Friday, May 12, 2017

Stewart Parker's High Pop


This month sees the release of Hopdance by Ireland's Lilliput Press - the Ulster playwright Stewart Parker's autobiographical novel that he had worked upon in the Seventies and Eighties but was uncompleted at the time of his death from cancer in 1988. It is in turn centered on his experiences of having a leg amputated from the same disease while at university in Belfast.

The book is edited by Marylinn Richtarik whose long comprehensive overview of the artist's life I have just completed reading this evening. Alike Johnny Rogan's biography of Van Morrison the work is grounded on genuinely fascinating narratives of Irish social history alongside the profound changes affecting the commercial constructs of stage performance, broadcast media and cinema production during his lifetime.

I was very lucky to have seen Parker's final play Pentecost at the Lyric Theatre in London's Hammersmith in 1989 - it remains for me the finest piece of drama I have seen on stage in my life. The eleventh hour political detente witnessed in Ulster following the death of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness certainly resonates with the religous undertones of the play's melancholy denouement. Set during the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike - yet the most successful industrial stoppage of the European working class since the Second World War - it in turn reflected the desperate zero-sum game political turmoil in Northern Ireland in the wake of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Parker is remembered in the main for his stage plays Spokesong and Catchpenny Twist, the BBC Play for Today productions of Iris in the Traffic Ruby in the Rain and The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner, the award-winning ITV Playhouse feature I'm A Dreamer Montreal, London Weekend Television's Blue Money with Tim Curry, the Channel 4 series Lost Belongings and his extraordinary Northern Star telling of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion leader Henry Joy McCracken's life and execution. Further to his work being so heavily grounded in Irish history - and the perennial cultural fractures that impinged so strongly on community and personal relationships - Richtarik's biography also noted further projects that never saw dramatic fruition including works on the 19th Century Land League campaign and the internment of Allied and Axis servicemen in Eire during the 1939-45 Emergency.

Will just take the opportunity here to especially flag up Parker's High Pop rock and folk album reviews for the Irish Times which were compiled some time ago by Belfast's Lagan Press. This is an utterly exceptional collection of vintage music journalism - Parker's reviews being tight, funny, enthusiastic and highly informed. It includes many albums recorded by Parker's personal favorites which clearly included Steely Dan, The Band and Joni Mitchell but the critques cover a huge amount of artists and styles in the 1970-76  period from The Incredible String Band to Dr Feelgood. His reviews of Lennon's Some Time in New York City and Dylan's Self-Portrait in particular are utterly unreserved. This is an incredibly warm, interesting and witty book in itself and merits many a return reference - do find a space for this on your bookshelf if you are a music fan of the period.

Parker grew up in Sydenham in Protestant East Belfast facing the modern day George Best Airport. His funeral took place there too though he had lived the latter part of his life in South West London and previously in Edinburgh. Parker's ashes were to be scattered from the Larne-Stranraer ferry in the middle of the Irish Sea - an irreverent yet deeply symbolic farewell to the restless natives of Britain and Ireland from a true radical and a man of profound intelligence and heart.

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