Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Xmas Belfast

I remember flying into Belfast's George Best Airport two Christmas Eves ago on a particularly bright yet frosty morning. The plane made a turn around about Scrabo Tower at the top of Strangford Lough - the tower itself a memorial erected in 1857 to Charles Stewart the Third Marquess of Londonderry who was one of Wellington's generals during the Battle of Waterloo and uniquely well respected by his tenants for his attempts to alleviate suffering during the potato famine.

The view southwards across the water to the Mourne Mountains - and on clearer days from the tower itself even to the Isle of Man and the Scottish coast - was literally breathtakingly beautiful.

It was completely understandable why C S Lewis was inspired by the physical splendour of County Down when constructing the dreamlands of his Narnia novels or indeed why former Southern Irish President, Taoiseach and earlier South Down MP Eamonn De Valera stated that County Down was every Irishman's second favourite county after that of his birth.

Newtownards lies at the top of the lough and is where the main Northern Ireland commercial radio station Downtown Radio transmits from. Apart from the doom-laden three-note musical sting which preceded the terrible news bulletins of the Troubles period, there are two other innocuous things always remind me of the station that I listened in to during the Eighties.

The night time slots were often filled by Jackie Flavelle who had played bass guitar with the Chris Barber Jazz Band in the late Sixties and other artists such as Rod Stewart and Dr John. Flavelle Unravels regularly had a game where listeners could phone in and try to not respond in the positive or negative for 40 seconds or so to Jackie's questions and then they could win a pen or pencil or something really cool. The DJ would patiently explain the complex rules to the listener and then the game would commence with what seemed like 95% of all listeners saying Yes or No within seconds. It doesn’t sound like much in hindsight but it was constantly entertaining at the time – in some way it was a cross between the dumbest thing you have heard in your life and a Zen riddle.

I also remember around December – and alongside other standards such as Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry, Beau Jangle's The Moon Shines Tonight On Charlie Chaplin or Paul McCartney's nightmarish Wonderful Christmastime– that they used to play local band Cruella De Ville’s I’ll Do The Talking quite a lot. It wasn’t about Christmas per se but really fitted the mood of this particularly haunted time of the year perfectly somehow and certainly deserved a much wider hearing.

When I was back in Northern Ireland at this time I also walked up to and over the Cave Hill in North Belfast on Boxing Day. The mountain was a major inspiration behind the writing of Swift's Gullivers Travels.

On the summit of Cave Hill the United Irishman leader Wolfe Tone met compatriots Henry Joy McCracken, Samuel Neilsen, Thomas Russell and others in 1795 at an Iron Age settlement called McArts Fort. Here they would pledge allegiance to an Ireland free of English rule and one which would unite the Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter in harmony. The subsequent uprisings in the non-Plantation Ulster counties of Antrim and Down and at Wexford in the South in 1798 - alongside the failure of the French fleet to arrive in support - leading to a diametrically opposite form of union within a handful of years.

From the same geographical spot one can see the Antrim Road waterworks which the Luftwaffe mistook for the Harland and Wolff shipyards during the 1941 Blitz - leading to extraordinary levels of civilian death and destruction in residential North and West Belfast including the homes of both my grandparents in the Woodvale and Oldpark districts.

Close by in 1973 in turn was the site of an horrendous double murder of a Catholic politician and a Protestant female companion by loyalist paramilitaries in revenge for the republican murder of a mentally handicapped Protestant youth. It literally shocked all of Northern Irish society to the core at the time.

Yet from the same vantage point I could see the very estate and even street I grew up in during the Seventies - my Tomahawk bike, Mario Lanza's Christmas Hymns and Carols, my Scream Inn and Haunted House board games, the Christmas Radio Times, Subbuteo's Targetman , The Broons and Oor Wullie annuals and those five Mettoy "Wembley Soccer Stars" figurines of George Best, Charlie George, Bobby Moore, Francis Lee and Martin Chivers. Billy Bremner never got around to joining the squad.

In the far distance from the Cave Hill was the outline of the dark Mournes where - when growing up as a teenager in the Protestant community - I felt my country ended by default due to the interplay of political violence upon the self-contained cultural dynamics of partition. I sincerely wish it had been otherwise with regard to all the people of Ireland and how we could have and should have related to each other.

During the Nineties when living in London I recall an ITN news broadcast prior to the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires where reporter Tom Bradby was walking across either Murlough Bay or Tyrella Beach towards Newcastle and the Mournes in the evening sunset and elaborating upon historic developments that suggested the conflict was essentially about to come to closure within days and hours - "It's over".

Around the same period I remember very moving footage on a current affairs programme of two Christian groups from the Protestant and Catholic communities meeting and embracing in a candlelit gathering in the middle of Lanark Way between the Shankill Road and the Springfield Road - an urban thoroughfare often used as a shortcut for sectarian killers during the latter period of the Troubles.

South of Larnark Way in turn I recollect to this day how, during my final years living in Northern Ireland in the early Eighties, a gable wall at the junction of the Shankill Road and Northumberland Street would invert the usual trend for threatening political rhetoric or jet black sectarian ribaldry by bearing the unusually upbeat encouragement Happy Xmas Belfast for a year or two.

The Ulster Troubles were certainly a period of unequivocal criminal waste, destruction and human degradation. Only this week came news that North Belfast residents are to be consulted on longer access hours through a peace wall in Alexandra Park - this was erected in 1994 to stop sectarian fighting in the area and remains the only park of its kind in Europe with a barrier in the middle. 49 other peace walls remain in Greater Belfast.

However at the same time to have been fated to grow up in the Sixties and Seventies in such a physically beautiful country and to share your youth with all the great people of Belfast and Northern Ireland of those days was nonetheless a rare blessing.

As always this Christmas I will recall those vanished communities, places and times with enormous fondness and respect.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Louis MacNeice - Born In Belfast Between The Mountains And The Gantries

Within only a few miles distance of each other in County Down in Northern Ireland lie the last resting places of an extraordinary European warrior and an acclaimed national poet - both of whom died prematurely in the middle part of the last century.

In the graveyard of Movilla Abbey in Newtownards is the family tomb of Special Air Services founder, rugby international and proto-type hellraiser Blair Mayne who died in a drink-related car crash in December 1955 at the age of only 41 and whose failure to be awarded a Victoria Cross is a matter of considerable military controversy to this day. The biography of Mayne by Martin Dillon and the late Ulster Unionist politician Roy Bradford concludes:

He sleeps within the ruined walls of a thirteenth-century abbey in County Down, but the high company of heroes will forever be his Valhalla.

Several miles away at Carrowdore Churchyard - also in close proximity to Strangford Lough on the Ards Peninsula - is where the poet Louis MacNeice is buried with his mother. MacNeice died in December 1963 at the age of 55 having contracted viral pneumonia from working in inclement weather during the making of his final radio play.

MacNeice was born in Brookhill Avenue in North Belfast right beside my former school. This is situated among the Cliftonville, Oldpark and Antrim Road districts mentioned in my earlier post about the Jewish community there and indeed close to the former homes of Israeli President Chaim Herzog and actor Harry Towb - all extremely troubled and dangerous areas during the civil unrest of the Seventies.

A contemporary and friend of W H Auden and Stephen Spender, MacNeice's poetry was critical of bourgeois society and modern life in general. Subject matter would range from love to the approach of war and from place and travel to childhood - the latter including one particularly haunting tableau of Christmas past:

and as if through coloured glasses
we remember our childhood's thrill
waking in the morning to the rustling of paper
the eiderdown heaped in a hill
of logs and dogs and bears and bricks and apples
and the feeling that Christmas Day was a coral island in time
where we land and eat our lotus but we can never stay

Although resident for most of his life in England as an academic and writer it is MacNeice's poetry about his homeland that I find particularly striking in its analytical regard - be that with reference to his Planter heritage in Ulster as discussed in Carrickfergus or his excoriation of the non-belligerence of Eire during the Second World War in Neutrality wherein he berates "the neutral island in the heart of man".

However it is the sixteenth canto of Autumn Journal in which MacNeice's vitriol against the vagaries of Irish history and culture ranges in truly kaleidoscopic fashion - the power and passion made even more extraordinary by the time of its publication in 1939 when the partition of Ireland had politically and socially solidified to granite permanence - and would become moreso with Northern Ireland involvement in the subsequent global conflict.

The canto incorporates references to IRA assassins, Roger Casement and Maud Gonne alongside the voodoo of the Orange bands in Belfast's York Street, Kathleen ni Houlihan and King Billy.

To the nationalists of a free Ireland:

Griffith, Connolly, Collins, where have they brought us?
Ourselves alone! Let the round tower stand aloof
in a world of bursting mortar!
Let the school children fumble their sums
in a half-dead language;
Let the censor be busy on the books; pull down the Georgian slums;
Let the games be played in Gaelic

As for the Northern Ireland Unionists in Belfast:

A city built upon mud;
Free speech nipped in the bud,
The minority always guilty;
Why should I want to go back
To you, Ireland, my Ireland?

This section of Autumn Journal - mostly remembered for the phrase "Put up what flag you like, it is too late to save your soul with bunting" - ends with the labelling of Mother Ireland as a bore and a bitch and the admonition:

She gives her children neither sense nor money
who slouch around the world with a gesture and a brogue
and a faggot of useless memories

In a period of time where senses of hostility and antipathy between the peoples of Ireland are blending out into history itself as opposed to bleeding into it, the scope and content of this section of Autumn Journal has retained every bit of its invective power over sixty years after its creation.

MacNeice, alike James Joyce, held impassioned feelings about the political, cultural and religious divisions of his homeland. But the affection he held for Ireland was undeniable. His sense of belonging and connectivity to Ireland may have been problematical and complex but his physical presence there today - alike with George Best who was also originally buried beside his mother - speaks volumes in terms of emotional resolve and closure.

The poet's poet whose profound and unique literary talent was forged upon the geographical and cultural streetscapes and landscapes of Belfast, Ulster, Ireland and Britain.

The murderous fractures amongst the people of these islands which commenced so shortly after his death being so utterly heartbreaking in the sheer scale of unadulterated and bewildering pointlessness.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Three Is The Magic Number

Despite our country being so strong and resilient enough to have weathered two world wars and a great depression, our national variants of conservatism, socialism and their bastard offspring since the mid-sixties would still have overwhelmed all quarters.

An article by A N Wilson pinpoints our irreversible national decline to lack of social mobility through the negation of educational selection, violent de-industrialisation and self-perpetuating dependency cultures. In turn it has always appeared self-evident that the trio of social factors underpinning the abject misery of modern British life are population movements of most obviously historic proportions, industrial internship abuse which is destroying mid to late-career progression for hundreds of thousands of middle-aged people and the ubiquitous property hyperinflation.

2011 has merely witnessed new hybrid offshoots of all the above with the mid-summer civil insurrections, science fiction rental outgoings discriminating further against the millions already locked out of the property market and the realisation for smug owners of appreciating properties in Southern England that their even smugger children will never earn an income.

Yesterday's announcement of government measures to ease the burden of first time buyers of course never touched upon the lose-lose logistics of hyperinflated property prices for individual buyers and broader British society alike. The steaming and pestilential swamp of the UK housing market merely to be peopled with a few thousand more wide-eyed and shell-shocked lost souls unable to gauge the lack of correlation between fantasy prices and long term income streams, realistic job security frameworks and natural human lifespans.

If this year has seen the final throw of capitalism's dice across the world, then Great Britain will surely be the last Casino of the Damned.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Jews In Ulster

I recently visited the extremely impressive Entertaining The Nation exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Camden Town in London. In another interactive section of the collection it was interesting to note how Jewish settlement in Ireland was now barely limited to only three cities - Dublin, Cork and Belfast. There are now no Jewish communities left in Waterford, Limerick or Derry with a functioning synagogue.

The Jewish community in Ireland numbered around 5,500 in the late Forties but today is approximately only 1,900 strong in the Republic of Ireland and 500 or even lower in Northern Ireland.

Despite the sectarian polarisation of the city, the Belfast Jewish community experienced no historical instance of anti-semitism alike that attending the Jews of Limerick at the start of the 20th Century. In Belfast the original community was centred around Carlisle Circus in the north of the city with the second synagogue being located on Annesley Street there.

Famous shipbuilder Gustav Wolff's family converted from Judaism and was thus brought up in the Protestant faith though Hamburg-born Jew Otto Jaffe was Belfast Lord Mayor in 1899. Jaffe launched an appeal during his period of office for the dependents of soldiers fighting in the Boer War. He would nevertheless later be accused of being a German spy during the Great War and left Ulster due to the intensity of national feeling. Jaffe's family linen business was in Bedford Street where James Young's Group Theatre was later situated.

A memorial fountain to Jaffe's father Daniel still stands in the city centre near the Victoria Square shopping complex while another in the City Cemetery on the Falls Road - which has contained a section for Jewish interments since 1874 - has been frequently vandalised.

During the Second World War Jewish refugees from Europe and children from the Kindertransport stayed at the Millisle Refugee Farm on the County Down coast - this remained open until 1948. An urban myth associated with the 1941 Luftwaffe bombing patterns during the Belfast Blitz related to Jewish settlement on the Antrim Road whereas in fact the destruction was essentially based on navigational errors with the Belfast waterworks having been mistaken for the Harland and Wolff shipyards. During the end of the war in turn both SAS leader Blair Mayne from County Down and future Official Unionist Party leader James Molyneaux from County Antrim were amongst the British soldiers who took part in the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

The Jewish community was already in numerical decline by the time of the start of the Ulster Troubles in 1969. In the course of the conflict the antiques dealer Leonard Kaitcher was abducted, held for ransom and murdered by Republican terrorists in 1980. Some years previously leading bookmaker Leonard Steinberg survived a murder attempt, left Northern Ireland and as the owner of Stanley Leisure became a life peer in 2004.

For such a small cultural group however it nevertheless did provide a figure of significant historic note in future Israeli President Chaim Herzog who was born in Clifton Park Avenue in 1918. Alike with the Annesley Street area, this would be a very troubled part of the city during the civil disorder and terrorism of the Seventies.

The actor Harry Towb was born in the Northern Ireland port of Larne but grew up in the Oldpark/Crumlin Road district of North Belfast. A familiar figure in British drama, Towb appeared in movies such as The Blue Max and Above Us The Waves and also television dramas from The Avengers to Stewart Parker's Lost Belongings. Towb, who died in 2009, once recalled his early days in mainland Britain in the Fifties where many English boarding houses displayed the warmest of welcomes to him personally: "No Irish, no Jews, no theatricals".

In the early Nineties Towb starred in the BBC sitcom So You Think You've Got Troubles with Warren Mitchell which parodied the various paradoxes of religious tradition. I also recall his award-winning Cowboys BBC television play in 1981 where an American Jew returns to the visit the city of his birth. "Cowboys" is used in the Northern Irish vernacular for "hoods" in the same way that "Apache" or "Comanche" was used during the Troubles as politically incorrect descriptions for areas prone to violent disorder.

The play ends, if I can remember correctly, with Towb and his wife getting lost at night time in a brutalist council estate while retracing the steps of his youth in what was then the countryside on the outskirts of the city. It ends violently with them encountering two (most probably Loyalist) cowboys asking for a contribution to the cause of political freedom. Cowboys fully captured the sadness and waste underpinning so much social change in Belfast in the Seventies including indeed the very area where Towb himself grew up.

The now demographically minute Jewish community of Belfast - alike the Italians of Little Patrick Street - have made a significantly unique contribution to the rich history of the north of the city as one of the most interesting urban districts in the entire British Isles.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Gimme Shelter

In parallel to property mega-inflation in the capital and the nationwide credit crunch, the UK housing charity Shelter confirmed today that private rental levels are officially unaffordable - as linked to a percentage of personal income - in 55% of local authorities in England. London in turn is two and a half times as expensive as the rest of England.

This rank discrimination jigsaws with perfection into the decision of the British student body to focus protest on college fees as opposed to the much greater evil of cross-generational career-destroying internship abuse and with demographic changes afoot in South East England unparalleled in Europe since the wars of the Yugoslavian succession. Arguably the most fateful, albeit unlikely, combination of social changes since VJ Day.

The toxic swamp of London now offers a hectic New York-style lifestyle without any of the fun. A regimented Teutonic work experience without any of the financial rewards of living in Germany. And now a private rental sector offering up sub-standard micro-living conditions for the price of concomitant financial insecurity for life.

At the very least I trust there are going to be some cracking good folk songs coming out of all this one day...

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Europa Hotel Belfast

There is some extraordinarily moving footage from the 2010 Glastonbury Festival of Ray Davies of The Kinks performing an emotional version of the song Days. This was shortly after the death of the original guitarist Pete Quaife.

Days is a wonderful encapsulation of both affection and loss alike for partners, family. friends or even animal companions.

It can also be read as a goodbye to better times gone by from the perspective of a current period of personal change, growth and struggle. That in the same vein as Van Morrison's Madame George - recorded as the very streets and districts of Belfast in which the song was set approached blanket physical and societal collapse during the Troubles.

Earlier this week I watched a BBC documentary about the much-bombed Europa Hotel in Great Victoria Street in Belfast - which is located beside the equally bombed train station that was referenced in the same Morrison song. Some impressive archive footage and computer-generated reconstructions of the attacks were balanced out by wearily predictable reminiscences from the likes of Anne Robinson, Trevor McDonald and John Suchet of their time there as journalist residents while bitter oul Belfast burned and blew up around them.

There still always seems to me to be a faint trace of cosmopolitan superiority in such interviews as to how the restless natives were behaving at the time in Reginald Maudling's "bloody awful country". And indeed a wee bit of a snigger at the parochialism of the hotel restaurant's services and penthouse lounge dollybirds. When the last Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Brian Faulkner insisted during the 1972 closure of the Stormont parliament that the country was "not a coconut colony" he was probably getting closer to the truth of mainland political attitudes than he could ever have realised.

All so truly tiresome of course in light of the sheer tragedy of the destruction of one of Britain and Europe's great port cities and the fact that so many posters on Northern Ireland internet forums to this day often reference the people gone from those times as much as the terminal physical changes since the late Sixties.

Overshadowing all of course being the proud fact that during the Northern Ireland Troubles many more good people stayed in Ulster than ever left for North America, South Africa or Australasia.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reginald Perrin - Return To Climthorpe

A leitmotif threaded through so many television situation comedies is that of highly intelligent individuals fated to be stuck fast in dread life stasis year in and year out. From Sgt Ernest Bilko at Fort Baxter and Camp Fremont to Harold Steptoe up Oil Drum Lane and Basil Fawlty down in his Torquay hotel. And from Father Ted Crilly on Craggy Island to Tim Canterbury in Wernham Hogg's Slough offices.

I have recently watched the first series of The Fall and Rise Of Reginald Perrin again which completely falls within this comedic remit while interfacing with pathways of human stress and struggle whose modern day relevance are unquestionable.

The only qualifications upon this series not being dated are the fact that the Exotic Ices Project that instigated Reggie's nervous breakdown would be the exact kind of meaty endeavour to trigger blanket salivation in any second year PR or Marketing student in our current wankerish times. Likewise the thought of trying to "keep it real" while commuting from Surrey to Waterloo - from one's attractive detached house, wife and extended family to a permanent job with benefits and a pension - is alas something most of us can never aspire to again.

Several posts ago I made reference to one particular website advertising vacancies within Westminster that were so geared towards industrial internship abuse as to actually be the subject of tabloid exposure. Two days ago I noted when revisiting the same website that the main salary division active upon vacancy searches devolved to "Voluntary, unpaid or expenses only" and "National Minimum Wage or more".

We live in the strangest of shellshocked times where the banking fraternity has acted like pantomime villains to such an extent that a villainous pantomime banker himself - or somebody impersonating one - can appear on BBC breakfast television making statements so laughably offensive as to represent a literal curse on the British economy and civil society alike. Not too far below such bastardry however - which already should be considered as a seminal moment in British social and broadcasting history - is the behaviour of the HR "industry" in underpinning the malicious spread of the internship phenomena.

Whether or not if it is even possible for the current generation in their twenties to circumvent such lose-lose logistics - where ideally one's lifetime mortgage outgoings should be out of the way by the age of 21 to free up salary slack - the fact remains that this one social development alone looks set to cause unprecedented damage to a plurality of generations in its scale and sweep.

If Reggie had seen the future shock over the horizon perhaps he could have turned things around just through looking for a new job alone as opposed to talking things through with his cat, sloppy infidelity and a faked suicide.

Gusty Spence (1933-2011) - The Wages Of Victory

Several posts ago I made note of the sheer amount of political and paramilitary personalities from the early years of the Ulster Troubles that are now deceased. In turn, the death of former Ulster Volunteer Force leader Gusty Spence this week is of particularly historic importance in light of his connection to the very first fatalities of the entire conflict in 1966. I will return to the subject of radical loyalist voices in a later post – these as qualified by the broader morality of political violence and its interface with the dynamics of the peace process.

Spence’s political odyssey and political legacy alike - against the sheer madness of the Ulster Troubles and the loss of so much precious human life for so little political gain – is naturally open to a host of moral and ethical questions. A relative of the second victim of the Troubles openly queried his status as a peacemaker following his death some days ago as indeed is her fundamental right as a direct victim.

Gusty Spence’s significance in the long narrative of the Troubles is however of unquestionable importance from leadership of “heavily armed Protestants dedicated to this cause” in the mid-Sixties to the proffering of “abject and true remorse to all innocent victims” in the 1994 loyalist paramilitary ceasefire statement.

In turn – alike some other members of the Official Republican movement and the UVF prison leadership of the early to mid-Seventies – Spence deserves at least a worthy footnote in the history of socialist thinking in the British Isles as opposed to the public schoolboys and political shysters that have degraded its political honour in recent times to the point of ridicule.

The firestorm of the Ulster Troubles lasted from 1971 until 1976. The subsequent year, with a significant drop in fatalities, can be seen the beginning of the second broad half of a conflict that at most times seemed likely to run and on forever. Or, to quote one female Protestant OAP referenced by social scientist Sarah Nelson in 1984:

I seen it before, before ever Ireland was divided, and in the twenties, and each time after that: and Ireland will never be at peace, or us and them stop fighting, till the end of the world.

It was in 1977 that Spence delivered an extraordinary speech from the Maze Prison on the 12th of July which analysed the bitter politics of social division in Northern Ireland with huge intelligence, clarity, focus and inclusivity.

Over two decades before the murders and intimidation and destruction would end for good - and that within the context of dialogue and compromise - the sentiments standing as the most sobering of political reflections. That upon one of the most meaningless and unnecessary civil conflicts in European memory and at a particular moment of hopeless stagnation.

History shall be the judge of these words:

We never tire of celebrating the advent in history when William of Orange achieved for us in 1690 Civil and Religious freedom. We, the Protestants of Ireland, were the persecuted in those days and now things are somewhat reversed. But is persecution necessary for the establishment of the inherent freedoms of mankind? Has persecution ever changed a person’s views? Do we really want freedom and the pursuit of happiness at the expense of some other unfortunate soul?…I submit that it is fear which makes one people oppress another…We are living in the most socially and legalistically oppressive society in the Western Hemisphere…Polarisation complete with one section of the community cut off from the other except for some middle-class contacts which appear to be more concerned about their class than community…WE are a police state with the accompanying allegations of torture and degrading treatment to suspects undergoing interrogation…Even yet we still have men nonsensically counselling that victory is just around the corner. Victory over whom – the IRA? Or do they mean victory over the Roman Catholic community?…The fears of Roman Catholics will not go away because bigoted Unionist politicians say so. We in Northern Ireland are plagued with super-loyalists…If one does not agree with their bigoted and fascist views then one is a ‘taig-lover’, or a ‘communist’…Unfortunately, we have too many of these people in our own ranks. No fascist or bigot can expect sympathy or understanding in the UVF compounds…The sooner we realise that our trust has been abused, and the so-called political leadership we followed was simply a figment the sooner we will attempt to fend for ourselves politically and to commence articulation in that direction…ours was a sick society long before the fighting men came on the scene. Life in Ulster before the troubles was artificial…We want employment and decent homes like all human beings, and Loyalists will no longer suffer their deprivation stoically lest their outcries be interpreted as disloyalty…The politicians seemingly cannot or will not give us the peace we so earnestly desire, so I therefore call upon all the paramilitaries to call a universal ceasefire. To open up dialogue with each other in order to pursue ways and means of making such a ceasefire permanent. Eventually Loyalist and Republican must sit down together for the good of our country. Dialogue will have to come about sometime, so why not now? There is no victory in Ulster, not for the IRA, or the UVF, the police or the army. There is only victory for humanity and common sense.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Forbidden Planet

This most historic of months in modern British times comes to closure not with acts of national reconciliation or reflection but with the news that house prices and rents alike are set to rise by 20% over the next five years in the UK. That throwaway £26,000 deposit in London in particular barely providing a conduit to an interface lifestyle experience worthy of collecting dog stools in Victorian Britain for the tanner's yard.

This counter-cyclical economic phenomena thus defies all historic logic with regard to the natural rise and fall of property prices in Western Europe, the background of an ongoing depression, the hidden reality of a decade of utterly stagnant wages and the recent outburst of violent civil unrest that has made London a truly dangerous geographic landscape in which to base one's life. Even the infrastructural changes of the past decade that have brought us to this juncture display no noticeable improvements concomitant with current Olympian rental or mortgage outgoings.

The social expectation of incomes being organically linked to costs of living was of course a crucial and openly acknowledged matter of public debate and concern during the Seventies and Eighties for the working population of Britain up to and including every soap opera and situation comedy character. As these common sense observations of pure economic logic have apparently evaporated alongside unions, class struggle, political awareness and national pride alike it is thus difficult to ignore the sense that in the first two-thirds of 2011 this country has taken a radical step forward into utterly suicidal lifestyle logistics. These centred upon non-existent social mobility, the realisation of nightmare European border control issues and the crystal clear abscence of any political policy to control the banking crisis.

Late-Weimar Germany without the kabarett, industry, vibrant cities, a working class, intellect, beautiful women or kultur.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The World About Us

Recently we have seen the return of cult 1970 British movie Deep End to independent cinema screens alongside a DVD release. It follows the tragic course of a teenage boy's infatuation with a fellow swimming pool attendant, stars the extraordinarily beautiful Jane Asher and has a magnificent soundtrack from Can and Cat Stevens. The landscape of a seedy down-at-heel London was actually filmed in the port of Hamburg while Asher's boyfriend at one point takes her to a typical sleazy Mary Millingtonesque porn movie thinly disguised as a sex education primer. Diana Dors in turn makes her own unique contribution to The World of Georgie Best by bringing herself to a state of intense sexual arousal in the bathhouse by holding the male lead's hand while fantasising about Manchester United's greatest son in full sporting flow.

Although written histories of Britain can adequately articulate acute social observations such as the fact that the breakup of working class kinship structures in the late Sixties was balanced out by the benefits of individual freedom and privacy - and indeed right through to the nation-destroying repercussions of European Union membership of the present day - the fact remains that it is the moving image that captures the most thought provoking encapsulations of a society in bewilderingly fast transition.

Both the 1971 thriller Villain starring Richard Burton and Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 Frenzy alike display a London with a sound industrial base, a city where the working class could easily facilitate a sustained existence and where society was as demographically monocultural as the people in George Formby's 1935 trip to the Manx TT races for his No Limit feature film.

In 1979's The Long Good Friday the character of Harold Shand - portrayed by Bob Hoskins - waxes passionately about the future regeneration of the London Docklands and the rebirth of Britain itself. Little knowing of course that such resurrection would be actually be forged upon self-centred and destructive dynamics worthy of fictional agents provocateurs lieing in the English shires in the early Forties guiding Luftwaffe bomber streams towards the capital by flashlight signal. And with as many indigenous Eastenders around to witness such Phoenix-like revival as the chance of bumping into a French Huguenot down Spitalfields Market this Bank Holiday Monday.

Euston Films' priceless Minder series of the late Seventies and Eighties in turn was set in magnificently characterful parts of West and South West London such as Hammersmith, Fulham and Putney that now are as bereft of charm as the local estate agents' souls. The hill station par excellence of West London itself - as captured for all posterity in its grotty pubic-lice ridden nadir in Nicolas Roeg's Performance - has left its history of rack renting and race rioting well behind as a magnet for the cream of trust fund bohemians and fast-track interns.

With our jolly Old Etonian Lord Mayor at the helm and with crazed civil disorder afoot redolent of Hammer's Plague of the Zombies, the making of modern London proceeds apace.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Norman Wisdom - The Bulldog Breed

I have always looked back with huge fondness to my childhood holidays on the Isle of Man. I remember seeing Jaws, Live And Let Die, The Island On Top Of The World and Orca - Killer Whale in the cinema there at the time. Also the professional wrestling at the Villa Marina and the most politically incorrect waxworks in history. More than anything else though I remember the sheer numbers of people who were holidaying in July and August. From the Fifties right through to the late Seventies it was a hugely popular destination for people from all over the British Isles and, in the older days, with certain cities predominating the makeup of visitors depending on the summer week that the factories traditionally shut down.

In general though the island has always maintained a low profile - even the horrific Summerland disaster of 1973 which left 50 people dead is barely referenced let alone mentioned these days. The Isle of Man is probably most famous for its retention of corporal punishment by birching up to 1976, its tax haven status and as being the home of Norman Wisdom for the latter period of his life.

Wisdom - comedian of choice for Charlie Chaplin and the people of Albania - appeared in around twenty feature films during his career. The movies themselves have naturally dated but the sheer talent of the man cannot be doubted right from the Class War classic Trouble In Store of 1953 to the final What's Good For The Goose in 1969 where Norman the banker leaves his dreary life of suburban hell with his frigid wife to hook up with very young teenage hippy girls and dance along to The Pretty Things at the Screaming Apple Club in groovy Southport.

1954's One Good Turn contains punk anarchy on the Brighton train which predates The Ramones' first album by 22 years and Jimmy the Mod in the Quadrophenia movie by a quarter of a century. The scene in The Early Bird where he eats an apple spiked with drugs and begins to hallucinate is one of the truly classic moments of British comedy to rate with Harold Steptoe berating his elderly father for using such words as "rape", "vibrators", "spunk" "cock", "nipple" and "bristols" in an innocent family game of Scrabble up Oil Drum Lane. Steptoe Senior's commentary on the changing face of London in the October 1965 episode Crossed Swords may well not see the light of day in broadcasting compliance terms ever again.

Wisdom's 1992 autobiograpy My Turn is an often extraordinary read with regard to the poverty of his London upbringing, brutal beatings from his father, walking to Wales to look for a job down a mine and spending Christmas Day alone and unloved as a 14-year-old in a boy's hostel.

Alike with George Best, the public tributes on various websites following his death were of blanket affection. One gentleman noted that his movies were the solitary moments of happiness in a childhood destroyed by sexual abuse at the hands of his father. Likewise that Norman's valiant character who always stood up to the snobs, managers, bullies and general wankers of this world inspired him on to a successful career in the Royal Navy. This was certainly not the only comment of its nature from people remembering unhappy childhoods that he managed to brighten up for an hour and a half.

Norman Wisdom was not dissimilar to Ulster's James Young in his rare ability to blend pathos with quick-witted and fast-paced humour. They had a talent that was utterly unique and crossed the generations in terms of appeal. Likewise they came from a time and place - and an industrial world grounded on brutal life practicalities  - that now seems to have been obliterated down to the last physical and metaphorical atom.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mary Millington - Another Girl Another Planet

One of the great determiners of radical national decline in the Seventies in the United Kingdom - alongside the hopeless battle against inflation, industrial unrest and terrorism - was the fact that one of the biggest grossing British movies of 1977 was the sex comedy Come Play With Me which ran continuously for four years at the Moulin Cinema in Great Windmill Street in London's Soho. The same year in the USA Annie Hall, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Saturday Night Fever were released.

In the course of the past few years we have seen the reissue of all three of Mary Millington's mainstream cinema releases on DVD, another edition of Simon Sheridan's superb Keeping The British End Up history of the genre, a high profile documentary Respectable and a blue plaque in Soho's Great Windmill Street to her memory.

Of the main movies themselves, Come Play With Me may not be the sort of thing you want to watch with your mother but you could probably get away with watching it with your father these days even if he was a comedy vicar. The hot sexual dynamics of The Playbirds in turn are capped by the constant presence of Windsor Davies, one of the That's Life lackeys and Dave the barman from Minder in almost every scene as police officers. Likewise the political incorrectness of some of the dialogue is up there with the lyrical content of the first three albums by The Stranglers. Confessions From The David Galaxy Affair does stand out slightly from the others it must be said as containing possibly the worst piece of character acting in British dramatic history from the late husband of the late Diana Dors - Alan Lake.

The movies however do have significant historic importance in throwing light on the extraordinary censorship of the time in Great Britain which was so out of kilter with mainland Europe. Sheridan's book notes how so many hardcore scenes were shot during the making of these frothy asexual comedy romps for sole inclusion in the dirty foreign export versions. Likewise - and as is so typical of bloody everything in the past three decades of our country's social history - these British movies were contemporaneously marketed in one of the leading UK portfolios of adult magazines (which included one title named after public decency mandarin Mary Whitehouse herself) as containing extreme sexual content to be avoided by those of a nervous disposition. Do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?

Outside the context of the three movies as discussed - and the dark netherworld of satanic carnal sin she briefly shared with Alfie Bass, Irene Handl and Cardew Robinson - Mary Millington herself certainly lived the unexpurgated sexual dream (or nightmare) every bit as much as Linda Lovelace or Marilyn Chambers. Sherdian's earlier biography covers this in considerable detail from her initial forays into pornography in order to fund her mother's healthcare through to her suicide at the age of 33.

However in contrast to the scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights where a cocaine-fuelled pool party takes place for porn industry habitues - against the scorching background of a Californian sun and Eric Burdon and War's dreamy Spill The Wine - the posthumous and utterly tasteless documentary of Millington's life True Blue Confessions includes footage of public jazz magazine browsing at what is clearly suggested to be the actual sex shop she ran in a seedy South London street.

With all the erotic intent and measured sensuality of a labored and indecisive chip shop order for battered sausage, Millington frankly underscores in the narrative that:

....it's a myth about the Dirty Raincoat Brigade....they really don't exist...customers aren't dragged in...they come in because they want to...and they want to be able to take it away and read it in the privacy of their own homes...they should have the right to do that...there are hundreds of thousands of very lonely men...they've no chance at all over ever picking up a girl...but they can buy sexy magazines and take them home and masturbate while they look at the pictures which gives them the relief which I feel they need.

Such a commonsense and indeed quintessentially British contribution to the history of adult cinema from beautiful long-lost Mary Ruth Quilter (1945-1979) - Britain's once and future Golden Girl.

Monday, August 8, 2011

George Best - The Killing of Georgie (Part I and II)

Following on from the utterly mortifying and hateful Celia Walden book on George Best comes the relaunch of an often-mawkish musical covering the legend's life from the Cregagh estate to Valhalla.

One of the writers once painted the Northern Ireland international football fanbase as snarling bigots in an earlier play where the main character is so nauseated by the alpha-male loyalist frenzy at Windsor Park that he decides to throw in his lot with the Republic of Ireland supporters and travels with them to the USA World Cup where no such political incorrectness ensues. After all they had a cantankerous oul Brit of a manager at that time themselves. The other writer recently set the history of the Maze Prison - up to and including the death of the IRA hunger strikers - to a Capital Gold soundtrack.

Dancing Shoes is redeemed by some decent acting - particularly from its female cast members - though the set design is amateurish and the "Moon in June" songwriting leaves much to be desired. Dialogue-wise it often lapses into weary parochialism and the humour is often set to a laboured and predictable pattern.

Best embodied the first and indeed ultimate fusion of pop celebrity and sporting genius in a period of British social history that is now often regarded with literal heartbreaking reverence. As a highly intelligent man in turn his comments on the political situation in Ulster and the cultural divisions in Ireland were always heartfelt, sincere and measured.

I personally feel that the scale of Best's individual talent within the history of the British Isles does not merit such an essentially premature, family-friendly and often cliched portrayal such as this - and that despite touching base with the realities of his alcohol addiction.

I may be wrong of course. Maybe George was indeed looking down from his celestial whereabouts and chuckling fondly at one of the final scenes in the Grand Opera House Belfast where he and Alex Higgins perform a pre-death song and dance in the City Hospital celebrating their rollercoaster lifepath from such humble working class origins.

But I would somehow err upon the strong possibility that - as the one European icon who definitively proved that effortless cool need not originate on American celluloid - he wouldn't have been.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Alex Hurricane Higgins - Don't feel sorry for me, I stood on top of the world

Yesterday I was reading how the surviving family of snooker legend Alex Higgins has criticised Belfast City Council in light of the lack of a permanent memorial to their brother alike the naming of the city airport after George Best. Disappointingly I also recall a while back how the public subscription appeal for a statue to Best was saved by a substantial donation from a businessman.

Higgins' character was obviously of more flamboyant and unreserved bent than Best and one must assume that there was more of a cross-generational appeal to even a playboy as regards a hellraiser. That let alone without broaching some of more particularly outrageous moments of Higgins' life story - up there with Elvis's 1977 CBS Special or Amy Winehouse Live In Belgrade - regarding death threats to team mates and scatological comments to one particular teenage snooker wuenderkind.

Nevertheless Higgins' talent was certainly utterly unique amongst the chaos of his life and times. Likewise his final autobiography was genuinely moving, funny and utterly contrite.

The Belfast Telegraph's Gail Walker captured Higgins' appeal beautifully in a magnificent obituary:

Somehow, he managed to create his own piece of Belfast wherever he went, a scale model of the city exact in every detail from the good looks, the charm, the rakishness and the genius, right down to the tiny detail of the pig-headed, sometimes stupid, gable-wall uproar...More than anyone in the public eye, Higgy was a Belfastman, soaked in the city he was born in. It was that which we recognised here — Higgy made it under the wire of our different religions and allegiances, infiltrating our affections, simply because we knew that if his genius was his own, his flaws were all ours.

More pithily - though perhaps just as genuinely felt in similarly Belfast fashion - another poster on a Northern Ireland-orientated internet forum noted "He was a wanker - but he was our wanker".

Either way the family's disappointment certainly hints at how modern society - even one as self-analytical, emotional and pathos-loaded as Ulster - is gradually moving more and more away from what were once very fundamental historical codes of communal awareness and pride.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Back To The Boyne Water

The BBC's high-profile BBC historical drama The Hour has been the recipient of some truly scathing reviews over the course of the past fortnight from such disparate sources as Peter Hitchens, Max Hastings and Kevin Myers. The latter's often hilarious demolition concludes that:

Amnesia-themed vice is the great national dish of the English: this magical elixir unfailingly enables them to see old sin as completely new. It is why English history endlessly repeats itself, and in only slightly different forms. It is why eruptions in Ireland always take the English by surprise. It is why they then invariably -- and even gratefully -- accept the one-sided Irish version of history: for -- the poor dears -- they have almost none of their own.

This to an extent links in to earlier commentary on the summer intifada in Belfast and the ongoing existence of political violence which, as more and more historical commentaters are realising, should have theoretically ended in 1985 with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and a concomitant historical crackdown on paramilitarism on both sides of the Irish border. The footage from last week of North Belfast teenagers steering a burning motor car towards our extremely brave security forces was certainly not meant to happen a quarter century down the line from the agreement signed between Margaret Thatcher and Garret Fitzgerald.

The attraction of the Irish nationalist political agenda in Northern Ireland to so many outside parties in mainland Britain - including half of The Beatles - does indeed to no small degree ride roughshod over certain obviously unpalatable historical pathways. This none moreso with regard to the annual violence associated with the parading season in Ulster.

Well regarded political literature from Ruth Dudley Edwards and Brian Kennaway on the Orange Order has analysed the social and religious framework of the organisation and clearly exposed the machinations behind anti-parade protests from political parties now in power at Stormont. This as confirmed by Gerry Adams himself during a Sinn Fein conference in Athboy, County Meath, in November 1996.

Eric Kaufmann's academic study in turn clearly underscores the attempts the organisation made in the early Seventies to steer membership away from Loyalist extremism in favour of clear support for the security forces. Kaufmann notes for example how following a government ban on parading in 1970 an Orange Order Central Committee meeting included assertions that a disorganised defiance of the ban would play into the hands of Republicans. Concern was expressed in turn over the rising influence of Loyalist paramilitaries and the infiltration of “undesirable people” into the Order.

There are of course a million and one variables to set against any re-appraisal of the Orange Order but the life experience and survival of the British in Ulster over the past forty years should be of considerable theoretical interest to all those concerned about the political direction of the mainland in the next four decades.

Not of course that historical qualifications such as these matter whatsoever anymore in a New Britain where several years ago a survey of schoolchildren noted that most thought the Battle of the Boyne took place in Lord of the Rings.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Roger Nowell - The Skipper

I recently read the sad news of the death in July 2010 of Cornish trawler captain Roger Nowell who featured in the excellent 1993 BBC documentary series The Skipper along with the other regular crew members of the William Sampson Stevenson PZ 191. I am not sure if this ever got a repeat showing though there was a follow-up film transmitted in 2008.

Newlyn-based Nowell - facing up to the grim dangers of the sea and Her Majesty's Inland Revenue alike - came across as such a good humoured and charismatic individual. I myself have such fond memories of so many wonderful trips to Cornwall as one of the most incredibly beautiful and literally magical of all British regions that currently constitute the United Kingdom.

The Skipper may thus represent a last look at the brave men of a British industry doomed by the garnering forces of European centralisation and control - the follow-up documentary includes reference from Nowell himself to the catastrophic loss of fishing employment in Grimsby, Hull, Milford Haven and Fleetwood. Both the 1993 and 2008 documentaries conclude with Nowell underscoring in turn that not many deep sea fishermen tend to have particuarly lengthy retirements.

Daphne Du Maurier’s classic Vanishing Cornwall talked about a significant fracturing of the folk heritage in the county as long ago as 1967. In turn, and since the making of that original documentary in 1993, this part of the Celtic periphery of the British Isles has been utterly transformed by extraordinary financial discrepancies between local wages and hyperinflated property prices to the point of truly post-modern dimensions. Unequivocally the past is itself with regard to this truly unique corner of North Western Europe by way of spiv socio-economic trends forged upon once-in-a-British-lifetime opportunities for second home ownerships and retirement investments for the average worker.

RIP Skipper from all of us.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sham 69 - Tell Us The Truth

An interesting footnote in British and Irish punk history was the fact that English band Sham 69 – formed in Hersham in Surrey in 1976 – took their name from grafitti that singer Jimmy Pursey spotted on a local wall which proclaimed Walton and Hersham ’69. This was in reference to the local amateur football team’s victory in the Athenian League in 1969 and with most of the message having faded away.

Although not as well remembered today as their contemporaries they still mustered considerable success with three of their albums – Tell Us The Truth, That’s Life and The Adventures of the Hersham Boys. Likewise there were some memorable Top of the Pops appearances in tandem with five Top Twenty hit singles in Angels With Dirty Faces, If The Kids Are United, Hurry Up Harry, Hersham Boys and Questions and Answers.

I have never really been able to make out whether the track Ulster from the first album was a comment on the zero-sum game of Northern Ireland violence or else a “pox on both your houses” commentary on The Troubles. Dismissed by some true believers as cartoon punks there was certainly nothing funny about the skinhead violence attendant to their live appearances - singer Pursey being certainly very vocal in condemnation of this both on and off-stage. While the sentiments of their lyrics may certainly sound politically incorrect today, this cannot detract from the longevity of the angst expressed:

All foreign feet down Oxford Street
Faces from places I've never been
All the shops and restaurants
Ask for money I haven't got
It’s just a fake - make no mistake
It’s a rip-off for you but a Rolls for them

There are two particular clips of Sham 69 that I think are utterly priceless. Firstly, on the Hersham Boys video it concludes with Pursey barn-dancing around with his “grandad” and an old grey-whiskered black dog. Something quite unlikely to have been replicated by Bono or Michael Stipe - or Coldplay. The end of the video also includes footage of the band chanting the chorus of the song while gathered around the street sign at the entrance to Hersham itself. There is a little six-year-old blonde boy in shorts to their right skipping along in turn and “acting the goat” as they used to say in Belfast.

Then there is footage of an appearance on what I assume is Jim’ll Fix It with the guitarists thrashing away in the background while Jimmy Pursey clinically elucidates the Marxist lyrics of the If The Kids Are United verses to a 12-year-old boy with all the mateyness of the best big brother in history. The studio audience of mums and dads and kids get into the spirit of things while at the song’s end the boy's brother – or twin – joins in on the chorus while a four-year-old girl sits inbetween clapping along in turn. This was certainly one of the coolest music clips I had seen since viewing Eddie Cochran playing C’mon Everybody for a group of American 12-year-old school children. Likewise one of the greatest moments of the British Class War.

Alike with the other great street punk band The Cockney Rejects, Sham 69’s frequently magnificent music seems now to come from a time as long ago and distant as Saturday afternoon wrestling on World of Sport with Les Kellett, Adrian Street and Kendo Nagasaki. But at the same time - as grounded in the disaffection of alienated and fucked off working class youth in early post-industrial Britain - it does throw up questions as to why a sector of our population solely responsible for the humour, folk spirit and financial wealth of our country became so vilified to the point of rank caricature, dismissal and contempt.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Home Come The Heroes

So once again one of Western Europe's most utterly unique political phenomena has arisen wherein the government and population of Northern Ireland have had their communal self-respect rescued by sportsmen and women. Golfers Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have joined the ranks of George Best, Derek Dougan, David Healey, the World Cup football squads of 1982 and 1986, Joey Dunlop, the European Cup-winning Ulster rugby squad of 1999, Willie John McBride, Eddie Irvine, Alex Higgins, Dennis Taylor, Barry McGuigan, Wayne McCullough and Mary Peters. All Protestant and Catholic alike.

Hindsight is a very flexible quality as beautifully captured at the very end of the fourth of Graham Reid's "Billy" plays - Lorna. Norman Martin, as played by James Ellis, is now living in England with his second wife and looks back fondly to the old days in Donegall Road in Belfast - a time when his family life was overshadowed by his own drunkeness and brutal ways. Thinking of his daughter Lorna moving into a new property he wistfully reflects "It's empty tonight...I can see it, you know. Jasus, the nights I tramped up that wee street...or staggered and fell up it....there's no light on tonight". He finally concludes fondly that "we did some living in that wee street".

Fast forwarding to the summer of 2011 and the recent cross-community rioting in Belfast, we can safely say that the importance of our recent sporting achievements by individuals of such outstanding personal calibre is utterly beyond any over-sentimentalised qualification in terms of our national sense of rescued worth.

Three points are worth underscoring in turn with regard to the recent civil unrest in Northern Ireland. Firstly the value of saved human lives since the political resolution of 1998 must always overshadow the moral fractures of the peace process as regards demilitarisation and decommissioning delays, prisoner releases and continual interface unrest. The Troubles in Ulster were never going to come to closure with an Alliance First Minister and cabinet majority.

Secondly, by 2011 the fact remains that the vast majority of all the people of Ireland are now utterly cogniscent of the self-reinforcing, farcical and ridiculous bigotry that divided people with so much in common for so long. Likewise for the the kneejerk and insensitive mainland observations towards all the restless natives of Ireland too. That as no more magnificently lampooned than by the Starrett cartoon of Bernard Manning prefacing a joke with the line "There were these thick Paddies..." against a backdrop of such accused as O'Casey, Behan, Wilde, Shaw, Yeats, Joyce and Synge.

Lastly, people in both the North and South of Ireland after twenty years of peace are certainly aware that beyond the conflict dynamics grounded on ethnicity, religion, politics, economics and nationality that violence and division were still underpinned to some degree by a passionate sense of belonging. So to recall the haunting words of Northern Ireland's last Prime Minister Brian Faulkner as head of the short-lived power-sharing Executive of 1974 when appealing for support against a background of widespread industrial and paramilitary disruption: "Today, I fear, we are the despair of our friends and the mockery of our enemies. Let us not plunge this country, which all of us love in our different ways, into a deepening and potentially disastrous conflict".

Friday, July 15, 2011

Steve Marrriott And The Small Faces - Filthy Rich

I have recently finished reading Paolo Hewitt and John Hellier's magnificent All Too Beautiful biography of Steve Marriott in the past few days. I easily rate this book alongside the very best in the genre such as Johnny Rogan's overview of Van Morrison and Ulster No Surrender , Jerry Hopkins' Elvis:The Final Years and the wonderful Dear Boy story of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher.

With the Small Faces' Decca and Immediate material now compiled together across several impressive compilations it is much easier to appreciate the electicism, power and wit of their musical output on such tracks as Shake, Sorry She's Mine, All Or Nothing, My Mind's Eye, Just Passing, Baby Don't You Do it, Tell Me (Have You Ever Seen Me), Green Circles, Get Yourself Together, I'm Only Dreaming, Tin Soldier, Afterglow, Song of a Baker, Rollin' Over and Donkey Rides A Penny A Glass.

Alike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in 1963 and 1965 in Belfast respectively - and The Who in Lisburn in 1966 - The Small Faces also played in Northern Ireland at the Ards Pop Festival in Newtownards on 5th July 1968. Support was from The Soul Foundation, Mystics and The Cousins. One must assume that the young people who attended were not otherwise mentally engaged in the mounting waves of political radicalism and reaction to the detriment of enjoying one of the greatest of all British rock groups live in County Down. Two days previously the Derry Housing Action Committee staged a sit-down protest during the opening of the Craigavon Bridge extension over the River Foyle leading to 17 arrests while three months to the day after the concert would come the fateful RUC reaction to another civil rights demonstration in Derry that can be seen as the second of the three defining moments when the Ulster Troubles commenced in earnest.

The Small Faces split up on the last night of 1968 during a concert at Alexandra Palace in North London and although the subsequent hard rock and blues of Humble Pie and The Faces alike have their attractions, it still remains an interesting counterfactual about how their music could have progressed had they had stayed together into the Seventies in their original lineup. This particularly so when listening to material as strong as the final Autumn Stone, Red Balloon or Call It Something Nice from the provisional 1862 album.

The group briefly reformed in the mid-Seventies though bass player Ronnie Lane only stayed for a re-recording of the Itchycoo Park single - Rick Wills replacing him for the two Playmates and 78 In The Shade albums. I have only heard the latter work which, while not wildy memorable, does contain some decent material and with Marriott still in fine voice.

Best of all, the final song of the final Small Faces album would be Filthy Rich with Marriott's Cockney music hall howling - alike that on Lazy Sunday, Rene or Happy Days Toytown - bringing their career to a wonderfully ribald, two-fingered and pisstaking closure.

The Small Faces music to this day casting timeless shadows from both a long lost London of the coolest modernist style to a vanished East End of utterly unique working class character.

I wish that I was famous like me best mates are
I'd build a dirty great house and have half a dozen cars
A private yacht with sunken baths
If I was filthy rich I'd build me own filthy bitch
She'd have elegance, class with Mitzi Gaynor's arse...
and Jane Mansfield's posthumous tits

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Boyne Water

Today is the 321st anniversary of the victory of Prince William of Orange's armies over those of King James II at the Battle of the Boyne near Drogheda in the modern-day Irish Republic. Actually the military engagement itself took place on 11th July by the Gregorian calender and 1st July by the old-style Julian calender. The 1st of July 1916 in turn being the day of the 36th Ulster Division attack against the Schwaben Redoubt German lines north and south of the River Ancre at the start of the Battle of the Somme. The Ulster Division, which had been forged from Carson's orginal Ulster Volunteer Force and the Young Citizens Volunteer militia, were the only British forces on the day to meet their military objectives and suffered 5,500 killed, wounded or missing in casualties.

As every last child of school age in modern Britain knows - not - William's success on behalf of the Reformed faith ensured the continuation of the Protestant Ascendency in the British Isles and arguably the birth of modern British parliamentary democracy.

The overwhelming majority of people across the world who share feelings of goodwill towards all the people of Ireland would surely agree that the epilogue to the modern Ulster conflict must lie with former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's extraordinarily moving closing comments in his May 2008 address at the battle site and in the prescence of then Northern Ireland First Minister Ian Paisley:

"The past will remain important to us all. We cannot change what has gone before. We should not and must not forget our history. But as we gather on this famous battlefield, it is not history that concerns us now. It is the future. In the future, let us respect each other and our different identities. In the future, let us value each other and our rich traditions. In the future, let us understand each other and our shared history. Let us work together for all of the people of this island. Let us be reconciled with each other. Let us be friends. Let us live in peace."

At the same ceremony Paisley insisted that the killing times be ended forever while his wife Eileen recalled seeing Ireland from the window of a transtlantic flight from the United States:

"I wished I could swim for I would jump out and swim the rest of the way home to Ireland. It was so precious and so green and so fresh and so welcoming. It was home and that is the thing about home."

The past week has brought the sad news of the death of Alliance Party of Northern Ireland founder Sir Oliver Napier - one of the few politicians from the early Seventies who clearly grasped the fundamental interconnectivity between political conflict and political engagement in wartorn Ulster. One wonderful tribute made to him on the main Northern Ireland political blog would note: "I am surprised that someone says above they never saw him angry as he always came across on TV as permanently angry, like an extremely frustrated but dedicated schoolmaster trying to explain simple algebra to the densest members of the fourth form for the hundredth time."

As reflective of the sheer distance of time I find it of considerable interest how many of the major political actors from the earlier stages of the Troubles and of Paisley's generation are now deceased. Alongside Napier these include Northern Ireland Prime Ministers Terence O'Neill, James Chichester-Clark and Brian Faulkner; British Prime Ministers Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and James Callaghan; Irish Taoiseachs Jack Lynch, Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald; Northern Ireland Secretaries of State William Whitelaw, Francis Pym, Merlyn Rees and Humphrey Atkins; Irish politicians Connor Cruise O'Brien and Neil Blaney; leading Ulster Unionists Harry West, Jim Kilfedder, Enoch Powell, William Craig and Northern Nationalist leaders Gerry Fitt and Paddy Devlin.

The same applies for many of the higher profile paramiltaries of the early Seventies such as Republicans Sean Mac Stiofain, Daithi O Conaill, Maire Drumm, Billy McMillen and Seamus Twomey. Likewise for Loyalists John McKeague, Charles Harding Smith, Billy Mitchell, Sammy Smyth and Tommy Herron. Several of these individuals dieing in violent circumstances.

Today here in modern London when I consider this annual celebration in Northern Ireland and Scotland of the indestructible bonds of history and heritage across the Irish Sea - and with regard to a shared Britishness that often no longer exists in a Great Britain that is also practically extinct -it truly does seem like an eternity ago when, during the Twelfth celebrations in the Belfast of the appallingly violent first few years of the Troubles, literally every Protestant home in the city would appear to be flying a Union flag or Ulster flag during this period of July. In those days Orange Order membership in Northern Ireland was an extraordinary 60,000 strong and the crowds watching the parades were enormous.

In fact - all political qualifications aside, if that is at all possible of course, and without even interfacing at all with the poet John Hewitt's observations about the complex construct of Northern Irish Protestant identity in its British, Irish and Ulster constituents - the more we progress through our own troubled, disconnected and alienating times I honestly can barely believe that that kind of broad-based cultural display of British identity ever happened anywhere at all in these islands.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

What A Bloody Environment For A Man Of Imagination

The above quotation is from the late Joseph Tomelty - the Northern Irish actor who starred in the movies Moby Dick and A Kid For Two Farthings and was the author of many works such as the novel Red Is The Port Light, the play All Soul's Night and the classic Ulster radio comedy The McCooeys which provided James Young with his commercial breakthrough. He was also the former father-in-law of Sting. These immortal words are enshrined on the ground of the Writer's Square facing St Anne's Cathedral in Belfast city centre.

I was reading about Tomelty this weekend with regard to Carol Reed's classic Odd Man Out film starring James Mason as an IRA man on the run in late Forties Belfast and in which he also starred. The movie attracted attention from contemporary censors because of the violent content and was certainly a brave attempt at that time to analyse the complex dynamics of political violence. The Irish Republican Army's S-Plan of 1939-40 having entailed a bombing campaign on the mainland which killed five people in Coventry in August 1939 and for which two Irishmen were subsequently hung at Birmingham Prison.

Some extraordinarily insightful pieces of British social history have been published over the past decade that raise similarly interesting question marks about the political and economic state of our nation in the 35 years after World War Two.

It can now be clearly seen that the swinging reforms on abortion, sexuality, censorship, divorce and capital punishment were running well ahead of what was still a deeply conservative British society in the mid-Sixties. Likewise that life during the Seventies was - unless you were in Studio 3 of BBC Television Centre watching The Sweet, Mud, Sparks, The Glitter Band or The Wombles miming to their latest hit record while eating a packet of Spangles or Rancheros - essentially pretty shit. I eagerly await analysis of the complex and insidious developments of the subsequent three decades that have left our society in such toxic, demented and irreversible straits.

If there was a moment in recent years however when I did fall back on some residual hope for the valiant life spirit our once great country it was during a recent trip to Northern Ireland. Normally every weekend when buying my Saturday morning paper here in New London I receive not a single recognition from the female shop assistant for my relatively upbeat weekend demeanour and friendly informality.

In Ulster by contrast I recently bought a copy of the national university's rag magazine in the local newsagent - the said publication full of the ubiquitous dirty jokes and soft-core sexual images. On returning the following morning to buy my Sunday newspaper I was met by the cheery greeting from the same newsagent "So were you abusing yourself over that yesterday then?"

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Golden Years

And so with Blue Peter’s final transmission from Television Centre our national broadcasting organisation makes a defining emotional break from its London hub. TVC will thus shortly join Alexandra Palace, Lime Grove, Woodlands, Television Theatre and Windmill Road in the civil service history books.

The Blue Peter garden shall be concreted over to prevent a second desecration from unfriendly locals, the tea bars locked up forever like high category prisons turned into living museums while the grave of Sir Basil Brush will be disinterred from the “The Ring” prior to reburial in Media City Salford. Famous producers Piers Parsnips and Bunty Braithwaite await their first Jobclub interview on Monday morning in lifestyle interfaces they did not even know existed on this side of the Iron Curtain while never again will the West London catchment area of employment be rewarded with such rich pickings from a local business.

A Northern bard once acerbically noted “When you want to live - how do you start, where do you go, who do you need to know?” The glory days of industrial lifering may now be capped by internships, contract work and plummeting deference from the Great British post-working class to any terrestrial television output from our learned betters. Yet rest assured the power of nepotism, background and political correctness is unlikely to be undermined by any publicly-spirited or indeed publicly-funded geographical relocation in this instance.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Steptoe And Son - Oil Drum Lane Dialectics

During the initial few months of the current Conservative-Lib Dem coalition here in the United Kingdom there was a considerable amount of analysis in the media harking back to the Edward Heath government of the early Seventies. This by way of comparisons to the ghastly circumstances leading to the arrival of Selsdon Man at the Palace of Westminster in 1970 or the equally appalling state of industrial relations at the time of his or its electoral defeat four years later.

Two of the greatest of all British social commentators - Albert and Harold Steptoe - reflected upon the state of the nation in depth in the 1974 Back in Fashion episode of Steptoe and Son. In the useless shite-enclosed yard at Oil Drum Lane Harold pretends to be a po-faced BBC newsreader while reflecting upon the surety of a right-wing government to come alongside the introduction of curfew restrictions, the showtrial of Harold Wilson, the "disappearance" of Tony Benn, Barbara Castle's suicide while in private hospital and the military defeat of the TUC at the hands of the Royal Navy. Another commentary in this segment of the episode was as politically correct as giving a modern-day seven-year-old a Sven Hassel paperback for his or her birthday. Or indeed my old work colleague's dismissive commentary upon the corporate mindset underpinning semi-compulsory after-hours workplace team bonding - "Softball is for bisexuals".

Still, for all the plebian horror of mid-Seventies Shepherd's Bush, Brook Green and Hammersmith it was nice to see a glimpse in the programme of a society where people had at least one other interest apart from the value of their property or the secure status of their elderly parents' Dignitas booking. Even if that was just football and smoking - or of course sectarianism in Belfast and Glasgow.

The Seventies, for all the myriad problems of the time, are so halcyon in contrast to today's national meltdown that they may as well consist of a decade-long loop of Mike Batt dancing with Pans People to Summertime City.

Earlier this week I was reading and listening to some of Alan Watt's Zen reflections. Alongside incredibly moving commentary on death and the philosophical limitations of the "I" identity he managed to capture in three mere minutes the rank lunacy of not living for the moment. In modern London in contrast I know not a single soul who is living for the moment, is in a position to live for the moment or even knows anybody else pulling this magical trick off.

The growing degree of user generated content on news websites that suggest that at least a considerable percentage of the British population has completely sussed out the lunacy of property hyperinflation - as relating to future societal stability for everybody who is not an estate agent - does not override the fact that current lifestyle imbalances are firmly rooted in a bed of national selective amnesia and unselective idiocy alike. A fortnight ago a close friend - who works in what 100% of the country would consider a middle class profession - noted to me how the highlight of his weekend had consisted of a Sunday afternoon stroll down to public plastic recycling facilities in the knowledge that he could not even afford a pint of ale in transit. And also that while about to emark on such a journey he heard some cunt on Radio 4 reflecting on the demise or otherwise of the British food renaissance.

This of course is similar to the property features in weekend newspaper supplements singing the praises of some filthy outer London suburban griefhole that is without doubt awaiting cast-iron guaranteed medium-term gentrification along the lines of Notting Hill and Shoreditch. The only current selling point in the meantime being its ten minute proximity by bus to another larger urban warzone that happens to have some train or tube connection.

I could of course go on and on about this into inifinity but in conclusion I still pinpoint the breaking point for this country's historic shift into utter madness to the period when male grown ups starting reading fucking Harry Potter books on public transport without fear of ridicule or verbal abuse.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ulster 71

I watched a television programme last night that had originally transmitted on BBC Northern Ireland on the opening day of the now almost forgotten Ulster 71 festival at Stranmillis Embankment in Belfast. In part it was redolent of Telly Savalas' infamous travelogues for Birmingham, Portsmouth and Aberdeen and in regard to one of the most ill-timed public events in history after the 1940 Tokyo Olympics.

Half the population of Northern Ireland attended between May and September 1971 - including the author - but of course it was a controversial decision to go ahead with the exhibition in light of how the security situation at the time was devolving. It was essentially a celebration of Ulster history and its industrial heritage on the fiftieth anniversary of the Northern Ireland state and was the biggest of its ilk in scale since The Festival of Britain. There were demonstrations against its opening by Republican supporters, the introduction of internment without trial took place during August 1971 and Stormont itself was prorogued six months after the exhibition closed.

The theme of the festival was "By Our Skills We Live" and the promotional programme incorporated some of the entertainment on hand such as James Young, Gloria Hunniford and some go-go dancers. A "Tunnel of Hate" section attempted to invert the wall sloganeering of the time with the use of graffiti against sectarianism, poverty and racism and as alongside other positive empowerments such as "Remember The Pensioners". Noises of street conflict and riot provided the soundtrack in the background.

I have seen three other pieces of online footage in the past few days that emphasise the extraordinary scale of social change in Ulster. There was a heartbreaking Northern Ireland Tourist Board clip from the turn of the Fifties into the Sixties which essentially displayed a completely and utterly extinguished cultural and physical landscape. Then an overview of Belfast cinemas of yesteryear that have likewise disappeared in their entirety. The clip showed the long gone ABC and New Vic in Great Victoria Street – once the Hippodrome and the Ritz. In one of these I saw my very first X-rated movie – George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead twinned with The Great British Striptease in support. The latter feature had Bernard Manning as compere. Dear God.

Finally there was cine-footage from the 1974 Twelfth of July Orange Order marches in East and South Belfast. All the usual political qualifications aside it was fascinating by way of the sheer folk spectacle of so many participants and spectators alike -which indeed would be latterly noted by Irish writer Dervla Murphy in her A Place Apart travelogue - and seeing the now extinguished historical fusion of Orange culture and Ulster Protestant identity across the class divide. One public comment attached to the clip would underscore the distance of time itself by noting: "just looking through and seeing some of the faces...dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead, dead...1976 was a long time ago.”

From the perspective of early summer 2011 in turn - and what with the revival of Republican and Loyalist youth intifada in Belfast interface areas this very week - Ulster 71 may seem an awful long time ago too but the echoes from the "Tunnel of Hate" have certainly proved more durable than anything those terribly clever civil servants, PR and marketing men or designers could ever have then imagined.

Far Away Fields Are Green

From the time that I was old enough to read true classics of British children's literature such as the Oor Wullie and The Broons Christmas annuals my mother told me that "faraway fields are green". Alike later advice to my sneering and wankerish adolescent self to think about "getting a job in a bank" she was unequivocally and utterly correct in hindsight. London may throw up a world of creative and aesthetic possibilities for those with time and money to spare but the quality of life now is truly questionable in the extreme for everybody else.

At my first job at the end of the Eighties here I met a young Englishman who I will call Roger because that was his name. He was an English language teacher in Spain but decided to return to the capital for one last go at making it "work". He was highly intelligent, upper middle-class, well read, humorous, affable and attuned to a raft of New Age alternatives from vegetarianism to Gurdjieff to yoga. Roger's spiritual immolation at the brutal hands of prototype-New London in the 13 week period leading up to Christmas 1987 was very tangible to observe though in that period he did make interesting comments on the future shock ahead for this city. None moreso than when he looked at the first edition of the London Evening Standard's glossy supplement for the ueber-rich and dismissively hurled it across the office as if he had picked up a chilled used condom.

Roger also quoted Van Morrison lyrics to me that I subsequently can source to three particulary magnificent songs - Astral Weeks, You Don't Pull No Punches But You Don't Push The River and Alan Watt's Blues. Shortly before his re-emigration to Madrid on Christmas Eve of that very year, Roger told me that one December morning he was waiting at a bus stop in South London daydreaming to himself when the ubiquitous white van passenger pulled alongside and commented directly into his face "What are you looking at ...you stupid fuck". This being the quality of indigenous British citizen we have allowed to walk away - unequivocally forever - in recent decades.

That in turn reminds me of a midnight moment some years back when going along Camden High Street in New London looking for a cash dispenser. It was like walking through the Battle of Stalingrad except back then the very dogs of that city used to swim the Volga to safety overnight. In traversing the scumscape of rubbish, spunk, phlegm, minicabs, drugs, grime, dog's dirt, piss, nightbuses, miniskirts, rain, threat, cardboard, hamburgers, VD, vomit and hordes upon hordes of Euroteens and twentysomethings "living the dream" I do clearly remember observing to my partner that "At least in Belfast when I was growing up we KNEW it was shit".

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Critical Mass - The Ulster Defence Regiment

One Ulster Television advertisement from the very early Seventies sticks in my mind every bit as much as George Best's plug for Cookstown family sausages or the recommendation to drink Nambarrie Tea. It centred around a call for membership of the Ulster Defence Regiment - the locally recruited branch of the British Army that replaced the Ulster Special Constabulary in 1970 and would be merged with the Royal Irish Rangers as the Royal Irish Regiment in 1992 after over two controversial decades of active military service.

If I can remember correctly the advertisement showed a random motorist being stopped by a UDR patrol and asked for identifiation and access to the vehicle for searching. The understandably peeved driver squirms with annoyance at this ridiculous delay - while muttering such asides as "Could you not be out catching some terrorists for a change?" etc - before a stentorian voice from the rear proclaims "Sarge, we've found a weapon".

The resolution of the Ulster Troubles by way of the Good Friday Agreement was of course flawed in many respects. In the same way the acceptance of the broad framework of peace by the Northern Irish and Irish public would be of much more historical note than the ingenuity of the political construct itself. However it does seem that certain matters still stubbornly fall outside the remit of post-conflict re-analysis and this none moreso than the role of the UDR.

This week a memorial statue to the regiment was erected in Lisburn and, alike many people who were direct victims of terrorist violence in Ulster, I also am inclined to agree that their positive role within the limitation of Troubles violence is extremely overlooked.

The Irish writer Kevin Myers described the Ulster Troubles as "a seventeenth-century religious conflict bottled in a late twentieth-century industrial decline". I personally feel that the outbreak of conflict was gauged upon positive social change and negative economic retraction alike interfacing with appalling political misjudgements. And that in a society where religion was not the overarching cause of conflict but essentially a mark of ethnic identity. The resultant mess was the equivalent of throwing a bucket of hot goose fat over a burning chip pan.

The State therefore would cease to exist for the Catholic community in 1969 and for the Protestant community in turn three years later. Within that vaccuum paramilitarism would flourish across the religious divide and many ordinary citizens feel compelled to volunteer for part-time military and policing duties. Unparallelled political reappraisals took place during this period too from Connor Cruise O'Brien's clinical dissection of Irish nationalism to William Craig's violent political rhetoric as the head of the Ulster Vanguard movement.

The reason why the tensions and divisions of Seventies Ulster did not terminate in open civil war and repartition was, in my opinion, due in largest measure to the blessed fact that the small geographical size of Northern Ireland allowed the country to be literally swamped with security forces.

Those people who joined the UDR - overwhelmingly from the Protestant community because of Republican paramilitary intimidation of potential Catholic recruits - put themselves at incredible risk during their off-duty civilian life. The deaths of all the 260 serving or former UDR soldiers who were murdered during the conflict are related in David McKittrick's Lost Lives and make for grim reading. Around 500 other members were seriously injured in terrorist attacks.

As the main focus of Republican criticism of British security policy in Ulster, the UDR did indeed have an image problem as related to the activities of a minority of its membership. However the sheer scale of individuals who served in the regiment during its existence make blanket condemnation ludicrous in consideration of other civic, religious, political, military, paramilitary and financial organisations in modern British and Irish history which could provide similar qualitative examples of deeply immoral behaviour but easily surpass that in terms of numbers involved.

During the unveiling of the statue, showing a male and female member on duty at a checkpoint, the Trust chairman noted: "It was unfortunate that there were members who did bad things and we're not trying to hide that....but what we would say is that there's almost 50,000 people who didn't do bad things - who did good things, who were ordinary decent people who wanted to do the best they could for their country."

In turn a poster on a Belfast newspaper website this week stressed how in hindsight, even as a liberal critic of the regiment at the time and as somebody fiercely against paramilitarism, that the UDR's role in peacekeeping has been criminally undervalued. He would also note in turn how the choreography of the conflict's endgame mirrored radical changes in paramilitary, policing and military structures whereas the earlier phasing out of the UDR prior to 1994 has left its reputation in some form of historical limbo.

I have always understood that the Irish peace process is inclusive of all parties to conflict and hence must be similarly cognisant of the raw dynamics which underpinned service in the UDR by the vast majority of its law abiding membership. Within a demographic as politically aware, astute and sophisticated as Nationalist Ireland - and with the British monarch having recently having paid homage to Republican icons such as James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and Liam Lynch - then reconsideration of the UDR's role is surely not a bridge too far in terms of final closure upon the Ulster Troubles.

As for most British people on the mainland, the UDR is nothing more than a forgotten part of a forgotten conflict that warranted little engagement at the time provided it remained on the other side of the murky and radioactive Irish Sea. However that still does not negate the fact that the British people will certainly not see the like of the men and women of the Ulster Defence Regiment ever again. That as a body forged from citizen volunteers and in terms of pure loyalty, bravery and selflessness.

They represent in no small measure another closing chapter in the history of the United Kingdom.