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?"