Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Saturday Buddha at Christmas - Happy Xmas Belfast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However at the same time to have been fated to grow up in the Sixties and Seventies in such a physically beautiful country and to share one's youth with the warm,  grounded and courageous people of Belfast and Northern Ireland of those days was nonetheless a rare blessing.

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the nationalists of a free Ireland:

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

As for the Northern Ireland Unionists in Belfast:

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

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

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

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

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

The poet's poet whose profound and unique literary talent was forged upon the geographical and cultural streetscapes and landscapes of Belfast, Ulster, Ireland and Britain. Those murderous fractures amongst the people of these islands which commenced so shortly after his death being so utterly heartbreaking in the sheer scale of unadulterated and bewildering pointlessness.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Jews In Ulster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Europa Hotel Belfast

Belfast Europa Hotel @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History shall be the judge of these words:

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

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Norman Wisdom - The Bulldog Breed

Norman Wisdom @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mary Millington - Another Girl Another Planet

Mary Millington @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

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

Alex Hurricane Higgins @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Roger Nowell - The Skipper

Roger Nowell The Skipper @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

RIP Skipper from all of us.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Sham 69 - Tell Us The Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 15, 2011

Small Faces - Filthy Rich

Small Faces @ Saturday Buddha

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

With the Small Faces' Decca and Immediate material now compiled together across several impressive compilations it is much easier to appreciate the electicism, power and wit of their musical output from 1965 to 1969 on such tracks as Shake, Sorry She's Mine, All Or Nothing, My Mind's Eye, Just Passing, Baby Don't You Do it, Tell Me (Have You Ever Seen Me), Green Circles, Get Yourself Together, I'm Only Dreaming, Tin Soldier, Afterglow, Song of a Baker, Rollin' Over and Donkey Rides A Penny A Glass.

Alike The Beatles and The Rolling Stones in 1963 and 1965 in Belfast  - and The Who in Lisburn in 1966 - the Small Faces also played in Northern Ireland. This was at North Belfast's beautiful Art-Deco Floral Hall on 23rd June 1967 and then later at the Ards Pop Festival in Newtownards on 5th July 1968 with support from The Soul Foundation, Mystics and The Cousins.

This performance in County Down at Ards football ground on Portaferry Road by one of the greatest of all British rock groups took place against the background of garnering political radicalism and reaction in the country - there would not be another summer of peace for over a quarter century ahead. Two days previously the Derry Housing Action Committee staged a sit-down protest during the opening of the Craigavon Bridge extension over the River Foyle leading to 17 arrests while three months to the day after the concert would come the fateful RUC reaction to another civil rights demonstration in Derry that can be seen as the second of the three defining moments when the Ulster Troubles commenced in earnest. The Floral Hall - so beautifully situated in the grounds of the zoo underneath Cave Hill and overlooking Belfast Lough - would shut in 1972 as the city transformed into a fearful ghost town and still lies derelict today.

The Small Faces split up on the last night of 1968 during a concert at Alexandra Palace in North London - they had made little financial gain from their career due to particularly malign managerial stratagems that are referenced frequently to this day within industry legend. Although the subsequent hard rock, blues and boogie of Humble Pie and The Faces alike have their attractions, it still remains an interesting counterfactual about how their music could have progressed had they had stayed together into the Seventies in their original lineup. This particularly so when listening to material as strong as the final Autumn Stone, Red Balloon or Call It Something Nice from the provisional 1862 album - this named after the date inscribed on the church hall beside Marriott's Essex cottage.

The group briefly reformed in the late-Seventies though bass player Ronnie Lane only stayed for a re-recording of the Itchycoo Park single - Rick Wills replacing him for the Playmates and 78 In The Shade albums. I have only heard the latter work which, while not wildy memorable, does contain some decent material and with Marriott still in fine voice. Best of all, this last ever Small Faces album concludes with the completely and utterly overlooked Filthy Rich - this was also to be their final single release. Here Marriott's unrestrained Cockney music hall geezer howling - similar to that on Lazy Sunday, Rene or Happy Days Toytown - brings their career to a wonderfully ribald, two-fingered and pisstaking closure.

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

I wish that I was famous like me best mates are
I'd build a dirty great house and have half a dozen cars
A private yacht with sunken baths

If I was filthy rich I'd build me own filthy bitch
She'd have elegance, class, with Mitzi Gaynor's arse...
and Jane Mansfield's posthumous tits

Every week I'd buy the magazines
I'm cuttin out the pictures of them Hollywood queens
With jam tartlets and silicone bits
I'm with Jackie in the khazi in her birthday suit
With Bianca and her fella gettin pissed as newts
I'd have Italian suits and handmade boots
If I was filthy rich....

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Boyne Water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Steptoe And Son - Oil Drum Lane Dialectics

Steptoe and Son @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ulster 71 - Botanic Gardens, South Belfast, May-September 1971

Ulster 71 @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Critical Mass - The Ulster Defence Regiment

Ulster Defence Regiment @ Saturday Buddha

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Come To Ulster - Growing Up in Seventies Northern Ireland

The Smithfield Market and Gresham Street area of central Belfast is now a mere sex shop-pockmarked shell of the shell it already was when I was growing up in the late Seventies and early Eighties. The apparently fantastic market itself had been destroyed in a terrorist bombing at an early stage of the Troubles.

I do remember though going into the pet shop back then and seeing an elderly and thoroughly uncuddly simian creature huddled up in the fireplace behind the counter. On one occasion it was possibly smoking a roll-up but this could be my memory playing tricks on me. Further on up the street was the brilliant Harry Hall's second hand book shop with a wide range of volumes for sale including a particularly good Irish history selection I recall - many of antiquarian note. There was also a well-thumbed pile of second hand jazz mags for purchase by any interested gentleman peruser. Around the corner in turn was the alternative Just Books with a notice displayed prominently in the window stating that it reserved the right to refuse to serve anybody in uniform. I honestly wonder how your typically posh style or culture journalist could spin this kind of street life for modern day weekend supplements?

On one Belfast forum a while back somebody was recalling his days working in the area in the Seventies as a delivery driver. He remembered once having to park his goods vehicle into a particularly awkward space. When hailing a passing old age pensioner for assistance with the plea “Watch me reverse?” he was met with the reply “Why…do you think you’re good at it?”

In recent posts I have mentioned both George Best and James Young. When Best was on ITV's 1982 World Cup panel there was one moment during the programming when they showed a video of one of the Northern Ireland campaign songs for the tournament in Spain – Yer Man by Sammy Mackie. This entertainer – who performed in the guise of a typical fan and behaved like a plebian imbecile - made Ally’s Tartan Army singer Andy Cameron sound like a particularly young, fragile and wistful Nick Drake. On completion of the atrocity, and on returning to the studio, presenter Brian Moore awaited Best’s feedback. With not a solitary indication of cultural discomfort Best casually replied “Sure they’re all like that over there”.

As for James Young, I remember being told once how he absolutely loved to embarrass latecomers to his Group Theatre shows. One night while in full flow during the opening monologue a couple entered the auditorium and made their way to their seats. Young, on spotting the new arrivals and the fact that the gentleman was balding, joked “How are you doin’ Curly?” to be met with the witty rejoinder “Go and fuck yourself”.

Life is never easy on an ethnic frontier but rain and bigotry and everything aside….it wasn’t the worst place in the world.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Stuart Adamson - Open Sound

Stuart Adamson @ Saturday Buddha

I was lucky enough to catch a few of the major punk and New Wave groups live in concert at the time though deeply regret missing the only Belfast concert by The Skids in October 1980. The impenetrable vocals may have had the same esoteric quality that required subtitling on Peter Mullan’s extraordinary Neds movie but they produced a mighty and utterly original sound all the same across Scared to Dance, Days in Europa, The Absolute Game and Joy. Their particular legend will essentially grow and grow for a very long time ahead.

In comparison the musical output of guitarist Stuart Adamson’s subsequent Big Country has been qualified in hindsight both by the questionable fashion styling of the Eighties and some terribly mis-produced material in their mid-career period. Nevertheless their two original albums The Crossing and Steeltown incorporated genuinely universal themes of maintaining self-respect and hope in the middle of struggle and deflation. Likewise Big Country produced a vital, worthy and contemporary commentary on the violent and brutal death of industrial Britain - surely the single most important historical factor underpinning the self-perpetuating social meltdown of today and the staggering disconnectivity with the recent past we can sense nowhere moreso than in our national capital. Having seen them live on five occasions across the British Isles I feel to this day that they were also the greatest live act of the Eighties.

Adamson’s December 2001 suicide has unequivocally cast an unbearably sad shadow across some of his later songs such as You Dreamer, Alone, Dive Into Me and particularly My Only Crime. Still the first overview of his career last year from Allan Glen, despite causing some considerable ructions within the residual fanbase, is a long overdue study of a hugely important figure in British popular music and an artist whose work truly deserves reappraisal.

Stuart Adamson certainly had huge pride in his own roots within both the Celtic littoral of the United Kingdom and industrial Britain alike. Hence when The Skids were asked by a record company at one point for the title for a forthcoming compilation he replied “There's no argument over what it's called. It'll be called Dunfermline - or it won't be released “.

Such words of faith, passion and a true belonging have all but disappeared now from our British folk memory.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

James Young - "The Real Ireland"

Our Jimmy @ Saturday Buddha

Some typically patronising Hollywood fare dished up yesterday by the American President in the Irish Republic for the poor who never got away.

Reminds me of a scene from James Young's early Seventies Saturday Night TV series on BBC Northern Ireland when Hank and Mary Lou Effincracker arrive in the terraced Terence O'Neill Steet in South Belfast in search of "the real Ireland". They knock on Lily McCondriac's door in search of leprechauns in her yard to be told that the only thing in her yard is the IRA, the UDA and the British Army...and that all the "leprecorns" died swimming to America.

Young is such a unique figure yet sadly almost forgotten now outside the remit of certain older Ulster generations. The owner of the Group Theatre, his one man shows commenced in the mid-to-late Sixties and his albums outsold The Beatles in Northern Ireland. These contained a mixture of comedy songs, sketches, straight stand-up and monologues.

The monologues in particular focus on life, death, poverty and bigotry in industrial Belfast and - although perhaps overly sentimental to the modern ear - are an incredible mixture of pathos, humour and reflection. His timing and ability to invert sectarianism into the ludicrousness it ultimately represents is impeccable.

Even when the Group Theatre closed down in the early Seventies due to the scale of violence he took his one man show seperately to each divided community - while performing the exact same material - right through to his death in his mid-fifties on 5th July 1974 in North Belfast on the way to a friend's funeral.

In the midst of such a testosterone-driven city Young certainly stood out that's for sure. I have an aunt in Australia who can remember him out "shapping" for his "messages" in Donegall Pass in his house slippers and wheeling his wee basket behind him.

Another problem to an extent while listening to Young these days was that he did have a certain statist conception of Northern Ireland in that - albeit unintentionally according to the social norms of the time within a Protestant community considering itself historically "under siege" - Catholics perhaps were construed as still essentially "the other" within his material. It is difficult to avoid this and I say that as a huge admirer of his work.

Nevertheless in the depths of truly terrible times he was one of the rare voices in civic society cautioning reason, rapprochment and the acceptence of a shared identity of sorts.

The BBC series of 1972 and 1973 - which always ended with Young encouraging the Ulster people "Wid yiz stap fightin'" - obviously was produced on a micro-budget and the comedy songs are hideously dated in the main.

However some of his most famous monologues still available on CD have certainly stood the test of time: Why I Am Here, Slum Clearance, We Emigrated, Wee Davy, I Married A Papish, Salute to Belfast, The History Lesson, The Stranger, I Believe In Ulster, The Oul Black Man, The Feud, This Is Us and the final and incredibly moving We're Here For Such A Little Time.

Young's comic talent, warmth and humanity allow us glimpses into a lost Ulster society and a now decimated industrial urban culture. With only two books having considered his career to date - and that including a posthumous overview by his partner Jack Hudson - he is a criminally overlooked figure in British and Irish social history.

Monday, May 23, 2011

George Best - The Torch In The Infinite

George Best @ Saturday Buddha

The visit of the Queen to Dublin's Garden of Remembrance last week naturally focused attention on various matters of residual moral import. This by way of the civilian and military victims of IRA terrorism in the modern conflict and consideration of what particularly radical Republican legends of yore would have felt about such an historic display of royal respect in a still-partitioned island.

Either way the endgame choreography has unequivocally reached final closure against the lunatic continuity of a dissident threat on one side and the long threatened civilianization of remaining Loyalist groups on the other - the delay in the latter strata of conflict transformation seems to be completely gauged to keeping one local Northern Ireland security journalist in employment into perpetuity.

Yesterday in turn would have been George Best's 65th birthday. Best, as one of the most individually gifted personalities in global social history and with a charismatic appeal that could only be replicated again on celluloid, unequivocally gave all the people of Ulster something to be proud of in the darkest days of the Troubles when there was NOTHING.

Days of bloodshed, anger, fear, betrayal, suspicion, hatred, mass murder and appallingly parochial political mediocrity. As one poster on a tribute forum to Best once noted, tens of thousands of Northern Ireland people who lived through the Troubles were truly gifted with self-respect within themselves and from outside parties which he alone forged by the man he was in the midst of absolute blanket societal collapse.

You are not missing much down here George but you left us way too soon.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Stiff Little Fingers - Alter Your Native Land

Stiff Little Fingers @ Saturday Buddha

People are sayin honest things...we were just tired of all the shit that your ma and da tell you...it's a load of balls....look what its done for this country...2000 people dead for what.....I mean who wants a united Ireland....who wants to be in a United Kingdom or anything...it makes no odds to me like....I'm still standing at the corner every night and goin down to the Harp Bar - John T Davis' Shell Shock Rock (1979)

Saw Stiff Little Fingers tonight at The Forum in London's Kentish Town - nearly 30 years since the first time I saw them in George Best City. Ali McMordie looks like Billy Wright's twin and the audience resembled an English Defence League disco or the post-production party on This Is England. Pretty mighty stuff to come from your home postcode though let's face it.

Time to put it in the past and fly safe home back to Belfast - Picadilly Circus (1981)