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 hellgrounds 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.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Like Atlantis You Disappeared From View...

Two further milestones of closure then in the past ten days upon an older and better London life. There has been news of the imminent end of Soho's legendary gay club Madame Jojos on Brewer Street and the death of The Small Faces' Hounslow-born keyboardist Ian McLagan from the greatest rock group to have come from the capital in the Sixties.

Was thinking about the band only last Sunday night when I was at a pub in Pimlico in South London where the group lived for a year at 22 Westmoreland Terrace from late 1965. In turn was walking around Soho yesterday and noted some seriously bland boutique developments around Great Windmill Street, Denman Street, Glasshouse Street and Ham Yard that made the head spin.

What would appear to have been the area's last working peep show also may well have shut up shop and I sense it will not be turned into a heritage museum for the industry. However one can still see a faux-peep show sign at the junction of Old Compton Street and Charing Cross Road as an entrance to a Mexican basement restaurant. How post-post-modern is that?

The broader satanification of London life into a city fundamentally distanced from a generic working population - by way of the blistering pus-filled macro-economics of financial plague death and as joyously sold to the world's investors by the Olympiad - has certainly altered life here to literal biochemical degrees now by way of the daily atmosphere of hopelessness and stasis. This fundamentally originating in both the Ponzi property greed and the amount of immoral spiv profit made out of thin air by so many smug wankers in the past ten years of national suicide. This twin phenomena mirroring how the job market has been defaced by industrial internship abuse in both the offering and the uptake alike. Remember that kids.

In such strained times it is interesting to recall how Britain's most famous festive pop song of the Seventies which will be heard in extremis over the next few weeks - Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody - was actually a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the sheer fucking misery of that strike, inflation, boot boy and terrorism-wracked UK decade. Conversely the best of all Christmas songs in popular culture remains of course The Pogue's Fairytale of New York with its unequivocally bleak, openly broken and mournfully Dickensian opening.

A significant percentage of The Pogues' original material over their five studio albums with Shane McGowan reference a lost or now utterly transfigured London - a London of dreams, struggle, light, shadows, nightmares and epiphany. The city is thus mentioned in the tracks Transmetropolitan, Dark Streets of London, Sea Shanty, Lullaby of London, The Old Main Drag, Misty Morning Albert Bridge, White City, London Girl, Rainy Night In Soho and London You're A Lady.

The lyrics of these songs incorporate references to areas as diverse as Kings Cross, Brixton, Leicester Square, Hammersmith, Camden, Somerstown, Soho, Euston, Pentonville, Tottenham Court Road and Surrey Docks. The track by The Pogues which I find the most moving and affectionate regarding times gone forever - not dissimilar indeed to The Jam's Boy About Town excursion around a now run-down second world Oxford Street - is White City.

This song - alike The Who's great lost 1968 single Dogs - is based around the world of greyhound racing at the White City Stadium which was built for the 1908 London Olympics. It  was also used as a speedway track and for one 1966 World Cup Finals fixture between Uruguay and France. A famous Kinks concert took place here in 1973 where an extremely overemotional Ray Davies announced his retirement and also a 1974 David Cassidy concert where a girl was crushed to death in a crowd surge. The West London location is close to Steptoe and Son's Oil Drum Lane and Wormwood Scrubs prison while the haunting Victorian Kensal Rise Cemetery lies further to the north east. White City Stadium closed in 1984 and was demolished the following year. Haringey Stadium also closed in 1987 though greyhound racing has continued in the capital at Crayford, Romford and Wimbledon.

The lyrics touch upon the glory years of the stadium's life as a centre for working class entertainment and it's fateful demise:

Here a tower of shining bright once stood gleaming in the night,
Where now there's just the rubble in the hole.
Where the Paddies and the Frogs came to gamble on the dogs,
Came to gamble on the dogs not long ago.
The torn up ticket stubs from 100,000 mugs,
Now washed away like dead dreams in the rain.
And the car parks going up and they're pulling down the pubs,
And it's just another bloody rainy day.

The song then notes how the stadium's 77-year presence upon the face of London has left no archeological trace like the legendary lost continent in the Atlantic depths around about the Azores. The greyhounds and the hare on the wire both now turned to ashes while bland BBC buildings full of overpaid and underworked lifers now stand on the site.

Indeed when one looks at vintage pictures from the British Fifties today there is indeed a pervading sense for so many of us that the streetscapes, the life dynamics, the folk culture and the very working people are all gone and gone for good. The world's once greatest city itself turned into a low-rent, phoney, sterile and fucking godless misery pit as another grey year fades out into shadowlands of stagnation, decay and lies.

The next 77 years of London life are certainly looking very very bright tonight.

Monday, December 1, 2014

This Holy Tide of Christmas All Other Doth Deface

Over the past three weeks I have been wracking my brains for the origin of a particularly wonderful Belfast children's song which I originally heard on a youtube link though in turn never particularly recall hearing myself as a genuine "branded" Belfast child of the scary Seventies.

I looked carefully through the BBC Northern Ireland Dusty Bluebells compendium of children's street games as directed by the late David Hammond and could not locate it there. This programme was recorded in 1971 and filmed in the literal West Belfast locations where the recent British movie 71 was set.

I also looked through the CBS television movie A War of Children which was produced in 1972 and starred beautiful Jenny Agutter as a young Catholic girl who falls in love with a British soldier as played by Anthony Andrews. This is mostly interesting - beyond the Dublin accents of local Belfast residents - for some staggeringly racist portrayals of the nationalist community throughout as worthy of the London Evening Standard's infamous JAK cartoons against the twin evil others of the period - the English, Scottish and Welsh miners and "the Irish".

The song could not be located either in the BBC documentary Children of the Crossfire which was transmitted in 1974 and contrasted the lives of working class teenagers, minors and infants in Derry's Creggan and in East Belfast - the physical infrastructural collapse captured in this feature alone is truly astounding. There are several renditions of partisan songs in this programme from the local children as relating to Irish republicanism and Ulster loyalism alike and even a clip from a disco with kids dancing along to a version of Jeff Beck's Hi Ho Silver Lining with them interjecting lyrics in support of the violent teenage Tartan gangs of the period.

Either way, and pending corroboration of the source, the song takes the form of a call and respond format:

Everywhere we go
Everywhere we go
People always ask us
People always ask us
Who we are
Who we are
And where do we come from
And where do we come from
And we always tell them
And we always tell them
We're from Belfast
We're from Belfast
Mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty Belfast
Mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty Belfast
And if they can't hear us
And if they can't hear us
We shout a little louder
We should a little louder

The song is meant to be repeated again and again in louder voice and ends with the admonition "If they can't hear us they must be deaf".

During December many of us are drawn back to the past and to people, times and places long gone. I have so many fond memories of Seventies Christmases in Belfast despite the Troubles. In fact when one looks at the day-to-day details of the political unrest and terrorist violence between 1969 and 1976 alone - by way of David McKittrick's 1999 Lost Lives or the much earlier Northern Ireland: A Chronology of Events 1968-74 by Richard Deutsch and Vivien Magowan (published by Blackstaff Press between 1973 and 1976) it is almost inconceivable that such a scale of violence could warrant even qualified normality as a backdrop.

What happened during those years in Northern Ireland - beyond the dead and the physically and emotionally wounded - still defies belief in terms of grotesque societal and cultural damage. Thinking back to those specific childhood Christmases during the conflict - when I would have been between the ages of four and eleven - 21 people would have been killed by the end of 1969, 49 by 1970, 229 by 1971, 725 by 1972, 988 by 1973, 1,291 by 1974, 1,558 by 1975 and 1,866 by 1976. These figures incorporate fatalities on mainland Britain and in the Irish Republic.

Yet Belfast and Northern Ireland - for all the recent battles over flags and emblems and memory and guilt - still retains a fundamental warmth located in the people and the soil. In a recent post on a Belfast forum one first-time visitor recalled a particularly unexpected piece of social interaction:

Recently spent 2 days in Belfast and want to say what a great and friendly city. We were in a pub and asked if they had crisps and the bartender said no. Next thing I know the bartender left the bar and came back with 2 bags of crisps and would not take any money. I am still blown away. Hope to return real soon.

Earlier blog posts on the status quo in London - and indeed one on Mr Tayto the Ulster manufacturing hero who was a literal potato - have already articulated my feelings on the above field report to a point perhaps too obvious to elaborate upon.

However, nearing the end of another working year in a London fraught with daily street aggression, enshrouded in a fog of human misery, drunk on short-term spiv greed and now gradually physically dissippating - as epitomised by the gathering death of Old Soho - this yet again underscores that certain core positivities of the human condition and the human experience remain beyond purchase power. A sense of home and a connection with a shared past being the most fundamental one may arguably surmise.

Somehow I can hardly imagine many children from post-working class London today are likely to be proudly boasting in the years ahead of their city's mighty folk community status against the satanic troika of financial criminality, record-breaking overpopulation and negative social mobility.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Time For Leaving

There's brandy in Quebec at ten cents-a-quart boys
The ale in New Brunswick's a penny-a-glass
There's wine in that sweet town they call Montreal boys
At inn after inn we will drink as we pass.
And we'll call for a bumper of ale, wine and brandy
We'll drink to the health of those far far away
Our hearts will all warm with thoughts of old Ireland
When we're in the green fields of Amerikay.

In my personal opinion by far the finest of all modern folk groups to come out of the British Isles was neither Pentangle nor Steeleye Span nor even Fairport Convention but Ireland's Planxty. Formed in 1972 the core of the group consisted of Christy Moore, Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny and Liam O'Flynn - other musicians were temporary members including Paul Brady. They released six albums between 1973 and 1983 - the eponymous debut being surely being surely one of the greatest in the entire genre.

The last time the original line-up played was between late 2004 and early 2005 at gigs in Galway, Dublin, Belfast and the Barbican in London. Planxty produced a truly extraordinary body of work - my personal favorite is their version of the Scottish folk song Johnnie Cope about the second Jacobite Rising and the Battle of Prestonpans.

A week ago I was listening to a live album recorded at the Olympia Theatre Dublin in 1980 which included the magnificent Emigrant's Farewell to Ireland - there is another excellent version of this on youtube by Andy Irvine alone. The lyrics talk about the leave-taking of Ireland from the port at Derry to a future which promises more than a feudal struggle for survival against inconceivably difficult odds. Although in more cynical days I would consider the lyrics to be a wee bit hackneyed to the point of parody, the fact remains that the diabolical collapse of social mobility and financial security today makes them sound like nothing more than reasonably accurate journalistic reportage. Also, having grown up and fucking wised up over the years, I find the song very moving in turn regarding the Presbyterian and Roman Catholic labour movements from Ireland to North America in the late 18th and 19th centuries away from tithe extractions, rack-renting and hunger.

During the Eighties Stuart Adamson wrote a not dissimilar song for the fourth Big Country album called Time For Leaving. In this track, famine also directs the Scottish emigrant's path towards a future in the wide open spaces and literal big country of Canada and Australia:

If I fill my eyes up with the sun
And I hold my face to the blazing sky
My shadow will be cast behind me
And I'll look no more at its beaten eyes.

2014 seems to have been the defining critical mass moment whereby so many hard working British people have come to realise that the prognosis for the next twenty years - after the previous decade of prolonged recession - looks truly bleak beyond comprehension. Hence the toxic labour market proudly stands watch alongside the unparalleled Ponzi property scam over mass public disorientation, fear and alienation emanating from the population surges of the past ten years across the geographically small and industrially bereft British archipelago.

Life is certainly not gauged within clear and expectant parameters of love, warmth, light, protection and hope for most working people in such Future Shock circumstances. Meanwhile the mainstream press continues to present middle class life in the UK as resembling that of your average highly paid and well-groomed Scandinavian graphic designer and says naught as to the transformation of our capital city alone into something resembling a screaming and obscene hologram of Lucifer's own creation.

With this kind of disconnectivity in the loop already from our folk past in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies it really has taken no particularly radical leap of rationale to now witness the genocide of working class Europe at the Somme, Passendale and Verdun - including thousands upon thousands of brave foot soldiers from Belfast, Dublin and all four provinces of a then British Ireland - transformed into a crass and fundamentally vile advert for doomed Christmas turkeys.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

George Best And Northern Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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