Monday, November 11, 2013

Breaking Mad: The Reconfiguration Of Reality


A brief coda to October's two posts...

Last week on BBC Northern Ireland and Radio Telefis Eireann a documentary simultaneously transmitted on "The Disappeared" of the Ulster Troubles. The feature included no broad elaboration upon the cases of Robert Nairac or Lisa Dorrian - which fell outside the main thematic remit of republican violence - but was yet an extraordinarily moving reflection on loss and open-ended trauma. As discussed previously it would certainly appear that one specific political demographic in the British Isles is now dictating the historical narrative of the Northern Ireland conflict with extreme prejudice. The core dynamic of the Ulster peace process in turn now seemingly gauged upon an extraordinarily expensive psychotherapy session for certain ideological combatants and individual ex-paramilitary leaders.

Last Saturday in London I walked down towards the Lucifer Tower beside London Bridge and thus beyond into the streets of Bermondsey -  thereafter back to Wapping across the Thames. The four hour stroll yet again underpinning the gathering sense that in modern London the only reason to remain in the high-risk private-sector would be service employment geared towards the very same wealth surge that has changed this city forever in the past seven years. A work colleague knew both Bermondsey of yore and its modern film-set incarnation alike. He noted how the recent infrastructural changes in the district may well have even incorporated dry-cleaning of the local pigeons by way of the scale of radical infrastructural change. In the local Maltby Street gastro-market I did indeed notice that some of the microscopic taster-dishes atop individual stallholders' tables were actually on sale for up to four quid-a-fucking pop.

Across Tower Bridge then and east to Wapping - location of the Small Faces' legendary Wapping Wharf Laundrette in All Our Yesterdays. The three famous pubs on the riverside including The Tower of Ramsgate and The Prospect of Whitby are now surrounded on all sides by expensive apartment accommodation while the views across to Rotherhite (mentioned in turn in Elvis Costello's New Amsterdam) consist of yet more of the same from east to west - the river traffic in the Pool of London itself now dead and gone.

Another good friend recently reflected on the scale of change in London and his own West London locale full of family connections. He noted how one by one they are irrevocably disappearing now - a house where relatives once lived, a church with memories of past marriages, factories where family worked or even pubs they socialised in. A critical mass would now appear to have been reached in his estimation whereby within his lifetime London will be a city with as much relevance to him as Carlisle and his own time for leaving will surely have arrived.

First slum of Europe: a role 
It won't be hard to win,
With a cast of crooks and tarts.
And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs,
There'll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains 
For us will be concrete and tyres.

Philip Larkin, Going Going, 1972

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Pain Of Remembrance In Northern Ireland


An incredibly moving edition of Radio Ulster's The Nolan Show today included commentary from victims, victims' relatives and witnesses affected by both the IRA's 1993 Shankill bombing and a subsequent Loyalist attack against Catholic workmen in Belfast prior to the Greysteel murders. The considered reflections upon sectarian division and closure expressed by the bereaved and emotionally traumatised was sobering in the extreme.

Whether or not the resolution of the Ulster Troubles was grounded upon military stalemate or political stratagem it has been generally accepted that the institutional framework in situ since the start of the century would provide social space within which shared remembrance - or conversely a pact of forgetting - might endure.

In the past week in Belfast there have been memorial services for the nine Protestant civilians murdered in the Shankill bombing and in four other explosions along the road over the course of the conflict - the two left dead at the Four Step Inn in September 1971, four at the Balmoral furniture store in December 1971 (including two minors), five at the Mountainview Tavern in April 1975 and another five killed at the Bayardo Bar in August of the same year.

There has also been a plaque unveiled in North Belfast by the surviving 1993 bomber in honour of his colleague who blew himself up in the blast. Despite the fact that the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister has underscored the need for sensitivity regarding the Shankill victims' families - and in fact a public apology from the former IRA volunteer himself at the unveiling - public reaction has been understandably incendiary from the Protestant community in light of the dedication to a paramilitary who died "on active service".

The past few years have seen significant revisionist interpretations of the Northern Ireland conflict emanate from both Republican and Loyalist political sources regarding the paramilitary modus operandi of the period and the socio-political fractures that underpinned the allegedly foregone nature of the conflict as it devolved into decades of mass murder. In a post-conflict Northern Ireland - let alone within a Belfast so fundamentally changed from the Sixties and Seventies by way of depopulation, deindustrialisation and religious demographic - it is now clearly apparent that conflict over cultural determiners and even memory itself has the potential to sow seeds of discord that were meant to have long dissipated from the end of the Nineties.

Hence the past week has clearly underscored the depth of communal divisions within Ulster itself -  let alone the sheer moral ambiguity surrounding the requirement to publicly commemorate a bomber whose victims included two young girls aged 13 and 7. The mainstream media certainly needs to urgently illuminate and forensically challenge these revisionist trends with extreme prejudice as they impinge upon the core wider issues of what constitutes victimhood, the unequivocal parity of suffering across the two communities and how the Ulster people can move forward with such toxic historical baggage.

Certainly the constant journalistic refrain that a political mandate qualifies the tone of political rhetoric in play cannot equate any longer with what appears to be significant body blows to post-conflict diplomacy or indeed the fact that such revisionism is now insulting the intelligence of one's political opponents in extremis.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Breaking of Modern London


Interesting and long long overdue article in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper by the writer Ian Jack which considered the staggering social consequences of London's current property hyper-inflation as related to incomes in the financial services industry and the city's position as a now global hub for low-risk real estate speculation.

This issue has been referred to regularly in this blog as a fundamental factor in the capital's gathering dissolution and destruction alongside population changes fundamentally censored out of public discourse, the decay of much social infrastructure to the level of the Third World and the literal obliteration of workers' rights in the private sector.

As usual with mainstream media the heart of the dilemma was articulated with much more insight, wit and focus in the associated public commentaries. Therefore apart from the obvious reality check related to where nurses and firefighters are actually meant to reside in the future shock mushroom cloud where people are dieing and burning, one poster noted the ludicrous phenomena in London of hundreds of thousands of thirtysomething (or indeed older) white-collar workers lodged in putrid Dickensian rental accommodation for a king's ransom while holding credible post-graduate qualifications and while employed in blue chip companies. Those same monthly rental outgoings resulting - by pure mathematical default - in no residual monies available for pension investment, debt repayment or basic saving. The dignity of labour indeed.

And now the government help-to-buy scheme arrives to catalyse a further financial bubble atop the biggest Ponzi scam in our country's Wild West history - this alike a self-generating tide of florescent and molten alien spunk in a Sixties sci-fi movie crawling over the leading lady's beehive to eat her eyeballs out from the inside.

Hence life in London World City - essentially nothing more than a really shit version of New York anyway - continues to resemble nothing more than a year long training session for a crucial football match only to arrive at a golf course on the big day itself and be presented with a rugby ball.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Yield To The Night



I recently watched the classic Diana Dors movie Yield To The Night from 1956 about the final days of a murderess pending her execution. The film has dated very well and Dors' performance was seriously impressive. I always remember back in primary school in the mid-Seventies that schoolgirls used to sing a rhyme about the actress that went "I'm Diana Dors and I'm a movie star! I've the hips, I've got the lips, I've got the legs of a star!"

So interesting in hindsight that her acclaim had left that social imprint for so long in light of the downwards trajectory of her career to the dark depths of Swedish Hellcats, The Amorous Milkman, Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Keep It Up Downstairs, What The Swedish Butler Saw and The Confessions of the David Galaxy Affair by the Seventies. The Smiths used a picture of Dors from this very feature on the front of one of their singles compilations.

The film ends with Dors and the prison clergyman walking to the connecting door from the condemned cell to the execution chamber - Dors' character being conscious all along that it was unlikely to be the door to the broom cupboard. This is not unlike the feelings so many middle-aged Britons now have as they look ahead to their remaining years of work and then to some dread half-existence as a pensioner - a total surety that fate is unlikely to be kind if current lifestyle logistics are anything to go by in a society fuelled by The X Factor, mobile phones and cheap supermarket lager.

Hence the toxic labour markets completely disfigured by wage stagnation and internships, a property market scam underpinned by property mega-inflation and the buy-to-let fiasco, a generational apartheid regarding life expectations that is historically unparalleled in scope and a mainstream media not willing to interject a solitary question mark as to where our country is heading.

Time and life security variables alike are indeed weighing heavier than ever now on millions of hard working Britons and where it is hard to disengage oneself from the belief that our own government and political class - to paraphrase Peter Brooke's words which commenced the Northern Ireland peace process in the Nineties - has no "selfish, strategic or economic" interest whatsoever anymore in the entire future of the British people on these islands.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Northern Ireland Labour Party: Labour And Loyalty In Ulster



One of the most pressing matters regarding political equilibrium in Northern Ireland off the back of the Belfast flag protests at the start of this year has been the future electoral viability of the Alliance Party - an organisation  whose existence and relative electoral success since 1970 has been one of the few determiners of normality in the province during the Troubles and afterwards.

Prior to the outbreak of violence in 1969 another group in the history of Ulster who briefly represented a bi-confessional and an albeit highly qualified political alternative to ethnic-orientated party politics was the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

Ten elections took place between 1921 and 1969 in the half century life of the Northern Ireland parliament - in 1921, 1925, 1929, 1933, 1938, 1945, 1949, 1953, 1958, 1962, 1965 and 1969. The story of the political face of Labour in Ulster in this period is one of political survival against schism, vilification and even physical danger.

Although the subject was analysed some years ago in a genuinely comprehensive and accessible study, it was alas published through a British academic print and thus priced way beyond the means of the decent and kindly post-Orgreave working man. The electoral fortunes of Labour in Ulster however are well worth reflecting upon again here, alike a recent post on the Ulster Vanguard movement in Northern Ireland, and especially since it likewise involved both representation in Belfast and at Westminster.

Following the partition of Ireland, and during the 1920 local government elections in the North,  the use of a proportional representation system had increased non-unionist representation in Northern Ireland. Abolition of PR by Stormont strengthened the unionist position while also placing restrictions upon matters of economic concern ever taking priority over the national question by way of local electoral consolidation for Independent Labour Party candidates.

In the first election for the 52-seat Northern Ireland parliament in  May 1921 all three anti-partitionist Labour candidates were Protestants - Councillor James Baird, John Hanna and Harry Midgeley. The first two had been expelled from the Belfast shipyards during the Troubles of the period and their campaigning took place under both intimidation and threat from loyalists. Compared to the 1920 local elections they fared disastrously and only mustered a joint total of 1,877 votes. Conversely three members of the Ulster Unionist Labour Association -  umbilically linked to the main Unionist Party and often the source of extreme political invective and rhetoric in itself - did win seats. These were taken by Sam McGuffin, Thompson Donald and William Grant while three Westminister Ulster Unionist seats were also given over to UULA members in the 1918 General Election.

In 1924 the Labour Party was formed and attempted to maintain a neutral stance on the border issue. The 1925 election in Ulster - strategically used to strengthen Premier James Craig's hand against the the Boundary Commission considering changes to the Irish border at this point - saw the governing Unionist Party lose five seats to independent unionists and a tenants’ candidate. Labour in turn won three seats - Jack Beattie in East Belfast, leader Sam Kyle in North Belfast and William McMullen in West Belfast. All three again were Protestants and Labour became the official opposition at Stormont as nationalists slowly returned.

The Unionist Party itself viewed the independent unionist victories in particular as a divisive development which could fundamentally undermine the Protestant working class support base and was a direct factor in the abolition of proportional representation for Stormont elections in 1929 - Labour and the nationalists uniting unsuccessfully against the proposal.

With the Protestant electorate now facing the realisation that a split vote could potentially hand victory to an anti-partition candidate, the status of the Union was underscored as the central political factor for consideration in the unionist-nationalist battleground. The 1929 Stormont election would thus see the Unionist Party winning six more seats than four years previously. The Labour threat had been turned back with Jack Beattie alone retaining his seat in Belfast Pottinger though Kyle lost only narrowly in Oldpark and the cumulative Labour total was still a respectable 20,516.

Large scale civil unrest in Belfast - and indeed across the religious divide - accompanied both the Outdoor Relief and railway strikes of 1932. During an emergency Stormont sitting in September to discuss unemployment the then Labour leader Beattie had memorably thrown the mace  at the Speaker with the stirring admonition "I absolutely refuse to sit in this House and indulge in hypocrisy while the people are starving outside."

Labour representation doubled in the 1933 election with Harry Midgely winning in the Catholic Dock ward -  the partnership between the two MPs would not last long however with Beattie being expelled from the party for refusing to move the writ on the Belfast Central election following the death of Nationalist leader Joe Devlin. This in light of his earlier close work with the Nationalists and in respect of his small majority in Pottinger ward which included the Catholic Short Strand. Beattie was readmitted to the party in 1942.

During the last election before the Second World War in 1938, the millionaire WJ Stewart and his Progressive Unionists played a populist card with stress on the unemployment issue and the need for agricultural reform and a housebuilding programme. Predictably all 12 candidates – branded as “wreckers” by the Unionist Party leadership and unrepresentative as mainly liberal-minded businessmen and professionals - were to fail. In this election Midgely lost his seat in Dock as directly linked to public conflict in the constituency over his support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War as opposed to Catholic clerical support for Franco. Midgely would certainly not forget the especial circumstances of his exit. Beattie on the other hand was relected as an independent Labour candidate while sometime future NILP leader Paddy Agnew became the first Catholic official Labour MP winning the nationalist-boycotted South Armagh seat.

During the course of the Second World War itself in 1943 the Northern Ireland Prime Minister Basil Brooke brought the labour figures Harry Midgley and William Grant into the cabinet as Minister of Public Security and Minister of Labour respectively.  Former NILP leader Midgley had left the party in December 1942 over the vexed partition issue to form his own pro-Unionist Commonwealth Labour Party. He had returned to Stormont as an MP again following a by-election win in December 1941 in the Protestant Willowfield ward of East Belfast though tensions with Beattie in the three-man parliamentary team had arisen again.

Overall twice leader Jack Beattie himself won the West Belfast seat at Westminister in February 1943 providing the Labour Party with its highest profile success in a period where it would stand to the left of even the Communist Party in refusing to press for an emergency wartime coalition government during the political crisis within unionism that saw Brooke take over the premiership from J M Andrews. Instead they called for a general election which would certainly have seen the Ulster Unionist Party lose several seats to Labour. Beattie was to be expelled from the Labour Party yet again in 1944 and for similar reasons to his earlier expulsion - he refused to press for a Senate by-election when a nationalist senator died. He thus held the West Belfast seat on two occasions - 1943-50 and 1951-55.

Harry Midgley meanwhile – certainly the most long recalled labour figure in Northern Ireland history and a genuinely vociferous critic of the unionist leadership as Labour MP for the religiously-mixed Dock ward during the 1930s – formally joined the Unionist Party in 1947. Midgley the "Unionist Evangelist" served as Minister of Labour and Minister of Education from 1949 and would in the latter part of his life join the Orange Order and become a director of Linfield Football Club. The Commonwealth Labour Party expired with his departure.

The June 1945 Stormont election saw the Unionist Party campaign on a broadly anti-socialist platform of opposition to Labour’s plans for nationalisation and planning while at the same time promising to introduce any social reforms passed at Westminster into Northern Ireland. In this election Robert Getgood and then party leader Hugh Downey won seats at Stormont for Labour in the Belfast constituencies of Oldpark and Dock though Agnew lost his in South Armagh. The following year official Labour Party representation at Stormont rose to three again with the election of Frank Hanna in a Belfast Central by-election. At this stage the Labour Party had still failed to win in a fully Protestant electoral ward. Former Labour Party members Midgely and Beattie retained their seats in Willowfield and Pottinger - the pair had come to blows in Stormont in 1945 leading to the former's suspension.

With the south formally declaring full republic status in late 1948 another election was called in Northern Ireland the following year in an atmosphere of extreme tension. The “Chapel Gates” election, so called because of the Mansion House conference decision in Dublin to collect voluntary donations outside southern churches for anti-partition candidates in the north, solidified the unionist bloc. Campaigning took place against a background of fierce intimidation towards the labour candidates not dissimilar to 1921. Getgood and Downey lost their seats while Hanna retained his but only as an independent labour candidate.

The party organisation then splintered over the partition issue with a now firmly pro-Union Northern Ireland Labour Party emerging and as opposed to an anti-partitionist Irish Labour Party which still included a substantial Protestant membership including Beattie who had lost his Pottinger seat. The opposition in Stormont now became fully Catholic and the British government reaffirmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in the 1949 Ireland Act.

In the 1953 Stormont election no less than five variations of Labour stood for election - the Irish Labour Party won a seat in Dock alongside a Socialist Republican in Falls though the party itself would have faded away by the late Fifties.

A major period of sustained Republican violence took place between December 1956 and February 1962 in Northern Ireland with eight IRA volunteers, six members of the RUC and two B Specials being killed. During the Border campaign in 1958 the NILP made a major electoral breakthrough by winning four Stormont seats in Belfast – leader Tom Boyd in Pottinger, Vivien Simpson in Oldpark and Billy Boyd and David Bleakley in the staunchly Protestant Woodvale and Victoria .  The latter two victories, as won by ex-shipyard workers and lay preachers, were with small majorities. Being unequivocally pro-partition since 1949 - and constantly firm on law and order issues - they would focus on the recession problems affecting agriculture, shipbuilding and the textiles industry. The NILP became the official opposition and in the 1962 election in Northern Ireland they doubled their Belfast vote to over 76,000 votes and held onto their four seats with increased majorities. This however would prove the limit of their electoral viability as a protest vote.

The NILP had theoretically represented a new Protestant and Catholic working class alliance to tackle socio-economic problems within the Stormont system. However in reality its gathering support since the late 1940s was mainly founded on Protestant working class voters who viewed its unionist credentials as essentially sound. Its gathering Catholic support over the unemployment issue from the late Fifties onwards had in turn attracted liberal Protestants of all classes in terms of its non-sectarian appeal. It is certainly important to underscore the fealty of all the NILP MPs at this time to the Northern Ireland state, the Union and stern security measures to defend both as opposed to any full frontal assault on sectarianism, discrimination or partition.

In the early 1960s economic recovery proved elusive and indeed Brookeborough’s successor in 1963, Terence O’Neill, would utilise many of the NILP’s policies about combating unemployment and the contraction and collapse of the three core industries.

The Labour vote was still holding strong at this time with 103,000 votes but no seats at the October 1964 Westminster election. However the November 1965 Stormont election which O’Neill called to consolidate his position, which was already attracting undue negative reaction from some unionist quarters, saw the NILP vote plummet. Only Boyd and Simpson's Pottinger and Oldpark seats would be retained as the Labour vote fell by 10,000 from its 1962 performance. Bleakly lost his seat by only 423 votes.

O’Neill’s focus on economic recovery for the moribund northern economy - and especially his desire for co-operation with the trade unions and Sean Lemass’ Republic of Ireland - placed him almost to the left of the NILP. Within the party a distancing was also gradually occurring between the more left-wing members and the pro-unionist MPs David Bleakley and Billy Boyd who seemed to embody a Belfast-orientated and sabbatarian Protestant image inimical to broadening the support base.

This came to a head over the “Sunday swings” controversy of late 1964 where Woodvale NILP representatives were expelled and then readmitted to the party. Divisions also took place within the NILP over the election of former IRA member Paddy Devlin to the party executive, the decision to contest seats in majority nationalist areas and a NILP proposed private members bill in Stormont in 1964 to outlaw religious discrimination.

Hence even before the slide to civil unrest and terrorism began in 1968, the fall in unemployment in Northern Ireland and the appeal of O'Neill's qualified rapprochment with the nationalist community undercut support for the NILP from both working class "extreme" unionism and middle class "liberal" unionism alike. The leftward swing within the NILP towards civil rights  issues would continue to gain pace in the latter half of the 1960s. In the final Stormont election in  February 1969 then leader Vivien Simpson once again held Oldpark though the Pottinger seat in East Belfast was lost to the Unionist Party. Former IRA member Paddy Devlin also won a seat for the NILP in the Catholic Falls constituency.

With the arrival of alternative political choices such as the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Alliance and the Democratic Unionist Party at the start of the 1970s the political voice of Labour in Ulster would thus gradually fade into history. There would however be one worthy electoral postcript in the June 1970 Westminister election when - even with Republican violence mounting and communal cleavage widening - the NILP won no less than 98,194 votes or 12.6% of the vote. In the final Northern Ireland government headed by Brian Faulkner a Minister of Community Relations role was created and given to David Bleakley. Bleakley would also be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in June 1973 - where Paddy Devlin served as SDLP Minister of Health and Social Services in the power-sharing Executive - and to the Constitutional Convention in May 1975. These were both for  the East Belfast constituency and with 4,425 and 3,998 first preference votes respectively.

Today the NILP are rarely mentioned beyond some spurious politcal analogies with the Ulster Volunteer Force-linked Progressive Unionist Party. Although the highpoint of their political imprint in Northern Ireland in 1925 and 1958 was based on only three and four MPs respectively in Stormont, their performance at Westminister elections during the span of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties was also impressive. This in light of the first-past-the-post electoral system and aside from Beattie's election victories in West Belfast. Strong returns could be noted throughout these years in the North and East Belfast constituencies with around 35-40% of the vote and a peak at the 1945 and 1966 elections. In 1945 Tom Boyd won 43% in East Belfast and the NILP 44% in North Belfast - in 1966 when the first political assassinations took place in Belfast the Labour vote in East Belfast for the General Election was 45% and 42% in North Belfast.

The politicians who represented Labour and the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the late Stormont parliament are mostly long deceased. Harry Midgely died in 1957, Paddy Agnew in 1958, Jack Beattie in 1960, Sam Kyle in 1962, Robert Getgood in 1964, Vivien Simpson in 1977, William McMullen in 1982, Frank Hanna in 1987, Tom Boyd in 1991 and Paddy Devlin in 1999. David Bleakly and Billy Boyd are still alive to my knowledge thought I am unable to confirm biographical details for Hugh Downey who was an uncle of Provisional Sinn Fein leader Danny Morrison.

The NILP folded as a political organisation in 1987 while in the entire history of the Northern Ireland state, and indeed thereafter, the British Labour Party refused to organise or stand for elections in this part of the United Kingdom.

The Northern Ireland Labour Party thus remaining a sobering memory of a genuine class-based political alternative for a country fractured upon religion, ethnicity and nationality. Likewise another melancholy reflection of a period of British social history when concern for the well-being of labour and the working man was a fundamental priority both for any government aspiring to societal equilibrum and for any party of labour seeking office.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Britain's Real Food Heroes - Keith Floyd and Mr Tayto



As a healthy lifestyle choice I watch as little television as humanely possible. Unfortunately on two occasions recently I have briefly caught some particularly nauseating material by default. We had the new series of The Apprentice where some deeply disturbed twenty-somethings prostrate themselves with submission and self-loathing in front of an angry businessman - not unlike terrified young teenage prison inmates in front of a leering Mr Big and his National Front skinhead henchmen. Then there was the semi-final of Masterchef where contestants risked a stress coronary to have their experimental dishes critiqued by bloated and loathsome pigs from the national press - the same professional reviewers whose work caters to the demographic that has brought the country to its knees and offered up the suitcase or the coffin for the rest of us left on a water, baked beans and Monster Munch diet.

Conversely a few days ago I was watching a charming edition of Keith Floyd's Floyd On Spain programme set in Majorca. It would appear that most of Keith Floyd's television output currently available on DVD (the seven series on wine, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, Africa, Italy, South East Asia and Spain) is from the latter half of his career between 1992 and 2001 unlike the earlier BBC series once oft-repeated on satellite television -  Floyd on Fish, Floyd on Food, Floyd on France and Floyd on Britain and Ireland. These transmitted between 1984 and 1988. There was also a Floyd on a Pub Run (1985), Floyd's American Pie (1989), Floyd On Oz (1991), Capital Floyd (2000)  and Floyd's India (2001) along the way. The production values of the sixteen series can leave much to be desired on occasion - and many times the finished food itself doesn't look especially appetising - but the sheer charisma, cheek and cool of the man is still wonderful to behold.

Some amazing moments in hindsight like Floyd cooking up an authentic Roman centurion's pork stew dinner near Hadrian's Wall for a local historian and throwing away the ghastly concoction and the plate itself at first bite, walking into a Welsh rugby club in sporting attire and upending the entire contents of the cooking pot full of cawl on the floor in front of the assembled teams when he fell on his arse and the marvellous way he handled a verbal bashing from a sneering French she-vampire cook over the crappy quality of his own version of piperade. In an earlier post I also referenced the brilliant use of music by The Stranglers throughout and especially the scene in possibly Biarritz where he walked along the beach and replaced a French dirge in the background with Hanging Around by way of a a comedy vinyl scratch. The Stranglers music used in some of the series was mainly Waltzinblack, Peaches and Viva Vlad. Floyd's various autobiographies provide genuinely entertaining reading and, alike George Best, he remains a public figure who instils a genuine feeling of regret and loss that he is no longer here with us. Keith Floyd died in September 2009 while watching a documentary Keith Meets Keith about his life in Avignon France - he was only 65.

On the subject of Best, during the Ulster Troubles of the Seventies there was little for the people of Northern Ireland to be proud of in truth aside from the Manchester United star, Olympian Mary Peters (Freeman of Belfast on this very day) and Mr Tayto the potato crisp legend. What Ulster person could ever forget his contribution to healing and inclusiveness over the course of the conflict as he personally peeled, cut, fried and flavoured hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of packets of crisps at Tayto Castle in County Armagh. Tayto Castle - "Deep in the heart of Ulster's countryside" to directly quote the old blurb on the back of the packet - in fact is a factory beside Tandragee Castle where American soldiers of the 28th Cavalry Squadron, 6th Cavalry Group, 3rd US Army were stationed prior to D-Day.

I finally managed to clarify yesterday that on the island of Ireland there are actually two Tayto brands from two separate companies - the Northern Irish version was founded in 1956 and the Republic of Ireland one earlier still in 1954. During the 2007 General Election in the Republic the Tayto brand ran an advertising campaign with the legendary Mr Tayto as a mock candidate. Apparently several spoiled papers in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency were altered to a vote for the potato personage himself by some very politically astute swing voters. When the southern Tayto company tried to market their product in England and Wales they encountered difficulties as the Ulster brand owned the legal right to trade under the name in the UK. From a cursory look at both websites it would appear that cheese and onion is the classic flavour of choice in both states. In terms of the branding, the southern Irish Mr Tayto is almost late-Fifties in stylistic appearance while the northern equivalent seems more early Seventies and cartoonlike in form.

Some years ago during the mass grounding of European aviation off the back of Icelandic volcano ash Mr Tayto himself was present at the national airports in Northern Ireland to welcome home the hordes of weary and frustrated passengers with a variety of reviving crunchy treats. Tayto truly is The Taste of Home no less and always will be. I was conversely stranded in Northern Ireland at this time and was only welcomed back to London Heathrow with faces etched with fear, misery and hostility. And that was just the groundstaff.

In light of the recent chaos in Northern Ireland over government compliance with proposed care home closures - magnificently overturned by public outrage and a particularly incisive coverage by the BBC Northern Ireland Stephen Nolan Show on the subject - perhaps the hand of history is upon us again. Alike James Craig and Michael Collins in the early Twenties or Terence O'Neill and Sean Lemass in the mid-Sixties. On an island fractured by financial collapse, recidivist paramilitary threat and sectarian loathing perhaps Mr Tayto and Mr Tayto alone - shaking smokey bacon hands across the border and exchanging multi-flavour variety packs or even cool branded merchandise  - could bring a fresh understanding between the sadly divided peoples of Ireland.



Saturday, May 4, 2013

Van Morrison - The Solid Ground




Last week I read a review by music journalist Gavin Martin of a September 2012 Van Morrison concert which took place as part of the East Belfast Arts Festival. I found this so interesting as it related to Johnny Rogan's critical No Surrender biography from 2005 which I mentioned in an earlier post. This traced the influence of that particular urban conurbation throughout his recorded output. During the concert Morrison performed the songs On Hyndford Street and Orangefield - both of which mention locales from his youth by way of his own childhood residence off the Beersbridge Road and the secondary school he attended.


Martin also references the the Protestant and loyalist political complexion of East Belfast in the piece:


In the afternoon the hinterlands that provide the setting for Van's artist treasury, his actual theatre of dreams, hosted marching bands from a local tribal tradition. A companion, not of the tradition, had remarked how she was (unexpectedly) impressed by the rhythms these assemblages mustered. Come the evening, after we'd watched the evening sun sink behind Cave Hill, shadowing the city from the North, Van was proving that he was one who had always moved to the beat of a decidedly different drum of many "decidely different" drums. The man in pork pie hat, his neck swathed in an admirably protective maroon scarf, the man they simply call The Man - the greatest and most enduring of all East Belfast local heroes - was back onstage in his old stomping ground for the first time since the 60s.


I saw Van Morrison live on six occasions here in a very different London during the late Eighties and early Nineties - including a brilliant performance with The Chieftains at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and one at the Royal Albert Hall during the Avalon Sunset tour. Been revisiting his material quite a lot recently in turn by way of the great lost Mechanical Bliss album from the mid-Seventies which can now be accessed on youtube. Some very raw hard rock blues jams to be heard here - on You Move Me, Feedback On Highway 101 and Not Working For You - that remain utterly unique within Morrison's work. The album also includes the extraordinary title track as delivered in rambling aristocratic style worthy of our current rulers in Austerity Britain, the driving funk of Naked in the Jungle,  jazz instrumental Much Binding In The Marsh and an original version of The Street Only Knew Your Name which ranks with anything else in the artist's magnificent back catalogue - indeed truly as priceless as the equally reflective Madame George, And It Stoned Me, Saint Dominic's Preview, Linden Arden Stole The Highlights or Irish Heartbeat in my opinion.


Rogan's work incorporated a narrative on the political violence in Ulster which ran in parallel to Morrison's career. One young fan of the Belfast group Them remembered the early days of rhythm and blues at the Maritime Hotel in the city's College Square North long before the fractures of late 1968 and the summer of 1969 put the Northern Irish working classes at each others throats for thirty years: I knew those days were special and everybody there knew those days were special. There was such an aura about those times in Belfast - and it was never to be repeated. Ever.


Morrison's direct musical influence can obviously be pinpointed within songs as disparate as Bruce Springsteen's Rosalita, Thin Lizzy's The Boys Are Back In Town and Graham Parker's Silly Thing. That mark of a totally unique creative imprint may in turn be traced back to the very beginning of his career. Thus for all of Morrison's own qualifications of Them living and dieing on the Maritime stage - or indeed the clear fact that lineup changes within the same group were so bewilderingly labyrinthine as to replicate the divisions within the labour movement in Belfast in the first two-thirds of the 20th Century - the singles Baby Please Don't Go, Mystic Eyes and Gloria have not dated in the slightest. Likewise the Phil Coulter-penned garage classic I Can Only Give You Everything, the definitive cover of Dylan's It's All Over Now Baby Blue or even the long unreleased Mighty Like A Rose remain equal to anything else in the Sixties cannon of British beat music.


The brief period of recording for Bert Berns' Bang label in America - mainly recalled by way of the Brown Eyed Girl hit - still contains fascinating content such as the lengthy TB Sheets used throughout the movie Bring Out Your Dead, Joe Harper Saturday Morning about the Maritime's caretaker and Belfast's own version of La Bamba in Chick-a-boom - the latter to be covered by the Brazilian group Os Cleans in 1968. The Bang recordings in particular are utterly unforgettable for the thirty or so very brief acoustic recordings later released as Payin Dues - the political reasons behind their creation, purpose and execution representing a high water mark of creative revenge.


The 11 albums Morrison released between 1968 and 1979 remain one of the best examples of sustained high quality musical output in modern times from a solo artist alongside those of  David Bowie and Neil Young - Astral Weeks (1968), Moondance (1970), His Band and Street Choir (1970), Tupelo Honey (1971), Saint Dominic's Preview (1972), Hard Nose The Highway (1973), the live It's Too Late To Stop Now (1974), Veedon Fleece (1974), A Period of Transition (1977), Wavelength (1978) and Into the Music (1979).  Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece - which reached numbers 140 and 41 on the UK album charts respectively - contain extraordinarily ethereal and introspective moments that still defy description. Indeed both albums - alongside Moondance, St Dominic's Preview and the concert album recorded in London and California - are regarded as classics to this day. Although 1980's Common One serioiusly divided critical opinion - alongside other selective output from the early Eighties onwards - the 1986 No Guru, No Method, No Teacher surely stands as the sixth truly great album in his back catalogue.


Morrison's music so often focuses on the vicissitudes of time and memory, recall and loss that constitute such a mainstay of  the human experience. Several pieces of public commentary attached to uploads of And It Stoned Me alone capture this perfectly:


I had 2 friends when I was a boy and teen. I thought we would be together forever. Forever was 12 years 45 years ago. Who knows which way the wind blows and the water flows? The last time I saw them was 32 years ago. Which every way I turn now they are right in front of me in my mind's eye. How can time be so cruel when you can't go back? Those 2 were cousins and there is a veil between them over family matters or what's left of it. Van knows about these things else how could he sing so much about it.


It's amazing how hearing a song takes you back to time in life where you can smell what you smelling and remember who you were with the first time you heard it. Makes my hair stand up...


One of my favorite memories was being a young girl and hanging out with my father and two younger brothers in our basement listening to this album and spending time with Dad. We could never hear this reel-to-reel enough times. My dad introduced us to the best music and we loved listening. There was so much love among us and I'll never forget those amazing memories. Thanks Dad and Van.


I swear the joint i just had didn't have any influence on the fact that i just cried my eyes out to this song. so beautiful man.


My brother would play this album through the night in the next room when I was a boy...Amazing sounds coming through the walls, good memories. Thanks Tom...I miss ya...


Hope someone thinks of playing this song when i'll be dead and even while i'll be dying, please Lord let somebody remember of this for i'm so alone; Thank you to anyone remembering this.


Being away from home and the ones we love can be hard. When time presents itself before us to go home, even the smallest of things in memory can elate and create reality's and dreams of such comfort, it can stone us to our soul. I am away, and can never return and I can say for sure. I feel like I am being stoned.


Reminds me of my best uncle and best friend, driving to the driver having this song on repeat and just having the best time three guys can have. I miss them both and the river is full of only memories now.


I remember fishing with my little brother, walking down the county line from our house to the river. The rain started pouring down, but only in the corn field next to the road. slowly the rain moved onto the road, but had such a straight line along the road that I stood in the rain getting soaked, and my brother stood on the other side, completely dry. only lasted for a few minutes before everything was getting rained on, but it was one of those moments I'll remember forever. like it stoned me.


Alike the folk memory of George Best in turn - the former Junior Orangeman from the Cregagh Road - Morrison's music also fundamentally and atmospherically connects with affection and warmth to a specific time and place and thus towards a Fifties and Sixties Belfast long lost to deindustrialisation, sectarian community division, depopulation and terrorist destruction. 

Northern Irish references to the Ulster countryside and the great port city of Belfast can be found in many Morrison songs throughout his career - Madame George, Cyprus Avenue, Saint Dominic's Preview, Hard Nose The Highway, Kingdom Hall, Celtic Ray, Northern Muse (Solid Ground), Cleaning Windows, Connswater, Sense of Wonder, Got To Go Back, Coney Island, Too Long In Exile and Ancient Highway.

The deeply spiritual and life affirming music Van Morrison produced in a single decade between the late Sixties and late Seventies can yet transcend our times of greed, directionless, lies, angst and rank ignorance. Its power to touch the souls of the undimmed grows stronger by the day.


Away from Denmark...way up to Caledonia...and we sailed and we sailed and we sailed....all around the world...looking for a brand new start.




Wednesday, May 1, 2013

At The Edge - Ulster Vanguard


Several posts ago I referenced the gathering feeling one may gauge from everyday overheard public discussion in modern Britain that the social contract between state and citizen has been seriously ruptured off the back of retrograde social mobility, irreversible cultural changes, a lost deference to the political system and both metaphorical and literal criminality by the financial services industry. In turn the discrepancy between mainstream media reportage and analysis of Britain's current socio-economic and political crises on one hand and the high anxiety, acute frustration and often literal fury verbalised by the average Middle Briton on the other is profound. The recent electoral success of the UK Independence Party in English local elections tending to corroborate the same unless I am hugely mistaken.

Arguably of course the greatest example of such a fracture in British history was a century ago exactly with the formation of Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force. This in light of the destruction of the political covenant between Protestant Ulster and mainland Britain that Irish Home Rule represented in the eyes of Unionists and by way of the economic and religious threats contained therein.

Another example from the North of Ireland of a similar paradigm shift that is rarely mentioned today - despite its utterly unique nature within British political history and the multiplicity of populist historical documentaries on television in recent years - was the Ulster Vanguard movement of the Seventies.

Formed in February 1972, Ulster Vanguard was originally a pressure group within the Ulster Unionist Party that was opposed to the policies of the beleaguered sixth and final Northern Ireland Prime Minister Brian Faulkner. The leader was former Home Affairs Minister William Craig and his deputies were the Stormont MP for Carrickfergus Captain Austin Ardill and Orange Order leader the Reverend Martin Smyth - the latter would be a future Westminster MP for South Belfast. The Vanguard name for the group was apparently sourced from the Bible.

In Northern Ireland folk memory Ulster Vanguard is mainly recalled for its mass rallies across the province and indeed even one in London itself, a striking flag incorporating the Star of David and the Red Hand of Ulster, invocations towards UDI for the Protestant people, a uniformed bodyguard wing the Vanguard Service Corps and various inflammatory speeches by Craig of extremely violent content regarding political and physical conflict with armed and unarmed Irish nationalism.

The most infamous and long-recalled sections of these diatribes being delivered separately at Lisburn in County Antrim, Ormeau Park Belfast and the Monday Club in London during 1972:

We are determined to preserve our British traditions and way of life, and God help those, ladies and gentlemen, who get in our way.

We must build up a dossier of the men and women who are a menace to this country because, if and when the politicians fail us, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.

We are prepared to come out and shoot and kill. I am prepared to come out and shoot and kill. Let us put the bluff aside. I am prepared to kill, and those behind me will have my full support. We will only assassinate our enemies as a last desperate resort when we are denied our democratic rights.

At the Ormeau Park rally Craig arrived in a limousine accompanied by motorcycle outriders and inspected ranks of potential future citizen volunteers. Hence both at the time and retrospectively Ulster Vanguard - as an umbrella for various loyalist organisations - was considered as a right-wing movement with clearcut fascist overtones and indeed had close albeit problematical links with various loyalist paramilitary groups. Although Craig's invective was considered so extreme as to be thought treasonable by many political and legal figures at the time, during its brief history Vanguard was associated with successful electoral engagement as well as extra-parliamentary activity.

Following the suspension of the Northern Ireland parliament in March 1972 Vanguard organised a 48-hour strike - engendering both power cuts and business closures - which culminated in a march to Stormont itself. The group was also involved over the course of 1972 in calling for a rent and rates withdrawal against the prorogation of the regional parliament and the boycotting of produce from the Irish Republic.

Vanguard was one of the few Unionist parties to support the violent February 1973 two-day strike against the internment of loyalist paramiltaries and played a major role too in the historic 14-day Ulster Workers Council stoppage of  May 1974 which brought down the power-sharing Executive forged at Sunningdale the year before. Craig was one of the main leaders on  the strike co-ordinating committee while the stoppage was organised from Vanguard headquarters in a middle-class East Belfast suburb near Stormont itself on Hawthornden Road.

Hence over the years the figure of William Craig has been portrayed as a major mentor of Protestant political violence in the period - this despite the fact that his call to arms at Ormeau Park reads more chillingly than it actually sounds to the modern ear on archive recordings and that his Monday Club speech may have taken place during tired and emotional circumstances. Other commentators in turn have noted how Vanguard may have actually provided a timely conduit towards residual political thinking at a moment of literal critical mass for Northern Ireland when the country was genuinely tottering on conditions of open civil war. It is indeed a moot point in consideration of this "safety valve" factor that some of the political literature associated with the party makes for extremely interesting reading to this day although occassionally obtuse in content.

The anti-integrationist and pro-federalist Ulster A Nation and The Future of Northern Ireland from 1972 both place stress on the notion of Stormont's suspension representing a broken political contract which has directly placed the Protestant people at risk of life and limb from homicidal Republican terrorists. Such constitutional changes - which they see as illegal overturnings of parliamentary acts and historic promises - has therefore placed such enormous destructive pressure upon the sense of loyalty that Ulstermen feel towards the mother nation that the time has come for a constitutional renegotiation of the position of Northern Ireland within or without the United Kingdom.

The independence thus projected at points was certainly not analogous to a negotiated independence between both Ulster communities as later proposed by the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association but was clearly based on majoritarian principles and dynamics. Vanguard certainly felt that the geographical size of Northern Ireland was no major hindrance towards attaining economic security while their later Community of the British Isles pamphlet certainly prefigured institutional arrangements which would be erected between the UK and the Republic of Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement in the form of the British-Irish Council. The independence and federalist proposals certainly caused divisions within the Vanguard support base and indeed some subsequent commentators consider the violent rhetoric of the movement was essentially geared towards influencing Westminster to defend the Union and the rights of British citizens in Ulster as as a least-worst-case-scenario as opposed to realistic secessionist goals.

Alongside local council elections in 1973 and 1977 Ulster Vanguard -  formally the Vanguard Unionist Progressive Party from March 1973  - stood candidates at elections for both the Ulster Assembly of 1973 and the Constitutional Convention of 1975. Likewise for  the 1974 Westminster elections in February and October. Because of the complexity of Unionist disintegration from the beginning of the Troubles it has been difficult to clarify the amount of local councillors pledged to Vanguard but in the larger elections they were certainly able to match or surpass the votes gained by the Reverend Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party.

In June 1973 Vanguard won 11.5% of the vote in elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly with seven seats  at Stormont while three MPs were returned to Westminster at both 1974 elections - leader William Craig in East Belfast, the Reverend Robert Bradford in South Belfast (murdered by the IRA in 1981) and John Dunlop in Mid-Ulster. These MPs thus represented a quarter of Northern Ireland's political representation nationally. A year after the UWC strike the Convention election of June 1975 saw the party surpass its Assembly vote on 12.7% and return 14 members. In comparison the Democratic Unionist Party had only one Westminster MP in this period with Paisley in North Antrim and sent eight and twelve representatives to the Assembly and Convention respectively.

Vanguard Assembly members - elected under the Vanguard Unionist Loyalist Coalition banner - included Craig in North Antrim and Dunlop in Mid-Ulster,  the Canadian-born academic and writer Professor Kennedy Lindsay in South Antrim, Ulster Defence Association leader Glenn Barr in Londonderry, Thomas Carson in Armagh, Cecil Harvey in South Down and Ernest Baird in Fermanagh and South Tyrone

The fourteen Convention members - elected as part of the United Ulster Unionist Council or UUUC coalition - were Craig and Reginald Empey in East Belfast, David Trimble in South Belfast, William Wright and David Allen in North Antrim, Kennedy Lindsay and George Morrison in South Antrim, Thomas Carson and Alister Black in Armagh,  George Green in North Down, Cecil Harvey in South Down, Ernest Baird in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Glen Barr in Londonderry and Robert Overend in Mid-Ulster. Barr and Green had been involved in the planning of the Ulster Workers Council strike as leaders of the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Special Constabulary Association while Trimble and Empey subsequently lead the Ulster Unionist Party in later years. Vanguard Press Officer David Burnside was also to become a Westminster MP for the same party.

The Constitutional Convention which sat between 1975 and 1976 allowed the Northern Ireland parties themselves to engage in debate and consultation without external state involvement and in order to propose a political system that would win the support of the vast majority of the population. With a Unionist majority in place the final Convention report was to recommend an essentially majoritarian construct as opposed to power-sharing - this had already been ruled as inappropriate alongside independence.

During the debates Craig suggested that desperate circumstances warranted the creation of a World War Two-style voluntary coalition with the nationalist SDLP. Although such a creation would have faced perhaps insurmountable hurdles in dealing with ongoing IRA violence the source of the proposal was surprising in the extreme and split the party.  Craig's opening speech at the Convention having noted:

Violence created violence. Sectarian killings...illustrated just how true that was and how depraved people had become...they (politicians) must see to it that this sort of conduct could no longer be perpetuated.

Craig was supported within his Convention team by Trimble and Barr - and indeed claimed the backing of the constituency base - but under the leadership of Ernest Baird a breakaway United Ulster Unionist Party was formed. The Unionist UUUC voted down Craig's proposal in late 1975 and expelled him and the VUPP rump from the umbrella group.

Vanguard would not back the failed 1977 Ulster Unionist Action Council strike supported by the DUP, Baird's UUUM and the UDA while the council election results of that year saw only five Vanguard seats being retained since 1973. Subsequently the VUPP folded as a political party in February 1978 with Craig rejoining the Ulster Unionist Party. Ulster Vanguard continued briefly as a pressure group within the UUP though Craig lost his East Belfast Westminster seat in 1979 by a mere 64 votes to the current First Minister of Northern Ireland Peter Robinson. He furthermore failed to be elected to the 1982 Northern Ireland Assembly while standing directly as a Vanguard Unionist and died in 2011 at the age of 86. He was survived by his German-born wife and two sons.

Craig is a truly intriguing figure in Northern Irish and indeed Irish history if one contrasts his bogeyman roles as Stormont Minister of Home Affairs during the earliest period of the The Troubles, 1974 putschist and Vanguard Fuehrer to the reflective realpolitik of the Constitutional Convention - a seriously overlooked part of Northern Ireland history only academically analysed in depth as recently as 2011.

The Vanguard leader's personal bravery as a former Lancaster rear-gunner in the RAF, his cosmopolitan interest in European issues during his early Unionist career or apparently thoughtful and private nature off the political stage cannot detract from the clear fact that Craig's contribution to Peter Taylor's Loyalists BBC documentary in 1999 suggested no retrospective qualifications whatsoever about the political standpoints he embraced in the late Sixties. This as regards the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and the renaissance of the Irish Republic Army.

Ulster Vanguard in turn - by way of its dramatic political theatre and sense of moment,  striking iconography and symbolism, complex political thought and concrete electoral success - is therefore a unique example in post-war British history of extreme societal fractures generating equally radical political pathways. These developments in turn germinating within a comparatively short time frame, in a party with cross-class appeal and as outside the framework of accepted constitutional norms and even legal compliance.

As every man, woman and child alive in the Belfast and Northern Ireland of 1967 can readily confirm  - the future holds no certainties and often many terrible adventures.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Margaret Thatcher And The Making Of New Britain



This morning in London World City I was unable to touch-out at the underground station near my work since all electricity was down in the ticket office. So I need to remember to do that tonight on the way home otherwise I will lose five pounds sterling in penalty fares.When queuing up at the local supermarket some minutes later to use their self-service check-out machines I was aware of being behind a thirtysomething female who appeared to be wearing pyjama botttoms along with a leather jacket. A work colleague inside the shop corroborated this was the case and not fashion ignorance on my part. Both occurrences reinforcing my belief that I am living in an exciting, aspirational and dynamic global hub bar none.

The person who essentially forged such a society from the putrid fag ash wreckage of Seventies Marxist Great British hell passed away yesterday. The news reports and documentary analysis to be viewed on British television yesterday certainly painted her historical narrative in very broad brushstrokes though it is true to say that Margaret Thatcher's funeral next week will represent a genuine end of an era for British political culture and our national self-regard. Dominic Sandbrook's history of Sixties Britain included commentary on the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965 and an Observer correspondent noting that Britain now had all the political clout and importance of Sweden. The days when one could bring up a comparison of this ilk in such wry and self-deprecating fashion are of course long gone and bitterly departed.

I had two direct interfaces with major milestones in Margaret Thatcher's career by way growing up in North Belfast during the 1980-81 hunger strikes and the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement protests. The nature of British government engagement with both periods of crisis is certainly questionable in hindsight. The prisons dispute alone animated a surge of hatred and alienation between the communities that had hardly been seen to date in the province despite barely qualified civil war between 1971 and 1976. The latter period of civil unrest in the mid-Eighties was certainly the point when many loyalist communities in Greater Belfast commenced radical infrastructural decline that can be seen to this day. The Anglo-Irish Agreement also engendered a literal curse to be placed on Margaret Thatcher's head by the Reverend Ian Paisley from his church pulpit that made Neil Kinnock's famous excoriation of Thatcherism sound like a record request to Ed Stewpot Stewart on Junior Choice.

The genuine long term benefits of Margaret Thatcher's political legacy - as flagged up yesterday across the mainstream media - are difficult to engage with for many people under the age of 50 in modern Britain. This in light of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of hard working people being frozen off the credit-crunched housing market and thrown to the mercy of equally hyperinflated rental outgoings. Or indeed the lack of union membership to protect working conditions, financial capacity for pension contributions or pay rates in general within the private sector. Larry Collins and Tim Atkinson's recent Going South overview of UK economics also underscored the staggering mismanagement of North Sea oil revenues by Conservative administrations - in comparison to recent Norwegian strategies - as being perhaps the most extraordinary act of political ill judgement since World War Two.

Essentially Margaret Thatcher oversaw an unfinished right-wing revolution that left devastating socio-economic fractures across our country. She certainly had the ego and drive to take that revolution much further than her pasty yellowbelly colleagues but the fractures were significant enough for New Labour to arrive in the late Nineties and fill them up with toxic sludge.

All news analysis yesterday would focus on the galling contrast between Thatcher's Britain and Labour's Winter of Discontent. Not being capable of adult rationale in 1979 - being more interested in Sven Hassel pulp novels, Record Mirror or finding a discarded copy of Fiesta behind the local Esso garage - I still find it difficult to conceive of a broader base of social discord, inequality and division being evident then as compared to contemporary times.

Margaret Thatcher certainly scared off the Irish, Yorkshire and Argentinian bogeymen successfully but her contribution to the state of modern Britain today is both direct and terrifying  - a country transformed into a hybrid of The Truman Show and a frozen gulag as managed by bankers for bankers.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Terri Hooley and Good Vibrations - Walls And Bridges



The Good Vibrations movie about the Ulster punk scene received a nationwide cinematic release today across the UK and Ireland.

Six years ago the founder of the Good Vibrations record label in Belfast itself in the late Seventies – Terri Hooley – was the recipient of a letter from former American President Bill Clinton who praised his role in promoting alternatives to violence in Northern Ireland.

Alike the legendary comic-actor James Young and footballer George Best, Hooley’s contribution to the socio-cultural life of the city in those days of now barely conceivable terror and hatred is truly beyond measure. However, to their immense credit, a handful of major performing artists continued to play in Belfast during the peak of the Seventies Troubles such as Horslips, the late Rory Gallagher, Elton John and Cliff Richard.

The first single released on the label was Big Time by Rudi. It was beyond reason that both Rudi and The Outcasts on Good Vibrations, alike The Blades from Dublin in the same period with singles on Reekus such as Downmarket and Hot For You, did not reach a bigger audience across these islands.

A BBC feature article later in 2008 included this magnificent commentary from Hooley: “Good Vibrations was more than just another record shop and label. It enabled young people to believe in the power of self-expression and understanding at a time when society in Northern Ireland was tearing itself apart. We were on the side of the angels. I would gladly have died then for something that l believed then, so for me personally (and l can't speak for anybody else) it really was a time to be proud. But if l had known in 1978 that Belfast was going to become so corporate and the way things were going to turn out, l would have been fighting for a wage-less, money-less, class-less society. Belfast is not about new shopping centres. Belfast is the centre of the universe and if we can solve all our problems, we can solve the problems of the world.”

Interestingly, Hooley’s 2010 autobiography includes reference to a physical run-in with John Lennon in post-Swinging London in the early Seventies over the latter’s strident feelings in support of militant Irish Republicanism. This tieing in with earlier telling commentary on the same matter in Johnny Rogan’s No Surrender biography of Van Morrison and to which many British Beatles fans may wish to remain selectively deaf.

It certainly sounded as if Lennon’s humanitarian instincts did not extend to the British soldiers serving and dieing in Ulster. This ironically so since the overwhelmingly vast majority of them were working class and – as often standing between a final descent into anarchy in the one corner of the United Kingdom that unfortunately included my own street - were considered heroic in the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Lennon's then-fellow British citizens. For it certainly was neither the Baader Meinhof Gang, the Red Brigades nor ETA blowing up my local Esso garage, Spar or Brian's sweet shop in 1972.

Good Vibrations is certainly one of the finest productions of British independent cinema in many years and a sobering reflection upon humanity and passion at a time of true darkness.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Saint Patrick Returns


Many posts ago I made reference to legendary Ulster comedian James Young and how the last years of his professional career in the early Seventies were spent performing in small audience venues across Northern Ireland - ranging from the loyalist Shankill Road to Derry's republican Bogside and with the exact same repertoire in tow. This was due to the May 1971 closure of his Group Theatre in light of the scale of the Troubles and the then fatal dangers of Belfast after dark. Indeed many television documentaries and news analysis of the early Troubles use one particular piece of colour footage of a car bomb explosion in Ormeau Avenue on Bloody Friday - close to the theatre in Bedford Street - in a generic fashion.

The ninth and last James Young album to be released in his lifetime was 1973's The Young Ulsterman - recorded at the Group on one solitary night alone when it was briefly reopened for this purpose. Young's repertoire was the usual mix of fast paced comedy, political satire and thought-provoking pathos. The standard introduction touched base with the realities of a Belfast at war and how his wee street, home city and broader society had changed beyond recognition for both him and his mammy.

It ended with a moving call for reflection and friendliness after five years of political turmoil and terrorism which had defiled the physical beauty of the North of Ireland - and its shared folk culture - and threw the Ulster working classes at each other's throats. Indeed Young's final single release in July 1971 on Emerald Records - the month preceding the introduction of internment which pushed Ulster over from barely contained civil disorder into qualified civil war - had been God Bless The Working Man backed with I Believe In Ulster.

Saint Patrick Returns on The Young Ulsterman album was also portrayed dramatically during his Saturday Night BBC television series of October 1972 to March 1974. The patron saint's return trip to his beloved Ireland turns out to be not a happy one despite his anticipation at seeing all his favorite people again like Danny Boy and Kitty of Kilarney. After being hassled by the security forces at every turn in the hunt for guns and explosives - and ending up in the middle of a Protestant counter-demonstration against a Catholic civil rights march which he had intitally assumed was nothing more than a Welcome Home celebration - Patrick decides that his legacy stands for naught and that it was obviously time to recommence his Christian mission on the island.

So in honour of today's Christian feast day - and in memory too of a lone figure who in the midst of Ulster's darkest days at least tried to replicate the Christian message of consideration for one's fellow man through the voice of comedy and satire - here is The History Lesson from that last ever night of tears and laughter at the Group Theatre Belfast. The author is unknown.

The following year - on Tuesday 9th July 1974 - the hearse carrying the body of James Young would pause outside the theatre on Bedford Street on the journey from his home in Ballyhalbert on County Down's Ards peninsula to the crematorium at Roselawn where George Best's grave lies today.

The plaque outside the Group Theatre as unveiled in 1999 notes: The citizens of Belfast gratefully acknowlege the contribution made by Ulster comedian James Young (1918-1974) to the life and humour of the city. He regarded the Group Theatre as his home throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

God bless Our Jimmy and God bless the Working Man - may both parties rest in peace.

A Dutchman called Prince William, and an Englishman King James, fell out and started feuding and calling other names.

It was for the throne of England but, for reasons not quite clear, they came across to Ireland to do their fighting here.

They had Sarsfield, they had Schomberg, there was horse and foot and guns and they landed up in Carrick with 1000 Lambeg drums.

They had lots of Dutch and Frenchmen and battlions and platoons of Russians and of Prussians and Bulgarian Dragoons.

And they politely asked the Irish if they'd like to come and join and the whole affair was settled at the Battle of the Boyne.

Then William went to London and James went off to France and the whole kaboosh left Ireland without a backward glance.

And the poor abandoned Irish said goodbye to King and Prince...and went on with the fighting and they've been at it ever since!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kenneth Williams - "Why Do You Smile When You Think About Earls Court?"


When travelling into the West End from the north of London at weekends my bus route goes down Albany Street which stretches from Camden Town's interface with Regents Park to the junction of Marylebone Road and Great Portland Street. It thus passes close to Osnaburgh Street where the comic actor Kenneth Williams lived with his mother for the last six years of his life prior to his death as the result of a possible accidental overdose of painkillers in April 1988. He was born nearby in Kings Cross and the actual building in Osnaburgh Street was demolished in 2007.

The 2010 Born Brilliant biography by Christopher Stevens is a marvellous companion to the often outrageous diary and letters collection edited by Russell Davies while I still recall with great fondness David Benson's moving one-man show about Williams - Think No Evil Of Us: My Life With Kenneth Williams - at the Hammersmith Lyric many years ago and which indeed is still performed to this day.

An incredibly witty and cerebral habitue of Seventies and Eighties talk shows and variety, Williams was most famous for his appearance in 25 of the original 29 Carry On movies (from Carry on Sergeant to Carry On Emmanuelle) and for portraying the character of Sandy in the BBC radio series Round The Horne between 1965 and 1968.

Julian (played by Hugh Paddick) and Sandy were two out of work gay actors in the series and appeared in sketches in most episodes alongside straight man Kenneth Horne. As usually set in a Chelsea-based business scenario the characters' double entendres at Horne's expense were versed in the camp slang of polari - this at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. Such usage included "bona" for good, "drag" for clothes and "vada" for to look etc.  In one episode the writers even managed to navigate Sandy's saucy commentary on Julian's skills at the piano past BBC management since "a miracle of dexterity at the cottage upright" was not seen as obviously referring to male erections in public toilets.

A common thread through the sketches was Sandy dragging out salacious details about Julian's private life with the admonition "Go on - purge yourself" though at series' end it turned out that the couple were in fact married to female partners all along. They represented however the first openly gay males in British popular culture up to that point.

Sandy and Julian's underground language was joyously celebrated in 1990 in Morrissey's Piccadilly Palare - a song which, in light of Waterloo Sunset's current relevance to modern times being equatable to Protestant and Catholic children skipping hand in hand around Eleventh Night bonfires in Belfast, may well be considered the greatest song about our edgy and most certainly unromantic national capital. This despite not being included in a recent hour long and pedestrian BBC retrospective on London songs. Morrissey also mentioned the city in  Hairdresser On Fire and also  London, Half a Person and Panic while with The Smiths.

Modern London in reality is now enshrouded with stasis and stress for much of its working population and this at a point where projections suggest that by 2020 the average house price will reach half a million pounds. Such grotesque inflation being unaffected by the fact that a broken (and often sectorally pulverised) employment market is complementing the stagnant (and often decrepit) property market or that the city is experiencing lifestyle-deflating demographic shifts rarely seen in peacetime or wartime anywhere in Europe. Hence the treading water sensation many people have - whether employed or otherwise - of feeling trapped in the dressing room while everybody else is out on the pitch playing the game.

Piccadilly Palare includes various pieces of appropriate polari slang, hints towards nefarious sexual goings-on (for a price) and a wonderful and eternally relevant comi-dramatic climax in:

So why do you smile when you think about Earls Court?
Why do you cry when you think about the battles you've lost and won?
It may all end tomorrow but it could go on forever...in which case I'm DOOMED.

Earls Court was of course a centre for the London gay community  between the Fifties and Seventies with one particularly infamous pub - The Colherne - located nearby towards Brompton Cemetery. This drinking  establishment was also mentioned in the track Hanging Around by The Stranglers. An unreleased version of the Morrissey song includes one verse referencing London's grim rental hell - "A cold water room, it's not much I know, but for now it's where I belong" - and extra lines of alienation in the playout insisting "I won't be home tomorrow...no doubt...no doubt".

The musical legacy of Morrissey - as a literal life partner for millions of Britons over the past three decades - truly relates to Richard Ellman's final words in his 1987 biography of Oscar Wilde which noted "his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing and so right." Williams too remaining another reflection of a uniquely British, unforgettable and truly multifaceted talent - how tragic to think of his London now so changed as to be beyond recognition in character, atmosphere and presence.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Deconstructing Soho - London South of Holburn


Two weekends ago I visited London's West End to watch Quentin Tarantino's mighty Django Unchained movie. Afterwards I was yet again amazed by the sheer amount of people in the Soho area as late as a quarter to midnight on Saturday night in light of the number of closed pubs and restaurants in the vicinity due to the ludicrous British licensing laws and the continually broken London Underground connections.

Alike Covent Garden - though fundamentally unlike historic literary Fitzrovia to the north - the atmosphere of this wonderful area seems to be undermined year upon year by the increasing level of tourists and suburban (in both senses of the word) human traffic through it in modern times.

The following day in North West London in turn I witnessed similarly extraordinary examples of crowds in a renowned early 19th Century public house in one particular world famous suburb once associated in days of yore with bohemian and political intellectual appeal yet now linked with futuristic property prices.

Some postings ago I mentioned Soho in light of a BBC documentary about the British folk scene in the Sixties and footage used therein of the German-Jewish refugee Judith Piepe walking through a wonderful twilight Soho on her way to the Les Cousins basement club in Greek Street. There were also clips of her at Bunjies Coffee House in Litchfield Street off Charing Cross Road.

Only yesterday in turn on youtube I watched a great atmospheric clip of cine-footage from the Soho of the Eighties placed against a soundtrack of Soft Cell's driving A Man Could Get Lost. Some public commentary underneath noted:

Brings back such memories of a once great city - a London that has now vanished completely...

Brilliant upload. Super 8 ey? tidy, well tidy. Fucking magnificent in fact, and Soho when I was in my late teens and early twenties, pervy as fuck, smell of fish everywhere. Glasshouse Stores pub on Brewer Street with a pint of Sam Smith Old Brewery Nut Brown from a proper pint bottle. Tidy times...

Yes, I know, there are about 7 Starbucks. Loved the Italian sandwich bars where you could sip a cappuccino, have a tuna melt and watch the people for hours....I see no reason to ever return to London now...

Soho was originally grazing farmland until the early 16th Century when it was acquired by Henry VIII as a royal park - many believe that the name derived from a hunting cry for smaller prey. By the later part of that century immigrants began to settle in the district and it became known as London's French Quarter. It never became an area for the rich and fashionable alike nearby Bloomsbury to the east or Marylebone to the west and indeed by the middle-half of the 19th Century it was associated mainly with prostitutes and the music hall. It was in the early part of the last century and right through to the Sixties that it became firmly synonymous with bohemians, artists and intellectuals.

Soho - as an area generally considered bordered by Oxford Street, Leicester Square, Charing Cross Road and Regent Street - has mainly been associated in modern times with the music and sex industries alongside significant importance for the theatre world and cinema. With regard to music the Club Eleven on Great Windmill Street was regarded as the home of modern jazz in the Fifties while London's first skiffle club was also opened on Wardour Street in the early part of the same decade. The legendary 2i's Coffee Bar on Old Compton Street arrived in 1956 and Ronnie Scott's in 1959. The Marquee Club in Wardour Street - future home of The Who's Maximum RnB - also opened in the same period while Denmark Street off Charing Cross Road is still an important part of the capital's music culture.

The area has of course been associated with adult-orientated financial transactions for over two centuries with the Windmill Theatre providing motionless nudity between 1931 and 1964 and over one hundred strip clubs in business there by the Sixties.  London's first sex cinema opened in 1960 in Old Compton Street while the infamous Harrison Marks ran a studio for glamour photography from Gerrard Street in Chinatown until the late Sixties.

Nearly sixty sex shops were in existence by the mid-Seventies though a radical decline had taken place by the Eighties due to police and council crackdowns. By the time of my own arrival in the capital in 1987 there was - in stark contrast to the present day - a significant amount of peep shows, Lola-style clip joints, general soliciting, strip clubs, blue movies, bed shows and shrink-wrapped bootleg porn magazines on offer. These days the sex shops are indeed a listless and empty reflection of past times off the back of the digital revolution and ironically - given the public school makeup of our current whiskerless and dodgy political leadership - even a well known spanking bookshop on Old Compton Street has ceased trading.

Perhaps the tragic 1979 suicide of beautiful British porn queen Mary Millington before her scheduled appearance in Emmanuelle in Soho (as originally conceived as a gangster thriller Funeral in Soho) was indeed a portentous and fateful omen regarding the slow and steady decline ahead for London's once-heaving red light district. Marianne Faithful starred as a middle-aged housewife turned Soho glory hole service provider in the much-panned Irina Palm six years ago while the area still remains a major entertainment centre for the London gay community.

Much has changed in Soho during my time here in London - and indeed as discussed in the early part of last year in a particularly interesting British newspaper article. Hence Jimmy's basement Greek restaurant has shut alongside the political bookshop on Charing Cross Road, The Astoria music venue, The Intrepid Fox pub, St Martin's art college, the condom shop in Rupert Street, Sportspages bookshop on Charing Cross Road, The Marquee itself, the left-handed shop, the Moulin Cinema in Great Windmill Street, Wheelers fish restaurant, the Helter Skelter rock bookshop on Denmark Street, Bunjies Coffee House, the foreign language bookshop on Great Marlborough Street, several second hand record shops, the sausage butcher on Berwick Street and even the Raymond Revuebar as the World Centre of Erotic Entertainment in 2004.

As for the past calendar year itself - and aside from the aforementioned demographic swamping of the district at weekends - the pedestrianisation to be seen at the end of Brewer Street, the ongoing Biblical works at Tottenham Court Road tube station, the horrific second world-condition of the eastern half of Oxford Street and the depletion of so much character from the once bookshop-lined Charing Cross Road all suggest that the character of the area may indeed be undergoing a period of radical and historic change for the worst.

The intersecting background of modern London's house price hyperinflation - to a degree that has left property in its ten most expensive boroughs surpassing the worth of housing stock in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined - and utterly extraordinary population surges are surely shortening the odds that physical changes in the fundamental fabric of Soho's streetscapes can be anything but a foregone transition to safe commercial Carnaby Street-style banality and expensive self-congratulatory travel guide fodder.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Red Riding - Murder By The Throat


An interesting article in a British broadsheet newspaper recently seemed to genuinely break cover within the mainstream media on the scale of demographic changes in Greater London - and their radical and irreversible social repercussions. The origins and nature of such historic population redistribution being suggestive of a fundamental breach of the very social contract between citizen and nation-state upon which we are lead to believe Western social democracies used to function in the good old days.

In another context of changing times - and our faltering sense of place - this week has seen the death of Malcolm Brodie who was Northern Ireland's main football journalist during the Fifties, Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Brodie, who was born in Scotland and arrived in Ulster as a child evacuee, covered 14 World Cup finals in his career - these including three with Northern Ireland teams in Sweden, Spain and Mexico. Brodie was sports editor of the Belfast Telegraph - the sister Ireland's Saturday Night evening sports newspaper ceased publication in 2008 due to dropping circulation figures because of the digital revolution. It had been first published in 1894 while in 1896 two versions were introduced - one for the North and one for the South of Ireland. It was known as "The Pink" up to 1917 because of the paper colour and generally throughout Northern Ireland thereafter as "The Ulster".

Also with regard to football, and in light of an earlier post about Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, the British author David Peace's next book will consider the legendary Scot's professional career at Huddersfield and on the Mersey. Talking of Red Or Dead Peace has noted: "I have written about corruption, I've written about crime, I've written about bad men and I've written about the demons. But now I've had enough of the bad men and the demons. Now I want to write about a good man and a saint - a Red Saint".

Yorkshire-born Peace's previous two books were crime stories set in post-war Japan while earlier works included his GB84 portrait of the bitter and devastating miners' strike and The Damned United about Brian Clough's brief 44-day residency at Elland Road in charge of Super Leeds.

Prior to all these was Peace's extraordinary and utterly unique Red Riding quartet - set between 1974 and 1983 - which was subsquently made into three television crime dramas starring Sean Bean, David Morrissey and Andrew Garfield. The narrative thread of the second and fourth volumes interweaves between several individual perspectives to hypnotic effect and the plotline overlaps throughout with regard to the Yorkshire Ripper and other northern nightmares.

Only a writer like Peace with such incredulous capacity for timing and tone could emplace a scene as hilarious as the corpulent solicitor John Piggott's pissed tour around the pubs of Leeds with his mates in a landscape of random violence, unspeakable perversion, urban decay, rank racism, loveless sex, functioning alcoholism, institutional corruption and a darkness bordering on the occult.

Red Riding was truly a stunning look at a vanished Britain then splintering upon the Class War and industrial decline yet a country still fully wedded to its unique culture, worth and history. Peace thus laid down a burning marker for British fiction with these works that has been seldom surpassed in its unfettered brutality, unrelenting pace and retrospective style.