Sunday, December 21, 2014

And There Shall Be No Night - Christmas Eve 1914

It was the Ulsterman Brian Desmond Hurst - born in Ribble Street in East Belfast - who directed the classic 1951 Scrooge adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim. Hurst's other famous credits would include Dangerous Moonlight (1941), Theirs Is The Glory (1946)  and Simba (1955) which starred Dirk Bogarde and was set in Kenya during the Mau Mau insurrection against the British.

During World War Two he directed a propaganda feature called A Letter From Ulster in 1943 wherein a Protestant and a Catholic American soldier write home and give their impressions of the province and the people. An attempt to build upon a sense of community between the Northern Ireland population and the huge numbers of stationed US troops it included footage of soldiers' visits to Carrickfergus Castle, the town of Strabane and Derry's Walls. There is also film of a Catholic service held for the American military at St Mary's Church in central Belfast's Chapel Lane - this was the first Catholic church in the city and opened in 1784 with the aid of significant subscriptions from the Presbyterian and Church of Ireland communities. The local Belfast company of the (Protestant) Irish Volunteer movement of the period paraded to the opening and provided a guard of honour for the priest. Many of the soldiers captured on Hurst's film would later fight in Italy at Monte Cassino and Anzio - their fate can only be guessed at. A memorial to the US Expeditionary Force can be seen today in the grounds of Belfast City Hall.

Film was also shot at their army base at Tynan Abbey in County Armagh - built in 1750 and burnt to the ground in a terrorist attack in 1981 with the owners Sir Norman Stronge and his son James being shot dead.  Both the murdered men were Stormont MPs - the former being the Speaker of the House between 1945 and 1969. Sir Norman was the eight Baronet of Tynan while the fifth was Sir James Henry Stronge who held the title between 1849 and 1928 - his only son James Matthew Stronge was killed at the age of 26 while serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in August 1917 in France. In 2011 a relative of Hurst's made a brief documentary where he returned to the Northern Irish locations in the original work including the ruins at Tynan.

Hurst served in the Great War in the Royal Irish Rifles and fought at Gallipoli and in the Balkans and Middle East. In a 1969 Punch magazine interview he noted how "I would fight for England against anybody except Ireland" since in his opinion an Englishman is worth twenty foreigners and an Irishman is worth fifty Englishmen. He also recalled Gallipoli and the mixed religious composition of the regiment - which recruited in both Belfast and Dublin - and where "Catholic-Protestant antagonism vanished in this holocaust". Christopher Robbins' extraordinary The Empress of Ireland from 2004 relates the author's own relationship with the flamboyant director over many years and is highly recommended.

The two definitive pieces of literature relating to this haunted Christmas season in my personal opinion are Dickens' story and Stanley Weintraub's Silent Night: The Remarkable Christmas Truce of 1914 which was published in 2001 by Simon and Schuster. For the columnist Peter Hitchens "the Christmas truce between British and German soldiers in 1914 is, literally, sacred. It was the last hour of Christian Europe, a tragic failure."

Page after page of Weintraub's work relates to a now lost sense of human worth, decency and warmth - and indeed overlaps politically and emotionally with many themes considered in this blog over the years from Scottish independence to British class division to the failed choreography of European union to the long sad outplay of a British Ireland:

A German sergeant with an Iron Cross suspended from a black and white ribbon and earned, he boasted, for skill in sniping, led his men in a marching tune, and when they had finished, Hulse ordered "The Boys of Bonnie Scotland, where the heather and the bluebells grow". They followed with ballads which both sides knew, singing everything from "Good King Wenceslaus" down to the ordinary Tommies' songs, and ended up with "Auld Lang Syne", which we all, English, Scots, Irish, Prussians, Wuerttemburgers etc joined in. It was absolutely astounding, and if I had seen it on a cinematograph film, I should have sworn it was faked!

In earlier posts regarding the the Ulster Home Rule crisis and the Battle of the Somme I noted how Carson's volunteers infused into the 36th Ulster Division were  to be found within the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Royal Irish Fusiliers regiments. Weintraub in turn comments upon the 13th Battalion London Regiment position of that night in that:

The regimental history of the Kensingtons conceded, "We were a little embarrassed by this sudden comradeship, and, as a lasting joke against us, let it be said that the order was given to stand to arms. But we did not fire, for the battalion on our right, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, with their national sense of humour, answered the enemy's salutations with songs and jokes and made appointments in No Man's Land for Christmas Day. We felt small and subdued and spent the remainder of Christmas Eve in watching the lights flicker and fade on the Christmas trees in their trenches and in hearing their voices grow fainter and eventually cease."

The component of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the Ulster Division who fought with the Royal Irish Fusiliers were the Armagh, Cavan and Monaghan volunteers. Fatalities at the later Battle of the Somme were heavy - 64 men returned to the trenches from 600 who had left. Many of the dead were members of the Orange Order. Cavan and Monaghan became part of the Irish Free state with the partition of the island in 1921 as did a third Ulster county - Donegal. One particular photograh of soldiers from this regiment leaving a trench defence remains for me the single most emotionally charged image I have yet seen in my life on so many national, cultural, communal and familial respects.

Cinematically the truce has been portrayed in both Oh What A Lovely War in 1969 and 2005's Joyeux Noel - capturing British and German fraternisation in the former and Scottish, French and German in the latter. Weintraub's book alone however underscores the staggering human scale and historic scope of the Christmas events between the British, German, French, Belgian and respective colonial forces - including Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus from India in the British Army and the Magrebois Muslims in the French from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. Weintraub also notes interesting intra-German divisions regarding the respecting the truce between the Saxon regiments as opposed to the Prussian military contingent - and indeed an individual and very bitter Corporal Hitler from Austria.

From the North Sea to the Swiss border that potentially history-changing moment of rapprochement and brotherhood - that the Germans in the main elicited whatever the qualifications concerning their faith in sure military victory - casts a long shadow on our vile godless world of greed, envy, smugness, ignorance and blandness today.

The men on the frozen fields of Flanders surely looked on the face of God that night every bit as much as the living and the dead did six months hence on the morning of 1st July 1916 at the Somme. So much in our lives of routine, stasis and disappointment will pass but this will not. Those fleeting hours in Western Europe by contrast were the everlasting fingerprint of humanity on this cold, unforgiving, timeless, savage and unrelenting rock. There is very little else in the human condition and the human experience nowadays to hold onto.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Pogues and London - Like Atlantis You Disappeared From View

The Pogues @ Saturday Buddha

Two further milestones of closure then in the past ten days upon an older and better London life. There has been news of the imminent end of Soho's legendary gay club Madame Jojos on Brewer Street and the death of The Small Faces' Hounslow-born keyboardist Ian McLagan from the greatest rock group to have come from the capital in the Sixties.

Was thinking about the band only last Sunday night when I was at a pub in Pimlico in South London where the group lived for a year at 22 Westmoreland Terrace from late 1965. In turn was walking around Soho yesterday and noted some seriously bland boutique developments around Great Windmill Street, Denman Street, Glasshouse Street and Ham Yard that made the head spin.

What would appear to have been the area's last working peep show also may well have shut up shop and I sense it will not be turned into a heritage museum for the industry. However one can still see a faux-peep show sign at the junction of Old Compton Street and Charing Cross Road as an entrance to a Mexican basement restaurant. How post-post-modern is that?

The broader satanification of London life into a city fundamentally distanced from a generic working population - by way of the blistering pus-filled macro-economics of financial plague death and as joyously sold to the world's investors by the Olympiad - has certainly altered life here to literal biochemical degrees now by way of the daily atmosphere of hopelessness and stasis. This fundamentally originating in both the Ponzi property greed and the amount of immoral spiv profit made out of thin air by so many smug wankers in the past ten years of national suicide. This twin phenomena mirroring how the job market has been defaced by industrial internship abuse in both the offering and the uptake alike. Remember that kids.

In such strained times it is interesting to recall how Britain's most famous festive pop song of the Seventies which will be heard in extremis over the next few weeks - Slade's Merry Xmas Everybody - was actually a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the sheer fucking misery of that strike, inflation, boot boy and terrorism-wracked UK decade. Conversely the best of all Christmas songs in popular culture remains of course The Pogue's Fairytale of New York with its unequivocally bleak, openly broken and mournfully Dickensian opening.

A significant percentage of The Pogues' original material over their five studio albums with Shane McGowan reference a lost or now utterly transfigured London - a London of dreams, struggle, light, shadows, nightmares and epiphany. The city is thus mentioned in the tracks Transmetropolitan, Dark Streets of London, Sea Shanty, Lullaby of London, The Old Main Drag, Misty Morning Albert Bridge, White City, London Girl, Rainy Night In Soho and London You're A Lady.

The lyrics of these songs incorporate references to areas as diverse as Kings Cross, Brixton, Leicester Square, Hammersmith, Camden, Somerstown, Soho, Euston, Pentonville, Tottenham Court Road and Surrey Docks. The track by The Pogues which I find the most moving and affectionate regarding times gone forever - not dissimilar indeed to The Jam's Boy About Town excursion around a now run-down second world Oxford Street - is White City.

This song - alike The Who's great lost 1968 single Dogs - is based around the world of greyhound racing at the White City Stadium which was built for the 1908 London Olympics. It  was also used as a speedway track and for one 1966 World Cup Finals fixture between Uruguay and France. A famous Kinks concert took place here in 1973 where an extremely overemotional Ray Davies announced his retirement and also a 1974 David Cassidy concert where a girl was crushed to death in a crowd surge.

The West London location is close to Steptoe and Son's Oil Drum Lane and Wormwood Scrubs prison while the haunting Victorian Kensal Rise Cemetery lies further to the north east. White City Stadium closed in 1984 and was demolished the following year. Haringey Stadium also closed in 1987 though greyhound racing has continued in the capital at Crayford, Romford and Wimbledon.

The lyrics touch upon the glory years of the stadium's life as a centre for working class entertainment and it's fateful demise:

Here a tower of shining bright once stood gleaming in the night,
Where now there's just the rubble in the hole.
Where the Paddies and the Frogs came to gamble on the dogs,
Came to gamble on the dogs not long ago.
The torn up ticket stubs from 100,000 mugs,
Now washed away like dead dreams in the rain.
And the car parks going up and they're pulling down the pubs,
And it's just another bloody rainy day.

The song then notes how the stadium's 77-year presence upon the face of London has left no archeological trace like the legendary lost continent in the Atlantic depths around about the Azores. The greyhounds and the hare on the wire both now turned to ashes while bland BBC buildings full of overpaid and underworked lifers now stand on the site.

Indeed when one looks at vintage pictures from the British Fifties today there is indeed a pervading sense for so many of us that the streetscapes, the life dynamics, the folk culture and the very working people are all gone and gone for good. The world's once greatest city itself turned into a low-rent, phoney, sterile and fucking godless misery pit as another grey year fades out into shadowlands of stagnation, decay and lies.

The next 77 years of London life are certainly looking very very bright tonight.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Saturday Buddha at Christmas - This Holy Tide of Christmas All Other Doth Deface

Over the past three weeks I have been wracking my brains for the origin of a particularly wonderful Belfast children's song which I originally heard on a youtube link though in turn never particularly recall hearing myself as a genuine "branded" Belfast child of the scary Seventies.

I looked carefully through the BBC Northern Ireland Dusty Bluebells compendium of children's street games as directed by the late David Hammond and could not locate it there. This programme was recorded in 1971 and filmed in the literal West Belfast locations where the recent British movie 71 was set.

I also looked through the CBS television movie A War of Children which was produced in 1972 and starred beautiful Jenny Agutter as a young Catholic girl who falls in love with a British soldier as played by Anthony Andrews. This is mostly interesting - beyond the Dublin accents of local Belfast residents - for some staggeringly racist portrayals of the nationalist community throughout as worthy of the London Evening Standard's infamous JAK cartoons against the twin evil others of the period - the English, Scottish and Welsh miners and "the Irish".

The song could not be located either in the BBC documentary Children of the Crossfire which was transmitted in 1974 and contrasted the lives of working class teenagers, minors and infants in Derry's Creggan and in East Belfast - the physical infrastructural collapse captured in this feature alone is truly astounding. There are several renditions of partisan songs in this programme from the local children as relating to Irish republicanism and Ulster loyalism alike and even a clip from a disco with kids dancing along to a version of Jeff Beck's Hi Ho Silver Lining with them interjecting lyrics in support of the violent teenage Tartan gangs of the period.

Either way, and pending corroboration of the source, the song takes the form of a call and respond format:

Everywhere we go
Everywhere we go
People always ask us
People always ask us
Who we are
Who we are
And where do we come from
And where do we come from
And we always tell them
And we always tell them
We're from Belfast
We're from Belfast
Mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty Belfast
Mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty mighty Belfast
And if they can't hear us
And if they can't hear us
We shout a little louder
We should a little louder

The song is meant to be repeated again and again in louder voice and ends with the admonition "If they can't hear us they must be deaf".

During December many of us are drawn back to the past and to people, times and places long gone. I have so many fond memories of Seventies Christmases in Belfast despite the Troubles. In fact when one looks at the day-to-day details of the political unrest and terrorist violence between 1969 and 1976 alone - by way of David McKittrick's 1999 Lost Lives or the much earlier Northern Ireland: A Chronology of Events 1968-74 by Richard Deutsch and Vivien Magowan (published by Blackstaff Press between 1973 and 1976) it is almost inconceivable that such a scale of violence could warrant even qualified normality as a backdrop.

What happened during those years in Northern Ireland - beyond the dead and the physically and emotionally wounded - still defies belief in terms of grotesque societal and cultural damage. Thinking back to those specific childhood Christmases during the conflict - when I would have been between the ages of four and eleven - 21 people would have been killed by the end of 1969, 49 by 1970, 229 by 1971, 725 by 1972, 988 by 1973, 1,291 by 1974, 1,558 by 1975 and 1,866 by 1976. These figures incorporate fatalities on mainland Britain and in the Irish Republic.

Yet Belfast and Northern Ireland - for all the recent battles over flags and emblems and memory and guilt - still retains a fundamental warmth located in the people and the soil. In a recent post on a Belfast forum one first-time visitor recalled a particularly unexpected piece of social interaction:

Recently spent 2 days in Belfast and want to say what a great and friendly city. We were in a pub and asked if they had crisps and the bartender said no. Next thing I know the bartender left the bar and came back with 2 bags of crisps and would not take any money. I am still blown away. Hope to return real soon.

Earlier blog posts on the status quo in London - and indeed one on Mr Tayto the Ulster manufacturing hero who was a literal potato - have already articulated my feelings on the above field report to a point perhaps too obvious to elaborate upon.

However, nearing the end of another working year in a London fraught with daily street aggression, enshrouded in a fog of human misery, drunk on short-term spiv greed and now gradually physically dissippating - as epitomised by the gathering death of Old Soho - this yet again underscores that certain core positivities of the human condition and the human experience remain beyond purchase power. A sense of home and a connection with a shared past being the most fundamental one may arguably surmise.

Somehow I can hardly imagine many children from post-working class London today are likely to be proudly boasting in the years ahead of their city's mighty folk community status against the satanic troika of financial criminality, record-breaking overpopulation and negative social mobility.