Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Roger Nowell - The Skipper

Cornish Fisherman Roger Nowell, The Skipper, BBC Documentary

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 Roger 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, Jimmy Pursey, Hersham Boys
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 the live appearances of Sham 69  - 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, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane

I have recently finished reading Paolo Hewitt and John Hellier's magnificent All Too Beautiful biography of Steve Marriott of the Small Faces and Humble Pie 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

William Prince of Orange, Northern Ireland, Battle of the Boyne

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 at the Boyne 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.