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 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.

I hold to this day that - for all Ulster's inflammable political divisions during the course of the Sixties - the ferocity and length of the subsequent Troubles made absolutely no moral or indeed rational sense. I also hold that the avoidance of that demented conflict during the Seventies, Eighties and early Nineties would have left an albeit politically divided Ireland as one of the most artistically rich regions of Western Europe. That as underpinned by a garnering modernist cultural confluence and with two of the most historically interesting and characterful cities in Europe located only 100 miles apart. The Ulster conflict was clearly a totally meaningless descent into communal hatred and perverted fratricide.

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.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

I, Monster

Today in modern London I know of several work colleagues from Southern Europe who ideally would rather be living in more economically sustainable Northern European climes such as Germany, Holland or Scandinavia. Likewise I have acquaintances from Northern Europe who would most certainly prefer to be residentially located today in warmer Southern European locations such as Spain or Italy. The vast majority of my own British friends meanwhile would prefer to be living in a Britain of thirty or forty years vintage. In the meantime all of us appear to be doomed to a life of seriously nasty Joycean stasis here in the literal crossroads of a wankered post-Europe because of the contingencies of the English language alone.

We thus approach the most astoundingly depressing Christmas in British history since 1944 and the Wehrmacht's counter-offensive through the frozen soil of the Forest of the Ardennes against the Anglo-American forces.

Many many years ago while studying politics I recall the lecturer noting how at the end of World War Two our nation had a clearcut decision to make by way of either decolonising with extreme haste - and thus consolidating the party political consensus over welfare capitalism - or else maintain our clearcut global imperial focus. In essence we could NOT do both.

In the two decades following VE Day - and whilst other defeated or fundamentally broken European countries passed Great Britain by in terms of industrial infrastructural base and managerial acumen - we literally attempted to balance both geo-political imperatives to disastrous ends. The industrial relations chaos of the Seventies and the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years thus heralding the final glorious throw of the fantasy dice with the national Ponzi housing scam of the past decade. This in turn has clearly toxified much of British life down to cellular levels. In the capital alone this reaches from West London's oligarchical Notting Hell clean through to the Jack the Hipster-haunted East End and all the landscapes of Morder inbetween.

It is indeed so interesting now to watch classic British movies from the Fifties and Sixties in terms of not only a lost country of people and place but of a very clearly stratified national identity grounded on a shared industrial heritage, wartime austerities and a sense of rightly inflated ethical and moral worth. Britain in these contexts appears as genuinely independent and literally unique as France.

Today by contrast our dislocated country lies awash with deflation, hopelessness, cheap supermarket booze, Marlboro Lights and jumbo bags of festive Onion Rings. The  only dynamics afoot being that that of rank greed, stupidity and ignorance. The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come would never have believed how this has all played out and there is surely much much worse to come.

In parallel the ideological struggles of yore between political heavyweights such as Tony Benn or Enoch Powell have descended to an historic new low with the clearly ringfenced Russell Brand and former banker Nigel Farage grandstanding in the idiot media. The Labour Party leader in turn assures us that next year will see a battle for the soul of the country. There is no soul anywhere and there certainly is no fucking country anymore....mate.