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 male 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 his career - 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 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 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 to this day 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.

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Belfast Bank Buildings - Reflection And Revelation

Bank Buildings, Belfast, Bank Buildings Fire

In the local Belfast press over the past few weeks there have been some very interesting nostalgic and analytical opinion pieces alike regarding the destruction by fire of the Bank Buildings on Castle Junction - both as to where this event sits in the linear narrative of our metropolitan history or amidst the ongoing architectural deconstruction of the city.

As was the case for tens of thousands of other people at home and abroad the Bank Buildings fire - and the near loss of the Kelly's Cellars pub below with its priceless human heritage of late 18th Century European liberalism and non-sectarian republicanism - brought back many memories for myself of not just years of bitterness and waste but also a deeper lost Belfast.  From the North Street Arcade to the Elephant Bar near Smithfield Market,  the Group and Arts theatres, disappeared bookshops such as Harry Halls and Just Books and Mullans, Gresham Street's pet shop, the Curzon and ABC cinemas, the Grand Central Hotel and GPO on Royal Avenue or even the long derelict Garfield Street where Caroline Music traded in the Eighties.

I remember walking into the latter one late afternoon in 1981 for a few minutes as an earnest sixteen-year-old to buy a cool Jimi Hendrix compilation double album and seeing loads of Stiff Little Fingers fans hanging around in the half-light for a signing session of the Go For It album - the fantastic and empowering instrumental title track blaring out ahead of their arrival. Over thirty years later and I tend to listen to North Belfast's finest a lot more than the Seattle guitarist if truth be known - I should have gotten real and stayed for a while longer that day until they came along.

Even though there has been long-term engaged public attention focused on the future of the Art Deco Bank of Ireland at the once thriving junction of North Street and Royal Avenue - a part of the city which looks so fundamentally North American and modernist in some photographs from the Fifties and Sixties - the scale of what has gone before is deeply sobering. You can see this when looking at  old images of the Queens Elms Halls of Residence houses facing the university (as below) or the stunning Northern Bank premises on Donegall Square West. Both of their brutalist replacements being aesthetically questionable in extremis. Only last week I heard in turn that the Masonic Hall on Rosemary Street which contained a mural by the extraordinarily talented Belfast artist John Luke has been sold for commercial development.

In particular there are two moments from Belfast history linked in my mind with the Bank Buildings. There is an interior photograph taken of an upper floor window on Victory in Europe Day on 8th May 1945 with BBC commentator Lt Commander Harry McMulllan broadcasting his observations on the crowd scenes below: "Belfast is letting itself go, that's plain fact - below me the population of this city, laughing cheering and dancing is surging past in great waves of colour and sound in brilliant sunshine." Then from not even a decade later on 27th February 1954 the bittersweet images captured as the last electric trams were seen off by a huge amount of spectators on their final journey from Castle Junction in front of the department store up to Ardoyne depot in North Belfast.

The loss of such cultural cornerstones and social points of reference as a building which has stood on the same site since 1765 - and existed in its modern form since 1900 - is understandably headspinning and certainly reinforces the insecurity which defines our own deeply uninspiring times. Sometimes approximating a daily battle to survive the end of everything good no less. Of similar emotional content to the historical shadowlands above I recently read some reflections on an internet forum of the cross-channel Belfast Steamship Company services across the Irish Sea to Scotland, the Isle of Man and the North West of England:

At the time I lived in Holywood, and could watch the nightly procession of cross-channel steamers going down Belfast Lough. The Liverpool service was first, leaving Belfast at around 8.30. Then came the Glasgow service about 30 minutes later, and finally the British Rail service to Heysham about an hour after that (it had a much shorter journey, as it had no river or locks to negotiate at the other end). And during the summer there were daytime sailings to Ardrossan and the Isle of Man as well.

I travelled often in the post-war years. I liked the Ulster Prince best, she seemed bigger than the Monarch. The Ulster Duke looked as if she had been refloated from somewhere. You could see what looked like tide marks on her walls. The first class in these ships was wonderful: all panelled walls, linen table cloths, soft lights and respectful stewards. The steerage was dreadful: a semi-circle of seats around a broad bare floor stinking of stale Guiness and piss. There was always a sense of travel, especially of departure. An older generation ( before the first war) could remember when a man used to go round the decks with a bell, shouting 'any more for the shore?' It was above all very pleasant to get up early, go on deck, and watch the Ulster coast slowly emerge out of the dawn.

Did you know that although most of the captains who sailed on the Belfast / Liverpool route were not not from Northern Ireland and would take the long way round the Copeland Islands. Those with local knowledge of the waters would take the shorter route between the Islands and the Mainland during the better weather. On its last voyage to Liverpool the Captain of the vessel, a local man whose name i have forgotten, sailed between the Copeland Islands and the Mainland to allow a last view of the ship and people on shore flashed their lights to say farewell.

So on August 28th 2018 a chapter in Belfast civic history came to closure in a matter of hours over the course of a working weekday - the tragic incident at Castle Junction clearly providing a tipping point for public consciousness into all that the city has physically lost to commercial development and urban regeneration outside the parallel context of international conflict and violent domestic discord. It also elicited an outpouring of genuine heartfelt communal love for a great European port that has had way more than its fair share of heartbreak and hardship.

Back in 1981 as Thin Lizzy's hard rock music morphed gradually into generic heavy metal, the album Renegade would yet conclude with the wonderful and still utterly overlooked  It's Getting Dangerous. Alike Van Morrison's Madame George the lyrics are obscure but clearly point to the patterns of change, growth and transition we have all experienced. The song also talks about the dangers constantly arraigned around us in life - be that personal corruption or by default immersion in societies guaged to venality.

The Bank Buildings fire opened up rare and fleeting space for reflection about past days of momentous industrial flux and political fraction, of who we are today as a community still beset by cultural division and where tomorrow will take us  in a period of highly credible short-term risk. As interfacing with Northern Ireland's grotesque institutional political stasis - and against the background of a still stagnant economic landscape in the North - the public reaction clearly was redolent of  deep respect and affection for an old friend who we suddenly realise is not going to be around forever if things progress the way they are going. Indeed neither may the political frameworks that put our now "branded" troubled times into their albeit qualified and edgy endgame. Time indeed to Go For It again.

Queens Elms, Belfast, Queens University Belfast

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Strangers Abroad In An Ulster At War - Niedermayer And Heubeck

Thomas Niedermayer, Werner Heubeck, Ulsterbus, Ulster Troubles, Germany, West Germany

Consideration of the historical associations between the island of  Ireland and Germany tend to devolve to the two global conflicts of the 20th Century - the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions on the Western Front, Sir Roger Casement's attempt to forge a revolutionary Irish Brigade from prisoners-of-war on the continent prior to the Easter Rising, Abwehr spying missions in Eire, County Down's working farm for the children of the Kindertransport at Millisle, the Luftwaffe triple blitz of Belfast and the Glencree German War Cemetery in the Wicklow Mountains.

From what I can garner from the order of battle my maternal great-grandfather was in the second wave of Ulstermen attacking the Schwaben Redoubt on 1st July 1916 at the Somme - all the Irish soldiers of a then British Ireland would return to a deeply unsympathetic future. Twenty five years later both of my grandparents' houses in the Woodvale and Oldpark districts of West and North Belfast would be destroyed in the Easter 1941 air raids.

However as outlined here by the Goethe Institut, the cultural links between the two countries do extend well beyond this particular  remit. They include Franconian patron saint Kilian being born in County Cavan, the decisive role of King William's Commander-in-Chief Frederick Schomberg at the Battle of the Boyne, the emigration of German Protestants from the Rhenish Palatinate to southern Ireland at the start of the 18th Century and the premiere of Handel's The Messiah in Dublin in 1742. There was also the permanent residency in Ireland of Twenties cabaret singer and Allied black propagandist Agnes Bernelle while the country left huge cultural impressions on writers Friedrich Engels and Heinrich Boell.

In the historical context of Belfast there would also be the enormous contributions made to the civic and industrial life of the city in the Victorian and Edwardian eras by Otto Jaffe and Gustav Wolff of Hamburg. The lives of two West German businessmen meanwhile - Thomas Niedermayer and Werner Heubeck - fall within the long grim narrative of the modern Ulster Troubles and both are well recalled to this day by very many Northern Irish people for very different and deeply unsettling reasons.

Niedermayer was the 45-year-old managing director of the Nuremburg-founded Grundig electronics factory in Dunmurry on the outskirts of West Belfast and honorary West German counsel for Northern Ireland. He came to live in the province in the late Sixties and resided in the Glengoland district. The industrialist was kidnapped on 27th December 1973 by two members of the IRA. The abduction was witnessed by his daughters and it is believed the rationale behind the operation was to bargain for the release of Republican prisoners jailed after a mainland bombing campaign.

Although the choreography of events remains unclear Niedermeyer was murdered soon after by his captors - possibly in the context of an escape attempt - and buried in an illegal rubbish dump near Colin Glen which was a short distance from the family home.  His body was found only seven years later - face down, bound and gagged. The degrading nature of Niedermayer's killing was compounded by the suicide of his wife in the sea off County Wicklow in the Irish Republic an exact decade following his funeral and then that of both his daughters in the Nineties. His eldest daughter's husband also killed himself subsequently.

Niedermeyer's grave to my knowledge is at Christ Church in Derriaghy south west of Belfast. The shame of his murder and its mortifying repercussions - alike the French, Italian and Spanish fatalities of the 1974 Dublin and 1998 Omagh bombings  - remains a deep stain on the honour of Ireland and the life affirming folk soul it embodies for so many people around the world.

Five years after the end of the Great War Werner Heubeck was born in Nuremburg. During the Thirties he was a member of the Hitler Jugend and during the Second World War served in the Hermann Goering division of the Luftwaffe and the Afrika Korps. After a period as a prisoner-of-war in the USA he worked as a proofreader at the war crimes trials in his home city where he met his Welsh wife who was a translator. They moved to the United Kingdom and Heubeck became a British citizen. In 1965 he came over to Northern Ireland  to manage the Ulster Transport Authority buses - this the year before the first three political murders of the conflict were carried out in West Belfast by Loyalist paramilitaries.

The running of the rebranded rural Ulsterbus and then the metropolitan Belfast Citybus services  from 1973 were to be transformed during his 23 years of management. Heubeck remains an especial figure in the social history of the Troubles with respect to his actions in personally boarding hijacked buses during the worst years of the conflict to singlehandedly remove bombs planted by terrorists. Also for driving along routes that the company staff had been intimidated from, taking the first service run of the day along roads that had experienced overnight disorder, moving vehicles with explosive devices still on board or returning burning buses to depots for salvage. Heubeck was on first-name terms with the full raft of his company staff and counselled colleagues who had been affected by security incidents.

When I think of this kind of vintage stoicism I often recall the headmaster of my old Belfast primary David Russell who previously had worked at another school situated at a notorious and literally deadly flashpoint in the north of the city very near my paternal grandparents' home.  He had been in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp and underscored to Anthony Bailey - who authored the 1980 Acts of Union - that after his experiences in the Far East that "it's hardly likely that anything that happens on the Oldpark Road is going to worry me". Shortly before he died Mr Russell revisited Japan to meet a former miner who had treated him kindly during a serious bout of illness while imprisoned there.

Despite the widespread targeting of buses during the years of civil disorder Heubeck's leadership and belief in keeping services running to schedule represented a fundamental toehold on normality for a country spiralling on the brink of blanket societal collapse. Estimates suggest that over 800 of the 1300 fleet were destroyed during the Troubles while several staff  lost their lives including the horrific murders of Sydney Agnew in 1972 as a witness to a republican hijacking, four Ulsterbus workers at Oxford Street station on Belfast's Bloody Friday IRA blitz and Harry Bradshaw in 1977 for simply working a shift in public service during a Loyalist strike. In Lagan bus station in Belfast's Marlborough Street there is a memorial dedicated to all the victims of bombs on buses during the Ulster conflict while the Ulster Transport Museum at Cultra houses an original Daimler Fleetline Citybus in honour of the murdered drivers.

Werner Heubeck was awarded the OBE (like Niedermayer) and then the CBE for his services to civic life in a Northern Ireland at war with itself. He retired in 1988, moved to the Shetland Islands and died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 85. With his heavy accent, thick glasses, raincoat, trilby and fastidious Northern European fitness regimes in a nation not then particularly renowned for any form of holistic life management, Heubeck remains an unforgettable and truly charismatic figure from very dark times in Ireland.

In old Celtic and Hibernian parlance the term "blow in" is used to describe a person or group of people with no deep roots to either the physical locality or generic neighbourhood culture. It can be used in a dismissive or bantering fashion and overrides any quantitative length of actual settlement in an area. It is intriguing to consider the fateful course of life that brought such highly competent North West European professionals as Niedermayer and Huebeck to Ireland's shores in the late sixties - let alone to the political fragility of pre-Troubles Ulster with its potentially explosive ethnic makeup. Both men would experience the same daily tribulations which affected all the working people of the North for an unforgivable period of time - glowering tension, stark danger, rank strangeness and often utter insanity.

Ireland must never ever forget these two men and the lives they lead.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A Story For Today - Ulster Biography And Memoir

Derek Dougan, Northern Ireland, Wolverhampton Wanderers

Have just finished Fergal Keane's excellent Wounds history of his family's involvement in the Irish Revolution in County Kerry - so reflective of the bloody price the whole island paid over the 20th Century in the name of belonging, ownership and non-negotiable lines in the sand. A highly recommended work and looking forward to reading three other autobiographical and biographical pieces over the rest of the summer - Marianne Elliott's Hearthlands recollections of her Fifties and early Sixties childhood in the White City estate which was situated on the northern outskirts of Belfast, Alliance Party veteran Anna Lo's story of her life in Ulster after leaving Hong Kong in 1974 and Oliver Kay's acclaimed study of Manchester United youth footballer Adrian Doherty from Strabane who tragically died in the year 2000 at the age of only 26.

Just as two earlier posts have looked at fictional accounts of the Ulster Troubles and general Northern Irish history I want to bring together here some volumes of regional biography and memoir that I have particularly enjoyed over the years.

Of the massive raft of books on George Best the 2014 official biography Immortal by Duncan Hamilton stands head and shoulders above everything else without equivocation - deeply informative and very moving alike it keeps the wearyingly passe tabloid details to a minimum and instead throws up fascinating insights into the pathways Best's football career could have taken in Britain, Europe and North America. In terms of serious football writing this work is the equal of Hamilton's fantastic Brian Clough memoir and Eamon Dunphy's classic autobiography of a Seventies second-tier jobbing footballer in England Only a Game?

Four other superb sports works also spring to mind. In particular there is David Tossell's In Sunshine Or In Shadow biography of the Wolverhampton Wanderers legend Derek Dougan.  The Doog's football career started at Belfast's Distillery whose Grosvenor Road ground was situated in an inner city district which was unusually both working class and religiously mixed in complexion up to the late Sixties- he would play internationally for Northern Ireland 43 times between 1958 and 1973 including the World Cup finals in Sweden.

Like George Best he was an intelligent thoughtful man who was a great believer in the sporting and cross-cultural benefits of a united Ireland football side. Indeed he was one of the six Northern Ireland internationals to play in the Shamrock Rovers XI exhibition match against Brazil in 1973 which has been discussed in detail in an earlier post  as the sole modern performance by a de-facto all-Ireland team. He also once claimed during the early part of the Troubles that he and Georgie Best alone could fix Ulster's bitter fractures more than any feuding sectarian politicians could and that they should go over and sort it all out - he was clearly correct here on so many fronts that there is neither time nor space in this posting to even begin to analyse it properly.

Only last week I read a story about Dougan on an online forum which gathers together memories of Seventies First Division football culture. The poster remembered seeing the Ulsterman turn out for West Bromwich Albion at Jeff Astle's tesitmonial. After missing a proverbial sitter of a goal opportunity Dougan received some jeers from the home fans including chants of "Dougan IRA" to which the big East Belfast Prod went down on one knee and mimed shooting at the locals to ground-wide jocularity. In turn I have seen an early Seventies football magazine question-and-answer profile of Dougan where he claims his biggest thrill was meeting Ian Paisley and the person in the world he would most want to meet is Bernadette Devlin! The Doog was also the subject of a great April Fool's Day prank by The Guardian which recalled his days in the London and West Coast acid-rock counter culture.

Dougan, who carried Best's coffin and died in 2007, wrote an interesting autobiography The Sash He Never Wore in 1972 that is well worth investigating and also an overview of the questionable aspects of sports administration in the early Eighties called How Not To Run Football which featured a crucified Seventies Pop Bestie on the cover.

There are several accessible works available on the snooker player Alex Higgins - both Bill Burrows' The Hurricane and Tony Francis' Who Was Hurricane Higgins? are well researched and often outrageously funny reads - but it is the 2007 autobiography From the Eye of the Hurricane that opens up radically different insights into his personality in a frank revealing fashion.

The Munich Olympian Mary Peters' own story Mary P is an interesting volume juxtaposing her rolling global sporting success with blanket societal collapse back home in Ulster including the murder of several British soldiers in a literally neighbouring Belfast house  - it was published in January 1974 and is sadly long out of print. Finally Whose Side Are You On? is a massively overlooked work from 2011 by Teddie Jamieson which considers the full strata of Northern Ireland sporting success - including Joey Dunlop, Barry McGuigan and Dennis Taylor - against the background of his young adulthood during the Troubles in Coleraine.

Going back to biographical works from earlier in the last century and one of the most well-recalled works would be Robin Harbinson's No Surrender account of his Belfast childhood - the first of four such memoirs from the early Sixties. He also wrote a priceless travelogue of Northern Ireland shortly before the start of the Troubles in 1962 under his real name Robin Bryans - Ulster: A Journey Through The Six Counties.

The Belfast writer and broadcaster Sam McAughtrey is mostly associated with The Sinking of the Kenbane Head which centred around his early family life in Belfast's Tiger's Bay and the death of his merchant seaman brother Mart on the Atlantic convoys. His own autobiography On The Outside Looking In from 2003 is  highly readable and incorporates his association with the cross-border Peace Train Organisation of the late Eighties and his accession to the Irish Senate. Brian Moore's The Emperor of Ice Cream novel from 1965 is directly based on his experience as an ARP warden during the 1941 Luftwaffe blitz on Belfast and remains an essential piece of Irish social history. Another important work relating to the Second World War is Martin Dillon and Roy Bradford's Rogue Warrior of the SAS biography of Blair Mayne. This traces his extraordinary life story from the Irish and British Lions international rugby squads to staggering military endeavour in the Western desert and Occupied Europe including the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Mayne died in a car crash at the age of only 40 on a December 1955 morning in Newtownards County Down.

James Young has been mentioned many times on this blog - two biographies exist about the fondly-remembered Ulster comic actor. His partner Jack Hudson wrote a general career overview for Blackstaff Press shortly after Young's death in 1974 and then Andrew McKinney produced a compact celebration of his life in 2003. Certainly matching Our Jimmy in terms of personal and creative flamboyance was Brian Desmond Hurst - The Empress of Ireland work by Christopher Robbins regarding his personal relationship in London with the Belfast-born director of Scrooge and Malta Story is an utter joy of a read.

In my previous post I mentioned the sole print of Mark J Prendergast's Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions as containing some excellent content on Horslips' career. An entire chapter of this book also covers Van Morrison's musical odyssey from Ireland to America and back again while Johnny Rogan's No Surrender emplaces the deep soul of the singer's work against long lost Belfast streetscapes and the timeless pastoral appeal of rural Ulster. I consider this one of the best rock biographies ever produced alongside Jerry Hopkins, Paolo Hewitt and Tony Fletcher's works on Elvis, Steve Marriott and Keith Moon respectively. In terms of the still healthy interest in the Seventies  Ulster punk scene both Terri Hooley's Hooleygan and Micky Bradley of The Undertones' Teenage Kicks are hugely entertaining memoirs.

As for Northern Ireland's modern troubled times -and going beyond the obvious default of Gerry Conlon and Paddy Joe Hill's hellish revelations - the Voices From The Grave:Two Men's War in Ireland testimonies of David Ervine and Brendan Hughes provide an extraordinary insight into how human agency interfaces with political critical mass. In terms of the separate sides of the nationalism divide I would strongly recommend the Straight Left autobiography of the Northern Ireland Labour Party and later Social Democratic and Labour Party figure Paddy Devlin and Derek Lundy's insightful Men That God Made Mad: A Journey Through Truth, Myth and Terror in Northern Ireland about three of his Protestant forebears from the Siege of Derry to the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion through to the Ulster Covenant. Although cogniscent of Kevin Myer's ability to deeply divide public opinion I remain hugely impressed with his Watching the Door Troubles memoirs as indeed with the A Single Headstrong Heart prequel regarding his strained relationship with his father.

Some final volumes to mention in his brief overview would be Geoffrey Beattie's We Are The People and Protestant Boy autobiographies of his youth growing up in the same troubled North Belfast locale I myself lived in during the Seventies and Eighties and the incredibly exhaustive biography of Ulster playwright Stewart Parker by Marilynn Richtarik. Lastly a flag for the former Beirut hostage Brian Keenan's extremely touching I'll Tell Me Ma memoir of his childhood in a Belfast district near the Antrim Road waterworks that would be so brutally degraded by Troubles violence that Fergal Keane noted in Wounds how it left his own father physically dumbstruck on seeing it for the first time since the Sixties when he had stayed there in a local boarding house for theatricals.

Christopher Robbins, Northern Ireland, Scrooge, Brian Desmond Hurst

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Horslips - Deconstructing Ireland In The Seventies

Horslips, Dancehall Sweethearts, Irish rock

The incendiary, unrelenting and ribald nature of Irish folk wit and banter at its level best is an awesome beast to behold. Some years ago I was walking around the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast and across Writer's Square facing The John Hewitt Bar on Donegall Street. Amongst the literary wordage enshrined on the ground there are Joseph Tomelty's scathing observation on life, fate and drudgery -  What a bloody awful place for a man of imagination.

Tomelty was a Northern Irish actor born in Portaferry County Down who starred in the movies Moby Dick and A Kid For Two Farthings and was the author of many works including the novel Red Is The Port Light, the prototype folk horror play All Soul's Night and the classic Ulster radio comedy The McCooeys which provided the comic actor James Young with his commercial breakthrough. He was also the former father-in-law of Sting.

I was reading about Tomelty this weekend with regard to Carol Reed's classic Odd Man Out film of 1947 in which he had a minor role - this feature starred James Mason as an IRA man on the run in Belfast after a robbery at a linen mill. The movie garnered attention from contemporary censors because of the violent content but was certainly a brave attempt at that time to analyse the complex dynamics of bloody political conflict.

Another example of wonderfully surreal Hibernian word association that stopped me in my tracks in the past were the comments of writer Declan Lynch in the 2014 Return of the Dancehall Sweethearts documentary about Irish folk rock legends Horslips. Lynch noting how the five-piece group "took the constituent parts of what it meant to be Irish and they put them back together in a way that wasn't crap".

Everything you ever want to know about Horslips can be found in the 2013 official biography Tall Tales by Mark Cunningham (and also Mark J Prendergast's long out-of-print Irish Rock: Roots, Personalities, Directions) but it is worth reiterating here the truly unique role they played within the cultural life of Seventies Ireland. This not only in regard to their native Irish Republic as a national musical act that had the capacity and talent to have been one of the biggest commercial draws on the globe but as one of the few major rock artists to continue to play in Ulster during the Troubles. In fact Horslips' last ever live performance was at the Whitla Hall at Queens University Belfast in May 1980.

Of the nine studio albums released between 1972 and 1979 the two most well-recalled after their groundbreaking Happy To Meet, Sorry To Part debut would be the fusion of hard rock, traditional folk and Celtic mythological narrative on The Tain (1973) and The Book of Invasions (1976) - these based respectively on Ulster's tenth century Cattle Raid of Cooley legend and a twelfth century chronicle of pre-Christian colonisations of Ireland. 

Dancehall Sweethearts (1975) and The Unfortunate Cup of Tea (1976) have some leanings towards more prog and poppier material alike but the former in particular has dated very well. Two later albums based on Ireland's experience of emigration to the New World - Aliens (1977) and The Man Who Built America (1978) - successfully pulled off a harder American rock approach which (like Big Country's The Buffalo Skinners) really warranted a much bigger and appreciative audience. However in light of the distance this took them from the folk base, the final album Short Stories, Tall Tales was to be the weakest of the studio albums though does contain the utterly sublime Rescue Me.

The Seventies discography is rounded off by the massively underrated Drive The Cold Winter Away acoustic folk collection from 1975, two live albums and an early compilation of rarities including two quirky Beatles tributes from "Lipstick"and the utterly brilliant Motorway Madness. Horslips reformed for an unplugged live recording Roll Back in 2004 and in 2010 and 2011 further live albums were lifted from concerts at the O2 Arena Dublin and the Ulster Hall in Belfast.

The five individual members of the group were born in Dublin, Limerick, Kells County Meath, Ardboe by Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland and Middlesborough on Tyne and Wear. All their original albums were released in Ireland on their own Oats label with artwork designed by the group themselves - they also remained domestically resident in Ireland throughout the Seventies.

Horslips' commercial success may have been overshadowed by Thin Lizzy on an international scale but it is important to remember that the first LP release was the fastest selling album in Ireland in eight years, Dearg Doom from The Tain was a German number one single and The Book of Invasions reached number 39 on the UK album charts in the middle of a mainland IRA bombing campaign which may have possibly muddied some very clever people's marketing strategies. The passion and fire of their live performances in the British Isles, mainland Europe and North America are still talked about today with awe, respect and deep appreciation.

The King of the Fairies, Dearg Doom (as performed on the BBC Old Grey Whistle Test) and Trouble With a Capital T remain fairly well known to informed fans of classic rock music today but do take time to forge around Horslips back catalogue if you can. Go beyond the generic Celtic rock categorising and the draining bloody Jethro Tull comparisons to their fantastic second single Green Gravel, the wonderful instrumentals Ace and Deuce and We Bring the Summer With Us, to the great lost Seventies rock classic Sunburst, Self Defence from The Unfortunate Cup of Tea, the b-sides The High Reel and When The Night Comes, to New York Wakes off Aliens, The Man Who Built America's title track and particularly the entirety of the winter folk collection.

Without exaggeration Horslips stand alongside George Best in modern Irish social history as utterly unique creative talents who embodied so much of the soul and pride of the country during days of grim political turmoil, economic stagnation and shameful cultural division.

Horslips, King of the Fairies, Irish rock

Thursday, July 19, 2018

John Luke And The Eternal Now

John Luke, The Lock at Edenderry, Belfast, Northern Ireland

The artist John Luke was born in East Belfast in 1906 and died in spartan circumstances in the city at the age of 69 in 1975. Luke worked at York Street Flax Spinning Company and the Workman Clark shipyard before winning a scholarship to study at the Slade Art School in London. He returned to Northern Ireland in the early Thirties and lived both in Belfast and County Armagh.

Although some of Luke's better known paintings such as The Road To The West, Landscape With Figures and The Three Dancers are suffused with a deeply mystic Celtic otherness certain other works such as The Old Callan Bridge and The Lock at Edenderry are said to capture "the eternal now". According to Rory Fitzpatrick's God's Frontiersmen which accompanied the Channel Four series of the same name on Scots-Irish history "it is always Sunday in Luke's work, families walking their dogs through the green, drumlin country in the warm afternoon, or evening after work as a father comes home to a white Ulster farmhouse set in formal idyllic landscape."

Similar themes regarding the timelessness of the Ulster countryside were captured in the 1972 BBC Northern Ireland documentary Loughsiders with the poet Seamus Heaney exploring the County Fermanagh waterways and visiting the Janus figure on Boa Island as the first god of the first people. Likewise several Van Morrison songs touch upon contemplative elements of the urban and rural landscape such as And It Stoned Me, Got to Go Back, On Hyndford Street, Take Me Back and in particular Country Fair from the 1974 Veedon Fleece album.

Several weeks ago I was reading some moving recollections of old Belfast on the main internet forum from various expats around the world and what they missed from a long lost time and place:

I miss the smell of freshly baked bread when I walk past the sites of the old Kennedy's and Hughes' bakeries. I miss the days when neighbours could leave their front doors open without the fear of being robbed. I miss the sound of the horn at Mackies that you could set your clocks or watches by. I miss the old Smithfield and Variety markets that could have a child's senses buzzing. I miss the lovely inexpensive fresh fish sold from handcarts. But most of all I miss members of my family and my friends who have passed on who walked the streets of Belfast with me...

In the 60s when we were kids we used to go into town on a Friday night and stare endlessly into S S Moores sport shop window in Arthur street, dreaming of one day being able to afford a new football strip. Walking around town on a Friday night there was always the sound of music coming from the `Boom Boom Rooms` or some other dance venue. We would then go round to the Queens bridge and watch the cross channel steamers sailing from Belfast. The Glasgow boat left at 8-30pm, the Liverpool boat at 9-30pm and the Heysham boat at 9-40pm, then it was time to go home. On a Saturday morning it was the Stadium picture house for the kids morning matinee and then in the afternoon it was a dander down the Shankill to Smithfield market. Smithfield was fascinating for a young lad as it contained almost everything you could ever dream of. Unfortunately Smithfield has gone and so have the boats, but I guess nothings for ever. If only one could turn the clock back and relive those days...

I miss the old department stores with the grand stair cases and lots of nooks and crannys for different departments. I miss watching the birds gathering on the electric wires in the winter in donegal place when you were waiting for the bus. I miss the old double deckers with the big silver knobs on the end of the seats. I miss the brilliant santa experience in robbs going on a trip on santas sleigh before you ever saw him, it actually felt like you were moving. I miss the old buildings that are daily disappearing. I miss knowing who your next door neighbor is, the milkman coming and waking you up in the morning, the bread van coming round the streets. I miss so much sometimes it feels like it never really existed...

The last sentiment is something so many British and Irish people can relate to in light of the uncharted waters we now find ourselves in as societies - the shock of the new encompassing
the Ponzi property scam, banking criminality, the cultural denigration of the Old Labour working class communities, seismic demographic shifts, imbecilic celebrity worship, stagnant private sector wages, selective historical amnesia buried within the Northern Ireland peace process, the deconstruction of London as a national capital city, overdoses of political correctness in advertising and the mainstream media, the obliteration of all pathways for social progression and permanent austerity.

Yet in terms of Ireland's current social construct - and despite the complex interplay of Stormont's ludicrous political logjam with the reverberations of both Brexit and the de facto collapse of the European project - tangible proof is still thrown up on a daily basis of a better tomorrow.

The island of Ireland has weathered the most extraordinarily grim raft of geopolitical circumstances imaginable which would copperfasten the partition of the land and the people alike - twin state building failures in the Twenties and Thirties,  opposed neutrality and belligerence during World War Two and a sectarian explosion in the Seventies made even more toxic by the grotesque political mishandling of the prison protests of the following decade. Yet the warmth and wit engrained in daily social interaction and a genuine welcome to strangers never faltered on both sides of the border.

Despite the existing peace today being fractured and imperfect, profound change for the better is unimpeachable. This could be seen even in the past few weeks with outreach in working class South Belfast between the Orange and GAA communities or the support given to the Fountain enclave on Derry's West Bank from the Bogside residents after sustained hooligan disorder.

Although the physical and ethical world of Fifties Ireland captured in Luke's beautiful restful works are inconceivably and indeed painfully distant today, the eternal now can still be felt as a tangible presence in Ireland with little effort. Suffice to say that will continue to be the case provided we honour the lives lost to conflict with true reflective contrition and keep defying the fiendish political geometry of whoever's dam creation that kept the working people at each other's throats for so long.

John Luke, Beflast, Northern Ireland, The Old Callan Bridge

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Down At The Crescent - Soundtrack To Conflict and Change

Doctor Feelgood, The Skids Stuart Adamson, Sandy Row, Ulster Troubles, Belfast

Great Chalkie Davies photograph here of Essex delta blues legends Doctor Feelgood at the Crescent Bar in South Belfast's Sandy Row in the late Seventies. It would take a literal battalion of boutique metropolitan stylists to replicate this kind of effortless cool again in modern times though even they couldn't better how the Wee Wullie Younger's Tartan Ale sign complements the breeze block and steel cage composition to gritty urban perfection.

Sandy Row is the most famous Loyalist district in Belfast after the Shankill – King William III travelled down the nearby Lisburn Road in 1690 on the way to personally fight the Pope one-on-one at the Battle of the Boyne while in the other direction the first intercommunal rioting took place in 1857 between the Protestant locals and the Catholics of The Pound district. In 1968 Van Morrison's  Astral Weeks referenced a train trip from Dublin up to Sandy Row – by way of the soon-to-be frequently bombed Great Victoria Street railway station – in Madame George. The nearby Donegall Road district gave the world Ruby Murray, Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and the setting for Graham Reid's four BBC  "Billy" television plays of the Eighties starring Kenneth Branagh. Ten minutes away in turn is Windsor Park football stadium where George Best played 18 times for Northern Ireland between 1964 and 1977.

The tower in the background of the picture is the rear of the City Hospital where the author was born on the same day The Who played at the New Barn Club in Brighton in December 1965. The Who would perform three times in Ulster - the Top Hat Ballroom in Lisburn on 6th May 1966 and then at the Ulster Hall in Belfast and Magilligan's Golden Slipper Ballroom on the 8th and 9th June 1967. The 1966 Irish dates included the National Stadium in Dublin and the Arcadia Ballroom in Cork. The following year's visit to Northern Ireland was without Keith Moon who was recovering from a hernia operation. His replacement on drums was Chris Townson from Surrey group John's Children for both concerts and a third at the Palace Ballroom in Douglas on the Isle of Man - home town of Happy Jack.

The two greatest pop acts of the Sixties each performed  twice in Belfast. In November 1963 The Beatles played at the Ritz Cinema/ABC Theatre in Fisherwick Place and then two shows in November 1964 at the King's Hall Balmoral. The first Rolling Stones gig in Belfast at the Ulster Hall in Bedford Street in July 1964 was curtailed after just three songs. They played again in the city in January 1965 at the Ritz/ABC. Footage from their two shows were incorporated into Peter Whitehead's Charlie Is My Darling documentary of the Irish tour. From further information I have garnered about these gigs from the main Belfast internet forum The Beatles' first gig at the Ritz was of such hysterical import that the Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs (and future Ulster Vanguard leader William Craig) considered calling out the B Specials police auxilary to maintain order while the two King's Hall gigs were around 30 minutes in duration and included Twist and Shout, Can't Buy Me Love and A Hard Day's Night in the setlist.

The Beatles definitely stayed at The Grand Central Hotel in Royal Avenue in Central Belfast for their first visit in 1963 and possibly the Alverno Hotel near the Whiterock Road for their return.  I cannot confirm this latter fact for sure nor other information from the same online resource that The Rolling Stones stayed at the Woodburn Hotel in Suffolk for either of their 1964 or 1965 gigs. Either way all three businesses are long defunct - the Grand Central becoming a base for the British Army during the early stages of the Troubles, the Alverno giving way to the New Barnsley housing estate after being burnt down in a mid-1970 riot and the Woodburn also coming to similar grief the following year.

The Small Faces also played in Northern Ireland twice. This was at North Belfast's beautiful Art-Deco Floral Hall on 23rd June 1967 and then later at the Ards Pop Festival in Newtownards on 5th July 1968 with support from The Soul Foundation, Mystics and The Cousins. This performance in County Down at Ards football ground on Portaferry Road by one of the most beloved of all British rock groups took place against the background of garnering political radicalism and reaction in the country - there would not be another summer of peace for over a quarter century ahead.

Two days previously the Derry Housing Action Committee staged a sit-down protest during the opening of the Craigavon Bridge extension over the River Foyle leading to 17 arrests while three months to the day after the concert would come the fateful civil rights demonstration in Derry that can be seen as the second of the three defining moments when the Ulster Troubles commenced in earnest. The Floral Hall - so beautifully situated in the grounds of the zoo underneath Cave Hill and overlooking Belfast Lough - would shut in 1972 as the city transformed into a fearful ghost town and still lies derelict today.

At my primary school in North Belfast The Bay City Rollers were without doubt the most beloved of all acts then marketed towards younger female audiences - beyond The Rubettes, David Essex and even The Osmonds. Aside from the extraordinary American number one glam classic Saturday Night the rest of their material has little appeal to me though it is important to underscore that in that terribly difficult period of Irish history these five young Celts in BCR at least embedded a populist three-letter acronym into society that had nothing to do with murdering, maiming and generally hating the working classes of the other religion. I believe they played at the ABC Cinema in the city centre around 1975 for their legions of adoring fans - also the Tonic Cinema in Bangor in County Down.

Over the years I have always wavered in my memory between what was actually the first seven-inch vinyl single I actually bought back in the Seventies. I know I definitely purchased it at Smyth's Records on Royal Avenue in Belfast and it was either Golden Years/Can You Hear Me by David Bowie or A Glass of Champagne/Panama by Sailor - the latter some extremely catchy faux-Roxy for the schoolkids.

On Bowie's passing some  years ago I made an effort to finally confirm the release dates - Tony went to fight in Belfast on the track Star from Ziggy Stardust in 1972 and I picked up the two singles in that security fence-enclosed city centre three years later in 1975 with British soldiers on the street outside the record shop. Golden Years was released in November and apparently the Sailor track was as well. Hence my understandable confusion over the past four decades.

I finally saw Bowie in concert in 1987 at Slane Castle in the Irish Republic when Humble Pie's Peter Frampton was his guitarist on the Glass Spider tour.  The weather was not kind for such an historic occasion and remained generally overcast. At one point however some weak milky sun broke faintly through the clouds over County Meath and the Boyne Valley. Bowie immediately moved to the right hand side of the stage and mimed for it to come out fully. It actually did. The gig ended with a performance of the cabaret Time from Aladdin Sane and two Eighties pop hits - Bowie got into his spaceship and I got the coach back north to a then-bitter oul Belfast City.

As for the first concert I saw, that was back on Monday 8th November 1982 and my local BT14 postcode punk heroes Stiff Little Fingers at the Ulster Hall Belfast on their Now Then tour - their fourth and last album prior to splitting up for a period. Support was Bankrobbers who recorded two singles on Terri Hooley's Good Vibrations label and one for EMI. During a photoshoot for one of the Good Vibrations singles the band posed in American military apparel in Newtownards in County Down and attracted the attention of the Royal Ulster Constabulary on the way home to Belfast. During their brief career they would support The Undertones, The Kinks and The Ruts. Their excellent second single Jenny (as performed with a wonderful two-man brass section on Channel 4's The Tube) would disappointingly not provide them with a commercial breakthrough in 1983. This much alike the magnificently named Ghost of an American Airman, who were also from Belfast, and their own I Hear Voices release in 1987.

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

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

Presley was the subject of a superb 1979 Play For Today on BBC television - Neville Smith's Long Distance Information. This was about an English disc jockey and Elvis-obsessive presenting his radio show as the news of Presley's death is broken across the world.The play ended with one of the characters reflecting upon how if Elvis had been born British then surely "we would have looked after him" or some such. An affectionate and moving sentiment in hindsight - and especially in light of how people of an older Britain saw themselves as a fundamentally grounded nation. Though then again our national character never stopped the career of Georgie Best Superstar ending on New Years Day 1974 at the grand old age of 27.

The other Elvis  released his autobiography Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink in late 2015 and was a fascinating insight into both his own life story and that of his parents and grandparents. It is a very funny self-deprecating read and often incredibly moving in turn.

Declan Patrick McManus was born in 1954 in Paddington in West London and moved to Birkenhead on Merseyside in his late teens. His paternal and maternal family roots lie on the island of Ireland - home to some of the most unique and original folk wit on earth. This to be considered in tandem to the uniquely jet black humour located within the maritime and industrial triangle of Belfast, Liverpool and Glasgow.

Growing up in Belfast I remember buying both Elvis Costello and the Attraction's Chelsea and Pump It Up vinyl singles on the Radar label. This would have been 1978. After that he released Radio Radio and then a song directly inspired by witnessing the sheer youth of British squaddies on duty in downtown Belfast when playing a concert there. It was named after the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Wales between 1653 and 1658 -  Oliver's Army. Costello's later Any King's Shilling analyses the quandries of national identity and military service within British Ireland in a period of revolutionary upheaval. Costello left Britain in the early Eighties and still lives in the USA today - after his 2005 performance at the Glastonbury Festival he claimed that he had no desire to play in the country again: I don't get along with it. We lost touch. I don't dig it. They don't dig me.

During the winter months the three albums I have always listened to a lot over the years are Horslips' acoustic folk collection  Drive the Cold  Winter Away, Elvis' The Wonderful World of Christmas from the early Seventies and Mario Lanza's Christmas Hymns and Carols.

Lanza the Philadelphia tenor and star of such movies as The Great Caruso and Serenade - who had his own life demons with alcoholism and overeating - died of a heart attack in 1959 at the age of only 38. During his 1958 European tour he performed at the King's Hall in South Belfast on March 29th and stayed in Royal Avenue's Grand Central Hotel. I could clearly see the King's Hall building across the city from the back bedroom window of my family home in North Belfast when I was growing up and it would be the music venue where I attended the best concert of my life in 1984 - the late great Stuart Adamson's Big Country on their Steeltown tour. The hotel in turn would become a base during the Ulster Troubles for the British army from 1972 onwards and was subsequently attacked over 150 times by terrorists. An interview with the late Belfast comedian Frank Carson on youtube includes his recollections of meeting Lanza during this visit.

The celtic rock output of Big Country has been qualified in hindsight both by the questionable fashion stylistics of the Eighties and some terribly mis-produced material in their mid-career period. Nevertheless their two original albums The Crossing and Steeltown, the subsequent  Restless Natives soundtrack and The Buffalo Skinners comebackincorporated genuinely universal themes of maintaining self-respect and hope in the middle of struggle and deflation. Likewise Big Country produced a vital, worthy and contemporary commentary on the violent and brutal death of industrial Britain.

The December 2001 suicide of Adamson has unequivocally cast an unbearably sad shadow across some of his later songs such as You Dreamer, Alone, Dive Into Me and particularly My Only Crime.
Yet having seen Big Country live on five occasions across the British Isles I feel to this day that they were efffortlessly the greatest live act of the Eighties - their lyrics aflame with  genuine faith and passion for home and belonging.

Adamson who was born in Manchester and moved to Crossgates in Fife when he was four years old  certainly had huge pride in his own roots on the Celtic peripheral. When his earlier punk group The Skids - several of whose most famous songs including Into The Valley and Melancholy Soldiers were inspired by Scottish working class recruitment into British Army service in Ulster - 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“. I sincerely hold that if there is an modern artistic bridge between the folk cultures and shared history of these islands then it may well reside within William Stuart Adamson's outstanding creative legacy.

Big Country, The Skids, Stuart Adamson

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow) - Davy Jones' Car

Davy Jones, David Bowie, The Monkees, Lisburn, Northern Ireland

The social and cultural disconnect that many British and Irish people in their forties and fifties now feel when looking back at the past - and even the recent past at that up to the late Eighties and early Nineties  - is grounded on a confluence of factors. These incorporate at the very least headspinning technological surges, grotesque geopolitical tensions, the brutal deconstruction of vintage pathways to social mobility, firestorm Ponzi economics,  the unrelenting psychotic force-feeding of on-message political dogma and the transformation of employment into a low-paid and fundamentally insecure world of fawning lickspittles and jargon-spouting bullshitters.

The consequences of this inflammable combination now gather pace by the very day it seems as so many emotional cornerstones gain spatial distance within our memories - lost people, places and  communities where respect and dignity mattered. Yet in the middle of such melancholy reflection this week - here in a Europe laid so sullen and dull by the heavy snows of winter - I felt some fleeting residual warmth and hope afoot from reading the story of Davy Jones.

Not Ena Sharples' grandson down on Coronation Street who later sung The Monkees' classics Daydream Believer, Look Out, Daddy's Song and A Little Bit Me A Little Bit You in his wonderfully unaffected Mancunian accent mind. Nor the Brixton South London artiste who prior to his 1967 debut album of music hall whimsy changed his surname to that of the Scots-Irish Kentuckian hero Jim Bowie who died at The Alamo. No, my spirits this week have been uplifted by reading for the first time ever about Davy Jones the 24-inch high resident of Lisburn in Northern Ireland who in the Sixties drove around the town in cars specially modified to his size limitations. This despite heavy vehicular traffic around him on the public roads like lorries and buses that must constitute to this day an unprecedented urban health and safety nightmare of nightmares.

Jones, who displayed at fairgrounds in both Britain and America and took on acting roles as officially one of the world's shortest living men, would also sit on the bars of local Lisburn pubs such as The Smithfield House and The Corner House atop a pint glass. Archive film footage from 1960 and 1965 of him driving his cars can be found at Northern Ireland Screen's Digital Film Archive.

The car in the mid-Sixties footage resembled an E-type Jaguar and was made by Watsonian of Birmingham who were sidecar manufacturers. This fibreglass vehicle had a maximum speed of 14 mph from its 75cc four stroke engine. Jones died in March 1970 and is buried in the town - his wee sports car was (and possibly still is) on display at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, County Down.

Now it is quite clear from reading through various internet postings on this particularly unforgettable local celebrity that Mr Jones was a character in all vernacular respects  - jolly japes like running through squaddies' legs to win bets that he could do something that they couldn't do through to memories of his particularly rich lexicon of curse words. Nevertheless when seeing the footage yesterday I was reminded of the sheer eccentricity of much of our native folk history - planted so deep in beds of both rich humour and total unpretentiousness.

In turn the Sixties clips of the red car encapsulated the decade itself in many ways when even the harshest deal of life's cards could be transformed into something better off the back of the spatial room for manoeuvre that briefly opened up for the working people of Britain. Back to the days when acts like The Who, Sonny and Cher and The Bee Gees appeared at Lisburn's Top Room ballroom and years before the city was known throughout the world as being the main headquarters base of the British Army in Troubles-era Ulster. That particular venue was blown up in a terrorist bomb attack in June 1972.

Even in these desperate  times as so many nation-destroying issues grimly coalesce  in unforeseen fashion -  with the true dynamics driving the Brexit vote already fudged entirely out of the political equation and one constituent player in the Irish culture wars having now perverted the most sensitive of legacy debates with demented revisionism - it is important to remember how totally unique are the  British Isles. Maybe that as epitomised none moreso than with that tiny yet energising symbol of Sixties spark, cheek, nerve and gall that ended up as a museum piece just eight train stops from the centre of a British city that survived everything that bad history could throw at it.

From this week onwards Davy Jones' car is already fused deep into my own sense of being alongside Elvis's iconic mustard-coloured buggy roaring through the Californian surf at the start of 1968's Live a Little Love a Little towards beautiful Michele Carey's bohemian Malibu beach house - when tomorrow still meant something beyond the next bloody rubbish haul after today.