Sunday, November 2, 2014

1971 - The Days Of The Last Ditch

Though normally very reticent about cinematic depictions of the Ulster Troubles, I found the recent 71 to be a superb recreation of the times as well as being a very well-paced thriller in its own right. Released last month, it is written by Gregory Burke who was mentioned some posts ago in light of his earlier Black Watch play performed by the National Theatre of Scotland across the UK.

There were a handful of historical inaccuracies such a "pig"-style Royal Ulster Constabulary vehicle which never existed and reference to an Ulster army regiment that was defunct by the year that the drama was set. I would perhaps also question the scale of bricked-up and abandoned buildings that would have been in existence at such an early stage of the conflict though the threatening chill of the silent Seventies Belfast night was captured to perfection. Likewise for the muddied morality of political violence and the labyrinthine security stratagems surrounding the Troubles. 

October also saw the end of the re-run of the late Stewart Parker's acclaimed Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast - arguably one of the greatest works in Irish theatre and set forty years ago exactly during the Ulster Workers Council strike of 1974. It focuses on the interplay of five lost souls - four metaphorical and one literal - in the last remaining house in a terraced street long given up to urban decay, interface violence and population flight. Incidentally Parker's collection of rock album reviews for The Irish Times between 1970 and 1976 as compiled as High Pop are certainly worth investigation as well.

I have also recently finally got around to reading The Last Ditch - an entertaining 1982 thriller written by former Ulster Unionist politician Roy Bradford. It looks at the political fallout surrounding the Westminster withdrawal of security powers from a Northern Ireland government with some barely disguised portraits of Vanguard leader William Craig, the Reverend Ian Paisley and the last Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. Bradford was a Stormont MP himself in an East Belfast constituency, served as Minister of Commerce and Minister of Development  and also was a member of the 1973 Northern Ireland Assembly - he was a member of the power-sharing Executive itself in charge of the Department of the Environment. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin he worked in Army Intelligence in France and Germany during the Second World War. At one point he co-owned a Covent Garden restaurant in London with film director John Schlesinger and co-wrote a biography of SAS legend Blair Mayne with the writer Martin Dillon. He died in 1998 some months after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. 

The most famous literary portrayal of the Troubles still remains Gerald Seymour's Harry's Game which was published in 1975 and made into a highly successful ITV television drama in the early Eighties starring Ray Lonnen who died during the summer. This story was about an undercover British army officer sent into Belfast to find information on a leading IRA gunman. Of the vast sweep of other fiction on the conflict four particularly stand out in my opinion - Maurice Leitch's Whitbread Prize winning Silver's City from 1981 about a veteran loyalist paramilitary commander sprung from imprisonment, Brian Moore's 1990 Lies of Silence about an IRA assassination attempt on leading Protestant militants, Eoin McNamee's 1994 Resurrection Man which was based on the Shankill Butcher killings of the mid-Seventies and Glenn Patterson's incredibly moving The International from 1999 on the daily life of a central Belfast hotel soon to be touched personally by the mounting waves of civil disorder and terrorist violence. 

All reflections of desperate times, grotesque political miscalculation, undiluted hatred, wasted years and a wrong war.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Restless Natives

The Scottish referendum result of last week has unequivocally exposed fractures within the British body politic that have not been witnessed since the commencement of the Ulster Troubles in October 1968. Similarly these in turn evolved a full half century after the Irish Free State's own secession from the United Kingdom. The crossroads our country thus stands at today is surely of similar consequence to events of this very month 65 years ago no less in September 1939  - 1.6 million British people having now proclaimed to the free world that the greed-obsessed, democratically-deficient, profiteering and deeply degenerate status quo of modern Britain and the Union itself is not fit for purpose any longer.

Having unfortunately been resident in a London-now-morphing-into-Dubai mixed with a Hammer Horror film set since 1987 I completely understand the core dynamics behind Scotland's irrevocable distancing from the social changes operating within the South East of England in particular. However I would have been literally heartbroken had the deep cultural blood ties and shared history between Ulster and Scotland been constitutionally severed off the back of the above for good. Ties that stretch back long before the Ulster Plantation and the Hamilton and Montgomery settlements in County Down to the ancient Kingdom of Dalriada, the Scotti or indeed to the clear geological (let alone Pictish) confluence of Eastern Ulster with Western Scotland.

Life has gone on as normal of course for millions of people in England since Friday 19th September  2014 with the Ponzi housing market, demographic megasurges, rotting social infrastructure, junk television, Facebook updates, aggressive urban culture, cheap supermarket lager and banking mischief but it is clear that a gigantic political timebomb has now been laid that has changed everything from this point on in time in the UK.

If there was a way to salvage societal unity from such political and ethno-religious divisions north of the border (not a mention of the latter on mainstream media of course) I yet feel it is still theoretically possible despite the eleventh hour afoot. However our current Westminster political class are surely the last people on Planet Earth or possibly even the universe itself that could manage it. The internal Scottish parameters they allowed to be set for the referendum alone being surely the gravest political misjudgment in living folk memory from Skye to the Scilly Isles and all points inbetween.

Either way....Welcome to History.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Aye Ready

I have had a sneaking suspicion for some time now that not that many working people in the likes of Copenhagen or Dusseldorf or Warsaw are waking up in the middle of the night and worrying with quite the degree of death-rattle horror about the future ahead as compared to the citizens of a recession-hit and literally directionless Britain.

Tonight our country finds itself emershed in a sense of rank social stasis that outstrips even that as portrayed in James Joyce's Dubliners in 1914 - minus the cheap black porter then available in British Dublin of course. We have a public awareness of unparalleled cultural change and political inertia afoot that transcends individual left-right boundaries. And we also have ludicrously transparent censorship by the mass media of the true scale of danger affecting the economy by way of real unemployment figures or the gargantuan cowboy mischief-making of the UK property market.

If British life wasn't so serious and sobering then all this Kafkaesque entertainment accompanying the Euro collapse would be terribly wry and amusing.

Back to another time and place I recently watched the third of Peter McDougall's Play For Today dramas set in Glasgow - 1979's Just A Boy's Game which followed Just Another Saturday and Elephant's Graveyard. The performances by both blues singer Frankie Miller as Jake McQuillen and Ken Hutchinson as Dancer were truly exceptional when viewing this for the first time in 30 years. At one point Dancer visits McQuillen while the latter was working on a crane at the Glasgow docks at Greenock. They talk about the imminent death of McQuillen's grandfather - "What is he dieing of?" "Everything". The fading grandfather's metal remains unvanquished right through to the play's conclusion however where he tries to even pick a fight with hard man Jake while on his own deathbed. The kind of steely people that empires were once forged upon no less.

That same spirit of Caledonian grit being seen the decade previously with Scotland's 3-2 victory over World Champions England at Wembley in 1967 when Dennis Law of Manchester United noted to Glasgow Rangers' Slim Jim Baxter that the English team were there for the taking and for the Scots to seize the opportunity. The legendary reply being, according to football lore, "Naw let's just take the pish oot o'them". He certainly procceded to do so alongside reminding England's Alan Ball of his uncanny resemblence to 4 foot 3 inch comedian Jimmy Clitheroe.

Two decades later The Proclaimers Letter From America gave us one of the most moving political songs of our times as comparing historic emigrations of old from Lewis and Skye to a now industrially bereft Scottish landscape stretching from Irvine to Bathgate.

In the thriving cosmopolitan, stylish and pulsating financial hub of modern London - the fifth country in the United Kingdom and Margaret Thatcher's disfunctional and very naughty bastard grandchild - there is no doubt very little thought at all anymore about other British regions and their historical connectivity to the capital through war and peace. This very metropolis currently luxuriating in the same waves and pathways of globalisation that guarantee there probably won't be much nuturing ahead in the UK for more Slim Jims, cutting edge television dramas about the working class or industrial endeavour of  extraordinary vintage and achievement.

Thankfully there is no price on heritage, culture, wit, character and pride for the time being. So whatever the constitutional future should hold over the next few hours, Scotland remains both a big country and a mighty nation. Great Britain will never see its like again.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

2014 Satanomics

I learned a brand new word last week - "precariat". This refers to the social class whose existence is entirely frameworked by a lack of predicability or security regarding employment. Of course in the thriving metropolis of New London no middle class person would ever be found in this essentially post-working class social milieu - therefore I do not officially exist nor do the majority of my friends and colleagues who all work in what would still be considered middle class white collar professions by any broad North West European term of reference.

Discussion of the perfect storm parameters of modern British life has been a mainstay of this blog over many years. In turn this of course has been the main catalyst behind the creeping scale and scope of this horror demographic across previously set class determiners. Such radical social change being thus founded upon the most staggeringly unethical banking practices experienced since the Wall Street Crash, population shifts in the South East of England that have not been seen in Europe since the fall of Silesia and East Prussia to the Red Army, the apparent Marie Celeste style-disappearance of the Ealing Comedy proletariat of yore from the streetscapes of London and the greatest middle class insecurity since the last days of the Weimar Republik.

The capital's ability to market the unmarketable fundamentally relying upon the selective blindness of the mainstream media to realistically consider any of the above alongside the greed-fuelled Ponzi housing scam, the social acceptance that children will live at home until the age of 30 and the Shoreditchisation of slum London for the benefit of European hipsters. The ubiquitous scorn for the indigenous chav underclass remaining however inviolate.

Growing up in Belfast in the Seventies of course the large working class Shankill district two miles from my home underwent a similar perfect storm - political violence, brutal housing redevelopment, urban blight, an enormous motorway scheme affecting its southern boundary with the city centre, blanket deindustrialisation and radical population decimation. In the Seventies alone the population fell from 76,000 to 23,000 alone.

No such long term drawbacks look set however to affect the onward trajectory of the New London Century - with its bread, circuses, gunsmoke and mirrors.  The dense fog of zero interest rates, budget airline fares and a residential culture of transient populations strategically enshrouding the regenerated Factory of Grievances in turn.  Where the past is itself and the future appears clearly written far far away from the rotting public infrastructures, the lack of a productive economic base and the misery etched on every commuter's pallid deathmask face.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


Some time ago I discussed the historic football match played at Windsor Park Belfast on 16th April 1975 between Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia. The Yugoslavian Football Association had agreed to take part in the first international match to be played in Northern Ireland after four years of sustained terrorist violence and civil disorder had transported the entirity of  such fixtures to England.

The result was a 1-0 victory for the home team who had provided a guard of honour for the visitors at the start and as against a deafening welcome to both sides from the Belfast supporters. Needless to say that in a period of sustained racist abuse of the Eastern European population of Northern Ireland at present it is well to recall this brave 1975 gesture alongside the Polish contribution to the RAF defence of Ulster itself during the Second World War. Seven Polish Air Force graves lie tonight in Milltown Cemetery in West Belfast and three at Ballcranbeg Cemetery in County Down.

The importance of Ulster sport to both a sense of societal normality and providing an albeit qualified framework for communal bonding has been discussed in earlier posts on George Best and Mary Peters. The entire subject was reviewed in depth in Teddie Jamieson's superb Whose Side Are You On? Sport, The Troubles and Me which was published in 2011.

However the apogee of this social phenomena may well have been reached last weekend with the success of the Giro d'Italia races across Greater Belfast, along the Antrim Coast and through County Armagh into the Irish Republic. This was without doubt the biggest sporting event to be held in Northern Ireland since the termination of the RAC Tourist Trophy competitions in 1955 at the Dundrod Circuit.

One especially memorable piece of television footage captured from a helicopter during the Saturday event was that of twenty or so horses galloping along Carnlough beach in tandem with the cyclists - Carnlough being the home village of current Liverpool Football Club manager Brendan Rodgers. The riders accompanied the peloton at various points on the route including at Dunluce Castle - captured within the centrefold of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy album - and the equally beautiful ruins of Kenbane Castle on the Causeway coast. The events were held in honour of the McDonnell clan of Antrim who controlled the area in the 16th Century. It represented "safe passage" to the cyclists through Sonny Boy McDonnell's territory of old. It was a marvellously conceived and executed complement to the atmosphere surrounding the entire proceedings.

The endgame battle of history in Ulster looks set to run a complex course for many more years to come. However the success of the Giro d'Italia - and similar moving events in Northern Ireland last weekend marking the sad passing of the extraordinarily brave young cancer victim Oscar Knox - truly suggests that the majority of the people are now fundamentally running ahead of both Ulster politicians and Northern Irish regional politics alike towards an pragmatically inclusive tomorrow. That race has clearly been won.