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.