A Question of Loyalty?

Posted in Uncategorized on September 7, 2012 by gtam80

ImageSince Sunday the streets of North Belfast have reverted to the old stereotypes of Northern Ireland circa 1972. Or 2005. Or 2011. Take your pick. Loyalists and Republicans have once again communicated a complex message to people in the rest of the United Kingdom, but what lies at the bottom of this most recent toxic explosion? The broad picture is easy to comprehend. The agitating of the dissident Republicans is dramatically simple – they feel that the ancient Fenian tradition of ‘blood sacrifice’ has been surrendered by the Sinn Fein powerbrokers who now sit in Stormont. As always with Republicans the first item on the agenda is the split and the dissidents are adamant that rather than adopting parliamentary means paramilitary muscle is the only way to gain a united Ireland.

            Trying to understand the particularities of the recent trouble in North Belfast is less straightforward. The area in which the rioting has occurred since Sunday evening has always been a flammable geographical spread. The Lower Shankill estate abuts the predominantly Catholic Lower Antrim Road and Donegall Street. This episode has become a hotbed of personal vendettas between the rival communities in the area.

During the traditional Orange festivities on July 12th this year a band, the Young Conway Volunteers, from the Shankill area stopped outside a Catholic church in Upper Donegall Street and were caught on film marching round in circles while playing ‘The Famine Song’. Apologists on the Unionist side fancifully stated that the band was entertaining the assembled throng by playing The Beach Boys standard ‘Sloop John B’ whose tune the song under scrutiny is based upon. Nelson McCausland, a DUP MLA from North Belfast stated in his blog that the marchers were taking a natural break to allow the County Grand Lodge officers at the front of the parade to lay a wreath to the war dead at the Cenotaph at the side of the City Hall. This begs the question as to why the YCV were playing any music at all. Such a solemn part of the day’s celebrations should be marked with appropriate reverence. Interestingly this didn’t appear worth consideration in any analyses of the day’s events.

The nearby Republican protestors who objected to the behaviour of the YCV display as much lack of nuance as the Loyalists that they attempt to castigate at every turn. In North Belfast it is only necessary to throw a little petrol on a problem to make it an explosive crisis. So, the tempo for the rest of the summer had been set. When Republicans marched past the Orange Hall in nearby Clifton Street on Sunday Loyalists saw an opportunity to ‘return the serve’ and demonstrate their objections in the same violent manner in which Republicans had behaved following the events of 12th July in Ardoyne.

The Loyalist community are suffering because of the ‘No Surrender’ mentality which once served them and their forebears so well. Rather than view Sunday as a chance to go hand to hand with the police and create more negative images for the press they would have been better served – indeed better advised by their political and community leaders – to take the moral high ground. If Nelson McCausland, for example, has the best interests of the Protestant working class people he claims to represent at heart he would have been in the midst of the Loyalists in the Lower Shankill on Sunday giving them counsel on how best to channel their energies. The crux of the problem is that the Loyalist community view the apparent double standards of the Parades Commission as another deviant mechanism designed solely with the destruction of their culture in mind. One need only look at the number of parades which successfully pass off in Northern Ireland during the summer to see that this is far from being anywhere near the truth. The DUP are content to re-emphasise the negative narrative surrounding the Parades Commission in order to appear staunchly pro-Loyalist while sharing power with Sinn Fein.

Loyalist community workers who have worked so hard in attempting to transform Protestant working class communities in the post-conflict era need the help of the politicos in the DUP in calming people’s nerves. The Protestant working class are an integral part of the United Kingdom and British culture yet the current malaise in which they are once again engaged only serves to set them further back in a broad spectrum which is multicultural and becoming increasingly intolerant of anachronistic displays of Britishness.

The upcoming march on September 29th which will celebrate one hundred years since Ulster Day and the reaffirming of Northern Irish Protestants’ British identity is already being heralded as another almost certain flashpoint by some in the DUP. Rather than anticipating another disastrous episode Protestant politicians should be providing people on the ground with a sustainable and non-confrontational vision of their future. Loyalist and Protestant identity in Northern Ireland was copper fastened by the pledges of people like Lord Carson a century ago. It is unlikely that this culture will fall away overnight. It must however be best advised how to adapt and integrate comfortably into a rapidly changing United Kingdom.



FILM REVIEW: Route Irish (Culture NI, April 7th 2011)

Posted in Uncategorized on April 8, 2011 by gtam80

Route Irish is a difficult film, an old-fashioned thriller of which John Le Carre would be proud. Its depiction of the brutal consequences of the Iraq War is not mainstream material. Ken Loach, however, is experienced at tackling the most harrowing of issues with consummate sensitivity. For him, this is familiar territory.

Whilst it deals with a contemporaneous situation, Route Irish is perhaps most comparable to Loach’s previous Troubles-set story, Hidden Agenda, which was concerned with political and military subterfuge in war-torn Northern Ireland.

‘Route Irish’ is a codename given by the British forces to the road leading from Baghdad International Airport to the International Zone. It is on this stretch of dusty terrain that Frankie (played by comedian John Bishop) is killed by an improvised explosive device.

The film’s preliminary scenes flit between the past and the present. Initially we are transported back to a Liverpool supporter’s club and shown Frankie being persuaded by his best friend, Fergus (Mark Womack) – formally of the SAS – to go and work for a private military company in Iraq.

Fergus decries Frankie’s initial reservations, informing him of the rich economic benefits (£10,000 per month) he earned whilst working in the same role at the outset of the war. The juxtaposing scenes eventually bring us forward to Fergus breaking down with anger at Frankie’s funeral.

Thereafter Fergus trawls over every detail about how his best friend died with a forensic intensity and challenges the rehearsed syntax of the military executives, who run the mercenary sideline that Fergus and Frankie had seen their fortunes tied up in.

Evidence eventually falls into Fergus’s possession that persuades him that Frankie was far from just another casualty of war. On an Iraqi mobile phone he discovers a harrowing video of Frankie witnessing members of his security team killing an innocent family only weeks before Frankie’s eventual death.

The theory is that his friend was killed as part of some sort of high-level cover-up. It is this obsessive need to learn the truth that consumes Fergus and drives the action forward.

For Route Irish, Loach was reunited with cinematographer Chris Menges. Menges had worked on previous Loach features, including that other lugubrious film about friendship and loss, Kes.

The image and tone of the conflicting forces at work in Route Irish are excellently rendered by Loach and Menges, and the viewer is drawn into a tight and claustrophobic world where instability reigns and people are presented as pawns in a dangerous game.

Route Irish, however, is very much concerned with human paranoia and misery, friendship and the (un) justification, as Loach sees it, of war in a foreign land. It will not be to everyone’s taste and it is sure to provoke much debate about a controversial conflict that is likely to intrigue film-makers and writers for decades to come.

FILM REVIEW: Brighton Rock (Culture NI, March 15th 2011)

Posted in Uncategorized on March 27, 2011 by gtam80

There’s something about the sea. Or to be more precise, there’s something about England’s south coast.

From Losey’s The Damned (1963) to Roddam’s adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia (1979), the area has been depicted in cinema as an energetic and fraught battleground stalked by youths intent on living up to their feral tag.

The genesis for this violent reputation is Graham Greene’s classic 1938 novel Brighton Rock, which follows teenage antihero Pinkie Brown.

Ultimately a morality tale, the book was reflective of its time. It depicted the exploits of a razor-carrying, suit-wearing gang leader who could easily have been transferred to or from contemporary Glasgow – a city which was, when Greene’s novel first appeared, often compared to Chicago due to violent internecine feuding on the streets of its working-class and slum districts.

Rowan Joffe’s new film Brighton Rock (2011) – which stars Sam Riley and Dame Helen Mirren – is essentially a reimagining of both Greene’s novel and John Boulting’s 1947 film version starring Richard Attenborough, which has come to be regarded as a classic.

Joffe’s 21st century remake brings the social context forward some 30 years to 1964. It is an era in which ‘mods’ and ‘rockers’ fought pitched battles in seaside towns across the south coast of England, much to the dismay of a frightened parent generation who were still reeling from the horrors of the Blitz.

This ‘moral panic’ – arguably the first of its kind in Great Britain – provides, on paper at least, a tantalising backdrop to Joffe’s retelling. He succeeds in demonstrating that the central issues Greene wrote about (religion, social responsibility, comradeship) can pervade any social setting at any given time in history. However, rather frustratingly, the style of his film rather outweighs the substance.

Throughout Sam Riley is trapped in a permanent James Cagney impression. Riley can do brooding well – as was demonstrated when he took on the role of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control (2007) – but there is something maddeningly soulless about his acting here. His melodramatic homage to early gangster flicks begins to grate as the film develops.

We are also asked to believe that Rose (Andrea Riseborough) is so lacking in confidence that she would naively surrender her relative independence as a single woman in the 1960s to give unswerving loyalty to a character who is played without even a hint of mischievous charm.

A supporting cast of fine British actors – Mirren, John Hurt, Phil Davis and Andy Serkis – are rotated without ever being allowed to develop. It constantly feels like Joffe is unwittingly diminishing the substance of Greene’s characters by paying more attention to the visual aspect of the film, which, to give him his dues, is often remarkable.

From the vibrant but disarmingly melancholy Brighton pier to the tatty vestiges of a declining British Empire as symbolised by the stuffed away Union Jacks in Pinkie’s bedsit, Joffe visually depicts the fragmentation of England’s working-class.

Sadly, however, these are all we are left with – images. Had Joffe managed to marry content and character, perhaps the result might have been an intriguing reinvention of an enduring tale. Sadly, that is not the case.

Are working-class Protestants out in the cold – again?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2008 by gtam80

david_cameron1One thing that has become clear since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998 is that working class Protestants in Loyalist areas have, on the whole, felt a sense of detachment from the ongoing ‘peace process’. Of course this sense of dislocation has both short-term and immediate causes which are rooted in a perception that the political negotiations have given Republicans and Nationalists a winning margin in the ongoing redrafting of Northern Ireland’s short but tumultuous history. However it has become increasingly obvious to the more acute observer of the Protestant working class in the province over the past forty years that recently noted anxieties have, in fact, longer and deeper explanations than many would care to admit or give proper attention to.

Yet one of the most obvious and central backdrops to this ongoing crisis has been the less than smooth relationship that the Protestant working class has had with the Ulster Unionist Party, which sat unchallenged for so long in Stormont until 1972. The Troubles, however, highlighted the declining faith that ordinary Protestants had in the seemingly monolithic political force. Challenges to the Unionist Party from the DUP and Vanguard in the early 1970s raised awareness of a class schism within Protestant politics and society in Northern Ireland, and that sense of discord has been increasingly important in the confrontations between Ulster Unionism’s different faces.

It seems strange, then, that at a time when working class faith in the UUP is still low the party would try to reinvigorate its links with the Conservative Party whose leader and potential future Prime Minister David Cameron was invited to the UUP’s conference at the weekend. Chris McGimpsey, who worked tirelessly on the Shankill with families affected by the paramilitary feud of 2000, was dismayed at the formation of the UUP/Conservative bond. The negative reaction of McGimpsey toward the alliance may have been a minority verdict within the UUP, yet it was vital in highlighting the reservations that many working class Protestants hold for the Conservatives.

On one level it might be suggested that this pessimistic response can be traced back to more recent reservations about the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the mid-1980s, however it is also possible and perhaps more crucial that many working class Protestants are also aware of the labourist tradition that has long existed within their community. The PUP for example has often proclaimed its Northern Ireland Labour Party credentials.

While the UUP’s flirtations with Cameron are an attempt to reassure errant supporters about the future shape of the Union, it seems that the party has overlooked the importance of labour politics and trade unionism to many working class Protestants in Northern Ireland – an historic factor which needs to be reclaimed by the Unionist and Loyalist community if attempts to empower a people often regarded as experiencing a process of social and political decline are to prove successful.

Source: Belfast News Letter, December 2008

Tough times bring on 70s’ nostalgia

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 1, 2008 by gtam80

In the midst of the recent talk surrounding an economic downturn it has been interesting to note the frequency with which people have recalled the potential similarities between our current predicament and the social problems Britain faced through that most tumultuous of decades – the 1970s. Interestingly not all of these comparisons have been flavoured by anxieties or cultural depressions; indeed in the year when so many people are celebrating the memory of 1968 and Civil Rights it might, ironically, be possible to finally appreciate the social and cultural importance of the much maligned 1970s.

Admittedly the Troubles coloured the decade here in Northern Ireland, yet according to 2004 evidence by the New Economics Foundation which has been highlighted in a recent book ‘Crisis? What Crisis? Britain in The 1970s’ by Alwyn W. Turner, people in Britain were actually happier in 1976 than any time since. Despite this suggestion it might be said that popular culture in Britain, despite often appearing negative in its outlook, has never been as interesting as it was between 1970 and 1980.

While the social and cultural revolutions experienced throughout the 1960s were undeniably important in shaping an understanding of contemporary Britain, it is the manner in which people reacted to the slide in the 1970s which arguably provides more intriguing material for historians of politics and culture in particular – indeed, in his book Turner uses the commissioning of the South Bank Show by London Weekend Television late in the decade as evidence that culture had, by the 1970s, become central to observing how British people behaved and interacted with each other and their environment more generally. Turner is correct, and Mike Leigh’s classic play ‘Abigail’s Party’ (1977) with its commentary on the new suburban middle class and its beige aspirations was important in portraying how everyday life was often flavoured by an acute fatalism. Indeed less acknowledged works in the ‘Play for Today’ series at the time portray the many schisms that were causing social tensions in 1970s Britain. Peter McDougall’s excellent ‘Just Another Saturday’ (1975) which was centred on a day in the life of a drum major in an Orange band acutely observed everyday life in Glasgow in the midst of a constitutional crisis in Scotland.

The many recent volumes written on the punk phenomenon have continually suggested that by the late 1970s British youth in particular had reached a boiling point of disillusionment – indeed there have been observations that John Lydon’s fantastic post-Sex Pistols project Public Image Ltd. was in danger of bringing the burgeoning dystopia of the late part of the decade to dangerously wretched levels in the new wave era of the 1980s (how prophetic he was in terms of setting the mood for the advent of Thatcher’s early 1980s!). However in the early to mid 1970s David Bowie had already provided chillingly prescient commentaries on issues such as the cult of personality and the alienation of the majority with famous albums such as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’. By the end of the decade Bowie’s mood had been cheered little as he released the malevolent trilogy of ‘Low’, ‘Heroes’ and ‘Lodger’. On top of Bowie’s pacesetting work brooding soundscapes conjured by Throbbing Gristle, Magazine, Gang of Four and Joy Division laid bare the many discourses, from dealing with the legacy of the 1960s to the more immediate issue of the power of the trade unions, vying for attention in 1970s Britain

The importance of the 1970s in understanding wider British society cannot be ignored. Indeed in the same manner in which people reacted to the war and the post-war years, it has been during periods when Britain’s collective back has been against the wall that its literature and music has been at its most fascinating. Indeed in recent years some artists have called upon the zeitgeist of the 1970s for their own craft. The most obvious example of this was David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned United’ which was based on Brian Clough’s brief tenure in charge at Leeds United and which has proved to be so popular that it is soon to be made into a film.

Indeed the popularity of the recent television series ‘Life On Mars’ might provide a small clue about the depth of people’s feelings regarding the over-sensitive nature of modern British society. While cultural representations of the decade may often appear muggy and claustrophobic it has only been recently when some commentators have noted the emerging similarities between Brown’s Britain and the 1970s that a non-retro nostalgia has emerged for a time when edgy music, literature and television rallied against and commented on important social phenomena, and indeed came to the fore in the consciousness of the mainstream. One wonders how Britons in 2040 will talk about the latest Keane or Snow Patrol records in relation to their social and cultural origins?

Source: Belfast News Letter, October 2008

‘Holy Cities’ – Glasvegas and David Holmes album reviews

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on October 30, 2008 by gtam80

It would be easy to fill this review with descriptions of how these albums have, between them, borrowed variously from The Jesus and Mary Chain, Neu!/krautrock and Phil Spector. More intriguing than that however is how both ‘Glasvegas’ and ‘The Holy Pictures’ are very much products of their respective cities – Glasgow and Belfast. Owing to the remarkable and long-standing social and cultural similarities and interactions between these two close-knit post-industrial municipalities it is interesting how each artist has interpreted their respective city – central to each album – in starkly different ways, each invoking different memories and languages to conjure a snapshot of home.

Of course this isn’t a sociology essay, and we want to know what the music is like. At first Glasvegas do admittedly come across as ‘Mary Chain stooges at a talent show with a dead ringer for Joe Strummer leading the parade. Yet their somewhat monochrome image betrays a deep and original package, meaning that they stand apart from many of the current crop who often appear to have lazily picked a band from previous generations to ape. Glasvegas’s ability to tell stories – refracted through an incredibly forceful soundscape – about less than fashionable topics such as football violence, the death of a father and other themes which would probably be anathema to many on the bandwagon makes them seem somewhat antiquated, yet it is this ability to walk against the tide that means they are wholly essential to making pop music interesting. However it often feels that Glasvegas have tacked Glasgow onto their songs in the same way that other bands have tacked their forebears onto their art. ‘Flowers & Football Tops’, ‘Geraldine’, ‘It’s My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry’ and ‘Daddy’s Gone’ have all established themselves in people’s heads over the past few months whether it be from constant rotation on music channels on television or BBC fare such as ‘Football Focus’. These songs will endure, but the long-term future of Glasvegas remains less certain as it seems that they have used up all their reference points in one heady record.

Their longevity is questionable. Everything is arguably set up for them to be a one-album wonder – from the novelty name to their fixed image and preoccupations. They may provide a more accessible insight into the darker side of Glasgow – and indeed wider contemporary British – city life than their compatriots Errors and Mogwai, but after the initial untamed thrill of ‘Glasvegas’ has worn off you cannot help but feel somewhat short-changed.

If ‘Glasvegas’ is a very personal and dark glamorisation of a city’s underbelly, then ‘The Holy Pictures’ by David Holmes is a scrapbook of the artist’s youth in Belfast during a period which stands in stark contrast to the current post-ceasefire ‘peace process’ era. While many songs on the album may sound whimsically in tune with the current positive mood, Holmes actually bemoans the loss of an intensity which the Troubles brought to both himself and the dance scene in Belfast in general during days which people often describe as being among the city’s darkest. Indeed, in a recent interview with Lisa Verrico in The Sunday Times Holmes described how he missed the visceral edge of the dark days in Belfast and the sense of escapism that his semi-legendary club nights in the Art College provided. All of this is wired into the sound of ‘The Holy Pictures’.

Indeed the marvellous lead single ‘I Heard Wonders’ has been promoted with a video which depicts the spirit of change and optimism that 1968 visited upon Europe and the USA. While the fortieth anniversary of that momentous year has provoked much debate regarding its long-term implications in Northern Ireland in particular, Holmes eschews direct political debate and has concentrated on making a very personal album which has universal appeal. ‘The Holy Pictures’ is dotted with moments of true beauty – none more beautiful than on the album’s piano-led swansong, ‘The Ballad of Sarah & Jack’ which is Holmes’s tribute to his parents. The song is so powerfully tangible that it evokes lamentations for a Belfast which has disappeared completely – the days of dance halls and an era of comparative goodwill that existed so tantalisingly and so briefly immediately prior to the explosion of the Troubles in the late 1960s. It probably isn’t histrionic to suggest that this might be one of the best local songs ever and should soundtrack any documentary footage of early to mid 1960s Northern Ireland.

While both ‘Glasvegas’ and ‘The Holy Pictures’ are respective attempts to come to terms with home towns which share so much in common, David Holmes’s subtle imagining of a bygone Belfast is more appealing than Glasvegas’s bombastic majesty. ‘The Holy Pictures’ may be David Holmes’s masterpiece, but he still has much more in the locker. Paradoxically by rejecting the current trends in indie music, Glasvegas may run out of steam more quickly than one would anticipate. How I wish they would prove me wrong.

Source: Brazen City, September 2008

Documentary adds to political unease

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 20, 2008 by gtam80

The recent local television documentary about the IRA’s 1983 Maze prison breakout was ill-timed. At a juncture when suspicion still exists between the two overarching political communities in Northern Ireland, a programme celebrating the escapades of a group of terrorists seemed glibly out of touch with the current sense of unease. Indeed the surreal sight of Gerry Kelly reminiscing about shouting orders at prison officials put one in mind of a piece of Sinn Fein propaganda that might usually be sold in one of the party’s constituency offices or gift shops, but not broadcast to the general public. While these stories, as part of a Troubles history, are interesting it is the fashion in which this particular one was told that could spread yet more negativity through one half of the community in particular.

The tone of the interviewees ensured that the programme was as controversial as its title suggested – for instead of recalling events that occurred during some of Northern Ireland’s darkest years in a manner befitting such an era the jolly tone, almost Dan Dare-like, throughout much of the documentary was a stark juxtaposition to a recent book by the journalist Susan McKay in which she allowed victims of paramilitary violence to recount in grim detail their horrendous experiences. Not so in this programme, where the IRA-related crimes were airbrushed out and the violence which occurred during the prisoners’ breakout was mentioned almost as an afterthought despite a prison official losing his life.

It almost seems as though a certain slot on Monday evenings is being filled with controversial Troubles-related programme making for the sake of it, without considering the effects of such programmes on the wider public’s opinions regarding the peace process. Indeed a subsequent documentary on Marie Jones’s play ‘A Night in November’ is sure to have made people incandescent. Jones appears in the advertisement suggesting that on that night in November 1993 at Windsor Park the sectarianism of Northern Ireland football supporters had reached an epoch. Again it must be questioned what the benefits are of rerunning this play and the accompanying documentary at a time when Northern Ireland’s fans have been officially recognised as among the greatest in Europe.

Now is perhaps not the best time for such partisan programming. If anything a ‘shared vision’ should be encouraged by celebrating the positives of Belfast and Northern Ireland both historically and in the present.

Source: Belfast News Letter, September 2008