Monday, January 23, 2012

The Stranglers - Coming Your Way



If ever you had counted the centuries you threw away
and all the lies that you had started
and all the chances thrown away...


In the quarter century I have been living here in London there are three concerts I deeply regret having missed. Two of these were at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank around about 2003/2004 - the late Arthur Lee and Love's full performance of the classic Forever Changes album and then Irish folk legends Planxty. The third was The Stranglers gig at Alexandra Palace in the summer of 1990 which would be the last performance of the group with Hugh Cornwell as vocalist after ten studio albums together. This was the same North London venue where The Small Faces played their final concert in 1968 before Steve Marriott left to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton.

The style, political incorrectness, attitude, dark presence and humour of The Stranglers in their original incarnation define the albeit fleeting power and passion of the punk era for me alongside The Skids, the various components of Ulster's shellshock rock and the music of The Ramones from Beat on the Brat right through to Joey Ramone's solo Maria Bartiromo which was released shortly before his death in 2001.

There was always something cool yet fundamentally unsettling about The Stranglers' image - not unlike the American garage band The Music Machine who they were often associated with alongside The Doors. The Music Machine performance of Neil Diamond's breezy Cherry Cherry to be found on youtube by the way - with the lead singer resembling a Hammer Horror satanic cult leader and the group dressed like mid-Seventies paramilitaries in Northern Ireland - is three minutes of total off-the-wall peculiarity.

Following Cornwell's departure The Stranglers produced six more albums with two different vocalists - and with a seventh Giants to follow shortly. Cornwell is also due to presently release his eighth solo album Totem and Taboo and his first novel Windows on the World. My knowledge of the respective later outputs are limited despite seeing both parties live in concert in London but listening recently to the pounding Spectres of Love and Barbara from the 2006 Suite XVI album by The Stranglers - and also Hugh Cornwell's antipodean history lesson The Story of Harry Power and Under Her Spell from his solo Beyond Elysian Fields - suggests significant contributions of worth.

My personal favorite track of all since the 1990 split has been Cornwell's Torture Garden from the 1997 album Guilty - the lyrics based around the filming of the Marilyn Monroe movie The Mistfits as opposed to Mirbeau's 1899 French novel or god forbid the Amicus horror portmanteau of 1967. As for The Stranglers a b-side of the Long Black Veil single from 2004 is absolutely sublime - Life's Too Short.

The first three albums by The Stranglers were released in 1977 and 1978 - Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black and White. I remember a clip of celebrity chef Keith Floyd (who used the later Waltz in Black as the theme tune to his cookery programmes) walking along the beach at Deauville in Normandy for an episode of his Floyd On France series and interrupting an accordion-driven Gallic dirge in the background with a comedy vinyl scratch to replace it with the wonderful Hanging Around - this track name checking the infamous Coleherne gay pub near Brompton Cemetery which is now dearly departed like the soul of Old London itself.

I also recall a BBC play - which may or may not have been part of the Play For Today series - using the No More Heroes title track to a clip of some teenage tearaways zooming down the road on their Raleigh Chopper bikes. But it is perhaps the Black and White album in its entirety that holds its own with the best of the Sex Pistols or The Clash by way of the sheer quality of tracks such as Nice n' Sleazy (as associated with an infamous onstage Hugh Cornwell ejaculating neck-wank), Sweden/Sverige, Toiler on the Sea, Curfew and Do You Wanna/Death and Night and Blood.

Aside from The Stranglers' debut album and Black and White, it is fourth album The Raven in 1979 that would appear to be most highly regarded to this day by the existing fan base and the musically informed alike. This album - as available in an exciting limited edition 3-D cover at the time and which I remember buying in Manchester - provided the group with the commercial crossover success of Duchess and expanded the lyrical content of their songs to take on board the Iranian revolution and the controversial Governor of Queensland Joh Bjelke- Petersen alongside a sweeping vista of brothels, suicide, Los Angeles, genetics, aliens, heroin and the Vikings.

A recent and very entertaining Kinks biography by Nick Hasted looked at some of the lunatic career dynamics of that group in the Sixties and Seventies. The Stranglers in turn would replicate the same bizarre pathways in 1981 by way of the decision to follow up the success of The Raven with the utterly uncommercial The Gospel According To The Men In Black album . Any listening of the single Just Like Nothing On Earth will instantly confirm the rank strangeness afoot. The same year, and with Golden Brown becoming their most successful release of all, the group decided on the ponderous six minutes and eleven seconds title track of the album La Folie (sung in French) as a subsequent single release as opposed to the sublime Tramp, Non-Stop or Pin-Up. Golden Brown was a number 2 hit - La Folie made it to number 47.

A move to the Epic label from United Artists heralded a distinctly mellower sound for The Stranglers in the mid-to-late Eighties as arguably captured to just as good (if not better) effect in my opinion, on Skin Deep, Ice Queen and Laughing from 1984's Aural Sculpture as compared to the previous year's more widely recalled Feline with its its beautiful trio of singles in European Female, Midnight Summer Dream and Paradise.

The last two albums by the original line-up of The Stranglers brought further hits in Always The Sun and the 96 Tears cover though are not regarded that positively in hindsight despite the wonderful Latin execution of the lengthy Too Precious on Dreamtime and another lost hit single opportunity with Man of the Earth's reworking of the suburban mundanity archetype from 10 - the band having broke up before its scheduled release.

If one considers other non-album singles of the quality of Five Minutes, Bear Cage, Walk On By and particularly Strange Little Girl alongside magnificent b-sides such as Here and There, Cruel Garden, Vietnamerica and especially the filthy and degenerate Old Codger with Soho jazz legend George Melly this surely underscores the worth of reinvestigating this massively talented, utterly unique and criminally underrated great British band.

...when all is said and all is over
when all is just a memory
our ships will stay for just a moment
leaving false gods and hypocrisy.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Big Match



My interest in football, and particularly the constitution of the modern game, ended a long long time ago with the exception of Matthew Le Tissier's career at Southampton. It probably was shortly after the 1986 Mexico World Cup finals and the Bradford and Heysel disasters I would imagine.

In many respects of course the radical changes affecting the culture of football and its grounding in the British working class - as exemplified by the BBC's The Football Men documentaries on Jock Stein, Matt Busby and Bill Shankly - prefigured and predated other historic sea changes to come as regards our national economic base and social dislocation.

That said my ongoing interest in the game of the Sixties, Seventies and early Eighties is undimmed. The literature available on the subject is often of an extraordinarily high quality with some excellent reads in the past year including Duncan Hamilton's As Long As You Don't Kiss Me biography of Brian Clough, Rob Bachi's The Unforgiven: The Story of Don Revie's Leeds United, Rob Steen's The Mavericks (looking at the respective careers of Tony Currie, Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson, Frank Worthington, Stan Bowles and Charlie George), Paul McGuigan and Paolo Hewitt's The Best Player You Never Saw - The Robin Friday Story , Gordon Burn's comparison of the careers of Duncan Edwards and George Best and Flower of Scotland: A Scottish Football Odyssey by Archie MacPherson.

All reflective of times long gone and never to return as the pictures of Crystal Palace manager Malcolm Allison with Seventies British sex legend Fiona Richmond topless in a communal bath would clearly suggest.

When visiting Derry for the first time last year I saw the Brandywell stadium near the Bogside from the walls of the old city. Derry City football club were founded in 1928 and won the Irish League title in 1964-65. Because of the scale of civil disorder in the city the club was forced to play home fixtures from 1971 thirty miles away in Coleraine. The Irish League insisted on the continuance of this arrangement, despite recommendations from the security forces otherwise, and Derry City left the Northern Ireland football league in October 1972. They now play in the Irish Republic's League of Ireland.

The mighty Belfast Celtic, the major team from Catholic West Belfast and formed in 1891, had left the Irish League in 1949 after a crowd assault on Protestant player Jimmy Jones during a derby match against Linfield on Boxing Day 1949 at Windsor Park. Belfast Celtic had won 14 Irish League championships and today a shopping centre stands on the site of Celtic Park. My late grandfather was a Linfield fan and often talked about the talents of Derry City and Belfast Celtic - the dissolution of the latter being widely regarded as a chronic loss for the game of football on the island of Ireland.

I remember many nights at Windsor Park myself during the extraordinary run of success the Northern Ireland international side had during the Eighties. A striking memory of that period for no doubt many fans was the fantastic Tottenham Hotspur and Blackburn Rovers winger Noel Brotherston and his balding pate. Brotherston played in the match against Israel which secured Northern Ireland's place in the 1982 World Cup Finals and earlier scored the winning goal against Wales in 1980 to take the British Home International Championship to Belfast for the first time.

The 1980-81 home internationals remained unfinished because of trouble in Northern Ireland relating to the Maze hunger strikes. England and Wales refused to travel to Belfast and thus the championship was declared void. Northern Ireland won the final tournament in 1983-84 and therefore remain the British champions - Noel Brotherston from Dundonald on the outskirts of Belfast tragically died of a heart attack at the age of only 38 in 1995.

The greatest memory of those glory nights at Windsor was without doubt the 1-0 victory over West Germany in November 1982 during the European Championship qualifiers - that 1984 tournament standing between Northern Ireland's appearances at the 1982 World Cup finals in Spain and 1986 in Mexico. Ian Stewart of Queens Park Rangers scored the only goal that cold rainswept night while Manchester United's Norman Whiteside hit the winner at the return match in Hamburg one year later - two of the most extraordinary results in British international football history.

My two main recollections of the victory in Belfast were the crowd reaction to the goal which no doubt was heard on Pluto that evening and the chants directed against the opposition goalkeeper throughout - "Schumacher - Schumacher - You're a wanker - You're a wanker!!" In the final table Northern Ireland failed to reach the finals on goal difference to West Germany.

George Best had played his last international match at Windsor Park on 12th October 1977 in a 1-0 defeat by Holland. One of the public tributes made after his death by one fan recalls international matches at Windsor in the Sixties where he watched "the old men in the flat caps and grey coats" watching genuine moments of pure fleeting magic in their unrelentingly tough and hard lives in industrial northern Britain.

Although there was serious talk of Billy Bingham recalling Best to the squad for the 1982 World Cup finals it may well be fortuitous that that did not come to pass and we are left instead with the extraordinary historical counterfactuals of a Northern Ireland team reaching the 1966 and 1970 finals in England and Mexico with Best at his peak.

The road to the 1966 finals came to grief off the back of a draw with Albania in November 1965 where the considerate hosts put on a trip to a mental home to relax the visitors prior to the game in Tirana. Best missed the match against the USSR in Russia in late 1969 which ended Northern Ireland's campaign for the 1970 finals - their first stage opponents there would have been Mexico, Belgium and El Salvador and in another world George Best could have played against the host country in the opening match of one of the greatest football tournaments in history.

It is colour footage from the earlier 10th September 1969 match at Windsor Park against the USSR - one month after the outbreak of serious civil disorder in Belfast and Derry and with a tense and strained atmosphere inside the ground - which is often shown to this day in slow motion to maximise the rare genius of Best. As an exceptional obituary by Sean O'Hagan noted: "Football as poetry. And pop. And a kind of perfection, fleeting and breathtaking. Football, George Best style."

Youtube also has footage available of the May 1971 Home International tie where, alongside the famous goalmouth incident with Gordon Banks, Best openly teases Arsenal defender Peter Storey to take the ball off him to the delighted roars of thousands of home fans.

There is a lovely story in a Danny Blanchflower autobiography of the first Northern Ireland World Cup campaign in Sweden in 1958. The squad were based in Tysoland near Halmstad for their training and a 13-year old local boy Bengt Jonasson became the team's unofficial mascot and traveled on the team bus to matches, interpreted and attended civic receptions with the squad.

When Northern Ireland left the competition after defeat by France during the quarter-finals Jonasson attended the farewell dinner where he linked hands with Blanchflower and his hero Harry Gregg to sing Auld Lyne Syne. As he was so physically upset when the team left Stockholm to return home the players, officials and reporters paid for him to visit Belfast where he saw his adopted team - so often referred to as "Ireland" in those days even in the chanting of supporters in vintage footage - play England at Windsor Park.

Manchester United goalkeeper Harry Gregg who came from Coleraine was regarded as "the hero of Munich" by rescuing team mates - including Bobby Charlton - from the wreckage of the burning plane in February 1958. There is a very famous story about a young George Best shooting the ball through Gregg's legs several times in an early training session to the elder's considerable chagrin.

A lifetime later and after Best's death he talked movingly of a conversation where he had asked Best why he had never let the world know the real person behind the often vilified public persona and became visibly emotional when recalling the reply "It's too late H - it's too late". Harry Gregg and Billy Bingham would both act as pallbearers at Best's Stormont funeral in 2005 alongside Northern Ireland World Cup legends Peter McParland and Gerry Armstrong and Seventies icons Dennis Law and Derek Dougan.

The stories of the wit and wisdom of Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower from Bloomfield in East Belfast are of course legion. My favorite however will always remain the story of his time on American television in the mid-Sixties following his retirement when he was employed as an expert analyst for matches in the attempt to set up a professional soccer league there.

Blanchflower was articulate as ever but typically forthright about the appalling quality of play. TV executives did not appreciate such candor and he was told to "be more positive" by the studio boss after describing some play as "terrible". On the predictable next error Danny Blanchflower commented "And that was positively awful!" His contract was cancelled forthwith.

These were the people's heroes and those were the days.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Towers



The most fundamental cornerstone of Ulster Protestant identity as relating to a sense of "nationhood" remains the Battle of the Somme and the events of 1st July 1916 north and south of the River Ancre which left 5,500 Ulster soldiers dead, wounded or missing.

The scale of military achievement and sacrifice that day of the 36th Ulster Division - as forged from the infusion of Carson's original Ulster Volunteer Force into the battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Royal Irish Rifles and Royal Irish Fusiliers - was encapsulated in the words of Captain Wilfred Spender: "I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world."

The Ulster Division completed their basic training in the north of Ireland at Clandeboye near Belfast, Ballykinlar on the County Down coast and at Finner in County Donegal.

The Ulster Tower stands today as a memorial to the fallen of the Division - the only Allied soldiers on the Thiepval sector on the first day of battle to capture the first line of German defences and with some even reaching the second. My own great-grandfather was a member of the North Belfast Volunteers and served in the Royal Irish Rifles - he would have been in the second wave during the assault.

Built in 1921, and opened by Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson who was later assassinated by the IRA in the Knightsbridge area of central London, the building is a copy of Helen's Tower on the Clandeboye estate itself. This in turn had been constructed in 1861 by Lord Dufferin in honour of his mother and would have been a familiar last sight of Ireland for many of the soldiers leaving Belfast Lough and their homeland forever.

Several poems had been written about the tower in County Down by literary luminaries of the time such as Tennyson and Kipling. The words of the former are now inscribed inside the memorial in Belgium with "Ulster" replacing the reference to the original's inspiration.

Helen's Tower, here I stand,
Dominant over sea and land.
Son’s love built me, and I hold
Mother’s love in letter’d gold.


The Ulster Tower memorial includes a plaque commemorating the nine Victoria Cross holders of the 36th Ulster Division during the Great War and also an obelisk in honour of members of the Orange Order who fell. The latter memorial, dedicated in September 1993, includes the insignia of the Order on it and the word 'Boyne' at the base. Between is an inscription commemorating those of "the Orange Institution worldwide" who fought and who "finally passed out of the sight of man".


Near Ypres in Flanders stands another memorial in the form of a traditional Irish round tower and in honour of all the Irish fallen of the Great War of both religions. It stands close to the site of the June 1917 Messines Ridge battle where the men of the Ulster Division and those of the 16th Irish Regiment fought together.

The tower in the Island of Ireland Peace Park houses bronze cubicles containing record books listing the known dead and the unique design allows the sun to light the interior only on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The inscription on the peace pledge plaque in the park's centre circle notes:

As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic soldiers when they served together in these trenches.

The park also incorporates three pillars classifying the killed, wounded and missing of the three voluntary Irish Divisions - the 36th Ulster (32,186), the 10th Irish (9,363) and the 16th Irish (28,398) - and an upright tablet listing the counties of Ireland with the names flowing together to suggest the unity of death. Nine stone tablets include prose, poems and letters from Irish servicemen.

I was thinking a lot about the two Irish towers earlier this week having just watched Christian Carion's Joyeux Noel - the 2005 movie based on the Christmas 1914 truce on the Western Front between British, French and German infantry. In this instance the British soldiers portrayed are from a Scottish regiment. Scotland's extraordinary contribution to Britain's military heritage having been mentioned to a large degree during recent media commentary on a future referendum for Scottish independence and indeed as analysed in Gregory Burke's National Theatre of Scotland play Black Watch which returned to London and the Barbican Theatre last year.

The slaughter at the Somme and Passchendaele - and the preceding Christmas truces of 1914 and 1915 - are long embedded as the defining mental images of the Great War in our national psyche. The equivalent with regard to the Second World War is of course the iconic photograph of St Paul's Cathedral on the north bank of the River Thames on 29th December 1941 - the night of the Second Great Fire of London.

On this evening - London's 114th night of the Blitz - bombs would drop from 1815 GMT until the all-clear just after midnight on the very same streets that had burnt in 1666. One fireman recalled "By the time we finished tackling the fires on the roof of the Stock Exchange, the sky, which was ebony black when we first got up there, was now changing to a yellowy orange colour. It looked like there was an enormous circle of fire, including St Paul's churchyard." The cathedral however survived because of the bravery of the emergency services and since an incendiary device lodged on the roof - and which had commenced setting the lead of the dome on fire - dislodged and fell to the floor of the Stone Gallery where is was extinguished. 12 firemen and 162 civilians died that December night.

Last Sunday afternoon while walking over Parliament Hill in North London - which, alongside Primrose Hill near Regents Park, provides the most spectacular vantage point for viewing the grand sweep of what was once the world's greatest city - I became aware for the first time of the unprecedented defacement and disfiguration of the vista by way of Renzo Piano's 72-storey "Shard" skyscraper.

Completely overshadowing the view of the cathedral from northern vantage points to a literally criminal degree, the scale of the building is redolent of something from the Dubai or Shanghai skylines. In fact it is so out of keeping with its historic surrounds it verges without exaggeration on the Ministry of Information building as portrayed in the 1954 adaptation of 1984 with Peter Cushing.

"The Shard" successfully received planning permission from the London Borough of Southwark in 2002 and was then the subject of a subsequent public enquiry into its suitability. Full permission was granted in 2003 with John Prescott, then the minister in charge of planning, declaring that he was "satisfied that the proposed tower is of the highest architectural quality". Then London Mayor Ken Livingstone approved of its construction while current incumbent Boris Johnson acclaimed it as a “clear and inspiring example of confidence in the capital’s economy”.

One media commentator has noted how the metallic finish on the building has significantly interfered with Freeview television reception to the immediate north east as it sits full square between the Crystal Palace and Croydon transmission masts and the part of the capital that includes the Olympic Village. Many locals in the area are therefore having to subscribe financially to cable connections without due compensation. There have also been question marks raised about a potential "glare" factor on sunny days in light of its visibility from so many parts of central and inner London.

The historical importance of St Pauls as the great survivor of our defining battle for national survival obviously counting for little by way of more restaurants and hotels and flats that no middle-income person can ever afford again or office space for industries that the vast majority of people do not work in or choose not to work in. Most importantly, the skyscraper surely represents the defining moment when modern London formally takes upon itself the status of the fifth nation of the United Kingdom - disconnected entirely from all others in so many cultural respects and those forging way beyond mere demographics.

"The Pinnacle” in Bishopsgate which shall follow - next to St Ethelburga’s church which was severely damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993 and close to the beautiful Leadenhall Market - shall be the second tallest inhabitable building west of the Urals.

In another world of long ago - the world of our then enemies - Richard Schirrman was in a German regiment holding a position in the mountains of the Vosges and wrote an account of military fraternisation in December 1915. This would be the last year of the Great War when such events occurred:

When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines ..... something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham.

Though military discipline was subsequently restored Schirrman would never forget the incident and reflected upon the hope that "thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other." He went on to found the German Youth Hostel Association in 1919 - the first of its kind in the world.

Five years after the end of the Great War Werner Heubeck was born in Nuremburg. During the thirties he was a member of the Hitler Youth and during the war served in the Hermann Goering division of the Luftwaffe and the Afrika Korps. He moved to Northern Ireland in the year of my birth to manage the Ulster Transport Authority buses and is remembered to this day for personally boarding them during the worst years of the Troubles to singlehandedly remove bombs planted by the IRA. Despite the huge targeting of buses during the civil disorders Heubeck's leadership and belief in keeping services running to schedule represented another fundamental toehold on normality for a country at war - 800 of the 1,300 fleet being destroyed.

Today we truly live in brand new times with brand new priorities - never has so much been lost forever for the sake of so few.




Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Come On Baby Do The Juke Box Jive


Paul Mason's recent Why It's All Kicking Off Everywhere analyses how the new global revolutions have been fundamentally dynamised by the influence of social media tools and the internet. Mark Steyn's earlier After America - which cheerily dissected the imminent and irreversible end of Western Christian Civilisation - also included a brief insight into a future of "humanity turned inward" where blackberry-originated tweeting and Facebook updating was thus "pioneering a form of immortality that extends the moment forever."

Youtube alone is solely responsible for one of the most intrigueing social phenomena of our time as affecting huge swathes of the middle-aged population. This being the ability to experience gut-wrenching and dewy-eyed nostalgia over a golden past for a glorious 365 days of the year now as opposed to just the late afternoon of Christmas Eve or when you turn your Christmas lights off the following evening.

So while cracking open that second bottle of red wine - and what with Monday being the new Friday during the winter months - one can transpose and tranquilise oneself alike on a light flight one never thought possible only a few years previously.

Richard O'Sullivan leaving behind the 6 Myddleton Terrace flat in Earl's Court (and the two hottest girls in Seventies London) for the life of a highwayman in Dick Turpin, the strange ending of the ITV children's classic Brendon Chase with three teenagers huddled together like H-Block protestors in the Eighties, those extraordinarily emotive theme tunes from Robinson Crusoe to Mister Rossi and the sheer otherness of Catweazle, Lizzy Dripping or even Wurzel Gummidge.

One may ponder in turn as to how groups like Vinegar Joe, Horslips or Be Bop Deluxe never achieved the commercial acclaim they deserved. Or indeed in turn why utterly commercial fodder from The Rubettes to Chicory Tip to Brendon to The Congregation still sound so utterly wonderful - The Rubette's Juke Box Jive being the great lost song I wish The Ramones had covered.

There is all the sheer craziness of Frank Carson's frigging lunatic Ip Dip Chibberdy Dip single, the rock n roll jiving in leather to the magnificent Remember This down at The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club or Northern Ireland showband Clubsound's Belfast Belfast classic which would give half the government opposition frontbench a stroke if they heard it today.

That warm glow of familiarity for better days when things were not quite so tough - or just the vain hope of one day hearing the theme tune to Hope and Keen's Crazy Bus again - only qualified of course by the the rank evil of the IRA bursting French chanteur Claude Francois' eardrums during a 1975 bombing of the Hilton Hotel in London or the bitter knowledge that Vesta Chicken Curry or Beef Rissotto probably were as shit back then as they would taste today.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Sven Hassel And Penny Dreadfuls


I recently viewed some extremely funny stand-up footage of the English comic Stewart Lee including his acerbic character analysis of the Top Gear presenters - as to who was the most despicable - and his feelings on the questionable attraction of the Harry Potter books to an adult readership.

I mentioned a similar quibble in an earlier post and indeed it does seem incredulous sometimes - though perhaps fundamentally logical considering the blanket use of Second World War settings in Sixties and Seventies British comics such as Victor, Hotspur or the ubiquitous Commando magazines - that so many middle-aged males of today were getting stuck into Sven Hassel paperbacks with such gusto at a relatively early stage of their teenage years. We may have lagged behind later generations in terms of being immersed in the dark reaches of sex and drug experimentation but at least we were sharing our father's reading tastes of death and glory as opposed to the twee adventures of a myopic pubescent wizard and his wanker public school mates. This no doubt another pointer to now long-departed masculine foundations of working class life in a then industrial Britain.

Sven Hassel's war experiences across Europe in a Wehrmacht penal regiment were subsequently questioned by Danish writer Erik Haaest who claimed that Hassel was actually a member of the Danish auxilary police in situ during the occupation and took his story ideas from returning Waffen SS volunteers who had served on the Eastern Front. Imagine overhearing those kind of conversations down at the local pub? The books are still published to this day though in hindsight it is probably only the first two - Legion of the Damned and Wheels of Terror - that seemed grounded in some form of terrible authenticity.

It has been interesting to note too this week - and in particular with the cinema release of Steven Spielberg's War Horse - that my favorite comic character from times gone by is revered to this day as one of the greatest of all British strips and with many volumes reproduced in book format. Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun's Charley's War - which ran in Battle magazine between 1979 and 1985 - followed the Great War experiences of Charley Bourne on the Western Front and in Russia.

Going back to the earlier Seventies in turn another character I loved was Adam Eterno - who appeared in Thunder, Lion and Valiant magazines. In this story an alchemist's apprentice quaffs the Elixer of Life in a London cellar in 1580 and is cursed by his furious master with literal everlasting existence as opposed to just a lifetime's worth of youthful good looks. Eterno is thus doomed to travel through time seeking out death by a golden weapon to break the spell and bring release from this mortal coil.

Eventually he decides to give up and become a time-travelling do-gooder though god alone knows what he would make of his hometown today. Then again with lust for gold, monumental income discrepancies, alcohol dependency, physical squalor and hatred of outsiders in the loop he probably would feel right at home.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Eternal Now And Otherwise



Many works of the Belfast artist John Luke (1906-1975) such as The Old Callan Bridge and The Lock At Edenderry are said to capture "the eternal now". According to Rory Fitzpatrick's God's Frontiersmen which accompanied the Channel Four series of the same name "it is always Sunday in Luke's work, families walking their dogs through the green, drumlin country in the warm afternoon, or evening after work as a father comes home to a white Ulster farmhouse set in formal idyllic landscape."

Similar themes regarding the timelessness of the Ulster countryside were captured in both the 1972 BBC Northern Ireland documentary Loughsiders - with the poet Seamus Heaney exploring the County Fermanagh waterways and visiting the Janus figure on Boa Island as "the first god of the first people" - and of course several Van Morrison songs such as And It Stoned Me, On Hyndford Street, Take Me Back and in particular Country Fair from the 1974 Veedon Fleece album.

During the Christmas break I was reading some moving recollections of old Belfast on the main internet forum from various expats around the world and what they missed from a long lost time and place:

I miss the smell of freshly baked bread when I walk past the sites of the old Kennedy's and Hughes' bakeries. I miss the days when neighbours could leave their front doors open without the fear of being robbed. I miss the sound of the horn at Mackies that you could set your clocks or watches by. I miss the old Smithfield and Variety markets that could have a child's senses buzzing. I miss the lovely inexpensive fresh fish sold from handcarts. But most of all I miss members of my family and my friends who have passed on who walked the streets of Belfast with me...

In the 60s when we were kids we used to go into town on a Friday night and stare endlessly into S S Moores sport shop window in Arthur street, dreaming of one day being able to afford a new football strip. Walking around town on a Friday night there was always the sound of music coming from the `Boom Boom Rooms` or some other dance venue. We would then go round to the Queens bridge and watch the cross channel steamers sailing from Belfast. The Glasgow boat left at 8-30pm, the Liverpool boat at 9-30pm and the Heysham boat at 9-40pm, then it was time to go home. On a Saturday morning it was the Stadium picture house for the kids morning matinee and then in the afternoon it was a dander down the Shankill to Smithfield market. Smithfield was fascinating for a young lad as it contained almost everything you could ever dream of. Unfortunately Smithfield has gone and so have the boats, but I guess nothings for ever. If only one could turn the clock back and relive those days...

I miss the old department stores with the grand stair cases and lots of nooks and crannys for different departments. I miss watching the birds gathering on the electric wires in the winter in donegal place when you were waiting for the bus. I miss the old double deckers with the big silver knobs on the end of the seats. I miss the brilliant santa experience in robbs going on a trip on santas sleigh before you ever saw him, it actually felt like you were moving. I miss the old buildings that are daily disappearing. I miss knowing who your next door neighbor is, the milkman coming and waking you up in the morning, the bread van coming round the streets. I miss so much sometimes it feels like it never really existed...


The last sentiment is something so many British people can relate to in light of the uncharted waters we now find ourselves in as a society - the shock of the new encompassing unparalleled financial stagnation, demographic shifts of historic scale and consequence, rampant criminality, insidious manipulation of the mass media, the obliteration of our job market by industrial internship abuse and a tide of cultural marxism which has reached the point where literally unbroadcastable "millie"-style Northern Irish female voices can be heard on our national state radio.

In respect of our beleaguered capital I also took some time over Christmas to look at the magnificent portraits in Philip Davies' Panoramas of Lost London: Work, Wealth, Poverty and Change 1870-1945 volume. In such a brief period of time has the magnetism and glory of London entirely dissipated to leave a metropolis where one is fundamentally disassociated from its historic reach, national character or even a genuine capital city experience itself.

The provisional quotation from Virgil to be used at the Ground Zero memorial in New York City is No day shall erase you from the memory of time. That accepted, the British cities and the very streets we loved now seem to be fading into shadows of memory within a span of mere months as opposed to years or decades.