raid shelter. Percy Street lay on the Protestant-Catholic interface in West Belfast and that night many Shankill Protestants sheltered in the Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road.

A BBC microsite on the Belfast Blitz includes four incredibly well made five minute-animations which reference many of the events now enshrined in the folk memory of the city - the possibility that Luftwaffe bombing patterns were focused on residential areas because of the misidentification of the Belfast waterworks as the docks, the destruction of many potentially dangerous animals at Belfast zoo (although a baby elephant was secretly looked after each night in one female keeper's own home), the aid given by the east coast fire services of Eire to their fellow Irishmen and the independent Unionist MP Tommy Henderson's assurance to the Stormont establishment that the sectarian mixing going on in the Ulster countryside between the working classes who had fled the city had clearly lead to a firm conclusion by all that "the government is no good."

Both my parents were in Belfast on the night of the Easter Tuesday raid as children and both of my grandparents' homes suffered serious structural damage in the north and west of the city, My father recalls being brought to the basement of his local primary school in the Oldpark district from where he could see the local church burning and that the end terrace house on his street was completely destroyed with the death of an entire family group.  The four raids destroyed eleven churches, two hospitals and two schools across the city in general as well as severe damage to industrial infrastructure.

The story of the Belfast blitz is covered in great detail in a definitive study by Brian Barton from 1989. It was it was also discussed in a full chapter - Many Fires Were Started - of Robert Fisk's 1985 classic history of the respective neutral and belligerent statuses of a politically divided Ireland... In Time Of War. The Blitz in turn had provided the background for the author Brian Moore's superb novel The Emperor of Ice Cream in 1965 - Moore having served in the air raid warden services in North Belfast at the time and with the book juxtaposing Irish Republican glee at Britain's geopolitical mistfortunes with the mass murder that ensued in 1941 on the streets of proletarian Belfast. The late Moore is little discussed now though I remember well listening to an interesting lecture he gave in the early Nineties at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts on his Troubles thriller Lies of Silence.

Philip Orr's moving history of the 36th Ulster Division - The Road to the Somme - references a Shankill Road family who refused to leave the area after 1916 off the back of two family members who were reported "missing, believed killed" in Picardy and their wish to remain in the house in hope of their physical return. On the anniversary of the first day of the battle on 1st July the family always flew the Union Flag from their house in memory of the fallen - as indeed did my own great-grandfather for that one day alone in respect of his comrades from the 15th Battallion Royal Irish Rifles. Orr references how their house was destroyed during the 1941 blitz but on the first day of July a neighbour organised some local teenagers to emplace the flag on top of the rubble in order to maintain the continuity of the tradition.

As the BBC animations show, one of the main aerial routes the German planes took on their way to attack the great port city of Belfast was northbound along the coast of the beautiful Ards Peninsula by Strangford Lough - one of the most idyllic parts of the British Isles to this day. Architectural destruction of central Belfast over the course of the attacks was extremely severe on the third of the major raids in particular - the "Fire Raid" on the night of the 3rd of May.

Less than thirty years later an unprecedented sectarian conflict was to continue the destruction of the city centre and bring it to the point of social extinction and societal obliteration. A conflict whose outplay is today epitomised by the common sense, warmth and humanity of the working people who healed the breach and moved on as opposed to a Troubles legacy now apparently owned by dry academic verbiage that denies human agency or the misreading of history at all costs.

Much is yet to be gleaned in future from the course and consequences of the Spring 1941 German air raids on Belfast as to how a life or death struggle engendered class solidarity across Belfast's religious divide and one unforgettable gesture towards national reconciliation - this as sadly opposed to how the fossilisation of cultural identity in Ireland by the Forties would irrevocably steer society into sterile social relations and bloody conflict alike,



Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ricky Warwick - Tank McCullough Saturdays


Northern Ireland musician Ricky Warwick is due to shortly release two solo albums - one acoustic, one electric and seven years after 2009's Belfast Confetti. Just heard this incredible song from the forthcoming Hearts On Trees release about a long disappeared industrial Belfast and the old Saturday heroes. A truly amazing piece of work.