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.