Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Jimmy Savile - The Halloween Roadshow

Jimmy Savile

 And so our national broadcaster's flagship news and current and affairs documentary has now transmitted a forensic and shame-faced enquiry into the editorial failings of the corporation's weeknight news analysis programme and their decision to drop an expose of teenage rampager Sir Jimmy Jangles and his industrial fiddling.

The various glowing tributes shown upon Savile's death in counterpoise to the grim truth were most certainly examples of  base and shameless media manipulation and let alone with regard to a subject whose worst-case scenario outplay as it devolves may not be the kind of matter to discuss with your maiden aunt.

Scary no-fucking-nonsense northern hard man Sir Jimmy certainly gauged the soft white southern middle class, suburban, nerdish, semi-feudal, class-ridden, po-faced, nepotistic, faux-jolly, sneering, colonial, oddball, drink-sodden, pompous, margarine-bland, backslapping and smug working culture at the BBC to a tee and acted accordingly with help of some selectively blind eyeballs that are now luxuriating in the cosy warmth of public-funded pensions.

The only redeeming factor in this whole sordid mess being the fact that the greatest television show of all on the BBC in the Seventies was an American import anyway with regard to Phil Silvers' Sgt Bilko and his japes and scams at Fort Baxter and Camp Fremont for CBS.

Either way, and surpassing even the dynamics of our spiv economy and Ponzi-housing market, this is surely a new low in the uniquely awful social dissolution of our country into a moral desert.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Jimmy Savile - The Fall Of The House Of Fab

Jimmy Savile

Phil Mac Giolla Bhain's Downfall was an analysis of the death of Glasgow Rangers football club set against the clear background of the failure of the mainstream Scottish media to focus on the club's Olympian financial problems. Bhain notes with regard to his own blog's crusade to provide accurate financial data on the matter for public consumption and indeed the radical new dispensation of our times:

The digital revolution, like all such paradigm shifts, is no respecter of tradition or reputation. Revolutions are by their nature convulsive events, releasing such a torrent of pent-up energy that they destroy that which had previously seemed timeless and immovable.

And hence into the most disastrous fortnight in the history of our national broadcaster and the household name of Sir Jimmy Jangles that may well be engraved on its tombstone.

The revelations now firestorming their way across the digital networks of the world throw a grim light on both unsavoury sexual mores of the Sixties and Seventies and the astounding notion that the most incomprehensible urban legends and folk myths of our country's social history were based on literal fact and accepted wisdom after all - this as aided by institutional failings of both criminal dimension and Herculean proportion.

And so another treasured memory of British childhood - the annual joyous thumb through the Seventies Christmas Radio Times for the golden hours of family entertainment ahead in our frost-kissed and beloved island home - heads towards the same old overflowing maggoty dustbin of historical sorrow, loss and shame.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Ulster Day 1912 - King's Rebels And The Road To The Somme

Ulster Day, 1912, UVF, Ireland, Belfast, Battle of the Somme

Last weekend in Belfast the Ulster Day or Ulster Covenant Day parade commemorations blessedly passed off in peace. The 100th anniversary of an occasion when the most British people in Great Britain and the British Empire threatened to take on the might of the British Army and the British State to stay British.

The possibility of political stability ever evolving off the back of a successful Home Rule bill implementation has been discussed in a recent post and of course the fateful and flawed course of self-determination that the Northern State played out for half a century prior to 1972 needs no further qualification by way of its violent denouement. The historical importance of 1912 within British social history however remains unequivocal.

The end of the House of Lords veto with the passing of the Parliament Act of 1911 had lead to the introduction of a constitutionally unassailable third Home Rule Bill in 1912. In Ulster the economic gulf with the rest of Ireland had increased substantially since the start of the century with the Lagan Valley now forming an integral part of a great commercial triangle along with Clydeside and Merseyside. Unionist leaders stressed how the constitution had been sold out to an electoral numbers game, that the various Land Acts had solved so many long-term Irish grievances and that the bill’s limitations on the Home Rule parliament’s financial independence could not be squared with any final satisfaction of nationalist demands.

The propaganda of the Union Defence League and British League for the Defence of Ulster on the mainland accompanied a British Covenant organised by Lord Milner that garnered two million signatures while Colonel T.E. Hickman MP was busy recruiting English army officers to cross the Irish Sea and fight for Ulster. Support would also be received from the Scots-Irish diaspora in North America, Australasia and South Africa.

Dubliner Sir Edward Carson, convinced of the sincerity of the Ulster position by a parade of 50,000 loyalists at Craig’s East Belfast home of Craigavon on 23rd September 1911, would threaten to set up a provisional government for the Protestant province of Ulster. Fervent encouragement was then given in turn by the Canadian-born Conservative Party leader Bonar Law in speeches at Balmoral in Belfast in April 1912 and at Blenheim Palace the following month.

On “Ulster Day” of 28th September 1912, and as a climax to a series of province-wide meetings, a Solemn League and Covenant was to be signed by over 471,414 unionists - several in their own blood.  In January 1913 an Ulster Volunteer Force eventually 90-100,000 strong was formed by the Ulster Unionist Council Military Committee to formalise earlier licensed drilling in paramilitary Unionist Clubs which had mushroomed in the wake of the bill’s passing. With the Ulster rebels having moved irrevocably towards a coup d’etat by March of that year, rumours began to steadily mount of imminent UVF raids for arms against British armouries in the north. Churchill ordered the Royal Navy to Northern Irish and Scottish waters, drafted plans for a raid on Craigavon and considered the arrests of Carson and Law.

ATQ Stewart's classic 1967 The Ulster Crisis history recalls a Daily Express report from Belfast from April of that year that captures the critical mass moment afoot:

Tonight there is a watching Covenanter in every church tower in Ulster, ready to sound the tocsin that will bring the citizen army into being. When two rocket bombs are fired over the Old Town Hall it will be too late to talk of compromise, for at the signal Ulster will go to arms.

The speculative moves to crush or provoke the UVF were counteracted by officers of the Third Cavalry Brigade at the Curragh camp in Kildare who refused to countenance action against the Ulster rebels. Subsequently Frederick Crawford organised Operation Lion - the running of 24,600 rifles and two million rounds of ammunition from Hamburg into the ports of Larne, Belfast, Bangor and Donaghadee. The UVF could now dispose of its wooden training weapons as Carson and Craig brought the gun back into Irish politics by way of the German Mauser, the Austrian Maennlicher and the Italian Vetterli-Vitali. This to the profound and undisguised admiration of Irish nationalist leader Padraig Pearse.

However with the onset of war Home Rule was placed on the statute book and suspended - the UVF were constituted as the 36th Ulster Division along with the 2000-strong Young Citizen Volunteers of Ireland . The UVF rebellion would be transformed into a day of terrible destiny on 1st July 1916 north and south of the River Ancre near Thiepval Wood at the Battle of the Somme.

5,500 men of the Division were to be killed or injured on the first day of the attack - the old Battle of the Boyne anniversary. The Ulster Division were the only Allied soldiers on the Thiepval sector on the first day of battle to capture the first line of German defences and with some even reaching the second. The following year at the Battle of Messines, 30,000 Irishmen fought together as part of the 16th Irish and 36th Ulster Divisions. Irish nationalist leader John Redmond’s brother Willie, who was also a Westminster MP, would be killed here and his body recovered from the battlefield by the men of the old UVF.

Ulster Covenant Day was indeed a fundamental pointer on the tragic road to partition and civil war in the North and South of Ireland- alongside profound emotional division and distancing amongst its peoples -  though the dynamics of national  and political identity are of course much more complex than any linear narrative can relate.

Indeed one particular Belfast speech to the UVF underscores the often inclusive cultural and political fusion of Carson the Ulsterman, the Irishman and the Briton  - leader of the King’s Rebels and a risen people alike:

Remember you have no quarrel with individuals. We welcome, aye and we love every individual Irishman, even though opposed to us. Our quarrel is with the Government. If they wish to test the legality of anything we are doing, or have done, do not let them take humble men. I am responsible for everything. They know where to find me, for I never ask any man to do what I am not myself ready to do.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Bill Shankly and Liverpool - The People Are The Times

Bill Shankly, Liverpool, Football

Growing up in Belfast in the Seventies there were overwhelmingly two main teams that captured the support of young people and adults alike in the city - Manchester United and Liverpool.

I have recently been watching some wonderful footage relating to Liverpool manager Bill Shankly who was in charge there between 1959 and 1974 - the extraordinary scenes of celebration at Anfield at the end of the 1972-73 Championship winning season, former Liverpool striker and player-manager of Swansea Town John Toshack wearing the red jersey during the silent tribute to Shankly upon his death in 1981 and the reception that his widow received while attending celebrations at Anfield on the last day of the terraced  Kop in May 1994.

The passion, pride and populist appeal of Shankly has been discussed in depth in many books and documentaries - the best of which being the aforementioned Hugh McIlvanney BBC Arena special The Football Men about the Ayrshire-born Liverpool manager and his contemporaries Matt Busby and Jock Stein of Manchester United and Celtic who both hailed from similarly tough working class mining backgrounds in Lanarkshire in Scotland.

Perhaps the greatest and oft-recalled of so many commentaries from Bill Shankly was that delivered to thousands of cheering fans at Liverpool's St George's Hall in 1971 and following the 2-1 defeat by Arsenal in that year's FA Cup final:

Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday at Wembley we may have lost the Cup, but you the people have won everything...you have conquered. You have won over the policemen in London. You won over the London public and it's questionable if Chairman Mao of China could have arranged such a show of strength as you have shown yesterday and today. Defeat? What is that? A detail brothers and sisters, a footnote in the struggle for supremacy. We. You and Me. Liverpool. Yes, Liverpool. Together we can conquer the world. Since I came here to Liverpool..to Anfield....I've drummed it into our players - time and again - that they are privileged to play for you. And if they didn't believe me - they believe me now.

Prior to 1971 under Shankly Liverpool FC had won two First Division and one Second Division League Championship titles, one FA Cup and three FA Charity Shields. Subsequent to that St George's Place speech Liverpool would win a further League Championship, an FA Cup, an FA Charity Shield and a UEFA Cup in European competition under his management. His successor at Anfield Bob Paisley would win an extraordinary twenty honours for the Merseyside team in nine years off the back of Shankly's legacy - six League Championships, three League Cups, six FA Charity Shields, three European Cups, one UEFA Cup and one UEFA Super Cup.

Some other words of wit and wisdom from the former miner from Glenbuck that are still remembered with fondness and pride around the world to this day include his welcome to fellow Scot Ian St John on arrival at the club - 'Son, you'll do well here as long as you remember two things. Don't over-eat and don't lose your accent." When one of football's most resolute Sixties and Seventies hard men Tommy Smith turned up for training with a bandaged knee he was admonished with the barbed  "Take that poof bandage off, and what do you mean YOUR knee, it's LIVERPOOL'S knee!"  He did however underscore at another juncture to the very same Anfield Iron that "You son, could start a riot in a graveyard."

Bill Shankly's mastery of the rich art of bowelling - the jet black, sarcastic and surreal leg pulling and stirring whose geographical epicentre is located between the three great shipbuilding port cities of Liverpool, Belfast and Glasgow - knew no bounds and especially with regard to the blue half of Merseyside. After Alan Ball had signed to Everton he congratulated him with the words "Don't worry Alan. At least you'll be able to play close to a great team". He also would observe "In my time at Anfield we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside - Liverpool and Liverpool reserves".

As for the union of hearts and minds across the brotherhood of Europe, Shankly would once tell a translator, while being surrounded by overenthusiastic Italian journalists, "Just tell them I completely disagree with everything they say!'"

Tom Darby's Talking Shankly includes the recollection of Liverpool's Brian Hall who supplemented his income while playing in the reserves - and studying at Liverpool University - with bus conducting shifts. On arriving at Anfield in uniform, as prior to a stint on the buses, Shankly noticed the young player's lack of height and commented "Bloody hell! It looks like we've signed Jimmy Clitheroe". Then, upon hearing who Hall was, he added, "Hello son, great, aye. You're the boy from university. Tell me, laddie, do you need a university degree these days to be a bus conductor?"

Towards his adopted home of Liverpool and its people Shankly most certainly held little back on an emotional level - "I'm just one of the people who stands on the kop. They think the same as I do, and I think the same as they do. It's a kind of marriage of people who like each other." Hence with regard to the famous 'This is Anfield' plaque, which both teams run under to enter the stadium ground, Shankly underscored "'This is to remind our lads who they're playing for, and to remind the opposition who they're playing against." His own autobiography in turn noting  "Above all, I would like to be remembered as a man who was selfless, who strove and worried so that others could share the glory, and who built up a family of people who could hold their heads up high and say 'We're Liverpool'."

Comparing a great socialist thinker and true leader of men of this ilk to the monstrous and buffoon-like leaders of the British party of labour in the past thirty years is truly tear-inducing. Similar feelings may be elicited in turn from watching the black and white clips from the Panorama current affairs series in 1964 showing The Kop in its magnificent and electrifying glory with 20,000 souls singing The Beatles' She Loves You in generational unison. A working people and a sense of place literally vaporised by deindustrialisation, asset stripping and political and cultural contempt from the metropolis in the Eighties.

A feeling indeed that so many people share now in modern London where the staggering demographic and physical changes gathering pace on a weekly basis  induce profound senses of dislocation and alienation through any rational observation. The local independent bookshop beside where I work in North West London has recently put a selection of books about beekeeping in the inner cities in its shop window to add to the grotesque Kafkaesque gloom.

A million miles indeed from those lost shadows of Merseyside, West Central Scotland and Ulster on the ethnic frontier of Britain and Ireland - a shared political and industrial history and a common ground of personality, warmth and so much laughter.

As with regard to that very fraught social distance from the metropolis, a scene in the final series of BBC Scotland's Burnistoun showed three teenage boys playing their computer games in a bedroom only to be interrupted by their mate Marky Boy whose life was ruined by taking an Ecstacy-like Thatcher Pill which turned him into a cross-dressing English Conservative leader - "Sorry man sorry….I’ve bin gettin ma heed aff bout shipyards all day. I tell ye ..see by the time I’m done we the Scottish…they’ll no forget me."

Likewise, a youtube clip of the most recent Paul McCartney tour from one Liverpool gig included a scene when the singer was recalling the old days of Merseybeat and an incident involving Cilla Black. As the crowd hissed - and an obviously taken aback McCartney weighed up the surprising scorn for a fellow Home Counties resident, Merseyside exile and national icon - one member of the audience scoffed "Welcome back to Liverpool Macca!"

Alike the Shankly years in this pool of life, the people still are the times.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Old Belfast - The Spirits Of York Street

Belfast, Northern Ireland, York Street, Buck Alec

The Devil he came up from hell, he had a look around,
Hoping he could find some toughs, to take back underground,
He got them from the Shankill, the Falls and Sandy Row,
But down along old York Street, he was afraid to go.

Last week here in London I was looking through a copy of Kenneth Branagh's 1989 autobiography Beginning. The first chapter covered the first nine years of his life when he was growing up in the Tiger's Bay area of North Belfast. In the past month too I have got back in touch with an old schoolfriend from the very same part of the city who now lives in Queensland Australia.

Off the back of this I watched a community video last week that had been uploaded onto youtube and as regarding the nearby area of Grove Park. I knew this district from childhood and visiting the local swimming baths there every Tuesday night with my family - that was around four decades ago. In the clip some long-term local residents bewailed the scale of urban decay and in particular that afflicting the two main thoroughfares - one of which was an attractive tree-lined avenue which contained mixed communities in terms of class background through to the late Sixties and early Seventies.

The local theatre, swimming baths, cinema and greyhound stadium are now long gone - the nearby park, as mentioned in turn in Beirut hostage Brian Keenan's childhood autobiography I'll Tell Me Ma, was physically divided by steel barriers up until very recent times because of sectarian disorder between rival local youth gangs. Local businesses are literally dieing on their feet because of competition from major national superstores, community morale is terribly low and there has also been significant demolition of residential property which is conspicuously not being replaced.

Tiger's Bay and Grove Park essentially form part of the greater York Street community - a once major street that ran north east from Belfast city centre out towards South Antrim by way of its continuation on York Road and Shore Road. It lay  in parallel to the Docks area which included parts of Belfast now long extinct such as Little Italy, Sailortown and the Half Bap. Without qualification it was once one of the busiest thoroughfares in Old Belfast and contained thriving working class communities and industrial concerns.

Sinclair Seamen's church still stands however in what was once the religiously-mixed Sailortown with its unique pulpit resembling the prow of a ship and as flanked by nautical navigation lights. It was in this area in 1907 that the famous dockers  and carters' strike commenced under the leadership of Liverpool-born trade unionist James Larkin and which lead to fleeting communal unity across the city. Conversely, in 1935, the York Street area was the epicentre for much of the July rioting which left eight Protestants and five Catholics dead alongside many injured and over 2,000 mainly Catholic homes destroyed. The disturbances were catalysed by the less than ecumenical decision of Glasgow's Billy Boys loyalist band to bring their party music to the attention of the last communities on earth who wanted to hear them.

Dock Ward itself was the electoral home to two particularly well recalled populist politicians of the last century too in Harry Midgeley and Gerry Fitt. Both in turn travelled extremely unique political pathways - the Protestant Midgely and the Catholic Fitt emerging from socialist politics alike. Midgely eventually lead the pro-Union Commonwealth Labour Party before joining the Ulster Unionist Party in 1947 and held cabinet office in Stormont through to the end of his life. Fitt's career, after leaving the Social Democratic and Labour Party in the late Seventies, ended in the House of Lords and permanent residence in England.

Local industry in the area was mostly associated with Gallahers tobacco factory- where the mother of George Best worked for a period - and the York Street Spinning Mill which was destroyed during the Luftwaffe triple blitz of April and May 1941 which took so much life in North Belfast. The factory wall collapsed on the adjacent Vere Street and Sussex Street killing around 30 civilians instantaneously.

John Campbell's often very moving Saturday Night In York Street poetry collection from 1982 references other famous places and characters in the district such as Twenties loyalist paramilitary, prohibition-era American gangster associate and street fighter "Buck Alec" Robinson who would walk the streets of the area with Joy the pet lion he kept at home and with whom he wrestled in public. Robinson had returned from America to Ulster in the late Thirties as his parents wished to see him again before they died - according to one newspaper overview of his life "My Mammy and Daddy meant more to me than America".

Campbell also namechecks some of the other famous local residents such as world champion boxer from the late Forties Rinty Monaghan and the flautist James Galway - all first class York Street men with talent, strength and grit. Branagh incorporates the title poem at the start of his autobiography as mentioned earlier.

The late comedian Frank Carson was born in Little Italy while Ulster's famous comic actor James Young died in his car on the Shore Road in 1974 of a fatal heart attack. Laurel and Hardy also stayed in the long-vacant yet once prestigious Midland Hotel in York Street during a visit to the city in 1952 to play at the Grand Opera House.

In terms of local businesses the most fondly recalled by many people of middle age today would be the Belfast Co-operative Store where thousands of Belfast children would have visited Santa Claus at Christmas. Some years ago the local art college projected images of such visits from the Sixties and Seventies onto the side of the building during the holiday season.

The same store was attacked several times during the Troubles and indeed much of the animation and life of the general area would be destroyed during the same period alongside blanket demolition and redevelopment linked to motorway creation.

The Reverend Joseph Parker - whose son Stephen was killed on Bloody Friday and who was discussed in an earlier post - was the chaplain of the local Seaman's Mission in Sailortown while one of the most infamous terrorist attacks of the Troubles took place in the same area on Halloween Night in 1972 with the loyalist bombing  of Benny's Bar at Ship Street when two young Catholic girls were murdered. The poet James Simmons wrote of the atrocity:

On Hallowe'en in Ship Street
Quite close to Benny's Bar.
The children lit a bonfire
and the adults parked a car.

Sick minds sing sentimental songs
and speak in dreary prose.
And make ingenious home-made bombs
and this was one of those.

Some say it was the UVF
and some the IRA.
Blew up that pub on principle
and killed the kids at play.

They didn't mean the children
it only was the blast.
in bitter old Belfast.

The current extension of a university campus in York Street and the ongoing revitalisation of the Cathedral Quarter does provide a genuinely positive epilogue of sorts to the long dramatic history of the area and indeed there are few cities in Britain or even Europe that cannot produce a similar example of a fondly remembered city district now lost in time - from Dublin to London and from Berlin to Stockholm .

Perhaps though York Street more than most embodies the full historical spectrum of dynamics that underpin urban geographic structural change - from depopulation to suburbanisation, from world war to civil war and from deindustrialisation to globalisation. Its history spanning the days when the streets of Belfast were black with people at the crack of dawn, on the way to hard industrial labour at the docks and in the factories, and through to our current times where a national manufacturing base is seen as a mere irrelevance in the brave new world of creative industries and technological creep.

I yet suspect that the legend of Buck Alec and his transplantation of the spirit of the Serengeti to Sailortown will long outlast the current world of digital spam, teenage jargon and data mining.

In Sailortown a motorway sprawls where once tough men held sway...
where happy children used to play...
in Sailortown.

Monday, August 13, 2012

All The Myths On Sunday - Lost Sounds of the Eighties and Nineties

                                    The Tansads, The Bankrobbers, Diesel Park West

I was having a drink with an old friend a fortnight ago when the conversation came around to music. We noted how the second track of the Manic Street Preachers' debut album had focused as long ago as 1992 - twenty-one frigging years ago no less - on the nation-destroying dynamics of the UK banking sector in Natwest Barclays Midlands Lloyds.

Some time ago in turn a New Musical Express list of great gigs mentioned the three concerts by the same group at the Astoria on London's Charing Cross Road in December 1994 as being amongst the best ever to be seen in modern times. I was lucky enough to catch the second night there on The Holy Bible tour - guitarist Richey Edwards disappearing off the face of the earth less than two months later. The Astoria has also ceased to be - as indeed has much of the character and atmosphere of the Soho and London of those days.

The Manics aside, the three other bands I really rated in the early Nineties were Therapy? from Larne in County Antrim, Surrey's The Auteurs and That Petrol Emotion from Derry City. All of them deserved much more commercial success than they attained in hindsight and with regard to such engaging, thoughtful and original output as  Screamager, Loose, Bailed Out,  New French Girlfriend, It's A Good Thing and Hey Venus.

Likewise, of the various gigs I attended during the Eighties and Nineties,  there were three support acts in particular that I especially recall  - none of whom would receive their due commercial reward.

On Monday 8th November 1982 I saw Stiff Little Fingers at the Ulster Hall Belfast on their Now Then tour - their fourth and last album prior to splitting up for a period. Support was Bankrobbers who recorded two singles on Terri Hooley's Good Vibrations label and one for EMI. During a photoshoot for one of the Good Vibrations singles the band posed in American military apparel in Newtownards in County Down and attracted the attention of the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the way home to Belfast. During their brief career they would support The Undertones, The Kinks and The Ruts. Their excellent second single Jenny (as performed on Channel 4's The Tube) would surprisingly not provide them with a commercial breakthrough in 1983 - much alike the magnificently named Ghost of an American Airman, who were also from Belfast, and their own I Hear Voices release in 1987.

I then saw Stuart Adamson's Big Country at their Hammersmith Odeon show in London on Tuesday 24th January 1991. This particular tour promoted their fourth Peace In Our Time album which essentially heralded a  major stalling of their career - support was provided by another wonderfully named act in Diesel Park West. The group would record two of the most perfect pieces of melodic British guitar rock of the period in All The Myths On Sunday and Fall to Love - the singles soaring to 66 and 48  on the charts respectively. They broke up in 1995 after four albums but would subsequently record again.

Finally, in support to Stiff Little Fingers at a gig at London's Kentish Town Forum on Saturday 24th July 1993, I watched The Tansads from Wigan who were apparently named after a brand of perambulator. Striking in appearance and sound alike - and in certain contemporary respects not dissimilar to The Levellers in terms of their  folk-tinged indie appeal - the eight-piece Tansads' second album Up The Shirkers would include much marvellously unique and eclectic music such as John John, Camelot, Brian Kant, The English Rover and Up The Revolution. They would release only four studio albums in total.  

All three groups now barely penetrate the memory banks of our musical heritage yet remain hugely overlooked talents nonetheless and their music still invigorating soundtracks of better days.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Mary Peters, Munich Olympics, 1972 - Hope When All Hope Had Gone

Mary Peters, Northern Ireland, Ulster Troubles, Munich Olympics, 1972

And so the individual performances of British Olympians have saved the day despite the corporate ticketing fiasco, a politically dubious opening ceremony and the tumbleweed-strewn and deserted ghost streets of London Open City.

In an earlier post I mentioned Ulster's great Olympian Mary Peters as one of the band of  magnificent Northern Irish sports people of all religions who brought so much pride and self-respect to the country in a time of war. The story of Peters' athletic accomplishments in West Germany in the summer of 1972, her return as a national hero to Belfast on Thursday 21st September  and the subsequent funding of a superb athletics track for the city are oft-recounted to this day.

The political, human and emotional context of her victory is indeed truly extraordinary to recall by way of the deaths of eleven Israeli athletes during the games in Munich at the hands of Black September activists and the toll of 467 military, paramilitary and civilian fatalities in Ulster during the entire year. Her victory took place a month after Bloody Friday in Belfast and seven months after Bloody Sunday in Derry - it would be the worst year of the entire Troubles with nearly 4,876 injuries sustained, 10,628 shooting incidents and 1,382 explosions.

The Munich Olympics in full took place between August 26th and September 10th 1972. Of the fourteen women's athletics events, eleven of the winning medals were won by the German nations and two by Russia. Mary Peters won the solitary athletic British gold on Sunday 3rd September.

On the evening of  September 4th she received a threat from Northern Ireland that harm would come to her as a Protestant who had won a medal for Britain unless she said something about bringing people together. In the early hours of the following morning the Israeli  apartments at the Olympic Village were seized.

On the full archive footage of the opening ceremony Peters can be clearly seen walking with the British team while the brief clip of the Israeli athletes shows at least five individuals in clear shot who would be murdered.

During the period of the Olympics themselves the political situation in Northern Ireland was unrelentingly violent:

- Saturday 26th August - Two Catholic men found shot dead in the Oldpark area of North Belfast. Bomb explosion at Downpatrick Racecourse in County Down killed two IRA volunteers who were planting it.

- Sunday 27th August  - Protestant civilian shot dead in Belfast by loyalist paramilitaries and a British soldier killed by a sniper  in Derry.

- Monday 28th August - Protestant farmer killed by a landmine explosion in County Fermanagh and a British soldier shot dead in West Belfast.

- Wednesday 30th August - Another British soldier murdered in West Belfast.

- Thursday 31st August  - Two Catholic civilians found dead in South Belfast and Portadown - both bodies showing evidence of ill treatment.

- Tuesday 5th September - Protestant member of the local security forces killed by a loyalist explosion in Portadown while driving past in his car.

- Wednesday 6th September - Protestant man found murdered in West Belfast and Catholic woman killed in a loyalist bombing in North Belfast.

- Thursday 7th September - Two Protestant civilians killed by the British Army during street disturbances in the Shankill district of Belfast with another Protestant civilian murdered in the east of the city.

- Sunday 10th September - Three British soldiers killed by a land mine near Dungannon.

Indeed only six months after the games, in March 1973, Peters was relaxing at her North Belfast flat when a honey-trap murder of three British soldiers took place in the immediate next door property - four soldiers in total having been lured to the adjacent building by female Republican activists on the promise of a party only for two IRA assassins to enter with a machine gun and pistol. The soldiers were ordered to lie face down on a bed and then shot. The injured soldier was literally collapsed outside Peters'  property when she opened her blinds.

So Mary Peters from Halewood on Merseyside - who only arrived in Northern Ireland as an 11-year old - won the Olympic gold medal for all the people of Belfast that day. She won it for me and all the boys and girls in my street I played with during that summer of 1972 - three of whom are now dead. She won it for all the pensioners in Belfast who probably had enough life experience already from two world wars, a civil war and a depression without a misjudged and misfiring national liberation struggle coming along to destroy their retirement peace after years of heavy industrial labour. And she won it for all the hundreds of thousands of Ulster people who did nothing to foment or sustain sectarian division - the vast unsung majority of people of goodwill and good conscience.

Duff Hart-Davis' history of the 1936 Berlin Olympiad concludes with the dramatic choreography of the closing ceremony - the dieing light of the protective Olympic flame, the tolling bell,  the lowering of the Olympic flag and the summoning of the youth of the world to Tokyo. Jesse Owens, the black American athlete so central to the narrative of the most propagandised public event in human history, noted in one documentary how most of the athletes that evening who had taken the priceless Olympic oath were in tears of pure emotion at the sense of occasion.

Today in a world literally destroyed by banking institutions and political incompetents -  who have broken our national culture, fractured our social solidarity and sold out our future life security perhaps forever - maybe the Olympics still shines a last pure light onto the human condition and the beleaguered though not utterly extinguished faith that there just has to be something better than hate, greed, regret, selfishness and anger to accompany our very brief time on earth. Or indeed - that by sheer organic logic - life's rich pageant should incorporate natural winners.

Mary Peters here reflecting on the dynamics of the Ulster Troubles in the final chapter of her 1974 autobiography:

There is a world of difference between dejection and despair. I am frequently dejected to the point of tears at what has happened to Belfast. I have never despaired and never shall. It is quite true that the situation has deteriorated considerably during the period in which we prepared this book but to despair, to give up fighting for a solution or the restoration of sanity, is to give up hope and that is the creed of nihilism. I know there is goodness in the hearts of the people of Northern Ireland because I can walk through the streets of the Falls and Shankill and see it every day. Since my retirement from athletics I have been approached to go into politics, both by members of the Conservative and the Alliance parties. But politics, professional party politics, is not my way. I am not a political animal. My philosophy is simply that life is very precious and that every hour of every day must be lived positively. This is the outlook we have lost in Belfast: the feeling that there is little point setting oneself a target to achieve because we do not know what disaster tomorrow is going to bring. It is this attitude I want to work and fight against. It may sound pompous for me to say that this was the example I tried to set on the running track but it is true. Deliberately, everywhere, I ran in the name of Belfast and Northern Ireland to attempt to show the world that our spirit was not dead.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bloody Friday In Belfast - Death On A Summer Afternoon

Bloody Friday, Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ulster Troubles

Within the annals of  Irish history the apogee of the Provisional IRA's attempt to transplant urban guerrilla warfare from sizzling Latin America to drizzly Northern Ireland took place on the afternoon of  Friday 23rd July 1972 in Belfast City.

In a period of less than one and a half hours 19 bombs left six civilians and two British soldiers dead and a total of 130 injured. Two further bombs were defused and two failed to detonate amongst other hoax warnings.

The civilian dead on that sunny day numbered two men, two boys and two women - denominationally four Protestants and two Catholics. At least three Catholic civilians were murdered in appalling and utterly vile circumstances within days of the atrocity by Protestant ultras.

With regard to the two sites where fatalities occurred - the Cavehill Road bombing could be clearly heard from my nearby home in North Belfast and my uncle assisted at the globally infamous aftermath of the Oxford Street bus station explosion while employed in the Fire Service.

An exhaustive and deeply sobering BBC Northern Ireland 40th anniversary documentary on the events of the day transmitted last week - wherein no Republican spokespeople took part and with the programme itself not being broadcast on the BBC national television network across Great Britain. A subsequent Radio Ulster phone-in threw up even more ghastly minutiae including a civilian seeing children playing around the bridge supports where the first bomb would explode. Another caller who originated from the loyalist Shankill Road noted the irony in the fact that half of his fellow workers cowering from a nearby explosion in a top floor office were actually Catholics.

The political historian Alvin Jackson's analysis of a "British Ireland" within the extraordinarily thought-provoking Virtual History compendium of historical counterfactuals edited by Niall Ferguson in 1997 considered two alternative linear frameworks at the early part of the 20th Century. These being an Irish Home Rule bill having been fully passed in 1912 with the literally temporary exclusion of the six counties that would subsequently constitute the Northern Ireland state or the notion of Carson's Ulster Volunteer Force having engaged in direct conflict with the Royal Irish Constabulary and British Army in 1914. Jackson concludes that either alternative pathway to political or military resolution - as opposed to the actual introduction of such legislation in 1914 subsequent to radical Unionist military preparation and as preceding British involvement in the Great War - would most likely have led anyway to a fundamentally insecure polity redolent of a Yugoslavia-in-waiting across the Irish Sea from metropolitan Britain.

As for the three decade long civil war that then ensued between 1969 and 1994, Bloody Friday and countless other days of rank shame and pointless waste certainly underpinned the fact that whereas the island of Ireland may have been divided upon two mutually irreconcilable ethnic blocs at the end of the Sixties, the termination of the conflict left even more divisions scoured violently upon the face of the land and as focused on the issues of clear cut morality and ethics. That without even touching upon the fact that one former President of the USA and a New Labour spin doctor of note would both speak with  thorough cordiality and warmth of two of the leading figures of the Belfast IRA on Bloody Friday.

Returning to the fatalities of that day, 14-year-old Stephen Parker was posthumously awarded the Queen's Commendation for brave conduct for his attempts to warn shoppers at the Cavehill Road of the presence of a car bomb in the vicinity. His mutilated body could only be identified by the prescence of a Scout belt and a box of joke matches in his pocket.

His father, the Reverend Joseph Parker, subsequently founded the Witness for Peace Movement in February 1973 which bore Christian witness to all Troubles fatalities of every religion.

Previously, on Thursday 21st September 1972, he had commenced a protest outside Belfast City Hall to express his disgust against the stagnant political inertia of Ulster. The following day a female Catholic student  joined his "hunger strike for sanity". On Saturday 5th November around 600 people attended a City Hall dedication to all Troubles victims as conducted by the Reverend Parker. On Saturday 2nd December 1972 in turn he commenced another 48 hunger strike for peace at the GPO in O'Connell Street in Dublin.

In May 1974 the Witness for Peace Movement took part in the TUCs "Back to Work march" against the Ulster Workers Council strike that faced extreme Loyalist hostility on the 21st day of the month.

In light of negative responses from his own church to such initiatives the Reverend Parker and his family emigrated to Canada in 1974 -  in October of that year he announced "I am leaving my country and my church because I have been completely ostracised".   Parker, alike Belfast's legendary comic actor James Young, having stood alone as a relative sole voice of reason in an Ulster at war.

In Jill and Leon Uris' 1976 photographic collection Ireland - A Terrible Beauty the Parkers were featured in the section covering victimhood in Ulster - the commentary concluding :

There is something Godlike about Joe Parker and his wife that keeps them from being consumed with bitterness. HIs most fervent prayers are for the power to forgive, and he says it will not have been in vain if a new Ireland can come from it.......With all his courage he cannot conceal the pangs of everlasting agony, and as he pleads with you for peace, there is a haunting look in his eyes and he repeats over and over: "You know what I mean, don't you? You know what I mean?"

In turn, the testimonies in last week's documentary from the cousin of 39-year-old Thomas Killops, the widower of 34-year-old Margaret O'Hare, the sister of 15-year-old William Crothers and the mother of Stephen Parker thus standing both as unbearable echoes of a time when hatred was viciously heaped upon hatred and shattered reflections of lost souls.

(Stephen) never sat still for a moment. We often and indeed many's the time I said to him – "Oh for goodness sake sit still!".  Now I just wish he was here making all the noise again…and I could say…"Sit still Stephen... be quiet."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Alan McDonald - Queens Park Rangers and Northern Ireland

Alan McDonald, Queens Park Rangers, Northern Ireland, Football

Enshrined forever in the history of Northern Irish international football was Alan McDonald’s legendary television interview following the World Cup qualifier against England on 13th November 1985. After the game – which ended scoreless and guaranteed Northern Ireland a place at the Mexico 1986 finals – McDonald passed comment on the feelings of a segment of the England support that their own team hadn’t really been trying.

"There were 13 heroes out there…everyone was brilliant …and anyone who said that’s a fix can come and see me and I’ll tell them it wasn’t a fix ...so we bloody earned that ...and anybody says different is a joke."

On being further questioned whether he had enjoyed the historic night itself at Wembley despite just having asked it outside en masse for a fight, McDonald replied with the equally legendary and monosyllabic  “No” before underscoring his part in nearly allowing Gary Lineker to score. He then went on to praise the players for getting behind him in turn, the fact that the team deserved to get to the World Cup and how the biggest ambition of his life was to play in front of the crowd at Windsor Park Belfast.

Alan McDonald of Queens Park Rangers and Northern Ireland died suddenly at the weekend at the age of only 48 – the tributes across the internet to him today are both fulsome and empassioned about the loss of the man and the player alike. One public tribute today noted how during the tense and now infamous  Northern Ireland v Republic of Ireland qualifier for the USA World Cup in November  1993 at Windsor Park that McDonald was amongst the first players to congratulate the opposition on their qualification following the 1-1 draw.

That 1985 interview was less than two minutes long but will forever stand as an embodiment of total professional commitment -  from a player appearing in only the second of his fifty two international appearances - and burning individual pride for one’s country during a period of two decades when both parts of Ireland played to incredulous levels of footballing excellence above their global standing.

Northern Ireland’s six year long international football light flight under Billy Bingham would not last long beyond those very Mexico finals in which McDonald played in all three games but those words at Wembley Stadium will never be forgotten from yet another citizen of Belfast who during our troubled times showed the world a face of utter decency, talent and raw character.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Patriot Brothers - The Day That Irish Football United

Irish Football, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Derek Dougan

Some very moving touches to be seen at last week's funeral of Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb in Oxfordshire, as harking back to the oldest and saddest of all of the lost cultural connections across the British Isles, with the service incorporating both Jerusalem and the beautiful old Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision - Gibb's coffin draped in the flag of the Isle of Man.

The consolidation of the ethnic frontier in the North East of Ireland on structural and institutional grounds in 1921 would also incorporate the division of the sport of football itself - though not that of rugby union or cricket. This week's disappointing results for the Irish Republic at the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine - and indeed ongoing controversy about young Northern Irish-born players from nationalist backgrounds opting to play for the South - yet again underscoring one of the most ironic dichotomies in the history of the game.

In terms of appearances at World Cup finals the English team has now done so on thirteen occasions, the Scottish eight and the Welsh once. The Northern Ireland team played at the 1958 finals in Sweden, 1982 in Spain and 1986 in Mexico - the Republic of Ireland in 1990 in Italy, 1994 in the USA and 2002 in South Korea. Northern Ireland were quarter-finalists in 1958 - the geographically smallest country to date to achieve such a feat - and the Republic in 1990. The Republic of Ireland also played in the 1988 European Championship finals in Germany. Hence if gauged to European populations alone - alike Uruguay for example in the South American context - both teams have had very successful footballing histories.

So alongside the unbeaten performances of the Scottish side in 1974 in West Germany - where the squad was then so strong that neither Dennis Law nor Jimmy Johnstone were played in any of the three games - the sequencing of World Cup success from the respective parts of Ireland from the Fifties onwards is a matter of significant historical note in European football. This as against the further qualifications that the Northern Ireland squad between the successes of the Fifties and Eighties included George Best - and indeed one of the world's then greatest goalkeepers in Pat Jennings - and that the fallow years for the Republic in the Seventies nevertheless saw their squad incorporate talent of the calibre of Leeds United's Johnny Giles, Liverpool's Steve Heighway and Arsenal's Liam Brady.

Alike the political decisions that undermined any chance of integrated education taking root in the new Northern Ireland state within the violent turmoil of the early Twenties, there was no significant party that realistically had the monopoly for either instigating the initial organisational division or copperfastening it in turn.

The Football Association of Ireland initially broke away from the Belfast-based Irish Football Association in 1921 because of a dispute over the venue for an Irish Cup Final between Glentoran of East Belfast and Dublin's Shelbourne and alongside alleged neglect of the game in the South. The IFA countered by stressing how the game was mainly played in the North. Both associations thereafter claimed to represent football across the entire island and fielded national teams under the name of "Ireland" - several players even ended up playing for both international brands. Only interventions by FIFA in the early Fifties clarified the status of each Irish team as being seperately the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The division would nevertheless be a fundamental and fateful factor in limiting Irish football success by way of clearcut population limitations and of course the fact that no national football team has an international cross- border makeup as such - Eire having left the British Commonwealth in 1949.

As discussed in an earlier post, the two main football figures from Northern Ireland who were fervent in their belief in the sporting and social benefits of a united Ireland team were Derek Dougan and George Best.

On 3rd July 1973 - and as against opposition from the Irish Football Association and the reservations of the Football Association of Ireland - Dougan and Johnny Giles organised an all-Ireland team under the aegis of "Shamrock Rovers" to play Brazil during their nine-match summer tour of Europe. In a period of extraordinary violence in Ulster it could be seen as a significant act of solidarity between the two parts of Ireland. Only a Brazilian flag was displayed during the match and the Brazilian anthem solely played beforehand.

The team included Northern Ireland's Allan Hunter, Bryan Hamilton, Martin O'Neill and Pat Jennings and the Republic's Don Givens, Terry Conroy, Paddy Mulligan and Mick Martin. Brazil - whose team included the legendary Jairzinho and Rivelino - won the match 4-3.

Consideration of what a solitary Irish national football team representing the whole island could have achieved is extremely thought provoking. That both by way of sporting achievement, which could surely have replicated that of Scotland, and as a unifying factor for the people of the partitioned island - in war and peace.

Although the full scale of barely contained civil war in Ulster between 1971 and 1976 may well have had devastating effects on such a team's ability to function in security, the fact remains that in the fractured run up to the dark core of the Troubles between the Divis Street riots of 1964 in Belfast and the acceleration of Provisional IRA bombing attacks in the second half of 1970, that the Northern Ireland team themselves with George Best came close to qualifying for both the 1966 World Cup finals in England and those in Mexico in 1970.

Footage of the famous Windsor Park international of Northern Ireland against Scotland in 1967 has fans of the home team clearly shouting for "Ireland" while a poster inside the Sinn Fein election office on the Falls Road three years earlier - where the placement of an Irish tricolour became the catalyst for the worst street rioting since 1935 - still noted the inclusive words of John Frazier and Sean Tyrrell:

And though it be in our country's cause
Our party feelings blended
'Til lasting peace from equal laws
On both will have descended
'Til then the orange lily be
Your badge, my patriot brother
It's the everlasting green for me
And we for one another

Yesterday's liquidation of Glasgow Rangers football club in turn provided a sobering epilogue to the long narrative of Scottish football - as analysed in detail in Archie Macpherson's magnificent Flower of Scotland history - from the days when brilliant players from the north of the border grew on the proverbial trees and right through to 2000/2001 when Rangers and Celtic first fielded teams with 11 non-Scottish players on their sides.

Hence the December 2005 Belfast funeral of George Best was perhaps memorable for more than its desperately sad public farewell to one of the most individually gifted figures in British social history - the draping of the flag of the Northern Ireland Football Association across his coffin in some way emblematic of the fading sources of indigenous sporting talent emanating from these islands as a whole.

And equally so it was perhaps reflective of the lost golden chance that all the people of a politically divided island had to unite around the one thing that could have made us all - even for a solitary day - the best in Europe and, just perhaps, the world.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Peace in Ulster - Back Up The Antrim Road

I have recently finished Greil Marcus' short but extremely interesting 2010 overview of the music of Van Morrison which incorporates a cross-section of analysis of early Them tracks through to the classic live version of Caravan at The Band's The Last Waltz, an especially insightful commentary upon 1991's Take Me Back and on to The Healing Game album of 1997. 

Three tracks from Astral Weeks are also considered in detail - this standing as Morrison's classic reflection on time, space, loss, remembrance and closure and whose release at the commencement of the Ulster Troubles underscores the ethereal and haunted mood of introspection and insight grounded on the physical geography of a now fragmented Belfast City.

I mentioned some posts ago how the digital revolution has not only radically and irreversibly broken down the perameters of information and opinion dissemination - and particularly interview or lecture material from those regarded today as renegade political figures such as George Galloway or Nigel Farage - but has also opened unique pathways to fond or conversely pained remembrance of times past as alike the core underpinnings of Astral Weeks itself.

That dynamic certainly not having let up in the past week when I have come across the wonderful bubblegum soul of Liberia's finest The Soulful Dynamics and their Mademoiselle Ninette of 1970 through to the utterly extraordinary flamenco glam of Carmen's Bulerias as performed on David Bowie's 1973 The Midnight Special television feature. Carmen, along with Ireland's Horslips, being surely one of the most underrated groups in popular music history.

However nothing prepared me for discovering the Ulster Television start-up music from the Seventies and early Eighties and thus hearing The Antrim Road for the first time in perhaps three decades - a wonderful piece whose moods range from mischievous Celtic shadows to sweeping John Ford western panoramas.

This particular introduction is regarded as one of the finest of its ilk be to used across the Independent Television Authority at the time and commenced in 1971 when Northern Ireland society descended from chronic civil unrest to borderline civil war. The Antrim Road itself was the residential area where the Jewish community settled in the early to middle point of the last century - as noted in an earlier post - and was a very troubled and violent district in its urban stretches adjacent to Belfast city centre during the course of the conflict.

A fleeting two and a half minutes of mere commercial continuity in esscence - as composed by Wayne Hill and Earl Ward and featured on the De Wolf LP The British Isles - but yet music which immediately recalls both lost constructs of community and place alongside reflections of a people of humour, bravery and character.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Dad's Army - All Are Heroes In The End

Dad's Army

Another much-renowned son of the English county of  Kent, alongside the recently referenced Zen philosopher Alan Watts, was of course bank manager and Captain of the Walmington-on-Sea Local Defence Volunteers - George Mainwaring.

The BBC television series Dad's Army ran for 12 series between 1968 and 1977 with an accompanying radio series, stage show and feature film. Of the seven main actors associated with the programme, James Beck - who played the resident "spiv" Joe - died in 1973 at the age of only 44.

The film version of the series released in 1970 received mixed reviews though time has been kind to it in hindsight and, along with the Steptoe and Son movies, is probably one of the better film adaptations of classic British Sixties and Seventies television comedy.

Dad's Army on the big screen is rich in pathos and in three particularly moving and well-recalled sequences in particular. The opening of the movie shows the gallant and defiant Home Guard platoon on England's southern shoreline - Union Flag in hand and ready for battle - being ridiculed by a watching Wehrmacht general on the Pas de Calais to the accompaniment of the Horst Wessel Lied. Meanwhile Mainwaring's expressed surety, during a sunset talk with Sgt Wilson, that the British will fight down to a last bullet of honour for each man is qualified by a lack of ammunition for such a Kentish Twilight of the Gods. At the conclusion of the film in turn the platoon are back to the cliff top again and listening suspiciously for some cunning Nazi cross-channel mining device which could signify an imminent invasion of British sovereign territory.

Last week's local council elections across Austerity Britain, and the predictable sense of despair and discord at our national political stasis that the results produced, yet again underscored the grim likelihood of very little significant change ahead in the next decade. And indeed the scale of distance between a broken and greed-fixated Britain and a country that could once produce selfless and spirited public service of the like of the Home Guard or the Ulster Defence Regiment.

The credible right and left-wing critiques of these morose and anxious times from certain worthy commentators notwithstanding, modern British life has surely never found itself in such a time of total and open-ended political stagnation, social immobility and mad dog economic imbecility.

The sinister general at the start of Dad's Army who scoffed "How can those stupid British ever hope to win?" at Privates Godfrey, Pike, Frasier and Joansy the Butcher - in light of their no-doubt imminent incarceration in ghastly underground SS slave labour camps in Yorkshire or South Wales - didn't know the half of it after all in terms of what would lie ahead for that now vanished and truly great country.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sport in Ulster

Northern Ireland Sport, Football, Ulster Troubles

Truly wonderful news all round about the forthcoming rugby union European Cup Final between the Irish provinces of Ulster and Leinster. And likewise for the goodwill of certain national airlines in offering weekend return tickets from Belfast to London for £477.97 to marry the mood of this truly historic and empowering moment of national reconciliation. Viva Las Vegas yet again.

Talking of which I caught three interesting BBC Northern Ireland features last week on the glory years of sports success in the Seventies and Eighties. As mentioned in an earlier post, the sportsmen and women of Ulster brought unqualified pride to the country during very dark days indeed. This particular set of programmes included reference to yet more figures from the past such as boxers Dave Boy McCauley and Charlie Nash, golfer Ronan Rafferty, snooker player Dennis Taylor, athlete Mike Bull, Formula One's John Watson and the late road racer Tommy Herron.

It also included three very interesting pieces of football footage. There were very rare clips from the training session which preceded George Best's swansong for the national team - the extraordinary 2-2 draw against Holland in Rotterdam on 13th October 1976. This would prove to be his penultimate game for Northern Ireland while the match is oft-referenced to this day for his success in carrying out a pre-match threat to nutmeg Johann Cruyff during the game.

There were also earlier clips of the Northern Ireland team applauding the Yugoslavian side onto the Windsor Park pitch in  1975 for a European Championship qualifier - the first international match in the country since October 1971 and with home games having  been played on the British mainland in the interim because of the scale of civil unrest and terrorist threat. The narration certainly suggested that the Yugoslavian football authorities were under no obligation to travel to Belfast at this time in light of the decision of other national and international teams to not play there. A bold, brave and truly worthy gesture in hindsight from another physically beautiful country that would tragically face its own sectarian nemesis over a decade and a half later.

Lastly the programme included brief footage of an even earlier Seventies Irish League championship decider at The Oval ground in East Belfast between Linfield and Glentoran. It showed the winning goal from Linfield's Eric Magee and then the pitch invasion at the final whistle. The upbeat and stock retro narration accompanying this clip tending to sit in some considerable contrast to the Linfield fan hitting a departing Glentoran player around the head with a Union Jack-adorned flagpole and thus leaving the assaulted invidual to leave the pitch with his hands upon his bruised cranium.

Shame that the BBC intern who cut or complied this edit didn't take notice at the time as it would have sat perfectly well in last Monday's Dominic Sandbrook Seventies documentary and the sub-section on the Droog-like scary football hooligan ultras of yore.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alan Watts - From Chislehurst to the Light of the World

Alan Watts, Chistlehurst, Zen Buddhism, Sausalito

The town of Chislehurst in Kent is mostly associated with a nearby cave system that was utilised as an air raid shelter during World War Two and then as a music venue during the Sixties which hosted performances by Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Rolling Stones. Reputedly haunted, they were once a site of Druid worship and human sacrifice.

Famous past residents of Chislehurst include world land and water speed record holder Malcolm Campbell, Just William author Richmal Compton, French Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, punk singer Siouxsie Sioux and the great Zen philosopher Alan Watts who was born there in 1915.

I first became aware of the latter due to the Van Morrison song Alan Watts Blues on the 1987 album Poetic Champions Compose - the lyrics incorporating a reference to Watts' classic Cloud Hidden Whereabouts Unknown book published in 1973:

Well I've got to get out of the rat race now/I'm tired of the ways of mice and men/And the empires all turning into rust again/Out of everything, nothing remains the same.

Watts was born into a middle class family in 1915, was schooled at Canterbury and as a teenager became a member of the London Buddhist Lodge associated with Christmas Humphreys. He then moved to America with his first wife shortly before the Second World War. Having engaged in Zen training in New York and received a master's degree in theology he became an Episcopal priest before moving to California in 1951.

Interpreting and popularising Eastern philosophy for Western audiences, Alan Watts became a hugely influential lecturer and author. His most famous works alongside Cloud Hidden are The Way of Zen (1957), This Is It (1960) and The Book - Against The Taboo of Knowing Who You Are (1966) while his broadcasts for Pacifica Radio station KPFA in Berkley ran for two decades.

Watts had experimented with mescaline and LSD and once famously commented on the perils of psychedelic drug use that "When you get the message, hang up the phone".

At the end of his life he split his time because a houseboat in Sausalito near San Francisco and a cabin on Marin County's Mount Tamalpais. He was a friend of Aldous Huxley and associated with the famous Druid Heights community in California - founded by Elsa Gidlow who was born in Hull and published the first ever volume of openly lesbian poetry. He died in 1973 at the age of 58 following a European lecture tour.

Alan Watts' lectures are now widely available on the internet with background animations and other supernature video footage accompanying commentaries such as "Music and Life", "I", "You are God in the Dance of Life" and "The Earth is People-ing".

His written works may not constitute a necessarily easy read today though some collections of shorter excerpts provide excellent introductions to his thinking with interweaving discourses ranging from personal alienation to aesthetics and from individuality to our relationship with the environment.

My personal favorites are Watt's analysis of time itself - against the notion of how a ship cannot be driven by its wake - and a particularly wonderful discourse on Eastern religion and acceptance of death:

I find thinking about death is one of the most creative things one can do. To go to sleep and never wake up. Fancy that. It won't be like going into the dark forever. It won't be like being buried alive forever. It will be as if you had never existed at all. And not only you, but everything else as well. It never was there. No further problems. But wait a minute. I seem to remember something like that. That was just the way it was before I was born. And yet, here I am. I exist, and once, I didn't. Nor did anything else, so far as I'm concerned. And I always figure in life that a thing that happened once can always happen again. So I came out of nothing. But we say "You couldn't have done that because there's nothing in nothing to produce something". But it's not true. It's a fault in our logic. If you had Chinese logic, you would see it differently. You would see that you have to have nothing in order to have something, because the two go together.

Watts' written and oral legacy seems so totally relevant today to a world dissembling fast from everything we once held secure or worthy of deference - where the centre cannot hold and the future is literally unfathomable in a morass of septic greed. And that none moreso than in the land of his birth.

In these darkest of times such words remain engrained with sensitivity and accessibility alike and as transfused with warmth, wit and so much truth - Watts as one of most extraordinary Englishmen in modern history and a giant of intellectual thought and humanity.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Story For Today - BBC Drama from the Sixties to the Eighties

The Elephant's Graveyard, BBC, Play For Today, The Wednesday Play, Billy Connolly

In the previous post about Elvis Presley I referenced the BBC Play For Today production Long Distance Information. In the past few months I have also watched two other plays again from that long running series - Elephants Graveyard from 1976 and The Comedians from 1979.

Peter McDougall's Elephants Graveyard revisits the great folk myth of industrial Britain that in the good old days some men who were out of work got up in the morning anyway out of pure shame and went about their business to give the impression of gainful employment. This ties in with commentary in Paul Mason's recent Why It's All Kicking Off Everywhere as to the black social contract of the Nineties in the UK being essentially that a lifetime of dole money would compensate for a lifetime of work in post-industrial Britain without too many questions being asked since employment opportunities were essentially now extinct. The play stars Jon Morrison and Billy Connolly hiding out in the Scottish countryside away from their wives' gaze and has certain supernatural overtones in its resolution. The two actors had starred the previous year in McDougall's magnificent Just Another Saturday about the Orange marching culture in Glasgow.

Trevor Griffiths' The Comedians had played theatrically for several years by the time of the television production and is the story of a nightclass for budding stand up comedians in Manchester - including a young Jonathan Pryce as the maverick student alongside a Seventies stage Irishman, a Frank Carsonesque Ulsterman and a stereotypical Jew amongst other hopefuls. Pryce's performance at the talent night itself is extraordinary to behold and there are also sobering asides from the teacher - portrayed by Bill Fraser from The Army Game - on racist and sectarian generalisations and his horrifying war experiences. Quite simply it is one of the best television plays of our time.

Play For Today began in 1970 with Ray Davies of The Kinks taking the lead role in The Long Distance Piano Player and ran until 1984. It was the successor to the BBC's The Wednesday Play which started in 1964 and with the namechange reflecting the now varied transmission day. The BBC Head of Drama at the time the series commenced was Sydney Newman who had earlier produced the similar Armchair Theatre for independent television and he aimed to continue making dramas that balanced social realism with a broad public appeal. Furthermore he wanted to get away from the BBC's safe image and produce content with "agitational contemporaneity". Mr Newman - if you are still with us - I trust you are utterly transfixed by the current edgy status of New Britain.

Often controversial, the most famous plays of the series were the Ken Loach-directed Up The Junction in 1965 which focused on working class life in Battersea - and which was later made into a successful feature film starring Dennis Waterman and Suzy Kendall - and Cathy Come Home from 1966 which tackled the subject of homelessness in raw and unflinching fashion. Loach's The War Game was totally withdawn from transmission for twenty years under government pressure because of its controversial depiction of a nuclear attack on London. In a British Film Institute poll in 2000 for the greatest British television programme of the century The War Game was placed 27th and Cathy Come Home second. Alike with several episodes of Steptoe and Son, Dr Who and George Best's only international hat trick many of the episodes were wiped with only 63 out of the 173 made in the BBC archives today.

More than 300 programmes of Play For Today were subsequently produced and as consisting of original television plays and adaptations of stage plays or novels alike. The quality, timelesseness and reknown of so many are extraordinary to consider in hindsight and covered all genres through to even science fiction with 1980's The Flipside of Dominick Hyde. Certain plays such as Willy Russell's 1977 Our Day Out that had transmitted elsewhere on the BBC network were also given a repeat showing in the Play For Today slot. Rumpole of Bailey and Gangsters from 1975 would subsequently become full television series on ITV and BBC respectively.

Some of the best remembered of the plays would be Edna, the Inebriate Woman (1971), The Foxtrot (1971), Penda's Fen (1974), Bar Mitzvah Boy (1976), Nuts In May (1976), Spend Spend Spend (1977), Abigail's Party (1977), The Black Stuff (1978), Blue Remembered Hills (1979) and Just A Boy's Game (1979).

Alike with The War Game two plays would be pulled from transmission entirely due to controversy over the content - Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle in 1976 which contained a rape scene of a disabled woman and the borstal violence portrayed in 1977's Scum. Both these dramas would appear in cinematic form before their eventual transmissions as original television plays.

In the aforementioned BFI poll of the year 2000 no less than five Play For Today programmes were regarded as being in the top 100 British television productions of the 20th Century: Abigail's Party (eleventh), Blue Remembered Hills (36th), Nuts in May (49th), Bar Mitzvah Boy (56th) and Edna, The Inebriate Woman (57th). Alan Bleasdale's The Boys from the Blackstuff which was a sequel to the original television play was seventh.

Play For Today naturally also covered the subject of the Ulster Troubles though several plays commissioned were not produced. Ironically the civil disorder of the Northern Ireland conflict would remain much in the background of the two best-remembered plays set there - Stewart Parker's Iris In The Traffic, Ruby In the Rain in 1981 and Too Late To Talk To Billy by Graham Reid in 1982.

Stewart Parker, whose final play Pentecost took place against the background of the May 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike and indeed stands as one of the greatest pieces of Irish drama to date, set his play on one winter's day in Belfast and followed the parallel lifepaths of the two eponymous women. Belfast punk legends Stiff Little Fingers provided the soundtrack with singer Jake Burns in a supporting dramatic role himself. In 1977 Parker's first contribution to Play For Today was The Catchpenny Twist which covered the songwriting career of two ex-teachers against the political vagaries of Seventies Ireland. His later, and magnificently titled, The Kamikaze Groundstaff Reunion Dinner was shown in 1981 in the series and had white British actors playing Japanese war veterans. He died of cancer in 1988 at the age of only 47.

Graham Reid's play regarded the familial travails of a young working class Protestant in South Belfast portrayed by Kenneth Branagh and with three further plays to follow as based around the character of Billy Martin. Branagh also starred in Reid's Easter 1916 contribution to the Play For Tomorrow mini-series of 1982 which looked at tensions at a Northern Ireland teacher training college on the centenary of the Dublin rising.

Seven other productions over the course of Play For Today's run touched upon the Ulster conflict.

Dominic Behan's 1972 Carson Country - starring Harry Towb and Sam Kydd - looked at Protestant working class life around the period of the Home Rule crisis and the creation of the Northern Ireland state. It was transmitted in October of that year instead of the planned May in order as not to provoke trouble during the marching season. The following month Behan's The Folk Singer for Armchair Theatre on ITV - about the visit of a Liverpool musician to Belfast - was given a later scheduled transmission slot on the instructions of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. Three months later in turn ATV chairman Sir Lew Grade banned entirely the transmission of Kenneth Griffith's Hang Up Your Brightest Colours:The Life and Death of Michael Collins and this would not be shown at all until 1993.

Over the remainder of the Seventies Taking Leave (1974) was the story of a British soldier who returned to Ulster after six years of service and considered his parents' wish for him to terminate his service; Colin Welland's Yer Man From Six Counties (1976) focused upon a young boy's move to the West of Ireland after the death of his father in an IRA bomb; The Legion Hall Bombing (1976) looked at the Diplock court system then operational in Northern Ireland and whose transmission was also delayed by further BBC concern over editorial content while The Last Window Cleaner (1979) followed the transfer of a policeman to Ulster and his experiences in wartorn Belfast at The Crumlin View boarding house.

During the Eighties Jennifer Johnston's Shadows On Our Skin (1980) viewed the Troubles through the eyes of an 11-year-old boy in Derry's Bogside - and with Horslip's Time To Kill used in the soundtrack - while Fire At Magilligan (1984) followed upon the consequences of a driver picking up a hitchhiker on the motorway out of Belfast and the two gradually realised they were not unknown to each other after all.

In consideration of both The Wednesday Play and Play For Today as high water marks of television drama and British television alike, they reflect a society clearly vanished in much of its social and even physical constructs alongside now fractured senses of identity and community cohesion. Though the BBC's reputation and content is now a mere shadow of what it once was, these plays truly represent an extraordinary cultural archive of a much-lamented and utterly lost country.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

That's Someone You'll Never Forget - Elvis in Britain

Elvis Presley, Britain, Prestwick Airport

During what would have been the early to mid-Seventies in Northern Ireland I recall as a child hearing one of apparently several comedic parodies of the song The Deck of Cards which was a hit for Wink Martindale in 1959. This version was voiced by somebody impersonating Protestant political leader the Reverend Ian Paisley and when reaching the "face cards" he would note how the Jack was naturally the papist jackanapes of Rome while the Queen was of course Queen Elizabeth II the Defender of the Faith. As for the King - well that was obviously "Elvis Presley!!!"

Elvis touched down twice in Britain.  In 1967 the MGM movie Double Trouble had Presley heading a rock combo on tour in London and Belgium. His leading lady Annette Day from Telford in Shropshire never worked again in cinema after this, her first and only film performance, though the feature does lay claim to some historic importance due to the late Norman Rossington being the only actor to appear in both an Elvis and a Beatles movie - Double Trouble and A Hard Day's Night respectively.

The opening credits and theme song from the movie retain some kitsch appeal although the one minute and twenty seven seconds long single lifted from the soundtrack album - Long Legged Girl (With The Short Dress On) - bombed at number 63 in the Billboard Top 100 and 49 in the UK charts. The album also contains one of the total lowpoints of Elvis' life in the irony-free duet with Day on Old McDonald. Presley allegedly screamed "It's come to this" during recording of this track and was only becalmed by being assured it would not appear on the forthcoming soundtrack album where in fact it remains to this day for all the world to hear forever and ever until the end of time. The soundtrack was actually released on the same day as The Beatle's Sgt Pepper album.

Double Trouble of course was filmed entirely in Hollywood. In reality Elvis' single fleeting presence on British soil came on March 3rd 1960 at Prestwick Airport near Glasgow while in transit home to America from military service in West Germany - as lampooned in the famous "Elvin Pelvin" episode of Sgt Bilko. The airport in Ayrshire was also used at the time as a USAAF air base and during his brief two-hour stop-over Elvis signed autographs, met fans at the NCO's mess and gave a brief press conference. On exiting the plane he had asked fans "Where am I?" with the crowd shouting back "Prestwick!"

Actually during the pre-digital days of the Eighties I used to acquire some interesting bootleg video and audio-cassette material on Elvis from a dealer in Cambuslang in Glasgow. Very intriguing stuff in hindsight such as magnificent outtakes from the 1968 NBC Special including Presley flirting with the incredibly beautiful Susan Henning during a photoshoot from the bordello sequence and the unbearably sad 1977 CBS Special from shortly before Elvis' death in August of that year.

I remember too buying a grainy copy of the 1968 musical comedy Live A Little Love A Little which included both the future dance hit A Little Less Conversation and the great lost single Edge of Reality which was only released as the b-side to If I Can Dream. Also there was the final Elvis dramatic role of all in 1969's Change of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore as a nun wavering between either Dr Elvis - with his lush sideburns and brilliant black University of Tennessee at Memphis sweat-shirt - or helping to raise the spirits of the downtrodden at the community Fiesta of Saint Juan de Cheguez with some groovy latin music.

There was also a compilation of movie trailers including the appalling Easy Come Easy Go from 1967 where Elvis played navy frogman Lieutenant Ted Jackson - "The bottom of the sea - where the action is!" - and Charro! from the following year featuring Elvis in a cool beard, a striking Hugo Montenegro score, dramatic horse rides through the Superstition Mountains at Apache Junction and not much else. I actually have read somewhere that during the grim endgame of his Hollywood years this was planned as the first of several television movies.

Finally I recall an interesting Elvis Presley bootleg audio-cassette I acquired called Kickin Back which included a gorgeous rendition of Bread's Aubrey with his backing group and a crazed onstage rant about drug allegations - probably leaked by "freaks who carry your bag to the room" - following which he only managed to calm himself down by singing The Hawaiian Wedding Song. Mental.

I got to Memphis in the end too - as haunted and strange a place as that captured in Jim Jarmusch's Mystery Train without question - and have in my possession to this day my own parents' copy of the iconic 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong album that I have been playing now for over forty years. That collection contained the utterly raucous Big Hunk O'Love while the other June 10th 1958 tracks from that solitary recording session Elvis made just after he had joined the army - including I Got Stung and I Need Your Love Tonight - are mortifying reminders of where Elvis' career could have and should have gone in the Sixties.

The Seventies was naturally a mixed bag for Elvis Presley but a lot of his commercial output has dated very well in hindsight. Be that renowned tracks of the ilk of the stunning Burning Love to criminally overlooked songs such as Paul Williams' Where Do I Go From Here - the latter perfectly capturing a sentiment comprehensible to so many millions of us treading water in life year after year in familiar places now changed beyond recognition:

If I knew the way I'd go back home/but the countryside has changed so much I'd surely end up lost.
Half-remembered names and faces so far in the past/at the other side of bridges that were burnt once they were crossed.

The mostly melancholic From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis,Tennessee album from May 1976 would include a moving version of the Northern Irish anthem Danny Boy with just a simple piano accompaniment and as recorded at Gracelands itself. Danny Boy - which is often used as a non-contentious alternative to the British national anthem at certain sporting events involving Northern Irish representatives - was first published in 1855 as Londonderry Air by Dr George Petrie after composer Jane Ross had transcribed a tune from local fiddler Jimmy McCurry in Limavady. The famous lyrics of exile, loss and love of Ireland were added in 1912 by an Englishman Fred Weatherly.

Returning to Prestwick Airport on that historic day, I also recall that there was even a children's television dramatisation of Elvis' visit to Scotland in the Dramarama series of the Eighties on ITV - Waiting For Elvis as produced by Scottish Televison. Presley furthermore was also the subject of a 1979 Play For Today on BBC television with regard to Neville Smith's Long Distance Information. This was about an English disc jockey and Elvis-obsessive presenting his radio show as the news of Presley's death is broken across the world.

The play ended with one of the characters reflecting upon how if Elvis had been born British then surely "we would have looked after him" or some such. An affectionate and moving sentiment in hindsight - and especially in light of how people of an older Britain saw themselves as a fundamentally grounded nation. Though then again our national character never stopped the career of George Best ending on New Years Day 1974 at the grand old age of 27.

Safe Home Elvis.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Stranglers - Coming Your Way

The Stranglers, Punk Rock

If ever you had counted the centuries you threw away
and all the lies that you had started
and all the chances thrown away...

In the quarter century I have been living here in London there are three concerts I deeply regret having missed. Two of these were at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank around about 2003/2004 - the late Arthur Lee and Love's full performance of the classic Forever Changes album and then Irish folk legends Planxty. The third was The Stranglers gig at Alexandra Palace in the summer of 1990 which would be the last performance of the group with Hugh Cornwell as vocalist after ten studio albums together. This was the same North London venue where The Small Faces played their final concert in 1968 before Steve Marriott left to form Humble Pie with Peter Frampton.

The style, political incorrectness, attitude, dark presence and humour of The Stranglers in their original incarnation define the albeit fleeting power and passion of the punk era for me alongside The Skids, the various components of Ulster's shellshock rock and the music of The Ramones from Beat on the Brat right through to Joey Ramone's solo Maria Bartiromo which was released shortly before his death in 2001.

There was always something cool yet fundamentally unsettling about The Stranglers' image - not unlike the American garage band The Music Machine who they were often associated with alongside The Doors. The Music Machine performance of Neil Diamond's breezy Cherry Cherry to be found on youtube by the way - with the lead singer resembling a Hammer Horror satanic cult leader and the group dressed like mid-Seventies paramilitaries in Northern Ireland - is three minutes of total off-the-wall peculiarity.

Following Cornwell's departure The Stranglers produced six more albums with two different vocalists - and with a seventh Giants to follow shortly. Cornwell is also due to presently release his eighth solo album Totem and Taboo and his first novel Windows on the World. My knowledge of the respective later outputs are limited despite seeing both parties live in concert in London but listening recently to the pounding Spectres of Love and Barbara from the 2006 Suite XVI album by The Stranglers - and also Hugh Cornwell's antipodean history lesson The Story of Harry Power and Under Her Spell from his solo Beyond Elysian Fields - suggests significant contributions of worth.

My personal favorite track of all since the 1990 split has been Cornwell's Torture Garden from the 1997 album Guilty - the lyrics based around the filming of the Marilyn Monroe movie The Mistfits as opposed to Mirbeau's 1899 French novel or god forbid the Amicus horror portmanteau of 1967. As for The Stranglers a b-side of the Long Black Veil single from 2004 is absolutely sublime - Life's Too Short.

The first three albums by The Stranglers were released in 1977 and 1978 - Rattus Norvegicus, No More Heroes and Black and White. I remember a clip of celebrity chef Keith Floyd (who used the later Waltz in Black as the theme tune to his cookery programmes) walking along the beach at Deauville in Normandy for an episode of his Floyd On France series and interrupting an accordion-driven Gallic dirge in the background with a comedy vinyl scratch to replace it with the wonderful Hanging Around - this track name checking the infamous Coleherne gay pub near Brompton Cemetery which is now dearly departed like the soul of Old London itself.

I also recall a BBC play - which may or may not have been part of the Play For Today series - using the No More Heroes title track to a clip of some teenage tearaways zooming down the road on their Raleigh Chopper bikes. But it is perhaps the Black and White album in its entirety that holds its own with the best of the Sex Pistols or The Clash by way of the sheer quality of tracks such as Nice n' Sleazy (as associated with an infamous onstage Hugh Cornwell ejaculating neck-wank), Sweden/Sverige, Toiler on the Sea, Curfew and Do You Wanna/Death and Night and Blood.

Aside from The Stranglers' debut album and Black and White, it is fourth album The Raven in 1979 that would appear to be most highly regarded to this day by the existing fan base and the musically informed alike. This album - as available in an exciting limited edition 3-D cover at the time and which I remember buying in Manchester - provided the group with the commercial crossover success of Duchess and expanded the lyrical content of their songs to take on board the Iranian revolution and the controversial Governor of Queensland Joh Bjelke- Petersen alongside a sweeping vista of brothels, suicide, Los Angeles, genetics, aliens, heroin and the Vikings.

A recent and very entertaining Kinks biography by Nick Hasted looked at some of the lunatic career dynamics of that group in the Sixties and Seventies. The Stranglers in turn would replicate the same bizarre pathways in 1981 by way of the decision to follow up the success of The Raven with the utterly uncommercial The Gospel According To The Men In Black album . Any listening of the single Just Like Nothing On Earth will instantly confirm the rank strangeness afoot. The same year, and with Golden Brown becoming their most successful release of all, the group decided on the ponderous six minutes and eleven seconds title track of the album La Folie (sung in French) as a subsequent single release as opposed to the sublime Tramp, Non-Stop or Pin-Up. Golden Brown was a number 2 hit - La Folie made it to number 47.

A move to the Epic label from United Artists heralded a distinctly mellower sound for The Stranglers in the mid-to-late Eighties as arguably captured to just as good (if not better) effect in my opinion, on Skin Deep, Ice Queen and Laughing from 1984's Aural Sculpture as compared to the previous year's more widely recalled Feline with its its beautiful trio of singles in European Female, Midnight Summer Dream and Paradise.

The last two albums by the original line-up of The Stranglers brought further hits in Always The Sun and the 96 Tears cover though are not regarded that positively in hindsight despite the wonderful Latin execution of the lengthy Too Precious on Dreamtime and another lost hit single opportunity with Man of the Earth's reworking of the suburban mundanity archetype from 10 - the band having broke up before its scheduled release.

If one considers other non-album singles of the quality of Five Minutes, Bear Cage, Walk On By and particularly Strange Little Girl alongside magnificent b-sides such as Here and There, Cruel Garden, Vietnamerica and especially the filthy and degenerate Old Codger with Soho jazz legend George Melly this surely underscores the worth of reinvestigating this massively talented, utterly unique and criminally underrated great British band.

...when all is said and all is over
when all is just a memory
our ships will stay for just a moment
leaving false gods and hypocrisy.