Tuesday, November 25, 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.

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 question 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.

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.