Thursday, May 23, 2019

Fields of Fire - Two Wednesday Nights Up The Lisburn Road

Belfast, Norrthern Ireland, Football, Billy Bingham

Some days will stay a thousand years.
Some pass like the flash of a spark.
Who knows where all our days go?

It is generally accepted by the people of Ireland of all cultural backgrounds (and indeed the broader international diaspora across Europe, North America and Australasia) that our island home is a uniquely blessed land of deep soulfulness, rich character and staggering physical beauty - albeit just a wee bit mad in all sorts of happily benign and violently malign respects.

This was encapsulated for me around five years ago when I was living in North London. One night on the way home from another miserable day of work - dealing yet again with overinflated egos and general drudgery for a relative pittance - I left the Overground train for the local bus service. As I sat there during the painfully slow journey up a steep winding hill of Ponzi-driven multi-million pound properties towards residual domestic sanity- and with my eyes glazed over with physical tiredness and world weariness - I noticed some graffiti written on the plastic backing of the seat in front of  me. It boldly proclaimed Jimmy From Belfast.

Having recently endured a fruitless six month search for employment upon the deeply stagnant economic landscape of Northern Ireland - and thus being exiled for the second time around from the Emerald Isle in pure post-modern fashion -  I would probably hesitate from embracing the sentiments expressed in that song by Derry's Phil Coulter Thank God That This Was My Life. In fact whereas in more cynical days I would consider the lyrics of Planxty's Irish folk classic Emigrant's Farewell to Ireland to be a wee bit hackneyed to the point of snigger-inducing parody, the fact remains that the diabolical collapse of social mobility and financial security today across the British Isles makes it sound like nothing more than highly incisive journalistic reportage.

At the same time however I can definitely relate to some of the moving commentaries towards the end of the political crime writer Martin Dillon's 2017 autobiography Crossing The Line regarding the strange hold that Ireland has on the memories of those long departed from its soil. These being very deeply fused together on an emotional plane, complicated in their makeup because of the national political conflict and associated with a myriad of historical touch points relating to family and community life.

Following on from my last post on The Starjets and their classic Power Pop single Shiraleo, I have been giving some thought lately to some of the most memorable times  that particularly stand out from my youth in Ulster. Two events sprung to mind immediately - strangely enough both from Wednesday nights in winter during the Eighties and both emplaced along the Lisburn Road in South Belfast. 

This roughly two mile long thoroughfare stretches from the fervently Unionist Sandy Row district - as namechecked in Van Morrison's 1968 Madame George - and up to the now-closed King's Hall in Balmoral where many famous artists performed at the acoustically-challenged venue including Mario Lanza, The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen and Nirvana. On the way the road passes Windsor Park international football stadium where George Best played eighteen times for  his country. The Lisburn Road was the actual route that King William III took through Belfast in 1690 following his landing on the Carrickfergus shore and on towards battle at the River Boyne in Meath.

On Wednesday 17th November in 1982 I attended Windsor with a handful of mates - and of course 25,000 others - to watch Northern Ireland surely be thrashed by holders West Germany in the European Championship qualifiers. With regard to Billy Bingham's glorious period in charge of the overperforming Eighties international squad this set of fixtures sits between the 1982 and 1986 World Cup Final appearances in Spain and Mexico. The seven year light flight of football glory had commenced with the the 1979-80 British Home International victory and would incorporate winning the final tournament for the same trophy in 1983-84.

Throughout the bitterness and violence of the Troubles years the international team were mixed in religious persuasion though the crowd back in the Eighties was fiercely partisan in a very militant and vocal Loyalist respect. Whatever ethical jarring this dichotomy clearly represents in hindsight within Irish sporting history, the atmosphere at Windsor back in those days as a rule was highly animated and engaged to say the least. When Billy Bingham later recalled the events of that cold winter night he noted how the German stars on their preliminary pitch inspection - players of the sophisticated gilt-edged ilk of Rummenigge, Litbarski and Matthaeus - were immediately disconcerted by the downpour over bitter oul Belfast and the then-dilapidated condition of the stadium.

As to what I can remember of that night ...well I definitely recall the miserable marrow-chilling rainfall on the Spion Kop as a given, some deeply nasty scatological chants from the crowd directed towards the Bundesrepublik Deutschland goalkeeper Harold Schumacher and of course the earthquake roar upon Ian Stewart's 18th minute goal which won the match. Even though blurry footage of the game is available online I still think back to a sound file of the goal on an old unsophisticated Northern Ireland football website which captured the supporters' reaction to crystal clear perfection against Jackie Fullerton's BBC commentary. I used to share it with workmates in London just for the Wall of Sound audio sensation alone and to let them know I was actually there. Although little of the football action on the night itself remains in my memory I can never forget the crowd response of demented release and utter disbelief as the moon pinballed back and forth overhead, black crows fell dead from the Belfast sky and logic and perception shifted tectonically across time and space.

Northern Ireland alas did not reach the 1984 finals of the European Championships despite winning in turn against West Germany the following November - one of the most extraordinary achievements in modern British international football history. They ended Group 6 runners up on goal difference with an earlier scoreless draw against mighty Albania in Tirana providing their statistical downfall. The  players capped in the two German ties included goalkeeping legend Pat Jennings, 1982 World Cup heroes Gerry Armstrong and Billy Hamilton, future Ireland managers Sammy McIlroy and Martin O'Neill, the Manchester United icon Norman Whiteside who scored in Hamburg and the late Noel Brotherston of Spurs and Blackburn Rovers, The latter is still remembered with much affection today by the fanbase for both his moments of sizzling Brazilian craftsmanship on the wing, scoring the winning goal against Wales to take the British Championship trophy back to Ireland for the first time since 1914 and for that legendary Ulster receding ginger hairline.

Two years after watching what still remains Northern Ireland's greatest home victory I attended an incredible performance by Big Country at the King's Hall on Wednesday 19th December 1984.
The Celtic rock group were formed by Scottish guitarist Stuart Adamson following his departure from The Skids whose own incredible creative output from 1978 to 1981 is still held in awe today - from Open Sound through to Fields, across four albums and with three singles reaching the UK Top Twenty. Big Country would in turn release eight albums between 1983 and 1999 - they never featured any Skids material in their concert sets.

The existent appeal towards the music produced by Big Country is qualified to an extent by the questionable fashion styling and fundamentally naff marketing of the Eighties and some terrible misproduction affecting their mid-period releases. Yet in the earlier stages of their career with The Crossing and Steeltown albums they received similar critical appreciation as that devolving to Simple Minds, U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen. These two albums reached number 3 and number 1 on the album charts in Britain. Their 1993 The Buffalo Skinners is also a fantastic collection of engaging guitar rock and certainly their third great album.

Big Country's music at its best touched upon genuinely universal themes of maintaining self-respect and hope in the middle of struggle and deflation. Likewise Adamson's lyrics stand as a vital contemporary commentary on the violent and brutal death of industrial Britain - surely the single most important historical factor underpinning the self-perpetuating social meltdown of today and the staggering disconnectivity with the recent past we can now sense constantly.

The December 1984 concert in Belfast was the first time I had seen the group - I subsequently saw them again at Belfast's Avoniel leisure centre on The Seer tour (they played the previous night at the Templemore sports complex in Derry), supporting David Bowie at Slane in the Irish Republic (some miles directly west of the Boyne battle site) and then at London's Hammersmith Odeon and Town and Country Club.

From what I can gather online the group had played at Queens University Belfast in July 1983 and then a further nine times in Northern Ireland in their original lineup after the two concerts I attended - Derry and Belfast in January 1989, Cookstown and the Belfast Mandela Hall in November 1991, Belfast again in April 1993, Belfast Limelight in May 1994, the Ulster Hall in Belfast in September 1995, the Limelight again in August 1996 and lastly the Belfast Waterfront in May 2000 during the Final Fling tour. The group's wonderful off-the-cuff electric rendition of the Scottish folk song KIlliekrankie was recorded during a soundcheck by Ulster Television prior to that 1991 Mandela Hall gig. They also played many concerts in the Irish Republic during this period in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Dundalk, Tralee, Waterford, Limerick and the Thurles Festival in Tipperary.

The King's Hall concert during their Steeltown tour was an extraordinary night of pure passion, soul and exhilaration that was further dynamised by the absolutely wild reaction they received from the crowd. I have read online comments in the past from their former manager that staff at the venue claimed the crowd noise that night surpassed even the regular world boxing championship bouts that were held there. The Big Country set included their raft of four consecutive hit singles in Fields of Fire (with throws in their live extended working to The Jam's Boy About Town, Aerosmith's Walk This Way and The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go?), In A Big Country, Chance and Wonderland. It also included the extraordinary Just A Shadow - a song which in its content prefigured the horrendous epidemic of male mental illness which would affect so many in the fractured and misfiring century ahead.

I always remember one point during the concert when the hall lights came up during the instrumental military-style guitar-and-drum passage in the middle of Where The Rose Is Sown. Even at this career point where the group were leading commercial players in British rock, I still recall the look on Adamson's face as he gazed out at a literal sea of unrestrained human joy with what seemed like total amazement. Over the years I got to see some wonderful concert performances including Prince, Tom Petty, The Clash, Rush and The Rolling Stones but I will never but ever forget that night in Belfast. It remains for me the greatest concert I ever saw - let alone the most ecstatic crowd reaction - though the memory is always tinged with sadness as to the outplay of Adamson's life. This also casts a terrible gloss of melancholy over some of his later songs such as You Dreamer, Alone, Dive Into Me and particularly My Only Crime.

Stuart Adamson - who was born to Scottish parents in Manchester and grew up in the Kingdom of Fife - certainly had huge pride in his own roots within both the Celtic littoral of the United Kingdom and industrial Britain alike. Hence when The Skids were asked by a record company at one point for the title for a forthcoming compilation he replied “There's no argument over what it's called. It'll be called Dunfermline - or it won't be released “. Such words of faith, passion and a true belonging have all but disappeared now from our British and Irish folk memory.

Now one of the most complex bearings embedded within the mature spiritual condition is the acceptance that every minute of every hour a person of profound intelligence, wit, warmth, talent, fun and compassion passes from this earth. The life and soul of of our human footprint is in a perpetual cycle of loss and (now extraordinary strained and malfunctioning) regeneration. The same without doubt applies to all sentient creatures - a piece of bloody roadkill that makes one instantly shudder may well once have been a vehicle for some extraordinary physical strength, functional ability or unique character. This sobering awareness of life as it is actually lived underscores how many unforgettable moments are often so fleeting in time and a combination of very unique circumstances and settings.They also most certainly lie outside the remit of extravagant financial engagement.

All three factors certainly constitute the background to those memories I have from what is now three and a half decades ago. Of both the night Northern Ireland equalled Linfield's 1970 trumping of Manchester City at Windsor to become the greatest football team on earth and when a few hundred very lucky souls got to see one of the greatest live rock acts in history literally blow the roof off the Forbidden Planet of Eighties Ulster.

Belfast may not have the architectural glory, temperate climate or effortless panache of other American or European capitals - and I personally have huge bloody reservations on the 21st Century rebranding of the city and the Ulster Troubles alike. Yet I remain cognisant that I was blessed to see and experience those moments of magic on the Lisburn Road. Many people have not been that lucky as to how the timeframes of their life coalesced while in turn others were cut short on the opportunity - as was the case for thirty wasted years in Northern Ireland because of direct human agency. One particular Stuart Adamson lyric that was often quoted after his December 2001 suicide reflecting: 

There are only seconds of your life 
that really count for anything. 
All the rest is killing time.
Waiting for a train.


Friday, May 3, 2019

Shiraleo - Belfast City's Power Pop Classic

The Starjets, Ulster Punk Rock, Irish Rock, Power Pop

My enthusiasm for association football and popular music alike did not long survive the fading out of the 20th Century. It terminated essentially with Matthew Le Tissier of Southampton FC, Blackwood's Manic Street Preachers and Therapy? from Larne in Northern Ireland (or Ulfreksfjordr in its appropriately dark and menacing Old Norse).

Some posts ago I referenced Mark J Prendergast's Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions
from The O'Brien Press which remains for me the definitive overview of Ireland's rock music history. There are excellent narratives here on the careers of Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy, Horslips, Van Morrison and U2 though with no further editions following upon from its 1987 publication the coverage missed out on globally successful Nineties artists such as The Cranberries, Ash and The Divine Comedy.

The book was released at a point where the careers of Ireland's main punk and New Wave acts had drawn to apparent closure. Northern Ireland's Stiff Little Fingers and The Undertones fell apart in 1982 and 1983 respectively after the release of their fourth albums Now Then and The Sin of Pride respectively. In the Irish Republic The Radiators From Space disbanded in 1981 having produced two albums in the late Seventies while fellow Dublin act The Blades broke up in 1986 after The Last Man in Europe and Raytown Revisited releases of the previous year.

However I can clearly recall some other Northern acts from the time who put out material that has dated fundamentally well in the main.  In particular there was The Moondogs of Derry who had a great run of single releases from She's 19/Ya Don't Do Ya on the Good Vibrations label onwards and who eventually were gifted their own 1981 seven-part music show on Granada TV - this without even releasing an album or having well-connected parents in showbusiness for that matter. Guest artists included The Boomtown Rats, David Bowie and The Police.

There was also Bankrobbers who were the support act I saw on the SLF Now Then gig in Belfast. They opened for The Kinks at one point in their career and their incredibly catchy Jenny single in 1983 was performed on a special Belfast edition of Tyne Tees' The Tube on Channel 4. That Petrol Emotion in turn had an impressive creative run through from their debut Manic Pop Thrill album in 1986 right up to the fantastic Hey Venus single at the start of the next decade which I remember hearing on crackling early hours London wavelengths as Radio Luxembourg's Power Play of the week. Then there was the equally wonderfully named Ghost Of An American Airman whose debut I Hear Voices single in 1987 remains a smart and melodic pop record alas buried in some questionable production values of the period.

Every edition of Moondogs Matinee commenced with a rendition of the artist's Power Pop. The other Northern Irish band long associated with this particular rock genre - of the stylistic ilk of Badfinger, The Raspberries, Flamin' Groovies, Big Star or The Knack  - was The Starjets from West Belfast's Falls district who were formed in the Summer of 76.

Unlike other gritty and aggressive punk sounds produced on the city's very mean streets, earlier concert material performed by The Starjets included The Archies' Sugar Sugar and The Beatles' Please Please Me. Their harmonious sound and clean-cut look had them labelled as The Bay City Rollers of Punk in some clearly spiteful quarters as their career started to roll. Having moved to London and signed to Epic Records they released several singles and one long player God Bless The Starjets in 1979 - the only commercial success coming from the War Stories 7" which reached Number 51 in the UK charts and rewarded them with a performance on the BBC Top of the Pops.

War Stories namechecks several Sixties and Seventies British comic book legends from back in the day when the only safe space a teenage boy needed was throwing himself headlong into a World War Two dream landscape after his own da had finished reading the travails of Captain Hurricane, Johnny Red and Sgt Fury himself in Victor, Battle, Valiant and the wee ubiquitous Commando magazines. All good healthy preparation for the Sven Hassel Wehrmacht pulp to come of course. The Johnny Red story title I now realise was wordplay based on the Johnny Reb nickname bestowed by Yankee soldiers on the Confederacy rank and file in the American Civil War - a large section of which were of Scots-Irish descent as indeed was Ulysses S Grant whose family hailed from the beautiful county of Tyrone.

The Starjets released a final single Shiraleo in March 1980, changed their name to Tango Brigade for a final release called Donegal and split up. Singer Terry Sharpe then cultivatied more public appreciation with The Adventures - this including a Top 20 single Broken Land and Top 30 album The Sea of Love.

And thus the Belfast post-punk group's story would reside in the dusty and scratched vinyl annals of British and Irish chart rock history were it not for the fact that Shiraleo happens to sound today as effective, sunny and engaged a piece of Power Pop as anything released by the international artists named above - up there with No Matter WhatTonight, Shake Some Action, Back of My Car and Good Girls Don't.

Several public comments on Youtube seem to clearly concur with that appreciation alongside disbelief as to how The Starjets final single commercially flatlined on the musical radar screen:

It must be heartbreaking to write a killer song such as this only to see it fail...

If I had written this, and released it, and it hadn't made the charts, I would have gone mad with frustration. I don't know how The Starjets stood it....

I was baffled at the time, thought it had all the right ingredients to be a big hit - shame.

Powerpop Punktastik...why wasn't this anything like a hit?

Now having listened to the song a lot over the past few weeks - and even with the twin qualifications on board that I cannot fathom the meaning of the lyrics and that the group did not play that often in Belfast during their very fleeting brush with chart fame - it has nonetheless brought back a raft of memories of teenage years in Northern Ireland in the Eighties.

Granted these stand a long metaphorical distance away from how John Luke's previously discussed portraits of Ulster life can instill measured melancholic reflection upon vanished urban landscapes and rural idylls from the Fifties. Nonetheless the music does concentrate the mind on a strangely disjointed and still little analysed decade that played out under considerable strain and darkness in a troubled Ulster.

The levels of political discord and violence in the North were underpinned by the ramifications of the 1980-81 Maze Prison hunger strikes upon Sinn Fein electoral support and how the imposition of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the middle of the decade lead to loyalist paramilitary revival. Yet I remember other sustained features of life from the time that were to undergo staggering transformations ahead.

These include the absence of alienating (and now literally transhuman) behavior patterns gauged to the digital revolution, a world of employment and recruitment yet to be totally wankered into total checkmated oblivion, an existent connectivity with the afterglow of the Seventies Golden Age of cinematic and televisual excellence,  the sustenance of genuine creative spaces as directly linked to potential financial remuneration, heavily animated downtown landscapes full of financially sustainable commercial footprints. a generation gap still grounded on some residual deferential respect and a time when the past still felt close in comparison to this century's engineered drift and lack of focus.

So whereas on a personal level Shiraleo tends to engender somewhat bittersweet recall by way of the Ulster people and the places who have passed on from those days it is still  tied fast to memories which are fundamentally positive of a time when the nightmarish socio-economic and political shifts around us today were still to globally engage and seal fast.

An intelligent and empowering piece of Irish popular music in itself but also one that has yet excavated some long buried thoughts and feelings about the certainly unique, frequently edgy, often crazy and yet still wonderful place we either call or once called home.


Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Ulster Zen - The Deep Past Within The Fractured Present

Ulster Museum, Bronze Age

Without doubt one of the most beloved artifacts residing within the Irish heritage sector today is the mummified remains of Takbuti at the Ulster Museum on Belfast's Stranmillis Road.

Like many thousands of children who grew up amid the violent social transformations affecting the city in the Seventies, a trip to see the genuinely unsettling black-skulled mummy - alongside visits to the Palm House, Tropical Ravine and indeed the Ulster 71 exhibition in the adjoining Botanic Gardens -  is lodged with deep affection in the memory of our communally shared lost youth.

Takabuti was brought from Egypt to Ireland in 1834 by Thomas Greg of Holywood in County Down. She has thus been resident in East Ulster through famine and economic depression,  industrialisation surges and deindustrialisation waves and two bloody civil wars involving various triangulations of bad guys and good guys. Also Northern Ireland's national engagement in a global military conflict which incorporated significant aerial bombardment of central and suburban Belfast by the German Luftwaffe that left over 900 Protestant and Catholic civilians murdered.

Last week I visited the museum again with my Scandinavian partner to have a look at their display on the historic Viking footprint in Ireland following upon the initial attack against Rathlin Island monastery in the Straits of Moyle in 795. Perhaps because of the regional strength of the Irish kings this was much less engaged by way of physical settlement in the North of Ireland in comparison to other quarters of the country where the Vikings from Denmark and Norway founded major coastal towns and cities such as Wexford, Limerick and Dublin.

Within Ulster itself Viking encampments were situated at Strangford and Carlingford on the beautiful County Down coastline as well as on Lough Neagh near the site of Shane's Castle and up upon  the western shore of Lough Foyle. The great abbeys at Movilla and Bangor were destroyed in Viking raids and violent assaults were also set fast against churches on Fermanagh's Lough Erne and the ecclesiastical capital of Armagh.

I found it especially interesting to discover how the original name for Country Antrim's Larne Lough was Ulfreksfjordr since I had reread only last month in Jonathan Bardon's wonderful 1992 Ulster history how the name of the province itself came from the Norse Uladztir which in turn was based on the Irish words Ulaidh and Tir.

Just beside the small display of Viking ephemera at the museum is a section on the Irish Bronze Age and a wonderful installation piece where one can look through a square hole in the white wall and see delightfully crafted models of human figures across the ages and as positioned around the same sobering burial pit.

At first we see a family from our ancient kindred gathered mournfully around the graveside at sunset and with the grandfather's corpse placed in a foetal position for his journey into Celtic or Pictish eternity. Suddenly the lights extinguish across the landscape and having travelled through a mysterious otherworldly prism of time and space we are now watching a modern archaeological dig on a sunny day. Two late 20th Century alpha male researchers living the career dream are looking down into the Ulster soil at the skeletal remains of the long-interred farmer or craftsman.

When I was at university in the late Eighties I used to spend a lot of time in the museum but cannot actually recall seeing this particular display or furthermore if it would have been there even during my childhood visits in the previous decade.  It is a wonderful encapsulation of not only  the fleetingness of human existence and family life but also the sheer density of Irish folk culture as transfused every day from this island's complex, ethnically heterogeneous and fraught past into the equally volatile present.

Over the past few months I have visited some extraordinary passage grave, standing stone and holy well sites across counties Down, Tyrone and Fermanagh. The emotional connectivity with our shared folk past that one can experience at these coastal, forest or moorland locations has never felt stronger in many ways - so untrammeled and unsullied in this world of avarice, lack of direction and blanket idiocy.

Thomas Sheridan’s intriguing fourth book The Druid Code is an extraordinary deconstruction of ancient British and Irish history as relating to the complexity of such megalithic remains across the British Archipelago, Northern Europe and the Mediterranean.  It also traces the passage of druidic ritual into witchcraft and specifically Irish freemasonry - it is hugely recommended. Most interestingly, and prefiguring the selection of Northern Ireland for the location shooting of Game of Thrones, there was in fact an outdoor heritage park based on early Ulster history located near Omagh during the Nineties. Resembling a physical manifestation of a Horslips Celtic Rock concept album it is long defunct.

The sense of continuity and timelessness in Ulster life that the museum tableau represents was discussed here in an earlier blogpost on the Belfast artist John Luke. Whether the degrading excesses of selective historical amnesia in Ireland is broadly cancelled out by the continual warmth and welcome of the native people and the staggering beauty of the landscape of course remains impossible to conclusively configure.

Alas in contemporary Northern Ireland the fudging of Troubles legacy issues has fundamentally overwritten the consociational higher mathematics of the 1998 settlement which provided the solitary political fix available this lifetime around for the province following the trumping of Bill Craig's voluntary coalition proposal at the 1975 Constitutional Convention in Belfast.

In turn the deeply strange economic makeup of the Northern state with its grotesque private and public sector imbalance atop desperately low salaries throws up deeper questions about the long-term logic of Irish partition in a financially globalised world and  the very competence of Westminster central government in managing post-industrial UK regional economies.

In any case, and as society forges towards a point where the only employment left very soon will be programming or polishing robots, I genuinely hope that when the Irish museum sector clears out its content on some futuristic commercial purchasing platform that I can perhaps pick up the Ulster Museum's From Past To Present masterpiece for my own personal Irish archive and watch it again and again and again to the end of my mortal days.

A cold eye on life and death and no finer concentration of earth magick to be seen since Catweazle walked the soil of Albion across the ITV/UTV network in the first two years of the Nineteen Seventies. The six wee figures underscoring the core human conundrum of getting up in the morning and either living your life fully as a unique transitory soul or just surviving the end of everything good like all the rest.

Ulster Museum, Bronze Age

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Waxie's Dargle of Irishtown

Dublin, Ireland, Waxie's Dargle

In the middle of last month I caught up with an old schoolfriend in Belfast. We got talking about what was the first concert we would have both seen together back in the day. We settled on a gig The Clash performed at the Ulster Hall in February 1984. This was towards the end of their career when guitarist Mick Jones had left the group.

I can't remember much about the evening to be honest apart from the video backdrop they used that night for the Police On My Back cover and the fact that singer Joe Strummer played most of the set with a towel held at arms-length from his face as a barrier against the rich volume of spit and phlegm directed towards him from the fans at the front. I read years ago that at one point Strummer had contracted heptatitis from one particularly potent discharge of vintage sputum which made the perfect rock n roll trajectory all the way down his throat during a punk gig.

Some months after this Clash concert another friend told me about a Belfast gig he attended at the same venue where the artistes performed with a similarly strange onstage accoutrement - this being a tin beer tray which one member of the support act smashed against his head in time to the music. This of course was Spider Stacey the tin whistle player of The Pogues who were opening for Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

The first of The Pogues' seven albums was Red Roses For Me and was released in October of 1984 on the Stiff label. It contains some great breezy instrumentals in The Battle of Brisbane and Dingle Regatta as well as the first of the group's paeans to the now long lost soul of the British capital in Transmetropolitan and Dark Streets of London - that city of dreams, struggle, nightmares and epiphany. 

The album title is taken from a 1943 Sean O'Casey play and the thirteen tracks include their impressive reading of Brendan Behan's The Auld Triangle. The best song of the album in my opinion - Sea Shanty - also lifts a vintage line from Behan's Borstal Boy in "Compliments pass when the quality meet". This being a wonderful aside from one personage to another when having overheard examples of verbal vulgarity in public that have surpassed all boundaries of social acceptability and redemption.

Track four is the extraordinarily ribald roar of Waxie's Dargle which I suspect was the main song in their early repertoire to incorporate the beer tray headbanging thing. Covered by several artists over the years including Sweeney's Men, the first time I ever heard the song was in a long-forgotten
13-part Canadian Broadcasting Corporation series Cities which transmitted a few times on the ITV network in the early Eighties. The Dublin documentary in the series was presented by director John Huston and Waxie's Dargle was duly performed by a talented and hirsute duo called The Jacobites.

The title is such a strange combination of  disparate wordage - especially as placed alongside the namechecking of working class Dublin quarters as Monto and Capel Street  - that in essence it could almost be the recollection of a regularly underperforming racehorse at Leopardstown in the Fifties or a physically vanished pub in The Liberties. The actual historical background needless to say - Ireland being Ireland -  is both genuinely fascinating and just a wee bit bloody glorious.

Hence the legendary Waxie's Dargle - as mentioned in James Joyce's Ulysses - was a jolly excursion for the cobblers of Dublin in plebeian imitation of the gentry's own annual society picnic jaunt to the banks of the River Dargle near Bray and Enniskerry which lies south of the Irish capital. The cobblers were known as "Waxies" because of their use of candlewax  to preserve the thread which stitched the shoes and "going to the Dargle" had long become a part of Dublin vocabulary for an annual day out.

The cobblers trip on loaded-up flat dray carts or jaunting cars was at Easter and with the original Waxies Dargle having been part of Donnybrook Fair until it closed in the mid-1850s due to riotous behaviour. Subsequently the annual procession - which extended by default to workers from all sectoral backgrounds - went nowhere near as far as Bray but only to a grass-covered triangle of land at  Irishtown between coastal Ringsend and Sandymount in the south of the city. Irishtown had been the location of the main Gaelic settlements outside Dublin following upon the native population expulsions of 1454 from the city by the English authorities.

Therefore this classic and indeed globally renowned folk song is essentially a discursive consideration between two male friends in a pub on how their wives aim to fund familial attendance for this day of merriment, drinking and music- Monto was Dublin's large red light district while many pawnbrokers' shops were located in the old Jewish quarter of Capel Street.

A similar Easter-time public excursion within Ulster social history is captured in Glenn Patterson's 2012 novel The Mill For Grinding Old People Young. The narrative of the story follows the course of the 19th Century in Belfast from the aftermath of the United Irishmen rising through to the societal surges of the industrial revolution - the narrator Gilbert Rice at one stage walking with hundreds of other young people up to the environs of the Cave Hill in the north of the city.

Indeed many of the older generation in Northern Ireland to this day will recall Sunday afternoon and evening walks to the Belfast hills - up from Woodvale Park on the Shankill Road to the Horseshoe Bend at Ligoniel in my own parents' case - when the roads were crowded with people taking the weekend air. And of course in the north of Ireland too there was a rich vernacular associated with trades, professions and labour. The most famous by far relates to the "millies" or mill girls of the many linen factories in North and West Belfast.

Returning to Irishtown and according to some online resources an engraved stone near a pub in the area commemorates the actual location of the Waxie's Dargle. I haven't been able to find any confirmation of whether it still stands there but, should it do so, it represents a wonderfully understated memorial to the toils and trials and concomitant warmth and community of the Dublin working people.

In turn, back in 2010, a magnificent city council-funded statue to the mill girls was erected at the corner of the Crumlin Road and Cambrai Street in West Belfast. This was in close proximity to the former Ewart's, Brookfield, Flax Street and Edenderry linen mills that provided such a dynamic for the city's initial wealth and industrial expansion. The tens of thousands of millies - both Catholic and Protestant - would work long hours for minimal pay (or "buttons" in Belfast slang) while under threat of horrendous industrial injury and a raft of appalling lung and chest conditions.

When I saw the statue some years back around teatime, the surrounding streets - which would have once been black with hundreds upon hundreds of workers leaving the factories at that time of day in the earlier half of the last century - were completely and utterly deserted. And there the wee Belfast millie stands all alone by herself this very night - waiting for her mates who are now in the main all long departed this earthly life and its associated joys and pains.

The inextinguishable respect the Irish still have for their forebears and the hard lives they lead so clearly unites people on both sides of the border and - along with a love for the staggering physical beauty of the island - remains one of the most important underpinnings of the deep living soul of Ireland.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Born Of Golden Sand And Sky - Elvis Presley as Johnny Tyronne


Elvis, Elvis Presley, Harum Scarum, Harem Holiday, Ireland

Over the course of the Christmas break here in Ireland I took two wonderful long drives around the Tyrone countryside - north through  the Sperrins range and then around the Clougher Valley to the south. I will reserve comment on the genuinely magick destinations themselves in order to avoid leaving a commercial scent for any ambitious media location scout to follow upon and despoil.

Tyrone - to use the anglicised form of Tir Eoghain - was once an Irish kingdom and later an earldom that incorporated swathes of  present day County Armagh and County Londonderry. The last great leader of Gaelic Ulster -  Hugh O'Neill Earl of Tyrone - fled to Europe in 1607 after the Battle of Kinsale alongside Rory O'Donnell of Tyrconnell. Aside from its association with the legendary Flight of the Earls from Lough Swilly in Irish history, Tyrone is also closely associated with the October-December 1921 Treaty negotiations  in London between the British government and Sinn Fein delegates including Arthur Griffiths and Michael Collins. This by way of the arguments which ranged around which of the six North East counties would surely come under the jurisdiction of a future southern polity in a final settlement  - both County Fermanagh and County Tyrone within the northern part of the initial 1920 partition having Catholic demographic majorities.

Tyrone is the eighth largest of Ireland's 32 counties and the second largest in the old province of Ulster by size - the tenth and fourth  largest respectively by population. Famous sons of Tyrone include the Easter Rising leader Tom Clarke, writer Flann O'Brien, dramatist Brian Friel and folk musician Paul Brady. Like many other locations in the British archipelago the name of the county has been transplanted across the Atlantic from Ontario to Pennsylvania to Georgia - there is even a deserted mining town called Tyrone in New Mexico.

The common usage of the proper noun "Tyrone" also extends to both christian names and surnames - most notably in the case of movie actor Tyrone Power and theatre director Tyrone Guthrie. Interpretations of first name meanings in this instance seem to link directly with the Irish county or possibly as an English version of the name "Eugene" which means noble or well-born. Surname usage is much less common, has Anglo-Saxon and Huguenot origins (like many names found today in Northern Ireland with respect to the latter source) and is associated with variations such as Terron, Terrans, Tyron and Tyrell.

In fact the surname Tyrone is so extremely rare that the only association I have ever recognised across the public domain in my lifetime still lies in one specific fictional characterisation. Surprisingly this is not a minor background figure of driven and renegade Irish Republican bent  in David Lean's Ryan's Daughter or the earlier classic Jimmy Cagney thriller Shake Hands With The Devil. No, in this instance I am thinking of Johnny Tyronne  in the 1965 Elvis Presley MGM musical Harum Scarum - directed by Gene Nelson, produced by Sam Katzman, shot on the original set of Cecil B DeMille's The King of Kings and as marketed as Harem Holiday in the United Kingdom.

Elvis - whose complex  family heritage incorporated both Irish and Scots-Irish blood ties - acted in thirty one motion pictures over the course of his career. Harum Scarum was the nineteenth and by far his worst. The dementedly criminal waste of creative talent being amplified in this instance by the witless  and bungled mangling of the ancient Tyrone-surname by writer Gerald Drayson Adams in what one must logically assume was some ill-considered attempt at underscoring the character's romantic, untamed and manly appeal early-on in  the narrative proceedings with a linkage to Oul Ireland. A significant amount of English-language commentary and critique to be found online regarding this film refers to "Johnny Tyrone" by default.

The plot takes American movie star Johnny to Babelstan in the Middle East to premiere his new Valentino-style dramatic release where he is kidnapped for the purpose of utilsing his martial arts skills in the assassination of a king. He escapes his captor's clutches and then attempts to foil the plot by joining a musical troupe and return incognito to the town of Bar Esalaam. The rest is endless, merciless and idiotic tedium which ends in the besting of the evil masterplan and a return to Vegas with the beautiful Princess Aishah in tow as his besotted bride-to-be.

The soundtrack of the film reached Number 8 on the Billboard album charts and consists of nine movie songs (with titles closely gauged to the mysterious otherness of the Arab world) along with two extra tracks as bonuses in Animal Instinct and Wisdom of the Ages. All of which, with the potential exception of So Close, Yet So Far (From Paradise) as crooned from a prison cell to the captive moon which has no potential for astral escape, represent the nadir of Presley's career.

Tellingly no singles were ever lifted from the album. In fact the diabolically ill-coordinated final scenes of the movie show Elvis on stage in Nevada in arguably his most limp, lifeless and broken form - far superseding the final befuddled and overweight physical manifestations of the 1977 CBS television special footage. Here he looks as if he has been given a brutal diagnosis for shingles on Christmas Eve one minute after somebody whispered in his ear that all the dancing girls on stage really fancied him.

Back in the early-to-mid Seventies Elvis movies would flit all over the BBC television schedules and even in interfaces with children's programming - something similar befell repeats of Sgt Bilko in this period. Harum Scarum had very regular placements in this remit alongside other Presley movie standards such as Kid Galahad, Fun in Acapulco and It Happened At The World's Fair. 

In hindsight of course this cinematic feature mirrored The Banana Splits' animated insert The Arabian Knights in pace and design - heroic sagas, karate fights against bad guys and leopards alike, strange esoteric locations, blinding technicolor, beautiful veiled Caucasian girls, cracker barrel and zany American humour and great songs spontaneously performed in the marketplace and at the oasis. The appeal to a seven-year-old in rainy Troubles-era North Belfast is clearly unquestionable.

Actually around the very same mid-Seventies period in Northern Ireland that I was watching this very movie and other goofy sun-blown Presley features like it I also recall hearing one of apparently several comedic parodies of the downbeat religious recitation 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!!!"

The history books show in sober black and white Gothic script that Elvis touched down twice in the British Isles.  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. The feature however 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 singles 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 the soil of the British Isles 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 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!"

I personally got to visit Memphis during the late Nineties - as uniquely haunted a city then 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 proto-punk roar of Big Hunk O'Love while the other June 10th 1958 tracks from that solitary recording session 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 gone in the earlier part of the Sixties.

The surreal and dispiriting Hollywood haze that came to pass - of which Harum Scarum was the most infamous component - included Easy Come Easy Go from 1967 where Elvis played navy frogman Lieutenant Ted Jackson and whose trailer boldly proclaimed "The bottom of the sea - where the action is!" There was 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 really for what was meant to resemble a gritty spaghetti western. I actually have read somewhere that during the grim endgame of his Hollywood years this was planned as the first of several television movies. Also there was the final Elvis dramatic role of all in 1969's Change of Habit with Mary Tyler Moore as a nun drawn to Dr Presley's lush sideburns and black University of Tennessee at Memphis sweat-shirt while helping to raise the spirits of the downtrodden with some tasty Latin beats at the community Fiesta of Saint Juan de Cheguez .

The Seventies in turn was naturally a mixed artistic bag for Elvis Presley though a lot of his commercial output has dated very well in hindsight. Be that renowned tracks of the ilk of the stunning Burning Love, Promised Land and Always On My Mind to criminally overlooked songs such as Pieces of My Life, If You Talk In Your Sleep and particularly Paul Williams' Where Do I Go From Here. This last song 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 in spirit and appearance:

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 - the artist's penultimate album - would include a moving version of the most famous of all Northern Irish folk songs 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 of Elvis' fleeting hours on the soil of the British Isles, 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 that national character never stopped the career of GeorgIe Best ending on New Years Day 1974 at the grand old age of 27.

So today on the 84th anniversary of Elvis' birth in Tupelo Mississippi as the surviving twin to Jesse Garon Presley - and in a year when the soul of the Celtic peripheral on both sides of the Irish Sea yet remains a flickering light of hope in the deconstruction of the West - it is interesting to recall the strange and probably confused word association heading up Harum Scarum's cast list. That four thousand mile-long linkage between ancient Ireland's people and her old ways with the helter skelter life path of America's most blessed son in that own country's most glorious and optimistic heyday.

Safe Home Elvis - Safe Home Johnny Tyronne.

Elvis, Elvis Presley, Harum Scarum, Harem Holiday, Ireland, Prestwick Airport

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Back Road Home At Christmas - A Coral Island In Time


                                                  And as if through coloured glasses
                                                  we remember our childhood's thrill
                                                  waking in the morning to the rustling of paper
                                                  the eiderdown heaped in a hill
                                                  of logs and dogs and bears and bricks and apples
                                                  and the feeling that Christmas Day was a coral island in time
                                                  where we land and eat our lotus but we can never stay 

                                                  Louis MacNiece

It is the medium of television by default that provides the most effective portal for the diffusion of so much cultural memory and recall today. This in diverse respects too such as the regular passing of celebrities from childhood times gone by or just reflections upon particular periods of life transition that spring forth automatically from hearing certain and often obscure theme tunes again - Man Alive, The Family,  World in Action, Take Another Look, The Waltons, Weekend World, Robin's Nest and Sorry for myself personally.

Even long lost regional television station iconography such as the classic Thames Television and LWT logos, the concurrent Knight statuette and Golden Hind on Anglia TV and Westward Television respectively or even UTV's mighty "Antrim Road" start-up transmission music can often overwhelm the senses.

Children's television from the Sixties and Seventies alone is another huge self-contained world of nostalgic delights and for myself in particular that revolves around a  trio of wonderfully timeless American imports - Scooby Doo Where Are You, The Banana Splits and HR Pufnstuf. And then of course for so many people in their forties, fifties and sixties today there are the misty recollections of Christmas television.

There is a wonderful comprehensive 25-part overview of the Radio Times and TV Times editions from the Seventies and Eighties to be found over at the MAWH  blog that is guaranteed to bring back so many warm and fond memories of those days. All of them - even the overviews from the Eighties - seem so distant and from another world now.

Britain and Ireland in the Seventies as a given had a rich multiplicity of complex political and economic problems afoot and the decade was irrevocably the pivotal era when British national decline in particular ramped up several significant gears. However like many other people I look back to a childhood that entailed so much fun and laughter from so many quarters year on year - from the music, confectionery and cinema to the toys, comics and football obsessions.

Without equivocation the main boardgame enwrought with golden and silver light in my Christmas memory bank from those days was Haunted House from Denys Fisher. This  may have been a British rebranding of an American game Which Witch and was one of several such "spooky" products on the  market from glow-in-the-dark Universal horror movie figures to Dracula ice creams. The game entailed following footprints through four sectioned rooms - each of which harboured some threat or risk from a ball thrown down a central chimney. The cover of the game had three witches Glenda the Good, Ghoulish Gerty and Wanda the Wicked - hence one extraordinarily pleasant and two deeply malign - in close attendance behind the four young unsuspecting competitors.

Haunted House remains perhaps the truly definitive Seventies memory for  myself along with the galling realisation that I should have supported Super Leeds back in those days instead of Tottenham Hotspur and the awe I still hold for the two series of LWT's Catweazle. Richard Carpenter's story is basically about an English wizard who escapes marauding Norman soldiers by time-travelling through to modern Britain with his toad familiar Touchstone. In certain respects the figure of Catweazle shirking in terror from "electrickery" is a bit of a precursor to the modern Everyman - banjaxed and bewildered by both the scale and speed of technological change and the clear fact that every socio-economic dynamic in our society is irrevocably geared towards rank bedlam in the very near future.

Like for so many of us as well, the melancholy subtext to the programme is that the Anglo-Saxon Catweazle - minding his own business with mediaeval chemistry in his cosy man-cave before becoming accidentally sucked into a cosmic vortex - feels he belongs nowhere and just wants to go home. The first episode - The Sun in a Bottle - transmitted on the ITV network at 5.30pm on Sunday 15th February 1970. I was just over four years old then and Northern Ireland would have recently entered a year of complex political flux where  the outplay of rolling hatred and horror lieing ahead were not as yet foregone. Three nights after the first transmission a loyalist bomb destroyed a 240-foot high radio mast across the Irish border at Mongary Hill, Raphoe, County Donegal which had increased the reach of RTE television coverage into Northern Ireland.

Returning to Christmas television programming again and I have one strange memory long-lodged in my mind. It was definitely the very late Seventies and I remember opening my Christmas presents one morning in my living room back in North Belfast. I assume it was the commercial UTV channel on the television in the background showing an animated version of the nativity story. I recall at one point in the narrative John Henry Hopkins' We Three Kings of Orient Are was playing in concord to the visitation of the wee cartoon wise men. Just for a moment - and a moment I oddly enough can never quite forget - I felt that all was totally right with the world.

This particular hymn was included on the one collection of Christmas music I have been listening to every year since a child at this time of year - Mario Lanza's Christmas Hymns and Carols. Some posts ago I mentioned how from my old bedroom window I could see the Kings Hall in South Belfast where Lanza once performed.

This 1969 compilation of festive songs on the RCA Camden label   - which includes wonderful versions of I Saw Three Ships, God Rest You Merry Gentlemen and The First Noel - is either a reissue of a 1951 original release of seasonal sacred music Lanza Sings Christmas Carols, the recompiling from 1956 with new versions of some songs added or the full 1959 re-recording. Incidentally another beautiful version of The First Noel was recorded by the great Mario Lanza fan Elvis Presley on his second Christmas album released in October of 1971 - this also contains one of the great lost Presley classics If I Get Home on Christmas Day.

Lanza's deliveries on the Christmas album are not just impeccable but literally awe-inspiring at times. The singer once said that "I sing each word as though it were my last on earth"  - here the power of the complex Christian message never sounded more crucial and genuinely humbling.

Last December - with both Britain and Northern Ireland enveloped in a labyrinthine compound of problems centred around the fudging of the real social and economic triggers underpinning the Brexit vote, clearcut political corruption, crass historical revisionism and the grotesque social shortfalls created by the combination of the Ponzi housing scam and frozen salaries - I was listening to it in Scandinavia far far away from Belfast, my adult London life and those Christmas Days of long ago.

This year I am back living permanently in Ireland where nothing in the above raft of grim logistics has essentially changed unsurprisingly enough. The fragile peace on the island still interfacing with a European crisis which has overshadowed Ireland's worthy national reassembly around the constituents of division and identity and even memory. Such a numbed atmosphere of total uncertainty, deflation and risk has been left in its wake - the future is clearly unwritten.

Yet as 2018  draws to closure we must never forget the extraordinarily public spirit which the loss of the Belfast Bank Buildings animated and which underpinned the recent ribald reaction to the proposed attempt to rebrand and market a part of the port great city of Belfast - home of the Titanic, Van Morrison, the United Irishmen, CS Lewis, the Albert Clock, Our Jimmy, Linfield FC, Queens University, Georgie Best, The Crown Bar, Buck Alex and the Cave Hill -  after a Lower Manhatten neighbourhood. As in urban planning as with political change- we can only hope that the tribulations of the deconstruction of the United Kingdom and the endgame of European integration may oversee a defining transition for all the people within a new Church of Ireland.

In the meantime - and although looking back to our shared past from the perspective of Christmas and middle age alike brings more than its fair share of melancholy - at the same time we must remember that what backbone, character and decency yet remains in our society was put there in the first place by the working people of our country alone....so many of whom have long left us.  This immutable social and cultural anchorage can never be displaced by any degree of stealth from the falsest of friends around us.

Sincere best wishes to all readers and Twitter followers of The Back Road Home for Christmas and 2019.

                                                  It's good to pluck a single day
                                                  out of the sad year's grimy round
                                                  and make it an enchanted ground 
                                                  John  Hewitt

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Last Walk of the Sixties High King - Belfast 1970

George Best, Northern Ireland, Scotland, British Home International Championship

Some months back on a social media page about George Best's career in Britain and the USA a public commentator drew attention to a particularly quirky aspect of a contemporary Seventies press photograph. The picture is of Best walking past the wire mesh frontage of a stand packed with supporters at a football ground clearly somewhere in the British Isles by all downbeat and gritty aesthetic appearance.

It is hard to clarify whether the match is still in play or if it was a domestic or international tie. Either way the footballer as ever carries off his rugged bearing with effortless charismatic ease - he appears lost in thought about the game with his hand covering his mouth and a white jersey draped over his bare shoulders as he passes the ranks of male attendees on the terraces.

Many of these appear to be still watching other activity on the football field though some follow the path of his exit. None however can match the attention of two teenage girls at the extreme bottom right hand corner of the photograph whose utterly besotted love for the Northern Irish star is clearly observable to an almost hypnotic degree - their smitten eyes and rapt smiles are affectionately focused on him and him alone across the universe and in utter dazed adoration. It is a wonderful hidden pictorial detail.

Another classic Best image worth retrospective consideration is from the 18th April 1970 British Home International Championship match in Belfast against Scotland - a game long recalled for his sending off by the referee after he threw mud in the direction of the official following a contretemps. The black and white picture captures his return up the players' entrance at the corner of the ground following the dismissal. Another oft-published photograph from the same match -  used generically on many occasions  to symbolise his stormy lifepath as a celtic hellraiser - is of an angry Best being restrained previously on the pitch by Wolverhampton Wanderers' Derek Dougan.

This was the 23-year-old George Best's twentieth international appearance for Northern Ireland and his thirteenth at Windsor Park in the south of the city. Northern Ireland lost all three ties in this 1969-70 Championship. His footballing career at Manchester United by this stage of proceedings - alike his equally high profile and media-engaged personal life - was already highly problematic, becoming more volatile by the day and clearly spiralling out of control.

In terms of the three groupings of human actors composing the photograph - and as arraigned around the seething departing sportsman - we see several policemen whose facial expressions range across a wide spectrum of sternness and with one in particular bordering on rank supercilious contempt. Interestingly, an equally well known picture of Best taking a corner kick at Swansea's Vetch Field on the British mainland seven days later also sees him surrounded by officers of much more benign hue in Wales than here at home at Windsor off the Lisburn Road. There are also two middle-aged or elderly members of the groundstaff clad in the ubiquitous flat cap of Belfast sartorial vintage - the gentleman on the right physically emanating the generational bewilderment that would track Best's entire career path as a metaphorical headshaking shadow.  Finally we have teenage boys draped over the barriers who are either dead excited at the turn of events or just struck dumb by proximity to such heightened, grown up and anarchic bad boy behaviour.

It is such a strange and brooding image in so many respects - let alone the fact that the player appears to be physically floating his way up the concrete incline - and with the even more melancholy backdrop that Best would only play in the international stadium five times again for Northern Ireland between then and 1977. In turn 1970 represented a complex political interregnum for the country itself as heightened civil disorder gradually gave way to the arrival of concrete terrorist onslaughts and concomitant mass murder. The violence in Ulster would continue on for another 28 years. Best would only outlive the qualified political consolidation in 1998 by a further seven.

Forging deeper into the dynamics behind this famous sports photograph again and there is clearly a sad forlorn atmosphere pervading it without question. Desperate times ahead for all parties concerned as the mood of the late Sixties quickly dissipated and much more complicated and fractious times arrived on Ireland's northern shores - for Best, the working classes, the cops and the kids. Everything was about to go very very wrong and just perhaps something reflective of this discordant fall  is captured in the photo's composition and tone.

Indeed this international fixture which saw Best sent off in April 1970 took place just three months after the Irish Republican Army split into Official and Provisional paramilitary wings and only weeks after massive civil disturbances erupted between the British Army and Republicans in the Springfield Road area of West Belfast following an Orange Order parade. At the end of June major disorder erupted again across the capital between the IRA and Loyalists with six fatalities on the Crumlin Road in the north of the city and in Best's native East Belfast.

So George Best took his long deflated walk back up the player's entrance in just the first third of the first year of the decade. By the time he walked down again for the four springtime Home International and World Cup qualifying fixtures in 1971 Ulster would be on the brink of utter disaster and catastrophe. The escalation of violence after the introduction of internment without trial of terrorist suspects in August that year would burn all remaining intercommunal bridges and herald barely contained civil war against a gargantuan military infusion. Hence the great port city of Belfast around and about the thousands of fans packed together on that sunny Saturday 15th May afternoon to watch Bestie outmanoeuvre the great goalkeeper Gordon Banks and tease the English defenders to take the ball from him would in many fundamental respects soon be gone forever in substantial form and spirit.

Needless to say the British Home International Championships are long defunct and unlikely to reappear in the game's currently demented commercial constitution. In the 1976-77 season Northern Ireland would compete under that specific national title as opposed to  "Ireland" for the first time, in 1980-81 the entire competition was cancelled off the back of unrest in Ulster associated with the IRA hunger strikes at The Maze prison and the last ever tournament in 1983-84 was won by Billy Bingham's legendary squad. Northern Ireland thus remain the reigning British champions alongside being victors in 1979-80 and joint-winners with England in 1957-58 and 1958-59. (Prior to the national partition Ireland won in 1913-14 and jointly with England and Scotland in 1902-03).

Ironically the picture under discussion also perfectly compliments the artistic representation of a literally crucified Georgie Best Superstar which graced the cover of his friend Derek Dougan's own study of the changing face of the game from 1981 - How Not To Run Football. Whether or not that professional martyrdom was essentially self-inflicted in the main or not, the photograph from Windsor Park that day is a truly fascinating encapsulation of the rise and fall of one of Ireland's greatest sons. From what we can glean from all written, visual and oral historical evidence Best's faults were clearly cancelled out both by his priceless and breathtaking talent within a sporting field he revolutionised singlehandedly and his fundamental grace, decency and warmth in private. His memory remains a steady pure white light in the hopeless and unsustainable morass of our days.

George Best, Derek Dougan, Northern Ireland, Scotland, British Home International Championship

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Heart Of The City - Bombs, Bullets And Bunion

Belfast Telegraph. Rowel Friers, Bunion, Fun With Bunion

The dark nature of the Troubles in Ulster would be of such mortifying scope as to quite effortlessly infuse itself into the already grim black humour that characterises hard industrial working class life by default. Little would be ethically off-limits in this regard such as the naming of loyalist interrogation locales after a globally-franchised children's television programme Romper Room for example. The author once appeared on Ulster Television's own presentation of this broadcast brand around 1970.

While the aforesaid generic wordplay was clearly constructed with considerable native wit and ribald urban savvy the dynamics of the usage itself remains yet so puerile and crass in historical context and consideration- let alone shockingly malign and utterly bloody depressing.

Another strange interplay of humour with the unrelenting political conflict in Ireland would be the presence in the second half of Belfast Telegraph editions during the worst years of the Troubles of  a particular cartoon strip that also appeared contemporaneously across the world  in different press outlets.

Whereas Rowel Friers' renowned cartoon commentaries on sectarian violence and constitutional collapse in the same journal were so unique and insightful as to warrant compilation at the time into no less than four volumes of Blackstaff Press publications between 1971 and 1974  - Pig in the Parlour, Riotous Living, The Book of Friers or The Book of Yells and The Revolting Irish - by comparison Fun with Bunion seems to have been lost to time and space. This despite I assume having been seen by the vast majority of the Northern Ireland population at some point due to the newspaper's national reach across the River Bann.

There is little information about the cartoon character online but the artist who drew the two-to-four panel Bunion strip in the Sixties and Seventies was George Martin and it was also a regular feature of other newspapers in Britain, Northern Europe and North America - such as apparently the Bath Evening Chronicle, Birmingham Daily Mail and Stockholm's Aftonbladet. Martin produced other children's strips for the classic DC Thomson British comics The Dandy, The Topper and The Beezer from the Fifties through to the Eighties. I gather from some public commentary on websites that Martin is now deceased.

Bunion was a small rotund middle-aged man and the strip basically recounts events in his married life at home, in various work scenarios and at play on the ubiquitous golf course for example. The wife is a typical angry harridan figure of vintage comedy presentation, his extraordinarily impressive CV ranged from vicar to trawlerman to astronomer to liontamer and  there are also some fantasy scenarios where the character is shipwrecked on an island, engaged  in nefarious criminal endeavour, riding an Indian elephant or getting lost in the desert.

On a Flickr compilation of strips I found there seems to be no suggestion that Bunion was ever physically resident in Belfast when I saw his japes and pranks in my youth there - this bar launching a ship, employment as a prison officer, fixing a broken window, tossing a coin in despair in a voting booth and briefly watching a UFO land and leave as soon as possible.

There appears to be nothing sidesplittingly funny about Bunion and in hindsight it is not even touched by any particular wry charm or unique spin beyond perhaps the fact it is dialogue-free in modernist style and of course there is some residual analogy to the BBC childrens' TV classic Mr Benn. Yet like the Ulster Television transmission start-up music discussed in an earlier post, Fun With Bunion definitely triggers deep memories of both happy and tragic times alike - let alone some of the strangest days ever yet lived by any group of people anywhere in post-war Europe.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Tragedy In East Ulster January 1953 - The Sinking Of The MV Princess Victoria And The Lord St Vincent Plane Crash

Ulster TT Disaster, Princess Victoria Ship Disaster, Nutts Corner Plane Disaster

In the fifty-one year history of the Northern Ireland state between 1921 and 1972 - and as standing outside civilian and security force fatalities caused by engagement in global conflict, domestic civil disorder and terrorism - the biggest death toll resulting from an accident was the sinking of the MV Princess Victoria in the Irish Sea on 31st January 1953.

Off the back of some research recently I was surprised to note how another major incident in Northern Ireland involving air traffic was so confluent in time to that major maritime disaster and indeed of a significant tragedy at a major sporting occasion back in the Thirties. These two events - in Country Antrim and County Down respectively  - are very rarely referenced within Irish social history compared to the MV Princess Victoria's fatal last voyage from Stranraer to Larne.

To provide some historical background to the period of the early Fifties, the post-war decade running up to the commencement of the IRA Border Campaign on 12th December 1956 saw Northern Ireland's constitutional position within the United Kingdom in a state of considerable security and anchorage. This following the state's belligerent status during the six year global conflict against the Axis powers and then the passing of the Ireland Act at Westminster in 1949 upon the declaration of a Republic by Eire the previous year.

The Stormont elections of 19th February 1949 had thus taken place in a tense atmosphere against the backdrop of southern political and public support for the Nationalist Party in the North. It is also remembered in the main for the fundamental undermining of the Labour vote in Ulster for the next nine years - as discussed in an earlier post on the NILP.

The Unionist Party won 37 seats in the election to the Nationalists nine - there were also two Independent Unionists,  two Independents, one Independent Labour and a Socialist Republican elected. Compared to the 1945 election therefore one Nationalist seat had been lost along with two Labour and one Independent Labour. The October 1953 election - this the year of the MV Princess Victoria and Nutts Corner disasters - saw another substantial victory for the Unionist Party. The party took 38 seats to the Nationalists seven while the other representatives elected would be two anti-partition candidates, one Independent Unionist, one Independent and three others from an extraordinary multiplicity of Labour political brands standing for office.

Some of the more well recalled Members of Parliament  sitting at Stormont from the 1949 election as 1953 dawned included Prime Minister Basil Brooke, the Belfast Socialist Republican Harry Diamond, South Fermanagh's Cahir Healey, the Shankill Independent Unionist Tommy Henderson, William McCoy of East Tyrone who had pushed for Dominion Status for Northern Ireland as the prime guarantee against future Westminster ambivalence toward the Union, the former Commonwealth Labour figure Harry Midgeley, Dehra Parker the first female MP in Northern Ireland, Eddie McAteer of Derry and two future Prime Ministers in Terence O'Neill and Brian Faulkner. The Member of Parliament for Cromac Ward in Belfast in this parliament was Major Maynard Sinclair who had been Stormont Minister of Finance for a decade, was serving as Deputy Prime Minister in January 1953 and seen as a potential successor to Brooke.

The horrendous loss of the roll-on/roll-off MV Princess Victoria ferry has been analysed in considerable depth over the years. On the last day of the month - a Saturday - it set sail from Scotland in the morning as an extraordinarily severe storm gathered pace across Northern Europe. Spray broke over the stern doors and an emergency guillotine door was not lowered. On leaving Loch Ryan conditions worsened and waves further damaged the rear doors allowing water to flood on board the car deck. Unable to return to Scotland the captain attempted to reach Northern Ireland by a course that would minimise more damage to the stern. At 0906 the ship messaged Portpatrick Radio Station for urgent assistance from tugs - a SOS transmission followed at 1032. The final morse message at 1358 from five miles east of the Copeland Islands near Donaghadee in County Down reported that engines had stopped.

Multiple rescue attempts were made - neither HMS Launceston Castle nor HMS Contest could initially locate the ship. Portpatrick Lifeboat Jeannie Spears was also dispatched in the search. An RAF Hastings aircraft did not reach the scene of the disaster in time due to other rescue work in Scotland. As the location of the ship clarified in Northern Ireland itself the emergency services put to sea in appalling conditions - four merchant vessels also attempted to save lives. Finally the Donaghadee lifeboat the Sir Samuel Kelly arrived to bring survivors on board - Jeannie Spears and HMS Contest were also there in support.

The ship sunk in the North Channel with the loss of 133 lives including all women and children on board - their lifeboat having been dashed against the hull. 100 bodies were recovered and 44 people survived. Fatalities included Northern Ireland Deputy Prime Minister Sinclair - who assisted many women and children during the incident - and also the North Down MP Sir Walter Smiles whose home was at Orlock so close to the sinking site. Both men had military records from the Great War. Lists of those onboard show that the crew incorporated residents of Northern Ireland and Scotland while the passengers came from both countries, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. A maternal relative of my own from Carrickfergus in County Antrim was also numbered among the dead. He was returning to Ulster from training in Scotland for a new job.

An interesting article by History Hub Ulster traces the historical footprint of the disaster with all survivors having today now passed on - the graves of the crew and the passengers visited by the author of the piece includes Sinclair's at Drumbeg Parish Church near Lisburn and Smiles at Belfast City Cemetery on the Falls Road. Two senior officers of HMS Contest were awarded the George Medal for diving into the seas during the rescue, MV Princess Victoria Radio Officer David Broadfoot was posthumously given the George Cross for remaining at his post to allow passengers and fellow crew to escape and the captains of the merchant ships were made OBEs. Captain Ferguson was witnessed at the moment of sinking on the bridgehead giving instructions and saluting. From what I can gather online Sinclair's mother-in-law died of a heart attack on receiving news of the tragedy while one of the merchant captains also died prematurely in light of the stress of involvement in the incident.

Memorials to the disaster were erected in Larne (which lost 27 town residents in the sinking), Stranraer, Portpatrick and Donaghadee where a civic campaign to preserve the Sir Samuel Kelly is ongoing. An annual memorial service is held to the present day to commemorate the victims and rescuers. A sports pavilion on the Stormont estate and a children's ward at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald were named in memory of Maynard Sinclair.

The sinking of the MV Princess Victoria remains the worst United Kingdom maritime disaster in peacetime. On 10th October 1918 a German U-Boat had sunk the RMS Leinster from the City of Dublin Steam Packet Company outside Dublin Bay leading to 501 deaths - the greatest single loss of life in the Irish Sea. The biggest disaster in Ulster resulting from an accident prior to 1953 was the eighty killed and 260 injured in a June 1889 rail accident between Armagh and Hamiltons Bawn stations - to this day it remains the worst rail accident in Irish history and the fourth worst in the United Kingdom.

Of the two other tragic events mentioned earlier the aircrash occurred only twenty five days before the MV Princess Victoria sinking - on Monday 5th January 1953. A British European Airways Vickers Viking plane Lord St Vincent flying from Northholt airport in London to Belfast's Nutts Corner crashed on approach. On board were 31 passengers and four crew - 24 passengers were included in the list of 27 fatalities including four medical students from Queens University and an eighteen-month old boy who was killed with his mother. Another fatality was Captain Thomas Haughton who was married to Lady Moyola -  the future wife of the fifth and penultimate Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark. She herself survived the crash though was seriously injured.

The board of inquiry concluded that the cause of the crash was pilot error - the aircraft had lost height too suddenly on approach to the runway and hit a pole which supported an approach light near the aerodrome. Further collisions followed with more poles and a van before it finally impacted against an equipment store.

The automobile accident in 1936 which involved the general public happened during the running of the International Tourist Trophy for motorcar road racing which was then a massively popular event in Northern Ireland due to the legal slack pertaining in the province to closing off roads. In 1928 a triangular course was constructed  between Dundonald, Newtownards, and Comber under the sponsorship of Harry Ferguson and Wallace McLeod. By the mid-thirties cars had become faster and faster on the circuit and it was during the 1936 event that a Riley car lost control on Church Street in Newtownards and crashed into the crowd on the pavement after hitting a lampost. Eight spectators were killed including two fifteen-year-old boys, 40 were injured and a decision was made to end racing on the course. Several of the victims are buried in Moville Cemetery in the town while two of the dead came from Worcester and Hull in England.

TT motor racing on public roads famously returned to Ulster at Dundrod County Antrim in 1950 - the track was half the size of its predecessor though the event still attracted such famous racing names as Juan Manuel Fangio and equally huge crowds. The September 1955 event in rainy conditions lead to the deaths of three drivers - Jim Mayers, William Smith and Richard Mainwaring. The race was won by Stirling Moss but it was then decided that the Northern Irish roads were too dangerous for the sport.

No memorial exists to the Nutts Corner disaster and a very sad BBC article on the incident notes that even the specific site of the crash would appear unknown today to the general public - the airport closed a decade after the deaths there and with the field being used in the main for car boot sales thereafter. A piece of propeller from the plane is kept in the Ulster Aviation Society Museum at Langford Lodge near Lough Neagh- the organisation campaigns for a permanent memorial and held a sixtieth anniversary service in 2013.

In turn a memorial on Conway Square in Newtownards honours the original racing circuit in County Down - both the winners and those who lost their lives in general at the event. There is furthermore a plaque in Comber at the famous Butchers Shop corner on Castle Street and another marking the start of the race beside the Quarry Inn pub near the Ulster Hospital. An online forum discussion from 2003 notes how chipped masonry from the event could still be seen at that time on the approach to Conway Square close to the accident site.

The disasters outlined above cast such deeply sobering reflections on how random factors of time and place can have such fateful consequences for the human condition. This is not dissimilar to the Isle of Man's 1974 Summerland disaster which affected so many holidaymakers from Ireland - a  good friend from secondary school was inside the building when the fire broke out while I can myself recall to this day several trips to the complex in the summers beforehand.

Historical focus of course dissipates through time in truly uncategorisable fashion - one tragedy is overwritten by another in the public consciousness and therefore even something as unprecedented as the 1953 Great Storm's repercussions in the North Channel, Eastern England and Holland would appear to be relatively unknown to so many people today in Britain and Ireland. In the case of the MV Princess Victoria - and also the air disaster which preceded it -the waves of madness and division which hit Ulster's shores sixteen and half years after that day of abject horror in the Irish Sea certainly compounded this instance of strange historical distancing even further.